By SERGEANT TERRY BRYAN
On a spring day in Basra in 2004, nine men from the Royal Horse Artillery found themselves surrounded by 200 Iraqis, all shooting to kill. The man who saved them is Sgt Terry Bryan, a modest 37-year-old father of three, who joined the Army at 16. Here, in our first extract from a new book in which medal-winning soldiers tell their stories, he describes how he won the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for his astonishing bravery.
Usually, the streets of Basra were teeming with life – workers, people looking for a job, street vendors, food stalls, taxis, buses, donkey carts. But not today: the place seemed deserted. So, already, our internal alarm bells were ringing.
Then we heard that one of our patrols was holed up in a small camp a bit further into town, with a hostile crowd building up outside. It was clear the guys needed extracting fast.
My unit’s task would be to cover a dangerous junction, a minute or so from their position, and protect them from any ambushes as they got out. All reasonably straightforward. I’d rounded the boys up before I went to the briefing and by the time I got back, they were in the armoured Land Rovers, ready to go.
There were four guys in mine and five in the other, which was commanded by my good mate Olly – Sgt Matt Oliver.
I’d known Olly for years and years. He wasn’t actually scheduled to come out with us, but he’d been lying around getting bored and decided to come along for something to do.
We headed out on a wide dual carriageway, which had an 18-inch concrete barrier dividing the lanes. We always kept an eye out for breaks in the concrete, so we could whip round and escape if we were attacked.
Our plan was to get to the junction then dive through one of these gaps. But just as we got there, and slowed for the turn, we realised it had been closed off with big oil barrels.
Simultaneously, the firing started – as though someone had turned on a switch. It was literally like a hail of bullets hitting the vehicle. I’d never experienced anything like it.
I could see men aiming at us from the tops of buildings, from windows and shop doorways, from behind walls. There were dozens of them, some as close as 30 metres.
They’d run out of a doorway, hose us down with half a magazine or loose off a rocket-propelled grenade and then run back inside. We couldn’t return fire: the onslaught was so intense we’d have been killed if we’d opened the doors.
I could hear hundreds of AK47 rounds ticking on the windscreen, the sides and the back of the Land Rover, interspersed with the distinct thud of heavier calibre rounds, probably from a Russian anti-aircraft weapon.
We were also being hit by the grenades. But the Land Rover’s armour was holding out and, strange as it sounds, I felt quite safe inside the vehicle – even though I knew that, sooner or later, one of those grenades was going to cause real damage.
We’re still moving at this point and I’ve got my head in a map, trying to plan an escape route. I can’t turn back, because we’ll be sitting ducks as we turn. I can’t reverse, because there’s very little rear visibility.
I can’t go right because of the concrete and the oil drums, and I can’t drive off left onto waste ground because our Land Rovers have got bogged down there before with the weight of their armour. The only thing to do is put our foot down and try to drive out of the killing area.
But even two kilometres on, there were still men shooting at us. Clearly, the whole thing had been well-planned: the angry crowd to lure us out, the breaks in the barrier closed off and hundreds of armed men at the ready.
Finally, we reached a roundabout – only to find all the exits blocked off. As we spun round, my Land Rover was hit on the left side by a home-made bomb, which blew away the left front wheel.
So now we’re travelling on three wheels, tyres shot away, rounds rattling and pinging off us non-stop. Then I realise that Olly’s Land Rover has been hit with a rocket-propelled grenade and is on fire at the front.
At that point, I started to worry a bit. But I still remember grinning to myself and thinking: “I bet you’re wishing you hadn’t volunteered for this, Olly.”
My driver, a young South African gunner called Frank Haman, suddenly spotted a break to the left and recognised the former Ba’ath Party HQ, which was now full of troops from the Iraqi Defence Force.
We had this amazing sense of relief – maybe we were going to get out of this after all. Then we realised that guys in uniforms were actually shooting at us from the building. They were meant to be on our side!
Ten or 15 metres later, both the Land Rovers were on fire and had effectively conked out. There were about 200 people outside, trying to get in to kill us.
For a moment, I worried about the vehicles falling into militia hands. Then I thought: “F*** it, I’ve not got a lot of choice here.”
The lads were all very young and inexperienced – most had only been in the Army a year to 18 months – but they went straight out into the firefight, all in good defensive positions, and started laying down suppressive fire.
Almost immediately, one of them killed one of the attackers. This guy was standing there, in a police uniform, reloading a rocket launcher. He was quite a distance away, but the young gunner dropped him, a nice shot.
At that moment, I remember thinking that we were going to have to take a lot more lives to stand any chance of surviving this.
Everything was happening at once at about 100mph. While I was crouching by the Land Rover, a grenade hit the wall a few feet above my head, showering me in debris.
I looked down and I could see rounds sparking all around us, sending up little dust clouds in the dirt. We were massively, massively outnumbered.
But there was a glimmer of hope: they didn’t like us returning fire. A few of the Iraqis were running off, and the fire from the others was getting wilder and more inaccurate. The lads saw this, and it boosted their morale.
I’d now managed to get through to the Operations Room. Normally, I’m very friendly and chatty on the phone, and when the captain saw my name on the caller display she was very relaxed. “Hello, Terry! How are you!”
I just shouted: “F***ing contact!” I couldn’t get my words out properly – my mouth had gone horribly dry and sticky, like when you’ve just woken up after a big drinking session.
In the background, even above the noise of the firefight, I could hear the captain shouting “Contact! Everyone be quiet!” and the whole ops room going silent.
“Where are you, where are you?” Unfortunately, I didn’t know. But I told her roughly and explained what had happened.
By now, the enemy, realising that they hugely outnumbered us, had become more confident again. At least 100 men started coming closer, still firing grenades and pouring hundreds of AK47 rounds our way.
You could hear them cracking overhead, smacking into the vehicles and walls nearby. It was only a matter of time before one or more of us was hit.
With the lads laying down short, two-round bursts of suppressive fire, I headed off with our medic for a scout around to find shelter. As we ran off down an alley, we saw a couple of blokes running towards us, firing.
Instinctively, we shot them and put them down. I didn’t feel anything at the time; to be honest, I wasn’t thinking much about what I was doing.
After spotting a semi-detached house nearby – with a driveway down one side and the garden enclosed in a wall – I called up the rest of the patrol and they piled in behind us.
We kicked the door of the house in and found a father and mother and three kids – two girls of around six and nine, and a baby. The parents were screaming and crying. They must have been terrified.
For their own safety, we rounded them up and got them into the cellar. I sat Frank Haman there, where he could cover the back door at the same time as making sure the family didn’t get out.
On the outside of the building was an external staircase leading up to a balcony, and there was obviously a danger that the attackers could get in that way. In fact, as one of my guys walked into one of the rooms upstairs, an Iraqi threw in a grenade.
The soldier pulled the door shut and shouted “Grenade!” When it exploded, he opened the door again and shot the guy, who was spraying the room with automatic fire.
All the blokes took up the right defensive positions, covering doors and windows. We could see men leaning over the walls of a big building next door, just spraying the upper rooms.
I was shooting back, but not wanting to hit them. I really didn’t want to kill anyone else, so I was aiming near to them, hoping they would get the message and p*** off. But they didn’t. They’d pop up, spray five or ten rounds from the hip, and pop back down again.
Eventually, I had to accept that I was going to have to kill people. One guy was no more than 10ft away, firing at me from behind a chest-high wall. The rounds were peppering all around me but, almost miraculously, missing.
I looked through my sight, aimed and fired, but I missed him – I don’t know how. I saw the bullet hole appear in the wall and thought: “Surely he’s not going to be so stupid as to come back up in the same spot, is he?”
Sure enough, up he popped. I shot him in the head and he fell away.
By now, we’d been been in the house for ten minutes, and there was more shooting than ever. I spent time with the guys upstairs, telling them little things like move away from the window, and stand two or three feet inside to make yourself less visible and a smaller target.
Like me, they didn’t really want to kill anyone. We just wanted the Iraqis to leave us alone, and go home to their wives and kids so we could go back to our mates.
I crawled downstairs on my belly, past a floor-to-ceiling window, and discovered that men were trying to get in through the back door. They were coming in waves, two or three at a time, and Frank Haman was just calmly knocking them back.
The door would open and Frank would shoot a guy and kick the door shut. A second later, the dead man’s mucker would be there, dragging the body away and then picking up his rifle to have a go himself. Frank would have to shoot him as well and shut the door again.
Another lad, Dan Cavidi, was helping him keep them at bay, but inevitably this meant they were neglecting the front door. So I took up a position covering that, just as the attackers started trying to come through it, and knocked two of them away.
Then I crawled back up the stairs. At the top, I found Olly on the phone, reclining on a settee and looking as though he was chatting to his mate. I had to laugh. It was like, “Make yourself comfortable Olly. Have you noticed we’ve got a few problems here?”
Back at the base they were mobilising some Warriors [armoured fighting vehicles] and Olly was trying to help them pinpoint where we were. Under fire and in a built-up area, it wasn’t going to be easy to get to us.
What made it worse was that our ammunition was now becoming a concern.
As I distributed my last 200 or so rounds of 5.56mm, I could see Olly shrugging his shoulders. He’d given the base a grid reference for the house, but we both had the feeling they wouldn’t be able to find us.
Once we ran out of ammunition, or if the enemy attacked in even greater numbers – well, that didn’t bear thinking about.
We didn’t need to say much. We all knew about the six Redcaps [Royal Military Policemen] who’d been surrounded and killed in the police station up in Al Majar al Kabir the year before.
I could see us getting overrun and then either shot, or worse – maybe dragged through the streets by our feet behind vehicles, paraded, tortured, beheaded on TV, that sort of thing. The same thing was going through Olly’s mind.
We decided that, if we were about to be overrun, we would take our own lives. We’d shoot the young lads and then each other. We were absolutely certain about that.
In between all the fear and panic, there were some bizarre moments. One of the young lads was shouting: “I need a p***, I need a p***.” We shouted back: “Well, just p*** on the floor.” He looked around. “I can’t,” he said. “It’s someone’s bedroom, this.”
It was hysterically funny at the time; in fact, we seemed to spend half the time laughing. The rest of the time I was terrified.
I did another round of all the lads, then crawled on to the balcony. For the first time, I got a really good view of absolutely loads of men, firing at us from all directions: they seemed to be psyching themselves up to storm the house. I lobbed a grenade into the middle of the mob.
Then I noticed a guy aiming a rifle at me – and, in that moment, he fired. One of the bullets came between my face and the wall, just above my ear. Three inches to the right, and it would have been game over.
As it was, I felt it go past and heard a massive crack as it hit the wall and showered my face with concrete and dust, filling my left eye with grit.
I was so disorientated that I stood up. I was staggering around on the balcony, trying to get this stuff out of my eye, in full view of all the people below me. Out of my good eye, I saw a guy throw a grenade up at me.
As I barged back through the door, it went off. The shrapnel hit me on the arm and in the inside of the thigh – it felt like a really stinging kick – and the shockwave smacked me down.
I looked up to see our medic, Ryan, lying motionless in front of me. My first thought was that the poor bastard had taken the full force. “I don’t believe it – the f*****g medic’s been hit,” Olly was saying. “Who’s going to sort us out when we get blown away?”
But as we watched, Ryan sat up and gave a thumbs-up: he’d just been winded. Naturally we started ripping into him. “Get up and fight, you lazy bastard … any excuse to lie on your belly and get your head down, you medics!”
Then Ryan showed me his other hand. In it was a grenade. He’d been following me out onto the balcony, having seen I was in trouble, planning to grenade the crowd.
“Pass it to us,” I said. “I can’t,” he said. “Ryan,” I said, “pass us the f******g grenade.”
He said: “I can’t … I’ve pulled the pin.”
We all collapsed in laughter again. Thank God he’d not let go of the bloody thing in the impact or we’d all have been screaming in agony or dead.
He crawled over to me, laughing, and passed it to me, being careful to hold it so it didn’t go off. I made my way painfully to the balcony and lobbed it into the mob below. That gave us a moment’s respite.
However, there was some seriously bad news. The phone, our lifeline, had died, and Olly couldn’t get it to work again. Without that link to the outside world, and the opportunity it gave us to direct the rescue team, we were almost certainly dead men.
Olly nearly hurled it against a wall in frustration but I put my hand up to stop him. We were looking at each other, close to tears.
We sat down next to each other, and didn’t say many words – just counted out enough rounds to take care of the lads and ourselves and put them in our pockets.
Olly was cursing. “If this was a f*****g Nokia, I could work the f*****g thing.” Most of the patrol phones were Nokias, but for some reason, this was a Siemens.
Fortunately, I knew a bit about Siemens phones, so I said: “Chuck it here.” A minute later, we were back on to the Ops Room. Talk about relief. Even better, they told us the rescue team was on its way.
Downstairs, there was a new problem: a car had been set alight and rammed into the front door. Suddenly, the house was filling with smoke. Oh well, I thought, at least a column of black smoke might attract the attention of the rescue team.
I returned to the top floor, looking for targets, trying to make every shot count. We were down to our last grenade, and 20 or fewer rounds per man.
I was especially worried about our two Minimis [belt-fed light machine guns]. They’d had only two or three hundred rounds to start off with and you could fire all of them in seconds if you weren’t careful.
They had proved a vital tool for suppressing the attackers and I didn’t want to lose them.
I remember kneeling next to one of the Minimi lads, Jason Bambridge, when a guy appeared and came straight for us. Bam Bam pressed the trigger and the rounds literally cut the guy in half.
Then came a shout from Olly: the rescue team had arrived in the area and were looking for us. On the balcony, over all the screaming and firing, I could faintly hear the sound of a Warrior. I shouted to the lads: “I can f*****g hear them, they’re coming!”
But although the Warriors were close, they couldn’t pinpoint our building. The only way to attract their attention was to go to them. So I climbed down from the balcony, past the burning car, through the garden and out into the street, in among the Iraqis.
They were quite surprised to see me, but they soon started firing again. It was bizarre – none of them hit me.
Everything seemed to go into slow motion. I could see rounds impacting and kicking up little dust spouts all round my feet and I’m thinking: “How come they’re not hitting me?”
A lot of the Iraqis had legged it when the Warrior arrived – it was firing its main machine gun and the guys in the turrets were firing, too. Within moments, the enemy were only a dozen or so strong. I could see bodies everywhere.
I ran back to the house, opened up the cellar door and asked the Iraqi family in my broken Arabic if they were OK. “Shlownak?”
“Naam zayn,” said the house owner. Yes, good.
It was time to leave, and the safest route to the Warrior was the back door. But Frank said he’d seen some Iraqis messing around outside it earlier. Maybe it was booby-trapped?
I said to Ryan the medic: “I’m going through there. Stand back – if it’s booby-trapped and it goes off, just f*****g drag me out to the Warrior.”
I braced myself, turned to the door and kicked it down. Nothing happened, except that it opened. No booby-trap.
I ran out and saw that the Iraqis had rammed cars right down the narrow alleyway. So we all had to climb over the roofs to reach the Warrior.
We got into the back, all lying on top of each other because they’re not built to take that many people. The rebels had regrouped and were starting to attack again. But we made it out OK, and within 15 minutes we were back in camp.
Everyone was really high – as if we’d been out on the town. Some were in tears – me included – and we were hugging each other and talking at 100mph while our mates stood around watching, as if we were freaks in a circus.
That night I couldn’t sleep, and neither could Olly, so we went to the TV room where we had the slightly surreal experience of watching Al Jazeera news footage of our Land Rovers on fire.
There were Iraqis dancing all over them, firing at the fuel tank, and, in the background, you could hear our firefight going off.
At about 3am, the Battery commander came in. He sat quietly with us for a while, then asked us to round up the other lads.
It turned out we’d all been given a new mission – to set up checkpoints on the main routes out of town to stop movement of weapons or terrorists.
At first, I thought he was joking. I thought maybe we’d be given a bit of time off to recover, if only to get some rest. But the worst thing of all was when the Doc told me I couldn’t go, that my eye and the shrapnel wounds needed time to heal.
My lads were being told they had to go out and risk their lives again, and I wasn’t with them. I felt really bad about it, really bad.
I also felt scared and vulnerable – a feeling that grew as the days passed, with the other lads out on duty and my part of the camp virtually empty. One lunchtime, we got mortared, and it really affected me.
I was fearful of leaving the block to go for a shower or to the toilet, because it meant exposing myself to danger outdoors. I actually stripped off in the corridor and poured bottles of water over myself instead of going to the showers.
Inside, I felt like a little kid, sick with fear. It was bizarre. I was lost in thought, dwelling on what had happened. Later, I remember going on my first foot patrol and shaking like a leaf. My breathing was so shallow that I was panting.
When the tour was finally over, my wife and I went on holiday. But I was on edge all the time. It was around November 5, and the noise of fireworks going off was terrifying. I found myself diving to the ground. I’d be lying there on my belly, shaking.
Then I’d go shopping and see people arguing over parking spaces, or mums getting cross with their kids, and think: “You are ridiculous.”
I just flipped. I said to my wife: “What the f*** are this lot bothered about? Do they understand how little some people value human life?”
I would look at civilians and think: “When I was shooting people and grenading them and nearly dying myself, you were probably down the pub, or watching telly, or deciding between a Mars bar and a Twix – you have no idea what it’s all about.”
I had a real attitude. It was a year after it all happened that I finally put it to bed.
Winning an award helped. It made me think: “Yeah, this really was something big that happened, big enough for me to get some kind of recognition. So it’s not surprising it’s been playing on my mind.”
At the same time, I felt guilty about the medal. No one else in my patrol got the recognition I thought they should have. Why me, and not them? They risked their lives, the same as I did.
I know that’s the nature of medals, but you still feel bad. Between the nine of us who were there that day, there’s a bond you’ll never break.
I still think about that incident in Basra every single day. I see the faces of the guys I shot and I feel bad about having killed them. In the end, though, you have to move on. I’m a soldier, this is my job, and that’s the way it goes.
• Extracted from IN FOREIGN FIELDS: HEROES OF IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN IN THEIR OWN WORDS by Dan Collins, to be published by www.mondaybooks.com on November 19, at £17.99. Copyright 2007 Dan Collins. To order a copy for £16.99 (p&p free), call 01455 221752