A touchline view of the Battle of Danny Boy
An apparent uptick in public interest about the British Army in Iraq includes a dramatic rendition of the Battle of Danny Boy and its aftermath
Across the country WhatsApp groups of British Army veterans and their friends still serving are bristling with discussions about the latest public renderings of our military adventures. It had seemed that our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan were all but lost to public consciousness.
But perhaps there is still room for some sort of debate and reckoning given the recent release of Simon Akam’s scolding account about the British Army since 9/11 in The Changing of the Guard. On top of that, BBC Two has a forthcoming factual drama, Danny Boy, about the soldier Brian Wood who, after fighting in the so-called Battle of Danny Boy in 2004, faced accusations of war crimes related to one of Britain’s biggest ever public inquiries, the Al-Sweady Inquiry, which, like everything else to do with Iraq and the British Army — painfully and effectively dissected in Akam’s book, going off reports from a veteran friend reading it — ended up mired in farce and ignominy.
Seven years after the Battle of Danny Boy, it was a typically blistering hot Texas summer’s day when a large official-looking brown envelope arrived at my apartment in Austin, where, after leaving the army in 2010, I was forging ahead with a journalism degree to take me away from all that had come before while wearing the uniform of a British Army officer. As soon as I saw the envelope, I had an uncomfortable feeling. Inside were papers relating to the Al-Sweady Inquiry, part of an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by British troops I worked with in 2004 during Operation Telic 4. The inquiry’s namesake, Al-Sweady, an Iraqi national, alleged that his nephew was unlawfully killed following the Battle for Danny Boy on 18 May while detained at Camp Abu Naji — another five Iraqis claimed they were mistreated by soldiers during their detainment — the base of 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment Battle Group, which my tank squadron from The Queen’s Royal Lancers had deployed with to provide armoured support — a 72-tonne main battle tank can be highly persuasive when trundling down the street. The cover letter accompanying the paperwork requested I answer the enclosed questionnaire to ascertain whether I should attend the inquiry as a witness.
There was little danger of that, thank God. On the day of the battle, myself and the soldiers of 3rd Troop were ensconced in that most monotonous of military duties: 24-hour guard duty for the camp, manning the camp entrance and the sangars around the perimeter, as word spread round the camp of something big going down at Danny Boy. While I wanted nothing to do with the inquiry and its intrusion into my effort to devolve myself from all connections with the army, at the time of the battle my sentiments had been very different. I had wished with every fibre of my being to be involved. It was exactly the sort of event I had hoped for to exert myself courageously, committing some sort of valiant deed that might warrant a gallantry medal like the Military Cross that Wood received after the battle, and which might also redeem the one scrape with the enemy that I had had at that stage of the tour during a stint when my troop supported the 1 PWRR troops holed up in the nearby city of Al Amarah at CIMIC House, a compound that gained the reputation in the British press as a latter-day Rourke’s Drift.
My first encounter with the enemy hadn’t gone to plan, certainly not according to any plan that might give a chance of military glory. During a night-time fighting patrol through a dodgy part of the city, after the local insurgents engaged us just short of Green 4, I ended up pinned behind a truck while the rest of the patrol did a fantastic job of returning fire at the enemy but also sending the bullets to where I was sheltering behind the truck and thereby taking me far too close to meeting my maker. The result had me cowering with, I imagine, an expression not dissimilar to that of the actor Anthony Boyle, who plays Wood in the BBC Two drama, judging by a screenshot in which Boyle looks absolutely and plausibly terrified while hunkering in a trench during the battle of Danny Boy. Hunkering similarly behind my truck hadn’t been the most celebrated of moments and, after escaping, I was keen for something more soldierly and impressive.
But as I stood beside the camp entrance watching the Warrior armoured vehicles of the battle group’s quick reaction force (QRF) tear away toward Danny Boy, I could only wonder at what might be happening. I was once again discovering my innate ability to do an excellent impression of Prince Rostov in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “All his dreams of distinguishing himself as a true hussar in this battle had been wasted. Their squadron remained in reserve and Nicholas Rostov spent that day in a dull and wretched mood.”
The Battle of Danny Boy was, like all close combat, mayhem
The deployment of the battle group’s QRF had been necessitated after a regular patrol of Warrior vehicles was ambushed while passing through Danny Boy, a check point on Route 6, the main highway running south from Al Amarah to the port city of Basra in the south. Danny Boy lay less than 7 kilometres from Majar Al Kabir, a hotbed of anti-coalition forces where in 2003 six Royal Military Police were surrounded in a building and killed. The ambush at Danny Boy escalated rapidly, according to an account in Richard Holmes’s Dusty Warriors: Modern Soldiers at War book about 1 PWRR’s tour (I remember showing Holmes around our tanks when he visited Abu Naji camp during the tour).
The enemy were well organised and dug into a system of trenches. Dismounts from the ambushed Warriors had to fix bayonets and assault the nearest enemy position. A Warrior followed beside the dismounts providing 30mm fire support right up to the enemy position until it could no longer depress its turret far enough to engage the trenches. The dismounts then split up and used pairs fire and manoeuvre — the first soldier giving covering fire while the second moved forward a short distance, went firm and gave covering fire to allow the first soldier to catch up, and so on — to break into the position.
It was, like all close combat, mayhem, which, judging by that screen shot, the new BBC drama may capture accurately. Unlike as so often happens with dramatic renditions of the military, this time the makers appear to have got the equipment and clothing absolutely spot on, and that look of haunted fear on Boyle’s face is all too familiar. The BBC to its credit has already done a sterling job with the gripping and harrowing five-part documentary Once Upon a Time In Iraq that unravels with jaw-dropping detail the invasion of Iraq and its descent into anarchy.
Grenades, automatic fire and bayonets were used to clear the enemy positions around Danny Boy. Once those reinforcements from camp arrived — finally including the arrival of the tanks of 4th Troop — the additional firepower swung the tide of the battle. By the end it was estimated that anything from 100 to 200 well-armed insurgents had been involved in the fight, with about 70 killed. Nine prisoners were taken along with captured enemy equipment included six RPGs, one 7.62 mm machine gun, twenty-four rifles and a vast haul of ammunition.
Many of the bodies were horribly disfigured as a result of high-velocity hits from rounds at short range
But then orders came from Brigade to bring all enemy bodies back to camp for identification. There was an assumption that a key individual wanted in connection with killing of the six RMPs might be identifiable among the dead. This was wishful thinking. Even if the individual was among the dead, many of the bodies were horribly disfigured as a result of high-velocity hits from 30mm and 7.62 mm rounds at short range. Grim work for the 1 PWRR soldiers and Wood after the battle. About 20 bodies were taken back to Camp Abu Naji along with the prisoners, resulting in an immediate backlash from locals due to the Muslim faith mandating that a body must be buried within 24 hours after death.
The commanding officer of 1 PWRR arranged to meet with the leader of the Majar Al Kabir town council to try and mitigate escalating tensions. An agreement was reached that the bodies would be collected the following afternoon at the Golden Arches, a large set of stone gates marking the turn-off from a main road to Camp Abu Naji. A large crowd of locals turned out to witness the handover, during which a rumour circulated that the dead had been captured alive and then executed. During thirty years of Saddam’s rule, Iraqis had come to expect such atrocities at Abu Naji. People entered the camp never to be seen again. Locals’ suspicions weren’t helped by the fact that at the same time pictures of torture in Abu Ghraib prison were airing across international and Iraqi media. The accusations trundled on after the end of the tour and through the years — spurred on by unscrupulous British lawyers fanning the opportunity for a lucrative case — hence Wood’s predicament, and hence the brown envelope at my Austin apartment.
After ticking the boxes and scribbling a note indicating that I hadn’t been involved at all in the battle and therefore couldn’t provide any evidence as an effective witness, I slipped the brown envelope into the mailbox at my apartment complex, enormously relieved to be rid of that unwelcome reminder intruding into my new Texas world.
There is so much about army life that the books and TV shows will never cover
Confident that its intrusion had been but an aberration, I went back to leaving all that behind me. It has clearly proven not quite as easy to leave it all behind, due to the rich assortment of gifts offered by the spectrum of post-traumatic stress disorder. Brian Wood has experienced all this to a degree far worse than most soldiers: after his service in Iraq, he endured years of legal investigation and the mental torture that went with it. I can’t remember if I knew or met him, but his face looks familiar. It’s more than probable that at the least we passed each other in Camp Abu Naji and he threw up a salute which I returned. Come to think of it, might he have been among those trigger-happy infantry maniacs sending barrel loads of red-hot tracer fire my way at Green 4 and coming all too close to bringing my tour to an embarrassingly early end? The former squaddie appears to have done good now, going off his best-selling book, his building a sportswear company and career as a motivational speaker, his tens of thousands of Twitter followers, and now a televised account of his travails. As to whether all of that is recompense enough for those years of suffering, only Wood can say.
As night descended following the Battle of Danny Boy, with the dead bodies brought back to camp awaiting the next development in the sorry saga, I made my rounds of the camp sangers to check on my soldiers — primarily to make sure they were still awake, no easy task given hours of staring into the pitch-black darkness of a balmy Iraq night. In the sangar being manned by my tank’s gunner, after greeting him and asking how he was doing, he confided to me that he was growing increasingly anxious. It turned out that he had had a stonking erection for about eight hours. During quieter moments at CIMIC House, the soldiers, as they are wont to do, had built up relationships with local traders. This usually meant buying cans of Coke and Sprite, but eventually, little did I know at the time, it extended to Viagra tablets available in the alleys of Al Amarah. My gunner had wanted to try out the goods before heading off on his two-week R&R and seeing his wife. Making more constructive use of the endless hours of a stretch of sangar duty made sense, to give him credit. I commiserated about the nuisance of it all while consoling him that all being well matters would have resolved themselves by the end of the guard shift, and, if not, we could look at approaching the squadron medic for further advice.
By the time the battle group commanding officer headed off to meet local leaders at the Golden Arches, the Viagra had worn off and my gunner no longer had an erection. There is so much that the books and TV shows will never cover. Perhaps that may be for the best regarding certain elements. But in loyalty to my WhatsApp chat group of veterans and officers, and in recognition of their justifiable concerns about the new BBC Two drama and the recognition that never was and never will be, if you do watch it, spare a thought for the good men of A Squadron from The Queen’s Royal Lancers. The “Death or Glory Boys”, no less — indeed, many of them, like the soldiers of 1 PWRR, were not much older than teenage boys when they deployed to Iraq — who were on that same tour supporting 1 PWRR, involved in all the battles, sweated and slogged just as much, and received no gallantry medals or book deals like Wood and other 1 PWRR soldiers from the tour.
Many good men who have served and died are entirely forgotten; those that return are often left to fight their own battles alone
I am not expecting much of a mention about A Squadron in the BBC Two drama, though perhaps there might be something about 4th Troop at the battle. It proved the same in Afghanistan in 2009: an absurd tour followed by books about the Welsh Guards Battle Group (Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan by Toby Harnden probably coming closest to a definitive account) and leveraging of the tour for promotions and career progression through the ranks of the British Army’s officer corps — as detailed in Akam’s book — while many good men who served and died are entirely forgotten, and those that returned are too often left to fight their own battles alone. (In addition to the mental health charity Combat Stress, I can vouch for the lesser known but handy counselling services for veterans provided by the NHS’s Transition, Intervention and Liaison Service — TILS — now renamed Op Courage, and well worth seeking out, rather than cracking on solo.)
Following Op TELIC 4, there may have been a Battle Group commendation for the squadron as a collective entity, someone on the WhatsApp group recalled. It didn’t have much of a ring to it at the time, and it still doesn’t. But I take pride in the fact that the 80 or so soldiers and officers of A Squadron went and did their jobs to the best of abilities while getting no special thanks or praise for it. That is just as it should be, really. Plus, at the same time, and as some form of consolation, in doing so we got to experience a type of love that most of you will never know. I’ll take that over a television documentary and other sundry narratives told.
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