Northern Alliance fighters take cover
Tony Blair – desperate to remain America’s staunchest ally, but fearing repercussions – wanted credit for having British boots on the pitch. But his generals warned of a bloodbath in Kunduz. The Prime Minister therefore hedged his bets by issuing a “national warning” prohibiting British troops from carrying out offensive operations – the SBS could only fire if attacked. Based in Poole, Dorset, the SBS has long been considered the poor cousin of the Special Air Service. The much larger SAS were already in southern Afghanistan in the footsteps of Osama bin Laden. Once Kunduz fell, the SBS would just have to clean up.
Adding insult to injury, the SBS men were ordered to paint their two WMIK Land Rovers white to look like aid vehicles belonging to a warm and fuzzy aid group.
On November 25, 2001, four members of the SBS team were assigned to guard a US Navy Seal officer during a hospital visit. Morale is weakening. The war, however, is infinitely unpredictable and the events that unfold that morning would propel the SBS to the forefront of the conflict, forever changing the history of the elite unit.
Reports were coming to the US base in Mazar-i Sharif of two CIA officers missing in the midst of an uprising by al-Qaeda prisoners in the nearby fort of Qala-i Jangi. Some 400 fanatic jihadists were on the run, and US special forces were forming a rescue team.
When an American officer suggested that Blair’s restrictions meant the British might not be able to participate, one of the SBS men replied, “**** that, mate! The eight men of the SBS were trained in assault and rescue operations.
They were led by Jess, a captain and former Royal Marine. Its most experienced non-commissioned officer was Sergeant Paul “Scruff” McGough, who a year earlier had rescued British soldiers held hostage in Sierra Leone.
Northern Alliance fighters atop Fort Qala-i Jangi welcome arrival of Western forces
The medic was Tony, a corporal who, despite years of service, had yet to see the fight. Without a single medal to his name, he was starting to think he was destined to be kicked out of action forever.
Four more, also corporals, could have been put together just to find a range of accents to confuse Americans. Russ was a huge Cornishman who was strong as an ox. Jonno, a Geordie and another giant, was sometimes referred to as “Little John”. Pat, the lantern jaw, was from Yorkshire; his bravery in Kurdistan after the Gulf War had earned him a mention on the agenda. Flip, from the West Country, was nervous and hard as nails.
While the American Green Berets wore uniforms, the SBS wore local scarves called shamags, along with jeans, Barbour jackets and tactical vests, some of which were local counterfeits of Calvin Klein. Each SBS man carried a Diemaco 5.56mm rifle and a SIG Sauer 9mm pistol. The eighth member of the SBS team was an American, Stephen ‘Steph’ Bass, a 32-year-old Navy SEAL on an exchange program. Originally from Kentucky, he was the son of a Vietnam veteran.
In London on September 11, Bass witnessed a wave of support for America and saw the group of Coldstream Guards perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” outside Buckingham Palace. He personified the “special relationship”. Now he would fight alongside the British in an effort to save his fellow Americans.
Their Land Rovers may have been painted white, but each was still equipped with a General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) – Green Berets lacked firepower. “Brits, get your things,” was the call.
US SEAL Steph Bass and Paul ‘Scruf’ McGough
The plan to go through the main gate of Qala-i Jangi immediately collapsed. Smoke rose into the air as the mortar and RPG shells exploded. By braking 200 meters from the fort, everyone except the drivers got out and the vehicles became shields.
The Afghans in the Northern Alliance were on the verge of being overwhelmed by Al Qaeda fighters. The SBS wasted no time. Scruff and several comrades picked up the GPMGs and dragged them down the long staircase of the East Tower.
He crawled to the low wall overlooking the southern compound, where al-Qaeda was concentrated, stood up and threw a wall of lead at the enemy below. The SBS men stood up and took turns firing. Within minutes, they had mowed down dozens of enemy combatants – and pushed the rest back into Maison Rose, a fortified central building or outbuildings.
The tower also overlooked the northern compound, so they used their Diemacos to take out the Al Qaeda men who had made it through the gate. The combination of very precise machine guns and rifle fire killed the enemy with astonishing speed.
As Tony heard the chatter of the radio and the clicking of the GPMGs, he thought, “Looks like they’re shooting fish in a barrel.” “
Tony and Steph were among five men who had passed through a minefield outside the fort and reached the northwest tower. After an Afghan unrolled his turban to make them a climbing rope, they were also busy killing al-Qaeda fighters.
The eight SBS men inside Qala-i Jangi next to one of their armored Land Rovers
Some enemies were seriously injured but still fighting, some were shooting RPGs and a few were throwing grenades. As the SEAL used his Diemaco to take them out, a machine gun behind him suddenly opened fire. It was Tony, sitting on a Russian DShK, pulling, his legs off the ground as it had been set up for a taller man.
It was his first time in combat and he was experiencing the filtering out noise and slowing down of time so typical of battle. Tony could clearly hear Bass talking to him, and when a target appeared he felt he had plenty of time to aim and shoot, when in reality it was only a second or two.
Amid the hubbub, two white doves from a local shrine landed on the parapet next to them. As the two fighters mulled over the incongruity of those peace symbols falling on a vicious firefight, the birds cooed in content before realizing their mistake and flying away.
Some of the Afghan soldiers refused to fight, prompting a commander to beat his men with a stick to force them to pick up their weapons. But Tony found himself bonding with the locals, who were first mystified by the seedy men at SBS.
The British set to work without fanfare. As Tony passed ammo to the Northern Alliance fighters, they gained confidence. One gave him a bowl of steaming rice – the Afghans had cooked a meal as the bullets flew.
Steph and Tony tried to reach David Tyson, a CIA man trapped in the North Tower, timing their movement with an American airstrike to crawl along a ramp, protected by only a shallow lip on the side at the middle of bullets flying a few inches above their heads. Below, two Northern Alliance soldiers ran into the open and were mown down. Just before dark, Steph told an American major he wanted to go ahead and search for Mike Spann, the second missing CIA officer.
“No,” he was told. “You have to stay here.” But Steph insisted they use the last traces of daylight to find his fellow American. Before anyone could dissuade him, the SEAL had jumped over the parapet of the tower and landed outside Qala-i Jangi. He circled the fort, rifle in hand, scaled the west tower and hoisted himself over the ramparts.
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At the top of the tower, he found four Northern Alliance fighters hidden behind a low wall with the corpses of their comrades a few yards away. Steph eliminated the enemies in the southern enclosure until they recognized the new threat and retaliated.
Fearing that he would run out of ammunition, he recovered an AK-47 from a dead Afghan.
As a Navy SEAL firing from a high vantage point, he was much more precise than the al Qaeda fighters in the compound, and their response quickly subsided.
Steph was lying face down at the front of the tower, overlooking the southern enclosure, and scanning the area to the east. In the distance, just in front of the Pink House on its west side, he spotted a figure lying on his stomach, dressed in pale blue jeans and a black fleece, probably Spann, he thought.
If he saw the CIA man being tortured, Steph decided to shoot him and explain it to the family later. Some things, the SEAL thought darkly, were worse than death.
Steph pulled two inches from the character’s feet, to test for signs of life: no movement. He was sure it was Mike Spann – and that he was dead. Steph jumped over the parapet of the tower and ran to where he had left Tony.
It was later confirmed that Spann was dead, shot twice to the head, almost certainly in the early stages of the uprising. He was the first American casualty in combat since the terrorist attacks of September 11. His comrade David Tyson, who killed up to 40 al-Qaeda men, eventually escaped.
Had the SBS been allowed to fight in Kunduz, the al-Qaida uprising in Qala-i Jangi could very well have been successful, freeing 400 al-Qaida fighters and turning the tide of the war.
Between them, the eight-man team killed around 150 escapees. By the end of the six-day battle, only 86 of the original 400 prisoners had survived.
For their actions of November 25, 2001, Captain Jess and Corporal Tony both received the Cross of Outstanding Bravery, just behind the Victoria Cross.
Steph Bass received the Navy Cross – the American equivalent – as well as a Military Cross, which were presented to him by the Queen at Windsor Castle.
Sergeant Scruff McGough, who later died in a 2006 paramotor crash in Cyprus, was mentioned in dispatches for his bravery at Qala-i Jangi.
His comrades felt he deserved a bigger award, but were reassured in the knowledge that his place in the SBS lore would never be in doubt.
- First Casualty: The Untold Story Of The Battle That Began The War In Afghanistan by Toby Harnden (Welbeck, £ 18.99) is out now. For free UK P&P on orders over £ 20 call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832 or visit expressbookshop.com