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Authors: Chris Ryan

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BOOK: Land of Fire
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Moments later, Taffy reported vehicles approaching from the south-east at high speed.

"Firing positions!" Andy called. In seconds we were out of our hides, packs closed, our weapons cocked, crouching at the edge of the rise, ready to move out at the run.

The trucks drew level with our LUP and continued without pause, trailed by clouds of spiralling dust. We counted six four-tonners, ten to twelve men apiece, probably with a weapons platoon among them. Evidently the helicopter had been detected. Their job, if they didn't run down their quarry on the road, would be to set up a patrol line ahead of us. The main force would follow behind like beaters driving us on to the guns.

Most soldiers are unwilling to dismount from vehicles unless they have a positive sighting of the enemy. Our tactics would be to stay where we were and wait till nightfall. Then we would tab out and work our way around any roadblock. Only very experienced troops can handle night operations. What worried us was the aeroplane. The country we were in was featureless, a succession of shallow hills covered with long grass. It was easy to move across but it gave little cover. If we were to move an observer in an aircraft could spot us miles away, even at night.

Leaving Andy and Taffy on watch again, we crawled back inside our hides. After two hours Taffy would come back and one of us would take his place. Another two hours and it would be Andy's turn to rest. Before long it came on to sleet. The cold ate into my bones as I lay there unable to move. Through the holes in the camo netting I could periodically make out the plane in the distance. It was working back and forth along our track, flying north and south in long slow loops at an altitude of around 1000 feet. They were obviously searching for us and had guessed that we would be making for the border. I wasn't particularly worried at the thought escape and evasion was a major part of our training. There was nothing we didn't know about hiding up or slipping past cordons. Come nightfall, I was confident, we would find a way through. The majority of Argy troops were barely trained conscripts; they'd be no match for our skills.

It seemed like an age before the sound of the plane's engine finally faded away to the west. Even then we didn't move Andy wasn't taking any chances. The plane was still around and we were better off staying where we were for the present. It is the hardest thing in the world to lie still and wait. We could do it though; we could wait all day if necessary.

The sleet fell, but still we lay in our grass hides. My thoughts wandered about in a vain attempt to keep my mind off the cold and damp. Other fellows I know count to a million. Some claim to run blue movies in their heads. The day seemed endless, but Andy knew we were better off lying up like this than running around in the open.

It was late afternoon, and the winter sun was below the horizon when I heard Andy's voice calling us. I was so stiff my body could hardly move; every muscle in my limbs ached. I ripped off my canopy and struggled out, pulled on my pack and slung my rifle, ready for action. Without a word we formed up in open order and started moving again, as if nothing had happened.

Doug got the satcom set out and we made contact with Hereford again. This time there was a response: the abort was confirmed. There were no recriminations; they would come later at the debriefing. We were to tab out northwards as planned. The agent would rendezvous with us in a day or two at a spot to be arranged and lead us to an unguarded crossing. Nothing was said about a helicopter extraction.

We ate a bar of chocolate each and drank a little water, then Andy led us back down to the highway.

CHAPTER EIGHT

We were chilled, stiff and hungry, but it was a great relief to be out and moving about after the endless hours lying still. We marched rapidly, revelling in the open air. The wind was biting but the sleeting rain had eased off. Our boots crunched on the frosted ground. We walked like automatons, leaning forward to balance the weight of our packs, eyes constantly checking the sector that was ours to watch, covering each other's arcs. The secret of survival is to see the enemy before he sees you.

We walked parallel with the road, about twenty metres out. It gave us a useful navigational aid and we would have plenty of warning from the headlights of vehicles approaching. Andy was leading this time; he had the night-vision scope and the GPMG carried on a sling around his neck. We were ready to react to any threat. All it would take was one shout: "Contact!"

As the night wore on we grew more confident. We were covering ground at a steady pace of between two and three kilometres per hour. Our only problem was with the compasses they were designed for use in the northern hemisphere and were prone to erratic readings this far south. We had to keep stopping to identify features, which wasn't easy in an essentially flat landscape, but night travel was something we had practised a lot and were good at. In this country with few obstacles it was relatively easy. Occasionally we struck patches of bog and marsh, but in general it was all good firm grass.

The downside was the weather, which was deteriorating again. Before very long it was sleeting a blizzard, an unremitting blast of freezing cold that must have come straight from the Antarctic ice cap. It sliced through our wet clothes. There -was nothing to do but clear it out of your mind and carry on. I tried to empty my head of everything except putting the next foot on the ground in front of me. The Japanese have a saying, "Step by step, walk the thousand-mile road." I practised repeating it to myself over and over, slipping into a hypnotic rhythm as we tramped on and on across the pampas.

The sleet stung my eyes and my rifle weighed like lead in my arms. Of course Andy was carrying the gun, and I kept telling myself it was worse for him. The GPMG weighs over thirty pounds, three times the weight of my rifle. Andy always was a tough bastard, but I wasn't going to let myself be beaten by him. If he could keep going without complaining, so could I. I thought about the girl on the ship again. The image of her naked under interrogation was burned into my mind. Then I reran the helicopter crash in the sea, replaying it in my head like an endless loop. The sensation of drowning, the moment I felt Nick's hand release my trapped foot.

Whenever truck lights showed up in the distance we flung ourselves flat until the headlight beams had passed. Vehicles were scarce, though; most drivers had the sense to keep off the road in the hours of darkness in winter.

Andy set a good pace. When his eyes tired he handed over scout position to another of us. We changed over every thirty minutes or so any longer and our eyes became exhausted staring through the scope. There's no depth perception in the green-tinted field of view, which makes it hard to judge distance.

For hour after hour we stumbled along, bent double under the load of our huge berg ens picking our way by the dim shape of the man in front. Several times we encountered bridges but they were unguarded and we crossed them on the road, keeping in the tracks of vehicles to disguise our own. Occasionally we saw the lights of homesteads in the distance, but they were well back from the road and caused us no anxiety.

At around four o'clock, after about ten miles, Tom, the lead scout at the time, halted suddenly and held out his hand. We all stopped, crouching low, weapons ready.

Was it a patrol or what? Andy went forward to confer. After a minute he came back. "It's a village," he whispered. "Half a dozen shacks beside a crossroads. We're practically on top of it."

This was serious. We couldn't risk walking through for fear of arousing dogs. The only way round was to cut across country, making a wide circle.

"We'll double back a quarter of a mile and head west," Andy ordered. He took the lead and we set off. The wind was in our faces now, and once we turned away from the road the going became much harder. It was all up and down, shallow rises followed by wide gullies that were confusing and made it hard to keep a bearing.

I was walking behind Andy when I heard him curse. At the same moment my right foot plunged through a layer of ice into deep mud. We had walked into a half-frozen swamp in the darkness. It was too deep to wade through; there was nothing for it but to feel our way around.

"Back and turn south," Andy ordered.

We turned into the wind again, ducking our heads against the driving sleet. "Give me the Beacons any time," Taffy grunted.

"You've gone soft," said Doug.

"Quiet, both of you!" snapped Andy.

We moved south a hundred yards before turning cautiously west again. This time the going was firmer, consisting of tussock grass, but slow to move over. After about half an hour of this Andy judged it safe to head north. We plodded on till at last we struck a smaller road running east west. This must lead to the village again, we figured. We crossed over, trusting to the sleet to obliterate our tracks before morning, and circled round to pick up the highway again half a mile from the far side of the village. The detour had taken us an hour and a half.

But it was a relief to be following the highway again. "We'll crack on now," Andy said and he set a pace of around three kilometres per hour. It was gruelling going with our heavy packs bouncing on our shoulders, but we kept our spirits up with the thought that we were covering ground to our destination. Traffic on the road seemed to have thinned out and we went for an hour at a time without having to duck for cover.

We kept going in this way throughout the night with just two fifteen-minute stops. By the time dawn finally broke we were tuckered out, but we had covered a good fifteen miles and were well satisfied. At this rate we would make the border in another two days, a good forty-eight hours less than Guy had originally estimated.

We found a place to lie up and made contact again with Hereford over the satellite set. Hereford gave us coordinates for a rendezvous with the agent. It was the site of a cave in a prominent rock formation at a crossroads some five miles short of the border.

Then we crawled into our bivvy bags and tried to sleep in spite of the cold. During the day there were more convoys of troops on the road passing in both directions, but no foot patrols, which was a relief. We heard the plane again: it seemed to be searching the ground in our rear still, so we judged we were moving ahead of any cordons.

The next twenty-four hours were a repeat of the first, lying up during daylight and marching through the night, the same wind howling across the unrelenting tundra. The march followed the previous pattern a mix of following the road and detouring around unmarked hamlets, only there were more of these and it took us longer to cover the ground. By dawn we had covered another eleven miles and were more than half-way to the rendezvous point. The effort had left us drained, our feet were sore from pounding on the iron-hard ground, and we were tired and edgy as we prepared the lying-up point.

"One more slog should see us to the border," said Guy. From now on though, he warned, we'd have to proceed carefully as it was likely that the border zone would be patrolled.

"Doug, you take first watch," Andy ordered as we spread out our biwies.

"Shit, how come it's always me has to stand first watch freezing my balls off?" Doug grumbled. "Why doesn't Mark do a stint for a change or are you going easy on him in this too?"

"He'll take his turn when the time comes along with the rest of us. Who he is doesn't matter a damn," Andy responded.

"Oh yeah?" Doug sneered. "So how come he's only been scout once all night? You know fucking well you always put him in the middle of the line where he can't get hurt. Fucking baby brother."

Andy's face darkened. "Shut the fuck up!" he snapped. "If you're knackered, say so and someone else can stand first watch."

It was just the way to needle Doug and his temper flared instantly. "Don't come the tough guy with me. I'll fucking drop you any time!"

Guy intervened hastily. "Knock it off, the pair of you. I'll take the first watch and leave it at that."

Andy turned away and Doug subsided, growling. I climbed into my bivvy bag seething with anger. Not at Doug, because he had a point I hadn't been given my fair share of scout duty. That was Andy's fault. He was up to his old trick, trying to protect me again. The others resented it, and so did I. We had been down this road before. Though Andy had resisted me joining the army and tried his hardest to prevent me joining the SAS, he had been proud when I was finally badged. The real trouble began when we were sent to Northern Ireland.

I had done the NI course at Llangwern Army Training Area in Wales, where you'd spend four months learning the tradecraft necessary for undercover operations in the Province, including skills like lock-picking and covert photography as well as the surveillance and combat driving techniques, such as drills for approaching a hostile VCP, J-turns and ramming. We had received instruction on the operational structure of the Provisional IRA; we'd learned about booby traps, counter-sniping and urban area fighting. After that we'd exercised field scenarios, setting up OPs and ambushing terrorists. These would be followed by realistic debriefings, to the extent of mock court inquiries into how the terrorists had died.

On completing the LATA course I'd been assigned to Andy's troop. This was unusual, though not unheard of. There were other examples of brothers working together in the Regiment,

but now I was fully operational Andy's attitude towards my protection became obsessive. I rapidly realised that he must have engineered my assignment so he was able to keep a close eye on me.

Our first major operation together involved an ambush. A surveillance aircraft had spotted two figures behaving suspiciously near a road in South Armagh bandit country.

RUG and army intelligence suspected an attempt to place a roadside bomb in a stream culvert, a well-established PIRA tactic. If so, the terrorists would most likely return at nightfall to detonate it, taking out a passing patrol. We were ordered to check it out and apprehend the bombers before they could act.

The orders reached us at four in the afternoon. There was very little time for preparation. A couple of RUC liaison officers briefed us on a large-scale map. The Land Rovers of the patrol were due to pass the site around midnight, so it was likely the bombers would loiter in the area until they received the go signal from one of the dickers part-time scouts twenty minutes or so back along the route. They would then creep out to the firing position in time to trigger the ambush.

BOOK: Land of Fire
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