Reporter: Ross Coulthart, Sunday
Producer: Nick Farrow
For Australians, it's a day to reflect and remember to honour those who fought and died in battle. Time also to spare a thought for the men and women still fighting, still serving overseas.
With that in mind, we present a story of unsung heroes. A dangerous mission behind enemy lines; Australian SAS troops under fire. These operations are usually kept secret the SAS is, by its very nature, a covert force.
But in this special report, Ross Coulthart from the Sunday program meets the men from Operation Anaconda, the commandos who dare and win.
AMERICAN SOLDIER: Today is a day for war. Soon the coalition of nations will send forth troops to find those who seek terror over peace.
ROSS COULTHART: Afghanistan 2002, six months after September 11.
AMERICAN SOLDIER: May all these helicopters soar as on the wings of an eagle.
ROSS COULTHART: And Australia is very much a part of the coalition of the willing. Was there ever a moment where you went, "What in God's name am I doing here?"
MARTIN WALLACE, SAS SIGNALMAN: Ah, no, no, you certainly realise you're there for love, not money. But I wouldn't have wished it on anyone else, put it that way.
ROSS COULTHART: This is a rare insight into the SAS. Its commanders have let us meet Martin Wallace and to hear his story of one of the most hard-fought battles in Afghanistan, Operation Anaconda. It was a defining battle?
MARTIN WALLACE: Yeah, it was the first time we took it to the hardline al-Qa'ida, who weren't prepared to flee or run and hide in Pakistan. These guys were definitely committed and they were there to fight to the death, and we accommodated them, yeah.
LT COL ROWAN TINK, SAS COMMANDER: We learnt two or three days into Operation Anaconda that the al-Qa'ida had moved their families and children out of the valley to safer areas towards the Pakistan boarder.
ROSS COULTHART: So they were getting ready for a fight.
ROWAN TINK: There was no doubt that they were prepared to fight.
ROSS COULTHART: And to fight hard. Anaconda was meant to be a two-day operation to take out a major al-Qa'ida stronghold. But very quickly, it went very wrong. Rowan Tink was the SAS commander in Afghanistan.
ROWAN TINK: They were engaged by mortars, RPGs, heavy machine-guns, light machine-guns basically everything that was available in the armoury. We later learnt that they'd actually landed and moved into the vicinity of the al-Qa'ida command post.
MARTIN WALLACE: We landed in the middle of a valley and then, off to my right shoulder, I noticed a flash and I recognised it as danger, so we started running for cover. There was an RPG round that was fired at us ...
ROSS COULTHART: That's a rocket-propelled grenade ...
MARTIN WALLACE: Correct, yeah, from about 300m away. The round hit the ground and slid through the mud, basically, chasing us up the hill as we ran from it. It just lay there steaming in the ground as we scrambled for cover.
ROSS COULTHART: Wallace and another Australian were part of an 82-man team that was ambushed.
MARTIN WALLACE: I was just lying there watching, them out of the corner of my eye, and about five or six of them disappeared in a puff of grey smoke. It was basically a direct hit on the American mortar from the al-Qa'ida mortar.
ROSS COULTHART: How badly injured were those men?
MARTIN WALLACE: We had guys with chest injuries, there was open fractures, basically fragmentation wounds, some of them over, you know, their entire bodies.
ROWAN TINK: He saw that there was a need there to go out and pull some of these guys to safety and dress their wounds and he put himself in harm's way. Under fire, moved out, collected some of these wounded and dragged them back into safety in this ditch that they were in.
ROSS COULTHART: In the panic of the opening firefight, the American soldiers had dropped their backpacks. The Australians had kept theirs.
MARTIN WALLACE: We didn't have as far to go for cover, so I didn't bother dropping my pack, just ran for cover. As a result, I maintained my communications capability.
ROSS COULTHART: If you hadn't been able to call in air support, what would have happened?
MARTIN WALLACE: I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today.
ROSS COULTHART: Tell me about that conversation you had when you first got the radio up and working?
MARTIN WALLACE: I asked Clint if he wanted me to establish communications. He said yep, so I ripped out my antenna. First call, I got back into our headquarters at Bagram and told them we were in a bit of a shit-fight. I was later told by the young fellow who was on the radio one of the other officers behind was asking what I meant by a 'shit-fight'.
ROSS COULTHART: With 30 Americans injured, Wallace called in an air strike on the al-Qa'ida position. A B-52 bomber was brought in.
MARTIN WALLACE: I was lying on my back, watching the B-52 come overhead, and you could see the bomb bay doors open and the bombs as they started to fall. You're just hoping that they're going to be on target and not on your position. When you're dropping things from 30,000 feet and they're not laser-guided then, yeah, there's definitely a recipe for disaster.
ROSS COULTHART: And what happened when they did hit?
MARTIN WALLACE: When they hit, you get the initial shock wave, which moves both you and the earth, and then you get the noise that follows and then all the shrapnel comes sniffling in overhead.
ROSS COULTHART: But even after that, were there still al-Qa'ida fighting? Were there still people shooting at you?
MARTIN WALLACE: Yeah, certainly. I think it took them a little bit to regroup, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, but then they started putting more mortar rounds and small arms fire down into us. I was just thinking of how I'm going to get out of here and how I'm not going to bloody die in this valley.
ROSS COULTHART: Did you have your doubts?
MARTIN WALLACE: Yeah, certainly. I thought we were done for on many occasions during the day, yeah.
ROSS COULTHART: Apache attack helicopters were called in to try and save the men on the ground.
MARTIN WALLACE: The entire hillside basically opened up with small arms fire and that was the last we saw of the Apaches.
ROSS COULTHART: Finally, 18 hours after the battle began, help arrived. Guided by Wallace, the Americans sent in an AC-130 gun ship, allowing helicopters to rescue the men and return them to their base. But Operation Anaconda was far from over.
TROOPER JOHN, SAS: Quite a few of us are Queenslanders and had never seen snow before until we went to Afghanistan. And the novelty wore off after about five minutes.
ROSS COULTHART: On day two, fog left predator surveillance planes all but useless. On a rugged Afghani mountainside, a platoon of US troops were trapped and under attack after their chopper had crashed. From a neighbouring ridge, an SAS squad watched the disaster unfold.
LT GENERAL FRANK HAGENBECK, COALITION COMMANDER: You had to have someone there on the ground that could see and hear and smell and pick up the sense of the battlefield, of what was going on, and we were very much dependent upon the Aussies, certainly in that part of the battlefield.
ROSS COULTHART: Lieutenant General Hagenbeck commanded the coalition forces in Afghanistan.
FRANK HAGENBECK: I would tell you, I would not have wanted to do that operation without the Australian SAS folks on that ridge slide. I mean, they made it happen that day.
ROSS COULTHART: The Australians coordinated the coalition attack and the eventual rescue operation. Seven Americans lost their lives, but the rest were in no doubt why they got out alive.
TROOPER JOHN: It was almost embarrassing to the point where the Americans were, you know, so glad of our help. You know, may go to a meal line at a mess there might be 100 people in front of you, all Americans and all of a sudden they'd step aside, maybe even applaud, push you to the front of the line. I think we were taken a bit aback by it and a bit embarrassed.
ROSS COULTHART: The Australian SAS earned the admiration of the Americans in Afghanistan, but it was in Iraq where their role would be pivotal. With the bulk of the coalition forces advancing from the south, it fell upon the SAS to accept the difficult and dangerous task of helping to secure the west of the country. Iraq's western desert and the SAS have infiltrated the country. As soon as the order to invade was given, these elite Australian troops were among the first to answer the call.
MAJOR PAUL: It came from the PM and also in conjunction with the President of the US. I indicated to the boss that we were ready to go and he said, "You have a green light", and off we went. I replied, "No worries, boss, who dares wins, we'll see you when it's all over."
ROSS COULTHART: We know him only as Major Paul, the man who led 80 SAS troops on their mission to secure key strategic sites in the deserts of western Iraq.
MAJOR PAUL: We were invading a country which hadn't been done since Gallipoli for Australia, and, you know, the adrenaline was very high.
ROSS COULTHART: Within an hour, the SAS were under enemy fire.
CAPTAIN QUENTIN, SAS: They were operating in sports utility vehicles with large machine-guns mounted in the rear tray, and on observing our location, they deployed dismounts, 8-10 in each vehicle, to the left or right of the vehicles and began engaging us with heavy machine-gun fire, small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
ROSS COULTHART: One soldier would later earn a bravery medal using shoulder-launched missiles to destroy Iraqi vehicles.
CAPTAIN QUENTIN: Both sides in this particular instance actually stopped shooting to watch this rocket, this javelin cruise through the air, and that actually engaged a moving vehicle at high speeds, moving away from us and I think that changed the battlefield.
TROOPER JOHN: It was a little bit daunting seeing so many enemy coming towards us, but when we saw how effective our weapons systems were in neutralising their vehicles, and you could actually physically see the shock on the enemy's faces.
ROSS COULTHART: One of the first tasks for the SAS was securing this heavily guarded cement factory, vital for rebuilding Iraq. Mindful of the civilian casualties that would result from an all-out attack, the Australians came up with a simple but ingenious plan.
MAJOR PAUL: We requested that an aircraft, an F-14, come and do a low fly in order to break the sound barrier. The effect of this was a sonic boom, a massive explosion. We actually thought it had detonated other munitions inside the facility. It wasn't the case. It had broken several windows. And the result was that people came running out with their arms up.
ROSS COULTHART: Where did you get that idea from?
MAJOR PAUL: I remember, I think before I joined the army, with the Australian Air Force broke the sound barrier by mistake and broke a lot of greenhouses in SA.
ROSS COULTHART: The SAS would then go on to take the Al Asad Military Air Base, capturing 57 warplanes and finding nearly eight million kilograms of explosives. Within days of crossing the border, the SAS and their coalition counterparts had secured the entire western desert.
FRANK HAGENBECK: The Australian SAS displayed those kinds of things that make them the elite, in my view, of small-unit infantrymen throughout the world. And that's an autonomy, independence, tenacity that they will never ever be defeated.
ROSS COULTHART: Is it a concern in your mind that, because of Australia's high-profile role in essentially an invasion of a Middle Eastern country to topple Saddam Hussein have we exposed ourself more to the possibilities of terrorism on Australian soil, or against Australian citizens overseas?
LT COL RICK, SAS: I'm not in a position to comment on that, but some intelligence person might.
ROSS COULTHART: I suppose it matters to the extent that you're the commanding officer of the regiment that would have to deal with it in the event of a terrorist attack. Is that something that factors into your thinking?
LT COL RICK: We remain prepared to respond to a wide range of scenarios that might threaten Australia's national security and that's our business, that's what we're here to do. We remain highly trained and ready to do that.
ROSS COULTHART: The SAS was victorious in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the war against terror continues and inevitably, our elite Australian troops will face more battles, more battles like Operation Anaconda. The obvious question is who won?
MARTIN WALLACE: Well, with this particular battle, we won. It took us a little bit longer than expected, but in the larger overall global war against terror, I'd say it's still inconclusive and there's a lot of work yet to be done, a lot of unfinished business.