'It was a hard slog, but we got the job done'

Sierra Leone: Paras tell of their fear wading into avalanche of mortars, rockets and machine-gun fire, and their grief over dead and wounded
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Paratroopers waded and stumbled chest-deep through the muddy brown currents of Rokol Creek, heading to the target they had been ordered to take, straight into the orange flashes of machine-gun fire coming at them from it.

The Paratroopers waded and stumbled chest-deep through the muddy brown currents of Rokol Creek, heading to the target they had been ordered to take, straight into the orange flashes of machine-gun fire coming at them from it.

For many of the reinforced company from the Parachute Regiment's 1st Battalian this was their first taste of combat which would turn them from well-trained soldiers into battle-hardened troops. Yesterday, as the full impact of their mission became clear, they spoke about the excitement and fear of helping rescue the hostages.

But they also spoke of their sadness at the death of a comrade, Lance-bombardier Brad Tinnion of the Special Air Service, and their concern for 11 other British soldiers who were wounded in the raid.

The paras and SAS troopers had been dropped by Chinook helicopters on two sides of Rokel River to attack the Occra Hill bases of the hostage-taking militia, the West Side Boys.

The kidnapped British soldiers and their Sierra Leone Army liaison officer were being held at Gberi Bana on the north bank of the Rokol. But the militia had also set up a base across the river at Magbeni, with mortars and machine guns to provide deterrence fire against a rescue attempt. Here a team led by 29-year-old paraCorporal Simon Dawes had to make the first attack. For him and the young soldiers in his command this was their first taste of combat.

After 500 metres along the churning riverbed with round after round of mortar shells, rockets and machine-gun fire around them, Cpl Dawes and his team were within striking distance of a hut with a corrugated tin roof from where the West Side Boys were pouring out a steady stream of fire.

The paras opened up with their automatic rifles as they came out of the water. The exchange was short and fierce, although the paras said it seemed very long at the time. Soon the intensity of fire had set parts of the hut alight.

A few minutes later, what was left of the hut, its defenders and the surrounding militia positions were obliterated by a TOW missile, developed for use against Warsaw Pact armour, fired by a Lynx helicopter gunship supporting the paras.

The common perception of the West Side Boys had been of indisciplined and drunken thugs who would not have the stomach for a fight against a professional army. But they put up unexpectedly stiff resistance. The paras discovered some of them were women and boys barely in their teens.

The British force continued to systematically "neutralise" enemy positions on both sides of the Rokel. But they too were taking casualties. Bdr Tinnion, in an SAS team guiding the Paras on to the south bank was hit, and died later.

"This is the first firefight I have been in where rounds were coming my way," said Cpl Dawes, quietly and reflectively. "The company is a very young one and none of us had experienced a two-way range, as we call it, with rounds coming our way. It was a scary experience. I don't like to talk about that sort of situation, but I have to admit it was scary.

"But once we got into the fighting the training took over. We came under fire at first and then the fire was taken out. We had helicopters and we had heavy guns that suppressed the heavy fire, but one cannot take away the emotions one feels at the time."

Captain Liam Cradden, 30, from Sheffield, who was second in command of the company in the operation, said he and his men have been training for two days for the the operation in Britain and Sierra Leone.

"Our part was to ensure the West Side Boys' heavy guns on the south side could not interfere with operations on the north side and endanger the safety of the hostages," he said. "The helicopter landing side was about 500 metres from the objective and we waded chest-deep for about 500 metres to get there. The assault lasted for two hours until the area was secured. But it was six hours before everyone was extracted from the area.

"There were an awful lot of young guys in the unit. They all performed with excellent professionalism and every member of the company did his duty as he was asked to.

"We were very proud to have been asked to take part in the operation to help secure the hostages. Our thoughts are with the guys, and with the family of the guys who were injured, and obviously with the family of the soldier who was killed. We are just glad to be going home."

The initial part of the operation ended with the successful extraction of the seven hostages and the capture of the militia leader, the self-styled "Brigadier" Foday Kallay. The British forces then fanned out in a search-and-destroy exercise to fulfil their next objective, the destruction of the West Side Boys as a fighting unit.

One senior officer said: "It wasn't a turkey shoot. The West Side group continued to fight, hoping to ambush us, and there were fierce exchanges. The terrain was on their side, swampland and very poor visibility. It was a hard slog, but we got the job done."