By Paul 'BOMMER' Grahame and Damien Lewis
On today's battlefield one soldier wields more power than any other – the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs – pronounced 'Jay-tack'). It is these highly-trained, specialist warriors who call in Allied air power – the Apache gunships, A10 tank-busters, F15s and Harrier jets – to target the enemy in the most intense and lethal combat situations. By the nature of their specialist role, these men are deployed where the need is greatest – meaning where the action is at its most fearsome and deadly. On numerous occasions in the war in Afghanistan, British and Allied forces have relied on the skill and bravery of the JTACs to enable them to win through in the heat of the danger zone.
Each JTAC controls some 500 million dollar's worth of air assets at any one time - an air armada that is capable of dropping more ordinance than an entire squadron of Lancaster bombers during World War Two. Like snipers, bomb-disposal experts and special forces, the JTACs are a small, specialist band of warriors. There are less than 200 of them in the entire British Army, and the majority are recruited from special forces and elite force recce units. The men of his small band of brothers pack an extremely powerful punch on the modern battlefield, as the enemy in Afghanistan were to learn to their cost.
Fire Strike Seven Nine tells the story of one of those JTACs, Sergeant Paul 'Bommer' Grahame, and his four-man Fire Support Team. His Company were the first British soldiers to seize and hold enemy territory in the heart of the Green Zone, in the notorious, four-month siege of Alpha Xray. Sergeant Grahame played a pivotal role in that siege, and related actions, notching up 203 confirmed enemy kills – or more than one per day – so proving himself to be the superlative Fire Strike-maker in Afghanistan.
'Bommer' Grahame was the JTAC embedded with B Company, 2 Mercian Battle Group, and his JTAC call sign in Afghanistan was Fire Strike Seven Nine. During the epic siege of Alpha Xray his seemingly supernatural prowess as a JTAC earned him an unsurpassed reputation, as he conjured the seemingly impossible from apparently hopeless situations. For his many fearless acts of heroism – operating behind enemy lines; being hunted and targeted by the enemy; being shot, blown-up, mortared and hit by rockets on numerous occasions - Bommer Grahame was decorated with a high valour medal (see citation at end of this proposal). Yet with typical Yorkshire understatement Sergeant Grahame maintains he was just doing his job in Afghanistan.
Alpha Xray was a mud-walled Afghan compound, which the British soldiers had turned into a heavily fortified position amongst thick vegetation deep in the Green Zone. It was placed at the very heart of enemy territory as a deliberate provocation, and to lure the enemy into battle. In that it succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations. The ferocious siege of Alpha Xray forms the heart of this story, along with the close quarters battles fought around Monkey One Echo, and PB Sanford, two further British bases positioned nearby. Together, they formed a triangular kill box, within which to find, fix and annihilate the enemy.
The most desperate battle became known as the 'Saving Private Graham' incident. In this Sergeant Grahame and his FST had pushed out a fighting patrol on foot and at night deep into bandit territory. They ended up being ambushed, surrounded and taking horrific casualties. Facing the prospect of being overrun by a far larger enemy force, no one was willing to be taken alive. Bommer Grahame was forced to call in repeated danger close air missions right on top of his own position. It was only by gambling on the 'bug splat' of those bombs – the spread of lethal shrapnel and blast caused by the trajectory of the bombing runs – that he prevented the patrol being decimated.
At the same time as calling in air power, Sergeant Grahame had to have his personal weapon at the ready at all times to defend against close attack. Several times during his deployment he found himself calling in desperate air missions, whilst at the same time engaging the enemy at close quarters with assault rifle and grenades. Sergeant Grahame's ability to cheat death during his six-month combat tour was unsurpassed, and added to his talismanic reputation. Repeatedly, the enemy targeted 'the soldier with the black aerial' – with bullets, mortars, rockets and bombs - knowing that he was the one who, more than any other, was killing their brother fighters.
By the time Bommer Grahame's deployment was over, he had directed more deadly air missions in one day's combat than his predecessor had managed during his entire six-month tour. Yet Bommer Grahame remained modest and self-effacing with the young 2 Mercian lads: 'I've done nowt special. I'm just doing me job. So get the tea on.' Sergeant Grahame's is a classic soldier's tale of 'zero-to-hero'. He'd failed at school, hit trouble in his teens, and almost blown his childhood dream of joining the army. It was his CO at the Light Dragoons who had saved him from prison and turned him into an elite JTAC warrior, yet Sergeant Grahame remained a squaddie at heart.
In Helmand he proved himself to be outspoken and unyielding with his commanding officers, and possessed of a fearless and maverick spirit when faced by a fanatical adversary. He had gone into battle with one aim: to kill the enemy and safeguard his fellow soldiers. He had done so with his characteristic hard, uncompromising, northeast-of-England salt-o'-the-earth attitude – an attitude that brooked no bullshit from anyone, regardless of rank. At the end of those months of combat he had earned the respect of his fellow soldiers to such a degree that upon his leaving, the young lads of 2 Mercian were all teared-up at losing him.
Fire Strike Seven Nine is the story of 180 days of combat - an unrelenting tale of extreme action and insane bravery, set amongst the madness of war. The story has repeated peaks of intense drama, as the battle rages between Alpha Xray, Monkey One Echo, and PB Sandford. For the first time, this book tells the story of the high-octane and high-tech world of the JTAC operatives – a group of elite warriors who operate largely in the shadows. Fire Strike Seven Nine provides a unique and timely insight into the way these warriors fight, the high-tech systems they utilise, and their murderous impact on the battlefield.
Media & Press
"Being a JTAC is the closest a soldier on the ground in the midst of battle can get to feeling like one of the Gods – unleashing pure hellfire, death and destruction with the mere spoken word." Duncan Falconer
"This is wall-to-wall combat at the cutting edge of modern warfare. In Afghanistan the British Army faces intense conflict at close quarters, and invariably the JTACs are called upon to carry out the most extraordinary of missions where the battle is at its fiercest. Many a soldier owe their life to their consummate skill and bravery, as this book so eloquently shows." Col Tim Collins, OBE
"Of the many unsung heroes from the battles of the Upper Gereshk Valley, Bommer Grahame rates as highly as any. He was an outstanding JTAC, unflappable in a punch up and it was a privelege to scrap alongside him and the lads of B Coy." Colonel Richard Westley, OBE MC
"The soldier who calls in air strikes on the battlefield can unleash hell or die trying. This is how it is done." Frederick Forsyth
"A gritty, adrenaline-fueled hellride of non-stop combat. Shows our forces at their finest in battles the likes of which the British Army hasn't experienced since the Korean War" Johnson Beharry, VC
"The muts nut ... the best book of the genre about Afghanistan." Combat And Survival Magazine
Chapter Twenty: Ambushed, Surrounded, Trapped
We moved off on foot into the bush. It was 0500, and all around us the terrain was lightening, as the sun clawed its way over the hidden horizon. We'd lost the cover of darkness.
The A10s got ripped by a pair of F15s, call-signs Dude One Three and Dude One Four. Allan was warning us that the airwaves were going wild. Enemy commanders were yelling at their men that we were 'coming in on foot'.
'Hold your positions!' they were ordering. 'Hold your positions! Do not attack yet!'
For 45 minutes we pushed onwards into alien territory, in tense silence and alert to the slightest movement around us. One patch of bush looked pretty much like any other, but we were acutely aware that none of us had been this far east before.
Butsy called a halt at a deserted compound, so we could take a breather and orientate ourselves. I grabbed my map and checked my GPS. We'd pushed east as far as Golf Bravo Nine Five, and our final objective was no more than 200 metres further on. I was dying for a smoke. I stuck a fag between my lips and sparked up.
A few feet away from me one of the 2 Mercian lads was busy re-bombing his mag. His fingers fumbled and he dropped a bullet. He bent to pick it up, and as he did so this flaming projectile came roaring through the window where he'd just been standing. It screamed over his back, tore across the space in front of me and slammed into the back wall.
The RPG warhead buried itself in the mud-brick structure, exploded and smashed the compound wall to smithereens. As the choking cloud of smoke and dust cleared, the 2 Mercian lad was left sitting by the window, completely unharmed. As for me, my fag was in the dirt at my feet still smoldering away, but other than that I was perfectly all right.
I picked it up with shaking hand and clamped it between my teeth.
'Fookin' hell,' I muttered. 'Dropped me tab.'
The 2 Merican lad shook his head and gestured at his ears. He was totally bloody deafened. But if he hadn't stooped to pick up that bullet, the RPG round would have torn his head off and exploded right in front of me. He knew it. I knew it. And the two of us were left staring at each other with eyes like bloody saucers.
We moved out and pressed onwards into the bush. A few minutes later a long burst of gunfire tore apart the tense silence. It was the rattle of an AK47, and it was answered an instant later by an SA80. Suddenly, there were RPG rounds smashing into the bush all around us, as all hell broke loose.
I dived for the cover of a ditch. Sticky, Throp, Chris and Jess landed next to me, as we tried to work out where the enemy were firing from.
Then, an all-stations call went out on the Company net: 'Man down! Arsenic Two Zero, man down!'
Arsenic Two Zero was the call-sign of 2 Platoon, on point. We'd been ambushed at close quarters and the boys up front were getting smashed. I felt that horrible, sikening feeling of knowing we had a man lying out there somewhere in the bush injured or dying.
'Get 2 Platoon's fucking grid!' I yelled at Sticky. I was having to scream to make myself heard over the battle noise.
'Dude One Three, Widow Seven Nine,' I radioed the F15. 'Sitrep: under assault. Contact is raging hot, and we have a man down. I need you visual with the lead elements of our patrol, so you can find the enemy fire positions. Standby for grid.'
'Roger. Standing by.'
I scrabbled around in the pocket of my combats and pulled out my battered map. It was 'fabloned' – coated in a plastic film – but still it had taken a real beating. I spread it out in the shadowed damp of the ditch. I tried to block out the battle noise and the red mist of anger, as I searched for our location.
There would be time for rage and fury later. We had a man down, and we had to get him out. I glanced at my wrist GPS, and traced the coordinates on the map. We'd pushed so far east we'd fallen off the right-hand edge of my regular map – 'OP AREA 1 Ed2'.
I grabbed a second map, and found us. We'd gone beyond Golf Bravo Nine Six, with Golf Bravo Nine Seven to our south. Our objective, Golf Bravo Nine Eight, was 100 metres to our front.
Sticky cupped his hands and yelled the grid of the lead platoon in my ear hole. '5-9-3-6-8-2-1-9! 59368219!'
'Dude One Three, Widow Seven Nine,' I screamed into my TACSAT. 'Patrol is strung out between Golf Bravo Nine Six and Gold Bravo Nine Eight. Most forward grid is: 59368219. Readback.'
The pilot confirmed the grid. He was having to yell to make himself heard to, amidst the heat of battle.
'Visual muzzle flashes all around your lead platoon,' the pilot reported. 'Enemy has your lead friendlies surrounded danger-close on three sides. They're maybe ten, twenty metres away from your guys.'
What the fuck! My mind was racing. We had our point platoon surrounded to the north, south and east, danger-close. Fuck danger-close – it was 10 metres away. There was no way on earth that I could use the air.
'OC! Chris!' I yelled. '2 Platoon is surrounded 10 metres on all sides but our own. I can't use the fucking air!'
For a second the three of us stared at each other, as the full implications of what I'd said sunk in. Then the OC was on the radio.
'Charlie Charlie One, all stations. Orders: full platoon assault to relieve 2 Platoon and extract casualty. Fix bayonets. Advance on my order.'
It was the only decision to have made. We'd do a fighting advance to reach 2 Platoon, and get the casualty out that way. All around me there was the sound of steel blades rasping on steel barrels, as the lads slotted their bayonets onto their weapons.
Nothing could ever bring home how desperate the fight had become but the order to 'fix bayonets'. When it came to hand-to-hand fighting at close quarters, the air was of no use at all. I gathered up my maps and shit and stuffed them into my pockets, then rammed the razor-sharp dagger of my own bayonet onto the barrel of my SA80.
'Charlie Charlie One, all stations: platoon assault go!'
Butsy gave the order and we surged out of the ditch. Chris took point as we pounded ahead in an adrenaline-fuelled charge, kicking through the dust and rocks ahead of us. As we surged, the section to our front put down a savage wall of fire onto the bush to either side.
We charged ahead for fifteen metres, went firm, and started blasting away, as we gave cover for the section behind to come rushing forwards. Up ahead the track hit a dense wall of trees strung with vines and thorns, and there it died. It was fucking carnage.
We piled into a 'rat-run', a stinking, shallow ditch full of God only knows what. We crawled along it on hands and knees, as the rounds tore across above. We hit a flooded section and we were up to our waists in thick, foul-smelling black water and shit.
We struggled ahead, staggering over submerged boulders and rotten posts in the shadowed half-light. For fifty metres we fought our way forwards, each step taking us closer to 2 Platoon and our casualty. And then we stumbled into a solid wall of fire.
Rounds shredded leaves and branches all around us, and RPGs exploded on top of our position. In an instant I hit the deck, but I hadn't done so voluntarily. I'd been slammed down like Mike Tyson had thrown his biggest ever punch at me. The impact had smashed me in the top of my back, hurling me onto my face.
I came to my knees spitting out mud and dirt. It felt like a bloody great big mule had kicked me in the shoulder. I couldn't figure out what the hell had happened. I wasn't dead and no limbs were missing, or not that I could feel. I groped around the top of my body armour at the back, but I didn't seem to be pissing out blood from anywhere.
I shook the confusion out of my head, raised my rifle and started cracking off rounds. No time to worry about it. We were in the fight of our lives. I'd landed in a shallow ravine, and a storm of bullets was slamming over the top of us. All around me the lads were hunkered down in cover, and trying to return fire.
There was a cry on the radio net: 'Man down! Man down! Arsenic Two Zero, two more injured! But still fighting!'
Oh shit! We were three men down now. We'd stumbled into the mother of all ambushes, and we were getting smashed. I felt a desperate, insistent tugging on my left arm, the one that was cradling the front-grip of my SA80. It was Allan, the terp, and he was yelling something at me. I guessed it was a vital bit of Intel.
'Mr. Bommer, we have to get out of here!' Allan screamed. 'The Taliban – they are everywhere! All around us! They will …'
'Shut the fuck up!' I yelled back. 'Get a bloody grip, Allan. Get a grip!'
His eyes were wide with fear. I didn't blame the poor sod. He was a civvie, not a soldier, and this is what us lunatics had led him into.
All of a sudden it went deathly quiet. One moment the enemy had been blatting away, the next they'd ceased firing. With nothing to aim at, our lads stopped shooting. The blue-grey smoke of RPG rounds and of burned cordite hung thickly in the air. We glanced at each other, wondering what the fuck was happening now.
A cry rang out from the bush just to the north. There was an answering cry from the south. These were enemy voices, and they were moving past on either side of us. They would know every ditch and tree-line here. As we blundered about like the proverbial bull in a china shop, so their fighters were slipping by unseen.
This was the moment when they went to outflank and surround us. At the same time they were getting beyond danger-close with the patrol, so we couldn't use the air.
'Dude call-signs, Widow Seven Nine: we have enemy all around us.' For some reason I was whispering. 'Tell me what you see.'
'Standby,' the pilots replied.
Then: 'Dude One Three: I'm visual with at least a dozen enemy moving in from the northeast of your position. More coming from compounds to your north – all armed.'
'Dude One Four: I'm visual with large numbers of pacs moving in through the tree-lines. Your forward platoon is totally surrounded. They're fucked.'
I felt like saying - thanks for that, you dumb Yank twat. But instead, I passed the F15 pilots the instructions that I never thought I'd hear myself saying as a JTAC.
'Dude call-signs, Widow Seven Nine,' I rasped. 'We're in a Broken Arrow situation. Repeat: I'm calling a Broken Arrow.'
'Affirm: you are Broken Arrow,' the pilot replied. 'Broken Arrow.'
By declaring a Broken Arrow, I'd torn up the rulebook. Broken Arrow means: friendly forces about to be overrun and killed or captured. It clears the fastjests to do whatever the JTAC asks, even if that includes dropping ordnance on their own men to prevent them getting captured.
'I've called a Broken Arrow!' I yelled to the OC. 'I'm bringing in a danger-close strafe - like right on fucking top of us.'
The OC gave me the nod. 'Get 'em out, Bommer. Whatever it takes, just get 'em out.'
We were deep in the shit and getting deeper by the second. We were hundreds of metres into the Green Zone, cut off from friendlies and surrounded. We had three injured lads, and we had no idea how serious they were. The OC had given me the word: whatever it took, we had to get our wounded men out of there.
'Dude One Three: this is the grid of our most forwards platoon: 59368219. Repeat: 59368219. That is the friendly grid. Readback.'
The pilot confirmed the grid.
'Attack instructions. I want a 20mm strafe to the north of grid, and I want it 25 metres from the friendlies. Attack run west-to-east. Confirm.'
The pilot confirmed the attack instructions. Calling for a 20mm strafe at 25 metres from friendlies, I was pretty much bringing it in on top of our lead platoon. But I didn't see that I had any options.
'Banking around now,' the pilot radioed.
The OC mouthed into his radio headset. 'Charlie Charlie One: all stations keep low. Jets coming in on strafing run.'
I heard Chris repeat the warning. At the same time the OC, Chris and Jase Peach were frantically working the radios, trying to get the IRT launched and a Chinook in the air to evacuate our wounded.
But at present we had no way of retrieving them, we were stranded deep in the Green Zone with no LZ, and we had a strafe coming in on top of us. It was all so fucked-up.
I rolled onto my back and searched in the sky to the west. The F15 would be coming in right over our heads – that's if he'd got his attack run right. Anything else, and we were fucking dead.
As I lay there, I thought momentarily of my wife and young Harry and Ella. God knows I'd miss them, but if I had to die anywhere, at any time, with anyone – then it would be here, in this fight, with these lads all around me. I'd rage and bleed and die for these blokes – every last one of them.
'Tipping in,' came the voice on my TACSAT.
As the pilot spoke, I saw the glinting sliver of a knife-sharp jet arrowing out of the west and into the rising sun. The F15 was coming in low and fast, and the pilot looked bang-on for the line of attack that I'd given him.
'Visual two pacs, crawling forwards on top of your lead platoon's ditch position,' the pilot told me. 'Call for clearance.'
'You're clear hot. Ground commander's initials are SB. Kill 'em!'
The F15 spat fire. 'Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrzzzzzzzzzt!'
It streaked right over us, the six-barrel cannon flaming, and threading the smoke from those muzzle flashes in a thick trail across the valley. In an instant it was past, the roar of the jet's massive afterburners frying the air, as the pilot put pedal to the metal climbing for altitude.
'BDA!' I yelled. 'BDA!'
'BDA: two dead,' the pilot replied. 'Your lead platoon …'
'Break! Break!' Dude One Four crashed in on the traffic. 'Widow Seven Nine: they're running at you in large numbers from the north-east around to south-west of your position. Widow Seven Nine, they're lookin' to fuck you up bad down there.'
'Well get the fuck in and start killing 'em,' I screamed at him. 'Get in and kill 'em, fast!'
'Roger. Attack instructions.'
At that moment, the predatory silence erupted. The bush sparked with muzzle flashes in every direction, as a savage barrage of concerted fire tore down on us, and RPGs flared in the shadows. I didn't need Allan yelling intercepts at me to know what was happening: the enemy commander had given the word for the final attack.
'Dude One Three, you have our friendly grid,' I screamed. 'No call-signs will move position. Map it out on your computers, get your cannons going and start fucking smashing 'em.'
'Roger. We're lining up for attack runs now, shooter-shooter. Standby.'
'Dude call-signs, you're cleared to attack. Just get your bastard guns going!'
The air above us was alive with the angry snarl of rounds. I felt a sharp tug, as one smashed into my donkey dick aerial, whining off into the undergrowth. If they took out the TACSAT, then we were well and truly buggered. I tried to burrow deeper into the shit and stench of the ditch. I was climbing inside my bloody helmet.
The roar and thump of battle was torn apart by a long and beautiful strafe.
A second came a few moments later, as Dude One Four followed after the lead F15's attack.
From the skies above the kill zone it was raining chunks of red hot shrapnel. One landed smack-bang in the middle of the map, and lay there, smoking. I shoved it aside, hardly noticed the burning in my fingers, as I yelled for a BDA.
'BDA: three killed,' the lead pilot confirmed. Result. We were starting to smash them back. 'Banking around now.' A beat. 'Engaging.'
The F15s came in again, shooter-shooter, smashing the bush to either side of us. An instant later a series of agonized, unearthly screams rent the air. Nothing on earth sounds like the cries of a wounded man, especially one torn apart by 20mm cannon fire.
I'd never had a hunger to hear that noise before. But now the enemy were taking casualties and those screams sounded so good. The Dude call signs came arrowing in on two further strafing runs, but the enemy fighters just didn't seem to care. They were blind to their casualties and closing in from all sides. The violence of the firefight was numbing.
Along with the lads all around me I was pumping rounds into the bush, aiming with my needle-sight at the flash of movement, or the burst of muzzle flame in the shadows. But as one went down, another took his place. How many of them were there? And how long would our ammo last? And for how long could we keep beating the fuckers off?
The chuntering of some big, nasty weapon joined in the death-fight now. Its deep, throaty thunk-thunk-thunk tore into our thin line of men, rounds smashing apart tree trunks and making mincemeat out of the branches above us. It sounded like a Dushka, and the noise of those 12.7mm bullets tearing apart our positions was horrible.
The Osprey body-armour we were issued with would stop most things, and maybe even a 12.7mm Dushka round. But in the process of doing so, the bullet would crush every organ in your body. So, you'd take four days to die, instead of snuffing it instantly.
'Tipping in.' Dude One Three's radio call dragged my mind back to the air-war. 'Commencing fourth strafing run,' A pause. 'Engaging.'
As the dense funnel of 20mm rounds thrummed through the air above, the second F15 pilot came up on the radio.
'Widow Seven Nine, Dude One Four: sir, this isn't working. They're charging your positions from the northeast, dozens and dozens of 'em. We need to switch to bombs, sir. If not, you're finished.'
God give me a few moments to fucking think.
The patrol was strung out some 200 metres from end to end. The enemy were right on top of us, danger-close in all directions. The danger-safe frag distance for a 500-pound bomb –the smallest an F15 carried – was 300 metres. Basically, we were fucked if they started dropping bombs. But it was either that, or get captured and killed.
An idea came to me. I'd learned about it in JTAC school, but it was rarely if ever used for real, in combat.
'I'm calling a bug-splat!' I yelled at Chris and the OC.
The two of them ceased firing for an instant, and stared at me, like: what the fuck's a bug splat?
By calling a bug-splat, I was gambling on the exact trajectory of the bombing run. I'd be dropping 500-pound bombs 25-metres from our lads, hoping the momentum of the drop would hurl the frag away from us and into the enemy.
'A bug splat? You're fucking cleared!' The OC yelled, without waiting for me to explain. 'Just get the jets in!'
'Due One Three: I'm calling a bug splat!' I pawed the dirt-spattered map in front of me, double and triple checking our positions. 'I want you to drop a GBU-38 25 metres to the northeast of our lead grid, coming in on a 045 degree line of attack. Confirm.'
The pilot repeated the instructions. 'Banking southeast to begin attack run. Standby.'
As the jet came around in a screaming turn, my heart was in my mouth. I knew if I had the grid one digit out, I'd kill a lot of our guys. Plus if I'd got my map reading wrong, or misjudged the line of attack, I might kill the enemy but smash the lads at the same time.
The OC's blind faith in me, his JTAC, was humbling. Yet right now, I didn't have a clue whether I was about to save us, or damn us all to hell.