Australian Clearance Diving Team Three in Khwar AzZubayr, Iraq
by Troy Miles and Paul Papalia
You can be forgiven for thinking we dropped off the radar screen after our formal farewell in Sydney on Valentine’s day, 14 February 2003. Once we began the deployment, OPSEC was imposed to ensure security from the terrorist threat in the build-up and, of course, the enemy once hostilities commenced. So just to fill in the blanks, here’s what happened before we hit the headlines.
We arrived in theatre (Bahrain) on the 24th Feb. Just getting up there was a challenge, as those who went last time will remember. Two days in a droning Hercules wouldn’t normally be too hard but coming on top of the trip to and back from the States in January, it got old very quickly.
On arrival, our friendly advance party consisting of the Team Warrant Officer, Herbie, and the brand new Storeman, Darbs, met us. The boys immediately leapt into a whirlwind of activity, spending six days sorting through the tonnes of our equipment that were brought into the AO (Area of Operations) by HMAS Kanimbla. The entire load was broken down and re-palletised. The majority was then re-embarked, this time in USS Gunston Hall, which was to house most of the coalition MCM (Mine Counter-Measures) diving forces. At the same time, all of our personal equipment was also readied for the move forward to Kuwait. Unlike the Yanks and Poms, the Aussie divers were not going to sail into the war zone.
Tent city The Boss and XO flew to Kuwait on 01 March and were waiting for the remainder of us when we flew into Al Jaber air base via US Marine Corps C130 on 02 March. We all took up residence in a tent city established at Kuwait Naval Base. Just the Team, and about two and a half thousand of our closest American friends! For the blokes who were in Kuwait last time round, the location brought memories flooding back. They’d cleared the entire port on their own and were soon pointing out some of their old haunts.
CDT3, before moving forward.
The days, and nights, were spent preparing equipment and training for the move forward. One major task was the receipt of the remainder of gear from Kanimbla. Our four Land Rovers, RHIB, explosives and ammunition were all transferred ashore by Mike 8 boats under the watchful eyes of Rocket and Jock, who had flown out to the ship from Bahrain to act as custodians. Naturally, noting Saddam’s bio details, a fair whack of the time was devoted to chemical detection and decontamination.
On the 18th March, John Howard committed ADF forces in the Middle East to the coalition and to support any action taken by a United States-led strike against Iraq. That night, we got the nod to move up to tactical assembly area Bullrush, a slab of desert situated 30km south of the Iraqi border. The very next day was the first real eye-opening experience for the members of our team.
During a friendly game of desert cricket with the Poms (we were winning by the way), one of the boys noticed a couple of Yanks running around putting on their gas masks. Well that was enough for the men of AUSCDT THREE. With hearts pounding we quickly donned our gas masks and chemical suits, awaiting word from the Command to ascertain what was happening.
Living with Scuds
It didn’t take long for the word to come through that the Iraqis had fired Scud missiles into Kuwait. Many landed close enough to our location for us to hear them impacting or being taken out by coalition defence systems. In the first 24 hours, we went to MOPP 4 or full Nuclear Biological and Chemical Defence dress on 11 occasions. Over the next four days we went through over a dozen more of these attack warnings, each time having to go through the same procedure, each one lasting anywhere up to two hours. In the end, the team just left the chemical suits on. Better than any Jenny Craig weight loss program I have ever heard of.
Throughout our stay at Bullrush, the boys manned observation posts and vehicle checkpoints because the terrorist threat was real and the Marines had staged forward. It just goes to show that those exercises where you assume you have to provide your own security are on the money. When the job’s on, there’s never enough soldiers to go around. While we were ducking incoming missiles in the desert, the divers out in the Task Group were also in the thick of it. Four blokes from AUS-CDT FOUR had been embarked in HMAS Darwin as a detachment well before AUSCDT THREE got up and running. Now, on the 20th March, these blokes were staged forward from HMAS Kanimbla and tasked with boarding and searching an enemy tug and barge.
The mission was a success, and the boys (helped by Kanimbla‘s boarding party) found 86 sea mines (Mantas and LUGMs) in the Khawr Abd Allah seaway. LSCD Jason Dunn (left) and POCD Troy Pudney (right) inspect two LUGM and two MANTA sea mines found on an Iraqi tugboat located in the port of Umm Qasr.
Meanwhile, back in the Kuwaiti desert, we once again got the nod and staged forward to the border. We spent an interesting night within sight and sound of the battle for Umm Qasr and surrounds. Finally, on the morning of the 24th of March, three days after the start of the war, we snaked our way in convoy across a break in the berm and over the border.
Arriving in the port of Umm Qasr, we established ourselves in an old warehouse located by the old grain wharf and started the clearance of the estuary port.
It didn’t take the boys long to get into the thick of things. The very next day, on our first dive, the team found four LUGM 145 sea mines on a sunken Iraqi patrol boat. Diving in the area was a challenge to say the least, with a three to four knot current and no vis (ops normal). The team disposed of the mines over two days in the tidal windows, remotely moving them away from the wharf to a safe area to crank them off. Although they won’t admit it, some of the dives the boys did during this phase were heart-stoppers. Old fashioned wrestling live contact mines and explosives at depth in zero visibility and a surging current – hard core!
During our stay in Umm Qasr members of the team were involved in a wide array of tasks. One patrol was sent out to help 42 Commando with EOD in Umm Qasr town. The boys had to dispose of RPGs and mortars found in a schoolyard, with many of the Aussies called on to keep the locals at a safe distance. It was challenging working through the language barrier with mobs of locals constantly asking for food and water. Hats off to the boys who at all times had control of a situation which could very easily have turned nasty if they had not conducted themselves in such a professional manner.
On another occasion, four members of the team, together with a mixture of British and US EOD divers, were given the task of rendering safe and disposing of 18 LUGM 145 sea mines. The mines were part of a cache found earlier by the team and 42 Commando. The team was split into two groups, one to carry out the render safe and transportation of the mines to the disposal area, and the second team to prepare and clear the demolition site.
A Manta MN 103 bottom-dwelling mine.
The removal of hydrostatic switches, detonators and horns went according to plan. The clearance and preparation of the demolition site commenced with bribing the local shepherds with food and water to round up their flock and move to a safer location. After giving a hand to help round up a couple of rogue sheep and one recalcitrant calf, the clearance of the demo range was complete.
The mines, arriving by truck, were quickly unloaded, set in place and primed. Once the all clear was given and safe numbers confirmed, the troops were able to sit back and enjoy the reward of a long, hot day’s work: witnessing the awesome display that nine pairs of LUGM sea mines containing 145kg of TNT make when being transformed into a very loud noise, a large ball of fire and smoke.
On 27th March, the boys from HMAS Darwin arrived on the ground. I think they were happy to get off the ship after six months and we were certainly happy to have the extra four divers to enhance our capabilities.
Coincidentally, we became the biggest AUSCDT THREE ever formed, with a total of 32 personnel.
Morale boostWe finished clearing the port of Umm Qasr on the 9th of April which was a real morale boost for all involved. Humanitarian aid could now start flowing to the people and the whole team could see that we were actually doing some good and helping to make a difference.
Still, there was no rest for the boys. It didn’t take the CO long to have our next task ready to go. On 11th April we once again staged further north to the port of Kwar Az-Zubayr, or the KAZ, situated 20km north of Umm Qasr.
As usual, the team didn’t muck around and the boys set to with a will to clear the port quickly. We have also recently been given the go ahead to conduct tactical EOD patrols on the southern Al Faw Peninsula.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the team to gain experience and to consolidate their knowledge in this core skill of the clearance diver. With six consecutive patrols under our belts and heaps of ordnance destroyed, the Team is throwing itself into the latest task with its usual determination.
AUSCDT THREE proudly spent Anzac Day in the port of Khawr Az Zubayr, Iraq. So when all of you march in remembrance of our fallen comrades next Anzac Day, spare a thought for your brothers-in-arms doing the same in Iraq.
It makes us all proud on Anzac Day to know we are here representing not only our country, but also the Clearance Diving Branch.