Op Telic was the codename given to all UK Armed Forces involvement in Iraq between the invasion on March 19, 2003 and the withdrawal of British Forces on May 22, 2011.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the start of Op Telic, Pathfinder editor, Mal Robinson, recalls his own time spent on tour with the RAF under the operation.
I was stood on my pass out parade at RAF Halton and recall some of the words the Reviewing Officer was saying via the loudspeaker. As with I suspect most pass out parades, the troops the Reviewing Officer was speaking to can barely remember what was said, their attentions most likely focussed on the next phase of the said parade, where family members were watching in the crowd and or thoughts on their first posting and what this may entail.
For the life of me, without digging out the order of service booklet, I could not say who my Reviewing Officer was, but I did recall him mentioning the words “Iraq” and “Op Telic” and how the invasion had just begun by British troops in the war on terror.
At the time, Iraq seemed like a million miles away, as trade training at Brize Norton beckoned for another six months, however you also got the feeling that things had become somewhat very real in terms of war.
Afghanistan had been ongoing for 2 years already and seemed to be out of the news and out of sight, out of mind, of course until hostilities ramped up there in years to come.
As we arrived at Brize Norton for our trade training a few weeks later, the place was riddled with anti-war protestors, one even getting onto the runway at one point. It was madness for these new recruits.
Fast forward three years later and having been posted to RAF Akrotiri from Lyneham within my first 18 months of service, I was tasked for a four-month tour of Basra, Iraq as part of Op Telic.
Some of the lads from the Squadron had been deployed there already and came back with their own tales of rocket attacks and the like. One of my best mates was over there at the time I found out I would be his replacement and so I received regular communications with him on what to expect.
Just as I was gearing up to go to Basra and imminent pre-op training, a new order came through indicating I would now be going on Ops in the time period stated, but I would be swapping Kandahar, Afghanistan for Basra.
It was a further two years until I finally deployed as part of 1 Air Mobility Wing (1AMW) formerly UK MAMS to Basra in March 2008.
Hostilities around Basra by now had intensified and rocket attacks were averaging around 130 plus a day.
1AMW were based at RAF Lyneham, which was also the base chosen for UK repatriations of the fallen from both Afghanistan and Iraq. I remember one particular occasion a week or so before we were to depart to Basra, tragically Sergeant Duane “Baz” Barwood was killed in a rocket attack on Basra Air Base.
The repatriation of Sergeant Barwood took place the last day of our pre-op training on camp and as the procession of cars for the ceremony moved down the long main drag in the middle of RAF Lyneham, a mate and I were walking down and in line with protocol for anyone in the area in uniform and on duty, we stopped, stood at the side of the road and waited for the procession to pass with a salute.
As anyone could imagine, it was quite emotional to experience and the fact we were heading out in days to the scene of the attack, made the scenario of overseas operations hit home.
I had already experienced four months in Kandahar, Afghanistan and 3 rocket attacks in my time there, Basra Air Station was experiencing 40 times this daily and it didn’t take long for the eerie alarms to go off once we arrived and it was time to hit the deck, waiting for the rockets or shrapnel to fall anywhere in the compound.
It was a bizarre time, if there is such a thing in a conflict zone? We predominantly worked with the RAF’s fleet of Hercules aircraft, with C17’s and chartered Antanov’s thrown in for good measure. In order for us to reach the Hercules, we were required to drive through what was labelled “no man’s land”, basically no one on our level knew what was going on with it.
The area was down underneath former departure gates for one a thriving airport for civilian airlines and crowds of 300-400 people were formed and based there. They were civilians with nowhere else to go and who knows, possibly insurgents mingled in too. We had to drive through these gathered crowds on the air base to reach certain aircraft, it was all a bit surreal.
The rocket attacks kept coming, some closer than others as we slept in a metal coffin as Operation Charge of the Knights kicked off. This was a huge operation to clear out the insurgency downtown Basra and the workload to facilitate this alongside US counterparts was huge.
One rocket attack hit a fuel depot next to our compound, which as you can imagine made a significant impact.
There were times, as there always are for a spot of humour and more jovial elements of the tour. I often chuckled to myself that the RMP’s floating around would try and catch you out for not wearing a seatbelt, which I made the point up the chain of command, that if we were experiencing so many incoming rocket attacks and we were driving with seatbelts on, surely this would restrict our potential exit from the vehicle. Add to the fact we were driving a maximum of 15 mph in some parts, what would be more dangerous? Sat in a vehicle under a barrage of rocket attacks strapped in with a seatbelt, or no seatbelt driving at 15mph?
Thankfully, common sense shone through (well after several weeks) and the seatbelts were dispensed with.
I was fortunate enough to be chosen (picked out of the hat) to attend the RAF’s 90th anniversary dinner, which took place in the mess and consisted of a curry night with the boss. Having been present at many mess functions back home and on overseas bases, this was my first “mess night” on operations and bar a few rocket attacks, the night passed off in style.
Op Telic for me was a full on tour of non-stop work, adrenaline, constant alert and unforgettable flying experiences. Tasks such as being team leader to offload and onload a Hercules during night cover, with lights off and engines running, with around 15 minutes to play with, always conscious of coming under attack is something I am proud to have played a part in…talk about working under pressure. It is an example I have used in job interviews in the past and always receives a set of raised eyebrows.
There was the nightmare of dealing with soldiers of all walks of life (and deceased western hostages) who had been killed in action to repatriate home, which was of course a sombre and emotional time.
A 1400 word or so article simply doesn’t do the tour justice…you could have written a book on it all. Maybe one day, I will get around to it…again.
Mal Robinson, Editor, Pathfinder International magazine.
Royal Air Force 2003 – 2011
Author “From Afghanistan to Temzepam”, published 2007.
In memory of all of the fallen troops in Op Telic.