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Authors: Chris Ryan

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BOOK: Land of Fire
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They tell you these things to keep you from panicking. If you understand the risks you can assess them properly. Now I knew that as long as I could get through the hatch and not get dragged down to the sea bed by the weight of four tons of aircraft, I had a good chance of being picked up. So I tried to ignore the dark mist closing in on the edges of my consciousness and nailed on. And all the time I could feel the pressure in my ears growing, as the fuselage sank deeper and deeper.

A minute is a long time when you're down in the darkness without air. And it must have been all of a minute before my hands first felt the edge of the hatchway. By now I was completely disoriented; I had no idea which way up the aircraft was. It might have been sinking on its back, or it might have tumbled in the water and now be plunging nose first.

On my first attempt to pull myself through I got a kick in the face from someone else who had made it out and was striking out for the surface. Strangely this gave me confidence; if he could do it I could too. I was entering a strange, dreamy state of accepting what was happening to me. Somewhere in my head I knew this was another of the symptoms of oxygen deprivation, but it didn't seem important. I pulled myself through the hatch and saw a patch of light overhead. Now I remembered my life vest again. I gave the tag a pull and began to float upwards. I wasn't going to fight any more. I was simply going to let myself be drawn towards the light.

I stopped with a jerk. Something was pulling me back, holding me down. I realised it was my leg; my left boot was caught in the slide of the door. Desperately I twisted and tugged, struggling to free myself, but my strength was ebbing away. I tried to work my foot out of the boot, but it was laced up too tight. Stupid, my brain was telling me stupid to lose your life because of a well-laced boot.

If this is dying, I thought, it's not as hard as I'd imagined it would be. All I had to do was stop struggling and let it take over. It was simple, really. And just as I decided to give myself up, I

felt another hand on my leg. Someone else was coming through the hatch after me and realised what had happened. His hand reached down, caught a hold of my foot and jerked it round, and I felt myself float free. The buoyancy of my life vest took over, and rushed me up towards the light.

My head broke the surface suddenly, and with it the instinct for survival reasserted itself. I dragged in deep breaths. Nothing in my life had ever felt so good. The darkness cleared from my brain. I could make out a ship in the distance. It looked to my eyes like half a mile away, but perhaps in reality it was only a few hundred yards. The water was quite rough, but my life vest was supporting me. I looked round for the others, especially for whoever it was had saved my life. I could see heads bobbing among the waves, but it was too dark to make out faces. I was worried about Andy. Surely he would have made it. I had got so used to thinking of him as indestructible.

There was a noise overhead and a searchlight beam cut through the dying daylight, dazzling my eyes. One of the ships nearby must have put a helicopter up the instant the accident occurred. The winch man must have missed me in the waves because he shifted the beam and I saw him drop down into the water a dozen yards away and return with a dripping figure.

I pulled my knees up to my chest to conserve body warmth and checked my light was showing; I didn't want them to miss me.

By the time my turn finally came I was so numb I could hardly think straight. They winched me up into the helicopter and someone wrapped me in a thermal blanket. It wasn't till we reached the ship that I recovered enough to take in what was happening.

I became aware of Andy, standing over me asking if I was OK. He told me they were two bodies down and still looking. We were lucky that the Sea King's tail had broken off on impact, freeing everyone in the rear. According to eyewitnesses the cause of the crash was a sea bird ingested by the engine air intake.

The missing men must have been unable to free themselves.

One of them was the pilot, the other was Nick. As soon as I heard this news something inside me told me it was Nick's hand that had pulled my foot free. And if I hadn't blocked the exit hatch, he might have survived too.

As soon as we had kitted ourselves out again, the survivors mustered in the Portakabin. Major Clayton stood up and spoke briefly. This had been a bad start but the mission was going ahead. It was not in the tradition of the Regiment to quit. Nevertheless, anyone who wanted to pull out could do so. There were no takers. I glanced at Andy and his face was expressionless. I knew, though, that he would go on doing what he could to look after me. He was a stubborn bastard, and so was I. It ran in the family.

We replaced our kit from the stocks aboard and drew fresh weapons from the armoury. When the replacement Sea King arrived we flew out to the carrier, this time without incident. I couldn't stop thinking about Nick, though, and what his family would have to go through.

CHAPTER SIX

The carrier steamed through the night at high speed without radar. She would close to within 250 miles of the enemy coast, and the helicopter would fly a low-level, circuitous route south to the extreme tip of the continent and Tierra del Fuego. We would then turn north and fly for fifty miles over Chilean territory before making the final course change and head east, crossing the border into Argentina to approach Rio Grande from the north-west. With six men aboard and all their equipment, plus three crew, the helicopter would have only sufficient range to reach the target, land us, then fly as close as possible to the task force before ditching. We were operating on very fine margins.

All night long we plunged on through heavy seas with only the frigate Gazelle for company. The ships were darkened, not a light showing. Down below on Invincible engineers were stripping all surplus equipment from one of her Sea Kings and installing huge bladder tanks in the cabin to give extra range. Anything that was not vital was ripped out, partly to save weight and also because the aircraft would not be returning.

The skipper of the aircraft was around twenty-six and bespectacled; he looked more like an accountant than a pilot. He was already angry at the amount of ammunition and stores we were bringing. With all the weight there were serious doubts we would even make the coast, let alone the border, eighty miles inland. We were so overladen we would have to do a rolling take-off, running the helicopter up the flight deck to generate sufficient speed for lift, like a conventional fixed-wing aircraft. If it failed we would plunge over the end of the deck into the sea and this time go down like a stone. Twice in twelve hours, we thought. Terrific.

We tried to catch some sleep while the ship crashed on across the ocean in the darkness. No one spoke about the crash earlier, but some of the team had the idea that the mission was jinxed. Taffy was still doing his doomster bit. According to him, the mission was all a waste of time and lives, the main assault would never go in. "An entire squadron, fifty guys in two Hercules? It's too big a risk. The Regiment couldn't take that kind of loss." Whenever he spoke like this, Doug would needle him for being gutless and the two of them would keep it up till I was tired of the sound of them.

Most of us figured that even if the main attack didn't go in we could still do a useful job lying up by the airfield and reporting sorties as they left. Our warning would give the defending fighters time to get into position.

I lay in the half-light of the lower flight deck with the sounds of the ship all around, thinking about Nick and how he had saved my life. What could I say to his wife? Andy was a few feet away. Thinking about Jemma and his kids most likely. Hard to imagine going into battle knowing people depended on you. I wished I hadn't had that row with him earlier, and determined to say something before we lifted off. I knew why he was taking care of me. If the positions were reversed I'd probably have acted the same way.

I thought about the girl again, wondering what had happened to her. If she had escaped drowning it would only be for a prison cell aboard another ship. She must have thought she was finished, locked in that cell when the bombs struck. I wondered if she felt she owed me one for pulling her out. Probably not. To her I was just another enemy.

I had finally managed to get an hour or so of sleep. Then at midnight Andy came round checking we all had our kit as we were helping each other with our berg ens He and Tom were carrying the biggest loads. Andy because he had the GPMG -the general-purpose machine-gun. Taffy would be his number two with Guy, the Rupert, as back-up. Torn was our Stinger expert; in addition to the launcher, he had four missiles strapped to his pack. Tom was hugely strong and never minded how much weight was laid on him. Doug was our com ms man and carried the satcom pack.

Guy gave us a little pep talk, saying that the Argy bombers were knocking hell out of the task force and this was a real chance to make a difference, perhaps bring the war to a speedy conclusion, and we climbed aboard the helicopter. It was a hell of a crush inside, among the gurgling fuel tanks, squatting on top of our gear because they'd ripped out the seating, and I could sense that everyone felt nervous as the engines started.

I had done rolling take-offs before, and they're hairy enough on land. On a ship, where you know you're going to run out of space and drop off the end of the flight deck into the deep dark unknown, it's a pisser.

As we stepped off the helicopter gave a terrific lurch and we clutched the straps. The engines were roaring deafeningly, straining under the effort as they fought for altitude. An overheated gearbox or a snapped drive shaft, I thought, and we'd be fucked.

But very slowly we gained height, clawing our way up to 2000 feet, then set a course to the west. At the same time Invincible was turning away from us, steaming at full speed back the way she had come, anxious to put a good distance between her and the coast before dawn. At first light she would launch a strike by two of her Harrier jump jets against Port Stanley. This would have the double effect of damaging the airfield therewith luck taking out some enemy planes and making the Argentines believe that the carrier was patrolling off that sector.

Andy was either on the headset to the pilot, or up checking the map with the navigator, Guy looking over his shoulder. Time passed slowly. Some of us snatched a couple of hours more sleep. Doug was his usual annoying self, needling people, trying to pick a quarrel. He kept talking even when no one could hear what he was saying. I tried to doze, but once an action is under way I find it difficult to switch off. I ran through my kit in my mind, going over where everything was stowed. In an emergency my life might depend on knowing exactly where an item was and being able to lay my hand on it quickly and without fumbling.

My L42 sniper rifle was between my knees. It was a bolt-action weapon based on the Lee-Enfield .303 calibre rifle used in the Second World War, but converted to 7.62 calibre and fitted with a new, heavy barrel and a Schmidt & Bender 6 x 42 telescopic sight. It was very much the product of an earlier generation, but it was a. rugged and serviceable sniping rifle capable, in the right hands, of giving excellent first-shot results at ranges in excess of 800 metres. The ammunition consisted of special Green Spot high-accuracy rounds that I'd individually selected. The gun had a new ten-round box magazine to accommodate rimless ammunition, and the forestock had been cut back over the barrel. The butt had an added cheek-rest, and alterations had been made to the trigger mechanism to give a lighter firing pressure. Barrel and stock were wrapped with camouflage scrim, and I'd added some more over the scope sight.

Once in position we would infiltrate the outskirts of the base and establish an observation post from which to spy out enemy positions. In particular we would have to locate and identify the revetments where the bombers and their missiles were stored. When and if the main assault came in, it would fall to me to take out the anti-aircraft gunners before they had a chance to man their weapons, then to pick off the pilots running for their aircraft.

As soon as the Hercules touched down and lowered their ramps for the Land Rovers to roar out, my task would switch to harassing fire, targeting officers attempting to organise resistance, disrupting enemy efforts to organise a defence, spreading chaos and alarm and maxim ising the potential of the attacking force. When the battle was over, on the way out I would loiter with the rear guard picking off the point men of an advance, taking out machine-guns or other weapons, and making troops reluctant to leave the protection of armoured vehicles. A lot was going to depend on me.

Like the rest of the team I was a fully trained signaller. We also numbered among us two medics and two demolitions experts. SAS teams are always multi-skilled.

In addition to me as sniper, we had Andy's 7.62 general-purpose machine-gun. The GPMG known to us as the 'gimpy' or more simply as 'the gun' was a superb weapon, belt fed, firing 750 rounds a minute to 1000 metres, giving the squad terrific firepower in an emergency. In fact it was so good the Argies were using it too. To keep the gimpy supplied, each member of the squad carried a couple of 200-round belts slung around his neck. All apart from me carried the 203 Ml6 and 40mm grenade launcher combo, and every one of us took a 9mm Browning semi-automatic as a firearm of last resort, plus a black-bladed fighting knife, which doubled as an all-purpose tool.

Fifteen minutes out from the coast, the pilot gave us a shout through the headsets. "Wake up, you people back there. This is where it starts to get hairy."

"Fuck him," mouthed Doug.

We dropped down to low level and were soon skimming the wave tops in the darkness. This was very demanding flying; an instant of misjudgement could have plunged us all into the sea. It was terrifically hot inside the cabin and the turbulence made us all nauseous. I put my head between my hands and stared at the floor and tried to think about something else. Everyone else was doing the same.

BOOK: Land of Fire
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