Showdown with the Devil’s army: How 26 British soldiers took on 2,000 drug-crazed warriors in a blood-curdling Sierra Leone jungle battle… and won
To Sergeant Steve Heaney, the stillness of the steamy African night felt crushingly claustrophobic. Suddenly the intense, eerie quiet was broken by blood-curdling screams and banshee howls from the forest as if, he recalled, ‘the devil and all his minions were at our front’.
He could hear weird, wild chanting in the distance, interspersed with jungle drums. ‘What makes the grass grow?’ a voice called out. ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’ came the chilling, chanted response of thousands of voices out in the darkness.
The year was 2000, and Heaney and 25 other men from the Parachute Regiment’s elite Pathfinder platoon were in Sierra Leone, sent by Prime Minister Tony Blair in one of his first military interventions to back up his ‘ethical’ foreign policy.
The West African country had been in a vicious civil war for years, but now a brutal group of terrorists known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) — ordered into battle by the president of neighbouring Liberia, Charles Taylor — were closing in on the capital, Freetown.
Frenzied by drugs and witchcraft, they had a signature atrocity — amputating victims’ arms after offering them the choice of ‘long-sleeve’ (below the elbow) or ‘short-sleeve’ (above it).
They would surround an isolated village at night, round up boys of 11 and 12, and force them to kill their own fathers and rape and mutilate their mothers. Then the traumatised youngsters were taken to swell the rebel ranks.
As boy soldiers, they were fed a cocktail of crack cocaine and heroin ‘injected’ into cuts made in their foreheads. They were also bathed in vats of voodoo medicine by ‘high priestesses’, to make them ‘bulletproof’ and ‘invincible’ as they led the way into battle, often dressed in pink shell-suits and wearing women’s wigs.
The rebels gave themselves names like Baby Killer and Belly Slasher, and were infamous for playing what they called the Sex The Child game, whereby they would bet on the sex of the unborn baby of a captured pregnant woman and then slash her open to settle the wager.
And now, 2,000 of them with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades were massed in the jungle, with only Heaney and his men holed up in a village to block their way to the capital’s international airport.
He felt like a defender at the Alamo, with every chance of being massacred.
It was a situation typical of the way the whole Sierra Leone operation was handled. A hurried decision had been made to evacuate British subjects with the help of an 800-strong task force.And the troops went out at a moment’s notice — under-equipped and under-briefed, with almost zero knowledge of the country or the enemy.
They had no maps, no intelligence reports, dodgy assault rifles they didn’t trust and virtually no ammunition. It was done on a wing and a prayer — the hallmark of Blair’s foreign interventions.
As the main force deployed in Freetown to organise the evacuation, Heaney’s tiny group was dispatched up-country to locate the rebel army — which was said to be just 50 miles from the airport and advancing on it, hell-bent on wholesale slaughter.
The Pathfinders had a simple mission: to hold back the enemy’s advance until reinforcements were helicoptered in. A village named Lungi Lol straddled the single dusty road through the jungle down which the rebels were coming — and it was here that Heaney and his men prepared to make their stand.
What made their predicament even more scary was the knowledge that, in light of the Paras’ presence, the RUF had chillingly re-named their mission ‘Operation Kill British’.
‘None of us needed telling what would happen to us if captured,’ Heaney says.
From where he stood, the odds did not look good. ‘We had just 300 rounds per man, which meant we’d have to average one kill every seven rounds to account for 2,000 coming at us.’
The prospect of being overrun, or worse, seemed very real. If they got out of alive, it would be something of a miracle. He had Claymore mines and plastic explosives, but also, he quickly realised, some unexpected assets — his own ‘army’ of African villagers, plus a jungle full of bamboo. With the village chief’s agreement, he put the people — themselves terrified of the rebels — to work creating defence lines.
A rapport grew up between the soldiers and the locals as, with machetes, hoes and bare hands, women and children dug out dense vegetation around the village to make open ‘killing zones’ for British machine guns in newly dug battle trenches.
They made man-traps of bamboo canes, cut to lethal razor sharpness at one end, then stuck in the ground in rows, point up and hidden under leaves.
Numbers behind the defences swelled as more and more local people arrived, fleeing the advancing rebels. Word was that the enemy were just a few miles away. ‘I could sense their presence and the threat hanging heavy in the air,’ Heaney says.
‘Show time,’ he told his platoon as he deployed them to their posts. ‘No problem,’ they replied, calm and determined. ‘Let ’em come.’ And so they waited in the darkness, until that chant of ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’ erupted out of the silence of the night. The moment of truth had arrived.
Heaney says: ‘All hell let loose. There was a massive eruption of fire from the jungle as the rebels came at us in a human wave all along our front. I could feel the rounds tearing through the branches above us, and see the tracer streaking through the night sky like swarms of giant fire-flies on acid.
‘The nearest rounds buzzed past my head like angry wasps.
‘I shuddered to think how many rebel soldiers were out there. And they clearly were not suffering the shortages of ammo that we did. Any minute they’d be on top of our positions, swamping us.’ His machine-gunners in their trenches were doing their job, but using up valuable ammunition that, however much they held back, would sooner or later leave them ‘seriously buggered’. After 20 short bursts, a whole belt was gone, and each gun had just three belts.
Heaney guessed that the enemy were creeping forward into dead ground between the defences. And since his men had no reliable night-vision sights on their guns — another equipment failure — he knew he had to get some light on the battleground by putting up a flare.
That meant crawling out into the open. ‘I cursed our lack of body armour. If an accurate round came my way, I would have no protection and it would kill me outright.’
With bullets flying around him, he managed to mortar a flare into the night sky. As it floated down, it flamed like a giant Roman candle — and there were the rebels, frozen in fierce, fluorescent daylight.
His machine-gunners picked their targets and fired. ‘Thanks to the villagers cutting the vegetation, the rebels had nowhere to hide. There were screams as many went down and others scrabbled to get away.’
But then an attack began from another direction. Heaney shot up another flare, lighting up rebels just 200 yards away and rushing forward in the belief that their voodoo medicine made them invincible.
‘I saw rebel fighters slammed to the ground by rounds from our guns, then clamber to their feet and start charging forward again, screaming maniacally. Some took four bullets before they went down and stayed down,’ he remembers.
By now, the rebel commander must have worked out how Heaney was co-ordinating the defence from his position out in the open. A rocket grenade came barrelling towards the sergeant, missing by inches, followed by rebel soldiers, creeping through the pitch black.
‘I grabbed my rifle and let rip at the flitting shadows, hammering rounds into them.
‘Figures reared up from the bush in front of me, so close I didn’t need to use the metal sights.
Muzzles sparked from a few dozen yards away. There was agonised screaming, deafeningly close.
And more, I realised, coming from the pits of sharpened bamboo stakes we’d prepared as the rebels blundered into them. The night was thick with the scent of adrenaline, blood, aggression and fear.’
But he got his miracle. The rebels pulled back. Amazingly, too, the platoon was intact, with not a single casualty.
It was first round to the Pathfinders, but Heaney and his men knew this was not the end of the matter.
The rebels would come again . . . and against a rapidly diminishing supply of British bullets and flares.
‘We were down to less than a third of our ammo,’ he says bluntly.
But surely, they imagined as they waited, reinforcements were on their way by now, the Quick Reaction Force they had been promised once they engaged the rebels. A Chinook should be dropping the cavalry in at any moment. ‘We just had to hold on.’
For the British troops, the easy choice would have been to pull out, hop in their trucks and leave the village to fend for itself. But Heaney and his men were having none of that.
Nor were they prepared to withdraw when the Quick Reaction Force they expected was delayed — because headquarters first wanted an assessment from an officer specially flown in to check that reinforcements were even necessary!
A furious Heaney ‘felt waves of frustration and anger washing over me’ at such bureaucratic niceties when lives were at stake.
Eventually the reinforcements did fly in, ‘30 heavily armed Paras spoiling for a punch-up’, as Heaney put it — at which point the British contingent was able to take the fight to the rebels, fanning out beyond the village to track them down.
The enemy, though, had retreated deep into the jungle. But would they be back in even greater numbers, thirsting for revenge?
With that question in the air, the Pathfinders agreed to stay and defend what had become ‘our village’. If they didn’t there was every chance the rebels would return and massacre the villagers, and they couldn’t allow that to happen.
‘As we stared down our rifle barrels into the darkness once again, we had no doubt they were out there, massing in serious strength.’
At which point — and to their utter dismay — Heaney and his platoon were ordered to withdraw.
‘It hit us like a bombshell,’ he says. ‘For night after night we’d been probed by the rebels. We’d pushed out foot patrols during the day into the jungle to find them. Of one thing we had been certain: we were here for the duration. No rebels were going to wreak havoc on our village, not on our watch.’
But their commanders, nervous of defending such an isolated outpost, took a different view.
‘Pathfinder withdrawal,’ read the order from on high. ‘No relief.’ They had held their ground for 16 days and now they were to leave and not be replaced. The village would be unprotected.
And so — seething with anger and against every sense of honour they felt — the Pathfinders packed up.
‘It wasn’t exactly how I’d ever imagined us leaving this place,’ Heaney recalled.
‘Scores of villagers lined the track as we headed for the Chinook. They were silent and fearful. We’d sat with them, played with their kids, shared their food and water. And now we were just walking out on them.’
But the men, back home in the UK within 48 hours, need not have worried. Their commanders had made the right call — there was no further rebel push on Lungi Lol, no revenge exacted on the villagers.
Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war was coming to an end, and Charles Taylor was to flee to Nigeria before being captured and sent to The Hague to face war crimes charges.
A very large reason for the failure of his crusade was the stand by the Pathfinders at Lungi Lol — the only significant military action fought against the rebels, and the one that broke their backbone.
Among the honours for those who took part, Heaney was awarded the Military Cross, though, as his book makes clear, he remains dismayed by the military decision that forced them to abandon the village they risked their lives to defend.
At least Sierra Leone was at peace, secured by a British military campaign. Lungi Lol today is thriving.
Looking back, however, there was a downside to the Pathfinder platoon’s heroic victory there.
It may have convinced Tony Blair of the wisdom of military interventions in other country’s affairs — with results that, as we have seen with devastating clarity in Iraq this week, were disastrous for them and for us.