Mission impossible: How a brief campaign for the British Army's secret X Platoon mutated into a desperate, 16-day siege in Sierra Leone

Just 26 British soldiers faced 2,000 rebels from the Revolutionary United Front. It was May 2000 and the rebels had just reneged on a peace treaty and were brutalising anyone who fell into their path. The Platoon was one of the regiments airlifted into the jungle to fight back. Sergeant Steve Heaney recounts the story of the mission in which he won a Military Cross

Steve Heaney
Thursday 22 May 2014 13:27
Jungle battle: the platoon faced rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, who were attacking anyone in their path
Jungle battle: the platoon faced rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, who were attacking anyone in their path

We'd been waiting for 10 edgy, nervous minutes when we heard the distinctive, juddering thwoop-thwoop-thwoop of a Chinook in-bound. Oh yeah. There is no feeling like knowing the cavalry are on their way. The beat of that helo's rotor blades was the most welcome sound any of us had ever heard.

I spotted the helo silhouetted against the faint blush the coming sunrise had thrown across the heavens. As it settled into the clearing, the thrashing rotor blades clipped the trees and the thick vegetation on either side. I could see the two pilots in the cockpit, the weird green light of their night vision goggles casting their faces in a ghostly glow.

Going down on one knee, I saw the pilot drop the back of the helo on to the ground. There was a loud bang as it made contact. Orientated like this, the Paras would be able to pile off the rear, and remain shielded from any enemy that were still to the east of us. But if we had rebels in the jungle around here now, the Paras would be disgorging right into their line of fire.

I saw the ramp go down and waited for the surge. But nothing. I was thinking they should be off by now, so why hasn't the helo gone? After 30 seconds or so I ducked under the forward rotors, hurrying down the side of the Chinook to try to find out what was causing the delay. By rights, 30 seconds was more than enough time to get a platoon of Paras off a helo.

I came around the back and glanced into the Chinook's dark hold. I spotted two lonely figures inside. One was the Chinook's loadie, the other was Captain Chris James, a guy I knew well. He was a former Second-in-Command of the Pathfinders. I'd taken him through selection and for a while I'd had him in my patrol. He was now serving as 1 Para Adjutant.

Clambering aboard, I closed in, so I could have words in Chris's ear. "What the f**k is going on?" I yelled above the deafening whine of the turbines. "Where's the f**king Quick Reaction Force?"

"Steve, I've been sent to have a look," he yelled back. "I've been sent to do a recce."

I exploded. "A f**king recce! Mate, we have just been in a f**king horrendous contact, we have no idea where they f**king are now, we're down to our last mags of ammo and there's no f**king QRF? What the f**k?'

"I hear you, mate, but I've been sent to have a look, to assess things."

"Assess this, Chris: I don't give a f**k what you've been sent to look at, you need to get the f**king QRF in – NOW."

I stormed off the back. The red mist had well and truly come down. I felt waves of frustration and anger washing over me. We'd been promised a Quick Reaction Force on 35 minutes' standby. Those were the conditions on which we'd gone in. Instead, we'd just had possibly the entire Revolutionary United Front try to rush us, and they were very likely still out there getting us surrounded – and now this.

The Chinook took off.

Clear and present danger: the platoon, including Sergeant Steve Heaney (right of picture) and Wag (left)

We drove back in a taut silence. Not a single word was said. I had blokes in their early twenties with me, and I could sense their frustration and their anger. But what the hell was I supposed to say? Yeah, lads, I know you've just given your all facing odds of 100-1, and we're running out of ammo, and we were promised a QRF and no one's f**king turned up; but wrong decisions get made; shit happens. That was about the truth of it, but it wouldn't exactly help much to give voice to any of that. We parked up and I ordered the guys back to their patrols.

As I headed for the HQ, a local woman ran over. In Pidgin English, she started yelling: "Ma dauter – she been shot! She been shot! She..."

The woman was trying to drag me towards the village square. I got both my hands up and forced her away: "Get back! Away! Away!"

With no QRF having materialised, I couldn't deal with this kind of shit right now.

I had steam practically coming out of my ears. The four of them – Grant, Wag, Tricky, Cantrill – were staring at me in amazement. I got lock-on with all four, and from a dozen yards away I yelled out the good news.

I could see the looks of total disbelief on their faces. They had these blank expressions, as if they couldn't comprehend what I'd just told them; as if this couldn't be for real. They'd heard the helo come in. They'd expected me to come storming back with 30 paratroopers in my wake. And now this. It just didn't compute.

"When you say there's no QRF, d'you mean it's delayed or it's never coming?" Grant asked. The voice of reason, he'd posed the million-dollar question.

"No f**king idea. It was f**king Chris James on the helo, and he'd been sent out to take a look."

"A look!" Wag exploded. "A look at f**king what?"I held my hands wide. "I have no idea, Wag, mate."

I tried to get my anger under control. Wrong decisions did get made at all levels of the chain of command. God knows, I'd made a good few in my time. The strength of a unit like the Pathfinders lay in how we responded to such bad decision-making. If we sat and stewed in our anger, spitting vitriol at whoever had f**ked up, we'd fester and spoil. What we had to do now was deal with it, get over it and get sparking.

We got our heads together for our second Chinese parliament of the morning. Decisions had been made in the first one based on the assumption that we only had to hold out until the QRF got here, with bucket-loads of fighting men and extra ammo. Grant laid it out for us how things had changed.

"Right, we have to work on the assumption there may be no QRF." He paused, letting the words sink in. "On the upside, it's nearly first light and we can already see a good way into the jungle. This being the case, what do we do?"

Sierra Leoneans escape the conflict

This was it now: life or death decision time. We'd had no further information from headquarters, and not the slightest hint that any help might be on its way. We had to call this for ourselves: Do we stay or do we go?

"Option one is to stay and defend," I volunteered, "in the knowledge there may be no QRF at all. In my opinion, OK – there's no QRF. But on the ground nothing's really changed. We've got the same number of blokes, same ammo stats, the same defensive positions. We just readjust the plan. We've got the advantage of daylight, plus no serious casualties. Let's stay and do this."

Wag nodded. "I've got a good handle on the ammo situation, so I can get it redistributed across the patrols."

"For me, we stay and defend this place," I reiterated. "Agreed, I reckon we stay," said Wag. Tricky nodded. "I say we stay." Grant eyed the three of us for a long moment. "So, we're unanimous," he concluded. "We stay."

Wag shared ammo stats. We were on the cusp of being two-thirds down across the entire unit. One more probing attack like the one we'd just suffered and the ammo would be exhausted, and we'd very likely get swamped.

But there was also a kind of logic to staying, warped though it might sound. We had great cover in the trenches. The rebels did not. Come sunrise, we'd be able to see properly to ensure one round made one kill. With a hundred-plus rounds per man, that still gave us a good 2,000 potential kills. And in the next few hours we were sure to get some sense out of headquarters in terms of ammo resupply and reinforcements.

Apart from the crying and wailing from the direction of the village square, it was quiet as the grave out there. Even the moaning of the rebel wounded out in no man's land had died down to nothing. Either the RUF had pulled back, taking their injured with them, or their injured were now very dead.

I told Tricky about the wounded on the village square, and he radioed for Bryan Budd, our lead medic, to get over there to see what he could do to help. The villagers' thin-walled huts would have offered no protection from small arms and machine-gun fire, and for all we knew, some of the RPGs unleashed by the rebels might have taken out entire buildings.

We got the patrol commanders in. They'd heard the Chinook, so they knew we'd got a helo down, but no QRF seemed to have materialised. We had to nip this in the bud, and get everyone's focus back on the task in hand.

"As you've probably realised, there hasn't been the response from Lungi that we expected," Grant started. "No QRF has come in. That being the case, we've got to make the best of a bad job. The decision here is that we stay: we stay and defend the village."

There were grunts of agreement all around. It was around 6am, and the course of action had just been endorsed by all.

Decision made, I returned to the HQ and put out word to scavenge weapons and ammo off any dead rebels in the vicinity. With no QRF and no ammo resupply, it was time to get our hands on whatever we could retrieve off the enemy. At the same time, I ordered the lads to keep scanning their arcs, and to be prepared to unleash hell if the rebels showed themselves.

We got a bit of a morale boost from the extra rebel weaponry. Every little helps. As the sun crept above the ragged tree line, the village started to come to life. There was this weird, eerie calm about the place. After the chaotic insanity of the firefight, it was like a bizarre and unreal comedown.

Whenever a villager passed us by, they threw us this look like they could not believe we had given it to the rebels. But we knew the enemy were still out there somewhere. It was just a question of where and when they'd hit us next.

Time passed.

We cleaned our weapons. I took the opportunity to recharge any empty magazines, using the spare ammo from my bandolier. I was back up to six full mags now, and I was good to fight. We resupplied the patrols that had taken the heaviest fire with what ammo we could spare, and the lads settled down to watch and wait.

I did a short walkabout with Wag, checking on the village wounded. Bryan Budd was on the edge of the square, and one of the girls he had treated was cradled in her grateful mother's arms. Bryan gave a smile. "I've treated the girl. Took a through-and-through. She's fine now. She'll live."

As Wag and I walked around the place, I could feel the villagers staring at us. They watched us pass, eyes glued to our every move. It was almost as if they were desperate just to get sight of us and believe we were for real – their great protectors. Their expressions said it all: You fought the rebels; no one fights the rebels; you fought them and won; we're alive; we're alive.

There was this feeling of total euphoria about the place. I didn't want to burst anyone's bubble. For now, at least, we were all still here and breathing – Pathfinders and the villagers of Lungi Lol. Operation Kill British hadn't quite succeeded as the rebel commanders had planned it. Not yet, anyway.

And right now, that was about as good as it got.

This is an edited extract from 'Operation Mayhem', by Steve Heaney MC with Damien Lewis which is published today (Orion Books, £18.99). To buy it for £14.99 free P&P, call 0843 0600 030 or go to independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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