November in Afghanistan brought a chill in the morning and I welcomed that. Coffee steamed in front of me on the table whose legs were breeze blocks and a hessian covered wooden plank served as a table. Here I’d write the day’s events. Yesterday had been a pretty busy one with 2 fire missions. The Royal Marines had been ambushed again and the Fire Support Team requested salvos of High Explosive shells to be rained down on the ambush point.
Time was something we had a lot of and the gaps between attacks on our Base, FOB Inkerman, would be plugged with lessons. This afternoon WO2 Harris would be taking us on an ECAS (Emergency Combat Air Support) lesson. I had a spare hour to kill and the Taliban hadn’t thrown any rockets at us yet. It was an afternoon thing they had with us and it was usually the 107 rocket variety. I decided to crack open my rifle and give it a clean; I mean a good clean – bullets and all. I removed the magazine from the housing and meticulously took out each round, laid them on my tan sweat rag. I wiped down each 5.56mm bullet, the ball and the tracer. I had three tracer near the top of my magazine. I’d use the first ball round to get the drop on anyone I had the rare occasion to see, then the next were tracer to steer my colleagues on to the target. If I got the drop on someone, then they would have severely fucked up and so would have I, as I was an artilleryman who worked in a Command Post.
That afternoon at the lesson, we were all lined up, by the western wall, sat down on our Osprey Body Armour. That stuff weighed a ton, despite me not using all the pouches and shoulder pads, hip pads etc. There was just too much shite – if you had the entire lot on, you’d hardly be able to move and I wasn’t a particularly big guy. I’d had pouches for 40mm grenades that I never had, I had a holster for a 9mm pistol I never had either. All this shite was kept at the bottom of my bergen.
I seemed to be the only fucker with a rifle and there were about 15 of us here. To my north was ‘Sangar West’ and there were ammunition boxes that formed steps up to it. To the right there was a mud hut with cack in it – I think it was cack, it looked like camel shit and corn husks to me and lots of it.
WO2 Harris began to speak, he introduced the lesson by explaining the reasons why we had ECAS procedures. Several of the guys looked at each other. One looked at me. Yeah. I felt that too. It was something indefinite, but it was there, a ripple in the air: a shudder of sand.
“Body Armour on guys!” I shouted and stood up. I hoisted the dusty osprey armour up and got my head in to it like it was a lead T-Shirt.
The jack hammering of an automatic weapon filled the air. It was the 50 cal by the sound of it. That got everyone moving to their respective Light Gun. I looked up at the sky, it was an azure blue and I remember seeing a fine ribbon of white. There were men in pressurised suits up there. There were layers of altitude in thousands of feet. An A10, an F16, a drone (armed and unarmed) and above that, a satellite: all on call. A thunder-crack of noise, deafened me as a shell burst. It may have been an RPG warhead as they were pretty noisy and they had plenty of those at hand.
“I’m going to check up on the guy in the Sangar,” I told WO2 Harris, “Vulawa is up there. I’ll keep him company.” This was Gunner Nereo Metuisela Vulawa and his wife was expecting a child.
“Do your armour up before you go then,” he warned me and I duly did the Velcro up.
Bombardier Chinery was already in the sangar opening up a box of 7.62mm ammunition with a leatherman tool. “Opel Three One Charlie, target in white compound, four hundred metres to the north, Out.” He answered the radio which had comms to Metal Zero the Marine Tac HQ. Tac HQ was only 120 metres to our east, they were trying to piece together where the attack was coming from. There was already Mortar Locating Radar working and triangulating the cracks and pin pointing them to Kilo Alpha 417. It was likely the Taliban were firing from that compound and then using another firing point for small arms fire and RPG.
“Get on that compound mate. Take your time.” Chinery said to Vulawa who cocked the GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) with a right hand, pushed the handle forward and brought the hand back up onto the stock to keep it in place on his right shoulder. When the gun fired it pierced my ears and shook the dust into blizzarding smoke.
A Staff Sergeant came up to see what all the fuss was about. He wrinkled his brow at the green zone to the north. He was a bald fellow and you could see the horizontal lines on his forehead easily, so you knew what sort of mood he was in before he got to you.
“What’s the fucking crack? Where’s it coming from?” He asked and then said, “Reminds me of fucking Basrah. We came under contact from the fucking chavs there – in their trackie bottoms, man u tops and AKs. Cunts….” He paused a while, then. “FUCKING HELL!!” We began to take incoming small arms fire. Cracks over the sangar! We ducked.
“Fuck this, I’m going outside,” I said and leapt down the ammo crate and out onto the side. I was only about 5 metres from the GPMG and it deafened me from there as it fired out 7.62 at a compound beyond the front field. Dust, sand and shite seemed to fly everywhere when it fired. There were shouts from the sangar. “You ALRIGHT!??”
“Yeah!” I shouted back.
“I’m gonna take the fucker out w’me 40mil.” I heard this behind me. A young lad, wide eyed and fumbling with his SA80 and the attachment it had below the barrel, came up to me. It was a grenade launcher he had under the barrel.
“You sure you can reach whatever it is we’re firing at?” I asked. Then, “That’s not loaded it is?” He shook his head – thank fuck for that!
The fire was directed at the compound, or cluster of them, but whether we were taking anything from there was another matter. I peered through my SUSAT to the bone coloured building, an electrical box of some sort was attached to a pylon. I thought I could see flashes coming from there, might have been our strikes on it. There were marines, gurkhas, and ANA opening up on it.
I looked around, in time to see one of our Light Guns go bang. A flash, even in that 2pm afternoon sunlight, it was visible. I thought I could see a black speck leave the barrel and then there was a pressure wave gently nudging me forward.
Fuck this. I pulled back the cocking lever of my SA80 and immediately had this strange feeling I was doing something very naughty and I was going to get told off. A bit like stealing sweets from my 5 year old sister. I paused, dismissed the guilt, brought the SA80 into my shoulder like a good soldier and raised the SUSAT eyepiece up to my right eye. All smoke, haze and some flashes. I heard a whining noise.
Below, a motor bike rode from left to right. Just how the rider didn’t notice the cacophony of noise, I don’t know. He had all their shopping in the back stowed in a holdall, balanced on the back wheel. The bike slowed to a halt, the rider must have been doing a risk assessment, but didn’t factor in the RPG that whizzed overhead and detonate in mid air. The hapless rider did a u-turn and went back in the opposite direction back to Sangin.
The guy to my right at the front wall shook his head. And brought his rifle up, “Can’t see a fucking thing.”
I thumbed the selector and made sure it was at ‘R’ for repetition, not that it mattered anyhow. Forefinger pushed the safety catch to ‘F’ and I lined up the Tritium pointer on to the metal electrical sub-station. Oh shite!
I twisted the range on my SUSAT to 400metres. It looked 300 or 200, but I didn’t have a clue to be honest. “What’s the range!?”
Chinery up in the Sangar shouted back, “Uh, I dunno… 400? Try 400!”
Lucky guess – he was Observer after all. I steadied my breathing, but couldn’t. My heart was pounding to the beat of a Prodigy tune. “Watch my tracer,” I said and in that moment it was perfect quiet. They heard me and I applied pressure on to the trigger. My heart faltered as the crack went in to my skull and rang there, the rifle bucked in my shoulder, again, again and again, then…. fuck?!
I just fucking cleaned this 1 hour ago!!! It was jammed. I’d fired about 4 rounds. I heard a squeal of pain. The guy to my right was fishing out a hot case from his body armour. My spent case had flown and landed in between his armour and skin – I bet that fucking hurt.
I cleared the jam and fired another round. The GPMG hammered away, dust and sand going everywhere. I cocked and fired. Cocked and fired.
“Dougy! Dougy!! Hey! Hey!!!”
I stopped and turned. WO2 Harris stood there, he’d been up in the sanger for a while. “You can go now, Dougy. You’re about as much use as a fucking ashtray on a motorbike, firing that.”
He was right. I was firing a pea shooter.
“And. You!!” He pointed to the guy who was inspecting the 5.56mm shaped red mark on his chest, “Are not firing that!!” He pointed a gloved finger at the grenade launcher.
I began to walk back feeling light headed, not sure what I’d just done. Fire crackers went off behind me and I felt vulnerable. Like walking back to your bed in darkness and expecting some hand to grab your shoulder, the spidery fingers of death.
I got back in to the cool shade of the Command Post and re-stocked on Ammunition (I had an extra 100 rounds) and the rest of the crew scribbled and carried on with the remainder of the Fire Mission. There was this feeling of detachment for while and then realised it was the first time I’d fired the rifle under contact.