- Published: Monday, 07 May 2007 00:00
“Yeah, breaker one-nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck, you got a copy on me Big Ben? C’mon.”
“Ah yeah, ten-four Big Ben, for sure, for sure. By golly it’s clean clear to Flagtown. C’mon.”
“Yeah, it’s a big ten-four there Big Ben. Yeah, we definitely got the front door good buddy. Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy.”
A young British soldier named Simon expected to be driving logistics trucks into Iraq, and so adopted the dusty old hit “Convoy” as his fight-song and personal anthem. A man doesn’t have to wait long to hear Simon play it again, yet instead of barreling up Iraqi highways, Simon finds himself at Basra Air Station, shuttling occasional journalists, and performing base duties, including escorting Iraqis hired for manual labor. Asked for his take on that task, Simon opined with tones of befuddlement and wonder, as when a person sees what appears to be intensely conflicting signals.
To Simon, the Iraqis are a box of unrelated puzzles thrown together, with pieces missing. He couldn’t seem to reconcile scenes of Iraqis murdering Iraqis by the busload, using bombs, knives, power drills, corrosive acid, even dragging each other behind cars, with scenes of the endearing behavior he’s witnessed between grown Iraqi men, taking time out from their work on base to play.
They would stop working, Simon said, to play hide and seek, laughing like children. And when the Iraqi workers argued among themselves, they yelled emotionally while picking up small pebbles to hurl at each other. For Simon, these puzzle pieces did not fit with the rockets and mortars that rain down on this base, and the thousands of dead Coalition troops and workers. That part I followed, because during the writing of this dispatch, the base was attacked more than a dozen times, then a dozen times again. Parts have been written while wearing a helmet and body armor, laying prone on the ground.
Any perception that British forces have it easy down here in Basra is wrong. In the nearly three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen more mortar and rocket attacks than during my cumulative time in Iraq. The rate of British soldiers getting killed in combat during April 2007 seemed to far exceed that for our troops up north in the same period; and was the most for the British since the first month of the war back in 2003. Last night, while answering email, we twice all hit the ground and at least two Brits and a pizza delivery man on base were wounded. I was told later that the Pizza Hut delivery man was sent back to India missing a leg. By all yardsticks, the situation in Basra seems to be deteriorating rapidly.
According to British Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Stratford-Wright, British forces were attacked about twenty times per week in January 2006. Nine months later, in September 2006, attacks began to skyrocket, reaching about one hundred per week by February of 2007. Nobody has an explanation for the storm, but once British forces ramped up offensive operations, attacks decreased to the current level of about fifty per week.
Unlike some other parts of Iraq, little if any compelling evidence of civil war is present in Basra. In Baghdad, by contrast, suicide bombers commonly strike several times per day, often into the very heart of guarded areas and scores of innocent victims are killed daily by bombs, guns and knives. Meanwhile in Basra, seemingly random, wholesale attacks are by comparison uncommon. There have been few suicide attacks. While the overwhelming majority of attacks in Baghdad, or in provinces such as Nineveh and Diyala, are against Iraqis, down here in Basra, 90% of the attacks are against British soldiers.
From a distance, it might appear that America’s most trusted and steadfast friend and ally is packing out in the face of a fraction of the violence which American soldiers face in Ramadi, Fallujah, Baquba, Baghdad ( . . . the list goes on.) And British soldiers here do in fact look at their American counterparts with mixture of dismay and respect at the amount of abuse our people take but still keep going. The recent announcement that American soldiers’ tours had been extended to fifteen months, in areas usually far more dangerous than Basra, was met with astonishment among British combat veterans here, followed quickly with profuse respect for their American brethren for keeping at it militarily, despite the political morass common to both London and Washington.
British combat tours are six months.
Ask a combat soldier a question, you get an answer. Ask the soldier next to him the same question, you get a different answer. There is wide and vibrant opinion among British soldiers and it runs the gamut from frustration with local mentalities that cling to futile violence, to disillusionment with politics, vexation with media, and consternation about the costs, calculated in so many kinds of capital. But all the British soldiers I’ve run missions with are of a like-mind when it comes to their readiness to fight on. They are soldiers. Proud and ready. I would find them practicing tactics at odd hours. They gave me combat instruction whether or not I asked. One day, on a different mission, when two soldiers were killed in the vehicle behind us, a young soldier sent me—without hesitation—to fetch machine gun lubricant in preparation for a gun battle. I was always more than comfortable going into combat with these men.
THE STREETS of BASRA
On April 5, a bomb planted in a Basra road exploded. Four British soldiers were killed: Joanna Yorke Dyer, Kris O’Neill, Eleanor Dlugosz, Adam James Smith—and their interpreter. Less than two days later, a bomb in the same area severely damaged a Challenger tank, and badly injured another British soldier.
On 12 April, I accompanied British Forces in Basra on an audacious daytime operation in the heart of militant JAM country where the outnumbered Brits baited the enemy into a blistering gun battle. Result: about 30 dead enemy but nary a scratch on British forces. Next day, on 13 April, the Brits allowed me on another mission, this time a hunt for the terrorists who had planted those bombs.
British commanders believed the enemy was ready to plant bombs in the road, in at least three separate locations, and had reckoned the three most likely target areas. These were named Engagement Areas Gold, Silver and Bronze.
Three British units would be taking part in the hunt: the Royal Tank Regiment, infantry from the Duke of Lancasters, and from the Yorkshire Regiment. I would be with C Company of the Duke of Lancasters, who had lost soldiers in recent attacks. Major Ian Crowley, C Company commander, put me with a soldier named Brownie, saying Brownie would look after me.
The sun was fading when I was introduced to a platoon of British soldiers wearing full battle kit, already in their armored Warrior. The Warrior is tracked vehicle which carries a 30mm cannon, with room in the back for an infantry squad. Only five minutes prior to heading into combat, I met Brownie and the other “squaddies” in the back of the Warrior. We rumbled out the gate into enemy country, tracks splashing mud. After maybe an hour and not getting blown up by an IED, our convoy halted.
British commanders smelled a trap.
Approximately one mile from the enemy kill zone, a berm ran parallel to a road where the enemy planned to kill us with their IEDs. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Kenyon, the Battle Group Commander (equivalent to American Battalion Commander), saw that berm as a convenient counter-ambush position, but he knew armored vehicles would spook the enemy.
Engagement Area Gold was on the road perpendicular to that berm at about 10 o’clock at 2,000 meters; Silver and Bronze Engagement Areas were each about 1,700 meters at about 11 and 12 o’clock, respectively. The battle was set. Both sides were deliberately closing on each other, trying to achieve surprise and to set favorable conditions for battle.
Each side had enormous advantages and vulnerabilities: the enemy had the home field, and the Brits could not approach within miles with the loud vehicles. Air power might do it, but only at risk of collateral damage that might create more enemies than it killed. To be maximally effective, the strike needed to be precise. To do that, the Brits needed to surprise the terrorists in flagrante delicto (or more precisely, in flagrante positus.)
To keep surprise, LTC Mark Kenyon dispatched a platoon of 26 men from the Duke of Lancasters Regiment. Major Ian Crowley was tasked to lead the group closer. As the platoon dismounted in darkness, I promised the squaddie named Brownie that I would stick very close, obey commands in combat, and do my best to remain invisible and weightless, but that I would be there if needed to carry casualties. The less-than-two-mile walk was more of a slog through sand, water and thick mud. The soldiers tabbed quietly, no talking, no glimmers of light, no clinks or rattles of gear, no coughs or sneezes.
I was concerned about running active night vision on the camera, for if the enemy had good night optics—and many do—the infrared light signature could give us away. Command had cleared me to use it at my discretion, and so after first scanning with my own passive night vision gear, I occasionally flipped on the active IR for short periods to create a running record of events.
The only other noise apart from the slogging water, the chatter of frogs and what sounded like birds, was the machine gun clatter of firefights in the distance. Despite the water all around and under us, not a single mosquito came out. Sweat was minimal in the cool night air. The coolness would create good contrast when the platoon employed its thermal optics.
In the distance, silent gas fires from oil production facilities looked like giant candles burning in the night, creating their own diffuse soot clouds. The fires from the stacks, buffeted by the winds, washed heaven and earth with an orange glow. Occasionally, jets and helicopters overhead made noise, but were never seen.
The clanks, clacks and rumble of armor from the Royal Tank Regiment drifted over the marsh from far distance. Yet battles closer by sliced the air with arcs of ricocheting tracers, but no sounds followed. Some of the firefights could be seen but not heard, others could be heard but not seen, still others came in high definition stereo. Distant flashes of lightning signified that man was not the only bringer of thunder this night.
No camera could ever capture the salty smell on the breeze, the persistent, fearlessly lovesick frogs, and the sounds of one’s own breathing. Trudging on, trundling through marsh, warm water filling the boots, the mud encumbering each step, but cooling the legs as it clung.
Out there, thousands of bullets were being fired, competing with the sounds of countless insects, maybe crickets, chirping and screeching in unison. Orange tracers flew silently into darkness. Ga-ghhaaa . . . a distant explosion . . . Ga-ghhaaaa, another, krumpf! Several machine guns firing at once: Tddddddbbpppppppbbbbbppppddddddd, not loud, but percolating on the breeze. A wraparound surreal planetarium of war.
After about 3km, Major Crowley brought his men to the spot, roughly 1,700 meters (about one mile) straight-line from where British commanders suspected the enemy would come out to try to kill us.
The platoon fell silent, scanning the area with night vision, thermal sensors, and war-tuned ears. The time was about 9:30PM. Natural illumination was about 0%, although man-made sources provided faint wisps of light. With the counter-ambush site secure, relatively, Major Crowley ordered his men to mount two Javelin missiles on the crest of the berm.
Back on base, Howitzer gunners were prepping to fire on Silver, while Challengers from the Royal Tank Regiment were ready to hit Gold. We would hit Bronze with Javelin missiles.
Javelins have a maximum range of over 2,000 meters. Tonight would be ideal for these “fire and forget” missiles: we would be out of range of most enemy weapons in the engagement areas (although they would have no problem hitting us with big mortars or rockets.) Our exposure was high, and our best defense in case of indirect attack would be to lay flat and be one with the marsh. If the enemy attacked us with mortars, the pilots above would take a more active role, or the commander would draw upon his other options, including counterfire with cannons, or using tanks and other firepower.
Javelin missiles are clever little weapons. The armor on tanks is lighter on the bellies and the tops. Bottom line: to defeat heavy armor, bombs either should be very big, or special and precisely aimed. Javelins are the latter.
Some anti-tank missiles are wire-guided; the shooter puts crosshairs on the target and must keep them on target while the missile drags a tiny wire from inside the launch tube to communicate with the missile. While the firer keeps crosshairs on the target, the anti-tank missile might take 10 seconds to fly one mile, toward a tank with a gun that can shoot a high explosive round capable of flying nearly flat at over 1 mile per second. Doing the math, this means if a missile flight time were, say 10 seconds, and a tank gunner spots the launch and does a snap-shot five seconds later, he can kill or disrupt the missile launcher before the tank is even hit. The shooter fires the missile which flies . . . flies . . . flies—BAM—the shooter just got killed by another tank, and the missile missed the target, and they cannot fire a second shot because they are flopping around or dead.
The Javelin has two firing modes. In Direct Attack mode, the missile fires straight at the target. In Top Attack mode the missile flies like a dolphin jumping, and dives into the target. The sight on the Javelin is called a “CLU” [pronounced “clue”] or Command Launch Unit. The CLU is a sophisticated thermal imagery system that is extremely good for spotting creatures like people planting bombs in roads. The Javelin missile itself has a “seeker” head in its nose, but unlike the types of anti-aircraft missile (such as the SA-7 which are all over this country) that seek a hot aircraft engine, the Javelin is more agile. The shooter uses the CLU to find the target, and the seeker can then lock onto the target if there is at least a 1C temperature difference between the target and its surroundings. Tonight the air was almost chilly, and so the enemy would appear white hot to the thermal nose of a Javelin.
Brownie, the squaddie who was minding me, was very good about watching out for my security, as I visited up and down the line. I found Major Crowley in the dark, but didn’t say a word to him, sitting down close with the video camera. All decisions would flow into his ear and from his voice, so this was the cat seat. About 30 minutes into it, Major Crowley came closer to the center from checking his men, sat down on the berm and said nearly under his breath, “We wait.”
Not for long. Seconds later, a radio call announced there were “four to five UKMs.” [Unknown Males.]
Major Crowley called on his PRR [platoon radio] to the Javelin crews: “Jav 1 and Jav 2. We’ve got five times dismounted UKMs on the corner of the Silver side of Bronze. Jav 1 and Jav 2 acknowledge.”
The Commander: Major Crowley.
The enemy was being tracked from multiple locations on the ground, and from the air. Minutes passed by, as enemy fighters moved into the scene, and then Crowley on the radio: “All call-signs, there’s some UKMs and a Charlie [car] 75 meters to the northeast of the Green one-zero junction. That’s from kilo four-four. I suspect they’re in dead-ground [a place where they cannot be hit] to us due to the buildings.”
The enemy lays bombs in the roads here by various methods. One method is the “pop and drop,” where one or two men can walk or drive up and lay a bomb in seconds and be gone. These are quick to lay, but usually easy to spot, and generally smaller in size. Larger bombs followed by complex attacks (i.e., after the bomb explodes, the enemy attacks with other weapons while our side is trying to rescue their friends), are more challenging to lay. One team will show up and dig the hole. At night, in Iraq, if a man is digging a hole on or near a road, he can be shot without warning. The special operations soldiers call these hole-diggers “pipe swingers.” Pipe swingers are generally just hired labor. It is important to stop pipe swingers, but they are as plentiful and easy for the enemy to replace as the frogs in this marsh.
A second team lays the actual bomb, while a third team lays out the command wire (or other firing system) and attacks us, often with follow-on rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns and rifles, and mortars, and also with secondary bombs which are very effective in killing rescuers.
Crowley spoke into his headset, “Jav 1, I need to know when you’ve got a target solution if you get one on those guys who are digging by the Charlie.” Moments passed and radio calls went around, then Crowley said, “Ah roger, it’s not necessary that we identify them as digging it’s just whether we can identify the pax [passengers]. If Kilo four-four has identified them as digging and we’ve got the pax, we’ve got sufficient clearance to fire.”
We were approaching an interval when attack decision would have to be made. There was no doubt in the military part of my mind that the young soldiers wanted to fire those missiles, something combat veterans know leads to mistakes. In total darkness, primed for battle, every person out there can appear to be doing something suspicious. If the more action-oriented part of the brain succeeds in the attempt to override the part where subtle and cold judgment prevails, even the best-intended soldier or pilot could attack friendly troops or innocent civilians. Mistakes are especially likely when the soldier who sees the potential for target misidentification is lower ranking than the officer making the judgment, as the soldiers of Company C were about to demonstrate.
When Lance Corporal David Radford emerged from the murk, likely he did not know my video was running. Corporal Radford approached Major Crowley to caution that, due to distance, the Javelin team could not clearly identify what the men “out there” were doing. “That doesn’t matter.” Answered Major Crowley, “If Kilo Four-Four [aircraft] identifies it and we identify the people, we can fire.”
“That’s what we need to ensure,” enjoined LCPL David Radford, politely holding to his concern. “That we’re watching the same car as what he’s watching,” Radford said, pointing his finger toward the sky where the aircraft was orbiting with a rumble.
“He’s, he’s watching EA Bronze,” said Major Crowley.
“He’s . . . there’s no car on Bronze,” said Radford. “Just watching four people.”
Radford politely stood the ground long enough for Crowley to see that Radford had a point worth consideration. The situation was rectified when another soldier got on a radio, without having to be told, and called, “Jav 1 and Jav 2, this is Three-one, just be sure you’re both looking at the same target with four persons and no Chawleys, ova.” (Soldiers don’t use a lot of “r”s in the Dukes of Lancaster Regiment.)
A few moments passed, filled with some conversation and a map check, before Major Crowley got back on the radio, “Kilo Four-Four, Golf Two Alpha. We’ve got eyes on a group of pax who’ve just come off the road and sat in a ditch. Can you confirm from your means, which of the groups you’ve been describing, those are? Ova.”
A Javelin team confirmed through thermal there were three UKMs in the ditch.
That brief exchange between the Lance Corporal and his Major might seem inconsequential, but to military professionals that conversation was testimony about the caliber of officers and men in this platoon. In some units, a corporal would not have stood this important ground with a Major, even at risk of death to possibly innocent civilians. In some units, the Major would not have listened anyway.
Several minutes drifted by while the UKMs in Engagements Areas Bronze and Silver were coming and going, until there were at least eleven men and a car under observation in the areas. When, again only minutes later, Jav 2 believed one of the UKMs was digging near Silver, Major Crowley called it up.
Meanwhile, back on base, LTC Mark Kenyon was taking in reports not just from us, but from the aircraft, tanks, a recon unit with eyes on the target, and others. Reports soon followed telling him that there were now two cars in the target areas. LCPL Radford was directing his two Javelin teams on which UKMs to track.
The cars left the target area.
More time passed, and one of the British soldiers said something I could make out only with difficulty (his accent sounded very close to the Scottish character on The Simpsons), but luckily Major Crowley interpreted as he called into the radio, “Ah Golf, wrong, ah November Zero, Golf Two Alpha, Jav 2 has a personnel lifting a sack-type-object out of the boot of a Chawley, moving toward Yellow Two Alpha, do I have authority to engage? Ova.”
More radio chatter. More minutes passed as if time, too, were weighted down with mud.
Major Crowley again asked if there was authority to engage, and LTC Mark Kenyon, with all his different vantage points and broader situational awareness, answered, “No no, you do not have authority to engage, you do not have authority to engage. . . . ”
Some frustration flashed over the men; even over me. But all needed to remember that these enemy crews generally come in three or even four groups. The pipe swingers who dig the holes come first, then the other pipe swingers who load the explosives, then after them would come the guys who set up firing systems, who might also be the enemy who fired. And there might still be a follow-on ambush team. Thinking about this from the perspective of the enemy, the persons to send out first would be the most expendable: the poor dregs with no skills, maybe. Someone they hired for virtually nothing to dig a hole, or someone they threatened and forced to dig.
Up in Mosul, out in Baqubah, around Baghdad, and out in Anbar—and here, there and everywhere—our people can squash pipe swingers forever and only accomplish something irrelevant. For practical purposes, the enemy has an endless supply of poor bastards who are just grave diggers, whether the hole they shovel out is for them or for some unlucky other guy. I remember watching spy plane footage streaming live just a couple months back where innocent Iraqis got hit, including a kid. Masterminds and financiers do not dig holes over here. Our people kill those guys on different nights. And when they get caught, they often rat out their friends. The “foreign fighters” have the biggest mouths; they often won’t shut up when they get caught.
The Jav teams saw a couple men kneeling on the side of the road, and others potentially laying command wire. During each communication, all the soldiers from private up to Major Crowley always were careful to be precise and to separate what they knew from what they thought. They thought the men they knew were kneeling alongside of the road were probably laying command wire. Other elements, such as recon and the air surveillance, who were alerted by the precise radio comms, each confirmed that they also thought wire was being put down. Not because they could see the actual wire, but because they could observe body language consistent with that activity.
A radio call came in and Major Crowley relayed it, “All call signs stand by, Romeo Zero Alpha’s just been ordered to move forward.”
LTC Mark Kenyon was creeping more of his firepower to the target: the formidable Challenger tanks and other armor were moving closer.
Given our close proximity to target, frustration was coursing through our platoon. Within less than a minute, we could have killed each successive group of UKMs. That close, it all seems so crystal clear. But our situation awareness extended only as far as the range of the thermal optics. LTC Kenyon had aircraft circling high above, and elements observing the same coordinates from many different angles.
Still, for the Jav teams who were seeing targets come and dig, and seeing a package lifted out of a car, and then a third group scurrying on scene doing something that looked awfully close to laying wire, the restraint was a hard bite. Within a minute, all that might be left of the target was the one guy who’d push the button.
But LTC Mark Kenyon was using tactical patience and kept a firm hold on the reins.
[Just get on with the story, you say! Well this is what it was like sitting on that berm!]
The Javs had target solutions. They could lock and fire. But not until the battalion commander, who was leading the fight from back on base, cleared the platoon.
As the events unfolded, cars and men entered and left the area, LCPL Radford worked the tension on the lines by telling his two Javelin teams to cross-check each other’s targets for confirmation. The night had fallen mostly silent except for the natural sounds of the bugs and a few birds.
Jets overhead suddenly sounded more proximate. By design or default, their loud roars would provide acoustic camouflage for ground forces. Even the sounds of the marsh seemed to adapt and become louder. There were explosions in the distance, and reports of two Katusha rocket launches.
Within ten minutes the enemy was crawling all over the target areas, especially concentrating on Bronze and Silver, as predicted, and they were also beginning to move into Engagement Area Gold.
A couple of men arrived at Bronze, delivered a package, then headed back to a neighborhood called the Shia flats. A vehicle entered Bronze. The men laid down the apparent bomb and command wire, then ran off. Frustration mounted on the berm when the targets left Bronze and Silver, with the exception of three UKMs, north of Bronze who hid—or thought they hid—behind a building. These three men were about to lose this night’s round of hide and seek.
Jav 1 got a target solution on the three men hiding behind a building, apparently with the command wire to blow up our vehicles, and Jav 2 got a target solution on perhaps ten men north of Silver.
“Stand by, stand by,” came over the radio into Crowley’s ear.
“Stand by, stand by,” relayed Crowley.
LCPL Radford confirmed that his two Javelin crews had target solutions, which he relayed, but Crowley said again, “Stand by.” And Radford said, “Jav 1, Jav 2, stand by.”
Each Javelin has a pack that cools the “seeker.” The seeker must be cold to help its electronics lock into the temperature differential of the target, but after going live with the seeker, there is only four minutes to fire the missile. Just one chance. So the order to go live would only be given when firing was authorized. Radford asked Crowley if he should order his Javelin crews to “go live,” and Crowley answered, “No, do not go live yet.”
Crowley said into the radio, “Golf Zero Alpha 2239 acknowledge.” He paused for response, then said, “H-hour 2239. It is now 2236.”
The Jav crews closed the aiming gates on their targets, but the targets seemed about to leave again, and there were more radio calls and various channels clattering from other soldiers with radios, meanwhile the Howitzers on base were ready to fire. The Howitzers had preregistered earlier in the day, and would open the salvo of about 15 fragmentation air-bursts. Ideally the first round would explode at the same moment the first Javelin exploded.
Being one minute late is the same as being a year late.
Major Crowley called to HQ, “November Zero, Golf Zero Alpha, the target solution in Silver has now dispersed. Can I go early, ova.”
The approaching tanks were now slightly audible, and numerous birds suddenly began singing over the faint clanking.
A few more radio calls, and Crowley said, “Golf Zero Alpha, the solution’s back in now, can we take the shot? Ova.” There was a long pause, then Crowley said, “Activate seekers, H-hour in 25 seconds.”
As the seeker on Jav 1 activated, there was a barely audible crack, like breaking a pencil, and the Javelin whined quietly like air escaping from a tightly stretched balloon neck. That sound cracked the tension and drew the focus of the platoon in unison onto the target area. The Javelin was waking up, chilling its eye.
On base, the Howitzer crews fired, BOOM, BOOM, though we heard nothing, and the command came from base, “Shot ova,” and Crowley relayed like he’d done this a hundred times. “All call signs stand by. Shot on the artillery. Fire now. Fire now.” The commander’s job was done for a few moments.
Only the most confident commander would allow an outsider to go into combat carrying a video camera. The video was running. There could be no fudging. Like a boxing coach watching his fighter step into the ring, when the bell rings his fighters are either good or they are not. Just the day before I had been on an expertly run mission with 2 Rifles. I had been with 5 Platoon who had given me a bed, (which stank, but was comfortable, more or less), all of which confirmed for me that good enough for British soldiers is good enough for me. This was my second combat engagement with British forces in two days, and this was another moment of truth. Through the video, the world could see.
SGT Steve Harker fired the first British Javelin. Harker closed his track gates to isolate the thermal signature of the target. The cool night provided excellent thermal contrast and little clutter. By selecting top attack (instead of direct attack) his missile would dive into the target. LCPL Radford said, “Jav 1, fire when you’ve got a lock. Jav 2, fire when you’ve got a lock.”
Three unknown men, later joined by a fourth, had taken cover behind a building, apparently to initiate the blast they intended to kill us with. There was a high probability that these were the same unknown men who had killed British soldiers and their interpreter here only a week before, and then attacked the Challenger tank. SGT Harker’s crosshairs were flashing when he put his finger on the seeker button. His crosshairs were aimed at the base of the building at the feet of the men. The weapon got lock. The crosshairs stopped flashing.
The Howitzers had already fired and the first two artillery rounds were neck to neck arcing into the target. They exploded nearly simultaneously above the ground a mile from us, and SGT Harker, peering through his thermal site at the now four men behind the building, saw them go from standing to crouching when the first two 105mm rounds exploded. The first two karumphs of the artillery reached our ears on the berm.
Jav 1: Javelin leaving the tube
Jav 1 burst to life when a small charge pushed it out of the tube while the flashes of the artillery airbursts could be seen.
The rocket itself, weighing about 35lbs, flew to a safe distance away from SGT Harker and briefly was dark and merely coasting until it reached a safe distance. The motor in its tail burst with flames, sprayed sparks out its tail and splayed the marsh with light, and with an earsplitting roar, guided the nose up to what might have been 30 degrees for its 8-second flight to kill the four men.
Our position was compromised. In Iraq, a thousand eyes are always watching. Whereas to many people, what just happened might be confusing. But an experienced Iraqi military man who himself had been firing Katusha rockets (some had fired within just the past hour), and who knew the area, could surmise that we had just fired a missile from behind the berm, and might have no problem returning the fire.
Private (PTE) Matthew Sewell had target solution on a building where men had taken cover. His seeker was active and locked, and he had also selected the down attack mode. Jav 2 pushed out with a flash, went silent and dark for a moment, the rocket motor ignited and nosed the rocket up. Shortly before Jav 2 reached apogee, the men on the ground might have noticed the relatively slow Javelin coming at them, but it was too late, and while the Javelin burned toward the men, three more Howitzer shells exploded.
The attack spent our stealth. The enemy would be watching our position.
“Golf Zero Alpha,” Crowley said over the radio—Jav 2 impacted at this moment with a white flash—“two times Javelin engage.” Before Jav 2 impacted, LCPL David Radford was ordering Jav 1 and Jav 2 teams to reload their rockets, and then there was the white flash from Jav 2 detonation. About five seconds later, the small thud reached us, while 105mm Howitzer airburst continued to rain in some hundreds of meters to the left of where Jav 1 and 2 exploded.
The platoon seemed to have done this hundreds of times, but in fact none of them had ever launched a real Javelin, having only used simulators. The soldiers later told me with satisfaction that the trainer simulation was nearly identical to the real conditions of combat. The only slight difference came when the real 16kg Javelin launched, the tube rocked slightly forward. Plus now people would try to kill us and there was no time for tea.
The Howitzers pounded the target area, their carefully-controlled airbursts choreographed so that most of the shrapnel hit marshland abutting the community. Only the edge of the kill radius did a sort of cloacal kiss—in the mathematical sense—against the target on the road. If the 105s had exploded directly atop the road, nearby houses would be damaged, significantly increasing the possibility of innocent loss of life.
Howitzer shots continued to arc in, flash and kurrumph. Within seconds, Crowley’s platoon had given him the “BDA,” and he called it in, “Golf Two Alpha, 4 times dead in EA Silver. Javelin reloading.”
Even with our position compromised, the commander continued to attack. Howitzer shells exploded every few seconds, and Major Crowley called on the internal net, “Jav 1 and 2 confirm when you’ve got another target solution.” One of the teams called immediately that it had a target solution, and Crowley answered, “Roger when you’ve got a target solution go straight to White [activate seeker].”
Seconds passed by, Crowley asked, “’Ave we got any more target solutions on Jav?”
The Jav 1 crew could be heard in the darkness, someone saying, “Go for it. Fire now,” and the answer came, “Roger, going White.”
Meanwhile, a Jav 2 crewmember said, “Going Red [loading missile],” and Crowley said on the radio, “Golf Zero Alpha, a second target solution in Bronze firing second missile [unintelligible].”
Third Javelin guiding to target.
The rumbling sounds of heavy armor seemed louder. The birds were now difficult to hear, if indeed they were still singing, and there was that distinct noise like a cracking pencil. The seeker-eye was cooled, and now the third missile was away, arching brightly over the marsh. I spoke out quietly, but audible enough to be caught on the microphone callously saying, “Have a nice day. That’s what you get for laying IEDs.”
A young soldier said quietly, “boooom” as the missile exploded into the target, killing the men.
Crowley was still on the attack, “Jav 2, do you have a target solution?”
“Roger,” came the answer, “That’s individuals taking cover in the old IPS [Iraqi Police Station, now abandoned]. . . . ” Crowley interrupted, “Jav 1 do we have any battle damage assessment from your two missiles?” There was some conversation about two individuals who had taken cover in the IPS, and then Crowley ordered Jav 1 to collapse and prepare to move.
The clock was ticking. Crowley announced on the internal radio, “All Golf call signs, when we leave this location, we’re taking everything we have with us. Make sure you’re now prepped ready to move. Wait on short notice call to move. Jav 2, continue to observe, if you get another target solution, let me know, and you’ve got [unintelligible].”
“Jav 2 give a quick SITREP on your target,” said Crowley, “i.e. the missile that engaged first.”
Brief conversation followed, and seconds later Crowley called up, “November Zero Golf, Zero Alpha SITREP.” “Golf Zero Alpha, three missiles fired. One into EA Silver. Four times confirmed dead.” . . . “Golf Zero Alpha, first missile engage EA Silver. Four times confirmed hits, ova.” “Golf Zero Alpha, second missile, EA Bronze, we believe hit, but not confirmed, ova.” “Roger. Believe hits, but not confirmed as the crew were reloading. Ova.” [Crew cannot observe target through thermals while reloading.] “Golf Zero Alpha, final missile into the old IPS building, two times enemy identified in that location. Building destroyed, ova.”
Crowley relayed more information, “Jav 2, there’s activity 100 meters northeast of Silver, on the northern side of the road. Can you get eyes on that?”
The soldiers identified four men and a van. Crowley could have launched, but decided not to fire since they could not confirm the van was not an ambulance. Crowley told Radford, “Good work,” and reiterated to make sure no gear was left behind, and shortly we departed the compromised position to melt back into the night.
We moved out quickly and galomped through the marsh, while Challenger tanks were rumbling perhaps a mile from us to the three- and four o’clock, moving closer to their target areas.
Watch video of the Javelin Launch here:
I’ve seen a lot of IEDs and car bombs in Iraq: easily a hundred. Maybe two hundred or more. Sometimes they were huge bombs that obliterated our soldiers and Iraqis. But usually, the bombs don’t get us.
One day in Mosul with the Deuce Four battalion, LTC Erik Kurilla, Major Mark Bieger and others, including me, walked into the middle of about seven bombs but they did not explode. And tonight, with the successful conclusion of Operation Rattlesnake, three more IEDs (and the teams responsible for making, placing and firing them) were eliminated before they could attack more soldiers.
On the two successive missions I rode with British forces, they killed roughly 40 enemy without suffering a scratch. But real strength is never tested when we win. Our next mission would not go as well.
During the next mission with British forces, we would drive through the largest cluster of IEDs I’ve ever personally encountered: 48 separate charges, set to explode. The cluster of 48 IEDs included 46 EFPs, any one of which could penetrate and destroy any tank in the world. (We’ve lost dozens of American tanks.)
When eight of the bombs exploded, vehicles trailing us were struck with tragic consequences. For the first time, I witnessed our British brothers experience the loss of comrades in combat, something I will share with readers in a dispatch called “Death or Honor.”