Authors: Dan Mills
The rifle's SUSAT telescopic sight was another new addition to it, and it was also pretty handy. It had a simple needle with a sharp point at its tip to signify the point of aim. Some of the boys had added laser aimers that clip on to the barrel and throw a red dot onto the point of aim. It
was also standard issue kit for Iraq. It's handy if you're in a rush, because you can just point and squirt. In darkness, we swapped the SUSAT for a CWS night sight, which works by light gathering.
One bloke in every four on a patrol would carry an Underslung Grenade Launcher (UGL), mounted under the barrel of his SA80. It was yet another piece of kit that we hadn't seen before, though widely used by the US Army for years. And we thought it was gleaming.
The UGL was fired with its own trigger, and aimed by a flick-up sight. It shoots out a 40mm fragmentation grenade to a range of up to 350 metres, which explodes after a few seconds once its fuse has burnt out, killing anything in a five-metre radius. It was a very good weapon, and easy to be accurate with.
There would also be one Minimi in every four-man fire team. The Belgian-made Minimi is an area weapon with a far heavier weight of fire than the SA80. It's designed primarily to suppress rather than for accurate target shooting, and chucks out up to 1,000 rounds per minute. Basically, the enemy is going to keep their heads down for a bit if there is a continual wall of lead coming over them. That gives you and your men time and space to manoeuvre.
The weapon also took a 5.56mm calibre round in magazines of 250, which came in either a bag or a hard box. Minimi men would also carry one or two spare 200-round magazines on them. A bipod was attached to the barrel that could be folded out to support the weapon while being fired. It has an effective range of 800 metres, but it's hard to hit anything accurately beyond 300 with automatic bursts.
It was the first time we'd been given Minimis too. They look pretty sexy, so the younger blokes in the platoon loved prancing around town with them feeling hard.
No matter what you had, in a place as dirty and dusty as Iraq you would clean your weapon every single day. That means stripping it down, wiping every surface with a cloth, cleaning out any dirt, carbon or gunpowder residue, oiling the moving parts, wiping it down again, reassembling it, and finally performing a function check by cocking it and pulling the trigger. It takes between fifteen and twenty minutes. You do it so often that the whole process doesn't require any thought at all. It becomes a ritual. And you're happy to do it, because you know that lump of steel can save your life.
Our first patrol was to be into the souks – for no reason other than I was keen to have a look at them. Ten of us went out; from the front gate, south, and then east.
'Remember boys, keep your spacing. Twenty metres apart and alternate sides of the street. Keep your eyes on each other.'
I didn't need to remind them really. They'd done it already.
Because it was our first time out, I wanted my handiest blokes there with me. I'd decided Pikey would always be my point man, the man out in front of the patrol, so I gave him one of the Minimis. Like all gypsies, he had a great pair of eyes and ears, and he had the knack of smelling out trouble a mile off.
As well as Daz, Chris and Ads, that also meant the South African connection, Des and Oost. Private Desmond 'Des' Milne and Private Cameron 'Oost' Oostuizen were two peas in a pod. They were best mates and totally inseparable. They even sniped as a pair. In their early twenties, both had left their homeland to join the British Army and see some action.
Both had bags of energy, and were exceptionally keen and professional soldiers. They were the first to volunteer for
any task. They'd be packing up their kit and halfway out the door before I'd even finished speaking.
Des was quite open in admitting he specifically joined up so he could legally kill people. I've never met anyone with such a bloodlust. He loved anything to do with knives and hunting, and got extremely excitable in times of danger. He also used to love telling us how the Afrikaaners were the master race.
'Just remember, the Boers kicked your sorry little English arses once,' he liked to say. 'And we'll do it again if you're not careful.'
Des was a big chunky boy too, the fittest in the platoon. He spent a lot of time in the gym, and was careful to always eat well. He planned to go for SAS selection after the tour, and he'd be perfect for the special forces.
Meanwhile Oost prided himself on being the platoon's weirdo. That meant not shaving as often as he should and sporting the craziest hairstyle he could get away with. His favourite was shaved sides and as long and spiky on top as he could make it. He wore shades and fingerless leather gloves wherever he went, and worshipped thrash metal bands. The Foo Fighters were always playing at full volume on his CD Walkman. He was the RSM's worst nightmare. But he absolutely loved his shooting.
Both Des and Oost hated army bullshit, which is why they became snipers.
Also with us was Fitz. Lance Corporal Mark 'Fitz' Fitzgibbon was by some distance the best shot in the platoon. Aged twenty-nine, he was slim and lanky, and was a quiet bloke most of the time. He didn't say ten words if one would do. But put a long in his hands and he'd never miss a thing. Ever. He was like a robot, it was scary. He was also a good dependable NCO who didn't take any fucking about.
And you'd certainly hear him when he threw his toys out the pram at his blokes.
Our mobile armour was Louey.
Snipers had been given three privates from Anti-Tanks Platoon for the duration of the tour, to be our drivers and even up the numbers a bit. Two were Caribbean, Gilly and Louey. And the third, Private Mark Potter, was known as Harry for obvious reasons.
But with Louey, we'd really won the lottery.
Private O'Neal Lewis was an absolute ox of a man. Aged twenty-four and from the island of St Vincent, he was six foot four inches tall and built like a brick privy. If we ever needed a bit of muscle on a job, I'd send Louey in first. We nicknamed him 'The Swede' after the giant prize fighter in the Clint Eastwood movie
. He was so powerful that he was always pinged to play the 'red man' during riot training. The red man was the chief rioter that had to be snatched out of the crowd, and he'd wear a big red rubber suit. It took literally dozens of blokes to subdue him because he'd fight them all off, one after the other. And his party trick was to lift up the corner of a Land Rover single handedly while someone else changed its tyre.
But despite all of that, he was one of the most reserved and polite people I'd ever met. Louey had a huge respect for authority, and was very well mannered. He loved his soppy R 'n' B ballads, Whitney Houston being his favourite. And he was the only man in the platoon who'd insist on calling me Sergeant throughout the whole tour.
None of that stopped him from having eyes like a hawk. And make him angry, he'd tear your fucking head off.
Bringing up the rear was Private Adam Smith. Only a young lad aged just twenty, Smudge was already a good all-rounder. He had a fantastic street awareness, just like Pikey.
That probably had something to do with his obsession with image.
In a platoon not short on posers, Smudge took the crown. Baby faced and with bright blond hair, he was the platoon's pretty boy. His shades were always perfectly placed on top of his head, and the last thing he'd do before we went out on patrol was check to see if his hair was OK. He also insisted on having his photo taken with every different sort of weapon he could get his hands on. But he was a very cool customer when we were in the shit, and thoroughly slick at his skills and drills. He'd make a great NCO one day.
The weight load was hard going in the heat to begin with. But the boys were a fit bunch and soon got used to it.
The souks were a fascinating sight. Market stall after market stall, all run by busy chattering shopkeepers, and grouped together by their specialities. First there were the metal stands, then the fruit sellers, vegetables, meats, spices, electricals, coffin makers; it went on and on.
As we walked about, we could also see that if only someone cleaned up all the muck and filth, central Al Amarah could be a half decent place to live in. Cafes were doing a roaring business all along Tigris Street. Men were sitting out puffing away on hookah pipes and families were having picnics in the park by the river's edge. If you held your nose and squinted, it could be Istanbul.
We were only out for a couple of hours, because I didn't want to push our luck.
But to our great surprise, most of the people we had come across seemed generally happy to see us. We got a lot of 'hello misters' and a whole load of smiles, which we of course were quick to return. Only one child got a firm cuff round the head from his father for talking to us. Even some
of the women mumbled positive noises from behind their veils (which OPTAG had told us would never happen).
As we made our weapons safe inside Cimic's front gate, Daz said: 'I dunno, mate. Perhaps the good people of Al Amarah have got bored of scrapping with us, no matter what's going on in Najaf. They've had a couple of weeks of it now after all.'
'Yeah,' I agreed. 'Judging by last night on the roof, killing each other seems a load more fun.'
It wouldn't be very long at all before we were both proved badly wrong.
The PWRR Battle Group assumed command of Maysan Province at 7.30 a.m. on 18 April 2004. It was a Sunday.
For the platoon, the day meant our first vehicle patrol around Al Amarah. We were in charge now, and everyone was looking forward to getting out and about on the streets.
It was going to be just simple stuff again. Just a bit of a drive around the main routes to get the boys used to the place, the feel of the vehicles on the streets. Our official task was also to drop in on a few police stations and make ourselves known. We set off from Cimic House at 3 p.m.
As the patrol commander, I rode in the passenger seat of the front Snatch Land Rover. Sam was my driver. Private Sam Fleming was a shy and quiet redhead. Aged just twenty, he was new to the platoon and was really just learning his way. Iraq was his first full operational tour. But he was a skilled and confident driver, and a nice lad with it.
Louey and Smudge were doing top cover for me, so Louey had a Minimi. Daz commanded the second vehicle, with Chris as his driver and Ads and H on top cover.
Daz also had a passenger in the back of his Snatch, Major Ken Tait, a Territorial Army officer from the Black Watch in his late forties. A school teacher from Glasgow, Ken was posted to Cimic House on a six-month call-up to be a tree-hugger on one of the reconstruction teams. But Ken was a true soldier. A heavy smoker, he was already bored with his desk job after only four days of being there, and asked
me if he could come along for the ride and have a look about too.
We weren't gung-ho, but we were confident and professional, and exactly where we wanted to be.
'Remember to smile, all you happy people,' Daz said over the PRRs as we pulled out of the front gate.
We headed north, and swept out around Al Amarah's eastern outskirts first, before cutting back into the city centre through the southern suburbs. I got the boys to dismount to carry out a quick spot vehicle checkpoint at the road junction Blue 5.
Al Amarah's main roads are codenamed by colours and numbers so the enemy wouldn't know what we're talking about if he intercepted our radio transmissions. We only ever knew a few streets by their real Arabic names. Its five main north to south thoroughfares roughly follow Al Amarah's grid system, with the Purple route the furthest west, red next, yellow in the middle, blue after that and finally the green route on the north-eastern flank. Main junctions on each coloured route are numbered upwards from south to north. Yellow isn't very long, so there are only four junctions on it. But red is the main arterial route through Al Amarah from Basra to Baghdad (Route 6 on the Iraqi road maps), so it has fourteen junctions. Sounds a nightmare, but imagine a bloke from Bermondsey trying to pronounce Al Muqatil Aj Asaneyya Street in a hurry.
After ten minutes, we drove off again up the Yellows, and made a right turn east at Yellow 3 onto a main road that hadn't been given a codename for some reason. There we stopped, and dismounted for a poke about at Al Balda police station, which was one on our list. The vehicles parked up 50 metres apart, on the south side of the road. All but one of the top covers in each Snatch dismounted to watch over
the patrol, as the rest of the boys inspected the ground around the vehicles for IEDs, the routine drill.
I walked over the road to the police station's front gatehouse with a silly big grin on my face and attempted to strike up a conversation with the three officers lazing around there. I was keen to improve my crappy Arabic with the language cards we had been issued with.
The first thing that wasn't quite right was when the cops started to look very uncomfortable as soon as I approached. They had been doing what we had been told was the usual for Iraqi policemen – sitting around lazily in the shade and not really being arsed to do anything at all. But they proved even less interested in having a chat with me. They all squirmed, and looked away.
'Yeah, whatever then,' I said. Probably just don't like us. I shrugged my shoulders and walked away.
Daz approached two other coppers who were leaning on a motorbike, 50 metres down the road. They were standing in front of a well fortified compound that housed a large three-storey concrete building, painted white and divided into offices and a mosque area. Unusually for buildings in the city, it had a fresh coat of white paint and bars across every window. The front gate was made out of sturdy wrought iron, and an imposing six-foot wall ran around the whole of the rest of the exterior. Fifteen hundred metres from Cimic House, the place clearly had a pretty high status. It was just off the city's main promenade and overlooked the Tigris River.
As I walked over to Daz, four men with big Islamic beards came out of the compound very agitated. They were shouting at us full pitch in fast, aggressive Arabic and jabbing their fingers at us. We asked one of the policemen what their problem was.