When Sgt. Dan Mills and the rest of the 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment flew into Iraq in April, 2004, they were supposed to be winning hearts and minds. They were soon fighting for their lives.
Within hours of their arrival in Iraq, a grenade bounced off one of the battalion's Land Rovers, rolled underneath and detonated. The ambush marked the beginning of a full-scale firefight during which Mills killed a man with a round that removed his assailant's head. It was going to be a long tour.
Like some post-apocalyptic "Mad Max" nightmare, the place had gone to hell in a handbasket. Temperatures on the ground often topped 120 degrees Fahrenheit, sewage systems had long since packed up, and the stench of cooking waste and piles of festering garbage grew wherever you looked. Throat-burning winds, blast bombs and well-trained, well-organized militias armed with AKs, RPGs and a limitless supply of mortar rounds were the icing on the cake.
If any of Mills's eighteen-man sniper platoon had thought that the people of Al Amarah were going to welcome them with open arms, they were rapidly forced to reconsider. For the next six months, isolated, besieged and under constant fire, the battalion refused to give an inch.
Sniper One is a breathtaking chronicle of endurance, camaraderie, dark humor and courage in the face of relentless, lethal assault.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Sgt. Dan Mills was decorated for his command of an eighteen-man sniper platoon during the siege of Al Amarah. During a long army career he has served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and the Falkland Islands. Sniper One is his first book.
Read an Excerpt
On Scope and Under Siege With a Sniper Team in Iraq
By Dan Mills
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Sgt. Dan Mills
All rights reserved.
We first heard we were going on a rainy November morning in Tidworth.
The battalion's brand new CO got up in front of the lot of us to announce it. His very first words to us were: 'Good morning. My name is Lieutenant Colonel Matt Maer. I'm your new Commanding Officer, and in twenty weeks' time we'll be deploying to southern Iraq.'
It was the normal overly dramatic crap new officers come out with, because they hope we're impressed by it. It worked though – we were. We were going to Iraq.
By the time we'd get out there, it would be a year since Saddam Hussein had been deposed. The Marines and Paras were long gone, and by then southern Iraq was rarely even on the TV. But we didn't give a toss. It was gleaming news. For once, we were going somewhere interesting.
In his speech, Colonel Maer also added, 'It will be a tour like no other.' And not one of the 600 soldiers in that room had any idea at the time how true those words would prove to be.
For the next few days, our camp on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border was total madness. The phones didn't stop ringing. Soldiers serving away from the battalion were trying every trick in the book to get back off postings from all over the place. Others who had recently applied to sign off were desperately trying to steal the paperwork back again and tear it up. Nobody wanted to miss this one.
It was the firemen that had done us out of the invasion. We missed out on being part of one of the largest deployments of British forces since World War Two because of their poxy strike. The government used troops in 1950s Green Goddesses as the emergency response while the pay dispute was going on. So while 43,000 of our colleagues were storming southern Iraqi beaches, we were saving cats from trees in Hampshire. It was pathetic.
There were some proper obscenities exchanged too when we drove past the firemen's picket lines. None of this car horn honking from us.
'Toot if you support the fire fighters,' they'd shout.
'Fuck off and get back to work, you lazy bastards,' we would reply. 'You wankers stopped us going to Iraq.'
If that wasn't bad enough, we'd narrowly missed getting Gulf War One too. Back in 1991, the battalion was so convinced we'd get the call up for it, it had started to pack up equipment in shipping containers. We'd even started painting all our vehicles sandy coloured. But then the war finished too quickly and they didn't need us.
The Paras robbed us of a chance to go to the Falklands too. We were all ready when the MoD flew them all the way back from a training exercise in Belize so they could go instead.
The truth is, the 1st Battalion, the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment (PWRR) never went anywhere.
We're the county regiment for London and the southern Home Counties. And although only officially formed in 1992 in an amalgamation during army cuts at the end of the Cold War, we're still the senior English regiment of the line. That's thanks to our forebears, who trace back to as early as 1661 and the defence of Tangier. Our nickname is The Tigers, and that too comes from another famous forebear, the 67th Foot, because they did twenty-one years of unbroken service in India. One unit or another that we are related to has fought in virtually all the major campaigns in which the British Army has ever taken part. Then, for some reason, about fifty years ago it all stopped.
We're not flash, and we'd hardly been in the news in the last thirty years before that – except of course when we took on Princess Diana's name during the amalgamation. But that all ended soon enough too when she died five years later. None of that is to say that we weren't a bloody good fighting force of men, and one of which I was proud to be a member. A lot of the line regiments were just like us. None of us had been given the chance to prove our worth for so long, the MoD had begun to think we didn't have any worth.
I was thirty-six years old. I'd been a soldier for eighteen years and a sniper for ten. I'd done six tours of Northern Ireland, one of Kosovo, and one of Bosnia – and I still hadn't fired my rifle in anger once. Anyone who had been to Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s had their hair singed by a few IRA bombs. But not actually being shot at by an enemy standing right in front of you, and not getting the chance to shoot back, used to make me question whether I could ever call myself a real soldier.
I grew up in a village near Slough in Berkshire, the second child of four. I joined the army as a boy soldier aged sixteen in 1984 after some recruiter popped a leaflet through my letterbox, and I joined the Queen's Regiment – my local county regiment – because that's what the sergeant at the recruiting office told me to do. Service is a bit of a family tradition with us. My younger brother is an engineer in the army too. And my sister was a signaller until she got out to join the police. Our dad was a fireman, and served alongside two of his brothers in the same fire station. My mum was a BT operator, and my grandfather was in the Royal Engineers.
I've been married and divorced twice and I've had three children – two daughters from the first and a son from the second. The army and marriage don't go particularly well together because you're never really there. I got out in 1998 for eighteen months because I hated being away so much. But when I realized I hated civvy street even more, I signed up again.
I've never been much of a barrack room soldier who enjoyed all the dressing up and all the formalities that go with that. In fact, my idea of hell would be to be a guardsman outside Buckingham Palace. But I've always loved being out in the field, doing the job I'm paid to do. That's why I became a sniper. It's about taking professional soldiering to another level.
As the commander of the battalion's Sniper Platoon, I'd be the first to admit that I've got pretty high standards. I certainly don't suffer fools gladly. But if they're good soldiers, I'm fairly relaxed and give them a lot of rope.
We were all well aware that Iraq was all about nation building now, not war fighting. But we were still over the moon. We were just chuffed to bits that, for once, we were going to get our turn. It wasn't the Balkans and it wasn't Northern Ireland. Who knows, we may even finally get the chance to use the blinking weapons we'd trained so hard with for all those years.
The patch the battalion had been allotted was Maysan, the northernmost extremity of the poor Shia south under British control. Its capital, which would be my company's responsibility, was the town of Al Amarah. I'd never heard of the place, but it sounded properly Iraqi and that was good enough for me.
The battalion consisted of four companies. Three of them, A, B and C, cut about in tracked Warrior armoured personnel carriers, because we are an armoured unit. And then there was us, Y Company – the battalion's 106 support weapons experts. Y Company itself was organized into four platoons: mortars, anti-tanks, reconnaissance and snipers.
I had only recently returned to the battalion from doing an instructor's job at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick. And as soon as we got the news about Iraq, it was my responsibility to get the platoon battle ready for a serious operational deployment. I'd been a qualified sniper for twelve years and had served in the platoon on two tours previously. Now I was in charge of it – my dream job.
Sniping is one of the hardest jobs in any infantry unit. It's one of the toughest trades to qualify for, and British Army snipers are the best in the world. That's the other reason why I wanted to be a sniper. I wanted to be the best.
The platoon was fifteen-strong in total, all of them qualified snipers: one sergeant (me), three full screws (corporals), three lance jacks (lance corporals) and eight toms (privates).
When I took over the platoon, I'd decided it needed some shaking up. So I ran a reselection course which gave me a chance to bin all the blokes who weren't up to scratch. Literally dozens applied, because it's the best job in the unit. I could afford to be pretty ruthless, and really get the very best. By the time I had finished with them, they were a gleaming bunch of lads too. I'd hand-picked the fourteen best killers in the battalion.
The difference with being a sniper is you can see the man's face when you kill him. You can see everything about him, because you've probably been studying him for minutes, or even hours. So when you pull the trigger you have to be able to separate yourself from the knowledge that you're taking a life. There's no point in putting someone through eight weeks of highly physically and mentally demanding training if when the moment comes, all he's going to do is think about the wife and kids the target might have at home. He may well be a father of eight, and have four grandparents to feed too. But he's the enemy and that's that. Tough shit.
You can't teach people how they're going to feel when it comes to that moment. Which is why selecting the right character for the job is so important. If they're half decent soldiers, they should be fairly good shots anyway. So you look for mental toughness and stamina above anything else.
A sniper has to be a bit of a hunter at heart. He has to enjoy the tracking down and the kill. You can't be thick either, because there's a lot of information to learn and a fair few calculations to carry out. Just judging distance well is a bloody hard thing to do.
Pulling the trigger and hitting the target is only one small element of it. You've also got to be good at getting in and out of the right place without being seen. Otherwise, you're going to get killed too. That means putting up with a lot of discomfort and pain. You're going to be lying in a hole full of water for days on end. Or in a cramped attic, or an exposed rooftop. You've got to be used to being wet, tired, miserable and dirty. And you're going to have to have a dumper truckload of patience.
We soon became a very close-knit bunch. Snipers always stick together because we think we're better than everyone else. We also encourage resentment. Sniping is a black art that few understand and even fewer are any good at, and that bothers them. But it just made us closer as a unit. A lot of the boys were so proud of who they now were, they went out and got a tattoo of the sniper's classic logo, a pair of crossed rifles with an S above them, on their biceps.
We never used anything other than first names for each other. None of that 'sir' bollocks for us. Everyone in the platoon had a nickname. Mine was 'Monk' on account of my thinning pate. The cheeky sods. The average age of the platoon was twenty-four, so the blokes were a few years older and more mature than the average squaddie in a rifle company.
We also look different to everyone else. Our precision weapons immediately stood us apart. The main tool of our trade wasn't the regular army's 5.56mm calibre SA80 assault rifle, but the 7.62mm L96 – a single-shot, bolt-action sniper rifle. It's known as the 'long'.
We also prided ourselves on dressing scruffily. Even in barracks, we'd walk around without rank slides and looked generally unkempt, because that's how we performed our special trade. We would patter around with our shirts hanging out, sleeves not rolled up and our hair and sideburns worn long. And we didn't wear twisters in our trousers, which meant they extended down to cover most of our boots.
But we were scruffy for a good military reason. We don't like washing our field clothes because we've got to smell like the ground we're operating in. If you try and hide out in the long grass stinking of Persil, you won't last for very long. And gaping big black leather boots aren't great camouflage, unless you're trying to hide on top of a tarmac road.
That makes us loathed by the Regimental Sergeant Majors the world over. They don't like snipers because we tend not to give much of a shit about the things that really bother them. RSMs want everyone to be as smart as a pin, with shiny buttons and boots. But we're not interested in that, because it doesn't make you shoot any better.
Snipers have two textbook roles in modern warfare. The first is reconnaissance. Along with the Recce Platoon, snipers are the eyes and ears of the battle group. We obtain intelligence by either covert or long-distance observation, to build up a picture of the enemy's strength and movements. Sometimes hard information can be a lot more powerful than firing bullets. You can report back tank or troop positions, and get them destroyed by artillery without even giving your position away.
The second is to take out priority targets. Our job is to cause disruption to the enemy's battle plans and the way that they're fighting in the best way we can. Top of the list is always the enemy's command elements, their senior officers. That leaves them leaderless and sows confusion. The lowest priority is the humble soldier, because losing one or two of them won't have any effect on the enemy attack. But if they're the only targets that pop up, then you'll kill them all the same.
We're trained to operate anywhere, from behind your own lines, no man's land or even well behind enemy lines to disrupt the rear. We're always the first out, and the last in. But gone are the days of the lone sniper out in the middle of nowhere doing his own thing. Nowadays it's all down a lot more to specific tasks in patrol groups of two, four or eight men, and sometimes the whole platoon.
Our adage is one shot, one kill. Nowhere is it truer that a miss is as good as a mile than in our business. It's more than just a matter of personal pride. If you miss, it gives the target a chance to kill you another day.
Modern-day snipers work in pairs. A shooter and a spotter. The shooter is known as the Number One. He controls the weapon, from setting up to pulling the trigger. The Number Two finds targets for him, double checks his wind and distance calculations, and covers his arse.
The elite of the platoon were the seven qualified and badged Number Ones – me, Daz, Chris, Fitz, Ads, Longy and Oost. Everyone was trained to shoot. But if there was ever the option, the Number Ones would be the trigger men. The Number Twos were Smudge, Rob, Ben, H, Sam, DV, Des and Pikey. As mine would always be the first name on the top of the platoon admin lists, I was known in military shorthand as Sniper One.
In those first few weeks after Colonel Maer dropped the bombshell of Iraq, Tidworth was a feeding frenzy of speculation on what the tour might be like. We'd latch on to the smallest nugget of gossip like it was a revelatory message from the stars.
Dale, our Company Sergeant Major, came up with one of the best in the Sergeant's Mess one night.
Conspiratorially, he glanced over his shoulder and then leaned in towards me at the bar.
"Ere, Danny, I hear the CO's done his sums. If the current tempo of events stays the same, he reckons about one in five members of the battalion is going to get into a decent contact at some stage during the tour.'
A decent contact in our books meant a reasonably sized firefight.
'Yeah. And Abu Naji got mortared three days in a row last week too. But be careful with those little nuggets, mate, because we don't want to scare the hens, now do we?'
He'd meant to be all grave and serious about his prized information. But when I turned to look him straight in the eye, even Dale couldn't resist a big cheesy grin. He was just as excited as the rest of us, despite his position, and we had a bit of a schoolboy giggle to ourselves.
WO2 Dale Norman was the most senior NCO in Y Company, and by far its most respected member, officer or otherwise.
A father of three from Portsmouth, he was known as Mr Unflappable – the coolest cucumber in town. Dale was a big stocky lad, and was famed for his bone crunchingly hard hand shake. He also had a big deep voice just like Frank Bruno's and always spoke naturally slowly, which gave him an immediate air of authority. Whenever he said 'fucking' though, it always came out as 'faarkin'.
Excerpted from Sniper One by Dan Mills. Copyright © 2007 Sgt. Dan Mills. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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