During the middle of our 2004 tour in south-eastern Iraq, the battle group intelligence cell assessed that escalating insurgent attacks were being launched from the Majidayya estate in Al Amarah, a ramshackle city beside the Tigris River not far from the border with Iran.
Operation Hammersmith was planned as a battle group-level mission to encircle the estate during the night using a mixture of armour and armoured infantry, followed by house-by-house search-and-arrest operations by troops from the battle group’s infantry companies.
An immense convoy of armoured vehicles approached the city along Purple Route, as it was known on the military mapping. My call sign, Delta-30, was nestled in the middle of the procession like an obedient duckling. With no navigation to worry about, I relaxed with my head and arms outside the commander’s cupola, enjoying the warm flow of desert air across my face. There is no better feeling on a tank.
The fundamentals of urban combat for tanks don’t really change, in much the same way Hamas demonstrated how evil and the human capacity for demonic butchery remain constant.
The latest iterations of the Merkava series of main battle tanks, which the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are taking into Gaza, are considered roughly equivalent to that of the British Army’s Challenger 2 main battle tank, which I was charging around in during 2004.
Whether 2004 or 2023, you can’t turn your tank around in a narrow street if you take the wrong turn. Similarly, if you throw a track when hemmed in by buildings, you are buggered. It’s always a nightmare to see and orient yourself adequately when the turret hatches are closed, and your gunnery systems often can’t engage targets because they are too close in the tight confines of an urban setting.
By the time the convoy came to a halt at the edge of town, the sun had begun to set as we closed our hatches. It wasn’t long before radios crackled with the first enemy contact reports on the battle group net.
Peering through my commander’s sight, I saw all hell breaking loose around the convoy ahead. Rocket-propelled grenades, fired from launchers mounted on the rooftops, rained down onto the Warrior armoured vehicles transporting the infantry. Their turrets traversed left and right, sending back streams of 30mm shells on auto-fire.
I saw a figure crouching behind a roof, an RPG launcher on his shoulder
DOUF!-DOUF!-DOUF!-DOUF!-DOUF!-DOUF! rang out six times in rapid succession. A 30mm round is big enough to be held in both hands. A Warrior gunner casually told me about the great burst of red mist when six rounds of 30mm auto-fire hit their human target.
Tracer rounds carved up the looming darkness, cutting across the road in all directions. Explosions from RPGs flared all over the convoy. Some vehicles appeared to be ablaze (it turned out to be only material on the outside of vehicles that had caught fire) as smoke plumes filled the air and swirled down the length of the convoy.
As the firefight raged on, the convoy began to edge forward — a prudent course of action, as opposed to just sitting there being blasted by the enemy.
Inside Delta-30 we double checked that our hatches were battened down securely. Suddenly the right side of the turret shuddered, accompanied by a low, sonorous boom from an impacting RPG.
“Traverse right!” I shouted.
The gunner forced the turret around at full speed, whilst the operator on the other side stood bracing himself with his hands against the roof.
“I think I’ve got something, boss,” the gunner said through the tank intercom. “Hard to tell with the smoke, but it looks like movement on the roof.”
“Okay, let me take a … ” — again the turret shuddered.
“Coax RPG man — top of roof!” shouted the gunner, spotting one assailant.
My commander’s sight was slaved to the gunner’s at that point, meaning it showed me exactly what the gunner was looking at. I saw a figure crouching behind the lip of a roof, his head wrapped in a keffiyeh, with the long, narrow silhouette of an RPG launcher positioned on his shoulder.
“On!” the gunner shouted, confirming he had lasered the target, enabling the tank’s computer systems to calculate the range and make necessary adjustments so the fall of shot would be accurate.
“Go on,” I replied, giving the somewhat regal command as per the Royal Armoured Corps’ established fire order sequence, whilst also trying to use my most measured voice — it was all pretty damn exciting, to be honest, and I didn’t want the crew to hear me squealing over the tank intercom.
In the magnified sight, the 7.62-mm tracer rounds interspersed throughout the chain of ammunition rattling through the machine gun. To assist the aim, they glowed like lozenge-shaped fireflies arcing up to the rooftop. They hit low and left of the target.
By now, with Delta-30 and the convoy moving forward, the turret was traversing all the way round over the tank’s back decks. In this position the gunnery computer system struggles to maintain accuracy — added to which, the building was receding into the enveloping darkness behind Delta 30.
“Target stop,” I said despondently, feeling another insurgent had slipped through the net.
The gunner pushed on his control panel to traverse the turret back round to the front, before picking up a photo of his wife that had fallen onto the turret floor during the commotion and pinning it back to his gunner’s control panel.
The convoy reached a predetermined point. Delta-30 was tasked with splitting off to escort a platoon of four Warrior vehicles, and the infantry being carried in the back, to where the soldiers would dismount. They were to establish a section of the outer cordon encircling the area, in which the search and arrest operation would occur.
We were no longer a duckling, but the lead call sign. This changed everything.
As Delta-30 headed down a narrow single road hemmed in by buildings and rooftops that could contain any manner of threat, the crew immediately quietened in correlation to tension rising.
I concentrated every fibre of my being on not getting lost. I knew, as did the rest of the crew, of the myriad times I had got lost during endless training exercises before deployment.
The relatively straightforward road layout in Al Amarah was generally kind to a troop leader prone to “navigational embarrassment”. The cloak of night-time throws everything off, though, creating confusion and uncertainty. Even the familiar looks different amidst the darkness and shadows, especially when seen from within a closed-down turret.
The tiny visual offerings from the letter-box-shaped periscopes, dotted around the commander’s cupola and from my commander’s primary sight, were better than nothing but not ideal.
I knew that if we overshot the junction where we needed to turn, it would be a practical nightmare getting the line of vehicles behind to turn around in the confined space of the narrow street. Bunched together, their caterpillar tracks going forward and backward as they tried to do three-point turns, it would offer a prime opportunity for an enemy attack.
The junction turn I told the driver to take turned out to be the right one, and I cast my eyes heavenward in gratification. The satisfaction was cut short by an RPG slamming into the side of the tank from somewhere in the darkness.
Using his thermal night sight, the gunner spotted a group of figures, glowing ghoulish green in the thermal imagery, crouched on the ground. He let loose with the coax.
Over the tank’s intercom radio, I could hear him whispering the phrase taught at the Lulworth gunnery school as an aid to judge how long the trigger should be held down for each of the three recommended “killing bursts”.
Basher-75 maintained its holding pattern, moonlighting as the wrath of God
“Marilyn Monroe has big tits.” Release trigger. Press again: “Marilyn Monroe has big tits.” Release trigger, and then once again.
The turret swung hungrily from side to side. Silence. I was busy weighing up whether that was good enough to justify pushing on. Delta-30 could handle RPGs fired at it, but the Warriors were less well armoured. An RPG strike that threw a track would create a colossal recovery operation.
Another shudder on the turret’s side, followed by a tremor at the front answered my question. Insurgents were still out there, merrily popping off RPGs at us.
This warranted, I decided, calling for the services of Basher-75 — the AC-130 gunship, courtesy of the US Air Force, that was supporting the battle group operation from somewhere up in the dark night sky.
Basher-75 was a ludicrously heavily armed ground-attack variant of the C-130 Hercules transport plane. Whilst it serenely flew in circles at about 8,000 feet, Basher-75’s bristling array of canons jutting out of one side of the plane could acquire and accurately engage targets on the ground to devastating effect.
Unfortunately, another call sign had beaten me to it, and Basher-75 was busy on another task. I had to console myself with following that engagement on the tank’s radios, the military equivalent of lying on your hotel bed as a couple in the next room separated by a too thin wall goes at it like hammer and tongs.
“Targets will be engaged simultaneously,” said the Basher-75 operator over the radio, his voice dripping with Americano coolness. “Keep your heads low, it’s going to get hot down there.”
The radio nets across the entire battle group went quiet, almost in reverence. Then it came, a sound like no other, that all Al Amarah must have heard.
At our location it appeared the aircraft’s ability to suddenly rain super-accurate and devastating fire like Zeus from out of the night sky had rubbed off on the insurgents who had been firing at us. No more RPGs came our way.
Delta-30 moved off with the Warriors following along, whilst Basher-75 maintained its holding pattern in the night sky, moonlighting as the wrath of God.
The rest of Operation Hammersmith proceeded according to plan (unlike the rest of the Iraq misadventure). The Israeli military face a gargantuanly harder task.
Urban areas are notoriously difficult to fight in, but fortified urban areas are even worse. For the past decade Hamas have been doing just that, fortifying and digging a labyrinth of tunnels across the entire city.
The population density of Gaza City is one of the highest in the world. Even though some residents have left, there will be civilians all over the place, amongst whom Hamas have every intention of blending in with to serve their ends.
Some commentators are comparing the forthcoming battle for Gaza City with the ferocious battle of Fallujah between US forces and Iraqi insurgents. Others are making comparisons with Stalingrad or Berlin, given how both sides see this fight as existential and will act accordingly.
I feel for the young Israeli tank commanders going in. They have God on their side, yes. At the same time, He never seems to make it easy for the Jewish people.
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