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Authors: Dan Mills

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BOOK: Sniper one
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The nicer toilet blocks were set aside for them too.

'You'll also have to eat meals at different times to them,' said the NCO. 'It's what they made us do. It helps them pretend we're not here.'

I supposed that made them feel like they were really helping the people of Iraq. Twats.

The tour ended with Cimic House's wide, flat roof. Up
there hung a solitary red, white and black Iraqi flag. It was there instead of a Union Jack to prove to the locals we were there for them.

As soon as we got up there, I knew immediately where my platoon would be spending most of the next seven months. Our job was to be the eyes and ears for the company; to log, report and observe anything that looked like insurgent activity. With the most potent and longest range weapons system, we were also its best deterrent. The roof was not only the highest spot in the compound, it also had a 360-degree view over much of the city. A three-foot-high wall even ran all the way around it for cover and to rest our longs on. All in all, it was our ideal location – a sniper's Shangri-La.


'Right boys, this is our new office,' I swiftly announced. 'No fucker comes up here without our permission. This is sniper territory from now on. Put the word around.'

It was important to claim the roof as quickly as possible, before another platoon like Recce got the same idea.

OK, Cimic House was overcrowded, our housemates were obnoxious, and outside the walls there was a jungle. But crucially, in the roof we now had an excellent place to work. On tour, everything else comes second to that.

The more we saw of our new home, the better it got. My mood was lifting by the minute. There was a proper cookhouse with real tables and chairs, not a tent full of plastic furniture like in Camp Abu Naji. It was run by a couple of military chefs in a mobile kitchen trailer. They did everything from chips and curries to fry-ups and ice cream, and a fresh fruit bowl every day. On Friday nights, they even threw on a barbecue.

One last treat awaited us in the palm-tree-lined garden, a luxurious remnant of Saddam's day when his governor in Maysan lived there like a prince. Ringed by its own wall and a cooling thatched veranda was a 15-metre-long swimming pool. It was fully functioning too, thanks to the efforts of previous units. A little outdoor gym had been set up beside it, with exercise bikes and punch bags.

All in all, it really was quite a promising spot – a haven of calm in a storm of shit. Having been prepared for the worst on the grim drive in, we were chuffed to bits with the
place by the end of the look around. We were also delighted to be away from the rest of the battle group stuck inside Abu Naji. It meant we could do our own thing, well away from the RSM's moaning about haircuts, saluting and all that crap.

That evening I sat on the benches outside the cookhouse beside the river with Dale. There was a patio right on the corner that overlooked the Tigris where it split from its tributary. From there, you could watch the sun set behind the palm trees while fishermen in ancient looking canoes paddled past. There was even a little table tennis table.

We treated ourselves to a fresh, cool glass of orange squash (on this dry base, orange squash was as good as it got) and put our feet up. All over the city, the mosques had started to wail to call people in for evening prayer. For a moment, sitting out there almost felt a bit like being on some Mediterranean holiday. It was certainly a pleasant change to the freezing windowless underground bunk rooms of South Armagh.

'This is all right, isn't it, mate. What does sir think of the view?'

'Well, I don't mind telling you, Danny, if it wasn't for that faarkin' toilet of a city the other side of the fence, I could spend six months here with some ease. If we have to be tree huggers, I'm all on for tree hugging in comfort. Any fool can be uncomfortable.'

Not that we thought it would ever come to it, but militarily it was also an excellent place to defend. With water on two sides, there was little chance boats would make it across without us giving them a fair pummelling first. And the front and back sangars gave good arcs of fire, not to mention our all-round view from Cimic's rooftop. Two final buildings perched on the riverbank on the northern edge of the
compound completed its prospect, a tall water tower and water treatment plant.

The only downside was the Pink Palace, the governor of Maysan's office and seat of power located the other side of the road from the front gate, which we were also tasked with securing. It was an ugly two-storey block shaped in three sides of a square. It was known as the Pink Palace because it was pink. But we called it the Pink Sauna on account of how hot it got in there. If there was ever any air con in it, it didn't work now. For some reason the poor design meant almost no clean air would ever pass through it either. It stank terribly. A third-rate architect had tried to make it look like a palace, but all it resembled was a naff Arab mansion. Technically, it was the seat of the governing council of Maysan. They didn't govern anything at all, because the Americans did all that. But it didn't stop them turning up to shout at each other all the same.

I spent the rest of that first night on the rooftop with a couple of pairs who had set up their longs. Our task was to log, report and observe anything that looked like insurgent activity. Mortar firing positions were our top priority. They were easiest to locate at night because the round will give off a bright flash when it ignites at the bottom of the barrel.

There were no attacks on us. But we heard shots fired all over the rest of the city. Once we knew all our call signs out had been accounted for, we relaxed, sat back and just enjoyed the show. Little zips of red or yellow tracer would suddenly shoot up over the rooftops. Sometimes it was far away, other times closer. It was like a fireworks display.

Most of it was tribal shooting, power struggles between different gangs. Some of it was celebratory fire. To mark a birth, wedding or a funeral, it's customary for Iraqi men to
unload a full AK mag into the skies. They don't give a shit where the rounds land. It's not uncommon for totally innocent bystanders to be killed.

Excrement aside, there were other fascinating smells I hadn't come across before: the perfumes of the souks, and the spices of Arabic cooking. And in the mix from somewhere, a permanent smell of burning.

Even at night, we were still sweating because we weren't used to the heat. But thanks to a good breeze up there, the rooftop was always the coolest place to be.

Then Pikey ruined the whole romantic image in one fell swoop.

'Jesus Christ, it's 1 a.m. and I've still got the Niagara Falls running down me crack.'

'Thanks for that, Pikey. Just carry on drinking as you were told.'

At the start of the tour, we were getting through 20 litres of water a day. It was the only way to rehydrate while our bodies acclimatized. Water is a good business to be in in Iraq. Vast crates of two-litre bottles would turn up on trucks, and we'd go through them like locusts. We were forever pissing – I never knew I could piss so much. But after a little while we were back down to drinking just a couple of litres a day. It's amazing how adaptable the human body actually is.

Manning the rooftop was only half of Sniper Platoon's responsibilities. We were also going to have to muck in and do our fair share of routine patrols around the city, along with the other three platoons in the company. Sadly, Major Featherstone had far too few men at his disposal to use us only in our specialist role.

Before we got too ambitious, we would all do a few short familiarization patrols around the local area. On foot first,
then in the Snatch Land Rovers we inherited from the Light Infantry. It was a confidence-building exercise as much as anything else.

I was allotted a time slot of 3 p.m. the next day for my first foot patrol. That gave me the morning to make sure every last part of every bloke's battle kit had made it the 4,000 miles from Tidworth in one piece. It was an ordeal in itself.

With the situation as tense as it was, we were going out in full rig and tooled up for any eventuality. That meant a total of around 45 lbs of equipment per man.

Combat body armour went on first over your shirt. This was a sleeveless jacket with a heavy Kevlar breast plate large enough to cover your heart. The plate would stop a 7.62mm round fired from close range. The rest of the jacket was made of rubber, and only stopped blast fragments or ricochets.

On the front of our body armour we wrote our zap numbers, in large writing with an indelible marker. It's what was read out over the net so they knew who to expect in the regimental aid post – or in worst case scenarios, whose family they had to inform. Also, if the casualty's face was a mess, you could just look at his front to see who it was. Zap numbers were made up by the first two letters of your surname followed by the last four digits in your army number. So I was MI7769. As the patrol commander, I would carry a list of everyone's zap numbers with me, along with their blood groups.

Over that went my webbing. What you carry where is down to the individual. Personally, I have always hated jamming things in my leg pockets because it restricts movement, so I put everything into my webbing and shirt. Into the webbing's internal pocket went my maps. On the outside
of it were two grenade pouches, which were filled with other things because the company quartermaster didn't think it was right to issue us with grenades on a peacekeeping tour. There were also four more long pouches for rifle magazines.

In a place like that, I liked the boys to carry as much ammo as they could. The standard drill was six magazines of thirty rounds in each. But we always took out ten per bloke, plus a bandolier that held a further 150 rounds, packed into a piece of green material and slung around the shoulder. That made a total of 450 rounds of ammunition per man.

Field dressings were another must. You don't use your own on others; others use it on you. The idea is that everyone can see where it is immediately and rip it off you straight away. Most people tape them on to their webbing straps, and you write your blood group on them so the medic knows immediately what blood to pump into you. I always tried to carry two or three on me. A single dressing only holds one pint of blood, and then you'll need to smack another one on.

Wherever a soldier is, he must always carry enough food and water for twenty-four hours. So into the webbing would go most of that lot too, with a floppy water container known as a 'camel back' on your back.

Crammed into any other spare space was a silver compass, a handheld GPS device that gives an eight-figure grid reference accurate to within 12 metres, a torch, water bottles, a set of plastic handcuffs, language cards with basic Arabic, camouflage cream and a notebook. Finally, a vial of morphine and dog tags went around your neck.

Then there was what we had to carry.

The patrol commander is in charge of all the comms equipment, because he's the one that needs to talk to the
desk jockeys back at HQ. The main VHF set, a Clansman 350 or 351, went in my day sack on my back. In case that failed, I had a handheld walkie talkie radio and a normal Iraqi mobile phone on me as well.

Because of its remoteness, the comms were so bad at times in Maysan that we'd heard stories about units before us having to dial the Whitehall operator on a satellite phone in the middle of a firefight, and politely ask to be patched through to their battle group headquarters no more than a few klicks away.

Over the net, my patrol's call sign was always 'Alpha One Zero'. As its commander, my own personal call sign was 'Alpha One Zero Alpha'. The Ops Room at Cimic House was 'Zero', and Featherstone was 'Zero Alpha'. Being a radio operator was a bitch. Get one letter the wrong way round, and you've passed on an order to totally the wrong bloke.

So that the patrol itself could speak to each other, each soldier in it also carried their own Personal Role Radio (PRR). That was a microphone and an ear piece attached to a head strap and connected to a main transmitter box the size of a packet of cigarettes on your upper webbing. PRRs were on permanent receive, but to talk you had to press a button on the transmitter.

On your swede would be either a floppy hat or the regimental beret, to keep the sun off. You'd have to carry your hard helmets everywhere too in case things got hairy. They were only strong enough to stop shrapnel and glancing rounds. High-velocity bullets from close range will go straight through them.

A night vision monocle would also be in your day sack. It could either be head-mounted on your helmet, or worn around the neck on some string, as I did.

A decent knife, worn on the belt, was also a prerequisite
so you could cut through obstacles. These days, soldiers only kill with them in the movies. Everyone is trained to use one if they have to. But if you've got down to that you're in pretty dire straits. You have to get extremely close to someone to stab them, and it's almost impossible to cut someone's throat without them knowing – unless they're fast asleep. If you really can't shoot them, batter them with your rifle butt instead.

The two weapons we carried out on patrol were the SA80 assault rifle and Minimi machine gun. Our longs would stay back at base, unless we were going on a specific snipers' task.

Forget what you've heard, the SA80 A2 variant was a perfectly reliable and good weapon. Its predecessor, the A1, got all the bad headlines and was a bit suspect. But its German manufacturers Heckler and Koch had done a lot of work to iron out the faults. The A2 had a sturdier cocking handle and a decent ejection mechanism that no longer threw the old shells back inside the rifle to cause stoppages.

The SA80 takes a 5.56mm round and weighs about five kilograms. It has two modes of fire, single shot and fully automatic. The latter would be used only very rarely, for in-your-face tasks like trench clearing. It's very hard to aim on fully automatic because of the recoil. On single shot, a soldier is expected to hit a target at 300 metres. But you're a pretty good shot if you can hit something more than 600 metres away.

BOOK: Sniper one
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