On 9 August 2004, insurgents loyal to the rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had taken over the Ba'ath Party building in Basra. The mission for B Company, 1st Battalion, the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment was to rescue nine men lost in downtown Basra with no means of communication other than an Iraqi mobile phone. They were holed up in a house but weren't sure exactly where it was.
The Warrior Armoured Infantry Fighting Vehicles of B Company thundered out of the British camp at the old Shatt al-Arab hotel taking a treacherous road, codenamed red route, which was then out of bounds to British soldiers. Knowing this, but realising it was the quickest way of getting to the stranded men, they headed into town.
It was not long before a barrage of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades met the Warriors. The vehicle of Major David Bradley, their officer commanding, was hit, seriously injuring him and his sergeant major. The insurgents had taken out what the army calls the "head shed", leaving more junior soldiers to continue with the mission. But B Company's mission carried on, with the remaining Warriors heading for the Ba'ath party HQ; the missing soldiers had called on the radio to say they were sheltering somewhere in that area.
Sergeant Terry Thompson and Lieutenant Ian Pennells were in charge of two of the remaining vehicles, but their radios had been damaged in the fire-fight so the only way to communicate was by miming to each other from their turrets. At one point Thompson got out of his Warrior and ran through the back door of Pennells's vehicle and started tugging at his trouser leg to get his attention. He shouted that he was going to crash through the entrance to the Ba'ath party HQ. "I told him under no circumstances was he to do that or I would shoot him - neither was he taking any troops - and to get back in his vehicle," says Pennells.
But Thompson did it anyway, ramming into the gates twice and eventually taking the barrier off its hinges. There was no sign of the stranded soldiers. Thompson pulled out of the compound and told Pennells the men were not there. But back at Headquarters they were convinced that they were. Thompson insisted that he and his men were prepared to go back in again but added that if they did he didn't think "we will be coming out".
One of the men spotted the helmet of a British soldier. In the back of the Warrior was Corporal Sean Robson, 22, the dismount commander whose job was to lead the fighting on foot. With him were five soldiers, whose average age was 18. "It is hot and cramped in the back of a Warrior, there was the smell of cordite ... mixed up with sweat and the stink of the Basra sewers," says Robson. "You are sat in the back and you can't see anything, all you have is the commander's description and you can hear the rounds hitting the vehicle."
Robson and his men burst out of the back of the vehicle but when they got to the front door of the building there were too many militia to fight off, so they went in the back way to bring out the soldiers who were running out of ammunition. "You could just see the relief on their faces." says Robson. "They were tired and drawn. We put them in the back of the vehicle."
That meant there was no room for Robson and his team. "I told my lads we were going to have to walk out of there. They must have thought I was leading them into hell. We were taking quite a lot of incoming and they knew it was going to get worse. They can’t have had a lot of confidence that they were going to get through it."
The distance the soldiers had to cover was only about 500 metres, but they were operating in the intense heat, with heavy kit and under constant enemy fire. It was, to them, a very long way to a rendezvous with other Warriors. The soldiers survived, but any euphoria they felt drained away when they heard about the other casualties.
For their actions, Sgt Thompson was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross and Cpl Robson was awarded the Military Cross.