After Basra, a fight for life: story of a ‘broken soldier’ of the Iraq war

Published in The Guardian on 14 April 2009

The electric pruners make light work of the bare cox’s apple branches as David Bradley strips them back, preparing the orchard for a new season and the harvest to follow. The farmer cuts and thins out the trees but when he removes the chamois leather glove protecting his right hand, the loss of his index finger, ligaments and skin tissue is laid bare.

This is not the only lasting injury from the former British army major’s time in Iraq. Sometimes, Bradley, 40, has to step out of the direct sunlight as his damaged iris no longer dilates and contracts in the way that it should.

The right side of his face is lightly peppered with black shrapnel marks but seeing him now on the family farm, it is hard to imagine that in the summer of 2004 he was so badly injured that doctors gave him only a 5% chance of survival.

His right hand and eye were shredded when his Warrior – an armoured infantry fighting vehicle used to carry troops – was hit by rocket-propelled grenades.

He was, he says, “blown up”. In the four years that followed, the soldier would first have to fight to live, then fight to rebuild his broken body and then create a completely new life outside the army.

“As soon as the doctors say they can’t operate on you any more you have a choice – stay in and do a desk job or leave. I left. It was the right thing for the army and for me. I am a soldier, I joined to command soldiers. With the injuries I have sustained I can’t do that. I was medically discharged and suddenly became mister, not major, Bradley.”

So, he and his wife Lara and his two children, Philippa, 10, and Alexander, eight, moved out of their military accommodation in Tidworth, Wiltshire, and returned to Bradley’s family farm in Kent. There are times, he admits, when he wishes he was back with his company, which is currently in Iraq, preparing for the British withdrawal. But instead of men, the former major will spend his days this spring marshalling apples, pears, cherries and asparagus.

Sitting in the study of the farmhouse that once belonged to his grandparents, it’s easy for Bradley to conjure the events and mood of Iraq five years ago just as it might be easy for many to forget just how dangerous it was in the country at that time.

By the summer, the Shia insurgency was beginning to sweep across Basra and southern Iraq and in the months to come crude, but deadly, improvised explosive devices would become the weapon of choice against British soldiers, tearing through ineffectual armoured plating on vehicles, killing and maiming scores of soldiers.

Bradley had been in the country since April and was commanding B Company, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, a group of 116 men attached to the Cheshire Regiment. This was their first tour of Iraq. The company was based in the grounds of the Shatt al-Arab hotel in the northern part of Basra. Before the war, the art deco hotel had boasted a four-star rating and had been a favourite haunt for foreign businessmen who had come to the comparatively prosperous and cosmopolitan southern port.

But by 2004, the Shatt al-Arab had become a large British military base, with row upon row of tents and portable toilets. It was heavily fortified with perimeter walls and guard posts. For US troops in Baghdad, car bombers had become the biggest threat but in the “Shatt”, B Company came under a different kind of attack – every night, the soldiers were mortared by Katyusha rockets, forcing them to sleep under the hard cover of one big, fetid room rather than in the tents that had been erected around the camp.

“We were mortared every night. We hunkered down inside the hotel because it was the only place with a hard roof. I remember once being mortared when I was outside in the toilet and thinking ‘don’t let me die here’.”

Bradley had been in the army for 12 years and in spite of serving in Northern Ireland and having been on exercise in countries such as Kuwait and Oman, this was the first time he had really felt the meaning of the adage: war is often 10% terror and 90% boredom.

The terror he had often talked of and thought about would visit him on Monday 9 August 2004.

Although it was cloudy that morning, it was oppressively hot – even more so inside the claustrophobic armoured fighting vehicles. Heading out of camp in their Warriors, the soldiers’ morning mission was to track down a group of 15 men who had been spotted on rough ground close to another British base, Camp Cherokee – that same rough ground had been the site used by insurgents who had been firing rockets at the camp.

By the time they dispersed the crowd, it was already more than 45c, and B Company were late for lunch; hot and hungry they returned to camp and made straight for the company cookhouse where the chef had kept pie and chips for them in the oven.

They were still in the middle of eating when a runner came in with disturbing news: a number of British troops were missing in the heart of Basra. The details were scarce but the problem obvious.

Gunners from the Royal Horse Artillery had been attacked when they raced in to the city to pull out an army officer who had seen a crowd build up outside the small British Camp Stephen and had radioed for help. As they drove towards the officers, their three “Snatch” Land Rovers were barraged with rockets and bullets – one managed to pull out, but two were so badly shot up they caught fire, the soldiers inside were forced to run for cover, leaving their radios inside.

Their sergeant managed to ring headquarters on an Iraqi mobile phone but he could give no coordinates as they had no idea exactly where they were.

He told HQ that nine soldiers were in the area of the Ba’ath party headquarters, right next to the office of the Moqtada al-Sadr – the headquarters of the Mahdi army.

In the cookhouse, Bradley remembers thinking that he just wanted to eat the rest of his chips. He gathered some of his men for a quick briefing. They were going to be the rescue party, and Bradley would lead them in to Basra to get the soldiers out. Hostage-taking had become a well-publicised weapon of the insurgents and no one needed reminding that for them the capture of British soldiers would have been the ultimate prize.

“You have images in your mind of them being caught, put into orange jumpsuits and being decapitated on TV,” said Bradley. “They were from a different regiment but none of us would ever leave a British soldier there – we would do whatever we had to to get them back.”

The first call about the missing troops came in at 3.44pm and by 4pm, five of Bradley’s Warriors swept out through the camp gates, each with a driver, gunner and commander on top and between four and seven soldiers – “dismounts” – in the back. There was no air support to call upon, the only means of rescue were the Warriors. The convoy sped down the main road into town, known to the British army as Red Route.

They had been driving for just five minutes when they came under heavy fire – more intense than any previous attack on B Company.

As it crossed a T-junction, Bradley’s Warrior, which went under the radio call sign Two Zero Alpha, was hit by a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.

The assault was coming from buildings on both sides of the street, and Bradley, standing in the commander’s turret, was “scanning for the enemy” through the sight of his rifle, to give his men some idea of where to return fire, but before he had a chance an RPG hit the right side of the vehicle. Another hit his shoulder.

“I just suddenly felt this pressure. I was knocked down. Then there was this small, thick, dark grey explosion below me and I thought: ‘This is bad.’ It looked evil. I flung my hand up and it was a cloven hoof – my index finger had gone.”

In the pandemonium that followed, Bradley thought that another RPG had landed inside the vehicle and shouted through the intercom for everyone to “debus” – get out of the vehicle. But the communications were no longer working.

“I crawled out on top of the turret. I was on fire and with my good hand I patted it out and thought I was OK.” As he lay up there, Private Carl Yee-Lim, his gunner, was screaming: “Sir, sir, get back inside.” The voice, cutting through the roar of the rockets, brought Bradley back to his senses.

“Suddenly I was really conscious of all the rounds coming past me. My gunner grabbed me and I dropped down.”

In fact, the Warrior had been hit by seven RPGs almost simultaneously. Inside the back of the vehicle, it was thick with smoke and blood was everywhere. Sergeant Major Simon Barnett had serious shrapnel wounds to his leg and arms and his helmet had been blown off – a lump of metal was embedded in his head and his teeth were blown out.

The medic, sorely needed, was also badly hit. The rest of the crew in the back, including the Iraqi interpreter, suffered varying degrees of injury, mostly flash burns, and could no longer hear anything because of ear damage. He had blood in his eye but he could still see light.

The pain, however, was spreading and so Bradley reached for the morphine jab he kept just under the breast plate of his flak jacket. With the last reserves of his strength, he ripped it open with his teeth and stabbed it in his thigh.

As he did this, the Warrior sounded like a grunting metal pig as the driver, Sergeant Mick Pike – who thought Bradley was dead – was attempting to drive them out of danger.

“Yee-Lim was sitting behind the chain gun and he kept leaning across and going: ‘Sir, sir, stay with us.’ I was thinking why does he keep shaking me when I am not badly wounded?”

Bradley drifted in and out of consciousness and was a little irritated by the panic in Yee-Lim’s voice. As the vehicle pulled inside camp, the major tried to get out himself.

“I remember putting my hand down on the vehicle and jumping off and just feeling really, really tired and some lads turned up with a stretcher. I collapsed back thinking I am not getting up from this. I didn’t know I was as badly wounded as I was. I just felt drained.”

Bradley collapsed on to a stretcher, was taken inside and put on the commanding officer’s desk. The room turned into a casualty clearing station, but only limited first aid could be done. It immediately became clear they needed to move him to a place with more specialist care. He begged the doctor to knock him out as he had had enough. The last thing Bradley remembers from that day was being wheeled out to a helicopter that flew him to the medical centre at Shaibah logistics base.

“One of the nurses said if any of the other lads had come in at the same time as me they would have put me to the side. They didn’t think I was saveable. If there had to have been a choice, they wouldn’t have operated on me, they would have operated on someone else.”

On the operating table, Bradley was losing blood pressure and the doctors couldn’t work out why. Luckily, there was a Czech doctor working at the base, Marcel Hyack, who was a specialist in chest surgery. With little to lose, Hyack decided to operate and found copper piercing shrapnel from an RPG embedded deep inside. “The shrapnel had cut my innominate vein. The surgeon thought I was going to die anyway, so let’s have it out.”

That night Bradley was induced into a coma and flown to Birmingham in an intensive care unit on board a C17 military aircraft. After being operated on for 18 hours he was brought round, with his wife and father at his bedside.

“They still weren’t sure that I would make it. I had severe shrapnel wounds to the right hand and they had to cut of 80% of the deltoid muscle. They removed my index finger back to the metacarpal. They had to attach my hand to my stomach and transfer the skin flap – it was attached for three weeks.”

Bradley prods the slightly puffy and hairy part of his hand that was rebuilt from his stomach.

“The blast blew out the lens of my right eye and shredded the cornea. I had a new artificial lens and a corneal graft. I can wear a lens but don’t wear it all the time because the cornea is so sensitive. I had three broken ribs and a broken clavicle. I lost some of my lymph glands.”

Bradley remained in hospital for eight weeks. On his tenth day there he received a letter telling him he had been posted to the Y list – an administrative location for people who are not fit to serve.

“In order for them to get a replacement for me I had to leave the battalion. Lara says she watched me shrink when I read it. It was confirmation of my situation and it was very impersonal. I complained about it and they have now changed their procedures.

“All I wanted to do was to get back and command the company. Over time I realised that it wasn’t going to be that easy but that time allowed me to come to terms with it. If you are a double amputee, you know that you can’t go back to fighting as soon as you open your eyes.” From hospital he was allowed home but spent six separate month-long stays at Headley Court military rehabilitation centre in Surrey.

Bradley missed out on compensation introduced in April 2005 for those British soldiers injured on the frontline. He received a medical discharge lump sum of £48,000 and supplements his pension of £21,000 a year with a wage from the farm. A few weeks ago, Bradley – with the help of his father and some hired labour – planted 7,500 new apple trees to augment the orchards of his childhood. For his family, they are a symbol of their new life.

In spite of what happened to him, the soldier-turned-farmer says he “would have been nowhere else on 9 August”. He said: “In its purest form, we went out there to save British soldiers’ lives and we achieved that.”

But also, unknown at the time to the badly injured Bradley, the battle that had engulfed his company left one of its soldiers, Private Lee O’Callaghan, 20, dead.

Without Bradley as commander, his junior officers and soldiers stormed the Ba’ath party headquarters – heavily fortified by the British but handed over to the Iraqis – but could not find the missing troops. By some stroke of good fortune a helmet was spotted in a house nearby and since only British soldiers wore helmets in Basra, they knew they had stumbled across the lost men who were about to run out of ammunition. The beleaguered soldiers were piled into the back of a Warrior.

Bradley’s men gave up their safe-ish seats to fight their way out on foot. Some soldiers were later awarded medals for bravery, including the Military Cross.

“There are dark moments when I lie in bed,” Bradley concedes. He knows he has changed. “I am more emotional than I was. I think many people who come back from those sorts of environments experience that sort of change.

“I have a shorter temper sometimes, though that is becoming less. I am different. But so far farming has been great. The army is a fit man’s business and I am a broken soldier.”

• This article was amended on Tuesday 14 April 2009. Tidworth is in Wiltshire, not Devon. This has been corrected.