By Damien Lewis
One team. One mission. The mother of all battles. Take eight of our Special Forces soldiers and pit them against 600 of the world’s most hardened terrorists. Set them to hunt each other down across the vast wild lands of Afghanistan. This is the thrilling, blood-soaked narrative of Bloody Heroes. The story starts in November 2001, when a unit of British SBS (Special Boat Service) and SAS (Special Air Service) soldiers are called upon to launch a top-secret mission. British intelligence has uncovered what they believe is a terrorist plot to attack London with a devastating weapon. A cargo ship is fast steaming up the English Channel. MI6 believes she is crewed by terrorists and carrying a deadly chemical bomb. At all costs she has to be stopped, and so the SBS and SAS are sent in.
This book follows one unit of SBS and SAS soldiers - from an action-packed assault on the high seas to the harsh wild lands of Afghanistan, as their hunt for the merchants of death continues. In the freezing Afghan mountains our band of warriors joined forces with American CIA operators – living, sleeping, eating and dying together as they took the fight to the terrorist enemy. Our team are then sent in to take out the mother of all terror-training camps, a mission with the most unexpected of outcomes. The story culminates in the single greatest battle in the Afghan war – the bloody and brutal siege of Qala-I-Janghi, an ancient mud-walled fortress crammed full of hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. It focuses down onto the actions of our crack Special Forces team, when faced with bitter betrayal and drawn into a deadly duel that only one side could win. It follows this handful of men as they fight against overwhelming odds to lift the fort siege and rescue fellow soldiers trapped by the enemy.
The battle for Qala-I-Janghi would last a staggering eight days - from the moment of the initial uprising to the hour that the fort yielded up the last enemy fighters. It was a battle in which 500 terrorists would be killed - but at the cost of dozens of British, American and Afghan casualties. This book chronicles every twist and turn of that battle as it unfolds hour-by-hour, until the shocking, blood-soaked finale. Bloody Heroes is a tale of extraordinary comradeship and brotherhood; of honour and betrayal; of horrific medieval bloodshed amidst an ultra-high-tech war; of fanatical hatred, suicide attacks and a terrible collective death wish; of selfless heroism and the bitter tragedy of friendly fire; of close quarter battle at its most immediate, vicious and deadly. This book brings you closer to our secret warriors than you’ve ever been ever before.
Media & Press
"The most dramatic story of a secret wartime mission you will ever read." News of the World
"The author has been given unprecedented access to the men of the SBS, as the full story of their Afghan mission is told …" Zoo Magazine
"A gripping account that follows the exploits of British and American special forces involved in a secret, deadly duel in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan." Eye Spy Magazine
"A must read." Compass Magazine
"A tremendous read." Max Arthur
"A gripping book, revealing true accounts of bravery, camradeship, elite soldiering and heroism. The siege of Qala-Janghi is a battle that maintains a British tradition of a handful against hundreds." Duncan Falconer
Chapter 10: Mission Impossible
With the SBS vehicles and the 5th SOF Humvees now parked up inside the entranceway tower, they were positioned in the only part of the fort that was known to be in friendly hands. With the 600-odd prisoners in full revolt, the whole southern end of the fort had already fallen to the enemy. They had seized RPG's and mortars, which meant they could put down devastating fire on to any section of the fort. It would only take one lucky mortar shell, or a grenade lobbed over the wall, and the SBS Land Rovers and 5th SOF Humvees could be blown to smithereens.
"Right, get the vehicles in close to the walls, to maximize cover," Captain Lancer ordered, having to shout to make himself heard above the noise of battle. "I want the rest of you lads," he continued, indicating his SBS soldiers, "to clear and secure this tower. That's both fire teams. This is our only known bridgehead into the fort, and it's crucial we hold it. Once we've done that, we set up fire positions up top - from where we should be able to cover both ends of the fort."
"Sergeant Major Trent, I want your fire team to take up positions on the tower's southern wall," the SBS Captain yelled. "From there you can put down fire onto the southern end of the fort. I'll take the northern wall. We've got to contain these bastards in here, inside this fort, OK? Worst-case scenario is they break out: then we've got a totally unknown threat on our hands."
"Right," the lads responded.
"OK, let's do it. On me."
With that Captain Lancer turned and scuttled in through the dark doorway leading into the tower. Ahead of him, a wide set of stone stairs led upwards, towards the top of the building. At ceiling level the staircase split, with one flight of stairs branching off towards the northern side of the tower and the other towards the southern end. Inside the massively thick stone walls the noise of the battle was eerily muted, yet every now and then what had to be much closer bursts of machine gun fire echoed down the stone passageways. There were clearly some fighters on top of the tower who were still holding out against the enemy.
Using hand signals, Captain Lancer sent Sergeant Major Trent's fire team up the left hand staircase, towards the southern end of the fort, whilst his team took the right hand fork. After climbing up three more flights of stairs, Captain Lancer's team reached a point where the staircase ended in the open air: the roof of the tower. Up above that there was just a wall of death, as a fearsome volume of fire was scything its way across the roof of the fort.
With barely a second's hesitation, the Captain dropped to his belly and crawled up the last few steps and out onto the roof. Mat, Jamie and Ruff followed close behind him. On each side of the tower thick walls rose up to around chest height. Crouching behind the battlements which looked into the fort there were eight Afghan fighters. They were a group of Northern Alliance soldiers dressed in a motley collection of combats, and wearing the traditional Afghan flat woolen hats.
The Captain glanced over at the nearest fighter. As he did so the Afghan rose up on one knee, squeezed off half-a-dozen rounds with his AK47 and dived back down behind cover, as a barrage of answering fire smashed into the brickwork all around him. As he hunkered down behind the battlements waiting for the enemy fire to subside, the Afghan fighter turned and caught sight of the British soldiers. In a split second his face broke into a broad grin, and he began gesturing to the SBS troops to come over to join him. It was an invitation that Captain Lancer, Mat and the rest of the lads felt unable to refuse.
As they half ran and half crawled the twenty-odd yards across to the wall, there was a mind-blowing amount of enemy fire coming out of the fort. To Mat is seemed incomprehensible that this battle, any battle, could ever be so intense, so fearsome. Clearly, the 600 enemy fighters must have got their hands on all the weaponry and ammo stored in the fort armoury. In which case, what on earth would the eight of them be able to do to stop them, Mat wondered? But in a split second, his training had kicked in, and he'd banished such fears from his mind.
Suddenly, Mat flipped his body up over the battlements and was squeezing off three rounds with his Diemaco - Crack! Crack! Crack! Dozens of the enemy were bunched up at the base of the wall, some 300 yards in front of him. As Mat dived back behind cover, he felt the wall shaking and juddering behind him as the enemy returned fire, and chunks of masonry spun off into the air. Some six yards further down the battlements, Jamie followed suit now, forcing himself up onto his knees and pouring down fire onto the enemy positions. He was followed in quick succession by Ruff and Captain Lancer, each man squeezing off a few quick rounds before diving for cover.
As none of them could speak any of the local languages, they were unable to communicate directly with the Afghan soldiers. Even had they wanted to, the deafening noise of battle made it all but impossible to talk. But they were still able to appreciate the universal language of soldiers. As Mat glanced across at the nearest NA fighter, he realised that the guy was staring at him in complete amazement. What is it, mate, Mat thought to himself? You never seen the SBS in action before? Catching the Afghan soldier's eye, Mat smiled, did a quick impression of shooting one of the enemy, and gave him a big thumbs up. The Afghan soldier broke into a massive grin and returned the thumbs up to Mat. Reaching across the roof, Mat grabbed the Afghan soldier's free hand and held it in a crude handclasp for a split second.
From their side of the tower, Mat and the rest of the lads had a view down into the northern half of the fort, the dividing wall between north and south running directly across from them towards the far side. In the centre of that wall was the gateway linking the two halves of the fort, and it was here that the enemy were gathered in greatest numbers. It looked to Mat as if there were a hundred or more of them down there, although he could only take snatched glances at their positions. The enemy fighters had taken cover in a series of domed buildings that clustered beneath the wall, and behind three white Toyota pick-ups that were parked up at one side of the gateway.
Suddenly, there were a series of roars of, "Allahu Akhbar! Allahu Akhbar! Allahu Akhbar!" coming from the opposite side of the wall. As Mat bobbed up to take a look he all but had his head taken off by a barrage of machinegun fire that slammed into the masonry all around him.
In the split second before diving down again, Mat caught sight of some 30 enemy fighters sprinting out of the gateway towards the northern end of the fort. They were breaking out - making a charge for General Dostum's HQ building at the northern edge of the fort. If the enemy took this, it would give them a vantage point from which to control the whole of the northern end of the fort. Which would mean that practically all of Qala-Janghi would be in their hands. There was no way then that they could be prevented from breaking out. With a combined force of 100 SBS, US 5th SOF and Northern Alliance troops, there was no way in which they could encircle the whole fort.
Not only that, but Dostum's HQ building was the last known location of Dave Tyson, one of the two missing CIA agents. It was from there that his last communication had been received. Mat and the other lads were well aware that it was every Jihadist's dream to be able to kill one of the cursed American, or British, 'infidels'. If they reached Dostum's HQ, CIA Dave was as good as dead.
Fired up by that thought, Mat swung his Diemaco up above the battlements and squeezed off a burst on automatic at the figures now charging across the fort compound. As he did so, he felt his SBS mates, and the Afghan fighters to either side of him, doing likewise. Just as he ducked back down again, he saw three of the enemy stumble, and then fall headlong onto the ground. YES! a voice was screaming inside his head with the exhilaration of the kill. Fucking got the bastards!
To the right of him the Afghan fighter that he'd just befriended was putting down a whole magazine onto the running figures. But Mat just knew that he was holding the shot for far too long. As he turned to yell out a warning he saw the Afghan fighter's head jerk backwards and then his body slump to one side, coming to rest at a grotesquely twisted angle at the base of the battlements. Mat could see that the Afghan fighter had taken a round through the forehead, and was already stone cold dead. A split second later, a second of the Afghan fighters was writhing in agony on the roof of the fort, as a bullet had smashed through his right shoulder.
Holy fuck, Mat thought to himself, two of the Afghans down and only six to go. If we keep losing blokes at this rate, then we're fucking finished.
Crabbing his way across to the injured Afghan soldier, Mat grabbed an emergency dressing from one of his pouches and stuffed it hard as he could into the gaping shoulder wound. Then he and Jamie together started dragging the fallen fighter back into the cover of the battlements.
"They're fucking breaking out," Jamie yelled in Mat's ear. "Dostum's HQ. We got to stop 'em. We're fucking dead if we don't, mate."
"Yeah, but fookin' with what?" Mat yelled back.
"Wait one, I got me an idea," Jamie yelled back.
As soon as they had dumped the wounded Afghan soldier in the cover of the battlements, Jamie went crawling fast as he could across the roof to Captain Lancer.
"Boss, the fuckers are breakin' out and we need some fucking fire power," Jamie yelled into the Captain's ear. "There's two GPMGs down on the trucks. I'm going to see if I can get 'em."
"Fine. Do it," the Captain yelled back. "But hurry. They're going to make another run for it any time now."
"Let's take as many of the fuckers with us as we can, eh boss?" a grinning Jamie replied. "'Cause we ain't fucking getting out of this one alive."
"We are if I can help it," Captain Lancer replied. "Fuck it, I'm coming with you."
Dodging the enemy bullets as they ran, Jamie and the SBS Captain scurried back across the fort roof and dived down the stairway. The two men charged down to the base of the tower and out into the open, whereupon Jamie vaulted into the back of the nearest Land Rover. Quickly, he had his trusty Leatherman in his hand and had started working on the mounting that held the GPMG bolted onto the truck, the SBS captain lending a hand.
As they were feverishly working on the gun, Captain Lancer caught sight of Sergeant Major Trent and Tom Knight hurrying down the tower stairway towards him. They had a bunch of the US 5th SOF soldiers in tow, including the US 5th SOF CO, Major Martin.
"Boss," Sergeant Major Trent yelled over, "you got a second?"
"Tell me," Captain Lancer yelled back, as he jumped down from the vehicle and strode across to them.
"OK, we've got a couple hundred enemy down in the southern half of the fort," the sergeant major began. "They're holed up in a large pink building, the stables for Dostum's cavalry, under which there's a bunker network. There's a dozen NA soldiers up with us on the tower, plus the ten 5th SOF boys, so we're not doing too badly. But there's a shed load of incoming and we got our hands full. Couple of the Afghans have been hit already."
"Same story our side. Tell me something I don't know," the Captain replied.
"OK, buddy, like we gotta get us a rescue team together," Major Martin cut in. "And mighty quick, too, 'cause our boys're in there somewhere .."
"I know that, Major," Captain Lancer interrupted. "So what d'you need?"
"Well, we got myself and one of the CIA officers," Major Martin replied, "plus there's Sam, the SEAL attached to you guys, who's volunteerin' his services to rescue a fellow American .."
"And they need a fuckin' medic, boss," Tom Knight cut in. "Stands to reason, 'cause either one of them CIA dudes could be injured bad in there, and as I'm the only fuckin' medic around .."
"Great. Then I take it you two - Sam, Tom - are volunteering," said Captain Lancer. "What's the rescue plan?"
"Figure we gotta head for Dostum's HQ building," Major Martin replied. "That's the last known location of CIA Dave, so it's all we got to go on. If we can link up with him, maybe he can lead us to Mike Spann."
"Sounds good to me," said Captain Lancer. "Have you got comms with CIA Dave?"
"Right now we got nothing," said Major Martin. ""Bout an hour ago CIA Dave placed a call on a satphone. Said he was in Dostum's HQ, and all hell was breakin' loose. No-one's been able to raise him since. Either his battery's dead, or the satphone's gone down."
"Well, good luck then," Captain Lancer said. "We'll give you all the supporting fire we can."
"You're welcome to it, lads," Sergeant Major Trent added. "Lucky madness trip that you're on and all."
"We got us some air cover comin' over pretty fast, now," said Major Martin, addressing his remark to the SBS Captain.
"Airstrikes wouldn't go amiss, major," Captain Lancer replied. "So who's doing the FAC?"
"We are, boss," Sergeant Major Trent cut in. "Seems the 5th SOF boys haven't got all their comms kit with them."
"Fine," said the SBS Captain. "You familiar with the US FAC procedure?"
"No problem, boss," the sergeant major replied. "One thing though - the Americans want us to put up friendly coordinates to their pilots."
"We don't put up friendly coordinates," Captain Lancer said, turning to face the US 5th SOF Major. "It's against our SOPs."
"'Fraid that's the way it's gotta be," the major replied. "Our fly boys won't put down any ordnance unless y'do."
"We don't put up friendly coordinates because it's an invitation to the pilot to drop his bombs on us," Captain Lancer remarked, acidly.
"They gotta have 'em or they won't do no airstrikes," Major Martin countered. "An' you guys gotta do the FAC as you got the full kit and caboodle. Way I see it, ain't no way around it."
"All right, sergeant, put up the friendly coordinates," the SBS Captain conceded. "But relocate your FAC team to my side of the tower."
"No problem, boss," Sergeant Major Trent replied.
Just then there was an ecstatic yell from one of the Land Rovers. "GOT THE FUCKER!" It was Jamie and he was holding the GPMG aloft in his hands. "Got the fucker!"
"Right, let's get the other," Captain Lancer yelled back at him, "and all the ammo we can carry."
The one advantage of the GPMGs having been vehicle-mounted was that there was an almost unlimited supply of ammunition stacked up in the rear of the two Land Rovers. Quick as they could, Jamie and Captain Lancer carried the two heavy machine guns and a couple of crates of ammo up onto the roof of the tower. But just as they were about to go back for some more ammo, frenzied cries of "Allahu Akhbar!" went up from the far side of the wall. A second group of enemy fighters had broken cover and were charging towards the northern end of the fort.
Within seconds, Ruff Pouncer had grabbed one of the GPMGs and was standing braced at the battlements, the heavy weapon steadied against his thigh as he poured down fire onto the enemy. As the rounds tore into them half-a-dozen AQT fighters stumbled and fell. But at the same time Ruff was targeted by the enemy. In a split second he was faced with a wall of flying lead, the battlements being torn apart all around him. As Ruff dived back behind cover, Jamie went up on his feet, unleashing a further barrage of fire from the hip with the second GPMG. The hail of bullets tore into the running figures, and as it did so the enemy charge slowed, faltered, and came to a stop. The survivors turned and went staggering back the way they had come. Jamie in turn dived for cover now, as the enemy fire tore into the section of wall where he'd just been standing.
"Fuck this for a game of soldiers," Jamie yelled, as he lay prone on the roof cradling the still-smoking GPMG, the rounds slamming into the wall just behind him.
Jamie knew that barrage of fire that he and Ruff were laying down was all that was stopping the enemy from breaking out en masse. If either of them got hit, or if one of the guns jammed, then the SBS soldiers were likely to get overrun. And Jamie and Ruff reckoned it was only so long before one or other of them would take a bullet. Either that, or the enemy rounds would start penetrating the mud-brick walls of the battlements, at which time it'd be pretty much game over for the small force holding out on the tower roof. The enemy forces were hiding in the mud-walled buildings at the base of the wall, and behind the Toyota pickups parked in the entranceway. If only they'd brought their 40mm grenade launchers with them, Jamie found himself thinking. If they had, they'd have been able to decimate the enemy with a few well-placed rounds.
Taking his GPMG with him Jamie belly-crawled the short distance across the roof to Ruff.
"We got to mallet those fuckers in the gateway, mate," Jamie yelled into Ruff's ear. "Right now, they got us banged to rights. We need grenade launchers, LAWs, the whole how's your father, and we ain't got none."
"'Old on, I got me a fuckin' idea, mate," Ruff yelled back, after a moment's silence. "Use the fuckin' Gimpys to mallet the fuckin' pick-ups. Get the fuckin' fuel tanks to blow - one load of fried fuckin' ragheads coming right up."
"Nice one, mate," Jamie replied, with a grin. "Now why the fuck didn't I think of that?"
Using hand signals, Jamie and Ruff indicated to Mat and Captain Lancer what they were about to do - and that Mat and the Captain, plus the Afghan fighters, should put down covering fire. Then they scuttled off to fetch a couple more crates of ammo for the GPMGs. Finally, they were ready.
"Right. Fuckin' on me - LET'S FUCKIN' GO!" Ruff yelled.
Simultaneously, the two men heaved the GPMGs over the battlements and opened fire, whilst Mat, Captain Lancer and the Afghan fighters started taking short, aimed bursts at the enemy positions. For three - four - five seconds, Jamie and Ruff poured fire into the three pick-ups parked up at the gateway, the heavy rounds from the GPMGs chewing into the vehicles. Suddenly, there was an almighty explosion, and one of the trucks burst into a ball of orange flame. As debris from the fireball flew into the air, there were two further detonations in quick succession. In a split second all three vehicles had been turned into a massive, blazing inferno. A thick, mushroom-cloud of oily black smoke rose above the twisted wreckage at the gateway, and for the first time since the battle had begun the enemy guns there had fallen silent.
Scattered around the burning vehicles were the blackened corpses of a dozen enemy soldiers, lying where they'd fallen. But many of the fighters at the gateway must have remained untouched by the blazing inferno. Barely 30 seconds after the vehicles had exploded, a series of RPGs streaked out of the gateway and flew the 300-odd yards across the fort compound, where they slammed into Dostum's HQ. They were followed by a barrage of machinegun fire, as the enemy poured rounds onto the building. Within seconds, the fighting had resumed with renewed vigour, and a savage amount of firepower was unleashed across the fort. Rounds were going off everywhere and RPGs repeatedly firing off, and it looked as if the enemy remained intent on seizing the fort HQ.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mat caught a movement down below him and off to his left. As he looked over, he caught the movement again and spotted a figure with an AK47 slung over his back, attempting to scale their position. The enemy fighter was some 60 feet away, where the tower met the fort dividing wall. He was already three-quarters of the way up a wooden ladder and climbing fast. In the shadowed crook of the corner of the two walls he had been all but invisible. It was only the fighter's movement, and some sort of indefinable sixth sense, that had alerted Mat to his presence. Below the fighter, there was now a second figure clambering up the ladder. A third followed. All had the same, fanatical look on their faces. Mat had no doubt that if they broke into the SBS positions they'd wipe out the British (and US) forces, or die in the process.
The angle was so oblique to the tower wall that Mat could get a bead on the enemy fighter whilst still remaining in the cover of the battlements. Carefully, he took aim with his Diemaco, the 4X magnification sight bringing the enemy into sharp focus. They looked like Chechens, these fighters, as they had the telltale mongoloid features, and wild hair unrestrained by the black Talib turbans. As the lead figure got to the top of the ladder and reached for the battlements above, Mat squeezed his trigger gently. He watched as the forehead of the enemy fighter caved in before his very eyes. The fighter threw back his arms and in slow motion tumbled from the ladder, landing with an inaudible thud on the ground below. Without needing to waste a second round, Mat dropped his weapon to the figure below and drilled a bullet into his brain, and then on to the next one.
It was the first time that Mat had ever definitely killed. Sure, he'd called in airstrikes on enemy positions before, which would have accounted for scores of enemy dead. And in previous conflicts he'd exchanged fire with enemy soldiers. But he'd never shot someone at such close range, never watched himself end the life of a fellow human being so closely. Mat had been able to make out the features of these men, the lines on their faces, the hatred in their eyes. These were fanatical fighters, of that he had no doubt. They'd seen a lot of war. And they'd had their hearts set on killing Mat and the other SBS lads, or being killed themselves. Now their fighting days were over, and Mat felt glad that it was so. In quick succession he put half-a-dozen rounds into the ladder's wooden uprights, whereupon it collapsed, toppling over onto the floor of the fort.
"Boss," Mat yelled across to Captain Lancer, pointing out the fallen enemy fighters. As the Captain couldn't hear him, Mat crawled across to have a word in his ear. "Boss, down there! They're trying to scale the fookin' tower. Get in amongst us."
"Good shooting," Captain Lancer yelled back at him, as he spotted the dead fighters lying at the base of the tower. "Need eyes in the back of your head!"
"Boss, there's hundreds of them and only a handful of us," Mat yelled a reply. "And we've no idea where the fookers are. I got lucky with them bastards. But at this rate we're going to get overrun. Where the fuck're those airstrikes, boss? Without air power, we're fookin' finished."
"Any moment now," Captain Lancer yelled back at him. "Just keep your eyes open. Keep the enemy pinned down in the fort."
As Captain Lancer's fire team were trying to stop the enemy from breaking out of the fort, US 5th SOF Major Martin was getting the rescue mission underway. Major Matthew's 5th SOF forces had been stationed at Mazar far longer than the SBS soldiers. The Major had visited the fort before, and this was one of the main reasons he'd decided to lead the rescue mission. Of any of the special forces soldiers, the major figured that he had the best chance of navigating his way through the fort. His rescue team consisted of himself and CIA Steve, together with Sam and Tom from the SBS. Plus there were a dozen Northern Alliance soldiers. These Afghan fighters had served with General Dostum for many years, and they knew the layout of the fort well. It was their job to help guide the British and American soldiers to their objective - the two missing CIA agents.
The Major's plan was to advance some 300 yards along the outside of the fort wall to the point where it met the north-eastern tower. Then they would climb over and advance through the fort's interior to the General's HQ building. The plan's biggest weakness was that on that last leg they would be totally exposed to enemy fire. But the only way the major knew into the HQ building was through a small entranceway on the inside of the fort - the very place that the charging enemy fighters were now trying to get to. This put the rescue party and their enemy on a direct collision course. None of the men had any illusions as to how dangerous, if not suicidal, was their mission. But the US military's esprit de corps has it that no man should be left behind. And so CIA Dave and Mike Spann had to be located and rescued, or if they were dead, their bodies recovered.
Creeping out of the fort entranceway the four special forces soldiers turned and headed north, keeping as close to the cover of the fort wall as possible. Moving stealthily and favouring the shadows, they aimed to advance as far as they could without being spotted. But the rescue team hadn't covered more than half the distance to the northeastern tower, when suddenly, there was the scream of an incoming mortar round. Tom, Sam, CIA Steve and Major Martin threw themselves flat on the deck, as the shell went crashing into the earth some 80 yards behind them. Within seconds, there was the whoosh-crump! of further incoming mortars as the enemy began to zero in on their position. The rescue team had been spotted, and if they stayed where they were the enemy would soon be dropping mortars right on top of them.
"C'mon! MOVE!" Tom yelled, jumping to his feet and taking the initiative. He motioned for the Afghan fighters to do likewise and follow his lead. "Get movin'. Move your fuckin' arses. NOW! MOVE!"
Tom waited until all the fighters were on their feet and running forward, before bringing up the rear. They charged towards the north of the fort caution thrown to the wind with the Afghan fighters in the lead. Behind them they could hear the mortar barrage creeping ever closer. Suddenly, up ahead of Tom, one of the Afghan fighters placed a foot on the ground and it just exploded. One moment he was running, the next there was a boom! and he was flying through the air, with his arms and legs flailing, before landing with a dull thump. As there had been no scream of an incoming shell, Tom knew that this was no mortar round. In a split second he realised what was happening.
MINES! He thought to himself, in horror. We're running through the centre of a fucking minefield.
Tom remained frozen to the spot, momentarily paralysed by fear. His shocked mind wondered what madness could have led the Afghan soldiers - who, on and off, had occupied this fort for decades - to allow them to route their rescue mission through the centre of a fucking minefield. Then he snapped himself back to the present, and as he did so his overriding concern was for his SBS mate, Sam, and the two US officers, who were racing ahead of him seemingly blind to the danger all around them.
"MINES!" he screamed, trying to get his voice to carry above the noise of the battle. "It's a fuckin' MINE FIELD, Sam. FUCKIN' MINES!"
The pace of the action seemed to slow right down now, as Tom watched his three fellow soldiers come to a dead halt up ahead of him. As if in slow motion, they turned back to look at him, the shock and uncertainty written large across their faces. Tom felt himself making a wide, slow sweep of the area in front of him with his left hand - as if to point out the minefield all around them. Then he was jabbing his finger repeatedly at the fallen Afghan fighter, whose right leg had been totally shredded in the explosion, and mouthing the word, "MINES! MINES! MINES!
Sam, CIA Steve and Major Martin still looked confused. They hadn't seen the mine go off and it would make far more sense to them that a mortar round that had taken out the fallen Afghan soldier. So Tom took a few fearful steps forward towards Sam, who was the nearest of the three to him.
"MINES!" he yelled in Sam's ear, and then over at the others: "IT'S A FUCKIN' MINE FIELD."
As Major Martin, CIA Steve and Sam suddenly understood, they glanced down in horror at their feet. At the same time Tom could hear the mortar rounds creeping ever closer. They were barely 50 yards away now, and the noise of their detonations kept getting steadily louder, as the mortar barrage came after them. For a few seconds they were all rooted to the spot, frozen with indecision. If they moved ahead, it was into a minefield. If they turned back, it was into that fearsome mortar barrage. But then there was the long, hollow hooowl of another incoming shell, and as the noise drilled deep into Tom and Sam's skulls it sounded as if the round was about to land right on top of them. The two SBS soldiers hit the deck and embraced as they waited for the impact - as this one clearly has their names written on it.
"This is it, bro'!" Sam yelled.
"Nice knowing you!" Tom yelled back, just as the mortar round hit some half-a-dozen yards in front of them.
But rather than an ear-splitting, flesh shredding blast of high explosives and razor-sharp shards of hot steel, there was just a dull, sucking flop! as the shell impacted with the soft ground and failed to go off. Either it was a blind or a dud, or the soft sand has prevented it from exploding. Or perhaps the enemy had forgotten to disarm the mortar's safety fuses. On either side of the British and US soldiers mortars started impacting now - but several more of them failed to explode. Even so, trapped in the midst of a minefield and with mortar shells raining down on them like this, the chances of survival didn't look too good for the two SBS soldiers and their US and Afghan allies.
Suddenly, with a wild-eyed look at his SBS mate, Sam leapt to his feet and started charging through the centre of the minefield up ahead of them. Forcing himself to overcome his fear, Tom jumped up and raced after him, and then the rest of the rescue team were following their lead, pounding their way across the minefield towards the northeastern tower of the fort.
It seemed to take an age to cross the minefield, each step haunted by the dread of shredding flesh and bone. But in reality it could only have been a few seconds before Tom and Sam reached the shelter of the massive tower. They collapsed, breathless, in the cover of the wall - and for the first time since the assault began they risked a silent prayer. Their fellow soldiers charged into the shelter of the wall behind them. Sam and Tom crouched there, staring at each other in wide-eyed fear. It was several seconds before they'd got their breathing under control, or stopped their hands from shaking. How was it that they were still alive? Behind them, there was the body of the Afghan fighter lying where he'd fallen, his lifeblood draining into the desert sand.
Once they'd caught their breath, the major signalled for the rescue team to move forward. The twelve Afghan fighters scrambled up the rampart first and onto the top of the wall. As soon as they made the battlements, they started taking incoming rounds from the enemy. Sam, Tom, Major Martin and CIA Steve followed them up the sloping earthen ramp at the base of the fort's wall. As they reached the top, the Afghan fighters leaned down from the parapet so that the British and American soldiers could grab hold and get a helping hand up onto the wall.
Sam and Tom went up first. As they did so there were rounds buzzing past their heads like a swarm of giant, angry bees, and to either side of them the battlements were getting blasted apart. CIA Steve and the major followed quickly. But as they did so there was the terrifying whoosh! of approaching RPGs. Suddenly, two grenades slammed into the wall just below them, with a deafening blast. In a split second the wall was enveloped in a swirling mass of smoke and debris.
"ALLAHU AKHBAR! ALLAHU AKHBAR!" the brothers yelled in delight, as they saw the first RPG round smash into the wall just below where the enemy soldiers were trying to break into the fort.
"Die, you whores!" Ali roared, as he waited for his RPG-loader to fit the next grenade onto his weapon. This brother was good and quick and within seconds the next round was ready. Ali lined up the sights on the same spot. "This fort is ours - so die like the whore dogs of the Koffar .."
His last words were drowned out in the roar of the back-blast of the RPG firing. The rocket propelled grenade streaked across the compound, leaving a smokey trace in the air like a vapour trail. Then a great gout of smoke and flame shot out from exactly the spot where the enemy were trying to breech the wall. There was a second round of delighted cheering as Ali and the brothers saw two matchstick figures falling from the wall headfirst into the fort.
Ali and the brothers were gathered at the central gateway, taking cover in the mud-walled buildings clustered at the base of the wall. It was a perfect vantage point from which to put down fire onto the northern section of the fort, and the positions of the Afghan, British and American soldiers. And it was from here that they had been launching their attacks across the compound to seize Dostum's HQ building. That was the key target of their assault now. The brothers knew that the American CIA agent - and maybe some foreign journalists and aid workers - were pinned down inside that building. Kafir prey, ready for the killing.
Behind the brothers Ahmed had established a mortar fire position, taking advantage of the shelter afforded by the thick mud wall. With one of the 80 mm mortars from the arms store, he and a team of two brothers were putting down sustained mortar fire onto the enemy. Not only was Ahmed a seasoned mortar operator, but he was one of the few brothers strong enough to manhandle the mortar and its base plate. He kept shifting it from one spot to another, continuously changing his position to avoid getting targeted by the enemy. It was a trick that he had learned during his years fighting with the Taliban, and he was putting it to excellent use now. Three rounds in quick succession dropped down the mortar tube, and Ahmed had the gun up on his shoulder and was running to the next position. Slam! The base plate was dropped onto the ground again, the trajectory checked, and another three rounds were fired - Boom! Boom! Boom! Then it was up again and on to the next position, before they were spotted.
Over at the gateway, Ali had a third RPG round ready now, but just as he was sighting the weapon on the same section of the fort wall and preparing to fire, a sustained burst of gunfire came back at him and he was forced to dive for cover into one of the buildings. The fire was coming from the enemy positions on the eastern entranceway tower, and it had them well and truly pinned down. By the sound of the weapon, the accuracy and the rate of fire - even the noise the rounds made as they whirred past his ears - Ali could tell that this was not an AK47, or any of the other Soviet weaponry with which he was familiar.
As he crouched in the darkness waiting for a chance to return fire, Ali exchanged glances with the brothers gathered around him. Instinctively they knew that this was no group of Northern Alliance soldiers that they were up against now. The rounds coming at them were smaller than anything that the Northern Alliance whores used. These were 5.56 mm rounds - the calibre used by the Koffar American dogs and their Allies. And the fire coming at them was well targeted and sustained - most likely a team of several gunners putting down short bursts and working in conjunction with each other. It was far too disciplined for Afghan soldiers, of that Ali was certain.
On two sides Ali was faced with the cursed, infidel enemy - the American and British dogs. And how he ached to kill more of them.