To his army comrades in Iraq he was known as the Beast of Basra. Others, noting the way that he always seems to be at the centre of the action, call him Bullet Magnet or Mad Mick. To Prince William, who served with him in the Household Cavalry, he is legendary.
Squadron Corporal-Major Mick Flynn is Britain’s most highly decorated frontline soldier. In a career that has spanned four decades and taken him from Northern Ireland to the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, he has experienced some of the fiercest fighting and received two of the highest possible awards for bravery.
Today, as he tells his remarkable personal story for the first time, he is preparing for one last mission. At the age of 50 he is to return to Afghanistan to command an armoured vehicle in a frontline combat role alongside soldiers young enough to be his sons.
On first meeting Major Flynn at the regiment’s Windsor barracks, it is a surprise to find he is a modest, softly spoken man. Well built, yes, and 6ft 1in; someone you wouldn’t seek to provoke, certainly. But not the towering warrior one associates with his deeds. We sit and chat inside a Scimitar light tank like the one he commanded in Iraq and Afghanistan and in which he survived poundings from rockets and machineguns and narrowly escaped annihilation by heavier bombardment.
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The Scimitar, not much bigger than a Range Rover, feels cramped, oldfashioned and tinny. When he goes back he will be in the only slightly sturdier Spartan vehicle. Why, after all he has endured and all the service he has given, would he want to put himself back in harm’s way?
“You don’t lose that feeling of wanting to be a soldier. That’s always inside you,” he says. “I want to go back and do the job. Yes, there is a massive thrill out of doing it. My wife will kill me for saying this: you do get an adrenalin rush, do enjoy the fear.”
There is also “the comradeship, the laughs and the jokes that you have”. And the challenge: “Knowing that you are pitting your wits against an enemy force that mostly is better in that terrain than you normally are.” Major Flynn hopes that his experience will help “bring through” the younger soldiers. “Touch wood we will have nobody killed or injured. But you go away with the feeling that you may well have injuries or you may well have fatalities.”
The Bullet Magnet nickname is a misnomer. Although he has an uncanny ability to attract hostile fire, he has never been hit. His worst wound came from a nightclub stabbing in Cyprus. “They haven’t got me yet and I have no intention of them getting me ever,” he says. “This will probably be my last tour and hopefully I will come back in one piece, but you never know.”
Mick Flynn was born on a council estate in Neath, Glamorgan. As a teenager he started burgling. “If I hadn’t joined the Army I would have ended up in prison,” he says.
His early career survived various fights and a 28-day spell in jail after he went Awol in the US. Being caught in an ambush in Northern Ireland and seeing “the grey stuff and blood leaking from [the] shattered skull” of a mate was “a massive wake-up call”.
In the Falklands he killed for the first time. “We laid in to these people who I don’t think realised we were there. Took them out. Bits of body. They were no longer there.” He felt no guilt. “They were the enemy and it was what I was being paid to do. It was my job.”
Major Flynn says that he always takes extreme care to avoid civilian casualties — something he wouldn’t do “if I was this cold-hearted killer that people think soldiers are”. He adds: “Some people think we are just out to mow down as many people as we can. We are not like that.”
He did tours in Iraq in the Gulf War and in Bosnia. In 1993, after 15 years, he left the Army and ran a shop. But he became bored and when he was asked to return in 2001 he did, aged 41.
In Iraq in 2003 he won the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross (CGC), second only to the Victoria Cross, for holding enemy tanks at bay while wounded men were evacuated from two vehicles hit by US fighter planes in the “friendly fire” incident that killed the British soldier Matty Hull.
Major Flynn describes in his book how he found his three-man “thimble-sized” Scimitar ahead of the rest of their brigade and played an audacious game of cat and mouse with Iraqi tanks, hitting some and directing attacks on others. The citation for his CGC said that he fought over seven days “with no consideration for his own safety”. In his advanced position he is also believed to have been responsible for directing more artillery rounds on to enemy targets than anybody else in the Iraq war.
He has completed two tours in Afghanistan. During the first, again commanding a Scimitar, he rescued a horribly wounded comrade while under heavy fire. For this derring-do he was offered a second CGC, but because he already had one opted to receive the lesser Military Cross instead. He is shy about talking about the medals.
At his second investiture the Queen was keen to talk. “She asked how her grandsons were performing. I said they were holding their own very well, got a lot of respect within the regiment. The pair of them are very good.” Prince William, who sometimes socialised with Major Flynn when he was based at Windsor with the Household Cavalry, including at a party at a working men’s club, read the draft of his book and agreed to write the foreword.
The book provides a soldier’s-eye view into the gun barrels of the enemy. Major Flynn recounts how just before the engagement in Iraq in which Lance Corporal Hull died, the young soldier came to him and asked what it was like to be fired on. “I’m bricking it,” the officer replied. “Anyone who tells you they’re not scared is a liar — or daft in the head.”
Sitting in the officers’ mess in Windsor, Major Flynn says that on the battlefield the fear is there “all the time, somewhere in your brain. But once they attack, if you don’t deal with it you are going to die. Get on and try to kill them or at least save yourself and inflict as much damage to the enemy. Once you get over the initial shock — ‘they tried to blow me up!’ — you’ve got to fight them. If you don’t win you have lost. I’m not calm, cool and collected. But I’m not over-the-top excitable.”
In the midst of battle he finds a “cold-blooded” anger that leaves his mind clear. “A red mist will haze you and you will not see the full 360. It doesn’t matter how hard you think you are, one bullet will stop you dead. You have got to be like a boxer and think and fight at the same time.”
It is also important to possess “a little bit of arrogance”, he says. “If you think they are totally better then you would just hide in your bunk. You have got to think to yourself: I can beat them.”
He loves the “massive” adrenalin high of battle. But aren’t his nerves shredded? “After the battle all life is sucked out of you and you feel shattered,” he says. But, he adds almost scornfully: “No! It doesn’t take a toll on your nerves.”
As soon as there is a lull in hostilities, to the astonishment and occasional anger of those alongside him, he orders a junior soldier to put the kettle on. “I love a cup of tea,” he chuckles.
His wife, Shelley, who also served in the Army and with whom he has two sons and a daughter, is concerned about the long-term effect on his mental health.
“She thinks I’ll have [problems] later on. She thinks I should be feeling not right about comrades dying and not be able to handle it. The way I deal with it, once the person is dead they are no longer a person. They have moved on. Save the guy who is still breathing, that’s the way I deal with it.
“Maybe there will be a time when I will sit back and think, ‘How did A. Smith die?’ And I will have to deal with it then. So far I haven’t come to that situation. It would have happened to me by now, surely?”
The Government has been slow on supplying equipment for the job in Afghanistan, he says, but “it has got a lot better. They are trying their best to get us what we need but we are the poor cousins to the Americans. Their equipment seems to be slightly better. We struggle with spares to run our fleet, to do the training.”
He is sterner in his criticism of what he sees as a lack of clarity from officials about injuries. “They don’t report how many people are getting injured. We feel let down by that, the soldiers. They report ‘another man has been lost in Afghanistan’. They don’t say a man killed in Afghanistan and four of his mates have lost legs or arms or eyesight or half of his head has been removed. They are selling us short a bit.”
Major Flynn’s 22 years were up a couple of years ago but under new rules he was able to stay in the Forces for another five years. However, it is highly unusual for a 50-year-old to be commanding an armoured vehicle in combat. He says he is somewhat of a test case. “I have lots of paperwork. I’m a bit under the microscope.”
Physically he feels comfortable and prepared. “Tomorrow I’ll do an eight-mile run with 50lb on my back, with a weapon and a helmet. If I didn’t think I was up to this tour I wouldn’t be going on it.”
For him, this tour, like all the others before, will be a chance to test himself. “You don’t know how you are going to react to each ambush or bomb going off. Each is different to the one before and you don’t act the same.”
He finds going into battle “interesting”. It is a quite remarkable ethic and hard for an outsider to understand. Major Flynn says it is difficult for anyone who hasn’t spent time with the Army to comprehend the job and why he enjoys it.
In the autumn, as he is heading to Afghanistan, the eldest of his two sons, Liam, 22, will go to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. When his son passes out, “I will salute him — once — and be very proud”.
It is conceivable that they could end in the same regiment. That is not uncommon in families of officers. But, he asks: “Has there ever been an officer as the son and a non-commissioned officer as a father? I think that would be unique.”
Both his boys are bigger than him, “built like brick s*** houses”. But when they are “messing about” at home there is still only one winner. With Squadron Corporal-Major Flynn, experience and technique count for everything. “I still bring them down.”
Click to view image: 'Mick Flynn'
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