‘Widow Seven Six affirmative. I don’t care what you do as long as you get the injured out and reinforcements in. Confirm L Hour?’ The JTAC wanted to know what time the Chinooks would hit the LS.
‘Wildman. L Hour is set for Zero-Three-Forty-Five hours. H Hour is set for Zero-Three-Forty-Three hours. Confirm all men are east of the canal and no civilians have been seen west of the canal.’
‘My position is at the building just west of Bridge Two over the canal. I have the injured with me. There are no troops further south or west than my position. Copy so far?’
We copied. The DC lay on the east side of the canal. To its south were trees and buildings that hid the Taliban. To its east the town sprawled for a couple of hundred metres to a now empty marketplace and gave the attackers concealed avenues of approach. The dry wadi spread east beyond its northern entrance, splitting the town in two. The gap allowed heavy weapons and recoilless rifles uninterrupted fields of fire from the north and protection to melt away without fear of a follow-up. North-west by a hundred metres was the fast flowing Helmand River and the only safe avenue of approach for the load-carrying Chinooks. The canal stretched south as far as the eye could see, its tree-lined bank affording the Taliban a highway along which to move up to Macy House and the irrigation ditches surrounding the LS.
The JTAC, the protection party, the injured and the dead now occupied the only building west of Bridge Two. The LS was a 150-metre wide, 300-metre deep field south-west of them.
‘And we haven’t seen a civilian this side of the canal for weeks,’ he continued. ‘But be aware that the Taliban know you’re here already. We’ve heard their commanders telling them to aim at the cow first-then the mosquitoes.’
We flicked onto the insecure Common Tactical Air Frequency (CTAF) so the Taliban could get the full benefit of everything we said. Jake began by telling us that he was looking to the south down the canal near Bridge Three ‘where the Taliban killed our soldier’. Confirming he was dead may have raised their moral but we hoped it would also persuade them a Chinook wasn’t inbound.
Neither of us was looking out for Taliban. We were too worried that we might miss the open ground when we did fire and hit their positions by accident. I’d spent the best part of four hours truing up the rocket launchers before we went to bed. It was strictly against the rules, but given the circumstances the CO had allowed me to do so.
I’d balanced an inclinometer on the live rockets and adjusted their launchers to the correct angles before tightening them. It broke every rule we could think of, and then some.
Jake had grabbed my shoulders with both hands and looked me straight in the eye before asking if I was 100 per cent sure. I told him that as long as he could shoot straight they’d work.
If we missed the target and hit the woods, or worse still our own troops, I’d be directly accountable for tampering with a live weapon system. They had to be bang-on, or I’d be banged up. Second chances were in short supply right now.
It was still dark. I could only make out the landscape from the thermal picture on the right-hand Multi-Purpose Display (MPD) screen just above my knee. The fields were dark and the river pitch-black, but the two tree lines positively glowed.
I aimed the Target Acquisition and Designation Sight (TADS) crosshair between them. Holding it steady I squeezed the laser trigger and pushed a switch.
T10 appeared at the bottom of my MPD screen, below the thermal image.
I now had the position stored, but the fear of an inquiry forced me to double-check it. I knew Jake would be doing the same a hundred metres further north.
We discussed looking for mortar base plates and heavy machine gun positions to give the Taliban something to talk about then lased and stored our firing positions in front of the 100 metre tree line on the LS.
‘Wildman Five Two this is Wildman Five Three,’ I called. ‘I have detected Taliban hiding in the buildings to the south of the DC.’
I hoped they’d assume I’d located whoever was waiting.
T12 – right in front of Macy House.
‘Wildman Five Two,’ Jake said ‘I have Taliban in both tree lines to the south-west of the DC. Stand by.’
Neither of us had so much as begun to look for the Taliban.
We called the JTAC and he confirmed that the Taliban commanders were telling their men to stand their ground and fight.
It was now 0330 local.
The bluff and counterbluff had continued for the best part of twenty-five minutes – but they knew our ROE better than we did, so we just had to sit tight until the time was right.
Jake decided it was time to raise the stakes.
‘Wildman Five Three this is Wildman Five Two. Fireplan: we will engage the Taliban in the trees to the south-west of the DC with Apache rockets. Copy?’
‘Then we will use the Apache guns. You shoot at the buildings to the south. I will shoot at the trees. Copy?’
‘We will fire from the south on my order. Kill all of the Taliban. Read back.’
I read it back as Simon banked us gently towards the south.
It was beginning to get light, but not light enough to bring colour to the silhouettes of trees, the canal that ran from Bridge Two or the rooflines of the town.
Four klicks to the south of the DC Simon and Jon turned back in a perfectly obvious and synchronised manoeuvre. We were nice and high so we stood out against the rapidly lightening sky.
We began to run in at forty knots.
Simon made the call we’d been waiting for on the secure inter-aircraft radio. ‘I have two rotary icons on the FCR in the desert to the north-west. The Hardwood callsigns are inbound to Sangin and on time.’
‘Widow Seven Six this is Wildman,’ Jake called the JTAC on the secure frequency. ‘Chinooks inbound; confirm we are clear to engage.’
I felt our nose dip and level again as Simon increased to ramming speed. A quick glance left with the naked eye confirmed Jon was 500 metres away and on level-pegging with us. We were in full view of the Taliban.
‘This is Widow Seven Six. Pegasus. Clear hot. Clear hot.’
I pressed T10 and called ‘Come Co-op’ to Simon after I actioned the rockets.
‘Co-op,’ Simon replied.
The MPD confirmed everything I needed to know: co-op bottom right and T10 bottom left. My crosshair was smack in the middle of the field and I was hands off. The Apache would hold the TADS on the position without any help from me. More importantly I could see where Jake was supposed to be firing.
Please be dead on. Please hit the target…
‘Running in to engage Taliban positions with rockets,’ Jake said. That should encourage them to look south.
The range was counting down above T10.
‘On Jake’s executive word of command, Simon: match and shoot.’
‘Match and shoot with Jake,’ Simon replied.
The crosshair was static and Simon lined up the rocket steering cursor by adjusting our flight path. We were a hair trigger from firing.
‘Engaging with rockets,’ Jake called on the secure radio before switching back to the Taliban frequency.
‘Wildmen engaging in five…’ Jake paused to allow the JTAC a final opportunity to call off the firemission.
‘Three… two… one…’
2.8KMS… Rockets peeled off both sides of our gunships with a whoosh.
I couldn’t bring myself to look out of the cockpit window…
Their time of flight (TOF) crept down on the MPD.
Four seconds to impact and they were far too high on my screen to judge if they’d hit.
‘Hardwoods have about three klicks to run…’ The tension was getting to Simon too.