Helicopter Warfare Series Finale: Iraq

Tuesday 2nd June 8.00pm

The documentary series examining historic helicopter operations concludes. In this final instalment, 847 Naval Air Squadron’s James Newton recalls the crucial 2003 mission that saw him pit his Lynx helicopter against an unseen enemy tank on the outskirts of Basra.

In March 2003, the US had laid siege to Baghdad and the regime of Saddam Hussein. British forces were approaching the southern city of Basra, where 50 Iraqi tanks were defending its suburbs. As the British tanks crossed the desert from Kuwait, the troops were supported by a single helicopter unit – 847 Naval Air Squadron, coordinated by senior pilot Lt Cdr Andrew Clarke.

The mission commander was Lt Cdr James ‘Scooby’ Newton, a young pilot with 12 years of training but no combat experience. His job was to navigate, operate the radio and locate the enemy in his missile sights – and launch the attack himself if necessary. Joining him in his Westland Lynx – the fastest helicopter in the world – were experienced, unflappable Colour Sergeant Derby Allen and machine gunner ‘Guns’ Jones.

As the Lynx left 847’s base, Camp Viking, Newton was nervous. “For the first time in my life, there was a chance I possibly wouldn’t come back,” he recalls. The heavily loaded Lynx, armed with anti-tank missiles, only had enough fuel for 100 minutes’ flying so there was little room for error. And with 50 T55 battle tanks – fearsome vehicles with guns designed to inflict sudden, massive firepower – hiding amongst Basra’s trees and buildings, Newton’s Lynx was the only thing between the enemy and the frontline of British troops.

Halfway through the mission, Newton still had not spotted any enemy tanks. The Iraqis had learned their lesson from the 1991 Gulf War, and knew how to conceal the tanks’ tell-tale heat signatures with buildings and sand. Five British Scimitar tanks joined the hunt, but these were lightweight reconnaissance vehicles not designed for combat. So when they came under attack from a T55, Newton knew that it was a race against time to find and destroy the tank.

With no support jets available to help him out, Newton was on his own: “It was apparent within a minute and a half of arriving that 847 was it,” he remembers. It became evident that he was the hunted, not the hunter, when a shell landed alarmingly close to the Lynx. The shells kept coming – but Newton and his crew still could not see where the attacking tank was hiding.

This was extremely bad news: Newton’s Lynx only had 18 minutes’ worth of fuel left before it would have to return to Camp Viking. And if it were shot down, it would leave the Iraqi tanks free to move out into the desert and attack the approaching British troops. The Lynx and its ‘eyes and ears’, an accompanying Gazelle helicopter, attempted to make themselves into more elusive targets – but the tank’s assault continued. “I was just about out of ideas, if I’m honest,” says Newton.

Suddenly Newton’s machine gunner spotted a muzzle flash, indicating the enemy’s position – but it was not where the commander thought it would be. The tank had made the most of its ‘home-field advantage’ and manoeuvred itself into a new position: a school playground, which meant it was harder to attack due to the rules of engagement. With three minutes’ of fuel left, Newton had to think fast – but launched his anti-tank missile too soon. A second missile hit the target, but only after a nerve-shredding face-off between Lynx and tank that saw Newton heading straight into the enemy’s sights to get close enough to fire.

The tank was finally destroyed, and Newton’s crew were on their way back to Camp Viking – completing a mission that would start the heaviest day of fighting in 847’s history.

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