Thursday, 17 December 2009

Sniper One

'Sniper One' at Amazon (link to the right!)

After the invasion of Iraq there was a huge role for the occupying forces to establish a stable government. The incompetence of Bush and his mates meant an ongoing war between many factions made this difficult. The British Armed forces were given the task, among others, of stabilising Al Amarah a town in the southern Shia area. This area, the cradle of civilisation with Ur of the Chaldea's and Uruk just two of the ancient cities going back five millennia or so. Al Amarah did not have that sort of heritage. 'Sniper One,' by Sergeant Dan Mills, tells the story of the 1st Battalion Princess of Wales Royal Regiments (PWRR) tour there in 2004. The story concentrates on the Sniper Platoon, giving an insight into their operation and importance to the army. Expecting this to be a quiet 'tree hugging' tour, escorting those involved in rebuilding the country, with patrols and happy smiles for the locals, the tour became one of the great British operations of recent years.

Al Amarah turned out to be a stinking Arab town. Stinking because of the breakdown of the sewerage system with no effort being made to repair it. The dusty roads, the great heat and opposition of many of the locals did not make the place welcoming. At this time also trouble was brewing in Najaf where the US were confronting Moqtada Al-Sadr, the most powerful Shia leader, in Najaf Old City where he took refuge with his followers in the Imam Ali Mosque. Imam Ali is the man from whom Shia Islam descends and when this most holy place to Shiites was damaged by US action Moqtada ensured Al Jazeera TV was on hand to advertise the assault to all the Middle East. The resulting tumult ensured all Shia, including those who had favoured the coalition forces, joined together in attacking them at any opportunity. US use of tact one of their less known abilities.

Al Amarah was also full of black shirted OMS men. Their chance to meet the local OMS men occurred on the first patrol, innocently stopping at a Police station to greet the police and discovering this was the OMS headquarters. It took several warrior trucks and aid from a passing company of Argyles to extract them, severely hurt, from the fight. There was not going to be much 'tree hugging' on this tour.

The battle group endured daily incoming fire of various degrees and as the Najaf standoff continued the OMS responded accordingly. An arrest by night of leading opponents brought much opposition, and that at a time a resupply column had to enter the town! During this confrontation several warrior vehicles came under severe fire. Private Johnson Beharry drove his badly damaged warrior through the fight and into safety, his head exposed to save his comrades. Much later he was to do similar again. On this occasion after the warrior had been hit by an RPG and injuring him severely, he continued to drive the vehicle, in reverse, until it took his comrades out of danger. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross!

After the US had damaged the Imam Ali Mosque and Al Jazeera TV covered the action Iraq took the side of Moqtada! This put the situation of the men in CIMIC under great duress. There followed a month long siege during which hundreds of mortars fell by day and night. Thousands of rounds were exchanged between the sides, and even an attempt at seizing the building had to be repulsed. One man thought it was like the 'Alamo,' it was more like 'Zulu!' No one informed him that those at the Alamo were wiped out!

The action in the book reaches a crescendo during the month long defence of the compound. The longest continuous action by the British army since the Korean war, and the lengthiest defence since WW2! The troops, and the book centres on the Sniper Platoon on the roof, endured the battle while the compound was devastated by mortar and raked by RPG and rifle fire. In spite of injury and lack of provisions they decided to hang on in there rather than evacuate. The belief was that they could win this conflict, and they had no intentions of losing control of the town, in spite of the siege.and they did!

When the troops were eventually relieved, after a peace agreement had been achieved by the leading Shia Imam, the accounts were totalled. The battle group had two dead and 48 seriously wounded. The opposition dead must have run into hundreds, possibly thousands! One Victoria Cross was awarded to the battle group, Two Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses, (one down from the VC.) There were many other medals including a 'Mention in Dispatches' for the leader of the Sniper platoon, 'Sniper One himself, Sergeant Dan Mills.

We are left with a better understanding of what the Iraq war meant to the troops, good information of how they fought and what the war meant to the ordinary soldier, and an unforgettable experience of 'being there with them.' Books such as this show the army for what it is and bring home to us the reality of war, both the heroics and the routine. It is wise to read this and understand better the experience of war that the media cannot bring us. The rights and wrongs of the war cannot be dealt with by such books, soldiers ask questions much later if at all. However what it means and how it affects men can be gleamed by this honest appraisal of the action.

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