A large number of young Iraqi men and boys died after they ambushed a British Army patrol and the gloves came off. Many of the dead were disintegrated by rounds from 30mm cannon; some people have claimed that the state of the bodies means that they were tortured. Having spoken to people who were there, and to a large number of British soldiers over the years, I would be surprised if that were the case.
I suspect the lawyers will pocket a couple of hundred million, some Iraqi families will be compensated, and ‘lessons will be learned’.
Sgt Chris ‘Stick’ Broome won the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross – the award immediately below the Victoria Cross – in part for his actions that day. Here is his side of the story, as told to me in In Foreign Fields.
Danny Boy was a permanent VCP (vehicle checkpoint) we set up on a bend in the dual carriageway running south to MAK (Majar al Kabir), which was where the six Redcaps had been killed the previous June. The idea was to show the Iraqi Police how a proper VCP should be run, and what it could achieve. At that stage, their VCPs were a few bollards and sandbags, often set up at points where you’d have to ask yourself, ‘Why?’
MAK was a bit of a no-go area – it was hard getting Warriors and Challengers in, so we’d only go there if we had to. Risk-versus-reward. On May 14, one of our patrols was contacted on the outskirts and it started a bit of an uprising in the area. Down in Abu Naji, we were quite unaware of it. We were getting mortared – nothing unusual there. The mosques were singing away – again, nothing unusual there, though it turned out that the message coming out was, ‘This is an uprising, kill them!’
I was part of the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) that day, and when it all started I was told to go to a place called Red One, a bridge I’d been to loads of times, to put in a VCP. So me and Joe Tagica paired up [in Warrior armoured vehicles] and went down there, got to the bridge and just sat there, looking for anything coming in or out that day.
All of a sudden, Major Griffiths came down in a shitty old Land Rover with some of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He was quite shaken up, and his vehicle was so full of bullet holes it was like something out of a cartoon – how no-one had been hit I don’t know. He pulled up, showed me his map and gave me QBO (Quick Battle Orders). There was a platoon somewhere south of Danny Boy, under Lieutenant Passmore, the Ops officer, which had been pinned down by 70 or 80 militants. Maj Griffiths had been with them, and had managed to drive out of the ambush, but the guys were still in heavy contact. The plan was that Joe and I would get down to Danny Boy and hold there while we tried to establish their exact location, and another two Warriors – Sergeants Dave ‘Peter’ Perfect and John Green – would chase me down. We’d extract casualties and give fire support.
We could hear on the net that the platoon on the ground had taken casualties and as we got to Danny Boy, we were ourselves ambushed from the right hand side. Pete and John Green just carried on through, and that was the last we saw of them – they got involved in their own personal battles, and finally met up with the call sign on the ground about half an hour later before assisting in their extraction in some very heavy fighting of their own.
Joe and I stopped, reversed up and started dealing with the ambush. There were 60 or 70 of them and they had picked at outstanding spot – they were firing at us from the other side of a roadside embankment and a deep, V-shaped drainage ditch, and all we could see was the tops of their heads and the RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) coming down at us.
Within a matter of minutes, my vehicle caught fire with the weight of RPGs we got hit with. Then the engine started stalling. Pte ‘JC’ Fowler, the gunner, was engaging, and all the time I’m thinking, What have they got? When Johnson Beharry’s wagon had been hit in one of the actions which led to his VC, it was by something like our Milan anti-tank weapon. It had gone straight through the centre of his Warrior and caused a big hole and a lot of damage, and all I could think was, This is ideal country for Milan. We were close to stationary, on open ground… if they’d done it to Beharry’s Warrior in a town centre, then, exposed like we were, it didn’t bear thinking about.
It became clear that we were going to have to get the guys out of the back and get them into and across the drainage ditch so they could close with the enemy. I spoke to Corporal Brian Wood and said, ‘Mate, you need to get your dismounts out… I’ll do what I can from here but the wagon’s damaged and you’re pretty much on your own. Fix bayonets, get out and go right, push in to the ditch for cover. Good luck, mate.’
Without a second’s hesitation, he and his lads got going. Brian won the Military Cross for his actions on this day, and it was very well-deserved.
By this time, another Warrior had come in, I think that was Lt Plenge, and the sergeant major was on the net to me, saying, ‘You’ve got a company plus a Challenger en route.’
Brian Wood met up with another set of dismounts led by Cpl Mark ‘Billy’ Byles, and they led their blokes, with bayonets fixed, up the embankment and then down into the drainage ditch. Very brave – they were assaulting a numerically superior enemy in well-prepared positions. I lost sight of them, and then they reappeared at the top of the ditch and started engaging the enemy, with JC using our 30mm cannon to help as best he could.
Just then, my driver, Pte Taylor, said, ‘I’ve got complete power now.’ The engine was working again. And, all credit to him, he said, ‘I reckon I can get across that ditch.’
The angle really didn’t warrant a Warrior crossing, but I said, ‘OK, but don’t get us bogged in or roll us.’ Because then we’d really have been sitting ducks.
Before I knew it, he’d put his foot down and driven the Warrior up the bank. We tipped down into the ditch at a crazy angle, hit the bottom of the ditch and just flew back upwards and out over the top of the bank. He smashed the front of the Warrior, he came down so hard, but we were now on the same side as the Iraqis.
They were using big chest-high wadis [channels in the ground cut out by the heavy rain] as trenches. Brian Wood and Billy Byles got the guys to the right of our Warrior and we started going through the enemy positions, using us as fire support, suppressing them, then taking their positions. It was what we’d always practised for.
By the time we got to the first wadi, I couldn’t depress the Rarden barrel any lower to engage them, so I reversed slightly to get a better angle, but by then Brian and Billy were in there. I couldn’t see what was going on, and for a while no-one reappeared, which was concerning. Plus they were taking a lot of incoming.
Broome realised that the limited number of soldiers on the ground were struggling. His citation says: “He dismounted and, without a personal weapon for his own protection, moved around the battlefield under heavy, accurate enemy fire to take control of the situation. His courageous action and leadership under fire ensured that there was no loss of momentum and undoubtedly prevented friendly casualties.”
I jumped out of the Warrior and ran over to the ditch myself. I found the lads were fine, they’d killed three enemy and taken four prisoners, who were face down in the dirt but not tied up at this point, and were already starting to suppress other positions. I took control of what was going on on the ground, and left my driver and JC to crack on.
I looked around the trench; there was just an armoury of weaponry there. I swear that every man had about two AKs, and there were around six RPGs, too. There were warheads and ammunition everywhere, and water and food. Very well prepared. There were also some very dead people. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone dead – the same with the rest of my guys. The surviving Iraqis – they were only young lads – were very scared, but then so was I. My heart was beating so hard I had to undo my CBA (Combat Body Armour).
I had a bottle of water on my belt kit, and the first thing I tried to do was offer the prisoners a bit of water. Yes, they’d been trying to kill us a few moments before, but I think I wanted to reassure them that we weren’t just going to top them, that we play by the rules. I said, a mix of pidgin Arabic and English and gestures, ‘This is water… I need a bit, yes? You need a bit, yes?’
One took a sip, the others didn’t, they were just in shock. They cannot have expected us to assault their positions so quickly and effectively.
I said, ‘I need to blindfold you, yes? I need to tie your hands behind your back. You need to stay here with me.’
And we cuffed and blindfolded them, using their clothing to cover their eyes, and then separated them from the dead, turning them away while I searched the bodies.
It was all still incredibly loud, you had to shout at someone only a foot or so away. We’re still under fire and, behind us, our lads and the Warrior are firing into other positions. There’s a lot of shouting and screaming, and people talking on the net… ‘You need to push along this ditch this way… You need to cover over there… You need to get fire support on this position…’ It was quite unnerving, because there were a lot of rounds flying around and you didn’t know what was outgoing and what was incoming.
The way I’m saying this, it sounds like it was all really quick and confused. It wasn’t. It was actually all very slow and methodical. Everything seemed to slow right down, it was just how we had rehearsed it so often.
All of a sudden, the driver shouted out, ‘The company battle group is on its way down.’ I picked up an AK47, crawled along the ditch and rolled up and over the big drainage ditch and made my way down to the main road so I could cover the enemy with the AK while Maj Coote and Sgt Maj Falconer pulled in with the rest of the company.
Maj Coote got his Warrior up on the embankment – he was exposed, but it gave him a good overview – and started getting involved, and I led Dave Falconer back to the position I’d just come from. We unloaded the weapons as best we could, and he rechecked the three dead bodies. The Chally had turned up, as promised, and I saw him let off a HESH (High Explosive Squash Head) round. Somewhere in the distance, a Toyota van with an anti-aircraft gun on the back just disappeared in an explosion.
We then started to move into the enemy’s second and third positions. This was where Brian Wood and Dave Falconer won their MCs. They were outnumbered, but they engaged both positions by themselves, with me and ‘Spud’ Tatawaqa – a big, strong Fijian private, one of many lads I felt privileged to serve with – in pursuit. The Iraqis were hidden in little bends in these channels, and they kept jumping out with their rifles and every time Brian and Dave would put them down. Then another bunch of guys would stand up and the same thing would happen. And gradually, we got the upper hand and it all started to quieten down, until there was just sporadic fire.
We’d been in contact for about four hours and it was getting towards dusk now.
We started a withdrawal. Maj Coote told us to break clean and start to peel back to Abu Naji. We took our four prisoners back to the sergeant major’s Warrior, and then a message came over the net that they wanted the enemy dead brought back, too. The thinking was that they could have been involved in the Redcap murders, and we might be able to identify them, whether from DNA or their faces where possible, back at camp. I think there had been a bit of confusion – I think HQ thought there were only a couple of them. In fact, there were nine just from my position, a couple from another position and about 20 from where Peter Perfect was.
Dave Falconer said. ‘Chris, the bodies need to go in the back of your Warrior.’
This is where it starts to get a bit messy. Me and my team started collecting the dead and loading them into the wagon, as dignified as we could. Still with the odd shot from distance incoming.
It was quite hard, physically. The expression ‘dead weight’ came to me more than once. I wasn’t too keen on picking them up by their hands. I didn’t want to make skin-to-skin contact, I had little cuts and grazes all over me and they were covered in blood and I didn’t want contamination… there’s a lot of hepatitis and other conditions out there. So we’d try to grab their clothes, but some of them were not small, and because their clothing was loose they would just fall out of their clothes… It wasn’t nice work. A couple of them, we had to roll them in ponchos and pick them up that way. They had been hit by my 30mm chain gun and when you get hit by those rounds there’s not a lot left. One poor guy only had half a face, one eye hanging down over his cheek… he’d been clipped with a 30mm. Another was completely shredded. We were picking up body parts.
I’ve heard suggestions that lads laugh about things like this. If I can reassure anyone, no-one laughed or joked about the mess that we made. It was quite horrible, not a laughing matter at all. No-one wanted to kill people, and no-one was happy about it afterwards.
Eventually, we got all the nine dead in the back of my Warrior and returned to base, with my dismounts obviously travelling in other wagons. We pulled up and tried to open the back, but it was jammed. Somehow, one of the corpses inside had shifted and was preventing the doors from opening. It became clear that someone was going to have to go in through the turret and open it from inside. If you think about that for a moment – it’s scorching hot, we’ve got bodies and bits of bodies, which have been in the heat for several hours now. Imagine the smell inside the vehicle. Plus, it’s pitch black, and whoever goes in there is going to be clambering and slipping around over the dead.
Pte Taylor, my driver, volunteered for the job. I think he felt he’d not really got involved, being in the Warrior all the time, but that was wrong, he’d done a brilliant job that day. But anyway, in he went. He was in there for longer than anyone would have wanted, and he finally got the door open a bit, not the whole way, and squeezed out. And unsurprisingly he completely freaked out and just ran off into the distance.
We got the door open; it was a hellish, horrible scene in there. We got the bodies out, all covered in blood and matter ourselves, and they were taken away to see about this ID.
And we stood there, all covered in blood and stuff, soaked through, sweating, filthy, feeling like vomiting. We had to get our kit straight off and burn it, and then all take long, long showers. And then we went for blood tests for hepatitis. They all came back negative, but there was a long period of worrying about it, when I, certainly, got slightly paranoid.
It had been a massive day. It wasn’t just our little area…further south, there were people involved in their own contacts. For example, Billy Byles had gone off to join another fire team…he was also awarded the MC, as was Peter Perfect, which gives you some idea of the scale and ferocity of the fighting.
The whole of Al Majar Al Kabir had basically come to stand its ground.
They outnumbered us, but our weapons, training and tactics saw us through. They didn’t expect us to push through that open ground so quickly. But it’s just what we do in training, in Canada, Poland, Salisbury Plain. There was a lot of chat flying around, saying we’d carried out the first bayonet charge since the Falklands. It’s all very nice, but it wasn’t a bayonet assault. We had bayonets on the rifles because we just do in that situation. You get out of the back of the Warrior in a dismount, you don’t know what’s there, you only know from what someone is telling you in the turret via the net… there might be someone within bayonet range, so you have it on there.
Although undoubtedly a very brave man, Chris Broome later suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
I had no idea about Iraq before I went. My wife Lynsey had a baby daughter on April 6, and I flew out to Iraq on the ninth. I didn’t event want to hang around with them, because I thought I’d be straight back anyway. I thought it was going to be like Kosovo or Ireland… it isn’t that bad, there’s a big lump of soldiers, so they start looking for guys to send home. Who wants to go on a course? Right, we’ll send you home. Whose wife has just had a baby? Me. Right, send you home. I was entitled to paternity leave, and I thought I’d get there and they’d say, ‘Things are alright, not much going on apart from the sun-tanning,’ and I’d be back to UK in a week or two. I’d even packed some weights and some muscle powders and was looking forward to working on my tan.
And all of a sudden, this has all gone off.
I’d gone through 17 years of my Army career at that point and never even cocked a rifle in anger. I’d just done courses. But everyone looked at me and called me ‘Uncle Stick’. I was one of the father figures in the team, and they all relied on me. And when it went lively and noisy, they really did look at me then. And I thought, Blimey, these guys think that just because I’ve done 17 years’ service, I’ve got experience. Which I hadn’t. I’d been on nine tours of Northern Ireland, and never been shot at once. It was hard holding it together. You do it because you have to, you’ve got to be there for your blokes, but then you think, When am I going to get time for myself?
There were quite a few times when I would wander off somewhere, have a little cry, a little grizzle, and think, What was all that about? Then you have to go back and be there for your blokes. You put on a front. Like, ‘I know Johnson’s lost the top of his head and it’s really bad, but we’ve still got a long way to go on this tour.’ I’d play down how I felt.
By the time I got home, a new baby waiting for me… and I didn’t like loud bangs, I didn’t like my daughter’s crying, there were just loads of things I couldn’t tolerate. I couldn’t stand Lynsey twittering on about crap. ‘Look what I’ve seen in the Littlewoods catalogue, aren’t those curtains nice.’
I was like, ‘Curtains?’
Or she’d say she’d had it hard, with the new baby. I’d say, ‘You had six months in England with a kid, that is fuck all really, compared with what we’ve been through.’
I knew I was being selfish – she’s the one who should have been given a medal, for putting up with me and my negative attitude – but I couldn’t help myself. I’d have to get out of the house, and I’d disappear for a week. The only person I felt safe with was myself. You try and phone up your mates who were there with you, and they’re going through their own thought processes. Some of them were OK, and wanted to spend time with their wives and families, others wanted to talk.
I was never an emotional guy, but I dwelled on having killed people and I felt bad about it. Really bad. And you feel like you can’t talk about it. My wife is always saying, ‘You don’t talk to me.’ Well, I can’t explain it to you, because you probably won’t understand, and there are probably things I am going to mention that I don’t want you dwelling on, or lying in bed thinking, I’m married to a jellyhead, here. Do you want to sit and listen to how I piled nine bodies in the back of a Warrior?
Likewise, I can’t go to the pub and say, ‘Look at the tits on her… and, by the way, I killed a load of people in Iraq.’
You stand there with your civvie mates, or your dad, or your brother. And they’re like, ‘How was Iraq?’
You go, ‘It was alright. I was involved in contact, and took a fair bit of incoming, got someone in my sights and had to put them down.’
They go, ‘That’s good. Did you hear about David Beckham? And what about Rooney?’
You think, Hang on, I’m struggling here. You’ve asked me and I want to get it off my chest.
‘How’s that mate of yours, Lewy?’ [A close friend who was badly burned when a petrol bomb was dropped on him in an earlier incident.]
‘Well, not great.’
‘He’ll get better. Anyway, what about West Ham?’
And I’d think, You’ve just asked me how my mate is, he was on bloody fire. At least let me have the chance to finish what I was saying. I want you to understand about pain, about someone being on fire. They don’t understand, and they don’t want to know.
But then, at that time, even some of the British Army in Iraq didn’t understand. When I was a casualty in Basra, where the environment was pretty friendly, there were people in shorts and t-shirts having parties. They had a bar party with a Hawaiian theme. That was hard for me to see. I was like, ‘I’ve just come from Al Amarah. Have you any idea? We’re fighting for our lives down there. Food and water is an issue. Ask Justin Featherstone [a PWRR Major who won the MC for his part in the defence of Cimic House, a British Army outpost], we have to deliver it to him.’
You have to live with the consequences of what you did for the rest of your life. You have to ask yourself, With hindsight, could I have done anything differently? The answer is actually No, because we were ambushed and you have to fight your way out. But when you see the damage that our weapons systems can do to people, when you have to put the body parts into ponchos to bring them back, it does play on your mind.
The good thing is the Army now understands the possible effects, and I did see the doctors to talk things through, which was very helpful. And you look at blokes who fought in the Second World War, you look at what they did, where they took a lot of casualties, as well as inflicted them… and you think, How did they deal with it?
And how does it affect the Iraqis? I did feel sorry for them. Some of them are poorly educated. You put $50 in front of them and they grab a rifle and try and take you on without realising the fire power you have. The guys in the Danny Boy incident, they were just bewildered when we got to them. The four we arrested, they all went to court and I think they got five years each. Two of them were farmers. I think the youngest was only 17.
Broome’s PTSD later manifested itself in angry outbursts.
I got back and was posted to Winchester as a trainer. It was a case of the Army being good to me and thinking I needed a bit of time and space, and to be nearer my family while the rest of the battalion went to Germany… an easy posting, really. But it made things worse because I wasn’t with my own guys. No-one there believed what had gone on during Telic 4. Nowadays, everyone knows it’s like that all the time. If someone came into the mess now and started to talk about what he’d done in Afghanistan, you’d believe him but, back then, people thought I was exaggerating. They were like, ‘Yeah… I’ve been to Iraq, mate.’ And they had, but they’d been to Basra before it all kicked off and although the papers back home were doing a good job telling people what was going on, it still hadn’t become common knowledge, even in the Army. I felt like I was in the minority, trying to convince the majority. I was like, ‘I’ll make you believe me, get your kit on, let’s get down to Al Majar al Kabir and let’s see how hard you are. See it for yourself.’ I wished they could have seen what I’d seen. I got into a few fights about it, to be honest. I remember being dumped on my arse in a pub by some students one night.
The only time that anyone ever believed me, and stood up and took notice, was when I went to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Then they started phoning me up and saying, ‘Alright mate? Want to go out for a beer? Want to go out for a chat?’
‘Well, no, I don’t.’
I carried that attitude through to training. Lads would arrive late on parade, or with an empty water bottle. They’d say, ‘It’s only water.’ So I’d go off on one and start shouting, ‘Only water? What about if you’re mate’s on fire next to you? What if you’re on fire?’ I was too aggressive with them, but wanted to make sure they understood the importance of the drills. I didn’t want them coming home in body bags. I wanted them to understand that a rifle is only used for one thing, and it makes a mess. I didn’t care whether they wanted to be a dog handler or a medic, they would be a soldier first. In the end, I was court-martialled for hitting a recruit over the head with my pace stick. I shouldn’t have done it, it was totally wrong and I bitterly regret it.
The court martial found Broome guilty and fined him £1,000, but did not reduce him in rank. Colonel Matt Maer, OC 1PWRR, told the hearing, ‘This is a man who repeatedly, in the face of mortal danger, put his life before that of his soldiers. If I was to command Colour Sgt Broome again, I would consider it an honour.’
That was a big wake up call for me. I’d been having flashbacks and things and I needed help, basically. And I did get it and I’m fully fit, now. I went back out to Iraq on Telic 8, as the CO’s gunner. I remember the first time we drove past Danny Boy… it was quite emotional. But then, I’m a human being, and this sort of thing does change your life.
All the citation and the medal and everything is very nice, and I am grateful, but I’m no hero, I’m just an NCO who did the best he could in difficult circumstances, the same as anyone else would have. I did no more and no less than anyone else, it’s just that you have got a report there which is all about me, me, me. It is not about me, it’s about the blokes. There are too many of them to mention, but my hat goes off to all my team. They worked hard and gave 100% effort…there are guys who’ve since slipped back in to civvie street, and all they have is their memories of what they did and nothing to show for what they went through or stood for. They are the real heroes, to me. Getting on with it, under fire, with no questions. If they’re reading this, I’d like to say, Lads, be proud, you’re my heroes.
I’m proud of what the battalion achieved. We went through something and came out of the other end and we had a hard time. We’ll watch the TV one day, and there will be peace and there will be pictures of people shaking hands and drinking tea, as though nothing has ever happened. Shame we can’t we do that now. So the medal… I said to Lynsey, when I leave the Army eventually I’ll probably sell it and give the money to some needy organisation, maybe burns victims or something like that.