By Richard Edwards on the Al Faw peninsula, Southern Iraq
A Royal Marines commander last night hit out at US forces after they deserted his men minutes into a joint mission to attack southern Iraq.
Lt Col Buster Howes, Commanding Officer of West-based 42 Commando, said the sudden US withdrawal could have put hundreds of lives in danger.
The unique US and British Marines operation planned to fly 1,000 Commandos behind enemy lines in more than 40 US helicopters – the largest airborne raid since Vietnam.
But in the first wave of attacks shortly before midnight on Thursday, disaster struck as one helicopter crashed and killed all 12 men on board.
US pilots immediately pulled out of the operation and said the landing site behind enemy lines was unsuitable.
It left hundreds of men from Taunton-based 40 Commando in Iraq without support as they came under fire for nine hours.
The men of Plymouth-based 42 Commando were forced to launch a risky daylight attack the next morning, when RAF pilots saved the day.
Lt Col Howes praised his men for overcoming the setbacks and said the mission was competed. But it nearly ended in disaster, he added.
He said: “I was incredibly disappointed with the reaction of the Americans. For unknown reasons, they declined to participate and almost threw the whole operation into jeopardy.
“Suddenly, eight months of planning had to be reconfigured in half an hour. It was only the brilliance of the RAF and the resilience and adaptability of my men that saved the mission.” 42 Commando is occupying a large area on the Al Faw peninsula, defending three key oilheads captured by another Commando group.
Together, they have taken 200 prisoners of war, suffered no British casualties and secured almost all Iraqi positions.
Lt Col Howes said: “We came up against greater resistance than some expected. But we were prepared for a fight and we got one. The boys did admirably.
“They are very well trained and have the tested Green Beret DNA within them.”
Marines were at the tip of the spear launching the war offensive and led Allied forces into Iraq on Thursday night.
Several hundred men from 40 Commando seized three key oilheads and bravely fought off attacks for more than nine hours.
A battery of guns set offshore rained 7,200 shells on 14 targeted areas, supported by fighter jets. Five booming rounds were fired every second for two hours.
But as the men of 42 Commando huddled in the choking dust of the Kuwaiti desert, news filtered back of a tragedy.
A helicopter carrying five senior Royal Marines, three attachments from the Army and a crew of four US Marines had crashed near the border between Kuwait and Iraq.
Passengers in a trailing helicopter said it may have been suffering technical problems and simply nose-dived into the desert. No-one survived.
The men on the ground started whispering names of the colleagues they may have lost as rumours abounded.
Many of them made mugs of tea – “wets”, as they call them – and played cards to take their minds off the disaster.
Meanwhile, as US pilots pulled out, the mission was postponed until the morning, when the RAF could be drafted in.
It was an uncomfortable, sleepless night in the open desert, the men having already lost five brilliant officers and knowing their friends were fighting unsupported in Iraq.
One of the soldiers killed in the crash was soon to become a father, another was expecting his third child.
A third of the victims had a brother waiting in the unit to join him in battle. He flew out later and fought in his memory.
Meanwhile, Americans based with the forces walked around the makeshift camp. They were downcast and apologetic.
One approached me to say sorry – he was a friend of one of the US crew.
Finally, at 6.30am on Friday, the wait was over. With the RAF drafted in, a tumultuous convoy of Chinooks and Pumas carried the men in seven waves through dusty grey skies.
The journey into the unknown took men over the Iraq border, past the site of the crash where now only wreckage lay.
The fact it was daytime and there was no cover from the anti-aircraft missiles the Iraqis were known to possess made for a tense trip.
Men sat facing each other, the air thick with the smell of adrenaline, sweat and fear.
The grating noise of screeching metal reached a crescendo, until finally, after an excruciating 48 minutes, everything came to a smooth, silent halt. Commandos emerged into the expanses of southern Iraq.
Lt Col Howes said: “It seemed like we had landed on the surface of the moon. Everything was so flat and open we felt an extreme sense of vulnerability.
“The area was rumoured to be mined, men had to march through mud and seize this incredibly desolate land.”
SEVERAL regiments of Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guards were deployed in the area and explosive fire fights raged on Friday as the sun set on Iraq.
In one exchange, four Milan wire-guided missiles, two American Cobra gunship helicopters and a barrage of shells rained down on enemy positions.
Ten Iraqi casualties were reported. Then, as dusk, came the extraordinary sight of men digging trenches.
The Commandos 13-stone rucksacks are stuffed full of hi-tech weaponry and ammunition but there is still, it seems, room for a spade and pickaxe.
They crafted shelters in the mud and prepared to repel enemy forces attempting to infiltrate the area. There they remained as darkness drew in.
In the morning, emerging from their sandbagged trenches, they surveyed the swampy surrounds, covered in barbed wire, ordnance and scrap metal.
This is one of the most fought-over pieces of land in the world, a constant battleground between Iraqis and Iranians, and the conflicts had taken their toll.
It is where Saddam Hussein used mustard gas against Iranian soldiers. Dozens of his own men were caught in the attack.
Within the next day the troops had firmly established and secured their position on the Al Faw peninsula. The first mission accomplished, they now await orders for further deployment.
© Western Daily Press