In the firing line – War Diary March 21-22, 2003

March 21:

It was 20 minutes before we were due to take off when the news came through: “Heelo’s gone down, weather conditions are not suitable – mission aborted.” I had been lying in silence in the dark desert for the past five hours, waves of excitement and fear rushing through my buzzing head. This was a shattering blow.

Within minutes, it was confirmed all 12 men on board the helicopter were dead – eight Marines and four American crew. Names were being whispered, friends thinking about whom they had lost.

42 Commando were being flown into Iraq by US marine pilots in ageing American helicopters. Anti-Yank feeling was now palpable.

Several Marines said US pilots were not trained to fly in the dark. The fact they pulled out of the mission and the RAF had to take over made things worse.

The men trudged back to the outskirts of camp, made mugs of tea and played cards to take their minds off what had happened.

Everyone was tired, tempers and nerves were frayed. We were told to get some sleep – we would take off at first light.

For 48 of the longest minutes of my life, the helicopter tore through the sky towards Iraq.

The body armour wrapped around my ribs was getting tighter, sweat was dripping off the rim of my helmet.

Everything reached a screaming crescendo – the helicopter landed and we took a first slippery step into the bog-like land of southern Iraq. Suddenly, silence. And, after the sand of Kuwait, the shock of traipsing through sticky, thick mud.

Some arguing started – we had been dropped in the wrong spot and were a kilometre further behind enemy lines than we should have been. We were probably the most advanced troops in Iraq.

The men marched along a road and were soon engaged in a firefight. Ten Iraqi soldiers were occupying three artillery positions. All hell broke loose.

The Marines sent in four Milan wire-guided missiles, along with heavy machine-gun fire. Shells boomed from the Iraqi positions, landing with soft crumps miles in the distance. Back the other way came the guns from Bubiyan Island – a battery of weapons set offshore.

Then the helicopters were called in – two US gunships – to rain down more fire. They hit an ammunition dump and the sky was filled with explosions.

That night, our first in Iraq, was one of the hardest. As photographer Jon Mills and I put together our reports and pictures to file to the Western Daily Press, we had to split from the main body of troops.

Despite their lack of firepower, the Iraqis were thought to be more advanced than the Allies in so-called “electronic warfare”. We were told that when we turned on our satellite telephone to wire copy and photos back home, the enemy could pick up the signal and have a missile heading our way within three seconds.

Journalists were, therefore, asked to move at least half-a-kilometre away from troops when they wanted to file – and everything had to be checked first by a media operations representative.

On this first night, we crept through 500 yards of boggy terrain, each inch of the way dreading the prospect of a hidden landmine. We stumbled through the dark for 25 minutes then came to an abrupt halt. “Enemy to the north, get your head down, keep quiet”.

Jon sat there with the laptop computer in the pitch black, covered in a blanket to hide the light of the screen, swearing under his breath as the satellite phone failed to find a signal.

I crouched beside him, fear eating away at my nerves. Unbeknown to Jon, I could see the shadows of men in the distance moving towards us.

Were they friend or foe? Would they know who we were – or shoot first and ask questions later? I looked at our armed escort, my heart beating loud enough he could hear it, and whispered: “Are those Iraqis or our boys?” He turned around, a sweaty, worried look written across his face, and said: “Who?”

I despaired. It was not worth waiting to find out. We hurried back to the shallow trenches being dug out by the troops to sleep in that night. Two hours later, I squinted at my watch. There was still time – we had to give filing one more go. I woke up Jon and we set off again into the dark. Surely to go through what we had that day and, with such a story to tell, we deserved some luck. But it was not to be, the phone still failed. Seeing the action in Iraq was one thing – getting words back to the newspaper office in Bristol was quite another.


March 22:

I woke up to an image I shall never forget. I was crouched in a mud trench and beside me a piece of rusty barbed wire jagged out the side of a lump of thick, clinging mud.

I could hear an army radio crackling and the crump of mortars in the background. I could smell the waxy, chemical aroma of a block of hexamine burning away on someone’s cooker. And I felt bad.

I was cold, dirty and ragged. I was hungry but sick at the same time. I could not muster the energy to find some matches, light a cooker, boil some water and make breakfast. So instead, I chewed on a biscuit which tasted like baked sand and considered a tin of chicken pate, best before 1991.

Then, with a queasy grimace, I stood up. All I could see was more mud, a 360-degree vista of dirty brown nothingness, chunks of metal and old shells.

The highest point on the horizon was 7ft, it looked like the surface of the moon and a scene from the Somme, all rolled into one.

Meanwhile, my mind turned to more morose thoughts.

This bizarre, uninspiring land had been fought over for centuries. A few feet beneath me in the shell-scarred turf lay the bones of hundreds of dead.

Hours before, we had flown into Iraq over the charred remains of a helicopter crash, the first Royal Marines to be killed, the first Allied casualties of war.

They were people who I had eaten with the day before, whispered names I could put faces to.

Today, I was to see my first Iraqi casualties, two men whose bodies were slumped forward in a hole, blood stained down their dusty trench wall.

Cigarette packets, spare ammunition and a few pieces of dry, curled-up orange peel were scattered in the debris. Flies were everywhere. I looked closer and realised the men had been decapitated by the force of a shell.

Then I saw their damp little hovel, a tiny tin-roofed shack with just enough room for a small rusty bed and a table, covered with pieces of stale bread.

There was a poster of Cameron Diaz on the wall. Below it was a family picture. Four men wore green jumpers, thick moustaches and heavy frowns. I saw their faces but would never know their names.

That night, I dug myself another trench and shivered myself to sleep, hands clasped between my legs for warmth, until I dared to reach into the cold to grab a chemical suit I could wrap around my body.

I thought about how incredible the night sky was, thick with beautiful, smiling stars that I was forced to stare at it.

I thought about my mum, worrying, back in Herefordshire. I thought about my late father, who fought from 1939-45 and never spoke one word about it afterwards.

And I thought about my great-grandad, who was there on the first day of the Somme when 20,000 men died. This did not compare.

It felt, in fact, quite surreal. I was in Iraq, in a war zone and had seen the frailty of life when a C-130 US Gunship fired dozens of booming shells at a shallow Iraqi trench.

I also saw the reality of war when 12 brilliant men had flown into the night, never to be seen again.

But it still felt unreal. I looked at the Marines and admired how they carried on with the same humour, the same resolve to succeed in fighting the enemy, the same “got a job to do” mentality.

And I realised that, in the face of war, of extraordinary political, cultural and military complexities, I understood only very little of what I observed.

I could not make sense of it all and, in my own mind, I could not always judge what was right and what was wrong. So I just wrote what I saw.