A split second on a grainy YouTube video, shows a soldier from Y Company,1PWRR. You can see him crouched over but moving fast, run into shot over the roof and chuck an ammo can across the flat roof to where some of the lads are holding their section of the wall on top of CIMIC house.
He’s a Lance Corporal who’s doing his assigned role during a firefight, which is to manage the ammo states between the firing points and either a section commander or a sergeant who is managing the massive ammunition expenditure being unloaded at the Mahdi army, who over the course of 23 days, assaulted CIMIC house 86 times.
The men of Y Coy and the attached units including TA soldiers, expended 33000 rounds of rifle and machine gun ammo, plus numerous mortars, and other munitions. At no point did the Mahdi army get to within 30 metres of the compound walls, despite having 500+ fighters and throwing company sized attacks at the defenders.
The young lance jack would, 4 years later, be the platoon sergeant who I was introduced to as my enlisted boss for the next 9 months alongside the new lieutenant who was straight out of royal military academy Sandhurst and embarking on his first operational deployment along with most of us TA lads.
I’d joined the TA about 18 months before and at the time of going to Paderborn barracks in Germany, had probably had a combined total of about 3 months of actual out on the areas practice at being an infantry soldier, and wondered what I’d let myself in for when I encountered the company PTI on the very first parade as a company plus new attachments of 17 TA, sigs det and REME armourer and craftsman.
A pocket inspection is held, to ensure that the new troops are operating in the same way as the regular troops. Can you guess what happens next?
Empty your cargo pockets and hold the contents out for inspection and remedial criticism once inspected. The PTI moves down the 3 lines, talking very softly but very directly, in a soft South. African accent. He should be seeing a waterproofed notebook and a writing implement at the very least. As he slides closer, the line of men picked out with that soft, direct voice grows off to one side and the voice moves to where I can hear him discussing the faults of the present victim.
“What the fuck is this hmmmm?” he holds the privates’ biro up in front of him and proceeds to tap it gently on his nose. “What the fuck are you going to do once it starts raining and the pen doesn’t work?”. The tone doesn’t change as he hands the pen back and says “Fuck off and join the others then” before coming to rest before me.
He looks at me briefly as I stare ahead at the company block and I mentally wince at the look of confusion and disappointment on this perfect, professional infanteers face, as he regards the 6’2” hobby soldier in front of him. My heart and stomach sink, because even though my boots are clean and polished, my uniform is neat, tidy and has the correct unit insignia sewn on, although we’d be exchanging them for dessies soon anyway, I knew that I’d be joining the growing line.
I had a pen in my pocket, and a waterproofed notebook. But no pencil to write in the rain. Fuck, cost of having fuck all experience and I remind myself that I volunteered twice to get here, once for the TA and then again to get my name on the next deployment list. My stomach drops away because it’s obvious what’s going to happen next, we’re going to be beasted for not holding the standard expected. Doesn’t matter whether it was fair or not, he didn’t know I was new at all this. He’s expecting a fully trained infantry individual replacement, not some dude who dresses up and plays army at weekends.
I double over to the others and wait until we have a full complement of demonstrators for what’s to come. The PTI stands in front of us and in a loud, clear voice, devoid of care but eyes flashing slightly with anger, he explains the rules of the game we’ll play for the next half an hour, whilst the rest of the company have fallen out and gone back to the block, to lie on their beds or stand at the many barracks windows, staring down at the stupid TA lads getting thrashed round the tarmac area between the two accommodation blocks.
To be fair to the PTI, who I got to work under later, he punished anyone he found lacking and didn’t give a fuck if you were TA or one of the blokes in his section. If you didn’t try to reach the standard he set, then you’d know about it really quick. He was a professional, disciplined soldier who’d already been tested in battle and only wanted the best out of his lads but would also go to the wall for blokes that he thought were worth it.
Half an hour later and having managed not to puke over my uniform or boots but joining others in puking into bins or flower beds, I limp into the separate accommodation block which seventeen of us TA soldiers are sharing, as there’s no room in the company’s block. We already feel like we’re not wanted, even though the battalion is desperate for bodies, and this physical separation from the guys that we’re meant to be serving alongside in Iraq, doesn’t feel great. We need to integrate as soon as possible and begin to build up the relationships and friendships with them before we’re patrolling the ground in Iraq.
I didn’t have a clue as to how tightly my section would end up working. Out of the ten men in 2 section, the section commander was a stupidly competent Fijian corporal who I came to see as one of the best men I’d ever met and had been on Telic 4 amongst the worst of the fighting. Our 2 i/c was a re-joining lance jack who was almost invariably smiling, had worked with TA lads before, also on Telic 4 so understood how to handle us and how to get the best out of us, and the other eight of us split between charlie and delta fire teams, were a half and half mix of TA and regs, with a couple of experienced toms who had previous N. Ireland experience, plus Kosovo and Telic 4 and a couple of recent recruits who were young, immature and needed bringing up to speed with the rest of us who were all older than the average age.
The average age of a rifleman in an infantry company, tends to be 18-22 with some older more experienced corporals and sergeants. Most of us were in our late 20’s with life experience. We had wives or fiancés, mortgages, and debts and if we were trusting our six to our immature LMG gunner, then we were going to put in the time to teach him whatever we could to make him an effective member of the fire team.
Lee was our fire team commander, an experienced reserve soldier who was ex regs and had been in Paderborn for a year, he was a long-distance lorry driver in real life and was earning more as a private than the company o/c was, thanks to the protections of a mobilised reserve soldiers civilian pay protection. Darvs was Lee’s almost ever-present companion but was in the other fire team, who had come with Lee a year before as mobilised attachments for another company who were deploying to Op Herrick in Afghan. They had done all the training with them but had gotten drunk and in the shit with that company’s hierarchy too many times.
That incident saw the two of them getting drunk and nicking two push bikes whilst out on the piss. They were caught, jailed overnight by the German police before being handed back to an apoplectic CSM and punished by having to deploy to Iraq instead of Afghan. This should give you a valuable insight into how an infantry soldier thinks huh, that not going to Afghan where the army was in some of the fiercest fighting and taking casualties on a regular basis, was seen as a step down.
A Dubs turned forty whilst on tour as I turned 28. He and I were oppos, had trained together, had similar views on life and what we were doing, and usually outran the younger lads even though he was of average height and nothing to him, but fuck he was fit. He and I spent months sharing duties and stag positions and I miss his quiet, sarcastic smile, as he proceeded to roast something that the final member of my fire team had vomited out of his mouth.
I’m gonna call that final member of my fire team G as he became an ok guy and improved his skills and attitude later, but at that time he was an entitled, whiny, 18-year-old little prick who was incredibly immature. He was also our teams’ LMG gunner, so we were quite literally trusting our lives to him if we ever got into contact and needed him to suppress enemy fire in order for the rest of us to manoeuvre and kill the enemy. We worked on him, shouted at him, beat him round his helmet with his LMG where necessary, but eventually he started clicking in and growing up, and became competent at what he should have been.
There are others who I could probably write a book about all on their own, and I’ll get to them in time. Next stop on the army’s training for deployment schedule was moving the company to a massive multinational training centre near the Czech Republic’s border, where there were live fire training areas for troops to practice their skills.
That’d be us as we moved into a period of about 17 days of a few hours’ sleep in every 24-hour period, and a fairly extensive ACQB facility, where we learned the basics of moving as a fire team through a kill house, which culminated in a company attack on a rubberised kill house building, where on the night, we’d be firing live rounds as a team, within close distances of each other. It was by far the most fun I’d had in the army up until that point, but we still pushed G toward the back of the stack. At times during ACQB, your mate’s rifle is lying on your shoulder next to a hand, as you prepare to move as the bleacher does his work.
Neither Lee nor I wanted to get swept by a light machine gun being lugged by G, so I went point man, Lee as grenadier behind me, A Dubs on breaching duties and then G bringing up the rear. Lee and the Fijian corporal were of one mind that it would be Lee and I entering, firing quick controlled double taps at hostile dummies in our assigned arcs, before sweeping through to a vulnerable point and waiting for the next team to roll past you in the Stygian darkness of the rubber house.
More tales from tour beat up will return, as we work our way towards deployment.
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