The heroism of a Royal Air Force Regiment patrol that stubbornly refused to submit during an ambush by Iraqi insurgents near Basra has been recognised with major awards.
Despite withering firepower from more than a dozen rooftop locations after 1 Sqn RAF Regiment came under a hail of gunfire that lasted 90 minutes, the Regiment gunners fought their way out carrying an shot comrade and another who had been mortally wounded.
Leading Aircraftman Martin Beard died during the battle in August last year as he pinned down insurgent gunmen firing from the flat roofs of buildings surrounding the market place at Al-Waki, a small village a few miles north of Basra Air Station that lay within the Area of Operation assigned to the RAF Regiment.
The Regiment’s task, then as now, is to protect the air station and the assets flying in and out by patrolling the several hundred square miles of desert around the Station against enemy action. As well as patrolling the immediate area around the air base, the Regiment conducts hearts and minds and reconstruction patrols in a wider area which takes in dozens of villages and communities - the aim being to foster good relations, demonstrate resolve to insurgents and improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis.
As a result of the action – the first major foot patrol battle involving the RAF Regiment since UK forces arrived in Iraq in 2003 – three of those involved in the “ferocious fire fight” at Al-Waki have received operational awards.
Cpl David Hayden was awarded the Military Cross for outstanding gallantry, selflessness and personal example during the ferocious battle. He is the first Airman to receive the Military Cross.
Senior Aircraftman Benjamin Wharton (24) from Daventry was Mentioned in Dispatches for courage and determination in the face of the enemy by providing covering fire from his Land Rover despite being hit in the chest with a bullet which knocked him off his vehicle.
Commanding Officer of 1 Sqn RAF Regiment, Sqn Ldr Jason Sutton (42) from Watford received the OBE for his outstanding leadership over a relentless six month detachment and making a safe and secure area around Basra Air Station. He lost three of his gunners on 19 July last year when a rocket attack struck his Squadron’s accommodation. A further 6 were injured, but he motivated his men to continue delivering all tasks, including lethal use of snipers which struck terror into the hearts of the enemy. At Al-Waki he placed himself in the thick of the fire fight which tested his resourcefulness to the full
It was in encroaching darkness on Aug 7 last year when a 40-man patrol from 1 Sqn, left Basra Air Station on a routine foot patrol in the market place of Al-Waki village to show presence and reassure local people that they were being protected by British forces and were safe to go about their businesses.
Although relations with the locals in the area was good overall, earlier in the tour 1 Sqn snipers killed an insurgent who had been caught in the night sights of their rifles unloading equipment ready to fire off a rocket-propelled grenade at the air base. Also in the days running up to the 7th there had been a large contact to the North of Al- Waki where with great skill and courage, C Flt of 1 Sqn had defeated an attack on their patrol. In addition, there was intelligence that the insurgents were claiming to have re-taken the area around Al-Waki and pushed out Western forces.
Sqn Ldr Sutton said: “We had arrived later than planned at Al-Waki because on the way we had come across a suspect command wire that might have been linked to a bomb. But on arrival in the village my unit had just started talking to local stallholders via an interpreter about how we could help them apply for grants to build their businesses when the first shot was heard. It sounded like it came from Qarmat Ali, a village to the north.
“The market starts to come alive at this time of the day because it is cooling off, but still the temperature was in the mid-40’sC. I remember being offered fruit by one of the stallholders just as the shooting began. It was an unremarkable start to a routine patrol with no foretaste of what was to come.
“At first the firing was sporadic, but suddenly one of my corporals was hit in the leg and within moments heavy fire was coming in from all directions and we took cover and we returned fire. We called for assistance from our back-up, but all radio communications went down.
“One of my corporals said he felt the splash of rounds on his back, which was luckily protected by our Osprey armour and another man’s helmet was grazed by a round.”
Suddenly the cry “man down.” was heard and Cpl Hayden, who was second in Command of a sub unit of B Flt, aided by one of his men, ran out into the open to bring LAC Beard, who lay mortally wounded, into cover. As he did so he took on enemy gunmen, accounting for at least one in the process. The remainder of the patrol deployed rapidly to assist the withdrawal of B Flt and after a pitched battle lasting over 30 minutes, the enemy had been suppressed, though many were still firing.
Although being constantly exposed to enemy fire Cpl Hayden carried LAC Beard a further 200 metres to safety. With absolute disregard for his own safety, he repeatedly risked his life in order to rescue a wounded comrade and rally his men to extract themselves. He also further exposed himself by returning to LAC Beard’s location to pick up his kit.
Cpl Hayden said: “It was not long after the first shot that there was effective fire coming at us from all sides. It was either a planned ambush or locals hearing the fire fight and deciding to join in with whatever weapons they could find. It was coming at us from everywhere and rounds were spitting up the dust in the road. Another Flt to the East of the market place was also pinned down by rifle and sub-machine gunfire.
“There were at least a dozen firing points. But we were giving as good as we were getting and picked off quite a few gunmen as they exposed themselves to fire.
“We felt the enemy were so close by now that we would have fixed bayonets had we had them to hand.”
While LAC Beard was being rescued, SAC Wharton was the heavy machine-gunner providing covering fire from one of just two weapons-mounted Land Rovers in the area. As such he was completely exposed in his unarmoured, open-topped vehicle. Suddenly he was hit in the chest by a ricocheting enemy round, knocking him from off his vehicle. Despite this he recovered his position and continued to provide accurate covering fire for almost an hour while his injured colleagues were rescued and others exited the fire fight. His citation read: “There can be no question that Wharton’s action was instrumental in contributing to the eventual withdrawal of the enemy, the successful evacuation of the casualties and the safe extraction of his colleagues. Without Wharton’s exceptional courage, determination and skill, the outcome could have been very different.”
Cpl Hayden received the Military Cross for his outstanding gallantry, selflessness and personal example in the face of a particularly ferocious attack from a determined enemy. His citation read: “Without a second thought for his own safety, Hayden volunteered to carry the injured man out of the fire fight. He dashed across open ground under a hail of enemy small arms fire. Hayden ran fully upright with the man on his shoulders to safety, having been exposed to enemy fire for the whole distance. He repeatedly showed the most outstanding courage selflessness and personal example. His bravery was of the very highest order.”
Cpl Hayden added: “We had to get across open ground under fire to reach a road known as Flowerpot Road where a Merlin helicopter was waiting to uplift the casualty. The pilot of that helicopter, which was exposed throughout to enemy fire, was as brave as anyone that evening.
Eventually all the men from the three Flights involved were accounted for. Said Sqn Ldr Jason Sutton: “We estimate there were about 50 insurgents attacking us during the sustained assault. They were very organised. But we estimate that we were able to take out at least 16 of them. Tragically we lost LAC Beard but he displayed the same courage as the rest of the patrol until he was hit. We drew some comfort from his falling, weapon in hand, fighting for and alongside his comrades. Our six-month tour in Basra was especially challenging due to the incessant rocket attacks – almost 800 in total while we were there.”
“I am honoured to have received the OBE for my part in the tour, but I have nothing but unstinting praise for my men who were magnificent throughout this most demanding time. We lost three of our squadron the month before when a rocket was fired into Basra Air Station and the Al-Waki and C Flt contact incidents were the RAF Regiment’s first major dismounted troop contacts with enemy forces since 2003. It was successful as we displaced the insurgents and were still in charge in the Al-Waki district. This allowed us to continue to work with the Iraqi people in the area to help them reconstruct and develop their communities”
Editor: Steve Willmot, Defence PR(RAF)
Photographs: RAF, MoD.
Image 1: (Larger size) Ben Wharton standing up in his Weapons Mounted Installation Kit Land Rover with his back to camera, minutes before the firefight began.
Image 2: (Larger size) Squadron Leader Sutton.
Image 3: (Larger size) Al Waki - Third and most intensive stage of the Battle.