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Authors: Chris Ryan

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BOOK: Land of Fire
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At least, that was the rumour. Officially we had been told nothing, but three members of the squadron who had been on Invincible reported seeing a Sea King being stripped out and fitted with ultra-long-range fuel tanks. Andy knew more, but he wasn't telling. I already knew he didn't want me along.

Either way it was clear we would be going into action soon.

We were in our bunk room on the assault ship with the pipes gurgling overhead, busy shaking out our equipment, checking batteries on the night sights and missiles, bugging Cyril the quartermaster for more grenades and pistols to replace a bunch of weapons that had gone missing. Some of our arctic clothing had been lost and no one knew how it was to be replaced. The good news was that the squadron had received a consignment of the coveted 203 from America, the so-called 'over and under' Armalite with a grenade launcher slotted underneath the rifle barrel. We had been screaming for these for over a year, and they were like gold. Their sudden arrival was an indication of the importance attached to this mission.

"How many Claymores?" Tom, the Fijian, asked Cyril. Claymores were American anti-personnel mines that could be deployed quickly to discourage pursuit. "One each," Cyril told him. Cyril was a small, curly-haired sergeant who had damaged a leg on an op over the Norwegian border into Russia at the height of the Cold War and been relegated to light duties.

Taffy was our junior sergeant and doom merchant. "There's a full battalion of Argy marines guarding that airfield, so I hear."

"Fuck them," Tom told him happily. "I faced more than that in Oman."

"Yeah, but they were rag-heads," Doug put in with a jeer. Tom was a legend in his own right in the regiment for the time he had defended the base at Merbak from an attack by thousands of rebels. He had ended up working a 25lb howitzer alone, firing it at point-blank range. By the time reinforcements arrived he had been wounded in every limb and was still firing.

"Tom's seen more action than you ever will," I told Doug.

"Yeah?" he said. "So how come the two of you tried to miss the flight out then? No stomach for it?"

Tom didn't rise to Doug's baiting though. He was so good-natured he was next to impossible to needle. You'd have to push him to the limit to get him riled but then it was hard to cool him down.

It seemed to be accepted that I was not to be a part of this mission. Andy had always done his best to look after me in training, and found it hard to stop now. But I hated being singled out and did my utmost to avoid it. The other guys knew this perfectly well.

I was an afterthought, fifteen years younger than Andy. Our father had died when I was ten, and Andy substituted himself in my upbringing. He was determined from the start that I should make something of my life and spent the little bit of capital my father left putting me through private school, an advantage he had never had. He was furious when I signed on for the army. He said he had hoped I would go to university. I explained that I wanted to live life, not read about it. There was another row when I applied to join the SAS. The least I could do, he thought, was get a commission and become an officer. He said it was unfair on our mother to have both her sons at risk.

Andy arrived with Guy, the Rupert. They had come to give us our briefing. We locked the door and settled down on the bunks to hear what they had to say. Guy was typical of the Ruperts we got a big, tall rugby player who'd been promoted up to captain from lieutenant on joining the Regiment. Ruperts normally serve two-year hitches and then go back to their units, taking their new skills, if any, back with them.

Guy started off. "Shall I give the orders?"

"No," Andy told him shortly. "I'm in charge. You're just a spare gun."

Guy's jaw dropped. It's a big culture shock for young officers to come into the SAS and find they are a lot less important than an experienced

NCO.

Before Guy could speak Andy went on: "You sit there by Mark. The two of you should have plenty to talk about." This was supposed to remind the others I had been to private school. I shifted up to make room on the bunk for him. Doug squeezed in on the other side. Opposite us were Tom and Taffy, with Andy on the outside nearest the door.

"It's an OP job," Andy said. An OP was an observation post, holing up somewhere, watching and reporting back. It was a task we practised often.

"Where?" Taffy asked.

"The Argentine mainland, Tierra del Fuego," Andy answered.

So the rumours were true. This meant a big increase in the scope of the fighting. Until now the hostilities were supposedly limited to a 200-mile exclusion zone around the islands.

"The Argy air force is sinking our ships faster than we can replace them," Andy went on, 'and the Navy is shit worried." He looked at the three of us who'd been on the Northland. We didn't need reminding what it was like to be bombed. "Our target is the big airbase at Rio Grande. We infiltrate by helicopter under cover of darkness, set up an OP, and observe and report enemy aircraft movements: time out, course and direction, numbers and weapon loads. The usual kind of thing. Fleet also wants to know how many make it back so they can estimate the attrition rate of the de fences

"How long do we stay?" Taffy wanted to know. Taff always got nervous before a mission.

"Until the war ends, stupid," Tom retorted in his thick accent. Tom wasn't worried one bit by the prospect of landing in the middle of enemy territory. The longer the better, so far as he was concerned. He was genuinely without fear.

Now Doug was giving Guy a hard time, shouldering him off the edge of the bunk. "You've got balls to say you're in charge, when this is your first mission." His mean little eyes squinty with amusement. Doug loved picking on people, and he knew Guy's dignity as an officer wouldn't let him fight back.

"What about exfil?" I chipped in.

Andy gave me a hard look. It said, you aren't going on this trip, little brother, so why ask? Eventually he said, "That's still to be decided. It depends what we find out. They may send the helicopter back or a submarine. If necessary we can always tab out for the Chilean border, fifty miles west."

"What's the country like?" Taffy wanted to know. He was our Stinger missile operator and would be carrying one of the biggest loads.

"Pampas and moorland mainly." Andy grinned. "Just think the Brecon Beacons in winter and you'll know what to expect."

"Shit!" someone said and there was a general groan. The Brecon Beacons in Wales were our regular training ground. Soldiers had died out there of hypothermia and exhaustion.

Andy took us back to specifics. The helicopter would drop the patrol off north-west of the base. It would work its way up to the perimeter during darkness and establish a lying-up point with a forward OP. The OP would have the main runway under constant surveillance.

"Taffy, you'll be on the gimpy with him." He jerked his head at Guy. "Doug, you'll carry the signal kit."

I waited. Then, That it?" I said. "What about Tom and me?"

Andy shook his head. "I told the OC we could do this with just the four of us."

Anger shot through me in a hot rush. "Fuck you!" I told him. "You can't run a proper OP on enemy ground with just four men."

Andy smiled at me grimly. "That's the decision. You'll just have to lump it."

Unexpectedly Doug backed me up. "Why not take Mark instead of the Rupert? What's the use of an officer on a mission?"

"Because we need him to sign the claims cheque for equipment," Andy said, and Doug grinned at the joke.

All this was making me madder than ever. I jumped up with my fists balled. "You bastard!" I screamed in Andy's face. "You treat me like a kid because you're scared I'm better than you."

Andy was on his feet in an instant. "Let's see you try it then, little brother." We glared at one another, hatred flushing our faces. I was taller than Andy but he had the weight. I was quicker though, with a longer reach, and if I could get the first blow in ... It was just like the start of all the fights we'd had as kids, when he would thump me for daring to defy him.

But Guy shouldered his way between us. "Knock it off," he snapped, 'the pair of you. This is a briefing. It's no time for stupid squabbling."

Andy's eyes were hard with rage. But Guy was right. This was no time for a fight and the CO would be pissed off if he got to hear of it. With an effort Andy relaxed his fists. "You do as you're told, boy," he spat between clenched teeth. "You had your fun today. Now it's someone else's turn."

I turned away and looked at Tom, sitting quietly on his bunk. He was the best man in the squad, and everyone knew it. "You're crazy leaving Tom out because you're so fucking jealous you can't bring yourself to take me along. If you won't see reason, I'll go to the OC myself," I shouted, storming out.

"That's right," Andy jeered after me. "And while you're at it, put in for a commission, why don't you?"

Up on the deck I breathed in the cold air, shaking with anger and humiliation. It was as though Andy was determined to frustrate my attempts to prove myself a soldier and a member of the Regiment. He wanted to keep me always in his shadow.

Carrying my grievance to the OC was an empty threat, and we both knew it. No officer would override the decision of a senior NCO in charge of a patrol on selection. Andy had chosen his three team members to accompany him, and that was that. As far as he was concerned I could spend the war kicking my heels.

I saw the four of them trooping up the stairs, making their way aft to the Portakabin for the OC's briefing. Fuck them, I thought. In my anger I was hoping they'd all get cut up by the Argies and serve them bloody right. Tom and I would stay behind and get drunk. That was something we were good at.

Tom was unfazed at being left behind. "There'll be plenty more battles," he observed. He'd scar fed us a can of lager each from the mess, and we cracked them open. I took a deep slug and sat back, feeling my anger slowly ebb away. I envied Tom his placid outlook. He hadn't much education but he never let it worry him. He just took life as it came, one day at a time. He had done a lot of fighting but he would probably never make better than corporal and he was quite content with that. He lived simply. In his quarters in Hereford there was no furniture; his family sat around on the floor watching television and drinking beer, and they were happy too. I wished I could be more like him.

We had just finished and were crumpling our cans when Taffy stuck his head round the door. "Change of plan," he grinned. "The OC wants you in the cabin pronto. They're upping the team to six and you buggers are coming with us."

CHAPTER FOUR

The OC's office wasn't much larger than our bunk room. It had no windows and there was a permanent guard on the door. Major Clayton's regimental nickname was Claymore, and he was one tough-looking bastard, with pouched eyes and a reputation as a hard drinker. His junior officers used to take it in turns to sit up, at nights, keeping him company, and he could drink any of them under the table.

I was glad Andy had a pissed-off look He'd been made to eat his own words, and serve him right.

I took my seat, feeling completely keyed up. This operation must be important, I reckoned, for the OCto override the decision of a senior

NCO.

With the door was locked behind us again, Claymore launched into his briefing. The objective was to destroy the Argentine bomber capability. There were particular fears over the Exocet AM-39 air-launched missiles, which were evading our most modern de fences "If the Argies should succeed in sinking either of the aircraft carriers, Hermes or Invincible, then the task force would no longer have an air defence worth the name. Effectively the war would be lost. One missile hit is all it takes."

That sobered us considerably. With more than 2000 troops ashore we had pretty much assumed the war was as good as won and here was a senior officer telling us we were up shit creek.

"According to intelligence," Claymore continued, scowling at us, 'the Argies have only a handful of missiles left, and no more than five of the Dassault Super Etendard bombers capable of launching them. They're doing their best to buy replacements on the world market and our agents are attempting to block them, but that's another story. The point is each of those missiles is sufficient to sink a ship. The threat has to be neutralised somehow. And that's our job."

At a sign from him, the operations officer, a gaunt-faced major in his thirties, uncovered a map of the southern tip of the South American continent. "Now, we believe the bombers and their missiles to be currently stationed at Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego, an island which as you can see belongs partly to Argentina and partly to Chile. Rio Grande is approximately 350 miles distant from Port Stanley, so the bombers can make the round trip with air refuelling."

He paused to let this sink in, then continued. "The decision has been taken that the SAS should mount an assault on the base with the objective of destroying the bombers and missiles."

Tapping the map with his pointer, he proceeded to expand on the plan. "D Squadron is currently embarking for Ascension Island. There the squadron will transfer to a pair of C-130 transports. They will fly in at low level below the radar net, and approach the base from the north-west to make a surprise landing on the main runway."

As we listened, amazed, he explained how the planes would lower their tail ramps and, before the defenders had time to react, the SAS would race out from the aircraft in their heavily armed Land Rovers. "Troops One, Two and Three will fan out across the base to attack the aircraft in their revetments, while Troop Four will storm the officers' mess and shoot down the pilots and crews found there."

I sat up, electrified. Infiltrating an OP into enemy territory to report back on aircraft movements was one thing the Argies might well anticipate some such move on our part. But a full blown attack at squadron strength was an enormously ambitious plan. It was a classic mission, the kind that had made the Regiment's reputation in the Second World War. If successful it would be a huge blow against the Argentines and quite possibly end the war.

BOOK: Land of Fire
11.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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