Wartime issue 57 feature article: The falling leaves of Tizak

In June 2010, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) was nearing the end of his fifth tour in Afghanistan when his troop left Camp Russell at the multinational base at Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province to strike Taliban insurgents. Roberts-Smith was second-in-command of an SAS patrol, up to five of which make up an SAS troop. In turn, the troop was part of the 60-strong SAS quadron that, together with a commando company of about 160 men, formed the Special Operations Task Group at Camp Russell. Both the SAS and commandos mentor a provincial response company of Afghan police that operates with them.

In January 2011, Australians learned that Roberts-Smith’s actions on that June day had made him the second Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross for gallantry in Afghanistan. Trooper (now Corporal) Mark Donaldson, also of the SAS, had been awarded the first, two years earlier. Like Donaldson, Roberts-Smith has generously given his Victoria Cross on permanent loan to the Australian War Memorial, where it is displayed in the Hall of Valour. In this interview, he speaks at length publicly for the first time about the circumstances that led to the award.

How did the action come about?
On 10 June 2010 we began what we call a large-scale disruption operation, by sending the commando company into the Shinazef Valley, an enemy stronghold in the Shah-Wali-Kot district in northern Kandahar. We were confident that special reporting would establish the location of the enemy commanders when they began to respond. Our SAS troop, which was on standby at Tarin Kowt, would then go after them.

It obviously worked.
Yes, we picked up a high-value target about 45 kilometres from Tizak, a village in the valley, and a few medium-value ones moving about in that vicinity. By 7.30 next morning we knew the high-value target was in Tizak itself and we decided to launch. We believed that these targets would be protected by about 20 fighters at most. But even that estimate seemed generous because the enemy normally operates in much smaller groups, in order to avoid drawing attention to himself. As we were going in with 25 SAS operators plus five Afghan police from our partnering force, we felt strong enough either way.

How long did the planning and other preparations take?
We were on the ground by 9.30 am, so the whole evolution took two hours. That included the 25-minute flight through umpteen valleys to Tizak.

How was your troop structured for the mission?
We were in four US Army Blackhawk helicopters. The two that carried the assault force under Sergeants S and K, which included the Afghans, landed on the cultivated valley floor, or “green”, just outside Tizak. A third Blackhawk dropped our cut-off team on a ridge above the village. Its job was to deal with “squirters”, that is, enemy who flee the assault. My patrol provided aerial fire support from the fourth Blackhawk. We also constituted the reserve assault team and could help out on the ground if things got hairy.

Were things hairy from the outset?
Not really. We were first over Tizak so that we could follow up the enemy if he bugged out on hearing the helicopters. Sporadic ground fire nailed us as we passed over the green. Almost immediately, “Contact! Wait out” came over the radio from the assault force, which had landed behind us. Having no idea that they’d been engaged by multiple machine-guns, we wanted to head back and join the fight, but were ordered instead to hold at the far end of the valley, four kilometres away, while Apache gunships flew strafing runs around Tizak. It sounds funny but, honestly, we were depressed at the prospect of missing out on the action.

When were you caught up in it?
That’s funny too, because the end of the valley turned out to be anything but safe. On reaching it, we started circling around a really high rocky feature. The peak was about 50 metres below us so when an insurgent with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] popped up from the rocks we saw him straight away. Our patrol commander, Sergeant P, screamed “RPG, right, three o’clock” but a sniper and I were already firing. We were sitting in the open door of the helicopter with our legs dangling over the side. The insurgent got the RPG away, and it passed just under my feet. At the same time, two more insurgents opened up with a PKM machine-gun and rounds began tearing through the cockpit and belly of the Blackhawk.

You must have been a sitting duck – what were you thinking?
Well, you can’t do anything. You’re looking at them, they’re looking at you, and you’re both firing at each other. It was very frustrating for me because the violent evasive action the pilot was carrying out ruled out any chance of lining up the insurgents.

How did you get out of this situation?
The pilot’s more experienced buddy took over. He began sideslipping towards the insurgents to give us a steady firing platform, but we had to utilise it quickly as the helicopter was now broadside on to them. We soon despatched them and landed to clear their bodies and grab their weapons. Once back on board, we heard over the radio that the Apache strafing runs around Tizak hadn’t worked and the assault force was pinned down. We were ordered back to the village area.

Did your eliminating what must have been an outpost position affect things in Tizak?
We didn’t think so initially, but soon after we reached Tizak we heard from special reporting that the insurgents thought another assault force had landed behind them, cutting them off and leaving them with no option but to slug it out to the end in the village. Destroying the outpost was therefore critical to how the battle in Tizak played out.

Describe your arrival there.
We were about to land on the side of the valley when a PKM about 80 metres away riddled the helicopter but somehow missed all of us. The pilot executed a superb piece of “roller coaster” flying and tried to land further along the slope, only to come under AK-47 fire. We were also running close to empty so P decided to land in the valley, closer to the village, where at least the ground was flat. We knew that this would draw the heat because it’s a huge propaganda coup for the insurgents if they can shoot a helicopter down.

They were obviously unsuccessful.
Yes, but they gave it their best shot! I reckon we drew fire from every insurgent position. The dust cloud thrown up by the helicopter as it came in concealed us as we exited. I was happy to be out, as you’re not in control when you’re sitting in the thing. It was the most vulnerable I’d felt all day. Being last out, I stopped about 20 metres from the chopper and waved it off, which I guess was pretty dumb, as bullets were kicking up the dust all around me. So I made for the largest rock I could see, only to find P and another operator already behind it. There wasn’t room for me, so I went to a smaller one 50 metres away.

What happened to your Blackhawk?
Taking more fire on the way out, it staggered back to Tarin Kowt. It actually ran out of fuel over the ramp and spent two weeks being patched up. I have to say that those American pilots are incredible.

Did you now link up with the assault force?
They were on one side of the creek that ran through Tizak and we were way over on the other. As a chopper could get in much closer to us than it could to them, they asked us to coordinate the aero-medevac of an Afghan policeman who’d been hit. Some of the fire from the high ground had to be neutralised first. We could see where a lot of it was coming from, so P was able to give precise directions to the Apaches and they took out the machine-gun causing the most trouble. The assault force could now manoeuvre back towards us, during which one of their SAS operators was hit. We got both casualties onto the helicopter but it took a pasting. I saw the trails of two RPGs criss-cross just below it as it got away.

Did you now realise that the enemy’s strength was much greater than you’d anticipated?
No, because we’d been in a lot of fights that had started out the same way. Once we’d married up we decided, OK, we’ll still go after these targets.

Was the assault any easier this time?
Although there were more of us on the ground, no, it wasn’t. On reaching the green, we struck a fork in the creek. When the original assault force on our left started over the branch that cut across their front, a machine-gun enfiladed them. They were pinned down. We used grenade launchers and called in the Apaches again but nothing worked. The difficulty was the thickness of the vegetation in the green. We couldn’t tell where the fire was coming from but the enemy could see us. We’d clearly lost the initiative. 

How did you regain it?
P came over to me and suggested outflanking them from our side. Having copped it for 20 minutes at that stage, I said yep. The assault force poured fire into the green, which kept the enemy’s heads down as we crossed our branch of the creek and started sweeping through a fig orchard. I had two operators, D and J, with me and the other three were with P in some dead ground on my right. We killed an insurgent who jumped up and ran away from us, and were then engaged from one of those typical Afghan mudwalled compounds, 80 metres to our left. P and his guys tried to outflank it using the dead ground but they ran into insurgents there. With two fights going on, we became separated. 

What did you do?
My guys moved directly on the compound. Two of us would cover the third while he leapt forward about a metre. It was “pepper-potting” – standard infantry fire and movement. But when we were about 40 metres from the compound, the weight of incoming fire reached ridiculous levels. Dirt mounds, maybe 30 centimetres high, were scattered throughout the orchard and each of us hunkered down behind one. As I was wearing chest webbing, my head would have stuck above the mound if I’d lain on my gut to fire, so I lay on my back and returned fire upside down. Pretty unconventional, I know, but getting some bursts going back towards the enemy sure made me feel better.

What were you thinking at this moment?
Something surreal. I’d once heard Bob Buick, who’d been a platoon sergeant at the battle of Long Tan, say that while he was lying under intense fire, he noticed of all things the leaves falling from the trees. His words came to me in the orchard because I was looking upwards at the leaves falling onto my face. Everything seemed very peaceful for a second or two and I thought, “Jeez, that’s strange.” It didn’t quite dawn on me that the leaves were falling because the trees were being ripped apart by fire. You can even daydream at the height of a gunfight. 

Did you feel the initiative slipping away again?
Only briefly. We were able to crawl another 20 metres before being stopped altogether. The compound wall, on which we now knew were three PKMs and some AK-47s, was 20 metres further on, with a ramshackle outbuilding jutting from it 10 metres to our right. Any insurgent in the outbuilding would have us in enfilade, so we had to clear it. J got up on his knees and sprayed the wall while I sprinted to the outbuilding. Just as I reached it, an insurgent aimed an RPG from the window. I killed him and cleared the building.

 But you’ve still got the enemy along the wall.
Yes, and they were moving along it to engage us more effectively. As they also knew I was in the outhouse, it was being raked as well. A grenade seemed the best option, but the trees between the wall and me meant that I was poorly placed to throw it. J knelt in full view of the insurgents again and covered me while I flitted between the trees like Benny Hill in his underpants. I’m sure the enemy wondered what the hell I was doing. Anyway I chucked the grenade but I’m a custard arm and it didn’t do a thing. I scurried back to the outbuilding. Owing to our ginning around in the open, the enemy fire ramped up to a crescendo. Then I heard P call “Frag out” and a grenade go off on my right. The machine-gun there stopped firing.

Was that when you decided to rush the wall?
No, although my initial reaction was to doit. That’s the training, which says, “Throwgrenade, enemy stunned, rush enemy.”But the two remaining machine-gunnersand the AK guys weren’t stunned. I couldfeel rounds continually thudding intothe outbuilding. Worse still, the moundssheltering J and D were now being shotaway. Once I saw that, I decided to go. Itwas probably about five seconds after P’sgrenade went off. 

Can you describe your assault?
The nearest machine-gunner was 20 metres from me on the wall, with one AK-47 guy on his right and, directly in front of me in a break in the wall, another on his left. Once I started moving, and this all seemed to happen very slowly, the two AK guys peeled back into the compound. I don’t know whether it was poor training, panic or whether he found it too awkward to swing his PKM around, but the machine-gunner couldn’t seem to get on to me until I reached the break in the wall. But I was already down on one knee and I shot him twice in the head. 

What about the other machine-gun?
That gun was the one pinning down the assault force in the creek. So that bloke was preoccupied and I don’t think that he was too aware of what I was doing. I just moved a little further along the wall, dropped down and killed him as well. J and D then joined me at the wall.

And the insurgents who pulled back into the compound?
Checking out the building from the door, D saw one inside but had a stoppage on his weapon. He made way for me and I burst in and killed the guy. I saw another insurgent in the room but had a stoppage myself. As you keep moving in these situations to make yourself as difficult a target as possible, I slid along the wall while J entered and shot him point blank. Next we cleared the exterior and found a few more dead enemy and a PKM. They’d probably been killed by the initial covering fire we’d all put in. P and the rest of our patrol then joined us. They’d cleared the right flank after a running fight there. Twenty-two insurgents had been put away by this stage. 

The way into Tizak was now open?
Yes, S brought the assault force up. We all took a breather and redistributed ammunition – I had only two magazines left – before heading off. S and K’s men cleared the village compounds, which were mainly to the left of the green, and we stayed in the green. All of us still had several hours of hard fighting to go. 

What incidents stood out most in that?
When we moved off again, the guys ahead of me disappeared in the dust when another huge burst of PKM fire broke out. I thought they’d got it, but they were OK and P lobbed a grenade at the gun. I hared off with another operator into the dead ground on the right to outflank it, and saw the gun crew fleeing through the trees. We mortally wounded them. Interestingly, we found that they’d hollowed out a mulberry hedge, set up the gun and pulled the bushes in behind them. They had mats, jugs of water and piles of ammunition in there. You couldn’t see them even if you were on top of them. Then we came under spotter fire, that is, fire controlled by someone who had a good view of us. P asked the cut-off team to lay down fire just in front of us and we advanced behind it. Presently I could hear the spotter yelling instructions into his mobile, which led me to a bush-covered spider hole. I yanked the bushes off and killed him.

Was the battle over when the end of both the village and the green was reached?
Pretty well. K’s guys checked out some insurgents killed beyond the green by the cut-off team and I went with them as their scout. As I was moving towards the bodies, I heard a couple of bursts behind me. It turned out that an insurgent had hidden himself among the rocks and jumped out to fire at me when I passed. Don’t ask me how, but he missed and the operator behind me got him. That was the day’s last fatal contact. 

Having listened to this account, I’m struck at how there’s no hint of fear. You’re perfectly calm and rational, and on top of things.
That comes with experience. It was completely different in my first couple of contacts, when I’d be fixated on one target and didn’t have good awareness. But I’ve had a number of gunfights on each of my tours in Afghanistan, and I’ve taken something out of each one to the point where, when I’m in contact now, I get a clarity, a real sharpening of my senses. I can see things happening that I couldn’t in my early days. I can read the play, so to speak. I’m thinking, “I’ll bet this bloke, whether he’s ours or theirs, will do this so I should be doing that.” Experience gives you a terrific feel for the fight.

What about fear, though?
For me it’s anticipation rather than fear and I feel it when contact is imminent. I get jittery because all the training and experience in the world won’t help if the other guy has a bead on me. My destiny is in his hands. I’ve seen mates do everything right and still get killed because they copped the opening burst. But once it breaks out, I’m OK, I’m in control of my own destiny. It’s like the nerves you feel before a football match. They go once the ref blows his whistle for the kick-off. The first burst is like the whistle. 

And luck?
Who that first burst might hit is a matter of luck. You won’t live long without luck. We had it in spades throughout the Tizak battle. We were lucky that the RPG gunner didn’t take our helicopter out right at the start. I was lucky that the PKM gunner on the wall couldn’t control his weapon and that the insurgent who had me cold at the end of the day couldn’t aim straight. Luck plays a big part in things, but that said, training and experience allow you to make a lot of your own luck.

What was the result of the Tizak action?
On clearing the battlefield, we found over 70 dead insurgents. We ascertained the next day that ten of them were medium-value targets. The American command responsible for southern Afghanistan was ecstatic. We were within a week of going home, so it was a great way to end our rotation. Once back in Australia, we learned that we’d clipped the high-value target and he’d died of his wounds. Special intelligence had also determined that the insurgents’ high command was livid at the commanders in northern Kandahar for letting so many of their men get caught in Tizak. They estimated ten years would be needed to rebuild the insurgent infrastructure there. Considering we were vastly outnumbered and only lost two wounded, it was not a bad result for us. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I was awarded the Victoria Cross for my part in the battle, but others were decorated for acts of bravery that were equally deserving that day. Nobody knows what they did, so it’s up to me as the one in the public eye to speak for them. Then again, the most meaningful recognition for us in the SAS comes from within, not from the public. When your fellow operators tell you that you’ve done something really well, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

Dr Peter Pedersen is Head of the Research Centre at the Australian War Memorial. His latest book is ANZACS on the Western Front: the Australian War Memorial battlefield guide (2011).

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