Baptism of fire in the streets of Az Zubayr

Baptism of fire in the streets of Az Zubayr

Gethin Chamberlain, for The Scotsman, 9 March 2004

“SARGE! Sarge!” The tugging on Sgt Euan McGilp’s arm was insistent. “Sarge! Sarge!”

McGilp, ducking to avoid the bullets zipping overhead and attempting to keep his head below the level of his Warrior, ignored the hand grasping the fabric of his sleeve.

“Sarge! Sarge!” Scott Henderson’s voice was increasingly urgent. McGilp tore his gaze away from the rooftops where Iraqi militia men were crouched behind the low parapets, popping up every few seconds to fire at his exposed position.

Clustered around their vehicles, with open ground on one side and a labyrinth of alleyways on the other, the men of D Company the Black Watch were sitting ducks. In the early morning light, the militia men seemed to be everywhere. Bullets were bouncing off the ground a few metres from McGilp and his men..

“Sarge! Sarge!” McGilp gave in. He turned his attention to Henderson, 18 years old, who had arrived in Iraq only a few days before to join up with the rest of the battalion. This was Henderson’s first mission with the Black Watch, the first time he had ever been under fire. ‘What is it Hendo?” McGilp snapped, “you know, I’m busy.”

The young man pointed at an alley-way a short distance away , where a figure in a shemagh was blasting away at them with an AK47. “There’s a guy over there keeps firing at us,” Henderson told him.

McGilp just looked at him. “Well, shoot him then,” he said, and turned back to what he was doing. Henderson aimed at the man’s chest and squeezed off a burst of five or six bullets. He wasn’t sure whether he got him, but the firing stopped.

It was a little after 4am on 25 March 2003, a Tuesday, three days since they had crossed the Iraqi border, three long days of hard fighting.

The Black Watch had reached the bridges over the Shatt al Basra, overlooking Iraq’s second city, but the fedayeen militia and Baathists in the small town of Az Zubayr on the south western approach to Iraq’s second city were refusing to lie down.

A few hours earlier, the militia had killed their first Black Watch soldier, Lance Corporal Barry Stephen, in an ambush on the edge of the town. By then, two other soldiers from the battle group were already missing.

Sapper Luke Allsopp, 24, and Simon Cullingworth, 36, a staff sergeant, had been out clearing mines on the Sunday morning, the day after they crossed over from Kuwait, when their Land Rover ran into the ambush.

Sgt Scott Shaw, 28, had picked up the message on his radio of his Warrior, the workhorse of the armoured infantry. There were seven soldiers in the back, a driver and the commander and his gunner in the turret with its 30mm cannon and 7.62mm chain gun.

The message said the engineers had been ambushed: D company was to go to their assistance.

They spotted the Land Rover ablaze up ahead, and three of the Warriors slewed to a halt, disgorging the soldiers. Shaw and his men took up position on the left, McGill’s platoon on the right. From the rooftops of nearby buildings the fedayeen opened up.

While Shaw’s men gave covering fire, a corporal from McGill’s platoon fought his way across the open ground to where the twisted wreckage still burned. It was their first time under fire. The engineers’ Land Rover had no armour; now it was nothing more than a mass of twisted metal.

“You could see the RPG rockets coming towards you,” Shaw said. “I’m at the back and you could see them exploding above the boys’ heads because they’re firing them from a good range and they self-detonate after so long.”

But of the engineers there was no sign. They pulled back and awaited fresh orders. Around the town the word went out: the engineers had to be found. Az Zubayr may have been a hotbed of resistance, but there were many in the town who had no love for Saddam and his men. Information began to filter back, sightings and suggestions about who might have been behind the attack. One name came up again and again. By Monday afternoon, they thought they knew who they were after.

It was Major Douggie Hay, D Company commander, who received the orders to go after him. Hay gathered his commanders together and told them to prepare for a raid.

The plan was simple. They would get up early and catch the Iraqis off guard. B Company would launch a diversionary attack on the other side of town, while D company charged in and grabbed the man they were after; 15 Platoon would carry out the snatch, the others would cover their backs and make sure they were not outflanked.

They got into their vehicles, and as darkness fell, they headed off to an area a little way from the town to rehearse.

McGilp, 33, from Dunedin in New Zealand, put 13 Platoon through their paces for the task of manning the outer perimeter during the raid.

“Everyone is nervous and there is an amount of trepidation but you just have to think that you are on the winning team,” he said. “If you are going to go out there with the mentality ‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die’ then you probably are going to die.”

Now, as the grey light of dawn crept through the alleyways of AZ and the town began to stir, the Warriors thundered down the streets towards a small square. In the back of his Warrior, Private John Mitchell, 20, a member of 15 Platoon, was contemplating his first taste of action. “They told us we were going to see if we could get the engineers. We get in the back of the Warriors and we are driving down the road. It’s noisy and hot in there, the vibrations go everywhere, up your feet and your knees and everything. ”

In his Warrior, Lieutenant Alex Reading, 25, was wondering what he had let himself in for. He had only joined up with the battle group a couple of hours before the raid was due to go in.

“I got in with a bunch of soldiers I had never met and we went into Az Zubayr. You can’t hear what is going on, you’re just thundering along and everybody is very quiet.”

Along the road they roared, Hay leading the way, the drivers of the vehicles behind him struggling to see through the half-light and the clouds of dust kicked up by the Warriors in front. In the back of his Warrior, lit by dull red bulbs, unable to see anything through the viewing hatch because of the dust, McGilp was talking to his company commander on the intercom, describing the scene.

Hay’s Warriors rounded a corner and entered a small square; 500 yards behind, McGilp’s vehicle slowed to a stop. The driver pressed a button and the hydraulics kicked in, pushing the rear door slowly outwards. Then all hell broke loose. “When that door opens I liken it to one of the scenes in Saving Private Ryan, when the landing craft door drops open, but instead of red tracer the Iraqis had green tracer,” said McGilp. “You could see all this and hear it pinging on the sides of the armoured vehicles and you just get out. This is war fighting, this is the real deal. It is you and them and you just have to deal with it.”

Up ahead, Shaw already had his door open. “As the back door of one of the wagons opened, one of their guys on the top of a roof was practically firing straight in the back of the wagon. We had to get out there and managed to drop him or keep his head down so everyone else could get out.”

And Douggie Hay’s Warrior just kept going, hurtling across the square, and ploughing into the wall of the target house.

Mitchell and the others darted through. In front of them stood the wooden door to the house, behind them the thin metal gates of the perimeter wall. Shaw stood back and planted his boot against the woodwork. “From previous experience the doors were flimsy and you could just kick them in,” he said. “This one was a nightmare, it just wouldn’t open and we were kicking and kicking and kicking and then one of their sentry positions across the way opened up.”

The Iraqi gunners could not see through the door, but they could see the helmets of the British soldiers behind it. They aimed at the metalwork, and let rip. “The front door was just in front of it and Sgt Shaw was trying to kick the door in and then these people started shooting through the door at him and hit him in the butt,” said Mitchell.

Shaw said he barely noticed the pain. “It was at that stage that we started break dancing as metal started flying everywhere and I got hit in the butt. It was just shrapnel because the door shredded. At the time it was just a question of ‘That’s sore’, but I just kept on going because there was no question of going back at that stage because there was no cover. The laddies outside started taking on the sentry positions and we concentrated on getting in.”

Then with one final kick, the door shattered, and they were in. On the outer cordon, McGilp and his men spilled out of their Warriors into a hail of bullets.

“They were giving it some, they had a lot of ammunition and I believe they were trying to mobilise because the vehicle behind me saw them all getting into a vehicle, a minibus or something; it was quite bizarre, all these armed men getting into a minibus and trying to come round and outflank us.”

The Warrior turret swung round, and that was the end of the minibus. But now they were taking fire on the flanks. To make matters worse, McGilp realised they were right next to a petrol station. One stray shot, and they were in big trouble.

“There was a lot more tracer coming at us than we gave them,” he said. “I remember the green tracer and I was just cursing myself for being so tall, because my head comes up above the Warrior, and we had camouflage nets on the Warriors and the bullets were zipping in amongst them and I was thinking ‘This is just unreal’. It was personal, they were shooting at me.”

That was when he felt the tugging on his sleeve. In an alleyway away to the right, a solitary gunman was blazing away at them, ducking back into cover before emerging again to fire off another burst. It was Henderson who spotted him.

“He was dressed in that shemagh with an AK and he kept on stepping out and that’s when I clocked him.”

McGilp told him to get on with it, so he did: “I pointed on to his chest. I just fired a burst, five or six rounds. I just shot him and there was no firing coming back. I just know he dropped. I just wanted to get it over and done with properly.”

Not far away, Lt Reading was receiving his own baptism of fire from gunmen crouched behind the low walls surrounding the top of the single-storey square buildings on either side of the junction he and his men had been told to hold. “At first all you could hear was shots going off and tracer going off and you come to the grim realisation that you are the focus of their attention,” he said.

Back at the target house, Shaw and the others had the door open. With them were two other SAS men, who identified the suspect. “He had baggy trousers on but no top,” Shaw recalled. “I wouldn’t say he came easily, he was resisting, but we grabbed him and restrained him the best way we could, plasti-cuffed his hands and put a sandbag over his head to disorientate him.” They bundled him into the back of Hay’s Warrior and got out of there.

“His wife and kids were screaming. She was not getting in our face, she was obviously not happy, and the kids were greeting,” said Shaw. “But we were like ‘Everything’s fine, we’ve got him, lets get out of here’.”

Outside the perimeter wall, the firing was showing no signs of easing off. Crouched against the side of the house, Mitchell waited for the Warriors to get them out. “We could hear the Warriors firing outside,” he said. “We were all lying against the wall because the Warriors had moved away a bit.”

Blood was pouring from Shaw’s leg where a piece of shrapnel had torn through the skin, but there was no time to worry about that. As the Warriors backed up, they leapt in.

“We ran to the back of the Warrior and got in and as the back door was closing, an RPG hit the right-hand side of the Warrior,” said Mitchell. “The door had just closed when it hit. It rocks the whole thing, you think it’s going to tip over. It thought we’d hit a lamp-post or something but when we got out, the back bin wasn’t there. I was just glad to get out of there.”

The whole raid had lasted half an hour at the most. The next day they tried another couple of houses, ripping them apart, but it was too late. The engineers were already dead.

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