Thin Red Line of Heroes
Unsung and underappreciated, the British Army deserves a country more worthy of its valor.
12:00 AM, Jun 6, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
Today marks the 65th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Too often Americans tend to think of it as the American invasion of Normandy--witness the accidental oversight regarding the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II (the only current head of state who actually served in the military during World War II) to the Franco-American commemoration ceremony by Presidents Obama and Sarkozy, not to mention the absence of the British from recent films and television series about the invasion, such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. Oh, of course, the Brits were featured in Cornelius Ryan's 1962 film The Longest Day, but the centerpiece of the film was the airborne assault on St. Mere Eglise, General Norman Cota clearing the way on Omaha Beach, and Teddy Roosevelt Jr. deciding to start the war from wherever they had landed on Utah Beach. As compared to that, Peter Lawford as Lord Lovat strolling into battle with his favorite shotgun and personal piper is almost a cameo appearance.
From all that, it is no surprise that most Americans do not know that there were more British soldiers than Americans on the beach that morning, and that all the Americans were under the command of a British general, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery. The Americans had two beaches, the British had three (Sword, Gold and Juno--the latter formally assigned to the Canadians, but with more than half of the troops actually British). The Americans used two airborne divisions, but the British used their 6th Airborne Division (the Red Devils) to secure the left flank of the Allied beachhead, including a daredevil coup de main against a bridge over the Caen Canal, as recounted in The Longest Day as well as Stephen Ambrose's Pegasus Bridge (after the badge of the British Parachute Regiment). It was all done rather matter-of-factly, with a minimum of fuss and bother, and as a result, it doesn't get nearly as much attention as the near catastrophe of Omaha Beach or the dog's lunch that was the U.S. airborne operation.
Something similar is happening today: the British role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is slowly being consigned to the memory hole. To listen to most American commentators on the wars, you would not even know the British are there. Indeed, we only hear about them when one is accidentally killed by U.S. fire, or when they are reducing their troop commitments (which makes it look like they are running away). Even conservative American commentators have had a somewhat condescending attitude towards the British forces, blaming them for the policies of the British government that, e.g., had them passively watch while Iranian Guards took a Zodiac full of British sailors hostage, or when it had them stand by while Shiite militias occupied their former base camp. But soldiers only follow the orders they are given by their civilian masters, and would we really want it any other way?
It is fortunate, therefore, that British veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are finally putting their stories down on paper, and that these books are beginning to make their way into the American market. Two recent releases document with perception, wit, and humanity the unique experiences of two extraordinary British soldiers, which should put to rest any idea that the British army is becoming effete or less capable than it has been since Marlborough's day.
The first is Sniper One by Sgt. Dan Mills (ret.), a 20-year professional who served in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland before deploying to southern Iraq with 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (1/PWRR), in April 2004. As the title suggests, Mills was a sniper--the platoon sergeant of the battalion's sniper platoon, in fact. The war on terror has spawned quite a cottage industry of sniper memoirs of late, mostly American (Mike Tucker's Ronin: A Marine Scout/Sniper Platoon in Iraq; Jack Coughlin's Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper; and Joe LeBleu's Long Rifle: A Sniper's Story in Iraq and Afghanistan). Snipers tend to be selected for their intelligence and initiative; their training makes them skillful observers of their environment; the nature of their mission gives them plenty of time for introspection, and this perhaps makes them more inclined to write down their observations after the fighting is over. In the war on terror, snipers have really come into their own, because of the need to collect intelligence on a covert enemy and to be absolutely, surgically precise in the application of lethal force. Man for man, snipers tend to be the most deadly and the most cost effective soldiers on the battlefield, killing more bad guys with fewer bullets than anyone else--and killing far fewer civilians in the process.
Mills and 1/PWRR arrived in the southern Iraqi city of Al Amarah, a hotbed of Muqtadr al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, in April 2004. Soon after arriving, with only the briefest of familiarization lectures, he is sent out on patrol with several other snipers in an armored Land Rover, which happens to drive right by the regional headquarters of the Mahdi Army. Before he knows it, his patrol is ambushed, the Land Rover is hit by an RPG, and one of his men is seriously wounded. Fighting desperately, he and his men take cover in a nearby building, call for help, and hunker down to await rescue by a Quick Reaction Force--which only barely gets there in time.
From there, he and his company are assigned to guard a compound known as Cimic House, home to a civilian Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT) that resents their presence and blames them for the hostile activities of the natives--like taking potshots at exposed personnel and dropping the occasional mortar bomb into the swimming pool. As the military situation in and around southern Iraq deteriorated through 2004, things got too hot for the PRT, which evacuated. But Mills and his company stayed on to maintain a presence and to keep a lid on the activities of the Mahdi Army. This involved constant patroling, the occasional snatch-and-grab operations, and very rarely (when the natives got too uppity), major punitive expeditions into the heart of the city to smack down the Mahdi Army. Without enough troops to garrison the city, without the ability to win the trust of the civilians or guarantee their safety, this was the best they could do. As expected, things went from bad to worse, and eventually Cimic House was totally cut off from other British units and besieged--for more than 23 days, the longest continuous action fought by any British unit since the Korean War.
The story of the seige is the framework for the book. Hunkered down under constant mortar and small arms fire, the British garrison has to put up with 120 temperatures, lack of water and sanitary facilities, increasingly bad food, constant boredom, and occasional terror. The Brits rise to the occasion with typical self-deprecating (and politically incorrect) good humor, and, when necessary, a stiff upper lip.
The company commander, tired of being unable to move about the compound because of unexploded mortar bombs, nonchalantly picks them up, carries them to the wall of the compound, and chucks them in the Tigris. Two of the company's computer specialists set up a fake account on an on-line dating service, invent a girl (complete with profile and voluptuous photo), and begin a cyber-relationship with another soldier in the unit, informing him of their deception only when the man is getting ready to go home on leave to meet the new love of his life.
Perhaps most telling for me was the story of PFC Johnson Beharry, driver of a Warrior infantry combat vehicle, which is hit by an RPG that seriously wounds him and several of the troops in the back. Despite his injuries and the damage to the vehicle, Beharry managed to keep the Warrior running long enough to get it and its occupants to the safety of a British base. For this action, Beharry was awarded the Victoria Cross, becoming the first living recipient of the medal in 36 years.
At various points the Shiite militias attempted to storm the compound, but always were driven back. Attempts to bring in supplies were occasions for desperate fighting. By the end of August, the Mahdi Army felt it had a real chance to overrun the British and take control of the entire city of Al Amarah, but this final, all-out attack was driven off by a combination of ferocious small arms fire and a timely assist from an AC-130 Spectre gunship. The attack broke the back of the insurgency in Amarah. The British were never driven out, remaining the legitimate authority in the city, allowing the brokering of a cease fire and the gradual pacification of the entire province.
To give an idea of the intensity of the fighting, during the 23-day seige, Cimic House was hit by 595 mortar rounds during 230 indvidual attacks; 57 RPG attacks, and 5 barrages by 107mm rockets. In addition, the company engaged in 25 separate firefights during sorties into the city (to collect intelligence and keep the enemy off guard) and repelled 86 different ground assaults on the compound itself. The defenders fired more than 33,000 rounds of rifle and machine gun ammunitions, in addition to shooting back with their own 51mm mortars. During this time, Mills and his sniper platoon were the key to the defense, accounting for some 40 percent of all the insurgents killed. It was a truly remarkable feat of arms, for which SGT Dan Mills was "Mentioned in Dispatches"; he deserved much more.
Yet few people know any of this. On the fronticepiece of the book, Mills quotes the battalion CO, LTC Matthew Maer, just before it returned to Britain:
The second book is Apache by Ed Macy. A 22-year veteran of the British Army Air Corps (AAC), Warrant Officer Macy was one of the first pilots trained to fly the AAC's latest and best attack helicopter, the Boeing/Agusta Westland WAH-64D Longbow Apache. Based on the U.S. Army's Apache Longbow, the British version is even more advanced, to the point that, for once, American pilots are envious. The downside is that its hellaciously expensive, so that the Brits can only afford to send them over to Afghanistan one squadron (12 helos) at a time.
Designed to fight hordes of Soviet tanks on the North German Plain, the Apache was something of an orphan in the war on terror, until British ground troops discovered that it could provide them with really, really close air support, with a variety of weapons from Hellfire missiles to 70mm unguided rockets to a 30mm Chain Gun cannon, all directed by some of the most powerful sensors and fire control systems ever put in the sky. Much of the weaponry is directed by a helmet-mounted sight, so that all the pilot or the weapon operator (Macy is one of the few aviators certified to fly in both seats of the Apache) can aim the weapons just by looking at the target and pulling the trigger. The WAH-64D also has fully digital communications, allowing aircraft to share sensor information from multiple sources, and to send text messages to each other. Ground-pounders came to look on the Apaches as their "Big Brothers" in the sky.
Macy and his compatriots operate out of an austere base carved out of the Afghan desert, and put up with the same combination of dust, heat, and boredom faced by Dan Mills--complicated by efforts to maintain one of the most complex aircraft in the world in an environment that is even more hostile to machinery than to human beings.
In the course of this, his second and final tour in Afghanistan (Macy was scheduled to retire, but was coaxed into going back just one more time, because there was such a shortage of trained Apache drivers--much to his wife's distress), he and his fellow aviators--including two women (as politically incorrect as any of the men)--do everything from scouting for Taliban to taking out terrorists setting up rocket launchrs in the dead of night from three kilometers away. Using the Apache's 240x Targeting and Designation System (TADS), Macy observes that the Apache pilot, like a sniper, is one of the few soldiers who gets to see his enemies up close and personal: "When he opens his mouth, you can count his fillings." This personal aspect of the war comes to haunt him, particularly after he uses his Apache's thermal imaging system to find a missing British SAS soldier: through the TADS, he can tell that the body has been stripped and mutilated by the Taliban. This sets the background for a later mission that is the climax of the book.
During a carefully planned campaign to break up Taliban command structures and drive them into a kill pocket in an uninhabited part of the country, a Royal Marine company attacks a walled Taliban stronghold known as Jugroom Fort. The attack goes badly awry, and the company is forced to retreat, but then realizes that one of its Marines is missing. Macy and his Apache flight (four helos) go searching for the missing man with their TADS. When the find him, they realize with horror that his body is glowing white hot against the cold ground--the man is still alive. The search mission becomes a rescue mission. Macy's unit prepares to give cover to the Marines when the company goes back to recover its man. But the company is in total disarray (its commander was later relieved for incompetence), and Macy is running out of fuel.
Unable to contact his base, he decides to rescue the man using the Apaches and a technique normally used to rescue aircrew from shot-down Apaches: he calls for volunteers and straps four Marines to the outside of his helicopter. Supported by the other two helicopters, Macy and his wingman will fly into Jugroom Fort--now held by a a large and very angry garrison armed with machine guns and RPGs--land next to the misssing Marine, strap him to the Apache, too, and then fly out. It sounds so simple!
Somehow or other, they actually do it--in the process, firing off more rockets, Hellfires and cannon rounds more quickly than on any mission in AAC history. Not a single man is injured, not one Apache is hit. The mission is a rousing success--except that the missing Marine is dead, hit in the head by a ricochet from somewhere after being wounded by friendly fire.
Returning to base, Macy and his companions are reamed out by the commander of the colonel commanding all AAC units in Afghanistan for a foolhardy stunt that could have cost the Army several $30 million helicopters--and all to recover a dead body! But the colonel soon realizes they did not know he was dead, that they were unable to contact him due to poor communications, and that they had no idea a rescue mission was being organized (even though it would have been much too late). From being on the verge of court martial, Macy and his friends find themselves being decorated--Macy with the Military Cross, others with the Distinguished Flying Cross. They deserved much more.
Macy receives his medal from the Queen herself, just prior to his retirement, in an episode Macy describes with pride and simple patriotism. Before that, he met with Prince Phillip, the Honorary Colonel of the AAC. Upon being introduced and telling the whole story, the prince could only grunt and mutter, "Are you all insane?" If they are, it's a glorious insanity, the kind that nations need when under attack.
Today, the British military is being subjected to draconian budget cuts, which will undoubtedly undermine its ability to execute the missions to which its government commits it. But the men and the tradition do not change, and the enemies of Britain are certain to agree with Napoleon, who once said, "The British infantry is the best in Europe. It is good there is so little of it."
When one looks at how the United Kingdom intends to pay for its fiscal mismanagement on the backs of the military, when one reads of fat, slovenly, self-satisfied British burgers and housewives complaining about the presence of injured British soldiers at public swimming pools, when you see wastral British youths denigrating returning veterans, one realizes that Britain is not worthy of the men she sends into battle. But it is just as Kipling wrote in his immortal Tommy Atkins:
Stuart Koehl is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.