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Men of Valor: Part III

Major Steve Webb fought through those 15 hours two days before.  Webb became one of the most respected leaders in the battalion. Each time one of his men described Webb, they said things like, “He’s a very courageous man,”“Major Webb is inspiring.” High praise in such company. or,

One of the controversies I intended to explore on my second embed with the British is the claim that EFPs are flowing into Iraq from Iran, just miles down the road. Iran’s support for international terrorist groups is well established; and here in Iraq, Iran is believed to have intimate contacts with terrorist groups providing them with “lethal aid.”  EFPs fall within that category, because they can destroy any vehicle in Iraq, including America’s and Britain’s best tanks. Warriors are fine vehicles [although they do need real air conditioners for Iraq] but an EFP can slice through the Warrior’s armor like bullets through beer cans. Webb became known for personally inflicting heavy casualties among the enemy, but today it was his Warrior about to rumble over an EFP.

Webb was just out of the Basra Palace gate when his B (Rorke’s Drift) Company was heavily ambushed. The ambush was more like a series of ambushes, stretching on for about 2.5 miles. Webb’s mission was to secure every foot of that route for the unarmored resupply convoy. WhoooshhhBAMMM, an RPG flew nearby over his head, and Webb pointed his Warrior directly into the heaviest fighting. As he and his men fired back at the ambush, WhoooshhhBAMMM, another RPG ripped toward them.

The enemy had cracked the code. However they learned, wherever the technology originated from [much more to say on this topic later in this series], the enemy was now emplacing EFPs to hit the most vulnerable parts of the Warrior.  This EFP was dead-on. The molten copper slug blasted perfectly through the Warrior’s weakest area, shattering fragments from the Warrior’s own armor into the crew compartment. Colour Sergeant Mark Hughes was alive. The lenses of his goggles had blown out, although the frames were still strapped to his head. The deafened soldiers checked each other. Though Hughes’ gear was singed and the insides of his legs were slightly burned, he was otherwise okay.

Shrapnel heading nearly straight for Major Webb missed him by about 8 inches, slamming into the batteries and wiping them out, filling the interior with acrid smoke. The explosions caused pounds of moon-dust to poof up like an opaque thundercloud inside and outside the vehicle. The dust alone is worse than the darkest night because a light won’t work in the dust.

Stunned and blinded by the dust, Webb’s turret power was out, and he had no comms. Somehow he could hear the Warrior motor running and could feel that the vehicle was still driving. This could be good (as in driving the Warrior out of the kill zone), or bad (as in the driver is dead, but somehow the vehicle is still rumbling around). With comms down, Webb could not contact the driver, Pte Smith, to find out. In the darkness Webb cocked his rifle and climbed blindly to the top of the vehicle, and then down to Smith’s hatch. Soldiers in other vehicles could see bullets raining down on Webb’s wounded Warrior, as he crouched down—if he fell forward he’d be flattened like a pancake under the tracks—and yelled at Smith who, luckily enough, was wounded but still alive.

The EFP had missed Pte David Smith by inches, but Smith had serious burns to his backside and leg wounds.  Somehow he managed to press on. While bullets hailed down on the vehicle, Webb clung to part of the armor and stayed with Smith, guiding him forward. Smith, still sitting on burned flesh in the driver’s seat, in that searing engine heat under heavy body armor, never told Major Webb how badly he had been burned. Major Webb needed a radio to continue leading the fight, so when another Warrior pulled alongside, he leapt to it, took command and continued to attack into the ambush, simultaneously organizing Smith’s evacuation and the stricken Warrior’s recovery. After two and a half hours of fighting, Webb managed to push and pull the convoy through the city. Webb’s Warrior had saved his soldiers, but its fuel had leaked out through ruptured tanks and it had to be towed.

The “Welsh Warriors” and the Scottish “Black Watch” attached to 4 Rifles served for three months of hard combat and gained the respect of 4 Rifles. Out on the Iranian border, where soldiers told me these stories, a reserved Webb would only give a few details. He politely answered every question, but it was his men who fleshed out more of the events. I had the honor of going on several missions with Webb, but luckily there was no drama.

Smith spent several months in the UK recuperating from his burns before returning to the war. Like the mechanics Burn and Miller, his courage under fire was unsung. As for recognition at home, the British soldiers say that it rarely happens, but they did tell me about one lady who gives them great moral support. They say she writes a handwritten letter to every wounded soldier in 4 Rifles. She writes a handwritten letter to every family of a soldier who is lost. She writes letters to the battalion often.

She is a wealthy woman who sends hundred-dollar bottles of scotch to wounded soldiers in 4 Rifles, and she will even present their medals on 14 December 2007 in the U.K. Who is this lady? She is Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall, wife to the Prince of Wales, the future King of England, and she supports 4 Rifles as their Royal Colonel. One soldier expressed the sentiment of many when he told me, “she’s so busy, yet finds time to handwrite all those letters to our wounded and families.” Another soldier told me that she even invited the families to her home.

[Basra.]  4 Rifles kept fighting. Every day. Night and day, every day. Casualties mounted by the dozen, although many took the media’s lack of interest to mean that the British were not fighting in Basra.

Despite the prevailing notion that media silence somehow meant silenced guns, the most pitched battle since the 2003 invasion was about to unfold on 25 May, as British and Iraqi forces closed on and killed the top JAM commander in Basra. Apparently Jaysh-al-Mehdi was upset about this, so they rounded up a posse and descended on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center (PJCC). The small British contingent of 24 soldiers under the command of 2Lt Lane waiting there knew if they lost the upcoming battle, they could count on being tortured and cut into pieces, as happens here sometimes.

[Photo from Baghdad.] A betting man might put his chips on JAM. JAM had 10:1 odds, the hometown advantage and recent combat experience. As recent as perhaps a couple of hours earlier.

JAM held some significant advantages: approximately 10:1 numerical superiority, home turf and recent combat experience. The British troops’ primary advantage was that they could fight from a defense, but they had no intelligence of what was to come; JAM had never before attacked the PJCC.  Granted, that is a big advantage for this kind of battle, but not big enough to overcome a point spread like that. Another British advantage was training and discipline. JAM members clearly had lost their minds when their commander got killed. They were a swarm of angry wasps, attacking without an organized or rehearsed plan. The Brits, meanwhile, would be executing a planned defense.

The Brits only had so much ammo, and with thousands of JAM bullets soon to arrive, even pot luck could take a toll. Unfortunately the Brits can’t just call up Apaches the way our guys do, so the Brits have to rely on better optics, more accurate weapons and the training and discipline to make each bullet count. But no one can ever say in advance of meeting the enemy whether that will be enough to prevail or even to survive.

The PJCC was very small and remote and not easily reinforced, and relief, as the past few days had proved, could be easily hampered by a series of ambushes and IEDs. 2Lt Lane had 24 men and that’s all he could count on for hours. His platoon had been in the country 4 days, and Lane had less command experience than a lot of 19-year-old soldiers: hardly the ideal time to see if his training was any good. But the Brits would actually have to know how to fight. Otherwise, there was little doubt they would all die.

JAM moved in under darkness to catch the British unawares. The attack kicked off at 2140 (or 9:40 pm). Six mortar rounds exploded, followed immediately by intense small-arms fire directed at the 4 flimsy guard towers, or “sangers” as the Brits call them. 2Lt Lane gathered up his men; some still in gym clothes and sandals pulling on their body armor and heading for combat. Tracers streaked over their heads from AKs and heavy machine guns. Bullets were coming from 360 degrees and about 20 locations, ripping into the sangers and pinning down soldiers. JAM fire was accurate. If they could take out one guard tower they could move forward, and fast. Their fire was already effective enough to keep British heads down, allowing JAM to move closer.

[Basra.] There was almost no defense up there; coming to the roof was like walking into an open field. The enemy could shoot down onto the roof from 5 different overlooking positions.

The most important thing a new lieutenant can do at a time like this is listen to his more experienced team sergeant, who (of course) would be shot that night, because that is how things seemed to be falling. JAM had the initiative and was keeping Lane’s men down as they maneuvered in. This was a moment when leadership, or failure thereof, could tip the scales decisively. Lane needed to get his guys going or this thing would soon be over and the first news alert the world would glean might be a scroll on the bottom of CNN:

Attack in Basra: 15 British soldiers killed, 9 missing. Search underway.

Rifleman Heeley and Rifleman Nunn, two of the soldiers in gym clothes, didn’t waste time joining battle, pulling on gear as they headed to the roof with 2Lt Lane. With bullets ripping across the roof, Heeley and Nunn crawled to different positions and began firing back. Under fire, Heeley, at only 21, turned out to be a natural combat leader. Wasting no time encouraging or yelling at other soldiers, Heeley took charge and throughout the 4.5 hour battle never once left the roof. He was one of only two soldiers to have fought the entire battle from that position.

Nunn, who had also come to the roof, turned out to be an animal, destroying at least 7 enemy positions. With all the lead flying it was a miracle he was not hit. Two hours into the fight, just as it was getting interesting, his beginner’s luck gave out when suddenly a bullet ripped through another soldier’s hand and smashed into Nunn’s thigh. Although Nunn wanted to stay he followed orders to get off the roof, down to the medic and get bandaged up. But a little later, 2Lt Lane spotted Nunn back on the roof, and ordered him to get back to the aid station; his leg wasn’t even properly dressed. Nunn disappeared off the roof, but in the dark he snuck back up to a position from which Lane couldn’t see him.

The guns were jamming because they had burned through the lubricant, so for 45 minutes Nunn brought around supplies of cooking oil, ammunition and water. Realizing Nunn was slightly out of his control, and though he knew his soldier would be better off sitting still, Lane finally relented and let Nunn continue fighting from a sanger.

Bullets and tracers ripped by Lane as he ran from sanger to sanger, moving his men into position and setting the tone of the fight. They fired back at an enemy that was probing and moving in. RPGs exploded, mortars rained down and the fighting stretched across one hour, then two, then three as the enemy probed for openings and Lane moved his men around to counter positions.

After four and a half relentless hours, supply-line logistics perched vulture-like over the PJCC. The British were running out of ammunition, having fired over 12,500 rounds, and the 200-plus JAM force appeared to be grouping for a decisive assault just as an American Predator and several British Tornados came on station and began attacking. That swung the odds sharply and suddenly in the opposite direction, and JAM finally stopped trying to swallow the porcupine. Incredibly, as the sun began to rise on the 5th day that Lane’s platoon of 24 hardy soldiers had been in Iraq, they had suffered only three wounded while holding off a ferocious fighting force nearly ten times their number with a much shorter supply line in what had been the largest attack on the British since 2003.

But the party was just getting started. Attacks on the PJCC continued nearly every day for a month. On 22 June, JAM made another effort to overrun the outpost with a well-planned and executed attack initiated with 2 RPGs at the main entrance, followed immediately by firing into the 4 sangers from roughly 15 different positions. Nearly from the start, the enemy breached the perimeter.

LCpl Gregory recalled that at about midnight, the sanger he was in took fire from three AKs. The rounds were accurate and snapped by. Two of the soldiers ducked, and Gregory told them to return fire but the bullets were so close they refused to get up. So he grabbed the machine gun and fired about 200 rounds before the gun stopped. He handed the weapon down for a soldier to clear it, and ran downstairs for another machine gun, which also stopped after about 150 rounds. By now there was so much dust it was hard to see. He handed off that second machine gun, grabbed a third which also had a stoppage, and then began firing his rifle, which also stopped, but by then the first machine gun had been cleared so he fired with that until it stopped. At some point one of the AKs dropped off or perhaps the shooter was hit.

Night after night firefights like this occurred at the PJCC, while over at Basra Palace the rockets and mortars never seemed to stop. Out on the streets was a running ambush, and at night the soldiers ran targeted strike ops. Although it seemed to many of the soldiers that no one on the home front knew how hard and well they were fighting, back in England, apart from families and friends, one woman—the Duchess of Cornwall—was paying close attention to the daily struggle to restore security and order to Basra, and making sure the men who shouldered this task knew it. Only one who has been in close combat can know the relief that emanates from someone watching their back.


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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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