Challenger 2 – Maj. Tim Brown and the Battle for Basra

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What is it like to fight a modern urban battle from inside a tank? In April 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, Major Tim Brown led the first deep-penetration tank raid into enemy-controlled Basra. Military Times analyses the operation.

When the first explosion went off, the men of ‘A’ Squadron, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, simply rolled over to catch some more sleep. They were scheduled to enter Basra at dawn, supported by Black Watch infantry riding in Warrior APCs (armoured personnel carriers), tasked with destroying three targets: the city’s main TV and radio mast, the headquarters and main operating-base of the Fedayeen, and a massive statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. They needed as much sleep as they could get, and most men at first assumed the racket was their own artillery.

Then the second explosion detonated with an ear-splitting crash right in the middle of the hide, where tanks and vehicles were parked up while most of the men bedded down in sleeping bags on the tanks’ back decks. As another half-dozen explosions erupted across the hide – the Iraqis had got the range dead-on with the third round – men who had been sound asleep seconds before threw themselves off the tops and dived underneath their tanks.

No-one at that moment thought about anything except survival. The noise, the smell, the sudden deadly threat produced a panic-stricken scramble for safety. For a few moments more, Tim Brown lay frozen beneath his tank. Then new thoughts crystallised. What if they fired gas shells? Fear of chemical weapons had dominated preparations for both Gulf Wars. And even against high explosive frag-shells, it would be much safer in the tank than under it.

After the next explosion, Brown and his crew raced for the hatches, plunged through, and pulled them tight shut above them. They entered a different world. A Challenger 2 main battle tank is a sound-proof metal box. Inside, despite the pandemonium in the hide, which now included a burning fuel-tanker, the crew were surrounded by a surreal silence.

There was silence, too, when Brown radioed the other tanks of his squadron. No-one answered. No-one else was in his tank. Had they been hit? How serious was the damage? Would the dawn mission have to be aborted?

Then, one by one, they came through. Other men had made the same decision: get inside the tanks, the safest place. And it was okay: no fatalities, one or two light injuries, none of the tanks damaged. The Iraqis had messed up. The accuracy of the firing meant they almost certainly had a ‘dicker’ – a forward observer, probably in dishdash and shemagh, and therefore indistinguishable from any local civilian talking on his mobile. Given that, and given the value of the target, they might have concentrated everything they had for a massive bombardment. As it was, they had nowhere near enough firepower to inflict serious damage.

With his crews back inside their tanks, Brown had to make a rapid decision. Were they too shaken up to go ahead, or should the mission proceed? In fact, when his order came over the squadron net – ‘Charlie Charlie, this is Zero Alpha, raiding party prepare to move out at 0200 hours Zulu time’ – there were cheers inside the tanks. The squadron had taken a hit, and now they were going to retaliate. Morale was intact, and it would have been badly dented had the mission, the first chance of real action, been aborted.

A short while later, eleven Challenger 2 tanks were lined up on their LD (line of departure) waiting for H-hour. ‘We’d gone through a whole host of emotions,’ recalls Brown, ‘but during the 45 minute drive to the LD, everyone had switched back to the normal aggressive mode. Everyone calmed down during the move.’

Any tank is a balance between speed, protection, and firepower. The Challenger 2 can manage a maximum speed of around 40mph despite having state-of-the-art, second-generation Chobham (or Dorchester) armour and a total weight of 75 tonnes. The Chobham armour is twice the strength of steel, and in combat situations, when necessary, it is reinforced with external ERA (explosive reactive armour) plates, designed to neutralise the effect of incoming rounds.

The Challenger’s main armament comprises a 120mm main gun, firing either HESH (high-explosive squash head) or FIN (armour-piercing, fin-stabilised discarding sabot); each tank carries 50 rounds. There is also a 7.62mm co-axial chain-gun (‘coax’) and a 7.62mm turret-mounted general purpose machine-gun (‘gimpy’), supplied with 4,000 rounds between them.

The result – the only tank currently in service with the British Army – is widely regarded as one of the best main battle tanks in the world. But tanks are the modern equivalent of heavy cavalry. They are designed for fast gallops over open country. Brown had commanded a troop in the First Gulf War. Such was the imbalance of forces, it was little more than a race across the desert, with minimal resistance from the Iraqis, most of whom surrendered at the first opportunity, or were caught in the horror of the Basra Road, when an immense traffic jam of retreating vehicles and troops was hit repeatedly by the US Air Force.

The Iraqis had learnt lessons from the previous conflict. Their huge firepower disadvantage meant that in the open desert they risked being blitzed from the air and then driven over by the tanks. So this time, they had established themselves in the built-up areas. The number and complexity of some of their defensive positions in Basra were astonishing. Concealed firing pits, fortified buildings, and roof-top sniper positions were linked together, such that the defenders could fire and move from position to position under the control of commanders using mobile phones.

Equipped with AK-47 assault rifles, shoulder-held RPG launchers, and light-weight mortars, the Iraqis were far better equipped for close-in urban fighting than they were for desert warfare. A tank’s heaviest armour is at the front. ‘Never turn round under fire’ is a golden rule: you always reverse until out-of-range. The dangers in urban fighting against dug-in and concealed infantry are obvious. Obstacles and traps can be prepared to bring the tanks to a halt, and fire can then be concentrated on their more vulnerable tops, sides, and rear-ends.

Likewise with the Iraqis’ heavy weapons. In particular, their many Russian-supplied T55 tanks were obsolete and no match for the British Challenger or the American Abrams. But hidden inside an urban area, a T55 might mount a close-range ambush, sending an armour-piercing round into the side or rear of an opposing tank. All in all, the odds were much more favourable to the defenders fighting in the Basra suburbs.

The level of threat would also hinge on the number and motivation of the enemy. Most Iraqi Army regulars showed little willingness to fight for Saddam. Though the presence of foreign fighters was reported by military intelligence, they seem to have been relatively few on the ground. The local population was mainly Shia, an oppressed people under Ba’ath Party rule, and therefore generally well-disposed towards the British forces. The main military threat was posed by the Fedayeen, along with such elements of the regular army as they could galvanise into action alongside them.

Who were the Fedayeen? The British troops at the time had only a hazy notion. In fact, the ‘Fedayeen Saddam’ were set up in 1995 as an elite part of the Iraqi armed forces. ‘They were passionate, probably indoctrinated, certainly absolutely loyal to Saddam,’ says Tim Brown. ‘They were also cunning, effective, and professional – up to a point.’

And, as the eleven tanks of ‘A’ Squadron roared forwards at H-hour, one of the three targets was the Fedayeens’ Basra headquarters and main operating-base. Moving down Red Route, a major dual-carriageway leading into the heart of the city, the raiders crossed the bridge over the Shatt al-Basra Canal, saw the entire city of some 2 million people laid out before them, and then accelerated towards their 40mph maximum as they began a modern armoured charge into the heart of the enemy’s position.

As they hurtled forwards, fire erupted from the edge-of-town scrubland on either side of the road. Brown could see the incoming rounds directed at the lead tanks ahead of him. ‘You could see the killing zone. You could see yourself driving into it. It was concentrated, organised, measured.’

Soon the entire dual-carriageway had erupted into a massive high-speed fire-fight. The Challenger crews could hear virtually nothing of the cacophony of battle, but they could see it through their sights.

A modern tank squadron is made up of four troops of three plus two command tanks, 14 vehicles in all. Each Challenger has a crew of four – in order of experience, a commander, a loader-operator, a gunner, and a driver. The first three are in the turret, while the driver is at the front of the hull.

Conditions inside are cramped and claustrophobic, and the gunner and driver in particular have very little space. The driver lies semi-horizontal looking through a sight above his head and operating steering rods held in either hand. He cannot straighten up because above him is the heavy sloping armour-plate at the front of the hull. During sustained action, ‘closed down’ inside the tank, the driver may be unable to move for many hours.

Lack of space was not the only problem in Iraq in 2003. The desert heat combined with the warmth of engines, guns, radio-sets, and the bodies of the crew to send the temperatures inside the tanks – essentially metal boxes – up to around 40°C. Soon everyone was drenched with sweat. Body-armour is supposed to be worn by tank crews, but many men discharged it in practice.

Combat is a surreal experience inside a Challenger 2. The firestorm that greeted the ‘A’ Squadron charge down Red Route was felt as an occasional thud; from the armour-plated security of the turret, whatever was happening seemed a long way away. But a modern main battle tank is equipped with state-of-the-art optics. The thermal-imaging sights often enable the commander and the gunner to see targets more easily at night than they would during the day: the heat of a man, a gun, or a vehicle that might be camouflaged to the naked eye is immediately visible. Equally, sights are equipped with image-intensifiers: a potential target – say a man preparing to fire an RPG some 100m away – can be made to appear to appear shockingly close.

The optics, combined with laser range-finding and computer-controlled adjustments to the guns, make the Challenger 2’s armament lethally accurate. But this highly sophisticated killing-machine can be reduced to so much heavyweight metal by human failure. Corporal Dean Gibbs, one of Tim Brown’s tank commanders, had spotted a two-man RPG team sprinting across the scrub and then kneeling to engage the advancing British armour.

Only the commander has 360° degree panoramic vision, so it is his job both to direct the movement of the tank and to identify and home in on targets. Corporal Gibbs traversed the turret, lased the RPG team, and then released control over the guns so that his gunner could fire. But the youngster froze at the controls, momentarily stunned by his first experience of combat, appearing in the sights like something out of a computer game with the volume turned off. The commander reclaimed the control and squirted 7.62mm ‘coax’ rounds at the RPG team. But too late: they dived for cover in the nick of time.

They were lucky. Fire from a Challenger 2 more often meant laser-guided, computer-calculated, high-magnification death. The view through the sights could be horrific. Bodies might be blown apart by a high-explosive shell or cut in half by machine-gun fire. To see this happen close-up through the optics of a modern tank gives the horrors of war a new dimension.

Tim Brown is glad he decided to be a tankie, not an infanteer. In a tank, ‘you sit inside a fantastic piece of kit that protects you and carries various creature-comforts’. It may be claustrophobic and hot, you may have to piss in a water-bottle, but you do not have to yomp for hours under a baking sun weighed down by body-armour, weaponry, equipment, and back-pack. On the other hand, when things go wrong, the inside of a tank can be the most terrifying place on earth.

‘You feel very secure if things are going well. But the fear of ‘brewing up’ is always there – mainly the fear of being badly burnt before the ammo goes off. Everyone has some element of claustrophobic fear, but it is usually under control. When things go wrong in a tank, it can kick off.’

Many things can go wrong. Maintaining a tank in combat imposes a massive logistical strain. Refuelling a Challenger squadron requires 25,000 litres of fuel – enough to fill 500 ordinary cars! Generally, though, fuel shortage is not a problem in urban fighting: it is easy enough to pull back for ‘replen’ (replenishment); it is long-range gallops that present a refuelling problem.

Running out of ammo is a greater danger. If a tank is trapped in urban fighting, it could exhaust its supply soon enough. Tank battles in the open desert during the Arab-Israeli Wars typically lasted about ten minutes: it was all over too quickly for tanks to run out of ammo. But urban battles – like some fought in and around Basra in 2003 – can last for hours. Any tank running out of ammo would become extremely vulnerable to an enterprising enemy.

A tank can sometimes be taken out in an instant. A Challenger of the Queen’s Royal Lancers was destroyed when it was hit by another British tank – a ‘blue-on-blue’ incident of a kind that is all too common in close fighting in ‘complex terrain’. A number of Iraqi T55s were destroyed by British FIN rounds that went straight through their armour, setting off the ammo inside the compartment and vapourising the crew.

But tanks can also die slowly. There are potentially many stages in the degradation of a tank. If sights are smashed, the tank is blind, and if guns jam, it is defenceless. If it ditches, if the tracks come off, if an RPG smashes a sprocket, it can be immobilised.

In a separate battle involving ‘C’ Squadron a short while after ‘A’ Squadron’s raid, one of the tanks was ambushed and blinded when its sights were knocked out in a hurricane of fire. As it attempted to reverse, it went into a ditch, the tracks were thrown, and it came to rest at a 45° angle, its soft underbelly exposed to enemy fire. Blind, disabled, and unable to use its guns, the stricken Challenger became the target for hundreds of enemy fighters anticipating a kill.

The crew were in panic. If they attempted to leave the vehicle, they would die in a hail of cross-fire. If they stayed inside it, they would burn to death if a single round penetrated the armour. Neither the driver nor the gunner, the youngest and least experienced crewmen, have either visibility or control; for them, the fear was extreme.

‘You’re the commander! What are you going to fucking do? … Come on, Sergeant, what’s your fucking bright plan, that’s what you’re paid for … Your’re gonna get us all killed … Come on, think of something, do something! Fucking do something! …’

Sergeant Baird eventually regained control of his crew, and Major Johnny Biggart, ‘C’ Squadron commander, organised a successful recovery of the crippled tank using a CRARRV (Challenger armoured repair and recovery vehicle). But the incident highlighted the extreme vulnerability of tanks, especially in complex terrain like a Middle Eastern city.

At the time of the ‘A’ Squadron raid, the first foray into the city, no-one was sure about the reception. The Iraqi defences were yet to be tested. The fear in everyone’s mind was tanks getting trapped and then becoming disabled. Looking back, Tim Brown is convinced the Iraqis could have made themselves much more dangerous. Most of the fighting was in relatively open areas on the edge of town. Endless RPGs from 500m could not make any serious impression on a squadron of Challenger 2s. The Iraqis may have learnt the futility of facing Coalition firepower in the open desert, but they failed to learn any further lessons during the April fighting in and around Basra.

‘They could have sucked us into an area of their choosing. Imagine if they had centred their defences around the old city – sometimes called ‘the Venice of the Middle East’ – with its waterways and narrow, winding streets? A series of obstacles and traps here, with heavy weapons close-by on buildings, could have turned the battle for Basra into a long slog with serious casualties.’

But Iraqi command-and-control seems to have been weak, with most Fedayeen fighting in small, locally-based cells. Certainly, they were unable to inflict any losses on Tim Brown’s raiders. One troop of three tanks brought down the black cast-iron statue of the Iraqi leader, three times life-size, his arm raised in a gesture of command, greatcoat flapping at his legs. It smashed into a dozen pieces, leaving only a pair of boots standing on the stone plinth. Another troop took out the Fedayeen headquarters and operating-base. A third, after much effort, brought down the massive red-and-white metal structure half the size of the Post Office Tower that was Basra’s main TV and radio broadcasting mast.

Mission accomplished, the tanks ‘extracted’. Reversing and firing, the Challengers withdrew back down Red Route. Finally, clear of the killing zone, only a few hundred yards short of the bridge over the Shatt al-Basra Canal, Brown ordered the tanks to swing round and run forwards.

Neither the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard tanks nor the Black Watch infantry who had fought alongside them had suffered any casualties in what had been one of the hottest exchanges of fire involving British troops since the Second World War. Such was the technological gap between the Challenger 2 and the anti-tank capabilities of the Fedayeen that the risk of committing armour to intense urban warfare had been fully justified.

The tank, especially a main battle tank, is a morale-buster. It is an aggressive, violent, impersonal monster, and if it can advance through a hail of incoming fire, the shots bouncing off its armoured sides, while hitting back with pin-point-accurate high-explosive shells and scything rounds of machine-gun fire, it can break the will of the most determined fighters.

Asked the old question about whether the days of the tank are numbered, Tim Brown is doubtful. ‘Cavalry has always been one of the most effective components on the battlefield. It is the combination of speed, shock, and firepower. That is why the tank has a morale-destroying effect.’

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