DESPERATE FOR RELIEF
All in all, by the end of the siege’s second week we were in need – desperate need – of any form of relief.
We got it.
Captain Curry had mentioned to me that there might be another sniper pair coming our way from somewhere.
When they turned up one day in the middle of a big firefight, it was totally out of the blue. Nobody quite worked out how they’d got there either; not even Captain Curry.
I was over in the Pink Palace when I got a call on the PRR [personal role radio] to come up to the Ops Room.
Curry wanted to see me.
‘Oh, hi Dan, thanks for coming over. I want you to meet these two chaps. They’re a sniper pair from the .
. .’ he paused, as if considering the options, then continued, ‘er, the Royal Marines. They’ve come to help us out here for a little bit.’
The first bloke extended his hand. He was in his late twenties, clean shaven, with mousy blond hair and a West Country accent. His haircut was the normal regulation short back and sides and he wore the usual British military combat fatigues.
A COCKNEY NAMED JUST BUZZ
Then the second stepped forward.
‘Hello, mate, I’m Buzz.’ He was a cockney.
Interesting. First name only. And Buzz didn’t wear any rank either.
‘Dan Mills. Good to meet you.’
Buzz looked nothing like us. He was older and shorter than John, in his thirties and stood at about five foot seven, as well as unshaven, with at least three days’ stubble. He looked scruffy, with just a dark T-shirt on and a thin blue flak jacket over it, and a pair of civvy boots that weren’t desert colored. In fact, the only military thing he had on was a very dirty pair of desert combat trousers.
It took me about five seconds to work out he wasn’t Royal Marines.
Might have been once, but not any more. He also carried a bloody large valise over his shoulder that was almost as tall as himand looked extremely heavy.What was in that? Despite Buzz’s appearance, both men were very polite and professional.
‘Can you give us a bit of a show around? We’d be grateful,’ said Buzz.
‘Pleasure.’ I was happy to have any help we could get.
A ROOFTOP VISUAL TOUR
Chris and I showed the mall the positions we were using, and gave them a visual tour of the city from the roof.
Buzz asked if it was OK if they worked from Rooftop sangar [firing position].
‘Be my guest, mate; shoot from wherever you want.’
‘Just one thing. John is, but you’re not Royal Marines, are you.’
Buzz just smiled. I’d come across a few of his type in my time. Always the same. They don’t say, and you don’t push them. You don’t need to. Everybody knows the game. Buzz had come down from Baghdad. He was a sergeant with his unit.
He was too polite to say it, but it was obvious to us that for him Al-Amarah was just some hell hole of a town he’d never heard of in the middle of nowhere. Compared with what he was used to doing, he must have been expecting to be bored stiff.
When the call came in, there’d been no other volunteers to go south with him from the unit. Instead, a regular Royal Marine had been collared for the job of being his number two.
‘The common conception in Baghdad is there’s nothing going on here,’ Buzz explained.
‘Is it now? Terrific.’
Buzz had been brought in for a specific reason. Our longs had a range of up to 1,000meters.Any target farther away than that, and we were just pissing in the wind. Literally, because the smallest gust would blow the round off trajectory at that distance.
THE ENEMY OUT OF RANGE
That put a lot of places the enemy loved to use out of our range. The bus depot on the north bank was 1,200 meters away, and the Yellow 3 junction right by the OMS [Office of Moqtada al-Sadr] building was at 1,700 meters. It was infuriating, because we could spot them running around up to no good but were powerless to stop them.
Someone in Abu Naji had good connections with his unit, and had put in a request for one of their sniper pairs because of the additional range of the weapons they use. We explained the problem to Buzz.
‘OK, roger that. We’ll see what we can do for you.’
Up at Rooftop, they unpacked their kit. They had two grip bags with them. One was full of ammunition. Out of the second came some whopping great big sights and two pairs of ear protectors. That meant only one thing.
Buzz finally unsheathed his valise. And there it was. A.50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle.
Oh hell yes.
BARRETT’S BIG BAD SNIPER RIFLE
I’d seen a Barrett before, but never fired one. It was known in the trade as the big bad mother of the whole sniper rifle family. Weighing a whopping 30-plus pounds, it measures five feet from the end of its specially designed square-shaped stock to the tip of the thickly grooved muzzle.
It was designed by the Americans primarily for use on the battlefield to take out armored vehicles; drivers or the engine blocks, it did for both. It was also excellent for destroying enemy inside strong defensive positions such as sangars.
The weapon took rounds the same size as the Soviet-made DShK [Degtyarev–Shpagin krupnokalibernyy]
heavy machine guns that had cut us up so badly on patrol with the OPTAG [operational and training advisory group] sergeants. The regular army uses .50 caliber Browning machine guns too, but only on a heavy tripod or welded to the roll bars of Land Rovers.
BUZZ’S PRIZED TOY
The Barrett has an accurate range of at least 2,000 meters, and sometimes farther still. Simply, the more gunpowder there is in the casing, the faster and farther the bullet will fly.
You can only use them in a static position because it’s too bloody heavy to carry around on patrol. The IRA had a Barrett in Northern Ireland, and used to fire it from inside a specially modified car trunk. They wreaked havoc with it for a few years on isolated army patrols in bandit country.
Buzz’s toy was going to do us a whole load of favors, and we were tickled to bits just at the very sight of the thing.
First, he put down a couple of zeroing shots into some rubble on the dam to make sure the journey hadn’t screwed up his sight settings. That’s when we really understood the need for the ear defenders. Hearing it fire was a joy in itself. It made a deafening boom-like a miniature artillery piece, and gave off an echo that lasted a good ten seconds. A big puff of dust erupted from the sandbag wall beneath the thing, and the whole wooden sangar quaked on its foundations. From that moment onward, we dubbed it ‘the Beast.’
‘Damn, man, that thing’s awesome,’ whispered Chris.
‘Tell me about it. Imagine what one of them slugs would do to an OMS man’s guts, eh?’
‘What guts. Put a round through his kidneys and he could stick his hand through his body to wipe his butt.’
A TECHNICOLOR EXPLOSION OF BLOOD AND FLESH
Neither of us wanted to look unprofessional in front of Buzz and John, but it was bloody hard to conceal our excited giggling.
The pair didn’t have to wait long for their first long-distance kill.
That afternoon, they spotted what must have been a senior OMS man standing on a rooftop right at the back of the bus depot. He was coordinating a group of gunmen having a hefty go at us from the north bank and an AK47 was slung across the front of his body.
Sitting next to them, I followed the shoot through the sights of my L96. The target was at least 1,600 meters away – the equivalent of sixteen soccer fields placed end to end. It was right on the limit of my eyesight in the heat mirage, even through my Schmidt and Bender sight. I had to strain to make the guy out.
Buzz fired. The round impacted right on the firing mechanism of his AK. Then a technicolor explosion of blood and flesh. Simultaneously, the man went flying backward out of his flip-flops like he was a puppet on strings, and straight off the back of the other side of the roof. No more senior OMS man.
It was the first of a good handful of kills that afternoon. The insurgency’s increasing mayhem provided no shortage of targets. Buzz was loving it.
‘I thought it was supposed to be quiet down here. Is it like this all the time, Dan?’
A MEAN NEW BEAST IN TOWN
‘Bloody excellent. This is proper war fighting down here, you know?’
‘Yes we do, mate.’
‘We don’t get any of this sort of work in Baghdad. If only the guys knew what they’remissing now. They’ll be gutted when I tell them about it.’
At midnight after a good twelve-hour session, Buzz and John announced they were going to get their heads down for a bit. They’d been traveling overnight, and, amazingly, the Beast actually seemed to have quieted things down just a fraction in the city. There was one mean new bastard in town and they all knew it.
The noise of the Beast alone was enough for the OMS brass to sit back and ask themselves what the hell we’d got our hands on. Then there was the damage it did to their men who’d got on the wrong end of it.
‘I’ll leave my rifle up here,’ said Buzz as he got up. ‘So any of your lads can use it if a long-range target pops up. Don’t be shy with it, she’s a real beauty.’
No danger of that,matey.
‘Use this bag of ammunition.’
He chucked over a tightly cross-squared bag fastened by a draw cord. It reminded me of the old bags you used to keep your gym shoes in at school. We respectfully waited until they’d got at least as far as the stairs down into the house. Then, as soon as they were out of earshot, we were like little kids in a sweet shop.
‘Oi, Danny, pass the Beast over here,’ whispered Smudge immediately. He was salivating to have his photo taken while firing it. ‘They did say don’t be shy.’
‘Forget it, Smudger. I’m the boss here, and anyway – you’re not qualified to use it.’
A cheap trick, but true. And the only time in my whole career that I’ve ever relished quoting stupid army red tape. Since Chris was also qualified to use such a marvelous weapon as the Beast, I justified us a few practice shots just in case we did need to have a go at any long-range targets.
And marvelous she truly was.
FULL METAL JACKET AND MORE
In every sense, the Beast gave off one hell of a kick. If you didn’t grip it good and hard, it could recoil off your shoulder blade and smack you in the face hard enough to crack your jawbone. Also, you’d be deaf for ten minutes without the ear protectors.
Chris and I put a couple of rounds into the giant metal leg supports of Yugoslav Bridge. They made a terrific row just rocketing around off its different struts.
While Smudge posed for his snaps, I had a poke around Buzz’s gym bag. There were three different types of round in there: the normal ‘full metal jacket’ brass ball rounds (like our green spot but a shit load bigger), some with tips painted yellow and red, and a third lot with tips painted grey.
‘Right, give us the Beast back over here. I want to know what these yellow and red ones do.’
I popped one into the chamber, pulled the cocking bolt back, and let it fly at the bridge again. On impact, it gave off a big bright yellow ball of light. Excellent. They were flash-tips, to illuminate the target so you could see where your rounds were hitting at very long distance.
Oost and Des were awe-struck, and watched every movement I made like two obedient little puppy dogs.
‘Try a grey one, Danny,’ suggested Des.
BLOWING UP AN INSURGENT SHELTER
‘Yeah, let’s see what the grey ones do.’
I popped a grey one off. Boom. It impacted on the bridge with a bloody great explosion.
Des was beside himself. ‘Wow, man! What the hell was that bad boy?’
I had a good idea. I took aim at a car that someone had abandoned on top of the bridge. It had been bothering us there anyway. OMS fighters could use it as cover to shoot at us. At least that was my excuse.
The round piled straight through the engine casing and exploded somewhere in the middle of the block, causing a small fire to ignite. Yes. They were armor-piercing.
‘Awesome, man, awesome!’ They were Des’s new favorites.
An armor-piercing round fired from a Barrett would punch through steel with some ease. It’s greatly strengthened casing and specially shaped nose do the initial damage, before the bursting charge encased within its body finishes the job. Chris and I popped a good dozen more grey rounds through the abandoned car until we found its petrol tank. Then it properly exploded and burnt down into just a shell we could easily see through. No more hiding behind that.
Buzz was back up at dawn.
‘By the sound of things, you had a decent turn on the rifle last night, eh? I forgot to tell you, don’t use the grey-tipped rounds. They’re armor-piercing and they’re really expensive.’
A FEW DAYS OF DEATH BY BEAST
‘Ah, right. Sorry, Buzz, might be a little late for that . . .’
Buzz and John fitted in very well on the roof. By and large, they worked at their own pace and picked out their own opportunity targets. They didn’t need me to spoon-feed them anything.
That was their discipline and expertise, and it was fine by me. Buzz didn’t tell us much about what he did elsewhere. Out of respect we didn’t ask. It was enough for us just to know they were there with the Beast.
They certainly made life a bit more difficult for the enemy’s hordes. After a few days of death-by-Beast, the OMS coordinators learned to get their heads down and were forced to go about their warfare in subtler ways.
Sniper One by Sgt Dan Mills is a St. Martin Press publication. 384 pages, it costs $26.95.