Authors: Dan Mills
Late on, Ads came up with an idea.
'Hey, why don't we all meet up on April the eighteenth next year? It could be our soldier's anniversary reunion? It would work if we all made the effort.'
April the eighteenth was the date of our first contact in Al Amarah when Daz got blown up. It was a nice thought, and everyone agreed to it. But we all knew it was very unlikely to happen. The battalion was moving from Tidworth to Germany, so half of us would be living in different countries by then.
A Hercules from Sparrowhawk took me down to Basra the next day. After an overnight in the air station's soulless camp, I flew out of Iraq on a Tristar back to Brize Norton on 7 October, exactly six months and a day after I'd first arrived.
It wasn't until I got to Kings Cross the following afternoon and changed into my civvies that I had a chance to sample my very first pint of the black stuff. To my parched lips, it tasted like darkened honey. I had an hour and a half to kill before my train left for Catterick, so I made it three.
I sat down alone to prop up the station's bar, and idly glanced up from time to time at its flatscreen TV. It was showing Sky News. Halfway through Guinness Number Two, a report came on from some grave-looking reporter who'd finally talked his way up to Al Amarah. Word of what had happened there must have begun to leak out.
You're a bit late for that, I'm afraid, laddie
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, he wasn't though. All of a sudden, Sky started running clips from a couple of the battle group's contacts. One had even been filmed on Cimic's roof.
'Hah!' I blurted out loud.
It could only have been a matter of time before those home movies got on TV. They were simply too good to stay in PWRR hands.
Then to top it all, there was me. Crouching, helmet on, with the 51mm mortar tube clasped in my hand. That nailed it down to the day of the OMS's all-out assault.
'Yeeesss!' I leapt to my feet and toasted the screen with the remainder of my pint. It got me a whole load of funny looks. Just another drunkard in a train station with mental problems, the rest of the drinkers must have thought. I didn't give a stuff.
The camera shot panned down to my feet as I tugged on the lanyard to launch another round.
'Look at that silly fella on the telly,' said the barman to nobody in particular, as he polished a glass. 'He's fighting a war in his bleedin' flipflops.'
I was wrong about Ads's suggestion on my last night in Abu Naji. Most of us did end up meeting for a night out in London the next April the eighteenth. The few that couldn't make it sent texts instead, reading 'Happy April 18'. The year after that, we all went up to Leeds on Chris's invitation. A load of mates, just sitting in the pub, with a few beers and a lot of old stories. Old soldiers just talking about their war.
Most of all though, at our reunions, we talk about the fun.
Our QM had done something good for morale before we left. He'd managed to work out that the battle group had fired more rounds on the tour than the entire British invasion force had fired during the Iraq war.
The battalion handed over Maysan province to the Welsh Guards on 22 October. The first thing they did was to give the camp a thoroughly good tidy-up. Typical guardsmen, everything spick and span. I wouldn't deny it needed it though, after what we'd put the place through.
The regimental historians also got stuck into the record books. It turned out that the Siege of Cimic House proved to be not only the longest continuous action fought by the British Army anywhere since the Korean War, but also the lengthiest defensive stand since World War Two. In total, the battle group had also clocked up 963 different contacts, and suffered two dead and 48 seriously wounded.
Much of the bravery shown by everyone across the ranks was justly rewarded in the Operational Honours and Awards List published in March 2005.
Private Beharry was given the Victoria Cross; and became the first living recipient of the nation's highest award for bravery in thirty-six years. He's recovered enough now to leave hospital and wear a uniform, but he'll never see active service again. There were also two rare Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses (now the second highest medal after the VC), ten Military Crosses and seventeen Mentions in Dispatches.
Colonel Matt Maer got a Distinguished Service Order, the highest military honour for leadership in battle, along with the OC of C Company.
From Y Company, Dale got a battlefield MBE, Justin Featherstone got one of the MCs, and I got one of the MiDs.
With the usual smattering of 'well done' lower medals to boot, it made a grand total of thirty-seven different medals and awards. The list made us the most highly decorated serving battalion in the army. Even then, it could easily have been double that. All in all though, it's fair to say we put the regiment's proud name back on the military map.
The more time elapses, the more Cimic House and what happened there seems to grow in army folklore. It's funny, because none of it felt particularly legendary to us at the time.
Three years on now, I keep hearing the odd bloke in the mess coming out with the 'I was in Cimic House during the siege, you know' stories. I've never seen most of them before in my life. I don't bother embarrassing them, because it's just a compliment really.
After August 2004, the OMS of Al Amarah – or any other insurgents – never took the British Army on again in face to face combat. Since then, the city's streets have been by and large quiet and peaceful.
Moqtada al-Sadr may still be riding strong, but the local OMS's fortunes have flagged. They don't enjoy anywhere near the same level of popular support in Al Amarah as they did during the summer of 2004. A lot of Maysanis never forgave them for starting a fight they couldn't win. Not only had they smashed up large chunks of the city with us, but a lot of poor or stupid young men had gone to their deaths pointlessly.
However, that's not to say the violence against the coalition stopped in Maysan. Terrorism continued, but the killers just stopped showing their faces. Without the support of the general population, their activities were pushed underground. Arguably, that just made them ever more deadly.
At the time of writing, a further eight British soldiers have lost their lives in Al Amarah from enemy action – seven of them from a new type of roadside bomb supplied by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. The battalion's C Company ended up going back there for a second tour over the summer of 2006, picking up another Conspicuous Gallantry Cross and three more MCs for their efforts.
The British Army finally moved out of Camp Abu Naji in August 2006 as part of the gradual handing back of power to leave Maysanis largely to govern themselves. It's what they've always wanted.
Did our three and a half year occupation really make any difference? For Ray's sake, as well as for all those others, I'd like to think so. The place is a democracy now and there is the rule of law, of sorts. The economy has also got a little better – specifically, from really shit to just shit. But every
soldier who was there will also know that most of us spent the overwhelming majority of our time just trying to keep ourselves alive.
By any Western standards, Al Amarah is still the barbaric and remorseless shit hole that the Paras found when they first arrived. The bloke with the biggest stick is still king. It's how they bring their sons up. If you were to stop them fighting, you'd have to change an entire culture and identity. That's just how it works in Maysan. Always has been, always will be.
As far as the platoon goes, most of the boys are now out of the army.
Of the original eighteen, just Daz, Smudge, H, Rob, Ben and Sam are still in the battalion. All six were sent back to Iraq for its second tour of duty there in April 2006. Luckily for them, they all managed to avoid a return to Al Amarah.
Daz got made up to sergeant for the second time, having managed to keep his nose sufficiently clean for a bit.
Ads was promoted to lance corporal. Then he went AWOL after a scuffle with four German civvies outside a Paderborn bar. Instead of jailing him, the regiment offered him a fresh start with a transfer to the 2nd Battalion in Northern Ireland. He transferred to avoid the nick – and then got out. After a bit of security work, he decided to go back to broking in the City and start earning some proper money again. Wise lad.
Pikey is nominally still in, but only while he awaits court martial for allegedly smacking a Red Cap round the head with an ashtray in a German nightclub. The plonker then went AWOL, while the copper had to have twenty-five stitches in his neck. He's back now, but he's going to have to do some serious time in the glasshouse for that one.
The company hierarchy are all still in too.
Dale was promoted to Warrant Officer First Class and is now a Regimental Sergeant Major for another battalion. It's a shame he wasn't the battalion's RSM; he'd have been one of the best we ever had.
Major Featherstone was posted to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as a senior instructor. There, he taught, among others, Princes William and Harry leadership and adventure training. Tigris the mongrel lives with him in the Home Counties now. He smuggled her out of Iraq on a series of RAF helicopters and then on a BA flight back to London thanks to a campaign by the
when the army refused to fly her.
As for Redders, he learnt a lot in Iraq – so much so, he was appointed the battalion's Adjutant, one of the most responsible positions in it.
Three of the sniper lads chose women over the army.
Having repeatedly vowed to never settle down, Chris promptly got married in Las Vegas to a Royal Military Policewoman on his return home. Both of them left the army and moved to Leeds, where Chris now drives cranes. He says he likes it 50 metres up in the air on his tod because nobody can harass him with bullshit there.
Fitz also got out after ten years' service to settle down to a normal life with his wife and kids. He would have made a fantastic senior NCO, but he could never be bothered to put himself in for it. He loved shooting too much.
And Longy got out when his missus gave him a final ultimatum: the uniform or her. Self-pleasure was evidently no longer enough for him. Now he's a carpet fitter.
Des went back to Johannesburg to take over the family property business. He said he lost the desire to go for SAS selection because he got what he had wanted out of Iraq.
Oost is a security guard at a university, with a goatee, long hair and tattoos all up his arms now. A terrible waste of a really fine soldier. Hopefully he'll have second thoughts and get back in.
Gilly forgot about the 'RLCs' after Iraq for an easy life in Paderborn. But he signed himself straight out of the army as soon as he heard about the battalion's upcoming second tour.
Finally there is Louey, who's working as a bodyguard in London. He could be mine any day.
As for me, I'm now back with the battalion again. I leave the army soon as I'll have served out my full 22-year engagement. I've no idea what I'll do next.
Sgt. Dan Mills was decorated for his command of an eighteen-man sniper platoon during the siege of Al Amarah. During a long army career he has served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and the Falkland Islands.
is his first book.