Firefight at Tora Bora

SAS Hero Andy McNab describes regiments Al-Qaeda battle

IN THE darkness before first light, the SAS sergeant leading patrol Alpha OneOne spoke softly Into his radio; “Alpha One Two, in position?”

Two radio squelches came back. The four-man SAS assault team was ready. Alpha One Three and Alpha One Four signalled their readiness in the same way – the enemies were so close that even a whisper could compromise the operation.

Under cover of night the troops had landed and slipped through ravines to the doorstep pd the Tora Bora mountain stronghold of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.  They were seconds from the start of one of the fiercest firefights in SAS history.

The four-hour battle, which left four SAS injured, 27 enemy dead, 30 wounded and 30 captured, has gone down in Regimental history.

Hopes that two SAS troopers would receive Victoria Crosses after another Tora Bora clash were dashed this week when it was revealed that a technicality may mean lesser medals. Yet the Regiment has forged a fearsome reputation among Afghan fighters and US Special Forces since joining the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Here, for the first time, Gulf War hero Andy Mcnab gives an informed account of the amazing battles in hideouts and caves on the trail of the terror leader.

As the first shards of morning light illuminated the cave entrance, the regiment teams had already gone through the final preparations before their 12-mile Infiltration to the target.

This included testing their array of weapons: Armalite M16 assault rifles plus Sig 9mm pistols as a backup, normally strapped to their thigh for easy access. They had jumped up and down to make sure nothing rattled.  A squeaky boot or noisy water bottle could easily alert the enemy and prove fatal.

The moment dawn broke, two of the teams took off their safety catches and moved covertly into the caves as the other two teams stayed outside.

They were there for support and would make sure no one got in or out once the attack started. It soon came as they penetrated deeper into mountainous warren, slowly and covertly clearing tunnels and dugout rooms. Suddenly, contact was made with the enemy. The battle was under way, “going noisy” in SAS slang.

The first Taliban shots ricocheted off the cave walls as two Arab fighters armed with AK47’s were dropped as they ran around a corner – dead before they hit the cave floor.

At such close quarters, the SAS teams were taking head shots – they couldn’t risk that the enemy were on drugs or wearing body armour.

They used ceramic ammunition which shatters on impact to avoid ricochet injuries from your own fire – first developed for action aboard ships and oilrigs. Round after round poured into the dark as deafening exchanges of fire echoed through the chambers. There were shouts of confusion and fear from the Taliban as the assault teams threw grenade combinations into the warrens, either flash-bangs, high explosive or incendiary grenades.

As the battle raged, the SAS must have made a terrifying sight to enemy soldiers as they advanced deep into the mountain. They wore Kevlar body amour, with ceramic breastplates to give complete protection to the major organs.

Torches on their weapons penetrated the dark and smoke. But the enemy, boosted by crack Arab and Chechnyan fighters, were putting up fierce resistance.

Suddenly, a shout went out:

“Man down! Man down!” The wounded trooper was spotted but ignored. The priority was to take out the enemy fighters just yards away. To stop the momentum of an attack could mean everyone dies.

The fallen trooper was marked as some of the support team came in to drag him out and replace him in the fight.

Veteran SAS troops, known affectionately within the regiment as the “old and the bold”, would carry Illuminated bicycle flashers to mark themselves if taken down, so they could easily be found in the smoke and confusion of battle.

Some SAS troops went into battle with catheters already inserted into a vein in their arm, then wrapped tight in tape. This would allow the support team to administer life-saving fluid immediately in the caves while still under enemy fire before dragging him out.

By now, regiment and bin Laden soldiers were just feet apart. Frenzied hand-to-hand fighting with knives broke out.

Some of the Brits carried the traditional commando knife or American “K Bars” but several fought for their lives by slashing at the enemy – with the preferred kukris, the traditional curved Gurkha knife.

It was mayhem. The combatants could smell each other’s breath. Hear each other grunt. Knives are the last resort when there is no time to change magazines on weapons and you are so close to each other.

This was the point when the firefight turned into what is known in the regiment as a “gang fuck“. As the running battle moved through the caves, the other two teams armed with 7.62mm general purpose machine guns were still concealed outside, treating the man down and cutting down Afghans who ran towards the entrance trying to reinforce their trapped comrades.

Each area inside the cave complex was given a colour code. As the teams cleared each one, they would get on the net. “Blue clear, Green clear” until all caves had been taken.

At the end of the firefight, ground commanders using satellite phones gave the Forward Operating Base (FOB) – the unit’s command centre “in country” – its situation report, including casualties.

Prisoners had been puffed with plastic ready for interrogation.

Outside the caves, young SAS guys too nervous to admit they were soared burst into laughter when a tour-veteran NCO broke the tension by saying, “Fuck that!” The teams would have been engulfed in their own little world as they took those guys on.

But effectively, they were fighting as one. They knew what they had to do. Life-saving intelligence had been built up in the days before the SAS moved into their TAOR — Tactical Area Of Responsibility.

An American P3 spy planes had provided thermal pictures and identified worn tracks in gullies picking out enemy waste and fuel. The job of the patrols was to sweep assigned areas – combat boxes – meet opposition and clear them out.

They planned to confront troops as good as they were. The rule in the regiment is anyone with a gun can kill. The penalty of underestimating the opposition is you die. The critical factor to the operation’s success’ was the gathering of vital information like this to plan the operation.

In a war, information is the most powerful weapon.

Just as vital, there was a clear chain of command during the battle. Ground commanders reported to the FOB, who then communicated to a control room in Britain known as Zero Alpha.

They listened intensely as the teams spoke loudly to each other over the “net”, trying to be heard over the crack of small-arms fire and the crump of grenades in the background.

They then made secure telephone calls to the military nerve centre, known as Permanent Joint Headquarters, in Northwood, north west London. Communications on the ground were kept to a minimum prior to the firefight to keep down the noise and the risk of compromise.

At the end of the operation, four SAS were left wounded. They were treated on the ground before being flown out by US helicopters.

Then they were taken to the Centre for Defence Medicine, based in Birmingham, for further treatment.

One trooper who was only in his 20s, a married man, suffered a serious leg injury after he was hit in the shin by a 7.62mm bullet fired from an AK47 as his team went into the caves.

The soldier, a former member of the Parachute Regiment, had only recently passed the gruelling SAS selection course.

Several of the SAS troopers took bullet hits in the chest but survived because of their body armour’s ceramic plate taking the hit.

The troops were helicoptered to the FOB where they were immediately debriefed providing vital information, and even photographs, of any enemy equipment and details of the cave complex.

What impressed military commanders is the lack of blue on blue friendly fire during the battles.

You can have all the Star Wars, high tech stuff in the world, but in the end it just comes down to guys on the ground; with good skills and good boots to get onto the target, acting on information, with the weapon that they hold in their hands.

It was lust like training when it goes noisy; it comes down to speed, aggression and surprise.

These are skills that the regiment spends hard years honing. This day was to be the day that it all paid off.

The SAS troops also train using live ammunition. They have to be confident in a combat situation.  They have to have full confidence in their own ability and the people around them.

The saying goes: ‘Train hard, fight easy. Train easy you die”

Training would have been carried out in the “combat boxes” at regimental headquarters back home in Hereford and the famous killing houses.

Here a four-man team bursts into purpose-built, darkened buildings and opens fire while another four-man team sit among the targets, watching as the gunfire goes on around them. This helps to build up confidence in each other’s abilities.

People have died in training – one SAS trooper died in the killing houses and another during jungle training in the late 80s, but live training must take place two hours of success only comes after two years of hard, realistic combat training.

The cave battles were to dominate the area of operations — rather than a fighting patrol designed to kill the enemy. Anyone putting their hands up to surrender would then be taken prisoner.

One of the basic functions of the Regiment is to gather information – to discover what amounts of food,’ what communications, what weapons and even in what condition the Taliban were in.

Dead men can’t tell you where Bin Laden is.

After all that they’ve done, it would be great if the two SAS guys got a Victoria Cross – despite what the Ministry of Defence thinks. They deserve it.

Daily Mirror, Saturday February 16, 2002, page 26 – 2