March 23, 2003
Courage in action: Black Hawk Bob Gallagher in action at Op Curly
March 23, 2003
Top tip! If you ever hanker after adventure and an exciting experience, don’t take the offer of attacking Baghdad, while unarmed, in a thin-skinned Land Rover Defender. It’s dangerous, as I and the team’s producer Paul were finding out. The Defender, although an excellent piece of British engineering, turned out to be a bad choice because the Iraqi Army used a similar-looking Land Rover. That caused confusion and during the fog of war, that’s not a good thing! We were subsequently informed by smiling tank commanders that they had nearly ‘lit us up!’ on a few occasions. After three days of relentless advance, 2/15 of the US Army’s 3rd Infantry Division was deep in the Iraqi desert. 2/15 was a mechanised Infantry battalion that used the Abrams A1 tank and Bradley fighting vehicles. Most of the recce troops and admin vehicles were the ubiquitous HUMVEE or High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. The logistics involved in such a rapid advance totally amazed me as an ex-Commando soldier used to surviving on what I could carry. The planning was amazing. The battalion refuelled whenever it needed to at preplanned Logistic hubs while global positioning technology welded all arms of the US into one machine.
While we made our run through the desert elements of the British Army had reached the outskirts of Basra while my old unit 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines had simultaneously launched an amphibious assault on the Al Faw peninsula. All the units in the south were making good progress. 3rd ID had taken out two air bases after fierce resistance and then blew past Nasiriyah and hoped to reach the Euphrates within three days. We were now starting to see mass desertions from the Iraqi Army.
The going was tough physically and mentally. Just keeping up with a speeding armoured unit is difficult and every hour delivered its challenges. We, like all those invading Iraq, had committed to the job, and once we were in, we could not back out, and like the young US troops with us, we had no control over either the situation or our ultimate destiny, we just trusted those around us. We were travelling at the rear of our battalion, which although safer from direct enemy action is in some ways more demanding. The driving was difficult. The deep sand had already been churned by hundreds of vehicles and could only be negotiated by following the tracks of those in front. The wheelbase of the Defender differed from about everything else which meant that you had to constantly look for sand that you could use. Nobody slept for the first three days as the third Infantry Division rolled towards Baghdad without rest.
Our media news team was travelling in three separate vehicles. Our correspondent, a great guy called David Bloom, and cameraman Craig, trundled along in an M88A tank recovery. It was fitted with the latest high-definition camera with a gyro-stabilizing platform that allowed it to take steady pictures while bumping through the desert. The signal was beamed by a microwave link to a big US Ford truck that had a strange-looking dome housing the satellite uplink. This would be the first time that footage of a tank battle could be transmitted instantaneously straight back to the US. It also looked suspiciously like the non-existent chemical laboratory lorries that everybody was looking for, not a great health and safety point. All the vehicles gained nicknames. Soundman Bob, a big Texan dude, called the uplink Tina and the truck Ike, as in Ike and Tina Turner. Our Land Rover Defender had been named Mini-me and the M88A tank was now referred to only as the Bloomsmobile.
One of the most enduring images of the second Gulf war was demoralised Iraqis giving up. To put that into perspective, and to understand why, you have to view the war from the enemy’s perspective. We constantly passed scenes of unimaginable carnage as the firepower of a US Division and its supporting arms made mincemeat of anything in its path. The Duke of Wellington said after the battle of Waterloo while looking at the war dead of both sides:
The only thing worse than a battle lost is a battle won.
And that quotation slipped into my mind as we passed a destroyed Iraqi Army. The T72 tank was a favourite target for the awesome A10 Thunderbolt aircraft, known as the Warthog, that swooped overhead the column on their attack runs. From the rear MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) strikes streaked over us to destroy whole Republican Guard units in front before they even got a chance to give up. Some spooky sites were forever ingrained in our consciences as we rolled past them. An Iraqi T72 with its cupola detached by a direct strike embedded into the sand by its 125mm gun barrel with the remains of its crew smeared on the inside like a weird piece of modern art. We tried not to look at the faces of dead Iraqis much too young for a battlefield, their eyes still open and looking to the front. One particular gruesome memory was the burnt remains of what was once maybe twenty Iraqi troops caught in the open by the remains of an enemy fuel truck. They were so infused together in charcoal black that you could not work out where one body started and another ended.
In my last post, I mentioned this and said I would talk about it. It is something that is not always talked about but witnessed by US and British soldiers during the conflict. When the Iraqis did fight, they fought hard. Two of the groups that fought the hardest where the Iraqi Republican Guard and the irregular Fedayeen units. Fedayeen in Arabic means:
“Those who sacrifice themselves” Although they were set up as a guerrilla stay-behind force to fight behind the lines rather than a suicide squad.
Later in the conflict as the lead Abrams tank from 2/15 hit the outskirts of Baghdad, the tank commander, a well-liked Captain from the southern states spotted a motorbike and sidecar with two Iraqis approaching to his front at speed. A motorbike attacking an armoured battallion is an unusual site. The situation got stranger when the motorbike stopped turned quickly and then waited. The captain noticed that the man in the sidecar had an RPG rocket launcher. The tank commander couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Shall I light him up, Captain? The machine gunner asked.
“No,just warning shots over their heads.” The tank commander said admiring the Iraqi teams bravery. The machine gunner aimed a burst of M60 over the bike as, undeterred, the man stood up in the sidecar fired an RPG that streaked over the Abram turret. The bike then sped away, but to the captain’s amazement stopped again to reload the launcher to have another go. It was only after the second missile missed its mark that the captain had to make the call and the tank’s gunner engaged both men and killed them.
The captain later described his respect for the two soldiers and said that they deserved gallantry medals. Unfortunately, the Iraqis died for a country that had already lost the war. The Captain later made sure that he recovered both soldiers. By that time both of these brave men had been converted into a type of bio-mechanical road kill that had been imprinted onto the road into Baghdad by the tracks of a mechanised Infantry Division. He had the bodies buried with military honours.
Our next stop would be the Euphrates river valley, known as the birthplace of civilisation where a tragedy was waiting to happen.
The Awesome Abrams A1