The middle of December 2002 and I’d just left the Headquarters building and walked, along with my commanding officer, to the side of the parade square. Stretched out in front of us were not the trappings of an Air Assault Infantry battalion but lines of Green Goddess Fire Engines.
We had just received the news we had been hoping for and with little fanfare Colonel Tim Collins turned to me and said “RSM, lets get the battalion ready for War”
Just 3 months later I stood on the left side of Colonel Collins in Fort Blair Mayne situated in the middle of the Kuwait Desert.
“We go to liberate, not to conquer” It was an opening salvo from the CO, another unrehearsed speech like so many before. But for the public back home it resonated through the corridors of power, the pubs and bars and the sitting rooms. It found its way onto the wall of the Oval Office, an inspirational oratory meant for those not preparing to fight.
As expected the first days of war where chaotic as we prepared to unleash controlled violence on an enemy prepared to use chemical weapon. What we had not been prepared for was the real face of our enemy. They were starving poorly led, poorly equip wretches. They had no will to fight, no means to fight and no understanding of what was going on.
The 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiments mission in those early days was to secure the Ramilya oil fields and the Gas Oil Separation Plants dotted around the desert. My role was to take control of the prisoners of war and immediately I was confronted with 500 enemy soldiers bewildered, starving and scared.
I always remember the conduct of my men, those scared young soldiers fighting as I was in their first war. They showed compassion very rarely talked about when people mention the Iraq war. They gave away their own food and when ordered to stop they scavenged for food from nearby building just to feed the starving Iraq prisoners. They’re not taught this but it’s the humanity in men you find even in war.
Amongst the prisoners there was those who were seriously injured and who quickly succumbed to their wounds. The gentleness shown by the men of 1 R IRISH was incredibly moving. They took the body, dug a deep grave so the ferial dogs wouldn’t dig it up and then, taking a compass bearing towards Mecca, they laid him to rest with his head towards this holy sight. An Iraqi colleague spoke a few words before the grave was marked and recorded. It was the dignity we would all hope for in death, which can, during war, be overlooked.
In early April 1 R IRISH were ordered to lead the breakout from the oil fields to the town of Al Madina southwest of Al Basra.
In Al Madina we were to learn what the war had become. The population were happy to see British forces and the scene resembled the liberation of Holland during WW2 with cheering crowd’s and kids running alongside our vehicles.
But we also found the population were ready to exact revenge on Baathist supporters in the town. A crowd had gathered in the market place surrounding three hapless men – murdering one they preparing to murder the other two. But quick intervention by the Rangers managed to secure the prisoners and they were dragged to a nearby hospital.
Entering the hospital we were faced with the ridiculous sight of doctors hurriedly ripping down dozens of pictures of Saddam Hussein while refusing to treat the Baath party supporters. The whole infrastructure of the country was quickly collapsing.
The advance north continued again led by 1 R RISH into the town of Al Quarna where three great rivers met, the Euphrates, the Shat-el-Arab and the Tigress – the legendary location of the Garden of Eden. While here the extent of the looting really manifested itself. We watched an Iraqi army barracks literally dismantled brick by brick, the looters leaving nothing but a barren space.
Our final advance took us into the town of Al Amara, the first unit to enter the town. Long gone were the Iraqi civilians lining the streets to herald our arrival. Instead there was a steady stream of men and boys pushing carts full of belongings looted from the homes of individuals who had fled north in the wake of our arrival.
I am asked many times what it was like to fight during the invasion of Iraq but the reality was there was no fighting and no credible enemy. We had been prepared to unleash hell on the Iraqi regime but it soon crumbled and what was left was a shattered helpless army. To take life for no reason would have been criminal.
So in terms of war fighting there was none, but there was honour to be found in the professionalism and behaviour of the men of 1 R IRISH. For its part the battalion was awarded its first battle honour since Korea “Iraq 2003”. I was proudly awarded the Queens Commendation for Bravery for preventing the murder of Baathist supporters in Al Madina.
We had gone to war with little preparation and equipment but we never complained. We just remembered the words of Colonel Tim Collins “We will go to war with what’s in our pockets, the rest will follow us”