Armor: March 31, 2003


: British armor tactics in Iraq. Overnight on March 29th, a Squadron of the "Black Watch" Regiment launched a raid into Basra and, using "MILAN" antitank weapons, took out five Iraqi T-55 tanks and a number of mortar positions. Later, tanks gins were used on a 20 foot statue of Saddam Hussein, a Fedayeen headquarters and a 300 ft television mast that Fedayeen loyalists were using to broadcast propaganda.

Major Tim Brown led his squadron of 11 Challenger 2 tanks and a platoon of infantry in Warrior APCs two abreast down the main highway into Basra and met "stiff resistance" about five kilometers into the city. They were subjected to significant, constant rocket-propelled grenade fire until the Warriors were able to get in, and the incoming RPG fire continued throughout the operation. "A" Squadron then split into three raiding teams and Brown's own troop destroyed the television mast with 15 rounds of High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) ammunition from the tank guns.

One of Challenger 2s had two "dents" from rocket propelled grenade strikes and the gunner noted that "all I saw was a shower of sparks come over the side of the tank and a slight rock". While there were no casualties taken during the raid, the mission was almost abandoned at the last minute when the Guards, on the outskirts of Basra preparing to go in, took mortar fire. Three soldiers were wounded but none seriously.

The raiders expected to come up against "thousands of troops" in Basra that were allegedly keeping all their artillery and tanks in underground car parks, but were only met with RPG rounds. Air support assisted the Scotsmen and also destroyed several Ba'ath Party buildings. Major Brown noted that "the mission wasn't to go in and kill people, it was to take out three objectives of infrastructure, and there were no civilians wandering around at that time". 

In the fog-shrouded morning of March 27th, C Squadron, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, was 30 kilometers southeast of Basra and on their way to reinforce 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines on the al-Faw peninsula. The word was that an Iraqi column of up to 120 vehicles was making a sortie out of the city, either as a local counterattack, an effort to retake Al Faw (as they had attempted the day before) or a retreat gone horribly wrong. Having been first pounded by Coalition air bombardment and artillery, the remnants of the Iraqi battalion (one tank company and four infantry companies) were moving south to disperse across open countryside when the Scots Dragoon Guards crossed a pontoon bridge laid by 28 Regiment, Royal Engineers.

The area's low-lying real estate has tidal-water canals and waterways on all sides, but the Royal Engineers' 23 Amphibious Engineer Squadron managed to get the Challengers over the Basra canal using a military pontoon ferry system that had never before seen combat use. The spot along the canal was labeled "Crossing Point Anna" for 23 Squadron's 10 M3 bridging amphibious trucks (which the engineers refer to as "big, long, combat gherkins", thanks to the two pontoons on top). The trucks are driven into the water and the pontoons flop over to form a flat deck. The trucks-cum-ferry boats can either be strung together to form a bridge or (as they were during the battle) be joined into smaller combinations of ferries, each capable of moving two Challenger II tanks.

Once on the far bank, the Scots split in two and quickly caught the Iraqis off guard. One group of seven Challengers engaged a group of T55s in the process of being deserted, as their occupants realized they were being overwhelmed. The other Scots unit tempted the Iraqi tanks into a kill box by making them believe they were only being attacked by a commando unit in unarmored vehicles. The T-55s were in a wooded area, so the Challengers moved in from the flank and began picking them off at a range of 1,500 meters. 

Four Iraqi infantry positions (each manned by 100 soldiers) were also overrun, and as the Challengers approached some enemy vehicles, the Iraqis jumped out to fire AK47 rifles and RPGs at them. Those who were not promptly killed, quickly surrendered, but about 30 Iraqi troops were seen fleeing on foot after the Challengers swept through their positions. Three or four Iraqi APCs were also destroyed. By 9 am, the battle was largely over and by afternoon, British officers were describing the area south of Basra as a T55 graveyard with dozens of burnt-out Iraqi vehicles littering the terrain. 

While satisfied with their victory, British troops also took little joy in wiping out this Iraqi unit. Major Hugh Baker of 29 Commando's Artillery articulated this to the press: "Mixed feelings is the way I would sum up our mood. Militarily, it was a devastating and incredibly effective assault. But I think we all feel a little bit empty, a little bit numb. We know we have killed a lot of their soldiers, and that many of them didn't stand a chance. But another feeling I've got is anger - anger at their stupid officers and leaders for putting them in that appalling position."

A UK spokesman described it as "nothing less than a suicide mission by the Iraqis; it had no military logic while one armor officer said the contest between the T55 and Challenger 2 was "like the bicycle against the motor car.'' The Regimental spokesman had the last words - "this is what Scotlands cavalry does the best. - Adam Geibel




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