By Damien Lewis
Deemed “the most advanced and significant weapons system to enter service with the British Army”, by the Ministry of Defence, the iconic Apache attack helicopter is unlike any other weapons platform in history. Designed to seek out its targets at low level, with all the refined senses of a top predator, this ferocious hunter-killer is one of the most costly weapons systems ever utilised by the armed forces. Enabling its pilots to get up close and personal with their targets, the Apache has heralded a new dawn in combat, as played out in the rugged terrains of Afghanistan.
Damien Lewis has been given unprecedented access to the Army Air Corps’ finest Apache pilots to tell their stories. Deployed to Afghanistan from May to September 2007, this elite band of warriors, operating under the call-sign Ugly, engaged in a relentless series of operations which stretched the aircraft, and themselves, to the very limit. In Apache Dawn Lewis takes the reader to the heart of an exhausting series of unrelenting combat missions, wherein the pilots pitted their grit and fortitude, and the aircraft’s unrivalled technology, against a cunning and astute enemy determined to shoot them down.
Including details of previously unreported missions, Lewis takes the reader to the core of the conflict. Apache Dawn gets under the skin and close to the hearts and minds of the airmen of flight Ugly, revealing what it is like to fly the Apache and to operate its awesome array of weaponry, exploring what drives the men involved to extremes of heroics and daring, and examining the emotional strain they face as a consequence of their actions.
Proceeds from the book are going to support HELP FOR HEROES.
Media & Press
‘Army aviation at its finest’
- General Sir Mike Jackson
‘Gripping and revealing’
- Patrick Bishop
‘High velocity writing at its very best’
- Peter James
'...a heart-stopping, rollercoaster read.'
- News of the World, Sunday 14th September 2008.
Chapter Thirteen: The Battle for Rahim Kalay
Slaving their surveillance pods to the coordinates provided by the Harrier, the Apaches thundered in to take a closer look, all weapons slaved to the target, and the 30mm cannons primed to fire on 20-round bursts.
Hugging the contours of the ground, the aircraft hid their presence until the very last moment. A kilometre out from the village, the pair of Apaches power-climbed to altitude. As they did so, their video cameras caught a figure out in the open. A male dressed in black robes and turban was moving across the compound’s main courtyard, towards the western wall - the vantage point that overlooked the British soldier’s route of advance into the village.
As the figure neared the wall he spotted the incoming Apaches. He gazed momentarily skywards, and the anger and consternation on his face was clearly visible. The enemy had thought the cursed ‘mosquitoes’ were gone – yet here they were back again!
The black-robed figure moved to the cover of the wall, from where he seemed to peer through it in the direction of the British troops. Many of the village’s mud-walled compounds looked like something from out of Arabian Knights. For centuries Afghanistan has been a country at war, and the ancient mud walled complexes had been built for defensive purposes. The walls were about the height of a man with spy-holes at regular intervals.
It was through one of these that the black-robed figure was now peering. Some five metres to the left of the lone figure something could be seen leaning against the wall: it was a straight, regular object wrapped in a thick blanket.
“Anywhere else in the world and this could have been ignored,” remarks Steve. “But you don’t ignore anything in Afghanistan. This was possibly a weapons bundle. We continued to watch the figure as we relayed everything we could see to the Widow call-sign … By now we were under increasing pressure to return to Bastion. We told Chief of Staff what we could see - that we thought we were observing an ambush site, and that the Widow was requesting us to stay on task. Ian gave us another 10 minutes.”
The Apache pilots would have to make their decisions quickly now. The black-robed figure moved along the wall, and as the airmen tracked him he joined up with two further males. Until now they had been hidden in a slough of shade. Beside them were similar oblong bundles wrapped in blankets. The two men were robed in white, giving this the appearance of a classic Taliban set-up: a black-robed commander, with his two white-robed minions.
The Apache pilots discussed what they could see. If the British troops advanced along the track into the village, they would be directly in the line of fire of these figures. There were only three visible, but how many more were hiding down there? The compound consisted of a dozen or more dome-roofed buildings, set amidst a complex of interconnected courtyards. A small army could be concealed down there. If the British troops took the southern branch of the track, so avoiding the compound, they would still have to pass by the white estate car – the suspect car bomb.
“It was obvious to us that this was an excellent ambush position,” remarks Steve. “If our troops had decided to go down this track they would have taken heavy casualties. If they had chosen the route to cross the river, they would have had to pass the car, which we now suspected was a bomb. This was a textbook ambush, and we believed that we had found some Tier One Taliban.”
Ugly Five Zero radioed Widow 79, giving a full description of what they could see, and asking for permission to open fire. As they waited for clearance to do so, a fat male emerged from a building, and joined the others. He glanced through the eye-hole in the wall, and turned to talk to the three men beside him, making hand signals in the direction of the British troops.
As they waited for clearance to fire, the aircrew talked amongst themselves. Perhaps ‘fatty’ was a double-glazing salesman, they joked. He had parked his car in haste as he was late for an appointment with a customer, hence it not being left in the shade. He was now checking the eyeholes in the wall, so that he could price up a set of bespoke windows. And they were haggling over the price he would charge for the job.
The humour was dark, but it was necessary. It was the only way to relieve the tension in the cockpits as they prepared to attack. Once again flight Ugly were poised to open fire on what could still conceivably be an unarmed group of men. Widow 79 gave the clearance to attack. Tim gave a quick battle order, deciding to fire warning shots: “just in case it was a double glazing survey,” the aircrew quipped.
From the chin turret of Ugly Five Zero the 30mm gun barked. A tongue of white flame shot out from the Apache’s cannon, as spent shell casings rained down onto the buildings below. There were a couple of seconds delay, and then the rounds tore into the hard-beaten surface of the dirt track some 75 metres in front of the western wall of the compound.
The figures inside didn’t so much as move a muscle. A second warning burst was fired, this time the rounds impacting barely 30 metres from the thick mud wall. Only one of the figures reacted: he turned away from the peep hole, put his arms behind his back as if he was on a leisurely stroll, and moved down the wall to the next spy hole.
“It was just so surreal,” remarks Steve. “It’s impossible to comprehend how they reacted, especially as they’d just had 30mm rounds land right nearby. I know what I’d have been doing it I was getting shot at like that …”
The whole scenario was eerily reminiscent of earlier engagements - when they had hit the enemy mortar crew in the well, and the figures on the river island beach. Then, as now, the enemy fighters had tried to ignore the pair of aircraft, as if by doing so they might cease to exist. The four airmen were now as certain as they could be that this was a well-prepared enemy ambush, and that these were the vanguard of a larger force that was linked to the mortar units.
Both aircraft opened fire on target, their sights set on narrow-field view to minimise the risk of missing. Two twenty-round bursts tore into the position, the 30mm shells exploding on and around the western wall, throwing up gouts of mud and shrapnel. Figures came running out of the dust storm, abandoning their blanket-bundles in their haste to get out of the killing ground. The aircrew tracked the runners with their weapons sights, as they crossed the 25 yards of open ground and linked up with another two figures.
The figures paused momentarily to brush the dust and debris from their robes, and as they did so the Apaches hit them again. Four sprinted for cover, but there was nothing left of the fat man, and the black-robed commander. Both had been vaporised, as the heavy calibre explosive rounds tore into them. The survivors split up, running in opposite directions. The guns of the Apaches tracked them, firing 20-round bursts that chased the figures across the compound, gouts of dirt and shrapnel exploding at their heels.
“Both aircraft were firing at the same time, the rounds exploding on target,” Steve remarks. “The Taliban were running for their lives, leaving the weapon bundles in their haste. The cannon followed them, rounds smashing into the ground and the buildings. We could see chickens going wild, and a small pig broke free from its tether and ran. Boy could it run, sensing a chance for freedom as it left the compound, headed up the track and made off into the open desert. The Taliban were not so lucky.”
The four survivors had made for the cover of two, dome-roofed buildings, situated along the northern wall of the compound. From two kilometres out Ugly Five Zero and Ugly Five One lined up the aircraft for a Hellfire strike. At the same time they slaved their 30mm cannons to the target coordinates, knowing that any ‘leakers’ – survivors of the missile strike – would run from the buildings as soon as they were hit.
Keeping their lasers on the centre of each target, Tim and Alex, the Apache gunners, pulled the triggers of their left hand pistol grip controls. There was an instantaneous flash of flame in front of the cockpits as each Hellfire fired, followed by the shimmering veil of a heat haze thrown out by the missile’s rocket motors.
Four seconds later there was a needle flash of black in the top of the aircraft’s video screens, as the missiles streaked through the frame and hit. Two almighty explosions rent the air, throwing up plumes of smoke and debris high into the sky. As the dust cleared, a gaping black hole in each of the roofs showed where the Hellfires had hit. Leakers streamed out of the buildings, and all of a sudden the compound was alive, figures rushing about in apparent disarray. And for the first time since hitting the compound weapons could clearly be seen.
“Men were running everywhere, with us shooting as soon as we spotted them,” Baz remarks. “This was fast and furious as we circled above trying to be aware of our wing, so as to not to crash. We got closer and closer, and Tim started screaming “Azimuth! Azimuth!” meaning I had got the aircraft so close overhead the compound that he couldn’t get the gun to bare on target. So I had to start pushing firmly on the pedals, and spinning the aircraft in a tight circle, so he could get on target and keep firing.”
A figure came running out of a large building in the southern end of the compound, heading for the gate, and a smaller structure on the far side. This would later turn out to be one of the compound’s arms dumps. He clutched an AK47 assault rifle in one hand. Ugly Five Zero targeted him with a 10-round burst, the rounds smashing into the ground all around him. He fell to the dusty earth, but an instant later he was up and running once more and made it into the small building alive.
Ugly Five Zero hit the building’s roof, the 30mm cannon blasting holes in the domed mud structure. The rounds drove the fighter out again, and he reappeared, sprinting for the gateway. He ran through the entranceway, and a second figure was spotted, squatting in the sliver of shade beneath the arch, an AK47 clutched between his knees. As Ugly Five One prepared to hit them both with a 20-round burst, Steve spotted movement in the bottom right hand corner of the video frame. It was a donkey tethered to a stake, and so unable to make itself scarce as the pig had done a few minutes earlier.
“I yelled to Alex to hold his fire,” Steve remarks. “The donkey was a big, floppy-eared beast, and more than likely innocent. We decided we couldn’t fire, as the donkey would’ve been slaughtered. How would we live with ourselves if we had killed the donkey? We may be many things, but we are not Donkey Killers!”
The pair of Apaches were flying tight orbits directly above the compound. The basic mistake that led the aircrew to finding an enemy fighter was movement. If an enemy fighter moved down there then he was as good as dead. All doubts that this was an enemy position were long gone now. The only remaining uncertainties were exactly how many enemy were down there, and what exactly they might be armed with.
A figure broke cover carrying a PKM, the Russian equivalent of the General Purpose Machinegun (GPMG). The PKM is a 7.62mm weapon capable of firing 650 rounds a minute and accurate up to 1000 metres. It is a highly effective light anti-aircraft weapon, and it was crucial that the runner be taken out. The enemy fighter sprinted past the floppy-eared donkey, and the aircrew held their fire.
He headed out of the gate and along the southern wall of the compound, Ugly Five One tracking him as he ran. He went to raise his weapon, but the aircrew were too quick: the 30mm cannon spat fire, a 20-round burst slamming into the earth all around the target, the figure disappearing in a cloud of dust laced with razor-sharp shards of shrapnel.
As the dust cleared the figure was spotted rising to his knees and crawling for a small, crescent-shaped patch of shadow at the base of the wall. As Ugly Five One prepared to hit him again, his arm shot out, grabbed the machinegun, and he rolled into the area of the shadow, disappearing completely from view.
There was no way in which that 20-round burst could have missed him, of that the aircrew were certain. Either his heart was still pumping on pure adrenaline, or the Taliban fighters were drugged to the eyeballs with amphetamines, which wasn’t unknown from previous battles. With his system pumped up on massive amounts of ‘speed’, a wounded man could keep fighting until his body was literally blown apart, or his life blood had drained into the baking sand.
Where had the wounded fighter disappeared to, Steve and Alex wondered? Zooming in the video camera to its maximum, they took a long hard look at that crescent-shaped patch of shadow. It was the entrance to a cave or a tunnel, which by the looks of things had to run beneath the whole of the enemy compound. As the aircrew panned the camera along the base of that wall, a series of four, similar openings were visible, each half hidden by a sprawl of straw. The enemy position appeared to be honeycombed with tunnels: all of a sudden the mystery of where the enemy fighters had been hiding had been solved. They had been hiding underground.
As Ugly Five One’s aircrew scrutinised the cave entrances for targets, the pilots of Ugly Five Zero spotted a figure running out of a building in the main compound. Baz flicked the gunnery controls to manual, the 30mm cannon instantly slaving to the cross-hair sight of his Helmet Mounted Display (HMD), and hence to his eye line. He glanced at the target, selected 1200 metres range and pulled the trigger. He fired off three, 20-round bursts, the earth exploding at the feet of the fighter as he ran, and then tumbled, to the ground.
To the right of the fallen enemy fighter two more came charging out of cover, one armed with an AK47 and one with a PKM. They sprinted through the gate, vaulted over a short hedgerow and went barrelling down towards the canal, barely thirty feet below them. They hit the water, charging in up to their chests, making for the cover of the tree line on the far side. As the bridge over the canal would have made a far easier, and quicker route across, this reinforced the aircrew’s suspicion that the white car was booby-trapped, and perhaps the approach to the bridge itself also mined.
If those two fighters got into the trees with the machinegun, they could cause the Apaches some problems, not to mention the troops on the ground.
“Their biggest mistake was to run, as we hadn’t even realised they were there,” Baz remarks. “An adrenaline rush took them across the river … You’re so focussed on the enemy that nothing else matters at that moment. It’s like tunnel vision, there’s no fear at that point: the hunt is on. Steve and Alex went straight to engage, immediately opening up with their 30mm cannon, the rounds exploding in the canal and surrounding banks, water pluming upwards. At exactly the same time, we hit them from the opposite direction. The whole scene seemed to play out in slow motion. Only one person escaped from the fire, and we could see a body floating downstream.”
The lone survivor sprinted for cover, as Ugly Five One tracked him, its cannon spitting fire. Somehow, he made it into the wood line, which meant that there was potentially a live PKM-gunner in there that they needed to find and kill. Both attack helicopters turned their fire on the dense woodland, plastering it with sustained bursts of 30mm cannon fire. They could see with the naked eye individual rounds slamming into tree trunks and branches, the explosions throwing out chunks of shrapnel that ripped through the foliage.
As the 30mm rounds hit a series of sudden, sharp explosions rippled through the shadows beneath the trees. Whatever had been the PKM-gunner’s motive for fleeing in to the tree line, it looked as if there were significant stores of ammunition in there, ammo that were being ignited by Ugly Five One’s cannon fire.
The woodland was set 150 yards back from the bridge over the canal. Between the woods and the bridge there was only open, cleared farmland. It was a perfect location for a secondary ambush site: the first in the compound being to hit the British troops as they moved into the village; the second in the woods being to hit them again as they retreated across the bridge, making for the safety of the open countryside.
Ugly Five Zero moved northwards again, hunting amongst the smoking debris of the main compound for further enemy fighters. As it did so, Ugly Five One flew out into the open desert to the east to set up for a run in on a rocket attack. Flying in from 3 kilometres, Steve put the aircraft into a shallow dive so that it was heading directly at the woodlands. If there were PKM-gunners still alive in there, he was flying right down their gun barrels.
The one drawback of the 2.7-inch rockets is that they cannot be independently targeted: instead, the aircraft’s line-of-flight directs the trajectory of the rockets as they are unleashed. The main concern for Steve and Alex was how wide the spread of the deadly tungsten darts might be, and to maintain a flight profile that would avoid hitting friendly forces.
As Ugly Five One hit the two kilometres to target mark, it fired. There was a belch of smoke from the pods beneath the stub wings, and four flechette-armed rockets sped away. At that distance the 320 tungsten darts fired out in a funnel of death large enough to saturate the entire wood line. They tore in towards target at a speed in excess of Mach 1, the darts making a high-pitched howling noise, as if an express train was screaming down a narrow tunnel. It had to be terrifying to be on the receiving end of such an attack.
From their position orbiting above the enemy compound, Baz and Tim could actually see the darts strike. They punctured tree trunks and punched their way through branches, shards of wood spitting skywards as if a giant chainsaw was chewing up the tree line. After that first strike, Ugly Five One banked around hard and lined up again, a further four rockets sending their 80 flechette darts tearing into the cover of the woodland.
“The flechette rocket strike was the first time we’d fired them in anger,” remarks Steve. “We were hugely concerned about friendly fire; they do Mach 1, and it was a flat, level shot so we knew it could go for miles. I spoke to Widow 79 on the ground and got the friendly troop coordinates, and that shaped our attack heading. The attack approach had to hit the wood and the caves, whilst avoiding friendly forces.”
Ugly Five Zero put a call through to Widow 79, with an update on the action so far. The pair or Apaches had been in the battle for one hour and one minute now, although to the pilots it felt as if barely five minutes had gone by. The tunnel vision of combat was all-consuming, the battle scenes flashing past in slow-motion-like clarity, yet oddly seeming to last no time at all.
A further call was put through to the ops room, at Camp Bastion, to reassure the Chief of Staff that flight Ugly were doing good out there, as they burned up the air hours in the skies above Rahim Kalay.
Not surprisingly, the ground troops were itching to get into the fight. All that Widow 79 was waiting for was the word from the Apaches, and they would be up and at the enemy positions. Baz figured they needed to kill more enemy fighters, and their assets, before they could give the British soldiers the word to ‘go’. First on his list was the white estate car, whose coordinates he had stored in the aircraft’s flight computer.
So far every aspect of the aircrew’s analysis of the battlefield – every instinct and hunch and suspicion – had proven correct. He had no doubt that the white estate car was an enemy vehicle, parked in a position to kill and main British troops as they moved into the village.
From 4 kilometres out Ugly Five Zero ran in towards the target, a Hellfire primed and ready to fire. As Baz flew the aircraft, front-seater Tim stroked the targeting mouse on his right hand pistol grip control, keeping the hot point of the laser dead centre on the body of the vehicle. At 2 kilometres distance, he switched the targeting to Image Auto Tracker (IAT) - a system that holds the sights on target no matter what the movement – and fired.
There was a fierce bloom of heat in front of the cockpit as the Hellfire sped away, and for an instant the IAT lost its lock, the shimmering haze in front of the nose pod obscuring the view. But as the heat haze cleared the IAT recovered its lock, the Hellfire plummeting earthwards and striking the white estate car in the roof. The high-explosive armoured-piercing warhead tore into the vehicle, the blast ripping it apart and sending chunks of metal cart-wheeling into the air.
A split-second later there was a ripple of further explosions, as whatever explosive charge had been contained in the vehicle detonated. As Ugly Five Zero turned away from the target, all that was left of the white estate was a twisted heap of warped metal entombed in a seething mass of flames.
The two Apaches returned to their orbit above the compound. The enemy had been hit hard in what had been a series of sophisticated, well-planned ambush positions. Two buildings in the compound had been Hellfired and destroyed. The woodland had been strafed with 30mm cannon fire, and raked with 640 flechette darts. And the white estate car-bomb was no more. How many scores of enemy fighters had been put out of action – either killed or badly wounded – the aircrew didn’t like to hazard a guess, but it had to be a considerable number. It had been a nasty turn around for an enemy force that had been expecting to ambush and kill a large number of British troops.
But there were two things that still worried the Apache aircrew: one, a large, 300 foot by 100 foot building, in the southern corner of the compound; and two, the tunnels and caves that must run below it. Repeated strikes with 30mm cannon fire had set fires burning inside the large building, but it was by no means cleared or made safe. The aircrew had seen scores of enemy fighters take refuge inside it, and many could still be alive in there.
As for the tunnel system, there was no weapon that the Apaches carried which could penetrate several feet of sun-baked Afghan sod to neutralise that threat. The Hellfire was essentially an anti-armour weapon, and the very size of the building, plus the depth of the tunnels, put both targets way out of its league. It was time to call in the big guns. A US Airforce F15 was approaching the Restricted Operating Zone (ROZ) above the Rahim Kalay battlefield.
Ugly Five Zero made the call.
“Dude 17, this is Ugly, do you read me?”
“Ugly, this is Dude 17, good copy. What can I do for ya?”
“What’s your ordnance status, Dude?”
“I got four 500-pounders, and a pair of 1000-pound JDAMs. What’s the target, Ugly.”
“The target’s a large building at the southern corner of an enemy compound that we’ve been hitting. You see that plume of black smoke, that’s the vehicle we Hellfired. The target building is 400 yards to the northeast of that smoke. It’s 300 feet, by 150 feet.”
“Visual the column of smoke, visual the enemy compound.”
“Right, I’m lasing the target building now. Confirm you see my laser spot.”
“Okay, we need to flatten that building. What weapon d’you suggest, Dude?”
“Something that size … A1000-pound JDAM. Gotta be.”
“Roger that. Dude, we will lase the target for you when ready.”
“Okay, ready: spot-on, Ugly.”
“Spot-on: we’re lasing the target for you now, Dude.”
“Okay, good spot. I’m starting my run in now …”
With the code of Ugly Five Zero’s laser entered into the F15’s onboard flight computer, the pilot could programme his bombs to home in on the Apache’s laser beam. The ‘hot-point’ of the laser – the point where it bounced back from the target – would be the lock-on point for the JDAM.
As the F15 made its run in to target, Ugly Five Zero sought final clearance from Widow 79 for the airstrike. This was in case British soldiers had advanced into the area, without the Apache aircrew realising it, and were now in the vicinity of the compound. With Widow 79’s clearance given, the airstrike was on.
The Dude call-sign announced that his bomb was on its way. The wait seemed like an age, although in reality it was barely seconds, before a black wheelie-bin-sized shape arrowed through the air above Rahim Kalay and punched into the target building. There was a massive crumpling impact, as walls and roofs blew outwards and the entire building seemed to lift slightly, before collapsing in on itself. The debris tumbled back to earth, the smoke clearing slowly, and not a wall was left standing. A massive crater had been scoured out of the earth where the building had once stood.
Steve and Alex radioed their flight leader, Tim, to alert him to the fact that they were ‘Winchester’ – out of ammunition. They had no 30mm rounds remaining, no 2.7 inch rockets left, and only one Hellfire still on its rack. Fuel supplies were also running low, with each aircraft having no more than ten minutes remaining before they would be forced to return to Bastion.
The four airmen reckoned that the enemy threat had been massively reduced, if not neutralised, although the tunnel system remained a worry. There could still be scores of enemy fighters hiding down there. Either way, they would shortly have to head for home. Before doing so Ugly Five One radioed Camp Bastion, asking for a replacement Apache flight to be held on standby, in case the British ground troops might require further air support. Then it was time for a last call to Widow 79.
“Widow 79, this is Ugly. We’re Winchester ammo and approaching Bingo fuel. We need to return to Bastion. The position seems clear of EF, but watch out for the tunnel system under the compound, and the wood line to the south. As indicated, we reckon that’s the EF’s second ambush position, in the cover of the tree line.”
The wood line into which the PKM gunner had fled remained an unknown to flight Ugly. Whilst one enemy fighter had gone into the tree line and none had come out again, that didn’t mean that they had killed all enemy fighters that might be positioned in there. If it was a secondary ambush position, enemy forces would be well dug in, and some might have survived the cannon fire and flechettes that had pounded the tree line.
“Ugly, this is Widow 79 … I can’t thank you guys enough for what you done today …”
“No problem. We’ve one favour to ask, Widow 79: can you guys check what damage those flechettes did to target? We’ve never used them before, and we’re kind of curious …”
“Roger that, Ugly. Not a problem.”
“Right, we’re out of here. We’ve asked Bastion to keep a replacement flight on standby in case you need them. Good hunting, Widow. Stay safe.”
“You too, Ugly. You guys should know you saved a lot of lives down here today … We lost one guy KIA, but there’d have been a whole lot more killed and wounded if …”
Widow 79 was understandably emotional as he said farewell to the aircrew. As Baz listened in he could feel the adrenaline draining out of his system, and he found himself becoming all choked up. He leaned forwards and flipped the radio to a different frequency. He couldn’t bear any more of that from Widow 79, or he’d be weeping his aircraft all the way back the flight line. It was time to put a call through to base.
“Hello Bastion, this is Ugly Five Zero. Winchester, low on fuel, returning to base …”
It was a ten-minute flight back to Camp Bastion. As the flight Ugly aircrew dismounted, the four men turned to each other and shook hands. They were on the ground and safe, and they knew that they had done a fine job out there today in the skies over Rahim Kalay. As they headed for the waiting Land Rover, a couple of the groundies could be seen stripped to the waist and sunning themselves around the back of the hangars.
“That’s the surreal thing about Afghanistan,” Baz remarks. “One minute you could be engaging the enemy in a major contact, the next you’re taxiing in to the Apache bay and you see people turning themselves over for an even tan …”
Things were about to get even more surreal. On the short drive to the ops room for the de-brief, flight Ugly’s Land Rover was waived down by a member of the Royal Military Police, who patrol and police Camp Bastion. Steve wound down the window.
“Excuse me, sir, but I noticed that you’re not wearing your seat belt,” the RMP announced.
Steve shook his head in disbelief. “You what …?”
“Your seat belt, Sir. It needs to be worn …”
“Listen, mate, twenty kilometres up the road there are British soldiers losing their lives … And this is what you’re worried about …”
“I’m only doing my job, sir,” the RMP replied. “At all times …”
Steve gunned the engine. He supposed the RMP did have a job to do, and much of what they did was necessary, but rather them than him any day. It was almost as bad as the time when the RMPs had tried to book them for ‘speeding’. The flight had been waived down during a VHR call out, with Steve and Baz driving the Land Rover hell for leather for the flight line. Finally, a deal had been reached: Apache aircrews on call-outs would not be pulled over for speeding if they drove with their hazard lights flashing.
As the four airmen strode into the ops tent, the buzz seemed to be all about the battle for Rahim Kalay. Heading straight into the de-brief the aircrews played their gun-tapes, and talked through the whole, epic engagement. As they had no ideas of numbers of enemy killed, all the pilots could do was an estimate based upon what they had seen during the battle: eight dead was their best guess.
To the OC, Jules Franks, they made a special request: they wanted a big ‘thank you’ said to the ground crews, as it had been a real team effort. No doubt about it, it was the groundies getting them airborne again so quickly halfway through the battle that had helped save British lives.
After the debrief, the flight Ugly aircrew went to grab a late lunch. Nothing much had changed in the canteen. It was a choice of the same three sandwich fillings as always - coronation chicken, spicy beef or fresh prawn. As Steve sat munching on his baguette, he found himself wondering in a disembodied sort of way where on earth they got fresh prawns from in the middle of the Afghan desert.
“We’re looking around thinking: this is surreal,” Steve remarks. “People here have no idea what we’ve just been through … We kill the enemy in our own particular way, just like the troops on the ground, and it is up close and personal for us just as it is for them … After lunch it was back to the tent to watch a DVD of Starsky & Hutch. But we couldn’t phone home, ‘cause there was an Op Minimize on, due to the British soldier killed that morning in Rahim Kalay.”
Lying on his bunk that night, Baz Hunter realised just how exhausted he was feeling.
“We were dog tired. We’d been in hours of continuous combat, which equates to so many hours of any normal activity … It’s not just a physical fatigue, its an emotional fatigue, ‘cause you’re up and down all the time … Rahim Kalay was one hour of extreme violence, and the next you’re having a laugh and a baguette. Ground troops would have a more gradual let down, whereas ten minutes after battle we’re on this surreal, weird trip, back at Bastion. Sometimes I wake up and think – did all that really ever happen?”
The following morning there was a second, more detailed de-brief on the Rahim Kalay battle, and this one was for all the Apache aircrews to attend. In fact the groundies, the REME fitters, the combat medics and the Chinook aircrews were all in attendance.
It was already clear that Rahim Kalay was the single biggest engagement for 662 Squadron to date. A very significant number of enemy fighters had been killed. More importantly, over the space of several hours flight Ugly had prevented a British force from advancing into what would have been a murderous ambush, so saving untold numbers of lives.
On the flight back to Bastion, Steve and Widow 79 had exchanged email addresses. The Widow turned out to be one Sergeant Paul ‘Bomber’ Grahame, of the Light Dragoons. He’d been seconded to the Worcestershire & Sherwood foresters as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC).
This is what he had to say about the part the air operations played in the battle for Rahim Kalay.
“What sticks in my mind about this operation is how diligent the Ugly call signs were - having pointed out the suspicious vehicle, the weapons, the observation points in the compound walls, the cave complexes, and generally having a bad feeling about the troops moving forward into a possible ambush … The Taliban had many hidden ambush positions which were only cleared when the Apaches came in and denied them, so disrupting ambush plans.”
“With over 75 Taliban (minimum) in the compound and surrounding area, the operation could quiet easily have been the biggest loss of British life … There are a lot of soldiers, myself included, that owe their lives to the aircrew involved in that day … This operation lasted for only 60 hours, but it was to become the most important and memorable event in the whole of the 146 days of our tour.”
The British ground troops had advanced into Rahim Kalay, and proceeded to hold a shura – a traditional council – with the village elders, one of whom was something of a Taliban himself. The elders had confirmed the numbers of dead and injured: 48 enemy fighters were confirmed killed, with a further 45 unaccounted for. As for the wounded, it was likely that their numbers would far outweigh the numbers of fighters killed.
The village elders revealed that at least one of the mortar teams operating in Rahim Kalay had consisted of Chechen fighters, and scores of those killed that day had been the so-called ‘Foreign Taliban’. Few if any of the fighters in the village had actually come from Rahim Kalay, let alone been Afghans.
Shortly after the fighting was over a Harrier had been tasked with taking an aerial photo of the battlefield. From that alone, the devastation wreaked across the enemy position was clear. Two smaller buildings to the north of the compound had neat, Hellfire holes punched in their roofs. And to the south, the large building had been reduced to a heap of rubble by the 1000-pound JDAM.
“The ground troops had been dying to get in there,” remarks Baz. “When they did, they were amazed and shocked at the level of destruction; there were craters all over, and the once-beautiful village was like a ghost town. Bodies were all over the place, bits of people, discarded weapons … The ground troops realised that they’d never want to be on the receiving end of that - of what the Apaches, coupled with the fast air, could do.”
As the British troops had funnelled out across the village, they had discovered a series of well-prepared ambush sites. In the poppy fields to either side of the main enemy compound, there were a series of trench systems with underground bunkers. The bunkers were roofed over with stout tree trunks covered in earth and camouflaged with heaps of dry poppy stalks. They were all but invisible from the air. They were reinforced on the sides with makeshift sandbags, made out of old flour sacks stuffed full of earth.
As for the cave entrances beneath the compound, they were so small as to be barely accessible to a fully-grown male. It would have been so easy to have missed them from the air. After the main enemy compound, the woodland across the river provided a secondary ambush position. It included dug trenches, with vegetation cleared to provide interlocking arcs of fire, and ammunition dumps interspersed down the tree line.
Wider Allied intelligence reports had revealed that enemy units were training to use surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in Iran, with the elite Iranian Republican Guard. And Chechens were being brought into Helmand, to act as mobile mortar training teams. On June 3rd, three days prior to the battle for Rahim Kalay, Taliban leader Mullah Bashir had announced that Arab, Chechen and Uzbek fighters were moving in to support the ‘jihad’. The money used to pay all of these fighters – Iranians, Chechens, Uzbeks and Arabs – was coming from the booming opium trade.
Afghanistan is the world’s foremost supplier of opium, which is refined into the heroin sold on the streets of the UK, mainland Europe, the USA and elsewhere. As British forces had advanced into Rahim Kalay, they had been doing so through fields of opium poppies. And it was those hardened Chechen, Arab and Uzbek fighters – those reinforcements heralded by Mullah Bashir - that had been hit hard in the battle.
Following the Apache airstrikes over Rahim Kalay village, radio intercepts had recorded shouting and screaming on the enemy comms systems. Enemy commanders had been yelling at their troops to attack the ‘mosquitoes’, only to get the following response: “We will attack, but I am the only one left alive!”
The effect of the 30mm cannon fire, coupled with the flechette rockets, had been devastating. The enemy fighter who had dropped his PKM machine gun, then picked it up again and dived into the tunnels entrance, had died almost immediately after making it in there. British ground troops found him with two, 30mm holes in his chest. He had died of his injuries, and it was only adrenalin that had allowed him to climb into that cave.
Scores of dead fighters were found in the compound and the cave system that ran beneath it. The caves had been explored, and they were found to be stuffed full of arms and ammunition. There was a labyrinth of tunnels leading to numerous entrances dotted around the compound, which explained how the enemy had been able to move around so effectively without being seen.
The remains of the white estate car had also been examined by British troops: the boot was found to have been stuffed full of Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), and traces of C3 plastic explosives were also found in the vehicle. As suspected, it had been one gigantic explosive device – a car-bomb par excellence.
The Czech elite forces had advanced into the wood line, across the river from the enemy compound. There they discovered nine dead enemy fighters, plus arms dumps with many thousands of rounds. Much of the spare ammo was stored in the trees, allowing fighters to reach up and rapidly reload. There were also sleeping bags, and food and water supplies, indicating that enemy forces had been lying in wait for some time.
At first the Czechs were unable to tell how the enemy had been killed. It wasn’t until they discovered the small puncture wounds of flechette darts that the means of death was realised.
Rahim Kalay would turn out to be the singly biggest defeat that the Taliban had suffered in the Green Zone, with the destruction of at least two mortar based plate teams, scores of machinegun and RPG teams, and at least two complete cells of Taliban, including many foreign fighters. It was also the biggest single engagement to date for the Apaches in Afghanistan.
6th June, the anniversary of the D-Day landings, was already a day replete with meaning for the Army Air Corps. For the men of 662 Squadron, 6th June was now the day upon which four aircrew had saved the lives of scores of British soldiers, and in the process killed dozens of enemy fighters in a classic action against the enemy.
In will also be remembered by the airmen of Ugly Five One and Ugly Five Zero as the day upon which their flight truly came of age. In memory of the D-Day landings, the men of flight Ugly named that day’s battle ‘Rahim Kalay Day.’