Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fireplan gone wrong

Fireplans are Gunners' bread and butter. We live in it and die for it. Fireplans are nightmares when gone awry and when the time schedules run off sync with the battleplan. Fireplans support fire and movement in a big way. Fireplans provide, covering fire, harrassing fire, suppression fire, destruction fire, deffensive fire, illumination, and smoke screens for cover. Fireplans are pretty useless if they are fired at the wrong targets, wrong timings and with indaequate weight of fire.

Fireplans are prepared and circulated by the originator to gun positions using the Fireplan Performa AB545 in my days, now "Borang Something". AB545 are executive orders to the fireunits. Simpler fireplans without precise synchronisation are normally circulated and fired from target lists.
Fireplans can go wrong, very wrong. My earlier post on my Mong Gajah troop for not firing on target Tango 13 was one fireplan gone right for the wrong reason. A Good Luck , Bad Luck, Maybe case.

My most disastrous fireplan that had gone wrong was at a longhouse near Balai Ringgin, Serian, Division 1 , Sarawak. In early1970s, I was the Battery Comd B Bty 2 Arty, in direct support of 3 Bde and RASCOM Sarawak. RHQ 2 Arty was in 7 mile Airport Camp, Kuching. My 14 months stint with 3 Bde in the 1970s was the most memorable and active operational tour in my career. We were supporting the late General Dato Hassan, " HassanPendek" for short. Pun included. B Bty was supporting an op in the Serian sector with the Infantry battalion stationed in Serian/ Balai Ringgin camps. The battalion had a mortar platoon of 6 X 81mm , commanded by the mortar sergeant. My fireplan for the ops comprise mainly HF Tgts, harrassing and impeding enemy movements, particularly at night. We had intelligence that groups of enemy move from longhouse to longhouse. My task was to cut off the routes between longhouses in the sector, whilst the infantry platoons lay in ambush positions. There were many Longhouses in this area and they were located about 800 metres to 2 km apart. This made having targets placed in between the distance of two long houses extreamly difficult and dicey. Predicted targets are out of the question with longhouses in such close proximity. My nightmares. Yes every night when my fire plan was executed.

Believe me, whilst I am Gunner and fireplans are my bread and butter, firing them are not my joyest moments. It is somewhat like running the marathon. Stressful during the run and joyest at the fininshing line. I brigade all fire units in 3 Bde and RASCOM during ops whenever the fire units are available. Brigaded fire units including infantry mortar platoons, come under my command. I will maximise and utilise all my fire resources into all my fireplans. It was a joy to have many fire units under command, but it also comes with problems like integration, interoperability, range and varying standards of training of brigaded units.

Ops Serian was planned to last for two weeks. I had deployed my four guns from Bau and Lundu and I had brigaded the batallion's mortar platoon. I had five fire units, two gun sections and three mortar sections. My fireplan include a series of targets selected labourously between longhouses, sometimes only 400 meters from the longhouses. These targets were to be fired nightly, randomly from midnight to 0600 hrs next morning.

All targets had to be registered targets and I had daily alloutte support to conduct air OPs. I would personally register the targets. I could not deligate the registrations of these tough targets to my young FOOs. I trust them, but I want to take full responsibility in this ops. Every day I would register several targets to be fired for the night. All went smoothly and well for the first several days/nights. We were firing effectively. Big sweats and big beers go together at the end of the day. Registered targets are as fired data. and noting can go wrong.

But Mr Murphy says otherwise.

I had registered the targets for the night for my mortar sections and returned to Bau for the night. Everything else was on auto mode. The fireplan was in placed. 5 RD FFE was standard, hence a section of 2 mortars would have fired 10 rounds per target. The targets were recorded, acknowledged and as fired data ordered for firing at the given timing during the silence of night. All standard procedures.

I slept early that night only to be awakened by my signaller at 0300 hrs. " Tuan ada accident, Longhouse kena tembak olih mortar"

A hive of frantic sitreps, orders and calls followed throughout the wee hours of the night. STOP ALL FIRING. It was panic station like no other. Allen Lai died several times over. I could do nothing until first light the next morning. I took the alloutte to Balai Ringgin camp only meet just about everybody who is anybody, already there. A very concerned Bde Comd, doctors, ambulances and even the local DO was there before me. They had all rushed to Balai Ringgin by road. Medevac by boats and ambulances were alread in action. Casualties came out by asault boats and local sampans. Troops had already reached the shelled longhouse. I could not describe my feelings. I was not only lost for words, I was lost for thoughts. Questions, questions, and more questions and no ready answers. Not from me, not from anybody. Reality struck in; the fireplan had gone awry. A longhouse was hit. My very fears and evevrybody's fears. I could not describe the damage caused as it was too gory, and  I am responsible. Period.

The hive of activities that followed were orderly; evacuations, reports, media and heart and mind activites went into full swing. I had the best CO ever, Lt Col Tony Morel. He quietly consoled me " It's alright Allen, we'll look into it. Check all firings until further orders. You are doing good. Only you would take on those targets. Things happen, think of it as battle collaterals. You go on to handle morale with the troops and I'll handle all the talking" Thats it, no chonek, no berserk. Everybody though highly tensed, had handled their roles well. I thank my Bde Comd for calmness in the face of political backlash. This incident was to have far reaching political / military understandings in the coming days.

I, and I alone could not breathe.

After the dust had settled, I still could not find the error. Everything was as per SOP; the registration of the target, fired datas, aiming posts, plotters and all procedures were all accurate. We could not determine what could have possibliy gone wrong. It went wrong indeed, but WHAT? What caused the rounds to hit the longhouse 400 meters away? My pride and professionalism sank to all time low. An immediate Board of Inquiry was conducted by Mejor Tan Say Loke. (Retired Colonel) He had come all the way from the school of Artillery PD to do the Inquiry. Thank you to Col Tan, he found the answer through his meticulous interviews. Good Luck, Bad Luck, Maybe.

Serian and Balai Ringgin Camps were  shared camps by the infantry and aromour units deployed in Division 1 Sarawak. The armour units more permanently. He interviewed everybody in the camp, including the armour personnel in the camp who had nothing to do with fireplan. The armour troop commander was a Sergeant and stays in the Sergeants Mess with the battalion mortar comd. They had discussed the grid reference of Balia Ringgin camp on the evening of the incident. The mortar comd had noted that the grid reference on the briefing maps in the camp' ops room was not the same as the grid reference of his mortar position. It was actually exactly 400 meters difference. The two NCO commanders had argued. The mortar comd was a very new mortar platoon comd. He had doubts about his own position. The armour troops had been in Balai Ringgin camp since day one, years ago. Surely their grid reference was good and accurate. It was logical, plain and simple. The mortar comd then did the unthinkable. he changed the grid reference of his mortar position to conform to that of the armour's. GOOD JOB he thought. He had initiative. A disaster was waiting to happen. He fired 400 meters off target that night.

As fired datas are as fired datas, are as fired datas. You cannot change anything after datas are registered AS FIRED. It was as fired, no matter what grid references at both end of the fire unit and target, right or wrong are to be used used. It is datas, point to point. Period. But smart people are smart people and Mr Murphy was right and will continue to be right all the time.

I was really sorry for all the casualties in the longhouse and their beautiful longhouse damaged. But I was not sorry for the mortar comd who was demoted and removed from his command.

I could breathe again.

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