Iraqis point out fedayeen hiding spots to British troops
Gethin Chamberlain, in Basra, for The Scotsman, 7 April 2003
THE Iraqis were hiding in a bunker at the side of the road when the tanks first spotted them. There were four of them, waiting at a crossroads in the Al Hadi area of Basra, slotting another rocket-propelled grenade into their launcher to fire at the advancing British troops.
The request to engage came over the commanding officer’s radio. A moment’s pause, and then the reply crackled back: “You are now clear to engage the bunker with four men with HESH and co-ax.”
High explosive shells and chain gun – that’s what the jargon meant, and nothing could stand in their way. Inside the bunker, the militia had only a few seconds left. The sound of a dull explosion rolled across the city. Over the radio, the Challenger crew reported the kill. “The target was engaged and the job was done.”
On the other side of the bridge over the Shatt al-Basra canal, Lieutenant William Colquhoun had unpacked his bagpipes and sat on the turret of his Warrior waiting for the order to advance. As the sun attempted to poke through smoke rolling lazily across desolate marshland stretching away on either side of the bridge, wading birds were picking their way among the long grasses.
As he began to play, the sound of Scotland the Brave drifted across the bridge towards the city, competing with the clatter of rotor blades as four Cobra helicopters raced in to join the attack.
At the controls of his Cobra, Major Steve Hall, a US marines pilot, was looking for more targets to hit when he felt the first bullets rip into the fuselage. A round embedded itself in the nose cone, inches from where co-pilot First Lieutenant Dale Behm was peering through his sights. Another smashed the targeting device ahead of him, more tore through the rotors and the gear box.
The cockpit was on fire, but there was nowhere safe to land. People he could not see were firing at him from the windows of the houses in the shanty town below. Spotting a British Challenger tank on the ground near the bridge, he inched the Cobra down. In the sky above, his wingman had spotted the muzzle flashes and wheeled round to exact revenge. His chain gun rattled and the gunmen on the ground fell silent.
All along the western edge of the city, more dramas were being played out. The early fighting was fierce, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire coming from all directions. But as the Black Watch pushed on into the heart of Basra, the resistance began to crumble. People started to come out on to the streets to point out the places where the Fedayeen militia were hiding.
With the defenders in retreat, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Riddell-Webster’s men pushed on. In the headquarters of the 7th Armoured Brigade, Brigadier Graham Binns realised it was time to commit everything he had to the battle.
What had started as another tentative raid to test out the resolve of the Iraqi defenders had become a headlong rush to capture the city, each unit vying with the next to capture more and more targets. Objectives which had earlier been thought unachievable fell, one by one.
As a hot and howling gale tore through the city, the battle for Basra was finally under way.
Over the radios, the Black Watch battle group was reporting success after success as they pushed over Bridge 3 and on into the industrial north of Iraq’s second city.
In the thick of the action, Lt Col Riddell-Webster was directing the fighting. Egypt squadron and B company were racing towards the military compound which was intended to be their prime objective for the day, south -west of the Al Jubaylah area of the city near the docks on the Shatt al Arab, the waterway leading down to the Persian Gulf.
Under constant attack from RPGs and small arms fire, they reported gunmen firing from behind a group of 40 civilians beside the road. The roadside was mined, they warned, be careful.
Before the off, the CO had told them they were going in to test the water. If it was cold, they were going to stay on. If it was hot, they were getting out of there. If it was just right, they were going to wallow around for a while.
As the Challengers and Warriors sped along the roads into the city, they decided the reception they were receiving was just right. The CO decided they would stay on to wallow around a while.
Over the radio came the CO’s voice; there was no Tam O’Shanter and red hackle perched on his head this time. Helmet and body armour was now the order of the day. Resistance was heavy but they were five kilometres inside the city already, the furthest they had pushed into Basra so far. He ordered up more units from across the bridge. On the other side of the canal, Lt Colquhoun put away his bagpipes and prepared to advance.
Across the swing bridge, they rolled, the sky over the city still quite dark, on past burnt-out vehicles sitting awkwardly by the side of the road.
The forward units were reporting RPG attacks all along the way into the city. From the direction of Bridge 4, the large concrete span which had provided the original bridgehead into the city when they first arrived, came the sound of explosions, British mortars opening up on those firing back from within the city limits.
A Challenger reported tanks destroyed – a T59 and a T55. “We’ve engaged and destroyed another T55,” said the disembodied voice. The other units took heart from their success, but there was much more to be done. There was a lot of civilian activity, they said: “We’re taking a lot of small arms fire.”
Others had pushed on past the residential area to the west, on past the rundown shanty town alongside the road towards the north-east, past a sports complex they reported to be deserted. They identified a Red Crescent facility, ensured the battle group knew where it was, moved on.
From the city centre came the thump of more explosions. Warriors were disgorging their troops outside the shanty town, the Black Watch infantry advancing into the warren of houses.
“We’ve engaged a section-strength unit. They have gone back into the shanty town,” they reported.
Engineers arrived to clear the mined section of the road, declaring the right hand side safe. Tanks used their chain guns to blast more mines out of the way. There were more reports of civilian activity in the shanty town, more reports of positions engaged and destroyed.
From a junction halfway along the route to the first military compound came reports of incoming mortar fire, a unit under attack. And then the radio crackled again and the mortar base had been spotted, a blue Land Rover-like vehicle.
A tank fired a round of high explosive at the vehicle, and it disintegrated but another mortar was still firing, somewhere to the south, out of the battle group’s area of interest. Its position was passed on to the Scots Dragoon Guards and, moments later, there came the crash of British mortar rounds leaving their tubes, and the Iraqi mortar was no longer firing.
After days spent clearing up the nearby town of Az Zubayr and driving out the militia, the Black Watch soldiers were relishing their return to Basra and the chance to engage an enemy they had on the run.
The sun had climbed higher in the sky and now four Cobras appeared, swooping low looking for targets to hit, 200ft above the flat rooftops.
“Four Cobras on station – they are going to sweep our station and our objective and then we are going to lose to and two will stay on,” a voice on the radio said.
And another voice: “We’re still taking small arms fire, we’ve identified the base plate.”
Further back, B company had crossed the bridge, past the giant electricity pylons dominating the approach, past burnt-out and overturned cars and mounds of rubbish, following the road running along side the triple oil pipeline, part of it ablaze. Warrior vehicles stood by the roadside, more smashed vehicles lined the route.
But there were still hazards to be negotiated. Be on the lookout for more mines, they were warned. “Some mines have been cleared and there is a route through but be careful as you go through,” a voice told them.
There were still some mines intact on the left hand side of the road and the advancing columns were struggling to get through.
The CO’s voice came over the radio. “Given the congestion on the route, are you able to push forward?” he asked the units which had been holding the forward positions.
A Challenger reported another T55 hit, more units were advancing. Still unaware of the scale of the success, the soldiers on the ground wondered whether the Brigadier had decided the time was right to take the city.
Then came the news that the Cobra was down. “Hit by direct fire, we’ll possibly have to go forward to rescue the pilot,” said the voice of the battalion commander over the radio.
“One Cobra has just landed on the road, it’s now blocking the road. A Cobra is attempting to put down on the road. He’s stopped bang in the middle.”
The CO’s voice chipped in: “We’re going to have to get it shifted.” He called for a low loader to be brought forward to move the stricken aircraft.
The Cobra pilot had closed down the engine, the rotors coming to a halt. A tank moved forward to offer it protection as a crowd of civilians began to gather and another Cobra sat on the road, rotors still turning, while another circled overhead.
At the target compound, Egypt squadron and B company were reporting that the enemy had fled but the CO was not for stopping. He ordered his units to push on towards the Baath party headquarters marked on their maps and to destroy them. The battlegroup moved forwards again.
By 9am, the Iraqis were on the run, resistance falling away. “We’ve just cleared the building on the far side of the compound,” Egypt company reported. The soldiers were out of their vehicles but there was little opposition. They were setting up base there, but the CO already had his eyes on the dockyards.
Other units were also advancing across the city, reports coming in from all sides of victories and resistance falling away. New targets were selected, units given grid references for Baath party headquarters, military installations, Fedayeen buildings – all identified as targets.
On the Basra side of the Cobra, a crowd of more than 500 people had gathered. Some of those at the front were carrying cans of petrol, but whether to use it to attack the troops or simply to scavenge fuel was not clear. “What have you got to contain the situation?” the CO asked.
Tanks, Warriors, engineer vehicles, he was told. The troops fired shots over the heads of the crowd and most ran away.
In the north of the city, Egypt squadron had reached the Baath party headquarters near the docks and the railway terminal where in previous days tanks had been brought in to the city to shore up the defences, but the tanks were being picked off one by one as the Challengers found them.
By 10am, the route into the north of the city was secure and more units were rolling forwards. The CO was talking about going for the headquarters buildings to test out the reaction.
From the south of the city came news that the Scots Dragoon Guards were on the move, trying to secure their own sector. The Royal Tank Regiment was moving up behind the Black Watch, waiting to push on forwards.
The whole operation to take the city was being brought forward. There was still some resistance – one tank had to fire its chain gun at another to remove a determined cluster of Iraqi defenders swarming over it – but it was being pushed inexorably backwards.
On the road into the city Major Hall was surveying the damage to his Cobra. “We were doing armed reconnaissance for your guys because they had been taking machine gun fire and grenades, and then we got shot,” he said.
“You couldn’t see anyone shooting. There were plenty of people walking the streets but someone was in a building shooting at us.
“You can’t go in shooting at the bad guys with all the good guys around. I think they were just punters with guns who happened to have a good day.
“It’s a shame because there were a lot of people down there waving at us.” He was probably travelling at 130 knots when the bullets hit. “They nearly got my co-pilot, there are shots in my blades, but it kept flying well. The tail rotor was blown almost in two but it stayed together and we had a fire in the cockpit,” added the major.
“The first thing that went through my mind was ‘Where are the Challengers?’. I didn’t want to land anywhere else.”
It was six or seven minutes before Major Hall could put the Cobra down. He said: “We were very lucky, the good Lord smiled on us today.”
By 11am, the advance had pushed far into the city, the companies pushing into the north and south. D company had taken out the Baath party headquarters near the docks and were moving south towards the Mar al Khandao canal. A huge swathe of the city was now in British hands.
The Royal Regiment of Tanks was pushing further through to help clear the central area and in the south the Scots Dragoon Guards were sweeping through their section of the city.
Columns of vehicles were pouring into the city, clusters of people by the roadside waving at them as they passed by. Children waved and gave the thumbs -up, women carrying buckets back from the filthy, stinking water at the edge of the city stopped and waved.
Donkey carts and people pushing barrows passed in the opposite direction, their owners waving. The columns swept past the wreckage of a burnt-out T55 tank, past abandoned sandbagged bunkers. Everywhere people were waving and carrying white flags emblazoned with a blue emblem.
In the captured compound, there was a chance to rest, amid the wrecked buildings and abandoned sentry posts. The smell of sulphur lingered in the air.
And on and on it went, the battle raging across the city from dawn till dusk, the radios relaying news of each new advance, tanks pursuing the enemy into the areas they still held, engaging them, destroying them. Iraqi civilians were beginning to believe that it was finally happening, that the big push that had been promised for days had finally arrived. The militia were fighting on, but the city was falling. Basra was falling into British hands at last.