Ten years since Iraq invasion: 'We decided whatever we did was for the guys who died'
Just hours into the war on Iraq, tragedy struck Plymouth’s 3 Commando Brigade. Ten years ago today, shock waves were felt across the country as a US Marine Corps helicopter crashed, killing all 12 on board. Among the dead were eight men of the Stonehouse-based unit. Here, for the first time, those closest to the disaster describe the fateful moments which left the city in mourning.
In tribute to their fallen brothers in arms, surviving comrades speak exclusively to The Herald’s defence reporter Rebecca Ricks.
TEN years ago today, Captain Chris Haw should have been on the fated Sea Knight helicopter that crashed into the desert.
The tragic incident, when he lost a number of close friends, has remained etched in his mind.
A decade later and he still feels the loss of the families of his fallen comrades.
That night plans for an alternative mission had been cancelled stopping him from taking part in the main assault with the rest of his unit. Chris was left waiting on the ground providing cover for any potential helicopter emergencies.
"I suppose I was lucky," he explained.
"I was naturally disappointed and frustrated that I wasn't part of the plan to go in on the first wave but it is amazing how cruelly the course of events can change in a split-second.
"The moment that the helicopter crashed changed my life and has had much greater consequences for the families of those who lost their lives to this day."
That night Chris had been working as a Troop Commander in the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) operating under Bickleigh-based 42 Commando.
Chris, now a Lieutenant Colonel based in Stonehouse, knew all of the men in the helicopter well.
In the weeks leading up to the invasion he had been sharing a tent with Major Jason Ward and Warrant Officer Mark Stratford in Kuwait.
"I got to know them both very well, particularly Jase, and I had served with Mark previously in Afghanistan in 2002," he said.
"We watched every episode of Band of Brothers while we waited. We were a very close-knit unit and this made the loss even worse. I'd spent so much time with them and then they were just gone".
Another of the men to lose his life that day was Captain Philip Guy. "Phil and I had been on our Mountain Leader course together – we had been through a lot and were good friends.
"No-one was really able to believe or understand what had happened only a few minutes after the operation had started.
"When the news filtered through that the helicopter contained members of the BRF, we were all deeply shocked. I couldn't stop thinking about Phil's wife who I knew well."
But the BRF had a job to do and were needed on the Al Faw peninsula with 42 Commando to provide vital support to 40 Commando.
Chris had now been told to step up to take on Jason's role as Officer Commanding Brigade Reconnaissance Force.
"I knew that I had an enormously strong team, especially Tommy Roberts my second-in-command and my team commanders – I trusted them all. We gathered together and decided that whatever we did from there on in was for the guys who had died and we were going to do the best we possibly could."
Chris won the Military Cross for the way he led his men after the death of his comrades.
Now a father-of-two, the 39-year-old added: "As far as I'm concerned it was entirely for the efforts of the men of the BRF and I wear it with pride in memory of the men who died that day."
Chris returned home in May after four months in Iraq.
"I remember getting my photos developed, looking through them and seeing pictures of all of the lads that had been in the helicopter and it was then that it really hit me.
"This was a defining period in my life. It was a mixture of deep despair but also a sense of intense professional satisfaction to see the team pulling together after a tragedy and doing an exceptional job. I will never forget the men who lost their lives that day and the enduring loss that their families have had to cope with."
Today a service will take place in Stonehouse Barracks to remember the eight men who died.
SENSE OF DISBELIEF AT WITNESSING CRASH
“I THOUGHT we had been hit by enemy fire initially,” remembers Captain Tommy Roberts.
“But as we levelled off I could see, from the debris on the ground, the blast was indeed a helicopter.”
The 45-year-old from Plympton, then a Colour Sergeant, was flying in a helicopter alongside the Sea Knight and was one of the closest to the scene.
He explained: “One second I was looking into their cockpit and could see the dull blue light of the instrument panels and the pilot’s night vision gear, the next, as I turned my head away, there was a massive white flash with flames and a surge from the blast wave.
“The realisation that it was one of our helos came as the mission was aborted and we arrived back at the landing site.”
Tommy was in command of the BRF Bravo HQ. Now based at 42 Commando in Bickleigh, the father-of-four, said: “I have a vivid memory of most things, I believe they will remain with me for a long time.
“The loss of the helicopter and eight members of the BRF was surreal. Almost disbelief – even though I witnessed the crash.
“As time passed this transcended to sadness at the loss of such high quality servicemen. I always think of their loved ones at this time of year and particularly this year.”
But his tour was not entirely “unpleasant”.
At one stage he commanded a Troop raid on enemy locations on the outskirts Abu al Kasib. The next day some of the enemy surrendered, walking into the marines’ lines with their hands up – a high point for Tommy.
“The events which we were at the forefront of as a team of very professional Royal Marines, soldiers and sailors held the world’s attention for a few weeks,” he added.
“We made a difference and the people from the Al Faw celebrated their freedom and praised us as we moved through the Al Faw.”
For Tommy the hardest part of his tour was the loss of the men in the helicopter.
“All the other business is what every Royal Marine joins up for, but shaking hands with a bunch of friends and wishing them all the best only to see their aircraft crash 20 minutes later – that will be with me for the rest of my life. God bless them.”
STUNNED BY NEWS BUT DETERMINED TO PUSH ON
SITTING in a US helicopter, Sergeant Stephen Moran was awaiting take off.
It was the early hours of the morning in Iraq, the height of the invasion and the beginning of a daring mission for the Royal Marines.
But the operation into Al Faw was about to come to a halt.
“I was sat across from one of the American crewmen who said to me the call sign [helicopter] was going down.
“I remember saying what do you mean it’s going down? He said it's going down, everyone is going to be dead.
“We sat there and we waited. We waited to find out who it was. It was a long couple of hours.”
The crash delayed much of the operation.
“At the time we didn't know if it was enemy fire, mechanical or pilot error.
“We stood in the desert and some of the young lads were really upset but we got a good arm around them and said look we must worry about this later, we are going into Iraq.”
Steph, now a Warrant Officer and Regimental Sergeant Major at Stonehouse Barracks, said his troop then went into action at Al Faw beach.
They picked up their vehicles and teamed up with elements of Bickleigh-based 42 Commando.
“Driving up the road people would start shooting at us from buildings but we had serious fire power.
“This was an invasion it wasn't about standing around and waiting, there was thousands of people.
“It was a great experience and a real privilege off the back of the lads who died – we wanted to do a good job.”
The married father-of-one said the war fighting element lasted around a month.
On his wall are photos of 3 Commando Brigade Reconnaissance Force before the helicopter crash. A map of the operation is framed with a cash note from Basra palace.
“Basra Palace was beautiful,” he explained.
“The Iraqi Army and people had got in there before us so they looted a lot of the stuff.
“I do remember the people were very happy to see us. We were a conquering army we weren't going to be pushed back.”
Throughout the campaign chemical warfare was a key threat.
“Every day lads would be running around putting their respirators on wearing their gas suits,” Steph said.
“The threat was very real, it was no exercise. It was uncomfortable but it's your job.
“I remember the weather was terrible. We were living in trenches. They were full of water, it was filth.”
By mid-May the Marines were beginning to come back to Plymouth.
“There was not one man on that operation who did not want to be there and not one man who wasn't a volunteer,” the 46-year-old added.
It was later said the helicopter came down because of a “mechanical failure”.
Ahead of today’s service he added: “We never forget the guys we lose in battle. We commemorate that every November and the words ‘we will remember them’, they're not hollow words.”