To interpret events in al Basra, context is critical. When we invited the British to join us in this war in 2003, the U.S., with the bulk of troops and assets, was the senior partner. In essence, we were the driver of a bus filled with several dozen partners: Poland, Australia, Japan, Georgia, Korea, Albania and so on. Although several key countries had opted to stay home, no nation stepped up to the task like Great Britain, taking responsibility for southern Iraq. But they could not have not planned for the seemingly precipitous and arbitrary decisions made by the mostly American bus drivers in Washington and Baghdad, who took many turns without consulting an accurate map. Egos and strained competencies only magnified and compounded errors. Nobody paid more for these mistakes than Iraqis and Americans, but the Brits and others have also paid tolls for their seats.
Counterinsurgency experts cautioned Coalition members from the outset that military forces would have a limited shelf-life. There can be a finite expiration period during which popular perceptions shift, and liberators become viewed as occupiers, and eventually as malignant beings that must be expurgated. While the American shelf-life in some regions was measured in weeks and months, tolerance for the British was measured in years. But when American stewards made early and notable missteps that extended the war, the British outlived their welcome in the southern provinces.
“We don’t do nation-building,” I remember hearing someone say. But by systematically and in relatively short order demolishing Iraq’s government infrastructure, firing its staff en masse, disbanding its army, our combined militaries in Iraq could only accomplish the mission by rebuilding the country from scratch. While we were making these mistakes and getting ourselves into a serious shooting war around Baghdad and in northern Iraq, some of our British partners made public statements questioning the wisdom of our actions. That the Brits were mostly right was beside the point; their words chafed. Basra was mostly quiet, which was widely taken as evidence of British knowhow, despite how the highly nuanced demographic and historical context could support other plausible interpretations.
By 2007, when the U.S. military had made a rapid metamorphosis and was meeting the insurgency head-on, despite that the transformation was stunning in both speed and outcome, it came too late for the British, whose expiration date in Basra had passed. Increasing tensions in Basra between rival political factions were beginning to undermine an otherwise successful mission in that region. With fewer forces on hand at a time when the British might have been planning final withdrawals, Basra’s many feuding factions galvanized hostilities around a central target: the British.
In truth, the British have kept faith with their pledge of partnership, and much more because by overstaying, they jeopardized men, women and mission in order to buy us time and keep the exits covered. America has no truer ally, always there, through bad and worse. Of course, almost none of this mattered to the men of 4 Rifles on May 21, who’d been out more than 13 hours in stifling heat.
As temperatures approached 70° C (around 150º F) inside the armored vehicles, soldiers poured water down their body armor. A driver was naked other than his body armor and helmet,while soldiers in the back literally pulled down their pants. This was more than a mere attempt to keep cool. They were trying not to die. Thick clouds of dust baked the putrid Basra odors until they could gag a goat; although by then the soldiers inside the Bulldogs and Warriors could offer serious competition in a stink contest. With their heavy body armor and helmets, laden with ammunition, rashes erupted on their skin and their goggles and ballistic glasses were filthy. The place is like a toilet used as an oven. The people on the septic streets were flushed with hostility.
British soldiers, exhausted of sleep and food, drained from the heat, were deliberately moving forward toward an enemy rested with the home advantages of elevation, time, thousands of eyes and tons of weapons. The enemy could wait in ambush from the comfort of shade, while sleeping in bed, or even watching television.
They had been fighting all night, with no KIAs. Now the Welsh Warriors and 4 Rifles were escorting a resupply convoy of about two dozen vehicles straight through the center of Basra. After more than 13 hot, exhausting hours of near-constant fighting against an enemy that was rested, it was time to begin the killing.
Ambient temperature was 46° C [about 115°F] outside the vehicles. There was intelligence that Jaysh-al-Mehdi (the Mehdi Army, or “JAM”) was waiting ahead. In fact, there apparently were about 100 enemy waiting to ambush. The convoy was just near the Martyr Sadr building when the enemy attacked with small arms and RPGs.
Cpl Brooks, a vehicle commander, was shot in the head and died on the spot. Others were wounded.
Some enemy concentrated fire on a fuel transport driven by a Pakistani contractor whose son worked on base in Basra. His body slumped and fell from the burning truck; orange flames and black smoke filling the sky. Many enemies here shamelessly exploit women and children as cover—which sometimes works and sometimes backfires. This time an armed crowd surged into the street, including what appeared to be women dressed in black, and dragged away the body of the Pakistani man. British soldiers tried to get to the Pakistani, but with all the combat, it was too late: the man disappeared and was never seen again.
PTE Brinkworth, a young soldier with Rorke’s Drift, 6 Platoon had been in Iraq only days but seemed instinctively to know what to do, without orders. Brinkworth knew the bridge would be key in the battle so he turned his Warrior toward it and drove ahead. Captain Moger, a Warrior platoon leader, also saw the importance. Over later months of fighting, Moger’s Welsh platoon would turn heads due to its extraordinary morale, and today’s performance would be cited as an example of well-trained soldiers in combat.
As the convoy attempted to cross the bridge, a low-rider carrying a Land Rover and Saxon broke down, blocking the bridge. Through luck and planning, the enemy had pinned the British, but private Brinkworth saw what they were doing. As he moved to the bridge, his Warrior got hit from about 15 directions. Most ambushes in Iraq are merely harassment; attempts to kill a few soldiers and destroy some gear and melt away. This was more than harassment.
This was a full-on attempt to shape, trap, and annihilate the British, who, over time, would be whittled down piece by piece unless the dynamic changed fast. Ammunition depletes rapidly in urban combat. With bullets snapping, popping off his armor and hitting the small shields of thick glass, Brinkworth stayed up in the hatch radioing information to his commander.
Brinkworth and Moger’s actions were key, but they were not alone. During the initial contact, with bullets popping and RPGs exploding, Cpl Daly jumped out of his Warrior and ran from vehicle to vehicle, searching for British casualties by jerking open their back doors. Like Brinkworth, nobody ordered Daly. He just did it. When Daly reached vehicle R13, he found that the vehicle commander had been shot in the head and was severely injured. Daly ran up the convoy and relayed the information to his company commander. It occurred to Daly that the young driver of R13 might need leadership after the shock of seeing his commander shot in the head, so Daly ran back, got into the Warrior, and commanded it himself, directing the driver over uncleared and unsecured routes out of the ambush.
But even with soldiers like Brinkworth and Daly, the British convoy was still in danger of being further damaged, or worse. After 2½ hours of combat, they were in danger of losing some men to the heat that now reached about 150° F inside the vehicles. So Brinkworth rushed the heat casualties to an Iraqi Army base and quickly returned to combat. Nearly a dozen British soldiers fell to the thermometer.
Three vehicles were still stuck on the bridge: the Land Rover, the Saxon, and the flatbed that carried them. If those trucks were abandoned, the Brits would lose the perception battle that would take place after the guns cooled. Media wins and losses in this war translate back to the battlefield just as readily as Sterling converts to dollars. There is a clear battlefield conversion from ink to blood to ink to blood. Even the younger British soldiers seemed to realize this, and they wanted to get those three vehicles off that bridge.
The infantry needed a mechanic, so they radioed to Basra Palace where LCpl Burn and LCpl Miller answered the call. Burn and Miller, both recovery mechanics (REME), headed to the fight in a completely unarmored recovery vehicle called a FODEN. Burn and Miller were escorted about 3 miles to the bridge where they found themselves in the middle of a ferocious, 3-dimensional gun battle. An estimated 75 enemy were coming at the British from about 15-20 positions, including a police station, rooftops, windows and alleys. RPGs were exploding off Warriors and Bulldogs which were firing everything they had, quickly running out of 30mm ammunition.
Capt Moger had moved his platoon into a perilous position. Nearly two dozen enemy positions engaged Capt Moger and his platoon in close contact from 360 degrees. Bullets struck Moger’s Warrior but to no effect. Even when the Warrior was blasted with six RPGs, nobody was hurt. The RPGs that would have wiped out a Humvee were not killing his men, but the heat was. Moger’s gunner collapsed into the vehicle; the men inside were vomiting. It’s not a far step from that to death, so he worked a quick plan to expedite getting those who needed medical assistance back to the Palace, while he and his remaining men kept fighting. Moger was not about to leave the REMEs uncovered. He stayed in the fight, hitting approximately 10 enemy with his own weapon before running low on ammo.
The noise was tremendous; smoke and dust obscured the battlefield. With infantry soldiers fighting and watching, what Burn and Miller did next was incredible.
The REMEs assessed the damage and started working, with bullets and RPGs splitting the air around them. They bled the brakes, with bullets striking close, some literally hitting just near their heads, or kicking by their feet. RPGs struck the Land Rover and Saxon just meters away while the men unhooked the trailer carrying them, and cut the chains. Those watching thought it a miracle that Burn was not hit. 5 RPGs hit the vehicles only meters away, but those mechanics kept at it, working 45 minutes while under direct fire, sometimes crossing 50 meters in the open to relay information.
Men like Burn and Miller who seem completely fearless can be unnerving to enemies. The enemy must have been going crazy trying to shoot them. After 45 minutes, the mechanics realized the trailer was lost. However, they wanted to save the Land Rover and Saxon which had been hit by RPGs. So Burn got into his unarmored FODEN and pulled the death trap around, following an armored Bulldog to a better position, when an IED exploded and killed the Bulldog. Brinkworth moved in with his Warrior to secure the Bulldog whose crew survived with two men injured.
A commander had to tell Burn and Miller that enough was enough; their unarmored FODEN recovery vehicle needed to be taken off the battlefield. So the REMEs were sent with escort back to Basra Palace. This was Burn’s first patrol/combat in Basra. He had been out there for about 2 hours, and in addition to untold small-arms fire, about 20 RPGs had been fired at the trucks on the bridge. But God smiled on Burn; it’s just too bad that nobody back in the U.K. or America would likely ever know what the British mechanics in Basra were made of.
Brinkworth, meanwhile, had volunteered to recover the Bulldog. Bullets continued to snap by when Brinkworth climbed out his hatch and jumped to the street to assess the damage. He could see the recovery would be difficult. The bomb had been well-made and it destroyed a track, making recovery difficult, especially so with all the bullets flying. The only thing standing between Brinkworth and a well-aimed bullet between the eyes were his fellow soldiers returning deadly accurate fire into known and suspected firing positions. Brinkworth somehow got two lines hooked up, and dragged the Bulldog back to the Palace.
Yet, all the bullets and bombs were less threatening than the heat. Major Bryant, commanding R Company 4 Rifles, had been fighting while coordinating the attempted recovery on the bridge. He relieved the platoon at the bridge which had evacuated seven soldiers melting down from the heat.
He parked his Bulldog in a dangerous spot while standing up in his turret to give hand and arm signals to CPT Moger across the canal. WHAM!!! Bryant’s Bulldog took three RPG hits, but he stayed high to fire his machine gun at the enemy. Although his company took one KIA and eight other casualties, Bryant was still fighting, but running out of ammunition. He’d been lucky so far, and wisely did not push that luck any further. He decided to destroy the damaged vehicles instead of almost certainly losing more soldiers by continuing the recovery efforts. Capt Moger used his last 30mm cannon shots to destroy the vehicles. He had no 30mm or machine gun ammo left.
[Please stand by for Part III]