Operation Anaconda: The Battle of Roberts' Ridge - Page 2

March 9th, 2005  

Topic: Operation Anaconda ( The battle of Takur Ghar)

Artillery is no good where they operated as the terrain is so mountainous and riddled with gullies.
At the time of the battle/ operation this was at the disposal of the forces present:
AC-C130 Spectre gunship, US Marine Hornets, french Mirages stationed in Manas, USN F-18s, F-14 Tomcats form carriers off Pakistan , And A-10 warthogs based in Bagram.
They could also call in B-52s and B-1bs from Diego Garcia.
All this was layed down in the mission briefings.
The main problem to me was a lack of understanding of the intel collected by various patrols that the enemy was in large numbers and prepared to stand and fight, not run away.
Major general Hagenbrook tried to stick the intiial insertion on an enemy occupied ridge (Takur Ghar) which led to the chopper being hit and Roberts falling out and being left behind.
The Australian SAS patrol wher ein an OP where they had a ringside view of events and from there co ordianted Airstrikes, relief forces and on site intel back to HQ.
Anaconda was a big ambitous operation to bring the Al-Qa'ida to battle by running them into well prepared blocking forces and destroying them.
Instead they stood, reinforced and fought back, ultimately withdrawing , badly chewed up an exhausted fighting force.
Funny that the Afghan troops pissed off pretty quick before the battle proper?
March 9th, 2005  
Charge 7
"Artillery is no good where they operated as the terrain is so mountainous and riddled with gullies."

Artillery works just fine in mountainous terrain.

Australian SAS called in airstrikes later on yes, but the airstrikes on the bunker facing Razor 1 where called in by the US Air Force ETAC on the scene and the call for danger close was made by Captain Self also on the scene of course.
March 12th, 2005  

Topic: Re: Operation Anaconda ( The battle of Takur Ghar)

Originally Posted by Warwick
Artillery is no good where they operated as the terrain is so mountainous and riddled with gullies.
Fuze Time, Fuze Variable Time and ICM work quite well on defiladed targets.
May 3rd, 2005  
Snake 41

Topic: Robert's Ridge

Good afternoon...I was there that morning the CH-47 was shot down on the east ridges of the Operation Anaconda AOR. I was part of a section of F-14 Tomcats that provided A/G suppression for over 2 1/2 hours dropping 8 Gbu-12's in close proximity to our friendly forces. Our callsign was Snake 41/42 and was in comms with a brave individual that was going by the callsign "Slick 01". I did not have the opportunity to see the program but I can tell you that the reason the Air Force assets left is because they were unable to find the helicopter on the ground. Even though there wasa predator UAV over top of the downed aircraft i was too surprised by the delay of rescue effort. Thankfully the 18-20 indivuals that were still alive when we checked in finally made it home that evening. I'm just glad i had the opportunity to do what we could to help those gentlemen buy some time until the rescue effort arrived.

Originally Posted by IAmFighter
The reenactment that the Military Channel did for Operation Anaconda: Battle of Robert's Ridge was very well done and extremely accurate. I just can't believe the communications problems that the Rangers had and also that US commanders would pull their air cover away from them, both the first flight of F-15s and the second flight of F-16s, with weapons still aboard. The decision to wait until darkness before extracting the Rangers and PJs from the mountain is a controversial one, as waiting cost the lives of several men. However, the question is, would a second helicopter be lost and more soldiers killed if the attempt had been made in daylight?

In my opinion, if US commanders had supplied additional close air support, such as A-10s and AC-130s, those special force soldiers could have been pulled off that mountain without further loss of American lives. Of course, that's just my opinion, and none of us have access to the entire set of information that the overall commanders had, but that's my opinion. Anybody else have any thoughts?
May 3rd, 2005  
Snake 41

Topic: Slick 01?....

Good afternoon...I was there that morning the CH-47 was shot down on the east ridges of the Operation Anaconda AOR. I was part of a section of F-14 Tomcats that provided A/G suppression for over 2 1/2 hours dropping 8 Gbu-12's in close proximity to our friendly forces. Our callsign was Snake 41/42 and was in comms with a brave individual that was going by the callsign Slick o1. I did not have the opportunity to see the program but I can tell you that the reason the Air Force assets left is because they were unable to find the helicopter on the ground. Even though there wasa predator UAV over top of the downed aircraft i was too surprised by the delay of rescue effort. Thankfully the 18-20 indivualsthat were still alive when we checked out finally made it home that evening. I'm just glad i had the opportunity to do what we could to help those gentlemen buy some time until the rescue effort arrived.

If anyone has any info to any of the individuals that were on the ground that morning I would lovet otouch base with them in the near future...
May 3rd, 2005  
Snake 41
Good afternoon...I was there that morning the CH-47 was shot down on the east ridges of the Operation Anaconda AOR. I was part of a section of F-14 Tomcats that provided A/G suppression for over 2 1/2 hours dropping 8 Gbu-12's in close proximity to our friendly forces. Our callsign was Snake 41/42 and was in comms with a brave individual that was going by the callsign Slick o1. Thankfully the 18-20 indivualsthat were still alive when we checked out finally made it home that evening. I'm just glad i had the opportunity to do what we could to help those gentlemen buy some time until the rescue effort arrived.

Originally Posted by Charge 7
No, Doody, there was nothing about the lack of artillery mentioned. I'd like to hear more about that if you can find it. As I said, the show focused almost exclusively on the 21 men from Razor 1. At the beginning of the show Mako 3 and Petty Officer Roberts were mentioned in how it came to be that Roberts was lost on the mountainside. Rozor 1 and 2 were then deployed to come to his rescue and Razor 1 was shot down. Razor 2 wasn't mentioned again until near the end of the program as the relief force that was first able to make their way on the ground to the crash site by climbing four hours up the mountain. The CIA was made the big hero in utilizing their Predator UAV to fire a Hellfire missile into the bunker the Air Force jets were unable to neutralize. The show did a critique on problems in communications during the relief of Razor 1, but it didn't go further into anything else and for the most part attributed the problems as "the fog of war". Seeing as much commentary came from MG (then now LTG) Hagenbeck the gist of it was decidely in the favor of the brass. Military analysts from the Washington Post and the Air Force times and a couple others I can't remember at the moment were the only ones to directly criticize the operation. Even the men from Razor 1 did not want to criticize the decision not to send the helicopter until darkness to pull them all out of there. They only said they felt it could've been done but acknowledged that they did not have as wide a view of the entire situation as the commanders back at base.
May 31st, 2005  
I watched the "Roberts' Ridge" reenactment, and wondered why we don't have RPG-7s for some situations like this. I am only learning now about Army ops; is there a reason why we don't use this "instant artillery"?
And why we don't use those Apaches - altitude restrictions?
How about using an A-10 loaded to the gunnels with Hellfires?
June 1st, 2005  
Originally Posted by bigredlancer
I watched the "Roberts' Ridge" reenactment, and wondered why we don't have RPG-7s for some situations like this. I am only learning now about Army ops; is there a reason why we don't use this "instant artillery"?
And why we don't use those Apaches - altitude restrictions?
How about using an A-10 loaded to the gunnels with Hellfires?
Though I am not too familiar with Special Operations equipment or the situation at hand, I'd be willing to say that someone on the ground had some sort of launcher, whether it be a LAW type weapon or M-203. The RPG-7 is a light anti-tank weapon by design, though proven quite effective in anti-personnel (and at points, stationary anti-air) situations by the NVA. Now I do know that a few designated Special Ops guys, Green Berets and LRRP's in Vietnam, carried several LAWs for heavy fighting. These days, I guess a soldier would rather carry a 80mm launcher of sorts rather than a LAW due to size, unless the situation called for a light, flat trajectory anti-tank weapon. Also, I doubt the US Army would adopt a former Soviet weapon.

Don't know about the Apaches. But about the A-10. Once again, I am not familiar with the battle, but I'm guess there wasn't any armor in the area? Aren't hellfires designed to be anti-armor weapons rather than anti-personnel?
June 1st, 2005  
"Also, I doubt the US Army would adopt a former Soviet weapon." Sad to say, probably a case of "Not Invented Here" syndrome?

" Aren't hellfires designed to be anti-armor weapons rather than anti-personnel?" Those Hellfire attacks on vehicles are very effective; a bunker might be beyond its scope, but they are laser-guided. A designator could illuminate the bunker firing port and a missile inside?

I know it's easy to surmise what could be done; just so the folks in the upper echelons learn not to underestimate the situation, as they seemed to do in this engagement.
June 3rd, 2005  
Inside the Aussie SAS

ROSS COULTHART: March 2002, deep inside Afghanistan. Australians fighting alongside American troops are close to being overrun by Al Qaeda fighters. Did you ever think you weren't going to make it out of that valley?


LT GEN FRANK HAGENBECK, COALITION COMMANDER, AFGHANISTAN: The Australian SAS displayed those kinds of things that make them the elite, in my view, of small unit infantry men throughout the world. And that's autonomy, independence, tenacity that they will never ever be defeated.

ROSS COULTHART: When Australia goes to war, the 600 men of the SAS are usually the first to get the call. Their covert skills and training have long made them a unique political, as well as military, asset. They've probably never been more important than now. Since September 11 the demands of the American-led so-called war on terror has seen SAS soldiers fighting in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. They're rarely allowed to reveal what they've done in Australia's name. Today they do. For the first time, their wars, in their words.

AMERICAN SOLDIER: Right where I'm standing here is the Shah-i-Kot - the lower Shah-i-Kot valley.

ROSS COULTHART: Afghanistan in late February, 2002. A major operation called Anaconda was in the final stages of preparation. Anaconda snakes crush their prey to death, then swallow them - just what the US-led coalition wants to do to the elusive Al Qaeda and Taliban forces.

US SOLDIER: Today is a day for war. Soon the coalition of nations will send forth troops to find those who seek terror over peace.

ROSS COULTHART: The plan was to surround a remote valley called the Shah-i-Kot where Al Qaeda fighters and their senior leaders were gathering and there, to kill or capture them, overwhelming them if they fought, being ready to pounce if they ran.

US SOLDIER: May all these helicopters soar as on the wings of an eagle.

ROSS COULTHART: It was to be the first conventional battle between Al Qaeda and the coalition, but it didn't go to plan. And when things went wrong, SAS soldiers were in the thick of it.

LT COL ROWAN TINK, COMMANDER, SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND ELEMENT: We learned two or three days into Operation Anaconda that the Al Qaeda had moved their families and children out of the valley to safer areas towards the Pakistan border.

ROSS COULTHART: So they were getting ready to fight?

LT COL ROWAN TINK: There was no doubt that they were prepared to fight.

ROSS COULTHART: Anaconda's target, the Shah-i-Kot valley, south of the capital, Kabul. It's here where Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding. Hunting for him were unmanned surveillance planes called Predator drones which would also beam live pictures of the fighting to coalition commanders. Anaconda began at dawn. B-52 bombers attacked Al Qaeda positions. Then by helicopter. Four-hundred soldiers were sent to stop fighters escaping a powerful coalition force that was sweeping through the valley. Eighty men from America's 10th Mountain Division were dropped near the town of Marzak.

But they were put down on top of an Al Qaeda stronghold, a tunnel complex which wasn't known about. Seconds after touching down, they were caught in a withering crossfire. Communications specialist Martin Wallace was one of two Australian SAS soldiers with the Americans. A rocket-propelled grenade was fired straight at him.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: The round hit the ground and slid through the mud, basically chasing us up the hill as we ran from it and it just lay there steaming in the ground as we were scrambled for cover.

ROSS COULTHART: If it had gone off, would you be here today?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: It quite possibly could have killed us, but definitely would have left a lot of people seriously injured.

ROSS COULTHART: There was another problem. The American soldiers had dropped their backpacks in the opening attack as they ran for cover. Containing ammunition and radio equipment, these packs were in full view of the Al Qaeda machine gunners. The US troops now had no hope of reaching this vital gear.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: The 10th mountain troopers dropped their packs as soon as contact was initated and went to cover. We didn't have as far to go for cover so I didn't bother dropping my pack, I just ran for cover and, as a result, maintained my communications capability.

ROSS COULTHART: Now, if you hadn't kept your radio, it wouldn't have been possible to call an air cover at crucial times during the day?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: That's correct, yeah.

ROSS COULTHART: Now, why did that matter so much?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: Well, the air power was the only thing that was keeping us alive basically.

LT GEN FRANK HAGENBECK: Well, he went into the hottest landing zone in the valley.

ROSS COULTHART: US Army General Frank Hagenbeck, the then coalition commander in Afghanistan.

LT GEN FRANK HAGENBECK: So the Aussie SAS soldier there was instrumental because he had direct communications right back to us at Bagram and he, in essence, could talk us through what was actually happening on the ground and give us an even better sense of how the fight was going.

ROSS COULTHART: Surrounded by hundreds of enemy fighters, the American and two Australian soldiers faced disaster.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: It's not very good odds. It's about the same odds as the Australians faced in Long Tan. Basically, they got on to the western ridge, which meant that they were behind us, so the guys who were shooting at the Al Qaeda on the eastern ridge were now taking rounds in the back.

LT COL ROWAN TINK: I was left under no misapprehension at all that there was a possibility that these guys were not going to get out.

ROSS COULTHART: The SAS Commander, Colonel Rowan Tink, was listening to radio reports from the Australians as Al Qaeda fighters closed in.

LT COL ROWAN TINK: There is no doubt that they thought they could win. They had proven that against the Russians on at least two occasions and given the Russians a bloody nose when they tried to take the valley.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: I was just thinking about how I'm going to get out of here. I'm not going to bloody die in this valley.

ROSS COULTHART: Did you have your doubts?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: Yeah, certainly. I thought we were done for on many occasions during the day, yeah.

ROSS COULTHART: A mortar bomb landed two metres from the Australians. Wouldn't a mortar going off two metres away normally kill you?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: Well, at this stage we managed to dig a little bit of a shell scrape, so we were slightly below the ground.

ROSS COULTHART: So you were just digging into the ground as close as you could get?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: Yeah, basically, with a knife or our hands, or whatever we could get.

ROSS COULTHART: The attackers then targeted the only mortar weapon the Americans had.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: I was just lying there, watching them out of the corner of my eye and about five or six of them disappeared in a puff of grey smoke. It was basically a direct hit on the American mortar from the Al Qaeda mortar.

ROSS COULTHART: How badly injured were those men?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: Um, we had guys with chest injuries, there was open fractures, basically fragmentation wounds, some over their entire bodies.

ROSS COULTHART: Signalman Wallace won a bravery award for what he did next.

LT COL ROWAN TINK: He saw there was a need there to go out and pull some of those guys to safety and dress their wounds and he put himself in harm's way, under fire moved out, collected some of these wounded and dragged them back in to safety into the ditch they were in.

ROSS COULTHART: Pictures from the surveillance drones to the coalition command centre meant Lt Col Tink knew his SAS soldiers were fighting for their lives near Marzak.

LT COL ROWAN TINK: Actually looking at live combat in that command post, the most advanced command post, I would suggest, that had been fielded in operations at that stage. I would describe it as surreal - surreal just watching what was occurring there.

ROSS COULTHART: But Al Qaeda was resisting more fiercely than had been expected. Nowhere was battle more intense than at Marzak.

LT COL ROWAN TINK: It's difficult not being there and knowing exactly what they're going through. When they are being mortared - and you can hear these mortars landing - you are almost there with them.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: These guys were definitely committed and they were there to fight to the death - and we accommodated them, yeah.

LT COL ROWAN TINK: I realised, as the day went on, that the assumption General Hagenbeck and his staff had made - that it was almost a stalemate in that position - was perhaps a little bit over-optimistic. On the afternoon of the first day there was no doubt that we knew we had a real battle on our hands.

LT GEN FRANK HAGENBECK: The medics had called for air evacuations. In fact, on one occasion the helicopters were in route and I had to turn them around in mid-air to take them back out of there because it was clear to me that they would be shot down.

ROSS COULTHART: By now, 30 Americans were wounded, things so desperate that a B-52 bomber was ordered to destroy the Al Qaeda positions, though now barely a few hundred metres separated them from the American and Australian soldiers.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: I was lying on my back watching the B-52 come overhead and you could see the bomb bay doors open and the bombs as they started to fall. You're just hoping that they're going to be on target and not on your position. When you're dropping things from 30,000 feet and they are not laser-guided, then, yeah, there's definitely a recipe for disaster.

ROSS COULTHART: And what happened when they did hit?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: When they hit, the initial shock wave which moves both you and the earth, then you've got the noise that follows and then all the shrapnel comes snivelling in overhead.

ROSS COULTHART: Undeterred, Al Qaeda continued its attack and the American soldiers were running low on ammunition.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: A lot of their machine-gun ammo was in their packs that they had dropped and their packs were exposed to the enemy so it was impossible to retrieve the ammunition. The Americans had run out of 7.62 - the larger machine-gun ammo they had. The mortar piece had been taken out. So we were basically down to personal weapons.

ROSS COULTHART: It could have been a disaster?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: Well, without air cover, I'd say, yeah, we would have been all wiped out.

ROSS COULTHART: American Apache attack helicopters then tried to rocket the Al Qaeda positions.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: The entire hillside basically opened up with small-arms fire and that was the last we saw of the Apaches. They copped a caning and then limped off the battlefield.

ROSS COULTHART: Only after 18 hours, as night fell, did the Americans allow an AC-130 flying gunship in to attack.

LT GEN FRANK HAGENBECK: We were able to divert enough firepower to keep the Al Qaeda of massing their forces and overrunning them. So all the way up to the time that they were extracted we were concerned about that but you need a little of luck on your side and we had it that day.

ROSS COULTHART: Still under fire, the coalition troops could now be withdrawn by helicopter. Waiting at their base for the two Australians was their commander.

LT COL ROWAN TINK: And there's the two of them who come through the door and standing there absolutely covered in mud from head to toe, looking absolutely filthy. But the looks on their faces - they were drawn, they looked haggard, but you could see the sense of relief and the fact that they were so delighted to be back.

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: I was thinking, "What are they looking at?" and then just realised I must look a bit of a sight. I had pretty much all the skin ripped off my hands from digging holes with them and probably looked a bit, a bit in shock.

ROSS COULTHART: Operation Anaconda continued. But on day two, fog in the Shah-i-Kot valley meant the Predator surveillance drones were often useless. That meant an SAS observation team was to play a crucial role in saving a platoon of US Rangers. The Rangers had tried to rescue an American Navy Special Forces soldier who'd fallen from a helicopter. But then their own helicopter was shot down. Dozens of Rangers were now trapped and under fierce attack. From a nearby mountaintop the SAS team reported a looming disaster to the coalition command tent. What was the feeling in the tent?

LT COL ROWAN TINK: I would describe it as despair, concern, because clearly these men were way behind enemy lines. They were isolated on the top of the mountain. Clearly they had been engaged by some heavy machine guns and, at that particular stage, we were unsure how long they'd be able to survive. We knew they had dead and wounded there.

ROSS COULTHART: The six-man SAS squad had to ensure they weren't spotted. Another problem was simply surviving the bitter cold.

JOHN, SAS PATROL MEMBER: Quite a few of us are Queenslanders and had never seen snow before until we went to Afghanistan. The novelty wore off after about five minutes.

LT GEN FRANK HAGENBECK: You had to have someone there on the ground that could see and hear and smell and pick up the sense of the battlefield of what was going on and we were very much dependent upon the Aussies, certainly in that part of the battlefield.

ROSS COULTHART: The Australian SAS team coordinated a constant barrage of bomb and rocket attacks on the advancing fighters, and finally allowing the trapped Americans to be rescued.

LT COL ROWAN TINK: That's where we provided the niche capability to the Americans. We were able to remain deep behind enemy positions undetected for long periods of time and provide them with valuable information which was very detailed. In fact, a number of reports I handed over, I remember various Americans being amazed at the detail we were able to provide on dress, equipment, activities, where these people were positioned, et cetera, et cetera.

LT GEN FRANK HAGENBECK: I tell you, I would not have wanted to do that operation without the Australian SAS's folks on that ridge line. I mean, they made it happen that day.

ROSS COULTHART: Seven Americans were killed during the 17-hour attack. When the Australians finally got back to the coalition base, word of what they'd done had already got around.

JOHN, SAS PATROL MEMBER: It was almost embarrassing, to the point where the Americans were so glad of our help. You know, you may go to a meal night in a mess, there might be a hundred people in front of you, all Americans, and all of a sudden they would step aside, maybe even applaud, and push you to the front of the line. We were looking pretty wild and woolly, but, um, we were taken aback by it and a bit embarrassed.

LT COL ROWAN TINK: I think there's one important lesson I took out of Afghanistan in regard to technology and that is, at the end of the day, the technology has to be designed to support the man, not replace the man. And I think we demonstrated that through our reconnaissance and surveillance capacity.

ROSS COULTHART: That key SAS role - to be an army's eyes behind enemy lines - was what the Australians did again a year later in the western desert of Iraq. From here coalition planners feared ballistic missiles might be launched into Israel as Saddam's response to an invasion, possibly triggering a nuclear response from Tel Aviv. SAS teams were to search for Saddam's missiles or his alleged weapons of mass destruction. Now they were waiting on the border for the command to enter Iraq.

SQUADRON COMMANDER PAUL: It came from the Prime Minister and also in conjunction with the President of the United States. I indicated to the boss that we were ready to go and he said, "You have the green light" and I replied "No worries, boss, who dares, wins! I'll see you when it's all over." We were invading a country which hadn't been done since Gallipoli for Australia, and, you know, the adrenaline was very high.

ROSS COULTHART: As the Australians crossed the border they knew that elite Iraqi units, specially trained to hunt down SAS forces, were waiting for them. And before long, they were found.

JOHN, SAS PATROL MEMBER: They definitely weren't conscript soldiers. They were very aggressive. They were very well trained. They moved towards us. We moved towards them.

TROOP COMMANDER QUENTIN: They were operating in sports utility vehicles with large machine guns mounted in the rear tray and on observing our location, they began engaging us with heavy machine-gun fire, small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

JASON, PATROL MEMBER: When you come under fire, you really don't think about it at all.

ROSS COULTHART: What was going through your head?

JASON, PATROL MEMBER: Well, basically getting to the next vantage point so you can return fire. You really don't think about the rounds coming in at you. You're just making sure that you're doing your drills correctly and that you're backing up your mate in the next car.

ROSS COULTHART: Trooper John later earned a medal for his bravery during this three-hour battle. Under heavy fire he used Javelin shoulder-launched missiles to destroy two Iraqi vehicles.

TROOP COMMANDER QUENTIN: Both sides in this particular instance actually stopped shooting to watch this rocket cruise through the air and that actually engaged a moving vehicle at high speeds, moving away from us, and I think that changed the battlefield.

JOHN, SAS PATROL MEMBER: It was a little bit daunting seeing so many enemy coming towards us, but when we saw how effective our weapons systems were in neutralising their vehicles, and you could actually physically see the shock on the enemy's faces when they did see their vehicles destroyed.

SQUADRON COMMANDER PAUL: We were getting rounds splashing all around the vehicles around the guys when they dismounted. We were getting RPG - rocket-propelled grenades - exploding over our heads, at times, and behind us.

JOHN, SAS PATROL MEMBER: Quite a few of the enemy at this stage started to surrender, cause they had seen two of their vehicles destroyed but that being said, there was also quite a few hiding in the grass returning fire with their rocket launchers and their small arms. Several also attempted to set up a mortar tube and they were about to try and engage us with that.

ROSS COULTHART: So, what did you do?

JOHN, SAS PATROL MEMBER: We couldn't really engage the enemy around the mortar tube because there were some surrendering so we engaged the mortar tube with a sniper rifle and that was very effective. The round hit the tube and caused a mortar bomb that was in the tube to explode.

SQUADRON COMMANDER PAUL: There was a Bedouin tent in between us and the enemy. The enemy promptly moved in behind that and in amongst the Bedouin tent and there were civilians in there, at which point we stopped firing because of the threat to the locals.

ROSS COULTHART: Do you think they knew that - that you wouldn't fire through a tent?

SQUADRON COMMANDER PAUL: I think so. They exploited that component of our professionalism probably. It was also a difficult time. We were also trying to effect the capture of about eight enemy who were surrendering with their arms in the air, but as soon as we had got within range they had dropped their weapons and continued firing. It was a very difficult situation.

ROSS COULTHART: When they did that, when they stopped surrendering and continued firing, what did you do?

SQUADRON COMMANDER PAUL: As soon as they are in an aggressive pose, and a threat, they were then neutralised.

ROSS COULTHART: Iraqi soldiers who surrendered were disarmed and allowed to go free.

JOHN, SAS PATROL MEMBER: Yeah. I think some of them were quite surprised and, at first, maybe were even a little hesitant to walk away in case we really weren't going to let them go.

ROSS COULTHART: They were worried you were going to shoot them in the back or something?


ROSS COULTHART: Wasn't it a worry, in your mind, that these blokes might walk over a hill, pick up a weapon, and start shooting at you?

JOHN, SAS PATROL MEMBER: Yeah, I think that's always a possibility but we did have a job to complete and by having prisoners we wouldn't have been able to complete that job.

ROSS COULTHART: Out in the western desert, the Kubaisah cement factory, one of the biggest in the Middle East. The Australians were ordered to clear it of all Iraqi troops and to check the site for hidden weapons.

SQUADRON COMMANDER PAUL: We didn't want to destroy the cement factory because it was part of the infrastructure for Iraq and if we wanted Iraq to get back on its feet quickly then we didn't want to destroy it.

ROSS COULTHART: The scores of Iraqi soldiers guarding the factory ignored the SAS deadline to surrender. It was a difficult target to assault. The Australians did not want to risk the lives of civilians inside by fighting their way in. So their commander came up with a novel idea. He called the American Air Force.

SQUADRON COMMANDER PAUL: We requested that an aircraft, an F14, come and do a low fly in order to break the sound barrier. The effect of this was a sonic boom - a massive explosion. We actually thought he had detonated ammunition inside the facility. That wasn't the case. It broke in several windows. And the result was that people came running out with their arms up.

ROSS COULTHART: Where did you get that idea from?

JOHN, SAS PATROL MEMBER: I remembered before I joined the army, with the Australian Air Force, broke the sound barrier by mistake and broke a lot of greenhouses in South Australia.

LT COL RICK: I think it became clear later in the campaign that, certainly amongst the locals, that they were dealing with Australians and that, perhaps, we were something different.

ROSS COULTHART: What is that difference do you think?

LT COL RICK: We approached the local Iraqi population there with, I think, a degree of compassion and understanding and what their plight was and had a sense of - of their personal dilemma. We were trying to encourage them that it was actually a good thing for them and, that by being on-side, they could be part of a much better future for Iraq.

ROSS COULTHART: Similar restraint also paid off at the giant Al Asad military airbase 200 kilometres west of Baghdad. SAS snipers fired close enough to Iraqi defenders to scare them away.

SQUADRON COMMANDER PAUL: Well, you know, it was a warning shot. You know. If they didn't leave then potentially we had the right to engage them and, thankfully, they took their course - the right course of action - and withdrew.

LT COL RICK: We didn't want to bring harm to anyone. We encouraged them to leave by, ah, giving them an option and they chose to do that, and we moved in and cleared the entire base.

ROSS COULTHART: The 60 Australian SAS soldiers had captured one of Saddam's prize installations, including 57 jet fighters and nearly eight million kilograms of explosives. Within days, together with other coalition special forces they'd secured the entire western desert. There's been a lot of sceptical talk about whether Iraq really was part of the war against terrorism or a distraction from the main battle against Al Qaeda. What's your take?

LT COL RICK: Look, you know, our decision to be involved in Iraq is really a political decision, but we clearly understood that there were weapons of mass destruction there that could have been employed against the regional neighbours of Iraq or otherwise employed, and they were a real threat to global peace and stability and I think it's important that that threat was addressed.

ROSS COULTHART: Is it a concern in your mind that because of Australia's high-profile role in essentially an invasion of a Middle Eastern country to topple Saddam Hussein, have we exposed ourself more to the possibilities of terrorism on Australian soil or against Australian citizens overseas?

LT COL RICK: I'm not in a position to comment on that. Some intelligence person might ...

ROSS COULTHART: No, but I suppose it matters to the extent that you're the commanding officer of the regiment that would have to deal with it in the event of a terrorist attack. Is that something that factors into your thinking?

LT COL RICK: We remain prepared to respond to a wide range of scenarios that might threaten Australia's national security and, ah, it's, it's - that's our business. That's what we're here to do. We remain highly trained and ready to do that.

ROSS COULTHART: This readiness comes at a price. In February 2002 the regiment lost Sergeant Andy Russell in Afghanistan. killed when his vehicle hit a landmine. It now seems inevitable that, for the SAS, there'll be other desert and mountain fire fights. Other battles like Operation Anaconda.

ROSS COULTHART: Was Anaconda a victory for the coalition?

LT COL ROWAN TINK: Absolutely. Because it was the point at which coordinated resistance by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan ceased to exist.

ROSS COULTHART: The obvious question is, who won?

SIGNALMAN MARTIN WALLACE: Well with this particular battle, we won. It took us a little bit longer than expected, but in the larger, overall global war against terror, I'd say it's still inconclusive and there's a lot of work to be done, a lot of unfinished business.

ROSS COULTHART: Two wars in two years have taught Canberra and Washington to prize the covert skills of the Australian SAS. Some grim lessons have also been learned on the battlefield about a formidable adversary.