Apache Hero’s DFC Outstanding Story
The official citation for the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross remains on the MOD restricted list, however extracts and the excellent book “Apache” by Ed Macy a fellow Apache pilot who participated in the rescue operation, gives an unprecedented insight and detailed account of the mission.
Captain Darren “Tom” O’Malley was serving with 656 Squadron Army Air Corps, at that time with the rank of Warrant Officer 1st Class. In November 2006 he returned to Afghanistan for his second tour on the Apache Attack Helicopters, at the time although holding the rank of Warrant Officer he was the most senior Pilot on the unit with the most air hours on the type, he was also the Squadron’s Qualified Helicopter Instructor and one of the few men on the Squadron qualified to sit in both seats. This was a far cry for the start of his military career when he joined as a Driver for the Royal Corps of Transport, serving in Northern Ireland with that unit.
656 Squadrons deployment to Afghanistan coincided with that of the 45 Commando Royal Marines and on the 15th January 2007 the “Royals” were deployed on Operation Glacier 2 an attack on Jugroom Fort in Garmsir in Southern Helmand, this being a Taliban stronghold. The Marines “Zulu” Company” were to be covered by two of the Squadron Apache’s. Tom was serving back at the units base at Camp Bastion with the Stand By Flight. The late deployment of the Royals into the attack, ate into the fuel of the two covering Apaches, which greatly reduced their time over target. Despite a heavy bombardment, the Taliban put up stiff resistance, forcing the Marines to withdraw and with fuel and ammunition running low on the tasked Apaches, Tom’s flight (2 Apaches) was scrambled, to take over air support, while the original Apaches returned for refuelling and rearming.
In the second Apache was Warrant Officer Ed Macy, who would go on to write the best seller “Apache” giving a full detailed account of the operation. Tom was flying in the front seat of call sign Ugly 50 and was mission Commander. Macy’s Apache call sign Ugly 51. As the pair flew to Jugroom they received a situation report and it was then they got an idea how things had deteriorated with a group of five Marines missing in Action. As they neared Tom was updated that one One Marine was missing Lance Corporal Mathew Ford. When on target it was the mission priority to locate Ford, assess if he was alive and protect him.
Ugly 51 spotted a body which was identified as Ford, he was giving off a heat signature and was therefore alive, the Apaches now had to protect him. An order came through the radio from the Commanding Officer let no Taliban near Ford, a ground rescue operation is under preparation. So began the long task of protection against constant Taliban fire from both machine guns and rocket propelled grenades, with ammunition running out and fuel low, there was no evidence of a ground rescue.
Tom then came up with the plan to strap two Marines to the side of each Apache fly towards the fort, land, rescue Ford by slinging him under an Apache, whilst the Marines resumed their position on the side. The daring plan was tentatively authorised by the Squadron CO but flatly refused by the Royals. It was only when their Colonel was patched in on the radio that the Helicopter crews realised the CO was unaware of their rescue plan and he gave the go ahead.
This was the first time that British or American Apaches had flown with men strapped to the side, it was a procedure only to be used in the event of rescuing fellow pilots from a crashed Apache behind enemy lines. Following a bombardment, and with top cover provided by the original Apache Flight, Ugly 50 & 51 went in problems became apparent straight away, Tom in the front helicopter was blinded by dust, blown up by the rotor blades and the landing field was too small for both helicopters, Tom’s Apache had no choice to lift slightly go through the damaged Fort wall and land within the compound, with Ugly 51 landing just outside the wall. Both choppers down the Marines disembarked, then both back seat pilots, leaving Tom alone with the Taliban firing everything they could to disable the Apache. Tom fired with his cannon and directed air support from the covering Apaches.
Time on ground was estimated at 2 1/2 minutes, by three Tom was getting worried, the dust cover was settling and visibility was improving for him and the Taliban, he had to make the decision to stay or lift off and come back, but that would make it difficult for his team to refined the helicopter. He waited. After about 4 minutes he heard from Ugly 51 that Ford was secure and they were lifting, seconds later his own Marines and fellow pilot returned and Tom lifted out of the Compound to the hover and then fired to suppress incoming fire. The two Apaches then re-crossed the lines and Ford was handed over to the Medical team, who fought unsuccessfully to save his life. The closing paragraph of the DFC citation states:
“This action was courageous and skilful flying in the extreme. If the Apache had become disabled by enemy fire then he and his fellow rescuers would have had to withdraw from the fort in broad daylight, across a wide river in open terrain, away from a position infested with enemy, before reaching safety. Through his selfless example and leadership, he inspired a hastily drawn together team to recover Lance Corporal Ford.
Without O’Malley’s intervention, the alternative plan which involved company level ground assault would have placed far more lives at risk. His actions were an outstanding demonstration of valour, selfless example and, above all, leadership in the most challenging flying circumstances. For his ingenuity, clarity of thought and determination to recover Lance Corporal Ford, in the face of a lethal and determined enemy, with a calculated disregard for his own safety, O’Malley deserves formal recognition.”
All four pilots received awards for the action, the two who remained with their Apaches the Distinguished Flying Cross, the two pilots who helped with dragging Ford to the helicopter the Military Cross.
When Tom and fellow pilots landed to brief the rescue party an RAF photographer was present and recorded the moment, Tom can be clearly seen sitting in the front seat, wearing the sand flying suit included in the lot. To the side of the Apache Sergeant Hearn one of his “Passengers” can be clearly seen, awaiting take off. The MOD released camera footage of the flight in, showing Tom’s Apache approaching Jugroom and Youtube has a number of original film clips of the rescue.
It was later discovered that Lance Corporal Mathew Ford had received two bullet wounds, one to the arm and chest, the conclusion was, that this was from friendly fire at the start of the attack. Although serious, it was a later wound believed to have been a ricochet from a Taliban bullet to the head that mortally wounded him.
This was not only an outstanding act of Bravery, but proved to the British Armed Forces and the world that we look after our own, and leave nobody behind, whatever the cost may be.
Captain Darren “Tom” O’Malley DFC., was born in a mining village south of Doncaster in 1967, he began his military life as a cadet before joining the Territorial Army upon leaving school and ultimately the regular Army in 1986, joining the Royal Corps of Transport. He was awarded the best recruit and the best shot trophies and was posted as a driver to 3 Armoured Division Transport Regiment in Duisburg, Germany.
The unit was fixed in its role to supply 3 Armoured Division with combat supplies in the event that the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Germany during the Cold War.
In 1987 his squadron was warned for a operational tour in Belfast where he served as a “Pig” armoured car driver located at North Howard Street Mill, Belfast.
It was a particularly violent period, following the deaths of 3 IRA terrorists in Gibraltar, Belfast became the focal point of numerous notorious incidents including the violent killing of two Royal Signals Corporals (Howes and Jones), the Milltown Cemetery killings by the Loyalist terrorist Michael Stone to name but two.
Following that tour Tom was promoted to Lance Corporall and was posted to the British Army Training Unit Suffield in Alberta Canada, where (very frustratingly) he sat out the first gulf war, during that time he successfully applied for Army Pilot training which he completed in 1992 and was posted back to 3 Regiment Army Air Corps, Seost as a Gazelle pilot as a full corporal, quickly volunteering to return to Northern Ireland for a second tour.
During the post-cold war period 3 Regiment AAC relocated to Wattisham, Suffolk and Tom again found himself on his third operational tour of Northern Ireland having being promoted to Sergeant and qualified as an aircraft commander. On his return he trained to fly the Lynx AH7 anti-tank helicopter and was deployed straight to Bosnia in 1997.
On return to the UK Tom successfully applied for Instructor duties and served at the School of Army Aviation, instructing pilots to fly the Lynx helicopter and promoted to Staff Sergeant.
In 2001 Tom was selected for training on the AH-64 Apache and moved to Fort Rucker, Alabama in 2002, upon his return formed part of the British Army Attack Helicopter Training Unit which became 673 (AH Training) Sqn, and was promoted to Warrant Officer Class 2. Selected as the Squadron Qualified Helicopter Instructor and promoted to Warrant Officer Class 1 for 656 Squadron Army Air Corps the first operational Apache Squadron, proving the aircraft’s operational worth on exercise with 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade, training to operate the Apache from and to the decks of HMS Ocean.
More training exercises including a live firing training camp at Thumrait Airfield, Oman; before deploying to Afghanistan with 16 Brigade in 2006. The deployment was challenging in the inhospitable summer of the Afghan desert, working out of, the then remote and austere Camp Bastion, supporting 3 Para Battle Group under Command of Colonel Stuart Tootle and Brigadier Ed Butler, time and again called to provide intimate close in fire support at insurgent hotbeds at Musa-Qala, Now Zad, Kajaki Dam and Sangin.
After a short break back in England, 656 Sqn again deployed to Helmand with 3 Brigade later that year, a more prepared Taliban awaited, having suffered heavy losses during the summer they had become wise to the strengths of the British Army and began to change their tactics, which, along with their tenacity made the Taliban a formidable adversary, the operational tempo kept rising and the Squadron fired 100 Hellfire missiles in 4 months along with tens of thousands of 30 mm ammunition.
Upon returning to England Tom commissioned in 2007 and moved to 4 Regiment Army Air Corps at Wattisham as the Deputy Regimental Qualified Helicopter Instructor and deployed to Afghanistan a further three times, five tours in total before moving to Middle Wallop in 2011.
Tom was posted to 667 (Development and Trials) Squadron Army Air Corps where his wealth of flying experience was capitalised upon during numerous flying trials for the Joint Helicopter Command, flying both Lynx AH7 and Apache.
Tom resigned his commission in 2013 after 27 years service to take up a post as a civilian flying instructor back at 673 Sqn, teaching the next generations of Apache pilots for the British Army.
Ed Macy MC Ugly Five One has a few books on Amazon:
Article Credit: Bosleys
Photo Credits: MoD