Authors: Dan Mills
The boys' reactions calmed me down a bit. Anyway, weapons aren't exactly uncommon in this desolate and forgotten corner of Iraq. Even grannies are known to walk the city's streets with AKs slung over their backs. None of this means it's going to go tits up.
I had got to within ten metres of my Snatch, and all we needed was a few more seconds to get into the Land Rovers and shove off home sharpish. No problem.
That's when the grenade came hurtling over the compound wall. We all saw it at once. Half a dozen voices screamed 'Grenade!' simultaneously.
Then everything went into slow motion. The grenade took an age to travel through its 20 metres of flight through the air. A dark, small oval-shaped package of misery the size of a peach.
On its upward trajectory, the handle sprang off, landing separately on the pavement with a light tinkle.
Then, a small cracking sound. The handle's release allowed the hammer inside the grenade to spring down hard onto its percussion cap. That ignited the gunpowder fuse, which began to burn furiously creating enough heat to ignite the high explosive charge.
My second-in-command Daz was the last to see it. He had been standing behind his Snatch with his back to the compound. As he turned round, the still ticking grenade just cleared the Land Rover's roof and hit him square in the chest with a dull thud.
Daz was left momentarily frozen to the spot, open-mouthed with shock. It bounced off his body armour's breast plate, and down onto the pavement before slowly
rolling into the road and right under the Snatch itself.
In a desperate scramble, everyone else instinctively threw themselves down and covered their faces.
Another whole second of total silence.
A blinding flash of light, a pulsation of shock wave and deafening bang; all at once. Shrapnel flew in all directions; hundreds of red hot tiny pieces of metal whizzed through the air, pinging off the metal gate, the stone walls and my Snatch. Simultaneously, an instantaneous whirlwind of dust and detritus whipped across the filthy street, coating anyone within 10 metres with a thin layer of grime and spots of engine oil.
All I could hear was a ringing in my ears, worsened by an immediate secondary echo as the furious tirade of noise bounced off the surrounding walls and back down our battered ear canals.
At last, silence again. So I dared to look up. It had gone off right under the Snatch's bonnet, blowing the engine compartment to pieces.
Fuck, that was close.
For a few seconds, it looked like we'd got away with it. I looked up again to see the Snatch on fire. But nobody was screaming, and everyone was still on their feet.
The next thing I heard was Daz.
'Fuck. I'm hit, I'm hit. Fuck it,' he shouted again and again.
He half ran half hobbled down the pavement towards me and my Snatch. With a massive release of adrenalin squirting into his nervous system, it had taken him a few seconds to realize what had happened.
Both trouser legs were heavily ripped, and a dozen claret-coloured blood spots had started to grow on the Combat
95 desert camouflage material from his belt to his boot soles. As he hobbled, blood also began to leak out of his right boot and leave a small trail of red on the road behind him.
He made it ten metres before he stumbled off the pavement and sank to the ground right in the middle of the road. His body had obviously told him it wasn't going any further.
Remembering his first aid drills, Daz rolled onto his back and started to wave his legs around in the air to restrict the flow of blood out of his wounds.
'Fuck, fuck, fucking bastard,' he carried on, as he shook them about violently.
Unfortunately, Daz had decided to collapse in full view of every available firing position inside the compound.
I looked over to it. Most of the building's window grilles were now filling up with gunmen and at least a dozen AK barrels were pointing at us. And just as he started the upturned beetle impression, the rounds started to come in. The gunmen had taken the grenade's explosion as their cue to open fire.
Jesus fucking Christ, we've just entered another world here.
The seriousness of our predicament hit me like a smack in the face. This was for real, and it could only get worse.
Bullets smacked into the road all around Daz, kicking up small puffs of dust. They also pinged off both Snatches' armoured sides. They were spraying off whole mags on fully automatic straight at us. One whizzed just over my head with a crack as it split the air. Totally undisciplined fire, but there was enough of it to cut us to pieces.
Daz lying in the open air like that painted the perfect target for the gunmen. We had to get him out of there, but that meant running right into the bullet storm.
Shit and bollocks. No time for any more thought. I sprinted from the Snatch and, with Ads beside me, made the 30-odd-metre dash to Daz in record time.
Taking an arm each, we dragged him just as quickly face downwards back behind my vehicle and out of the direct line of fire. He screamed out in total agony as his wounds rubbed against the tarmac, but there was no other way to do it.
Somehow we reached the Snatch without taking any more hits. But still my two top covers, Louey and Smudge, weren't returning any fire. They'd trained for this moment all their military lives and they had two bloody great Minimis in their hands. But they were still in shock at what they had just seen.
Seeing anyone blown up in front of your eyes isn't pretty, let alone a good mate. The two twenty-year-old privates were scared out of their wits, and they weren't going to hang around up there in the full face of that bullet storm for any longer.
All nine of us were now sheltering in or behind the Land Rover, which had become a dirty great big bullet magnet for the gunmen. We hauled Daz into the back of it, as its armoured sides gave him just a tiny bit more cover from ricochets behind us.
Inside, I got the chance to give him a quick once-over examination.
He was in a proper mess. The shrapnel had pepper-potted both his legs with puncture holes from the top of his thighs right down to his desert boots. There were around a dozen serious wounds in his flesh. His right foot in particular had been torn up very badly, and was just a mess of ripped boot and blood, bubbling and congealing through his matted and shredded white sock.
Inside the puncture holes a host of different-sized grenade fragments that had torn through his skin were still embedded, along with any other debris from the gutter that the blast had picked up on its way into him. The pain must have been excruciating.
He gave off a strong smell of gunpowder and burnt meat. His face had also lost a lot of colour. His eyes were all over the shop, and he was going in and out of coherence.
'You stupid jack bastard, Daz,' I said, in an attempt to keep his spirits up. 'You could have collapsed in cover rather than in the middle of the fucking road, mate.'
He managed to pull a smile. For a man in that shit state, he took the criticism well. But his time was swiftly running out and we were pinned down.
Bullets were still pinging off the Snatch's sides with sharp high-pitched twangs thanks to the regular bursts of automatic fire from the compound in the background.
Welcome to Al Amarah.
I had some decisions to make – and fast. It had well and truly kicked off, and we were slap bang in the middle of it with our dicks hanging out.
We first heard we were going on a rainy November morning in Tidworth.
The battalion's brand new CO got up in front of the lot of us to announce it. His very first words to us were: 'Good morning. My name is Lieutenant Colonel Matt Maer. I'm your new Commanding Officer, and in twenty weeks' time we'll be deploying to southern Iraq.'
It was the normal overly dramatic crap new officers come out with, because they hope we're impressed by it. It worked though – we were. We were going to Iraq.
By the time we'd get out there, it would be a year since Saddam Hussein had been deposed. The Marines and Paras were long gone, and by then southern Iraq was rarely even on the TV. But we didn't give a toss. It was gleaming news. For once, we were going somewhere interesting.
In his speech, Colonel Maer also added, 'It will be a tour like no other.' And not one of the 600 soldiers in that room had any idea at the time how true those words would prove to be.
For the next few days, our camp on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border was total madness. The phones didn't stop ringing. Soldiers serving away from the battalion were trying every trick in the book to get back off postings from all over the place. Others who had recently applied to sign off were desperately trying to steal the paperwork back again and tear it up. Nobody wanted to miss this one.
It was the firemen that had done us out of the invasion.
We missed out on being part of one of the largest deployments of British forces since World War Two because of their poxy strike. The government used troops in 1950s Green Goddesses as the emergency response while the pay dispute was going on. So while 43,000 of our colleagues were storming southern Iraqi beaches, we were saving cats from trees in Hampshire. It was pathetic.
There were some proper obscenities exchanged too when we drove past the firemen's picket lines. None of this car horn honking from us.
'Toot if you support the fire fighters,' they'd shout.
'Fuck off and get back to work, you lazy bastards,' we would reply. 'You wankers stopped us going to Iraq.'
If that wasn't bad enough, we'd narrowly missed getting Gulf War One too. Back in 1991, the battalion was so convinced we'd get the call up for it, it had started to pack up equipment in shipping containers. We'd even started painting all our vehicles sandy coloured. But then the war finished too quickly and they didn't need us.
The Paras robbed us of a chance to go to the Falklands too. We were all ready when the MoD flew them all the way back from a training exercise in Belize so they could go instead.
The truth is, the 1st Battalion, the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment (PWRR) never went anywhere.
We're the county regiment for London and the southern Home Counties. And although only officially formed in 1992 in an amalgamation during army cuts at the end of the Cold War, we're still the senior English regiment of the line. That's thanks to our forebears, who trace back to as early as 1661 and the defence of Tangier. Our nickname is The Tigers, and that too comes from another famous forebear, the 67th Foot, because they did twenty-one years of unbroken service
in India. One unit or another that we are related to has fought in virtually all the major campaigns in which the British Army has ever taken part. Then, for some reason, about fifty years ago it all stopped.
We're not flash, and we'd hardly been in the news in the last thirty years before that – except of course when we took on Princess Diana's name during the amalgamation. But that all ended soon enough too when she died five years later. None of that is to say that we weren't a bloody good fighting force of men, and one of which I was proud to be a member. A lot of the line regiments were just like us. None of us had been given the chance to prove our worth for so long, the MoD had begun to think we didn't have any worth.
I was thirty-six years old. I'd been a soldier for eighteen years and a sniper for ten. I'd done six tours of Northern Ireland, one of Kosovo, and one of Bosnia – and I still hadn't fired my rifle in anger once. Anyone who had been to Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s had their hair singed by a few IRA bombs. But not actually being shot at by an enemy standing right in front of you, and not getting the chance to shoot back, used to make me question whether I could ever call myself a real soldier.
I grew up in a village near Slough in Berkshire, the second child of four. I joined the army as a boy soldier aged sixteen in 1984 after some recruiter popped a leaflet through my letterbox, and I joined the Queen's Regiment – my local county regiment – because that's what the sergeant at the recruiting office told me to do. Service is a bit of a family tradition with us. My younger brother is an engineer in the army too. And my sister was a signaller until she got out to join the police. Our dad was a fireman, and served alongside two of his brothers in the same fire station. My mum was
a BT operator, and my grandfather was in the Royal Engineers.
I've been married and divorced twice and I've had three children – two daughters from the first and a son from the second. The army and marriage don't go particularly well together because you're never really there. I got out in 1998 for eighteen months because I hated being away so much. But when I realized I hated civvy street even more, I signed up again.
I've never been much of a barrack room soldier who enjoyed all the dressing up and all the formalities that go with that. In fact, my idea of hell would be to be a guardsman outside Buckingham Palace. But I've always loved being out in the field, doing the job I'm paid to do. That's why I became a sniper. It's about taking professional soldiering to another level.
As the commander of the battalion's Sniper Platoon, I'd be the first to admit that I've got pretty high standards. I certainly don't suffer fools gladly. But if they're good soldiers, I'm fairly relaxed and give them a lot of rope.
We were all well aware that Iraq was all about nation building now, not war fighting. But we were still over the moon. We were just chuffed to bits that, for once, we were going to get our turn. It wasn't the Balkans and it wasn't Northern Ireland. Who knows, we may even finally get the chance to use the blinking weapons we'd trained so hard with for all those years.
The patch the battalion had been allotted was Maysan, the northernmost extremity of the poor Shia south under British control. Its capital, which would be my company's responsibility, was the town of Al Amarah. I'd never heard of the place, but it sounded properly Iraqi and that was good enough for me.
The battalion consisted of four companies. Three of them, A, B and C, cut about in tracked Warrior armoured personnel carriers, because we are an armoured unit. And then there was us, Y Company – the battalion's 106 support weapons experts. Y Company itself was organized into four platoons: mortars, anti-tanks, reconnaissance and snipers.