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Authors: Chris Ryan

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BOOK: Land of Fire
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Taffy was the first one to go. He just opened his mouth and let everything out. He was sitting right opposite me and the moment I heard him and caught a whiff of his vomit, it was enough to set me off. I coughed up my guts between my feet, trying to keep it away from the berg ens There was a narrow trough running the length of the cabin deck, and with every pitch of the aircraft a greasy tide of vomit lurched from end to end. Very soon the entire squad was joining in, puking away like a bunch of kids at a school treat. It was a relief when Andy told us we'd reached Chilean airspace and could relax a little.

For thirty minutes we headed across Tierra del Fuego, then turned north, flying just inside the border. The Chileans were supposed to be friendly, but it was always possible they might fire on an unidentified aircraft at night. We flew over isolated clusters of lights and occasional tongues of flame that Guy told us were gas jets being flared off from oilfields. When we passed Vicuan and drew level with Rio Grande, the pilot announced that we were heading into enemy territory.

Around twenty miles from the coast, the pilot came over the intercom again. He sounded tense. "Range to drop zone, sixteen miles."

"Shit!" came the co-pilot's voice at the same moment. "That's a search radar just swept over us."

"Lock on?"

"Negative so far."

We could hear the clicking of the threat-warning receiver up in the cockpit as the beam from the Argentine missile battery passed overhead. "Get down!" I wanted to shout. But the pilot needed no urging. We dropped as low as we dared, feeling our way between the hills. Everyone was tense. This was the point of maximum danger. If an enemy night fighter or missile battery locked on to us we wouldn't stand a chance.

We crouched, sweating in the gloom of the cabin, and suddenly the clicking turned to a continuous high-pitched whine.

"Lock on! Lock on!" came the cry from the flight deck.

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" the pilot screamed. Somewhere out there in the darkness an X-band fire control radar had fixed on our return signal. I could imagine the launch crews going through their countdown procedure.

Within thirty seconds a SAM could be blasting towards us.

We felt the helicopter jink violently to starboard the pilot was turning away from the signal, trying to put distance between us. There was a snapping of switches as the navigator engaged the ECM jammers. Please God, I prayed, let us be outside missile range. Seconds ticked by. Everyone was sweating as we waited for the radar operator to call out that a missile was tracking us. I lifted the edge of a blackout blind. The sky outside was pitch black. No sign of a missile. We were moving parallel with the coast. It was just possible the radar had mistaken us for an Argentine machine on patrol.

After another two or three minutes the pilot came on the air again. "I can see flares!"

"What direction, for Christ's sake?" Andy shouted back.

"South, about five clicks ... They're gone now. No, there's another. They know we're here. What d'you want to do?" He sounded close to panic.

Guy came back and spoke to Andy. Had the mission been compromised or not?

"We have to abort now, damn it!" the pilot was shouting. "If the Argies reckon we're out here they'll scramble fighters to shoot us down."

Andy told Guy, "I reckon the pilot's shitting his pants at the thought of ditching in the sea."

This was true, but I didn't blame the crew for wanting a way out from what would be almost certain death. If we aborted now they probably had just enough fuel to fly to neutral Chile, land the helicopter and turn themselves in.

"We've come this far," Andy said. "I'm not bottling out without taking a crack at the mission."

The seconds were ticking by. We were eating into precious fuel. Guy was hesitating in two minds over whether to abort or continue. If he delayed much longer we wouldn't have any choice.

Exasperated, Andy pushed past him to the hatch and swung himself up on to the flight deck. "Listen, you gutless bastards," we heard him shout. "Get us back to the drop point. After that you can do what you like."

We listened anxiously to the radar operator, but the signal to the south had faded out. There were no more flares. It must have been a nervous sentry on the base.

Andy crouched by the navigator, plotting a course to the landing point. We planned to set down near an isolated estancia three kilometres to the west of the air base. It was only a couple of minutes away, so everyone started getting their gear together.

"OK, this is it," the pilot shouted into the headsets. "Touch down in one minute. I'll give you exactly thirty seconds to get your gear out before I lift off again."

CHAPTER SEVEN

It was 5.05am and still pitch dark as we settled in to land. The helicopter touched down in a cloud of dust. Taffy was first out, followed by Tom and then me. We spread out in a rapid circle around the aircraft, covering all the arcs, weapons at the ready. Taffy made a sweep with his night-vision goggles. "All clear," he announced. We were in the centre of a shallow bowl surrounded by steep hills. There appeared to be no trees, only tussock grass and some kind of prickly bush. There was a dusting of snow on the ground. After the aircraft it was bitterly cold. My nausea vanished as I filled my lungs with fresh air.

We began rapidly passing out the berg ens while the Sea King sat there, motors running and rotors spinning, ready to lift off at a moment's notice. It was vital to get the helicopter unloaded and safely away before its presence was detected.

"Get a fucking move on, can't you?" Doug hissed at me as I fumbled a pack.

"Up yours," I told him, heaving the 501b bergen on to Taffy. After the anxieties of the trip it was a relief to have our feet on the ground and be active. The mission was on schedule and we were confident we could pull it off. Our map would guide us to the edge of the airbase. We would set ourselves up an OP and be ready to play our part when D Squadron hit the place in two or three days' time.

We were just removing the last of our kit when a blaze of light filled the sky to the east of us, the direction of the airbase. Another flare. Instantly we froze, expecting shots from the darkness. Had we walked into a trap? Was it the signal for an attack?

The Sea King pilot didn't hesitate a second. He yanked on the collective lever and pulled maximum power. The helicopter rocketed up into the air with the navigator clinging on to the open hatch. Doug, who was nearest, was knocked ofF his feet by the rotor wash. He jumped up swearing. "Bloody gutless crabs!" Actually they were Navy aircrew but to Doug they were still fliers.

From the sound of the engines they were heading back westwards. They had decided to try to make for the Chilean border.

As officer, Guy had to make a quick decision. The helicopter was less than a mile away, still within radio range. Should he summon it back to evacuate us, aborting the mission? This was the last chance. Was he going to bug out for Chile or were we going to grit our teeth and stay? Not for the first time, I felt glad I wasn't an officer. Sometimes it calls for more courage to call a mission off than it does to stay.

Andy began arguing fiercely. "These are raw troops," he was saying, punching his fist into his palm. "Conscripts. They get jumpy at night and fire at shadows. They set off flares to chase away the dark, like frightened kids. They are no threat to us."

Guy was unhappy. "They picked us up on radar. They got a lock on for God's sake. They must be aware there was a helicopter out here. They've tracked it across the border on their screens, seen it land. They'll search until they find us."

I was not so sure of that. The SAS were trained in concealment. We could go to ground like crabs in a whore's bush.

"If they do take us it'll blow the main operation wide open," said Guy.

"Without us on the ground the assault would have to be aborted anyway," Andy answered back. "It would be suicide for them to go in blind. They know that."

We peered into the darkness with the night-vision goggles. After the blasting noise we had all been subjected to in the helicopter it seemed astonishingly quiet. I was aware of the wind and the rustle of the grass. It was bitterly cold too.

If we had been spotted the patrols would be already setting out; there was no time to hang about, it was stay or go.

As if determined to make up our minds for us, another flare arched up, much closer this time, bathing the sky in a lurid glow.

It was enough for Guy. "Doug, get on the radio. Contact the helicopter and have them return to pull us out." To Andy he said, "I'm sorry, it's no use. We have to abort."

Doug whipped out the VHP band 320 radio with its V-shaped aerial and started transmitting. According to the mission plan the helicopter was supposed to remain on station for fifteen minutes after dropping us off, ready to return for extraction or repositioning if we should need it. Doug tried two different frequencies before turning back to Guy.

"Can't raise them on the com ms

"Keep trying," Guy told him. "They may be shadowed by the hills." If the helicopter was hugging the ground to avoid radar it might well be out of radio reach.

"Bloody Argies," Taffy swore. "Bloody Navy. Fuck the lot of them. All this way for nothing."

All of us felt a bitter disappointment. The mission had failed before it had started. No one, though, questioned Guy's decision.

Doug flung the transmitter down. "Fuck all!"

"Try the satcom," Andy told him. "Send the abort code. Say we need extraction and we've lost contact with the helicopter."

"Maybe they'll change their minds and send in another Sea King to lift us out," suggested Tom as Doug snapped shut the 320 set and unfurled the satcom dish. This transmitter was more risky because the satellite communications system made a bigger splash-out, and its transmission was easier to detect, but it was imperative that we let Hereford know as soon as possible that the mission had aborted. The coded message was recorded and sent in a high-speed burst. It took just seconds for a transmission to be made once a connection had been established.

Doug dispatched the message and got a bald acknowledgement back. It would take Hereford a few hours to figure out an extraction. The probability was that we would have to leg it for the border. In the meantime we had to operate on the assumption that the Argies had heard the helicopter land and were searching for us. That meant finding a safe hiding place to lie up until nightfall.

"Right," Andy ordered. "Shoulder packs and move out. Hard routine." Hard routine meant no fires so no hot food, nothing to eat or drink in fact but a mouthful of water from our canteens and some chocolate to keep us going.

Andy and Guy studied the map. The shortest route to the border was due west, but the country was mountainous and cut by rivers. We would do better to take the longer route across the pampas to the north.

"It's about forty miles," Guy said. "If we follow the line of the main coast road, travelling by night it should take us four days, a week at the outside."

That didn't sound too bad. The road looked pretty straight on the map with only one village which we could bypass. Otherwise all we would have to watch out for were a few isolated estancias.

We set off in single file, Taffy leading. It was his job to scout out the route ahead and see we didn't walk blindly into a trap. It was almost 5.30 and still dark, so we had to use the night-vision scope. It was imperative that we find an isolated spot to hole up in before daylight. The country was flat and bare with thick spiky grass and shrubby trees and bushes, mostly bent double by the wind. There was no sign of human habitation or animal life except for the occasional bird that flew up as we neared. I walked with my rifle cocked and cradled in my arms, head moving from side to side as I swept the ground ahead. This was my first major mission in enemy territory and I was anxious to acquit myself well.

We had been trudging for about an hour when we reached the highway. It was a gravel road, unfenced but flat and straight, running almost due north. By chance it seemed like a quiet road the lights of a heavy truck came grinding down towards us but we lay flat in the grass and it went past in a cloud of dust without seeing us. Then we jogged across while Andy stood guard and dived into cover on the far side.

We were in open country now, a succession of shallow ridges covered with heather and tundra-like grasses. There were traces of snow about, but not enough to leave a trail. We tabbed on for another thirty minutes till Andy found a shallow depression on a rise from which we could watch the road about a thousand metres away. It was sheltered from the wind and there were some scrappy bushes to give cover. He examined the land on every side with care through binoculars before giving it the OK.

"This'll do," he said finally, unslinging his pack. "It doesn't look like anyone comes here. Doug, you take the first watch with me. The rest of you into your bivvy bags. Snap to it."

He wanted us under cover while there was still some darkness remaining. I shed my pack and pulled out my light camo net. I knew exactly where it was stowed. I could find any item of kit blindfold at night. Using my field knife, I worked a rough scrape big enough to take my body. It took some doing; the vegetation was incredibly tough. I spread out the net and plaited it with grass. Swiftly I pegged it down around the scrape and wriggled underneath with my rifle.

I pulled my bergen in after, working myself further in under the netting until everything was out of sight. It had taken me less than a minute and I would be completely invisible from the air. The others had done the same. On a flat grass plain an entire section of men had vanished into the ground.

Hidden under the net, I extracted my bivvy bag, crawled inside and zipped it up. Now I was warm and sheltered from the cold and wet. I could lie here all day if necessary.

Dawn came, creeping slowly over the flat landscape, revealing saw-toothed mountains to the south-west. Soon the first alarm came a light plane passing overhead half a mile away to the south. It was flying low and we hoped it was a rancher's private aircraft. In this remote land, with few roads and some ranches extending over hundreds of thousands of acres, aircraft were essential vehicles. We watched it pass away in the direction of the border. The sun was over the horizon now, but obscured by dull cloud.

BOOK: Land of Fire
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