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Authors: Chris Ryan

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BOOK: Land of Fire
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In order to bring the bombers on, it was necessary to have the patrol keep to its designated schedule. We couldn't let the regular unit take the risk so they were replaced with an SAS team in two armoured Land Rovers in the dark the dickers wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Three pairs were detailed for the ambush: a hit team, consisting of Andy and an old hand named Lewis, whose job it would be to nail the bombers; and two back-up teams in case the bombers managed to evade their fire. I was detailed to ride one of the Land Rovers. The moment we heard over the radio that the trap had sprung we would de bus to prevent the bombers escaping over the road. At the last minute, however, Andy ordered Lewis to swap roles with me, saying he wanted me to have experience on the killer group.

We moved in just as dusk was falling. A vehicle dropped us off two miles from the target point and we tabbed it across country by a route carefully designed to avoid detection. The land was all narrow fields intersected by thick hedges ideal for ambush. It was another bitterly cold night with a freezing wind and bursts of drenching rain. We made a lying-up point about 500 yards from the stream, and Andy and I crawled forward on our bellies to reach the culvert.

Andy had a small torch with black tape over the lens, leaving just a tiny hole for the bulb to shine. The culvert was just wide enough to crawl through and running a foot deep with water. We approached it tensely. If there was a bomb and the IRA were watching they would detonate it without hesitation. Taking out a couple of SAS troops would be reckoned a big coup.

Andy stuck his head inside the mouth of the culvert, shining his torch carefully. PIRA bombs routinely contained anti-handling devices, some sensitive enough to be set off by a torch beam touching a light-sensitive cell. He emerged again and tapped my shoulder, indicating that I should take a look. I took the torch and squirmed carefully inside. The water was freezing cold and running so deep there was hardly any room to breathe. Working my way forward I suddenly saw the bomb and my heart rate leapt.

It looked enormous. Wedged across the culvert, slightly over to the far side, was what looked like a large metal pipe. PIRA bomb-makers generally favoured old steel milk churns as containers, but on this occasion they appeared to have gone to the trouble of welding up a section of wide steel tubing. This bomb looked as if it contained enough high explosive to rip open the roadway and hurl a Land Rover into the neighbouring field.

Bastards, I thought.

I tried to memo rise a description of the container and its position to give to the technical people.

Squirming back outside again, I found Andy feeling around with his fingers at the mouth of the culvert, trying to locate the command wires. There would be a pair of these running out to a firing point two or three hundred yards away. The firing team would carry a battery pack with them. A touch of the bare ends of the wires to the terminals and bang!

It took Andy some time to locate the wires leading to the firing position, buried in the bed of the stream. The bombers had run the wire up the stream in a waterproof covering to keep it hidden from view. We now saw that the stream fed in through a rough pasture to a gap in a dilapidated stone wall at the far end, which was surmounted by a thick hedge. Standing in the hedge, the look-out would have a clear view of the patrol as it approached. And the bombers could duck down after detonation and run, out of sight behind the wall and out through a gate into another lane at the bottom of a neighbouring field.

Andy set out the ambush quickly. One team was placed to cover the gate and cut off the bombers' escape. The second pair he stationed out on the far wing, in case one of the players broke the other way. He and I took cover behind some tussocks some thirty metres back from the wall. The grass gave good cover without being obvious.

We worked our way as deep as we could into the ground, getting our heads well down. We were carrying Heckler & Koch G3 7.62mm assault rifles, as issued to the West German Bundeswehr. As a weapon it is a whole generation ahead of the standard SLR carried by the green army. It is deadly accurate and packs a heck of a punch, and unlike the SLR it can be fired on full automatic. There are few moving parts so stripping and maintenance are simple. We were using the LMG version with a bipod and a twenty-round box magazine.

Fixed to the top of my G3, where the telescopic sight would go, was a kite sight. About the size and shape of a pint glass, the kite sight was an image intensifier that magnified ambient light to show an image so distinct, it was like looking at a green TV screen. Through it, the gap in the wall showed up clear and sharp.

Having got ourselves comfortable, Andy and I settled down to wait. It was eight o'clock. The patrol wasn't due till midnight, so we guessed it would be at least a couple of hours before the players showed up. We couldn't be sure though, so it was essential to keep dead still and silent.

The night was very dark, rain fell intermittently and we were both wet through and frozen from playing in the stream. From time to time I flicked on my kite sight, checking the gap in the wall.

We each carried a radio with an earpiece and throat mike, plus a transmit button clipped to the smock. If it was dangerous to speak, Control could question us over the earpieces and we could reply in button clicks one click for no, two for yes.

Andy bleeped his radio to alert the command vehicle a couple of miles down the road. Control responded immediately.

Two hours slid slowly by. Our guys would be in the Land Rovers by now, trundling through the darkness towards the culvert, knowing that if we buggered this up they could all be blown to pieces.

An hour later we were still lying in the grass. I was starting to worry. Had we got it wrong? Had the wires been a dummy, laid to deceive us, while the bombers sneaked into another firing position on the other side of the road? No, they wouldn't risk an attack knowing that the SAS were in the area. This had to be the firing point. Had we been spotted by a dicker on the way in? That was possible. Or a dicker might have clicked the command vehicle or one of our OPs further back, or spotted the QRF the quick reaction force, a regular army team standing by to cordon off the area the moment the balloon goes up.

Operations like this were complex; a hundred things could go wrong.

Twice Control came on the air with information that someone had been seen moving in the area, but each time it was a false alarm. Then, at a quarter to midnight, the radio bleeped again. "Alpha Charlie. Three patrol Charlies mobile, direction target."

We stared into the darkness. Somewhere out there the three Land Rovers containing the patrol were moving down the road towards the culvert. No lights yet, but it wouldn't be long now. We waited, but still there was no sign of movement by the gap in the wall. By now we should have been hearing from our own observers covering the approaches to the target, warning us that the players were moving into position.

"Looks like this one went tits up on us," Andy muttered.

If the bombers didn't show, we'd have to let the patrol pass and remain on station all night and through into the next on the off chance the bombers might return.

Suddenly I picked up the dim glow of sidelights on the road. I nudged Andy and he bleeped Control. "Eyeball patrol Charlies."

I switched on my kite sight again. It was trained directly on the gap, and everything immediately leapt into sharp focus. I was getting really worried now. If the players were there they could take out the Land Rovers in the next couple of minutes. I heard Control come over the air again, asking if we had any eyeball on the terrorists. Andy answered with a single click of his button. Negative.

The sidelights of the convoy were moving up the road. The lead vehicle was no more than five hundred yards from the culvert. Another thirty seconds and it would be on top of the bomb. Four hundred yards ... three hundred ... I checked the kite sight again and suddenly my pulse hammered. Rising above the rim of the hole in the wall was the outline of a head. It was turned towards the road and as I looked another one came up to join it.

The terrorists were here. With a shock the appalling truth jolted home. We had expected the bombers to come up the same way we had, from the rear along the lane and through the gate. Instead they had crept along the bottom of the wall till they reached the gap and pulled the wires through to connect them up. They had no idea we were here, and any second now they would touch the contacts and blow our boys to hell.

I whacked Andy's arm and in the same moment snapped the safety on the G3 to auto. My sight was centred on the right-hand head. According to the rules of engagement I should shout a warning but there wasn't time for any of that crap. I let go with three short bursts. Almost at the same time Andy opened up beside me. Both heads dropped down out of sight. At the same instant a titanic explosion split the night.

They said afterwards that there had been more than thirty pounds of Semtex inside the bomb. It erupted with a thunderclap of sound and a brilliant strobe of light that momentarily whitened out my kite sight.

Andy and I were already jumping up and sprinting for the wall, firing as we ran. There were flames burning on the roadway, lighting up the scene. I jumped through the gap in the hedge and landed on something soft. A man was lying curled up in the stream, unmoving. I spun right, my weapon up, searching for a target. There was no one else in sight. I heard Andy fire two quick bursts behind me and swung around in time to see a dark figure drop to the ground twenty yards along the hedge to the left. Andy fired another burst into the body to make sure, waited a few seconds, and then called in over the radio to confirm the killings.

I was staring at the culvert. The roadway was shattered from side to side. The bomb had dug out a crater twenty feet across. The lead Land Rover was halted a dozen yards from the lip. The occupants must have had the fright of their lives. The bombers must have been holding the wires over the terminals when we opened fire, the shock causing them to touch off the detonator. Another second and they would have taken the patrol with them. We had brought it off, but only just and at the risk of several lives.

No one in any of the vehicles was hurt, and we had killed two terrorists. The only casualty was the road surface. It was an excellent result for the team.

Andy subsequently received a medal. I told him I was applying for a transfer to a different squadron, and we had a stand-up row, one of many. Then Andy was posted on a course for a year but at the time war broke out in the South Atlantic we were back together again.

And now the same problem was starting over. The fact was, Andy didn't trust me to take care of myself.

CHAPTER NINE

On the third night out from Rio Grande the weather was worse than ever. The sleet was blowing from the south so we had it at our backs and our berg ens kept the worst of it out of our faces, but it was miserable walking even so. There were drainage ditches along the sides of the roads in places. They seemed to have been dug quite at random and were effectively camouflaged by vegetation so as often as not the first warning we had was when someone fell into one.

At about midnight again, Taffy, who was scouting ahead, reported he was in a deep marsh. We couldn't find a way around and were forced to walk on the road. Each time we tried to strike off to the side we found ourselves sinking into mud again. This went on for four or five miles.

Eventually we came to an iron bridge spanning a wide river. "Tom, take the scope and check it out," Andy ordered as we hovered near the southern end.

Tom slipped away into the darkness. For a big man he was light on his feet. Ten minutes later he was back. "The bridge is clear but there's a building at the far end. I could see a light in an upstairs window."

"Any vehicles, military trucks?"

"I didn't see any but they could be parked out back."

Andy took the scope and studied the river below. It was wide and fast flowing and it looked deep. There was no way it could be crossed except by the bridge. We took turns looking at the building. It was close to the far end a two-storey construction with outbuildings. It looked like a farmhouse.

"Bet there's a fucking dog in there," Taffy said.

"No takers," I answered. Almost any place this remote would keep at least one guard dog. It would hear us go past and give tongue. Chances were the owners had already been warned to be on the look-out for a party of British soldiers. If they had a phone or a radio they could bring a search party down on our heels.

"If there is a dog it's downwind of us; it can probably smell us already," Guy chipped in.

"So why isn't the fucker barking?" Doug wanted to know.

"We're not on its territory yet," Taffy told him. Taffy had been a dog handler before he joined the Regiment. "Step off on to the other side of the bridge and it'll be a different story."

"So what do we do?" I asked Andy.

"We wait."

"For what, a miracle?" said Doug. "Piss this for a laugh. I'm sick of freezing my bollocks off." He slapped the butt of his 203. "I say we make a dash for it across the bridge, kick in the door and let 'em have it." He was in earnest. Doug wasn't the kind of man to let a family of Argentine farmers stand between him and escape.

"These are civilians," Taffy said.

"They're fucking Argies, man. They'll set the army on to us, you fucking puke."

"We could tie them up," I suggested. "Cut the phone wires, smash the radio if they have one."

"And suppose they have a gun?" Doug countered. "This is the outback, not bloody England."

"There could be soldiers in there for that matter," I said.

Andy was peering through the night scope again. "I can't see if there's a barrier or not."

A pole barrier to halt traffic would be a certain indicator of a military control post. And this would be an ideal place on a wide river with no other crossing point for miles.

"It's too risky," Andy said. "We'll have to swim it."

BOOK: Land of Fire
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