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Black Watch contact report


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‘We wanted to cry, but we had a job to do‘

DEFENCE CORRESPONDENT ( as appeared in The Scotsman)

THE message crackled across the radio network and through the speakers in the cramped interior of the mortar platoon's vehicles, strung out across an ugly oil-smeared patch of concrete set among the shattered buildings of the old Iraqi transport yard overlooking Bridge 4 into Basra.

"Contact," it said. A unit under attack. The network was full of such messages every night. The Black Watch mortar platoon listened, then turned back to what they were doing.

It was the evening of their third day in Iraq. They had been firing the previous night and for much of that day. In the darkened compound, they waited for orders to fire again.

But for Lance Corporal Barry Stephen and three of his colleagues, somewhere in the darkness on the edge of the town of azZubayr, there would be no respite that night. They were under attack.

Part of the battalion's mortar platoon, they should have been with the others on the mortar lines overlooking Basra. Instead, they were driving back from azZubayr, where they had gone for repairs to their aging FV432 vehicle.

Hidden by the roadside, the fedayeen militia men watched their approach.

"Contact." The message burst over the net as the trap was sprung. A rocket-propelled grenade left its launcher and hurtled towards the 432. And L-Cpl Stephen was gone.

"Don't worry," he had told his wife, Shirley, before he left for the Gulf. "I'll be all right - I'll stay at the back."

Afterwards, they said he had been firing, that he had climbed up to the machine gun in the cupola on the roof and was blasting away towards their unseen attackers, trying to defend his friends. He was just unlucky, they said. It was just one of those things that happens in wars. They moved his body back to the dressing station, but there was nothing a doctor could do.

Up at Bridge 4, Sergeant Jim Mathieson, section commander in charge of one of the two Black Watch mortar lines, and Corporal John Rose, his command post operator in charge of firing the 81mm mortars, waited for fresh orders. They had already been busy, and not just firing mortars.

On their first afternoon in Iraq, they had come under heavy fire from the fedayeen in the centre of azZubayr. L-Cpl Rose had led a charge across open ground and routed the gunmen, an action that would win him the Military Cross, one of the highest honours a soldier can be awarded.

Now, in the heart of the night, that seemed a long time ago. In the compound adjacent to the bridge, next to the Warriors of B Company, Sgt Mathieson was monitoring various radio networks when he heard the first contact report, just a call sign and a few brief words to say what was going on.

A little time passed. And then the radios crackled again. Longer this time, a full contact report to the battle group headquarters. They had come under attack, the signaller said, and there had been a casualty. No names but a zap number, the last four digits of the soldier's army number and the first few letters of his surname. The platoon didn't need his name. They knew it was L-Cpl Stephen.

"That's when we pricked our ears up because we knew it was from the support company," says Sgt Mathieson. "There had been contacts countless times and we were just listening in.

"I knew straight away. But it didn't say dead or alive, just that it was a casualty.

That was when people started to realise what was happening."

Sgt Mathieson knew what was coming next: a full situation report, with the details of what had happened. He tried to persuade the others to switch their radios to the mortar network. He promised them he would listen to the battle network and let them know what was happening. But the mortar platoon were not for listening to him.

So they waited. And then the radio crackled again, and the message they did not want to hear came from the speakers. Now there was no longer any doubt. L-Cpl Stephen, their friend and colleague, was dead.

"That's when people started getting upset," Sgt Mathieson says, with a catch in his voice.

Listening to his radio, Cpl Rose also heard the situation report. "I was shocked, upset, wanted to go home, because in the mortar platoon you're not supposed to die, it's supposed to be everyone else in front of you."

But there was no time to grieve or get angry that night. Moments later, another message came over the radio, fresh orders to resume firing. It held them together.

"We got the news on the net that we'd lost L-Cpl Stephen and then we got a fire mission straight after it," says Cpl Rose. "You could feel your whole heart sink and then you had the fire mission, so you knew then that the guys at the front of you were under contact from the enemy and they are relying on you to take them out, you don't have time to think about it initially. To me, it helped. It's always the initial shock when somebody close to you dies that gets to you."

The firing lasted 40 minutes, but there was little respite before more orders came to fire again. All they wanted was to be able to do something to help their colleague. The firing went on most of the night, and for that at least, Sgt Mathieson was grateful.

"I had to go round and kick people's f****** arses and get them to never mind what's going on, whatever is happening is happening. I just wanted to help.

"It's hard to try to understand that it's nothing to do with you, there are people dedicated to help. It's not our problem to be going and sorting it out, we've got a fire mission so we have to do it. I couldn't afford to have people hysterical or crying about what was going on.

I couldn't allow people to grieve. I wanted to do it myself and I couldn't and I wouldn't allow the guys to do it either. They had a job to do."

And when it was over, and day came, the men who had been with L-Cpl Stephen were sent forward to rejoin the mortar platoon.

"They seemed to be dealing with it themselves, which I thought was strange because I don't know if I would be able to keep it as calm as they did having been in such a situation," says Sgt Mathieson.

L-Cpl Stephen was 31 when he died, a lance corporal who had celebrated his birthday only three days earlier. His bravery was rewarded with a posthumous mention in dispatches.

Hundreds paid their respects as his coffin, covered by the Saltire, was taken through Perth to St John's kirk.

And when Basra fell, the mortar platoon were there, just as they were throughout those few weeks in the spring of 2003. But no-one forgot the man they had lost.

"I'd rather have him here than a medal," says Cpl Rose. "I'd rather give it back and have Barry. That's how close a family we were."

How MoD blunder killed Scots soldier in Iraq


Key points
"¢ Soldier died in ambush after going for repairs for his ageing vehicle
"¢ FV432 Armoured personnel carriers reaching the end of their servicable lives
"¢ Government accused of not replacing outdated equipment to save money

Key quote: , said the government had put back plans to phase out the FV432s to save money. "Unless they [FV432 armoured personnel carriers] are replaced soon, this is going to happen again and again." John Chisholm, Defence International magazine.

Story in full: THE first Scottish soldier to die in Iraq was killed after his aging vehicle broke down just days into the campaign, The Scotsman can disclose.

Lance Corporal Barry Stephen was killed in an ambush as he and his colleagues attempted to rejoin the Black Watch mortar platoon in a heavily defended compound after going for repairs on their broken-down FV432 armoured personnel carrier.

Had his vehicle not broken down L-Cpl Stephen and his colleagues would never have been travelling in the area where he was killed.

The revelation embroils the Ministry of Defence in a fresh scandal over the issue of faulty or out-dated equipment.

If we are going to send them into battle, we have got to make sure they have the best possible equipment
- Gerald Howarth

Soldiers serving in Iraq at the time say that problems with the FV432s meant only eight of the 12 mortar platoon vehicles in the Black Watch battle group managed to cross the border. Defence experts say the FV432s, which were first introduced in the 1960s, are rapidly reaching the end of their service life and accuse the government of delaying plans to replace the vehicles in order to save money.

Last night, Gerald Howarth, the shadow defence minister, said the government had to accept its responsibility to provide troops with adequate equipment.

"If we are going to send them into battle, we have got to make sure they have the best possible equipment and that is what the public expects," he said.

L-Cpl Stephen was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade as he attempted to fight off an attack in an area still vulnerable to Iraqi militia action. He and his colleagues were returning under escort from the town of azZubayr, where they had gone for repairs.

The incident is the latest in a long list of equipment failures and shortages which have been blamed for endangering the lives of British soldiers serving in Iraq.

In January, Lieutenant Colonel James Cowan, the commanding officer of the Black Watch, told The Scotsman that he blamed the shortage of equipment in the Gulf on the government's unwillingness to be seen to commit to war. The regiment's quartermaster during the conflict was highly critical of the shortage of nuclear, biological and chemical protection suits and equipment.

The government has also been accused of sending troops into action without adequate body armour, ammunition or clothing. One soldier, Sergeant Steve Roberts, was shot dead after he was ordered to hand over his personal body armour to an infantry soldier.

Last night, a spokesman for the MoD said that National Audit Office figures show that the FV432 vehicles were the second most reliable vehicle in the entire fleet.

However, the MoD's own report into the conflict noted that there had been a problem with maintaining sufficient numbers of serviceable vehicles and that it had become normal practice to "cannibalise" some vehicles for spare parts to keep others running.

John Chisholm, of Defence International magazine, said the government had put back plans to phase out the FV432s to save money. "Unless they are replaced soon, this is going to happen again and again," he said.