My story starts at the beginning, not just the beginning of this story but the beginning of the war in Iraq. I was serving as a Royal Marine and like many in 2003 we found our selves lining up on the boarders of Iraq. This wasn't my first rodeo, I had served in Sierra Leon and Afghanistan prior to this, and if i'm truly honest I was looking forward to getting back into the action, after-all its what I had trained to do and you do kind of miss operational tours.
The mission we had been assigned was to clear the Al Faw Peninsula from Umm Qasr towards Basra. We waited around for days waiting for the off, and the tension was horrendous. Finally we where cleared to move and for want of a better word "the invasion" of Iraq began. The first thing that struck me was the terrain, I'd pictured sand, lots and lots of sand, but Iraq is more dried up sea bed. Here and there you can still find fossilised coral just sticking out of the ground.
The first 24 hours were complete madness, trying to move around when you could be seen for miles, the scream of artillery, missiles and aircraft constantly above your head. Oil fires and bellowing smoke in every direction, most of the areas of interest we came across had been hit by aircraft or surgical strikes hours before we got to them.We picked up a few Iraqi soldiers along the way, they had no fight in them, they just wanted to quit and go home. As day two was dawning my unit was tasked to investigate and clear two pumping stations to the south east, I had no idea what a pumping station looked like and as an engineering student I was keen to have a look round. At first site I was a little unimpressed, a series of low lying square concrete buildings with steel pipes weaving between them loomed into view. I'm not sure why but I'd pictured large oil rig looking structures in my head.
We paused about a thousand meters out, a quick chance to put a plan into action, who goes where and what order we where going to hit the buildings. It was mid afternoon and the sun was at its highest, between the 50 degree heat and all the kit we where carrying all of us where drenched with sweat and finding the going tough. At this point the lead man stood up to move off, and the unmistakable crack of a passing bullet woke us all up instantly. The scream of "Contact" echoed along the lines as we all scrambled to find decent cover, weapons came up into shoulders and the team engaged the complex. I carried the GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) similar to the US M60, I brought her to bear on the last location of a muzzle flash and fired my first burst. As we engaged so did the enemy, one shooter became five, five became ten. Several minutes past and the gun fire was consistent from both sides, The incoming rounds were constantly whistling over our heads, with more and more digging up the ground in front of us. Our firing pace eased, trying to pick targets and make each round count. It didn't matter how many rounds we fired we weren't making a dent. My radio crackled into life "covering fire" as every member of the team began to empty there magazine I pulled the trigger and let the GPMG eat through its 200 round belt. A few feet away one of the lads jumped to his knees and fired the LAW rocket launcher, with a streak of smoke it smashed into the target.
The enemy opened up again, just as intense as before so we fired back once more. For the first time in my career my mind started to race, between the punishing heat from the sun, the red hot ground we where lying on and the amount of burns I was getting from the spent cartridges building up around me. I was doubting why I joined, this one was hairy as they say in the military. everything we threw at them didn't make a difference, The radio operator was constantly talking to Ops, nothing available to help out its all tied up. I dug in a little deeper, looks like where here for the duration. As I loaded a fresh belt into my gun an incoming round struck the ground about a foot in front of my face, it bounced up and struck me in the centre of the forehead. I felt like I'd been hit by Mike Tyson, my head was pounding as one of the guys gripped hold of me and rolled me onto my back. I looked up at the dusty face as his mouth opened into a wide smile, "you lucky bastard" he said as he tapped me on the head "thought you where a goner". The bullet had split the skin but nothing more, I rolled back into the prone position and opened up again. Shortly after the radio chatter picked up, we have fire support from an Australian frigate, the fire order went out and each of us in turn pressed ourselves as hard as we could into the dirt. We where close, far to close for comfort for an artillery strike from the sea, there is no real way to describe the sound of incoming navel gunfire. The air vibrates as it whistles towards you and the impact lifts you off the ground while simultaneously pressing you into it.
I don't think any of us moved for several minutes, every inch of me ached, my bones felt crushed, ears ringing, even my eyes felt like they'd been pressed into my head. Slowly I looked up, the building had taken ten to twelve hits, there was smoke and scorch marks but other than that no real damage. As we regained our selves it became very apparent that there was no movement from the enemy, a quick glance became a prolonged look, a look became a stare and the one by one we slowly inched forward. As we drew close we realised why we had struggled, the walls although scared with bullets where around six feet thick, solid reinforced concrete with small openings evenly spaced around them. Perfect fortified firing positions, if it hadn't been for the artillery we would have never taken the buildings, more than likely we would have run out of ammunition and succumbed to the heat before we would have made it in. We formed positions ready to breach, as the machine gunner I had to sling my weapon and use my side arm. The GPMG was far too long and cumbersome for clearing rooms. Because of this I was always closer to the back of the group but I was glad of that today.
The first two men went in, followed by the next two and nothing, no sound, no gun fire, just silence. Two by two we entered, a large square room with very poor lighting from the holes in the walls it was about fifteen feet squared. Dark, dank and damp, the floor was littered with spent cases and ammunition boxes, and the whole room was filled with spiralling smoke. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness the bodies of the enemy became clear, each one contorted into odd shapes, there limbs and extremities bent into unnatural shapes. They had died from the shock wave, bouncing them off the walls and ceiling leaving them all intact but broken. The next room was the same, blood splatted on every surface and mangled and contorted body's. Part of me hated it, I have always said I only ever killed solders, but that was no way for someone to die.We moved through room after room, each the same as the one before, zero survivors. The final room split into two, one with a passageway leading off to the next building, the other as steal staircase leading down into the dark depths. I was tasked with another three to clear the stairs, we moved forward carefully following them down into the darkness.
As we reached the lower level we found ourselves looking down a long concrete passageway with several large pipes running down the right hand side. There was so little light down there we made the call to go thermal in order to see what was in front of us. We followed the pipework down the tunnel one step at a time for about one hundred meters, as we approached the end wall a heat signature leaned out in front of us. In unison we all called contact and opened fire. just as quick as it appeared it had gone, we advanced down the tunnel, every sense heightened. The only sound apart from our ringing ears was water dripping softly from the pipes overhead. As we approached the point we had fired on a door way opened up to the right, we paused as we got ready to turn. Another tunnel ran straight off from the doorway, identical to the one we had followed but this time about twenty feet in was the heat source. Standing bold as brass staring us down, three rifles and my pistol unloaded as the the contact moved into another doorway and vanished out of sight. This time we moved faster, closing the ground between us almost at a sprint. the first two in opened fire once more, as I passed into the room i caught just the fainest glimpse of heat moving into the next room. We covered the space in seconds, this time he was right in front of us and every weapon emptied into its target. I swapped mags and moved froward, the door frame smaller than all the others before it made a tight squeeze for each of us. And there I stood in a six by six room with one way in and one way out.
It took me a second before I clicked on, four walls a ceiling and a floor, no furniture, no fittings, no windows. I turned to the lad behind me who was doubled over scouring the floor, nothing, we hit nothing and there was nothing there to hit. I moved back into the previous room checking we hadn't missed something, one door in one door out, no windows, nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. All four of us recount exactly the same line of events, the shape, the movement even the density. we chased and we shot at something that just vanished into nothingness in the deep dark bowels of that pumping station. Out of every thing I witnessed in my eight years as a marine those images will haunt me till my last breath.