Two things have stuck in my mind from my first day with B Squadron. First, what a complete and utter knobber I felt in the jungle in all my shiny, squeaky-clean new kit. And second, how loud my ears still rang with the advice I'd been given in Hereford the week before.
'Never forget, it's harder to keep than it was to get,' the colonel had said to the eight new boys as he tossed each of us a sand-coloured beret like they were frisbees.
In the corridor afterwards the RSM (regimental sergeant-major) had added, 'You might have spent six months doing the toughest selection course known to man, but now it's right back to square one. Because, lads, you know jack shit.' He eyed us carefully as he took a long drag on his roll-up. 'When you get to your squadron, make sure you wind your neck in. Shut up, look, and listen. Pick out a role model. See what he does and why he does it. Now, the four of you joining B Squadron, go and draw your kit – you're going to Malaysia. And one final thing.' He took another drag and looked at each of us in turn. 'Good luck. You'll need it.'
B Squadron was famous for storming the Iranian Embassy in 1980. The live TV footage was the very first time I had seen the Regiment in action. It was that footage, and the fact that the Green Jackets had missed out on the Falklands conflict two years later, that made me want to take Selection. After all, I'd joined the army to fight, and they were always in the thick of it.
The SAS consisted of four Sabre Squadrons: A, B, D and G. They, in turn, were divided into four troops, each with a specialist infiltration skill. Air Troop infiltrated enemy territory by parachute. Mobility Troop got in by any overland means. Boat Troop attacked from the water. Mountain Troop went by foot, scrambling over any big lumps of rock that happened to be in the way. Each troop was numbered so you knew which squadron it came from. In B Squadron, Boat Troop was 6, Air Troop was 7, Mobility 8, and Mountain 9.
None of us knew which troop we were headed for. We were just told we'd be allocated once we got in-country.
Two guys came to collect us from a muddy, rutted road-head close to the northern border with Thailand after our day's drive from Kuala Lumpur. One was a Maori, the other a gingernut, with hair thick enough to be made into a rug. 'I'm Al,' he said. 'Ready?'
We shouldered our Bergens and followed them into the twilight world of the primary rainforest. Huge hardwood tree-trunks fanned out into buttresses on the ground. Way up at sky level, the canopy was bushy and tight; hardly any light reached the leaf litter under our boots.
Gingernut didn't look the happiest man on the planet, which I thought was strange: he should have liked being out of the sun. His pale skin seemed even paler under the canopy. He was about six foot tall, and lean, almost bony. He had the look and bearing of an officer, and he even sounded like one, on the rare occasions he opened his mouth. He talked as if the words were being dragged out of him with pincers. I had the feeling I'd seen him somewhere before, but I couldn't place him.
'We have a twenty-minute tab. Been here a while. Jungle training, mostly. And as a deterrent against insurgents.'
The Maori said even less than Al, if that was possible. Lots of New Zealanders and Australians joined the Regiment, but this guy wore different jungle camouflage from Al and the rest of us. The Kiwis had an infantry battalion based in Singapore. Maybe he was with them, or New Zealand SAS. No matter – if they weren't telling, I wasn't asking.
The advantage of thick canopy is that at least the undergrowth is sparse and easy to move through. But when the canopy thins and light gets through, you'd be lucky to cover a kilometre in four hours. You're never alone in the jungle. We shared it with red ants, leeches, scorpions, massive ticks that buried themselves in your skin, and every make and model of snake was queuing up to take a bite out of you. And then, of course, there was scrub typhus, jaundice, dysentery, rainforest ulcers, prickly heat, foot rot and ring worm. But this is still the best environment to fight in. It provides cover and water, and you never get cold or hungry.
Al smacked his neck and a mosquito died. 'Poxy malaria merchant.'
It was stiflingly hot and humid. My jungle greens were already drenched with sweat. What had I expected? It's called rainforest because of the rain. The moisture can't escape the dense canopy, so it's wet, hot and very sticky, twenty-four/ seven.
Everything we had, we carried with us. We all had two sets of kit – dry kit to sleep in, and wet kit. First thing we did every morning was put our wet kit back on.
I didn't have great memories of the jungle phase of Selection. Everything was about keeping that dry kit dry. If it got wet, you'd never get it dry. Mine was double-wrapped in plastic Bergen liners, and then in another for luck.
We followed a narrow, muddy foot-track to a commune of A-frame pole-beds. You could tell the guys had been there a while. Some A-frames had sprung extensions; others had duckboards made of branches to keep them above the mud. Figure-11 targets, the standard army target of a man charging, stuck to a hardboard backing, had been cut and nailed to logs to make tables and chairs, and there were angled sit-up boards for a makeshift gym. Here and there, two or more A-frames had been joined together with poncho shelter sheets.
A radio hissed continuously. Food bubbled in mess tins or large cooking-pot-shaped grenade tins resting on one or more little hexamine stoves.
There was a strong smell of cigarette smoke. Nobody wore rank. Everybody had beards and long greasy hair. They lay around outside A-frames reading books, or squatted over hexis brewing up. It was like I'd walked onto the set of Platoon.
'This is Squadron HQ. Just sit and wait out.'
Al and the Kiwi disappeared between the A-frames.
Everyone, including me, had two morphine auto jets hanging from their neck by para-cord, along with a watch and sometimes a little button compass. If anyone left their basha (shelter) area they had their webbing and weapon with them all the time – and their gollock. You went nowhere without one tied around your waist. It wasn't part of your belt kit, it was part of your body. It was your most essential item under the canopy – it cut down and dug out food, it built you traps and shelter, and gave you a means of protecting yourself.
The air filled with buzzing as we sat in sweltering 90 per cent humidity. The entire insect population had heard there was fresh blood in town. Tastiest of the bunch, apparently, was the Green Jacket. I rubbed more mozzie rep (repellent) on my face and hands, but it made no difference. The little fuckers still hovered and swooped and were biting me to bits.
A guy stood up from his hexi stove with a cigarette burning so low between his lips it was in danger of setting fire to his beard. 'All right, lads – want a brew?'
He passed round one of the black plastic pint-and-a-half mugs that normally went over the water bottle on our belt kit. It steamed with hot, sweet ration-pack tea. We took a swig each and stood there, the sweat gluing our clothes to our backs.
There was a whirlwind between the ponchos over to our left and an educated voice delivering a series of instructions with the staccato rapidity of a GPMG (general purpose machine gun). 'I want this, this, this and this . . .' He approached our little group and clapped his hands. 'I'm Graham.' Everybody seemed to be on first-name terms round here. 'I need one of you for each troop.' He looked us up and down. 'You look like a diver – Six Troop.'
A Royal Engineer, a keen climber, volunteered for Mountain Troop.
'Right, that's Nine Troop sorted, then.'
I breathed a sigh of relief. Anything but Mountain Troop. Graham pointed to the guy next to me. 'Eight Troop. Mobility.' Then he nodded in my direction. 'Got your shades?'
I smiled back and nodded, not knowing what the fuck he was on about.
'Good. Seven Troop.'
Back in whirlwind mode, he disappeared beneath the shelter sheets once more.
'That's Boss L,' the guy who'd offered us the brew said. 'The OC.'
The Squadron Officer Commanding was always a major. Troop commanders were captains. He was from a Highland regiment and a champion skier. Born for the jungle, obviously.
It wasn't long before our new companions came to claim us. 'What troop you going to?' the first one asked.
'The Ice Cream Boys!'
Sunglasses? Ice cream? I still didn't have a clue what they were on about, and before I could ask, a giant of a man bore down on me, a good six foot three tall and four foot wide. His hands were so big his M16 looked like a toy.
'Who's for Air Troop?'
I stood up. 'That's me.'
'I'm Tiny.' A half-smile crept out from under his beard. 'Get your Bergen.'
Bizarrely for such a big guy, he bounced on the balls of his feet. He had long curly hair but was balding on top. He looked like some kind of spring-loaded hippie monk.
I followed him to the troop location, trying to get my new boots even muddier.
'What's your name?'
Thunder boomed way above the canopy.
'Andy. Andy McNab.'
'What battalion you from?'
'I'm Two Para too. D'you know—?'
'No, mate, Two RGJ – I'm a Green Jacket.'
He stopped in his tracks. The skies opened for the second time that day and the canopy above us rattled under the downpour. The din added to the noise of the rain smashing onto my head.
'So what the fuck are you doing in Seven Troop?'
'I don't know. The boss just told me to come here.'
He moved off again along the track. It was bucketing down. 'For fuck's sake, we haven't had anyone in the troop for eighteen months and now they're sending a fucking crap hat.'
I followed behind sheepishly, thinking, Yep, nice one, good start.
We eventually got to the troop area, a small spur of high ground covered with A-frames. In the middle there was a large fire. Six or seven guys sat having a brew under some shelter sheets, which sounded like drum skins under the pounding rain. One of them was Al.
Tiny did the introductions. 'His name's Andy McNab and he's a Green Jacket.'
'What the fuck's a crap hat doing here?' A Viking blond got to his feet. 'I'm Chris.' He stuck out his hand. 'Para Reg.' He grinned. He was about five foot five, hairy, and spoke with a soft northern accent.
The others stayed exactly where they were as he pointed each of them out. No one was coming into the rain to say hello now they knew I wasn't of the airborne brotherhood.
'Nish . . . Frank . . . Al . . . Phil . . . Paul . . . and Saddlebags . . .' It was like being introduced by one of the Tetley Tea Folk.
I nodded as they nodded, and one or two said, 'All right?'
Chris pointed to the right of the fire. 'Get yourself over there and bung a pole-bed up before last light.'
I went to the edge of the clearing, dropped my Bergen into the mud and pulled out my gollock.
The theory is that you start with four lengths of wood about two metres long. Tie each pair together at one end, open them out to form the shape of an A then stand them about two metres apart. Get two more stakes about three metres long and no more than two or three inches in diameter, just strong enough to support your weight, slip them through the side sleeves of the hammock, fit the ends over the apexes of the two As, and push them as far down as you can until the hammock is taut. Finally, you tie the webbing straps on each corner, which would normally be attached to a tree, around the poles so they don't ride up. All being well, you've created a bed that's a couple of feet off the floor.
Once that's done, you secure a shelter sheet over the top by bungeeing it to the nearest trees. Now you're protected from the rain; all that's left is your mozzie net. Sleeping without one isn't macho, it's madness. Getting bitten means any exposed skin swells to three times its normal size, and that means you're less able to operate. If you take the time to sort yourself out, you're a much more useful commodity the next day.
That was the theory, anyway. I'd only ever made one A-frame, and that was during Selection a couple of months ago. Now everybody under the shelter sheets was watching me make a total bollocks of the second.
Selection seemed a lifetime ago as I tried to chop branches to the required lengths. Every time I pulled up a pole to make the A it would fall down, but finally I had two half-decent frames. I then had to get the shelter sheet up to keep my hammock dry while I fed through the two poles. The crowd was loving it.
Chris came over and waffled something about a 'kerfuddle' later on with cocktails. He turned and fucked off as quickly as he'd arrived.
Not wanting to intrude, I gave a few exaggerated yawns and prepared to get my head down. I got my wet kit off, rolled it up, and put it at the top of the A-frame. Then I pulled on my dry kit, got under the mozzie net and just lay there.
For the last six months I had sweated, screamed, clawed and crawled towards this moment. 'Selection isn't an exercise,' the training team had told the two hundred hopefuls who'd turned up. 'It's torture. It saves our time and the taxpayer's money to weed out those who can't hack it. We don't fail you on Selection: you fail yourself.'
Selection had been simple and brutal. It took no prisoners. Of the original two hundred on day one eight months ago, only eight had passed. And to rub salt into the wound, I'd given up my rank as sergeant and now had to start again as a trooper.
What was more, I had to become more than a freefaller before I could receive Special Forces' pay. I had to get at least one patrol skill: signals, demolitions, languages, medic. That meant a pay cut for up to a year; I'd thought it would be worth every penny. I'd wanted to join the elite. But these guys were more Special Needs than Special Forces. All they seemed to do was doss and drink tea.
Out of the darkness came a long, drawn-out sound like a foghorn. 'Hooooonk . . .'
The last time I'd felt so disappointed was when I was sent to a juvenile detention centre, and then I'd been disappointed with myself for being such an idiot. The thieving had got stupid. As a gang we couldn't walk past a second-hand furniture shop with a pavement display without nicking stuff to sell at the next place round the corner. We'd saunter past old ladies sitting on park benches in posh places like Dulwich, areas that we reckoned deserved to be robbed, grab their handbags and do a runner.
If we saw a hire car or one with a foreign plate, we always knew there'd be stuff in the boot. I stole from relations' pockets. I even sank as low as tipping over Portaloos in a makeshift Peckham car park so I could snatch the soaked, shocked and frightened occupants' belongings.
I hated everyone and everything, mostly because I didn't have what they had. I'd spent the first fifteen years of my life in South London. Despite what Only Fools and Horses would have you believe, Peckham was never full of Del Boy cheeky chappies, having a laugh on the market stall, then off to drink brightly coloured cocktails in the local. It was full of unemployment, drugs, guns and mindless vandalism.
I felt angry with people who had shiny new cars or spotless motorbikes. So much so that I used to kick dents in them just because I could. I vandalized people's shops, messed up their gear, simply because they had stuff and I didn't.
I went to nine different schools between the ages of five and fifteen, so I had a lot of teachers to be angry with as well. I was angry that they kept putting me in remedial classes, but I didn't do anything to get out of them. If anything, I enjoyed being at the bottom of the class. It gave me yet another reason to be angry. I liked the feeling that everyone was against me. I was part of a select club. It justified my resentment: I was entitled to do things that others couldn't or shouldn't do.
It wasn't long before I was in a world of shit, and at that point I decided I was going to change. But what was I going to do? I wasn't qualified for a decent job; I wasn't qualified for any job. So, why not join the army? Why not do three years, see what it was like? Anything to get me out of this cell . . .
I joined up at sixteen with the reading ability of an eleven-year-old, which was maybe why they wouldn't let me be a helicopter pilot like the guy in the recruiting film. But being in the infantry had its advantages. I was actually in a place where they wanted me to be angry. And they were paying me for it.
I killed my first man at the age of nineteen and was promoted way above my ability to become the infantry's youngest full corporal. I was awarded the Military Medal for a fire fight I was lucky to survive. I was promoted to sergeant when I was just twenty-three and found myself commanding riflemen much older.
That had been a year ago, and now I was in Seven Troop. But I wasn't as sure that this was the place to be as I had been just twenty-four hours ago. As if to underline the point, somebody let rip a huge fart to answer the honk, and the whole group laughed like drains.
It was still so dark when I woke that I couldn't see my hand in front of my face, but the luminous dials of my watch told me it was five forty. First light would be at about six. Shit, I was late for stand-to. This wasn't good.
It's a British Army standard operating procedure (SOP) to 'stand to' before first and last light – the prime times for attack. It applies even on exercise. Apart from anything else, it's a way of gripping guys to a routine. If you let squaddies doss and vegetate, they will. Discipline crumbles, weapons don't get cleaned and then they don't work so people die. It might sound a bit drastic, but these systems have evolved over years of soldiers' fighting, and dying, in the field.
In primary jungle, all movement stops at night. The canopy completely covers the sky; there is no ambient light. A patrol stands to at last light, once they have looped their track and laid an ambush on the route they've just taken. Once they've established they aren't being followed, they move off to a harbour position. Once it's dark and no one will be able to move towards them, they put up their hammocks and shelter sheets in the dark, feeling their way between two trees, never cutting or cracking any branches, always trying to minimize the amount of sign they'll leave behind.
Then, before stand-to at first light, the patrol will pack up and sit on their Bergens, ready for an attack. Once it's light enough to move, the patrol commander will do just that. So I'd fucked up big-time.
There was silence all around me, not a peep from anyone else. They must have got themselves up and were sitting on their Bergens, waiting with weapons in the shoulder. I threw on my wet kit like a man possessed. The cold, clammy material was coated with grit and leaf litter that rubbed against my skin. I pulled on my belt kit as quietly as I could, which wasn't quiet enough. I could only hope no one noticed the Laurel and Hardy routine going on around the new boy's pole-bed.
I finally settled down and waited with the rest of the invisible troop as insects buzzed around me, taking lumps out of my neck and hands. I covered myself with mozzie rep and watched as pale light penetrated the canopy and yet more wildlife stirred into life. Last night's rain was still working its way down onto the leaf litter. Soon the order would come to stand down, and I was expecting one of two things to happen. Either Chris would bollock me for not getting a grip of myself for stand-to or, worse, no one would say anything. That would mean they definitely thought I was a crap hat.
Forty-five minutes past first light, and still I waited for the stand-down. It never came. Instead, in the gloom, I saw the glow of hexi stoves, and birdsong was replaced by the sizzle of luncheon meat frying in mess tins.
I turned back into the troop area to see Chris squatting by the remains of the fire, sparking up some wet wood, nice and smoky to keep the mozzies off.
Al sat astride a massive blue plastic sack of rice, stirring a grenade tin of porridge on his hexi. It dawned on me that I was the only one who'd stood to.
I quickly got my kit off and hoped they hadn't spotted the nugget sitting on his Bergen in the foliage. I was out of luck.
'A word, mate.'
Al had somehow materialized next to me.
'We don't bother out here. Not your fault. I suppose nobody told you.' He grinned and waved his hand over the troop area. 'Who'd want to attack a refugee camp anyway?'
He turned to go. 'You know, it's good having a new boy about. Until yesterday that was me. Takes the pressure off, know what I mean?'
I got a brew on and Chris held up a log as his porridge bubbled away between his feet. 'You know the price of these things in Hereford?' He didn't wait for an answer. 'Forty-five quid a load. Fucking disgrace. You can get them for forty-three down in Pontralis.'
I knew where he was talking about. It was a village with a timber yard, about ten miles out of Hereford. If he'd been one of my mates back in the Green Jackets I might have made a crack about tight-fisted Yorkshiremen, but I wasn't part of this group yet – I wasn't even sure I wanted to be. I sat and listened as he made a brew. Like the RSM said: mouth shut, eyes and ears open. As for the bit about role models, they seemed a bit thin on the ground.
In any case, Nish did the joke for me from behind his mozzie net. There was a touch of West Country burr in his voice. 'Pontralis? You'd spend more than the two quid on petrol getting there. What is it with you northerners? You're supposed to be our leader, for fuck's sake. Corporal fucking Tight-as-a-duck's-arse. Give us some of your porridge.'
Another loud 'Hoooonk!' rang out from the canopy. Nish couldn't help himself: he replied with a fart just as loud, then got up and changed into his wet kit. He was six foot and a couple, and lean, but his body was muscular. With his dark brown hair, big nose and light blue eyes, he reminded me of a timber wolf. Assuming there was a timber wolf that picked its nose and farted all day.
Chris passed me his mug while I waited for my brew to boil. He had a moan about the phantom honker. 'Fucking Snapper, he needs help.'
Al shook his head and kept stirring.
Nish giggled, then got back to begging for food.
I took a sip from Chris's mug. At least that bit felt familiar. Wherever you are in the battalions, you always share your brew.
I nodded as if I knew who he was talking about. I got that Chris was the troop boss, but only a corporal. Maybe Seven Troop didn't have a sergeant or troop commander. I didn't care.
The rest of the troop were sorting themselves out, just as we were.
Tiny and Saddlebags's pole-beds were near each other, and they seemed to have a mate living between them. Both were on their knees by a small hole in the mud, pushing down small lumps of luncheon meat.
'Come on, Stan, breakfast.'
Tiny's voice was completely at odds with his physical presence, which said loud and clear to me that he ate babies three times a day. He spoke so softly he could call you an arsehole and you wouldn't be sure if he meant it or not. He was good at everything he did but, annoyingly, made it look easy.
Saddlebags was a southerner with a mop of thick dark brown hair, the sort that went wild if it wasn't cut every half-hour. He reminded me a lot of Jon Pertwee in his Doctor Who days. His claim to fame was that he'd been almost a child when he'd passed Selection. He was only nineteen when he got in; he shared the record with a guy called Shanksy.
After a couple of days of not shaving, the best he could manage was a light coating of bum-fluff; he looked like a university fresher. But he had done it all: the Falklands, the embassy, lots of stuff in Africa. He'd been sent on so many jobs because he was a dab hand at languages.
The troop waffled away among themselves but I didn't have a clue what anyone was talking about. Different terminology; different personalities. These guys knew each other well. They talked about their wives and kids, their house-building and cars, all the everyday stuff that people do, whether you work in a chicken factory or you're sat in the jungle.
I finally got up to go for a piss.
'You'll be in my patrol today, Andy, all right?'
'OK, Chris, good.'
I turned to Tiny. 'What should I be doing now?'
'Just getting ready to go, I suppose.'
'We'll get out when we get out. Stan's got to be fed first.'
When I got back from my session in the troop pit, Nish was back on his pole-bed. He didn't bother getting up, just turned over towards the smoke and reached out both arms like Oliver Twist. 'I'll cook tomorrow, Al, promise.' He let go a fart as loud as the one that had rattled the canopy the previous night. It immediately started to rain. Nish patted his arse. 'I could rent this boy out one day as a rain-maker.'
Eventually, after about an hour of Nish honking about having to go out in it, we grabbed our belt kit, Bergens and M16s and headed into the jungle.
I clung to Chris.
'Four-man contact drills, OK?'
Great! Jungle lanes: tactical movement and actions on encountering the enemy. I knew what I was doing now. At last I could show them I wasn't a crap hat.
Patrols from other troops were already training. The forest echoed with the rattle of automatic gunfire and the whine of rounds bouncing off trees. The idea of jungle-contact drills is to put down the maximum amount of fire and get the hell out, so you can box around the problem and carry on with your job.
Tiny and Nish were in Chris's patrol as well. Frank was the other patrol commander.
I looked around me. It was like a switch had been thrown. All of a sudden these guys were alert, professional, businesslike. They moved with purpose. It seemed I might have some role models after all.
'Speed, aggression, surprise.' Chris gave a sniff. 'SAS – get it?' He slid off into the jungle.
I was number two: butt in the shoulder, sights up, safety on single shot.
The jungle canalizes movement. The dense vegetation, deadfall, deep gullies, steep hills, ravines, and wide, fast rivers make cross-country movement difficult unless you use high ground and tracks. But that's where every Tom, Dick and enemy moves, and where ambushes are laid – so it's not where the SAS goes. That day we navigated across country, using a technique called cross-graining. Up and down, up and down, not keeping to the high ground.
We didn't so much move through the jungle as melt into it. We didn't use gollocks to cut our way; we bent the branches aside and eased ourselves over obstacles as we came to them. Always, butt in the shoulder, sights up, safety off.
Rivulets of sweat carried the mozzie rep into my eyes and stung them severely. This issue stuff was almost 90 per cent Deet – strong enough to melt plastic.
We'd been patrolling for about half an hour when up popped a Figure-11 target, then another, five metres ahead.
'Contact front! Contact front!'
I moved to Chris's right and opened up. I expected him to turn back on his point, so he didn't cross into our arcs of fire, and move past me, while Nish and Tiny, still behind me, peeled off to one side and got some fire down so I could also move back. That way there was always fire heading towards the enemy while we broke contact. Shoot and scoot, that was the name of the game I'd been trained in. But it wasn't happening.
As I turned to move back, everybody else started coming forward, firing as they went. Chris stood his ground, still giving it a full thirty-round mag on auto. The weapon's gun-oil coating burnt off and formed a grey cloud around him. When he ran out of ammunition, he dropped to his knees and slammed in another mag.
Tiny and Nish ran past him, stopped and brassed up the targets.
Then it was Chris's turn again. He moved ahead of the other two and looked back for me, staring at me like I was a total dickhead.
Nish and Tiny joined in. 'What the fuck you doing?'
The pall of smoke and smell of cordite from the contact hung heavily beneath the canopy. I narrowed my eyes and shrugged sheepishly. 'We weren't taught like that on Selection.'
Nish got a fag on the go and gave me a sympathetic grin. 'You can forget all that shit. The fun starts here.'
Every squadron had its own way of doing things, and so did every troop within it.
For the rest of the day it was me, Chris, Nish and Tiny patrolling by our own rules. Fuck the shoot-and-scoot I'd been taught, there was none of that falling back and boxing round shit. With Air Troop it was just go forward. Chris had me running to and fro on the range until I was decimating targets with the best of them.
By the time we'd finished that night and rocked up at the troop location, soaking wet and plastered with mud, my gear looked the same as everyone else's. All I needed now was the beard.
Later that night, we sat round the fire. The smoke stung our eyes, but who cared as long as it kept the mozzies off? I sampled my very first jungle cocktail. It was a big-time B Squadron thing, made from all the boiled sweets out of the rations, with a lot more sugar poured in for luck. Well, I thought it was sugar, but in fact it was rum. The Regiment was still eligible for a gunfire ration and wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Al held court on his new private armchair. Ages back he'd put in a request for a large bag of rice, and instead of a two- or three-pounder, a fifty-pound sack had turned up. The only problem was, every time we scooped some out, his arse got lower. 'There'll have to be rationing,' he said, without smiling. Not for him the troop banter. He preferred to sit back and listen.
The mail had come through with the same drop. Al sat on his rice chair to open his letters. He looked inside the first and gave a grin, the first I'd seen from him. 'I think this must be a hint.' He held up three sheets of paper, a stamped, addressed envelope and a pencil. It was from his parents. I'd overheard Al talking to Frank about them. They were obviously a close family.
Nish lay back in his pit again and pulled out a book. Everybody else was cooking and sorting themselves out around the fire. Chris had gone with Tiny down to the HQ area for squadron 'prayers', Boss L's daily orders for the squadron. Chris was the only one of us who had to attend, but you never went anywhere alone in the jungle at night. We weren't tactical, so you could use a torch, but you still went with another lad and never without your weapon, belt kit and gollock.
I cooked up my dehydrated lamb stew and some ration-pack porridge, while Nish read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by candlelight, and treated us to his full repertoire of nose-picking, farts and burps.
Frank glanced up. The look on his face said he knew what was coming. 'Come on, lads, not again . . .'
Frank had fine ginger hair, not dark and thick like Al's, and the fair complexion that tends to go with it. He was slim and a little taller than me, and had eyes of the palest cornflower blue. He sounded like he came from slap-bang in the centre of Geordieland, but he never raised his voice. He seemed more forthright than blunt, unlike Chris.
'How do you get around all this thou-shalt-not-kill business? How does that work?'
Frank shook his head and laughed. I kept my head down. This sounded like piss-taking, but it was family shit.
Nish took a big puff and really went for it. 'Come on, Frank, how do you get out of it? Soldiers kill. It's what we do. How do you square the circle, mate?'
Al shook his head. I still couldn't place him. I definitely knew him from somewhere. Nish grinned at me. 'Frank's a new boy too. Fresh to the God Squad – born again.'
Yesterday I was a crap hat, now I was sort of all right. Someone even passed me a brew. But I still didn't know what the fuck was going on.
Frank nodded at me and I nodded back.
Chris delved into his Bergen and produced a Bible. 'Yep, it says it here, Frank, "Thou shalt not kill." Come on, we've got to think about this – what are you going to do?'
Nish started humming a hymn. 'Know what, Frank? You haven't quite perfected the turn-the-other-cheek thing, have you? I read that you lot have killed about six billion in the name of religion.'
This was getting more surreal by the minute: eight rough, tough Special Forces soldiers comparing passages from the Bible in the middle of the jungle?
'Tell you what, your boss's boy didn't walk on water, either. My dad was in the Middle East during the war and he visited the Sea of Galilee. He got all the int. Not many people could swim in Roman times, especially in the desert. No wonder the crowd on the shore was gobsmacked. The gospel writers were as bad as the tabloids today, mate – swimming across to his mate's fishing boat somehow became walking on water. Simple as that.'
Frank smiled quietly to himself. He wasn't biting.
Al sat on his throne and scribbled the letter to his parents.
Everything went quiet until Nish sat bolt upright and swatted at something on his neck. 'Jesus Christ!'
Frank flinched. 'Nish, have you ever stopped to think what you're saying?'
Nish rolled over. The tip of his cigarette glowed in the gloom.
Everybody laughed – except Al and me. And it was then, as I watched him scowl into the fire, that I remembered where I'd come across him. Alastair Slater was the training corporal I'd seen about a year before I went on Selection: he'd been giving recruits a hard time in the BBC series Para. He'd gone to public school, and although you wouldn't know it, he was a Scot. The army had wanted him to be an officer, but he'd chosen to be a tom (private soldier).
I remembered one thing in particular that he'd drilled into the recruits. 'Getting noticed,' he'd growled, 'is absolutely the last thing you want to do.'
The next day started the same way, only without any nuggets standing to. The troop dossed around again, brewing up and frying luncheon meat. Tiny and Saddlebags were enticing Stan, whoever he was, with dried lamb, while Nish came good with his promise on the porridge.
Food plays such an important part in anybody's life in the military – not so much for the calories as for the fact that it's one of only three sources of entertainment in the field. The other two are taking the piss and honking – or ticking, moaning, whatever you wanted to call it.
In the infantry, we'd spent more time than Gordon Ramsay talking about what we were going to cook and how, and all the different mustards or spices we'd be using. Everybody here seemed to have brought their own Tabasco, Worcester and other more exotic sauces to jazz things up.
Sitting in state by the smoky fire, Al Slater looked every inch the tribal king. Occasionally he leant down to scoop another handful of rice out of his throne for those who'd decided to go the risotto route with their Spam. 'I wish to look after my people.'
I sat in the middle of the kerfuddle, sipping a brew, but still only looking and listening, speaking only when spoken to. I was beginning to measure the various friendships.
Al Slater and Frank Collins were close.
Al was a freefall nut, just like Frank. The pair of them jumped at Peterborough Parachuting Centre every weekend they could. Al got on really well with Frank's family, and so did his parents. They all got together whenever they came south.
I never met another soldier's parents my entire time in the army, and I never introduced anyone to mine. Mind you, I'd never met my biological parents either – though I knew that whoever my mother was, she must have wanted the best for me. She left me on the steps of Guy's Hospital in a Harrods carrier bag.
I was fostered from the age of five by a South London couple. They brought up three boys – I was the middle one – and had to take every low-paid job going to make ends meet. My dad drove a minicab; my mum juggled office cleaning and factory work. Like most kids I knew, I wore welfare clothes and ate free school dinners. I slept on a camp bed in the bathroom for a year because there was nowhere else. It never got steamed up; there was no hot water. A bit later on, my parents must have decided I was OK because I got promoted to the front room, and they adopted me.
I wasn't abused, I wasn't beaten, I wasn't mistreated, but I still couldn't wait to leave home. I felt a little jealous of Al. I bet his parents turned up at open evenings and knew his teacher's name.
Frank's wife didn't like Regiment guys as a rule, but Al was the exception. She was house-hunting for him, and had even promised to find him a wife while we were away. From what little I'd seen, I wasn't too sure that Al was the marrying type just yet. He was more Action Man than Barbie and Ken. I decided every square inch of his room back in Hereford would be crammed with diving, climbing and parachuting gear. No space to store an engagement ring.
I liked Al. I didn't think he was Mr Grumpy at all. I reckoned he didn't say much because he spent a lot of time thinking. Whenever he did open his mouth, what came out was sensible and to the point. I liked that. But I also liked his nickname. Great Piss-take.
Chris was strong mates with Frank, despite the divide over Frank's new-found religion. Tiny was pretty much mates with everyone, perhaps because he didn't give a fuck about anything: he just got on with the job and gave everyone a hard time. As for Saddlebags, he was much like Tiny, but talked quite a lot to Stan, who never seemed to join in the conversation.
I thought some more about Frank and the banter the night before. How did it work, being a Christian soldier? When I was a sixteen-year-old recruit, the only time we had off was Sunday afternoon – but every other Sunday we were marched down to the garrison church for an hour of hymns and a padre moaning about this and that. It meant we only had the evening free, when we weren't bulling our boots and doing all the rest of the stuff for Monday-morning inspection. So I'd never had much time for religion. Quite frankly, I hated it.
The metallic clang of a gollock rang out behind me. Chris looked over my shoulder. 'What the fuck you doing now?'
I swung round to see Nish leaning forward with his gollock in one hand and the other down his trousers, scratching his bollocks. He was inspecting the cuts he'd made in a massive buttress tree.
'Thought we'd have a Seven Troop sun-trap, somewhere we can wear our shades. The Ice Cream Boys have a reputation to maintain.'
'For fuck's sake.' Tiny stood up from his brew and headed for the tree surgeon. 'It's going to land on top of us if you keep fucking about.'
Nish grinned. 'Nah, nah, nah. If I do the cuts right it'll fall down towards the river, no problems.'
Al picked up his belt kit and weapon. 'Don't believe a word of it.' He headed down towards the river, passing Nish on the way. 'Going to get some mud off me. I'm not waiting to be crushed by that thing.'
'You'd better watch yourself when you get back, mate. Careful the sun don't catch those freckles.'
We went back to sharing brews around the fire as Nish resumed operations for the next twenty minutes. Behind us, the massive buttress tree began to creak.
The creaks turned to groans and the next thing we knew, Nish was running towards us, laughing his head off. 'Might have fucked up! Save Stan!'
We grabbed our belt kit and weapons and ran for it. Nish stopped by Stan's hole and checked he wasn't outside having his breakfast.
There was an almighty scream of splintering wood and the tree smacked down just inches from the pole-beds.
'There you go.' Nish grinned. 'A very professional job.'
A shaft of sunlight streamed through the canopy and I could feel the warmth on my face.
Nish lit up as he surveyed his work. 'See, Frank? God. You got a direct line.'
Chris wasn't impressed with the near disaster. He told us to kit up and move out.
Almost immediately, we heard a couple of five-round bursts down by the river and went to see what was going on. Al appeared with a big multicoloured snake slung over his arm. Hissing Sid had crept up on him while he was washing and paid the price.
Frank clapped a hand on my shoulder. 'You're with me today. More contact drills. Let's see if you're as bad as Chris makes out.'
We were practising two-man contact drills, the lead scout and number one in the patrol coming under attack. I was ahead of Frank, moving tactically: butt in the shoulder, safety catch off and, after my day with Chris, finger on the trigger, on full automatic.
I came to the crest of a hill and gave the hand signal at waist level to stop. Frank waited while I crawled forward to see what lay in the dead ground beyond.
We were already soaked to the skin from the morning rain and the jungle was sticky and steaming. I had sweat running into my eyes again, and it stung like fuck.
I stared at the jungle and listened. Everything more than ten metres ahead merged into a big haze of green. I literally couldn't see the wood for the trees.
As I snaked through the mud and leaf litter, a Figure-11 target popped up about five metres in front of me. I opened fire and hosed down the area with a full thirty-round mag.
Frank came up on my right and moved two paces ahead. He put down some quick bursts while I dropped to my knees and changed mags. I got up, advanced another four or five paces, loosed off more rounds. The target was so close I could see the wood splinters flying.
The shout came from the guy who'd been following us. His job was to point out any targets we missed, and to check those we'd fired at to make sure they'd been hit.
Frank and I reloaded, swapped positions and patrolled on. This continued for a couple of hours, until we reached a river. That marked end-ex (end of the exercise) for us. We were to wait there for the rest of the troop to come through.
'Get a brew on, Andy – I'm taking a rinse.'
I watched Frank walk down the bank and wade in fully clothed, complete with belt kit and even the green canvas satchel holding a Claymore anti-personnel mine and firing cable that always seemed to be slung over his shoulder.
The hot barrel sizzled as it hit the water. The American-built Colt M16 was a brilliant weapon, almost totally soldier-proof. You never have to worry about any weapon getting wet – that's just film stuff. The firing doesn't stop when you have a bit of rain.
When he was in up to his chest, he ducked down below the surface, and when he came back up, all the mud and leaf litter he'd accumulated on the range had disappeared.
I pulled a hexi burner from my belt kit and lit a block. I poured water from my bottle into my alloy mug, rested it over the flame, and sat down against a tree. The black plastic mugs that go with the water bottles are usually binned from belt kits because you can't cook or brew up with them.
Frank came back up the bank and joined me. Strangely, because there wasn't any wind, he leant forward and packed some mud around the burner. Force of habit, I guessed. Or some weird Christian ritual.
I left him to it and went into the river for a rinse. By the time I got back, Frank was oiling the working parts of his weapon.
It started to rain. When it rained in the jungle it came down vertically, whether or not there was wind. The water hit the canopy forty or fifty metres above us, then worked its way through the leaves and came down in torrents.
The rain made the hexi spit. Frank hunched over the burner. 'Tell you what, get a sheet up to keep this dry.'
The rainforest echoed with bursts of automatic gunfire as the guys carried on with their contact drills. I got my shelter sheet out of my belt kit, together with four elastic bungees I'd bought in Halfords. I hooked one to each corner and stretched them out to the nearest trees, adjusting the angle so the water ran off. We both slid under it, and Frank lay down with his head on his belt kit while the new boy got on with the brew.
The water pounded on the poncho. We had at least twenty-four hours' rations in our belt kit, and enough teabags, sugar and powdered milk to see us through the decade. I also carried extra sugar. I never used it except when I was in the field.
I emptied a milk sachet into the water once it was warm so it didn't go lumpy.
Frank was silent, and I felt a bit awkward. I thought maybe it was my job to make conversation. But not about work; he'd be debriefing me later on how well or badly I'd done.
'Frank, that God thing last night – does that happen all the time?'
'They're just worried about me. They don't understand.'
Frank didn't carry on waffling like I'd hoped he would. I over-concentrated on the brew. 'You been a Christian long, then?'
I'd fucked up. I'd opened a door I'd meant to keep closed.
Frank sat up straight and his eyes widened. He spoke louder than he usually did to make himself heard above the rain.
'It was on a Deltex. Just this March. The seventeenth. That's the day I really knew I'd found God.'
'Deltex? I don't know what that means, mate – I'm learning a new language here.'
'It's an exercise in Germany – the Russians have invaded, we go in to blow up key points, like power stations and bridges, anything to break the supply lines. You'll be doing enough of that later on, don't worry. But that was when it happened, the last Deltex.'
The water was boiling. I dropped in a teabag. 'So, did, er, God talk to you then, or what?'
He smiled. 'Sort of. He spoke to me through Larry, one of the Delta lads.'
At last, something I knew. Delta Force was the US equivalent of the Regiment. The unit was started by Colonel Charles Beckwith in 1977. Following the disastrous operation in 1980 to free the US hostages in Iran, Delta had been totally remodelled along SAS lines, with a lot of input from Hereford.
They were stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Deltex, Frank said, was designed to further an atmosphere of co-operation between the two units, but all it did for him was evoke huge amounts of envy. 'I was bowled over by the sheer size of the place: you could have fitted the entire town of Hereford twice over into what they called a "fort".'
Apparently, the quantity and quality of equipment on show was beyond belief. 'Delta had indoor 7.62 and 5.56mm shooting ranges; at Stirling Lines we only had the 9mm equivalent. We also had only one gym, while they had dozens of them, including Jacuzzis, saunas and a massive climbing wall for their mountain troop.' No wonder they'd renamed the place Fort Brass. They had more helicopters in one unit than we had in the whole of the British Army; come to that, there were more personnel in just that one base than in all of the British armed services put together.
'I was on a patrol with Larry. I'd already spent six months with Delta on exchange in the US and met him then.'
The US Army teemed with Christians of all persuasions. I'd spent a couple of months with the 101st Airborne in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, when I was a Green Jacket, getting my Air Assault wings. Even in the cookhouse, soldiers would pray at the table before eating, and down at the range you were just as likely to see a guy reading the Bible as firing a weapon. It was only natural that Delta would be full of them too.
I stirred the teabag. Anything to avoid eye-to-eye.
'Larry had never been one of the lads. He was too blond, too upright, Mr Clean. He probably did have a sense of humour, but it wasn't our sense of humour. People thought he was a bit weird.'
I nodded and fished out the teabag with a twig. I hoped that was the end of it.
'Larry always carried his Bible and he was always reading it. Even in the States I used to tease him, just like the lads tease me, but he always answered my questions seriously. He'd reach for his Bible and say, "Let's see what the Lord has to say on that subject."'
I was starting to get worried he was going to shift into full conversion mode, but there wasn't much I could do. I was the new boy: he had me over a barrel.
'Larry would always come up with an answer to my questions, but do you know what? I didn't really understand. I found it incomprehensible.' He chuckled to himself. 'But I found myself compelled to keep asking. I wanted to know the answers.
'So, one night, on the Deltex, we were out in a German forestry block doing a bridge recce to stop the Russian supply line. I asked him three questions. The first was, everybody knows about evolution, so how can people like Larry claim that God created the world? Then, if God loves us so much, how can he allow so much suffering? And finally, the one the lads keep on at me about: how can someone be a soldier and a Christian? Nish is right, you know – religion has killed billions. But do you know what Larry said to me?'
I made sure that the edge of the mug wasn't too hot, and shook my head. I had a couple of sips before handing it over.
Frank gripped it. 'He said, "If you want to know more about God, just ask him."'
He brought the mug up in a toast, and nodded.
I was starting to flap big-time. Were we going to end up on our knees?
'That night I just lay there in my sleeping bag and said quietly, "God, if you really exist, if you really are out there and listening to me, just give me a sign, some kind of sign."'
I had to look away. All I could think of was that bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: 'Give me a sign, give me a sign.'
'Also I said, "Look, God, if you don't send me a sign tonight, then it means, once and for all, that Larry's talking shite." ' He took another swig and passed it back to me.
'I just lay there waiting. There were no angels, no glows in the sky, no doves with olive branches. Nothing. I slept, but I kept waking up in the night, opening my eyes, checking to see if God was there doing His thing.' He grinned. 'I would have hated to miss Him.'
He paused. It was obviously time for me to say something.
'So you didn't see anything, then?'
'Nothing at all. But I wasn't disappointed. Well, I was a little. But who doesn't secretly want to see an angel?' His hand was out for the brew. 'But then, just before first light, I had to send the sitrep that we'd recce'd the target. When I'd done that, I kept my earpiece in and started listening to the World Service.
'I caught the end of the news, and then the next programme was announced. It was about a guy who'd been in Bomber Command in the Second World War. He was being challenged on how he could reconcile what he'd done during the war, and his role as a scientist, with his religious convictions. He was going to be asked three questions . . .'
Frank held up a finger. 'One, how could God have created the world in a few days, when as a scientist he must agree that it evolved over aeons?'
Two fingers. 'Two, how could he believe in God's love when he had seen so much suffering? And three –' now he had three fingers up, as if I couldn't hear him '– how could he be an airman in Bomber Command and a Christian? Christians don't kill people, do they?'
Frank beamed at me. I wondered how I could steer the conversation round to house renovation or the price of logs in Pontralis.
'You know, Andy, I just lay there in my maggot, electrified. My three questions! This man was going to answer them! Was this the sign I'd asked for?'
I took the brew off him and got the last bit. Maybe there was a God: there was still a bit of undissolved sugar in the dregs.
Frank was waiting for me to ask the obvious question, but I was a bit preoccupied all of a sudden. I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable between the legs. I scratched myself through my wet camouflage bottoms. You're always getting bitten by something in the jungle, but this felt different.
I tried to give him my full attention. 'So did he answer them?'
'Yes! First, he said there was no contradiction between the Bible and any scientific evidence for evolution. The Bible explains why the world was made, and science is just beginning to suggest how it was made. All of our scientific understanding is frequently wrong or incomplete, and all these so-called certainties that we've been brought up with have been disproved by subsequent discoveries. All we can really be sure about is the extent of our own ignorance. That's all it is, Andy. Does that make sense?'
I didn't want to say yes. I felt like I was in a resistance-to-interrogation session: if I gave a direct answer, I might find myself signed up for daily Bible readings or some shit like that. I sort of nodded.
'At the beginning of the Bible, God makes the world in six days. It doesn't say anywhere that a day is twenty-four hours, does it? A day might be an aeon, just as evolutionary theory suggests. So for God a day might have been, like, a million years. Who knows?'
'What about the suffering, Frank? Why does He give that the nod?'
Fuck me, I had a bit of suffering going on myself. The itch between my legs was becoming a lot more than just an itch. It felt like something was actually getting its teeth into me down there. I was on fire.
Frank frowned as I rummaged inside my trousers. 'It's all God's plan. Suffering has its benefits. It's only by knowing pain that we can experience real joy. Pain is a necessary part of our existence.'
I nodded again but my mind was on my own pain, not the world's. I wore Lycra cycling shorts under my camouflage bottoms in the jungle to stop my bollocks chafing, and that was where my thoughts were focused. I was hunched over in the poncho, bouncing my feet up and down, having a good scratch. 'I'll have to think about that one, mate.'
'A man drops his hammer on someone and hurts his toe. Suppose God intervenes to save the toe. That man will never be responsible with his tools. He'll keep on dropping hammers all over the place and hurting people's feet. When I realized this, it was a revelation.'
'OK. But what about the big one: being a Christian and a soldier?'
He smiled. 'Easy. Soldiers play an important role in the New Testament. They're God's agents to ensure submission to authority and the common good. Soldiers are appointed to carry out God's punishment on evil-doers. I really believe it, Andy. I believe that the Regiment exists to fight evil. That was exactly what this man was saying. The words made soldiering noble, an important mission.'
I undid my trousers. I was going to have to have a dig around to find out what was going on. Meanwhile, Frank could think what he liked but I certainly didn't see joining the Regiment as a noble cause. I wasn't here to wreak God's punishment on evil-doers. This was all a bit heavy for me – I was only on day three.
'It's like the embassy, Andy.'
'You were there?'
'I was twenty-three, the youngest soldier on the job. The terrorists were killing people and had to be stopped. Killing is sometimes the best way to save life.' Frank's face glowed. 'I was overwhelmed. I went over to Larry and shook him awake. I said, "Larry, pray with me." And he did. He prayed, I repeated the lines after him. I apologized to God for the way I'd lived my life up till then. I told God I understood it had all been wrong. I'd been selfish and hurt people and I'd turned God away. I asked for His forgiveness. I wanted Him to help me live by His laws, and all the things I thought were important weren't any longer. God was important.'
He picked up a handful of litter. 'Look at this forest – every leaf, every twig. It's a work of art, Andy. I see craftsmanship in everything I hadn't even noticed before. Everything is jumping up at me, wanting to be noticed. Everything looks different now I'm a Christian. I believe I've been selected in some way.'
I believed I had been, too. As Frank picked up his Claymore bag, I pulled down my trousers and felt something drop down my right leg. I wanted to have a good scratch and make sure everything was all right down there.
'So now I carry my Bible with me everywhere. Just like Larry.' Frank pulled one out, wrapped in a plastic bag.
I began to hear other voices. I'd never felt so relieved.
Nish and Chris had finished their ranges over the other side of the river and were wading across. They must have spotted the shelter sheet or smelt the tea.
Nish saw Frank and waved. 'Oi, Vicar, get the Holy Water boiling.'
Frank looked up at me and shook his head. 'They're just wayward children. Despite all the swaggering, they're clinging to the Regiment instead of forming a lasting relationship with God. They're lost, Andy. I was, too, until March the seventeenth. Now I understand my life is part of a bigger plan.'
Thank fuck the Bible disappeared back into the bag.
'Well, what do you do now, mate? Do you have to go to church?' I had my trousers down to my boots. 'What sort of church? Catholic, or what? Do you have to see a vicar and sign up? What's the score?'
As I peeled off the Lycra I felt a warm, wet sensation all round my bollocks. I looked down. The whole of my groin was covered with blood.
It was only capillary bleeding, but my skin was so wet from all the rain and sweat it looked like it was everywhere. I almost went into shock. I was flapping big-style.
Nish and Chris ran up. 'Look at that ugly thing.'
They weren't looking where I thought they were. Down by my boots was the world's fattest, happiest leech, as big as my thumb. It had got inside my clothing, attached itself to my cock and drunk so much it had fallen off. When leeches bite they usually put in an anticoagulant and anaesthetic twistball so you keep bleeding and don't feel a thing. This one obviously hadn't had much practice.
'Fuck, have a look!' I pushed my cock towards Frank. The other two lads were rolling up.
'Shame on you, Vicar.' Nish grinned from ear to ear. 'We turn our backs for ten minutes and you're having your evil way with the new choir boy.'
The leech was very proud of himself, and rightly so. I kept him to one side for ten minutes or so while I tried to decide what to do with him. Eventually I gave him a burst of mozzie rep, which really pissed him off.
By then the other two lads had their brew kit out and Nish was lying down having a fag. 'Well, Father Frank, what's going to happen now? Is this dearly departed leech going to heaven, and is this sick murderer going to hell?'
The next four or five days were spent in much the same way as the first few: two-man contact drills, four-man contact drills, always with live ammunition, white phosphorus grenades and high explosive (HE). Live firing had one great spin-off. The more HE and rounds thrown about, the more collateral damage there was for our cooking pots. Al's snake had been first in. It was gritty and tasted bitter, but half a bottle of Tabasco and some garlic soon sorted that out. Stan, who I finally discovered was a giant scorpion, didn't like it, though.
We practised being attacked from the front, behind, left, right, then with a man wounded, so we'd have to move him out of the contact area, and when we were halfway through crossing a river, with two of the patrol already on one bank, two on the other – how did we deal with that under fire? On and on, drill after drill, day after day. I loved it.
Then we moved on to ambushes: as we patrolled, we'd carry out the anti-ambush drills I'd learnt on Selection. We'd loop our track so we'd come off at an angle and back on to lay an ambush for anyone following. I learnt to lay Claymores at each end of the killing area as cut-offs, with others facing into the killing area to make it more 'kinetic' – a great military understatement.
Again, it was always with live ammo. What's the point in training with blank ammunition? It means you're training for training. Live ammunition focuses the mind wonderfully. Or, as Nish said, leaves a fucking big hole in it.
It was true. If you fuck up with live ammo, there's no going back. All you can do is keep the body alive until a helicopter arrives.
The benefits outweigh the downsides. You gain more confidence in yourself and in your weapon and, most important of all, in the people around you. That's why the Regiment is the best there is at what it does. There have been plenty of casualties, even on Selection. But if the squadrons were wrapped up in cotton wool or had to listen to the health-and-safety brigade, there would be even more deaths – not in training but on operations. Then there would be even more hand-wringing.
People tend to forget that the SAS are paid to fight, kill and perhaps be killed themselves. To make sure that the last doesn't happen too often, training has to be realistic and therefore dangerous. I felt very comfortable with it. I was a volunteer; no one had forced me to catch the sand-coloured beret.
Life here was very clear. 'This is what we do, this is the way we do it. If you don't like it, get out. There are thousands wanting to take your place.'
Every night, we'd brew up and waffle in the dark and the rain. By now I had some hair growing on my face, my kit was in shit state like everyone else's, I stank, I had zits like the others, and was starting to get into the routine of the kerfuddle and communal cooking. I'd brought a frying-pan that fitted nicely in the back of my Bergen, and everything I cooked I shared.
I was joining in bits of conversations as I began to feel more comfortable around the guys. I liked them all. Nobody was being horrible to the new boy, trying to make him fall flat on his face. That stuff didn't happen in the Regiment. Everyone was a professional soldier getting on with his job. And, besides, I was on probation for a year; plenty of time to do my own falling.
The only thing I didn't join in with was the piss-taking. I was so happy being in the squadron there was no way I was going to jeopardize my chances by getting on the wrong side of anyone.
Frank was the friendliest to me and I always seemed to land up sitting next to him round the fire as he got a hard time from one or other of the troop. Maybe he saw me as moral support, or a good target for conversion.
One particular night everybody was doing his own thing, brewing up and eating. Frank slapped me on the back as he added the rum to the punch. 'I can see the Regiment's occupying the number-one spot in your life, isn't it? You're ambitious, you want to go on and get all your skills. It's everything to you, isn't it?'
'Course. Not much else matters.' I looked at him, surprised. I couldn't understand why he was even saying it. I thought everybody here would think the same way. Surely the only reason you joined the Regiment was to become the best soldier you possibly could be.
Chris had just come back from prayers with Saddlebags. He fed the fire with wet wood. Nish lay on his pole-bed, moaning that the fresh clouds of smoke were interfering with his own.
'OK, listen in. Boss L is pissed off with the honks. He knows it's Snapper starting them off. It has to stop right now.'
On cue, a 'Hoooonk' rang out in the darkness.
Everyone laughed, including Chris.
Nish took a deep breath but Chris was waiting for it. 'Don't even think about it. We'll all be in the shit.'
'Wasn't going to, mate. Just about to say Snapper must be deaf as well as mad.'
The general waffle now was about Frank leaving for a few weeks to do some hearts-and-minds stuff alongside medics from other troops.
Tiny was on the other side of the fire, once more reading The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Al sat next to him, on his rice sack, poring over a Bible like a detective at a crime scene. They were in their own little world, occasionally swapping notes and conferring.
All of a sudden there was a frenzy of noise, voices and torchlight heading our way.
A slow northern accent rang out from behind the torch. 'Mason hunt! Snapper and the anti-lodge approaching. Where's the new boy?'
Nish rolled out of his pole-bed as five guys came into the firelight.
'Here he is – Andy.'
Snapper went down on his haunches the other side of the smoke. He was very tall, with a flat face and a nose broken so badly it headed east when he was facing north. His accent was dramatic Lancashire, and he stretched the last word of each sentence until it broke. 'Andy, you a fookin' masoooon?'
'Lodge, Andy. You a fookin' apron-wearer?'
The other four were waffling with Nish about the new suntrap and passing round a mug of punch.
He stared at me. I wasn't sure if this was a joke or not. An apron-wearer? What the fuck was he on about?
He stood and took the alloy mug that Saddlebags offered. Nish introduced me to the other four, who weren't as madlooking.
Des Doom had thick dark curly hair and a face that said, 'Come and try it, if you think you're hard enough.' He was wearing a green vest that exposed arms and a chest that were meaty rather than muscle-toned. Every square inch of exposed skin was covered with Para Regiment tattoos and what looked like a Chinese takeaway menu without the English translation. He grinned as I took in the art gallery. 'If you don't want to talk to me, read me.'
Harry was a Royal Marine and it stood out a mile. His looks could have sold toothpaste and there wasn't a zit in sight. Thankfully, he wasn't the full Adonis: he had more blond hair on his face than he had left on his head.
Hillbilly looked like Chuck Connors's shorter and less successful brother. His nose was more squashed than Chuck's and his chin was a bit more bent out of shape. Miraculously for someone who was obviously no stranger to a fracas, all his teeth looked intact.
Schwepsy also had blond hair, but his was thick and wild. His face was acne-scarred, but unlined. He clearly wasn't a man prone to worry.
Snapper's manic eyes, still staring at me over the mug, told me all I needed to know about him. He finished the brew. 'OK, no masons here. One more new boy to check.' He took a deep breath as they moved back into the darkness. 'Hoooonk!'
Chris sniffed and shook his head as the rest pissed themselves with laughter. I felt I could join in on this one.
The general waffle for the rest of the night was about the anti-masons. Snapper was obsessed: he was sure that freemasons were infiltrating the Regiment and it was his mission to expose and kick them out. He'd even set up a covert observation post (OP) opposite the Lodge in Hereford and filmed whoever turned up.
Nish grinned. 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean no one's out to get you!'
Des Doom, Hillbilly and Harry had all passed Selection with Nish in 1980.
Hillbilly claimed to have a background in the Merchant Navy. In fact, he'd been a croupier aboard a cruise ship. The navy wouldn't let him apply for the SAS so he'd had to leave and become a civilian. He'd been on the dole in Hereford while training for Selection.
Schwepsy had been an instructor at Depot Para in a past life, and looked perfect for the role. There was a frustrated RSM inside him.
Snapper? Well, the conversation went on and on about him. He was a regimental institution. Mirbat, Kubat – all the Aden battles – and back again. He'd also been in the Falklands and on the embassy job. He'd had 'B Squadron Smoke Embassy' emblazoned on his T-shirt.
Snapper had been sent to Hong Kong once to train the Gurkhas in unarmed combat. He'd had a punch-up in a pub and become the last British soldier to be publicly flogged. He said he didn't think it'd hurt much – but then the biggest Chinese he'd ever seen in his life came out with the longest cane in history. He got six strokes, and for months he claimed to be the only sergeant with twelve stripes: 'Three on each arm and six on my arrrrse!'
Snapper knew he was sane and had a bit of paper to prove it. Al voiced what the new boy could only think: 'That means he really is mad, doesn't it?'
The thought of having a bit of paper to show you're OK in the head sounded great to me. I wanted one.
Things started to die down around the fire as we had a mug of punch and sorted our shit out, but the tranquillity didn't last long. Behind his mozzie net, Nish used a box of ration-pack matches to get another No. 6 on the go. He propped himself on one elbow and shouted into an imaginary mike, 'Welcome to the show, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. My name is Nish Bruce, and I'm your Red Devils commentator for this afternoon's display. About three minutes from now, the aircraft will appear overhead. I'll just see where they are now . . .' He rolled over and stuck his head out from his mozzie net, peering up at the canopy. 'Today we have eight jumpers in the aircraft, including His Holiness Frank, Certifiable Snapper – What happens when a paranoid has low self-esteem? He thinks that nobody important is out to get him, ba-boom – and the newest member of the team, young Trooper Andy from Sarrrf London, and this is his first display . . .'
Al had had enough and threw a log at him. Nish fell out of his pole-bed trying to avoid getting hit.
Frank leant over to me. 'Nish knows about freefall. He was in the Red Devils. Got about three thousand jumps in his log book.'
Tiny muttered, 'Here we go, two crap hats talking about the airborne.' He didn't even look up.
Frank wasn't Para Reg, but a scaley (signaller) attached to Hereford before he did Selection, because that was the only way they could apply.
Nish brushed himself down and came over to join us. 'Oi, Father Frank, tell him who's the daddy . . . Who got wet in the Falklands, eh?'
The interrogation phase of Nish's Selection had ended on a Saturday night in May 1982. 'By first thing Sunday morning, me and the other four dickheads you just met were badged and screaming round the Lines (the camp in Hereford) getting issued with kit and zeroing weapons.'
An Exocet missile fired by a Super Étendard had taken out HMS Sheffield, with the loss of twenty crew. Downing Street were shitting themselves: if the same thing happened to an aircraft-carrier, it could mean the end of the war before the islands had been reclaimed.
The head shed (command) started to look at ways of destroying Étendards and Exocets on the ground. While Nish had been pissing around on Combat Survival, Frank and the rest of this lot had been training for an assault on Argentina.
One option was for a pair of C-130s (Hercules transport aircraft) to fly from Ascension Island into Argentina and deliver them directly on target. The two airfields were Rio Grande and Rio Gallegos, either side of the Strait of Magellan, at the very tip of South America. B Squadron practised flying under radar at Heathrow and doing mock assaults on airfields all over the UK.
B Squadron patrols were already on mainland Argentina, setting up OPs. They started sending information back to Hereford and a plan of attack was formulated. The aircraft would be circling out at sea. When they got the all-clear from the OPs, they would fly in below the radar and land in the airfield. As soon as the ramp dropped, out would stream the motorbikes and cut-down Land Rovers. They carried machineguns and M202s, American-made, multi-barrelled white phosphorus grenade-launchers. Air Troop would bomb-burst into small groups to take out the control tower, blow the fuel tanks and attack the accommodation blocks to kill the pilots.
But time was tight. A military base two miles away housed a couple of thousand Argentine marines. Escape options were limited. The nearest British Task Force ship would be five hundred miles away, and helicopters had the fuel capacity to reach the mainland but not get home again so there would be no pick-up after the job. That only left the border, forty miles away, in vehicles or tabbing. They'd have to get there and give themselves up to the Chileans.
But that wasn't the only plan the head shed was considering. The troop left Brize Norton. Nish got chosen for the advance party because of his freefall experience, even though he was so new he didn't have any patrol skills. Seven Troop would jump into the attack and be first on the ground, taking out the pilots and control tower as the rest of the squadron flew in, landed and destroyed the aircraft.
The winds in the area averaged about forty m.p.h. at that time of year so there were six guys in each patrol instead of the normal four – they didn't expect everyone to get down in one piece.
They reached Ascension Island. They wanted to close down the airfield so they could practise the drop. A C-130 was going to fly in low, climb again to 600 feet, its maximum height for the radar, and they'd jump off the tailgate.
Nish didn't know it yet, but nobody in any Air Troop had ever jumped from so low. Even he wondered if he'd stay stable enough on exit to pull the handle immediately, but he kept his mouth shut. He thought the head sheds must know what they were talking about.
He had kept his doubts to himself right up until the point where Ken, the troop sergeant, whom I was yet to meet, asked if they should do the dummy run with or without the chainsaws needed to cut through chain-link fences.
Frank said the OC (officer commanding a squadron) had already been binned because he'd said it was a suicide mission.
Tiny gave a jerk of his wrist. 'That's because he was a crap hat.'
Nish smiled. 'Yeah. Anyway, what's the point of practising something you can only fuck up once?' He gassed a bunch of mozzies with a lungful of smoke. 'We got the warning order: leave in twelve hours. I was jumping with just a chainsaw, no other kit. The rest of my gear was in one of the Land Rovers.
'Then we were told there was a delay. Then that it had been put on hold. Then it was on again, but changed. Fuck me, it went on like that all week. Apparently Thatcher wasn't happy about the predicted sixty per cent casualty rate. The crabs (RAF) weren't too thrilled either about having to dump the aircraft and have the crew tab to Chile with us.'
Frank shook his head sadly. 'We were called together by the new OC. We thought it was to announce another delay, but a Sea King had crashed while cross-decking between ships at night. About twenty from D and G Squadrons and their signallers were dead. All of us had friends in that helicopter.'
Then, on 8 June, two transport ships, Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram, were hit by Argentine jets in Bluff Cove. Dozens of soldiers were killed or burnt, most of them Welsh Guards. All of a sudden, the mainland op was back on.
'We were due to take off at 0700.' Nish was now blowing smoke rings. 'I was in the baggage party, humping gear into the cargo hold. A Land Rover screamed up and we heard the news: the op had been cancelled. One of the newspapers had gone and published a story about us practising for a mainland operation! Within hours, the Argies had moved their aircraft away from the airfields and scattered them in ones and twos.'
B Squadron were deployed instead to join D Squadron on an assault on Port Stanley airport.
'We were going to fly down there in two C-130s so the Argies couldn't get all the Special Forces with one hit.' Frank smacked his neck and killed a mozzie. 'We were going to do a wet landing and be picked up by ships in the area. Next morning, our two C-130s took off. The flight was thirteen hours – a long time when you're sweating in a dry suit.'
Finally, the plane lost altitude, and they could see ships below.
I couldn't see the other plane with Nish aboard but I knew it was ahead of us. We circled. We circled some more. Suddenly we were gaining height and flying back in the direction we'd come from.
The jumpmaster appeared, waving his hands. 'It's off, no jump.' Back at Ascension Island after twenty-six hours' flying, they were told they had six hours before re-boarding and flying back.
'That was when we learnt why we'd been sent back . . .'
Frank handed over with a flourish. Nish gave a huge grin and smoke poured from his mouth. 'Fucking right. We reached the convoy and prepared for a static-line jump from a thousand feet, directly off the ramp.'
Their dry suits would give them about five minutes in the water before they froze, so it was all down to the navy. There were twenty-one guys, but only seven could jump on each pass because there weren't enough inflatables to pick them up. Nish was in the second stick.
'Red light, green light . . . I sat under my canopy, watching the last guy in the first stick just missing the stern of a ship. Ten feet from the water, I hit the release box and dropped away from the rig. Fuck me, the water was cold. Huge swells.' Nish's hand moved up and down. 'The coxswains were surfing down the waves to get to us. They pulled me on board and the Herc made a final pass and dropped all the kit. Bang . . .' Nish punched one hand into the other. 'The whole fucking lot burst open and sank. Bergens, weapons, personal stuff, everything.'
The drop was halted. The aircraft turned back to Ascension.
Nish giggled. 'When they did the final tally-up, the blokes were claiming enough lost kit to sink a couple of battleships. I lost a couple of Rolexes and a mink coat in my Bergen.'
He took a big suck from a brand new No. 6. 'We were on the deck, waiting to be heli'd in, when they announced white flags had been seen over Port Stanley. Story of my life.' Nish held his thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. 'So near, and yet so fucking far . . .'
Frank got up to bin it for the night. Nish picked up a log and lobbed it like a warning shot across a ship's bow.
Tiny wagged his finger. 'C'mon, Frank, what's the most Christian way for a soldier to kill a man?'
Frank was uncomfortable, but happy to defend his views. 'There is no Christian way to kill . . .'
'OK, then, as a Christian soldier, would you kill any differently?'
'No. You've still got to nullify the threat. In Romans thirteen it says something like, "He does not bear the sword for nothing for he is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring God's punishment on the evil-doer." '
'What the fuck does that mean?'
'Killing is sometimes the best way to save life.'
'You going to heaven after all this, Frank?'
'I believe in the afterlife. Death is the next great adventure.'
'You think Jesus would have passed Selection?'
'He lasted forty days and nights in the desert, didn't he? Christ was hard.'
'You still coming over the water, then, or you off to Bible college?' Tiny was getting bored with the non-biting Frank. He leant back and stretched. He was going to get his head down too.
Frank got up, scratched around. He'd heard it all before. Chris looked up and smiled. 'No, come on, Frank, what are you going to do?'
'I'll do my job, like everybody else.'
I looked around me, bewildered. 'Are we going over the water?'
Chris laughed. 'We get a long weekend off and then we start training. Soon as we get back, it's out of this lot and into jeans and trainers.'
That night, I lay in my A-frame as the rain pounded the shelter sheet and thought about Frank. He was a complicated piece of work. It was as if being Frank Collins wasn't enough.
He'd gone into the army to escape the fighting, alcoholism and misery at home and joined 264 Signal (SAS) squadron, then passed Selection as one of the youngest ever. During the embassy siege he had taken a pillow up onto the roof during the many stand-tos for an assault. He reasoned he might as well get some sleep while he waited. When the assault finally happened, Frank was number one into the building.
The Royal Signals had a strange system when one of their own passed Selection: they wanted him back after three years. But Frank had changed that system for ever. When it was his time to return he'd simply refused and said he'd rather quit. It was a risky bluff, but it worked. Maybe, though, just like his conviction about God, he would have carried it through.
It was a shock, but a good shock. I was excited about going back to Northern Ireland. I'd been there on plenty of tours with the Green Jackets, doing all the normal army town patrols in places like Crossmaglen and Belfast, but ultimately we were just mobile Figure-11 targets.
It was nearly seven years since I'd started my first tour, at Christmas 1977. So many seventeen-year-old soldiers had been killed in the early years of the Ulster emergency that you now had to be eighteen before you could serve there. So, when the battalion had left on 6 December, I couldn't join them: I had to wait until my birthday at the end of the month.
I was in Crossmaglen, a cattle-market town known to us as XMG, right on the border, in bandit country. This meant the players could prepare on the other side, in Dundalk, then pop over and give us the good news, or just rig up their mortars in the south and get a few rounds down on us.
We didn't use vehicles because so many had been blown up by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Everything came in by helicopter, but even they weren't immune. Our CO (officer commanding a regiment), Corton-Lloyd, was killed when one was brought down as he left the location. By the time peace was finally declared in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more than 2,300 civilians had been killed in Northern Ireland. So, too, were more than 950 members of the security forces – a greater number than so far in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
It was in XMG that I first met a guy from the Regiment. At least, I thought he was. I didn't see him for the first two months I was there, but I knew his name was Rob, and was told he wore a dirty white submariner's polo-neck jumper, minging jeans and wellies, and lived near the operations room. I'd go past his door sometimes, hear the hiss of radios and catch a glimpse of maps of South Armagh. His place was a dump: there were Bergens, belt kit, old crisps packets everywhere. But no Rob.
Then he turned up in the washrooms one day and didn't look at all as I'd expected. He could have been anyone in a crowd. He was wearing just a pair of pants, T-shirt and flip-flops. His washing and shaving kit consisted of a toothbrush and a bit of soap in a plastic cup from a vending machine. We, at the bottom of the food chain, had been told not to talk to him.
'All right, mate?' He was from up north somewhere.
I'd smiled back through a face full of shaving cream. Not that I needed to shave that much at eighteen. 'All right.'
That was as far as my introduction to the Regiment went from Rob. I was to see him quite a lot in H (Hereford) in the future, but never got round to asking if he remembered the zit-covered dickhead in the washroom.
That tour had been the first time I'd had to shoot at real live people, and the first time a friend had been killed in front of me. Nicky Smith was a year older than me when he got blown in half by a booby trap on the outskirts of town. His head was cut off diagonally at the neck, and his lower legs were missing. The bit in the middle was intact – badly messed up, but intact. I felt his blood splatter on my face, could smell the flesh that now hung from a fence, and it took hours to find his left foot.
It was an abrupt end to soldiering just being a good laugh. I still had Nicky's map: I'd picked it up from the bloodstained street to remind me this was serious business.
It was a different story when the Special Air Service showed up. These were the guys who carried the war to the Provisional IRA (PIRA), the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and the rest. What they did was proactive and aggressive. And now, wearing jeans and trainers rather than helmet and body armour, I was going to be joining them.
Frank left for the Cameron Highlands the next day to do his hearts-and-minds thing. I was happy he could dodge the flak for a while. Everyone gave him a hard time, but I knew now it was only out of concern – for his wellbeing, and their own. We depended on each other for our lives, and if Frank's finger hesitated on the trigger because of stuff a guy had allegedly been spouting a couple of thousand years ago, well, it was just plain scary. At the same time, I was sorry he wasn't there. It's fun to take the piss out of someone, and if the other lads didn't have him as the butt of their jokes, they might turn their attention to somebody else.
I wondered what the next few months held in store. I was still on probation. I was still on an infantry sergeant's pay, but it was less than a qualified trooper earned in the SAS.
To qualify for Special Forces' pay I still had to get a patrol skill. Everyone has to have signals – if the shit hits the fan you've got to be able to shout, 'Help!'
I would also need my entry skill. Mobility Troop need to know how to drive a whole range of vehicles; divers need to be able to dive; Mountain Troop need to get themselves up and down hills; in Air Troop, we needed to know how to freefall. No patrol skill, no extra pay, but it was Catch 22: we wouldn't be paid unless we'd got the qualifications to do the job – but we couldn't get the qualifications because we were too busy doing it.
Seven Troop was off to Northern Ireland; the other three troops would comprise the counter-terrorism team.
Chris gave me another bit of good news. We were going to Oman as soon as we got back from over the water, and would be on a 'fast glide'. I eventually found out that meant military freefall training, and we'd be doing it for weeks on end. And I discovered, at last, the reason we needed sunglasses: it's no good having an expensive aircraft sitting doing nothing because the weather's closed in, so it's cheaper and more effective to go somewhere with a guarantee of sunny skies. And where there's sun, there has to be ice cream.
I needed my entry skill before the Oman trip so that when the other blokes in the troop mentioned riggers, risers, brakelines, baselines or flare I'd understand what the fuck they were talking about.
The public image of the SAS is synonymous with Land Rovers screaming around the desert, men in black abseiling down embassy walls, or freefallers leaping into the night. But freefall, like the other entry skills, is just a means of getting from A to B.
To count myself proficient I would have to be able to jump as part of a patrol and keep with the others in the air at night on oxygen, with full equipment loads weighing in excess of 120 pounds. Basically, I would have to get up there and jump my arse off until the entry phase of the operation became second nature. If the entry phase went wrong, there would be a domino effect of cock-ups.
For all that, it was addictive, from what I'd heard round the fire. There were world-class freefall jumpers in the Regiment, people who had represented the UK in international competitions. Nish, for all his farts and eccentricity, was one of them.
Al was worried about Frank. Not so much about him getting God, but what he was proposing to do now that he had. His rice sack was empty so he had to sit on a log like the rest of us. 'Do you think he'll get out?'
The general consensus was that he wouldn't. It was a phase; he'd soon see the error of his ways.
'Moving on . . .' Chris had a more pressing point. He'd had a letter. Frank and Chris were corporals, the senior ranks here, but the troop sergeant was Ken. He was away on a German course in Beaconsfield, west of London. I had no idea why, but that didn't matter. The main thing was that now Frank had gone the piss-taking had shifted, not to me but to Ken, even though he wasn't there – and, as I would discover, that was the only time to take the piss out of him.
Chris read out a snippet about German being a very interesting language. The grammar, apparently, was very similar to English. Both had identical pluperfects, or something.
Nish couldn't stop laughing. 'What the fuck is he on about? He eaten a dictionary?'
Tiny had only two words to say: 'Crap hat.' He looked across the fire at me. 'Even you can call him one. He's Int Corps.'
That made my day.
The next month under the canopy was taken up with a tracking course. That was why the Kiwi regiment were there. Those lads really knew their stuff. In fact, their course is famous, the best in the world. The Regiment send people there all the time. Not only are they really good at it, but also they've got all the different terrains in New Zealand to practise in: rainforest, mountains, snow, ice.
After we'd come out of the jungle there was a two-day clear-up of all the weapons and equipment. Nobody shaved. They were saving it for our week off in Singapore.
I felt good after the Malaysian trip. I'd blended in. I'd also been lucky, although I didn't realize it until I got back to the UK. The jungle trip turned out to have been one of the few times the entire squadron was together in one location. One or all of the four troops were often away training, then there were team jobs: six, ten, twenty guys, however many were required, might be away on operations. Others might be at specialist training establishments, learning everything from demolition to trauma care. The squadron is like a clearing house; it's not like a rifle company, where everybody's together all the time.
My freefall course was starting in three weeks. It would entail two weeks back at No. 1 Parachute Training School at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, the same place I'd learnt to static-line jump at the end of Selection, then two weeks in Pau, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and finally two more weeks in Brize Norton. But first I had to go and get all my black kit for the counter-terrorism (CT) team build-up, and get some basic training with the Counter-revolutionary Warfare Wing (CRW). I was going to be part of the team I'd watched storm the embassy. I just hoped I didn't fuck up.
CRW had been born out of the Munich Olympics massacre. On 5 September 1972, eight Palestinian terrorists had burst into a room housing eleven Israeli athletes. They'd shot two dead and taken the others hostage, demanding the release of PLO prisoners held in Israel and members of the German Red Army Faction held in West Germany. They also wanted a plane to fly them to Cairo.
The West German government, who had no specially trained counter-terrorist forces, gave in to the terrorists' demands after a day of negotiation. They were flown to a military airbase in two helicopters, and army snipers opened fire as they prepared to board the aircraft. Visibility was bad, and the snipers were too far away. The terrorists had time to blow up both helicopters, killing all nine hostages and a policeman.
To avoid a similar disaster in the UK, the British government turned to the SAS. The CRW had been created, among other things, to be responsible for training every member of the Regiment in counter-terrorism techniques.
An entire squadron was 'on the team' in the UK for six to nine months, on permanent standby. The squadrons rotated, and it was B Squadron's turn. While Seven Troop was over the water, the other three troops would comprise the team. I'd been sent straight for CT training so that while I was mincing around for a month at Brize Norton on my freefall course, I'd also be on standby. It was a national and international responsibility, and they needed every spare bit of manpower they could get their hands on.
It sounded to me like the best of all worlds. I got to do team training, collect my entry skill, and finally to go on operations with my own troop.
We were split into two sub-teams, Red and Blue, which meant that two incidents could be covered at once if it was a really bad day. One team was on thirty-minute standby, the other, three hours. There was a signals set-up from Frank's unit, and each had an assault group and a sniper group.
The assaulters were the guys in black who jumped out of helicopters and went in through embassy windows. Depending on the target, they tended to work in four-man teams. One of the assaulters was also the method-of-entry (MOE) man, responsible for taking down any door the team were trying to get through with explosives, or by simply turning the handle. Then there was the MOE heavy brigade. They were the guys who cut through walls using shaped charges, and made sure that everything from window grilles to steel-plated doors didn't get in our way.
Until everything went bang and an attack went in, the most important component of the team were the snipers. They were always in their fire positions so we had eyes on target supplying real-time information. They reported any movement they could see, the exact construction of the window frames, whether there were any covert approaches to the target, so that the lads could have a close recce. The snipers knew exactly the kind of information required because they, too, were trained as assaulters.
The squadron HQ comprised the OC – a major – and the SSM (squadron sergeant major) – a warrant officer – who were responsible for both teams. B Squadron had just got a new OC. Boss L was off to bigger and better things.
Stirling Lines, our camp, was named after the founder of the SAS. It was usually just referred to as the Lines, and had been rebuilt about five years ago. The old camp, Bradbury Lines, consisted of wooden spider huts from the 1950s, long barrack rooms in a star shape joined at the centre by the toilets and washrooms. Now the camp looked more like a university campus, with red-brick buildings, white-framed double-glazing, and no parade ground. It was so un-army. I loved it.
I lined up at the quartermaster's and was issued with my ready bag – a black canvas affair big enough to hold a family car, containing everything an assaulter could ever need. The idea was that you could throw it straight into a vehicle or a heli in a call-out. Ready bags always had to be ready.
First into it was a set of black overalls and Nomex tops and bottoms to go underneath, like pyjamas. Nomex was the fireproof kit racing drivers wore. I was also given an NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) suit, which would go between the two if we were using dodgy gas that was designed to attack the skin as well as the respiratory system. Next came a respirator and six spare canisters. The Kevlar body armour had two ceramic plates, front and rear, to protect the major organs in the chest area. A thick suede waistcoat to go over the top was festooned with small webbing loops and pockets. And last, but not least, there was a pair of green leather aviators' gloves. They protected your hands, but were thin enough to let you feel the trigger. Everyone loved them.
I was handed a 9mm Browning semi-automatic pistol, and the legendary Heckler & Koch MP5, with an under-slung torch. The torch was zeroed to the weapon. If you were firing from up to about eight metres, the rounds would hit where the beam did. It was great for target acquisition in the dark, but the beam was also powerful enough to penetrate smoke.
I was given half a dozen thirty-round magazines for the MP5 and three for the 9mm, and thick leather mag holders to strap to my legs: 7.62 mags on the left, 9mm on the right. They didn't go on your legs so that you could walk around like Wyatt Earp: it was because your belt was under your body armour, so nothing was accessible until it came off.
The webbing hooks in the waistcoat were for grenades, flash bangs and/or gas canisters. Flash bangs – not stun grenades, as the media like to call them – came in different formats. Bang, flash or scream: all of them fucked people up in their own special way. Some just gave off crushing bangs that made your body shudder – as well as the enemy's. Some gave bangs and a brilliant flash that caused temporary blindness. Some emitted high-pitched deafening screams. About the size of an aerosol can with a handle down the side, they had a rubber skin that contained three levels of small alloy canisters. When the pin was pulled and the flash bang was thrown, the small charge inside kicked off and sprayed the room with whatever special brand of fuck-off stuff was inside.
On the left-hand side of the vest there was a pouch with a bit of strapping to hold the next bit of issue, a fireman's axe – very handy if the MOE guy fucked up. High on the left shoulder a survival knife was positioned so you could grab it easily with your right hand, even with a weapon butt in the shoulder. It was not so much for fighting with, more for cutting away the abseil rope if you got caught up. It was added to the kit after the embassy siege when a couple of lads got tangled and couldn't cut themselves free. They were badly burnt by fires set off by flash bangs, which billowed from the windows below.
As soon as we had our ready bags we went to CRW and started training. CRW also evaluated new equipment and techniques for the CT team. They sourced different training areas and buildings. If they could get their hands on a 747 jet they would, and we'd fly off and meet it wherever it was. They organized trips to the London Underground, ports and airports, and assessed major venues where heads of state were likely to gather. They were big believers in the Seven Ps: Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. A large two-storey building with a flat roof that was used as a stronghold stood within the training area. It got stormed about six times a week.
The Regiment used Agusta 109 helicopters. Some were captured in the Falklands; others were bought once the head shed saw how good they were. They were perfect for moving fast in built-up areas and delivering assault groups to the top of buildings or wherever they needed to be. They were also in wide use by civilians, so offered concealment.
The idea that particular night was to practise a new technique for inserting an assault team onto the top of a building fast and in darkness. I'd only abseiled a couple of times before on adventure training, and never from a helicopter. Back in the Lines, the lads had shown us how to rig up the seat harness, which was part of our ready bags, and the metal figure-of-eight the rope went through so you could control your descent. And that was it. Again, it was all about barrel time: just get on with it.
The normal abseiling technique from an Agusta was to stand on the skid, leaning out on a rope secured to a D-ring on the floor. It was tried and tested, but the disadvantage for the pilot was having guys hanging out as the helicopter swooped into position. The new method we were going to try was to stay in the aircraft so the pilot could fly faster and manoeuvre round targets without worrying about guys falling off the sides.
We all knelt inside, rigged up and ready to go, with only three metres of slack rope, secured to a D-ring, coiled in our hands. When the command came to jump, we did exactly that. There was three metres of freefall before the rope bit on the figure of eight, and then we abseiled normally. The only thing to make absolutely sure of, the instructors said, was that you really had a grip of the rope in your right hand. That was the free one, the one that was going to do the braking.
It all worked fine, until one of us had a drama and lost his grip. He hit the roof like a runaway sack of shit, and his ankle cracked so loudly I could hear it from ten metres away.
As he lay there waiting to be cas-evac'd off, the heli's rotors blasting us with downwash, Snapper walked over, lit two fags and passed one down. 'You'll have to work on that last bit, laaaad.' He winked. 'Only four point five for styyyyyle.'
We were taken to what used to be called the Killing House. I'd heard hundreds of rounds being fired in it while I was on Selection, and now I was actually going in to have a cabby (a go) myself.
'We have to call it the CQB building noooow.' Snapper wasn't impressed. 'Things are starting to get all politically correct. I blame Maggieeee!'
Whatever it was called, the single-storey building in the corner of the Lines was designed for us to train in hostage rescue with live ammunition, and make entry at any level – anything from a four-man assault group to a complete team.
The smell of lead and cordite clung to the walls. After a while you could taste it at the back of your throat. There were extractor fans, but they couldn't keep up with the number of rounds fired – more than the rest of the army put together.
Snapper had just been posted to CRW, but still thought he was with the squadron. He hung around, and generally joined in with the guys, honking about everything and anything, like any soldier in any army on the planet.
Even with all the lights on, the rooms in the CQB (close-quarter battle) house were still gloomy. Some rooms had bullet-proof glass with little portholes so people could look in from outside or video us.
Live ammunition could be used because the walls were covered with overlapping sheets of conveyor-belt rubber. Behind them there was a gap of about three inches, then thick steel plate. The rounds would go through the rubber, hit the steel, and if they ricocheted it would only be back against the rubber. It was a brilliant system. You could ram an MP5 right against the rubber, blat away on auto, and not a single round came back.
We were separated into four-man groups. I was with Hillbilly, one of the lads I'd met when Snapper was doing his anti-mason hunt. He was in Boat Troop.
He gave me a nod. 'How you getting on? Seen anything of Nish?'
'Nah, they've been in the training area since we got here.'
Snapper appeared. 'You, you and you – let's go.'
Hillbilly, another lad and I fell in behind him.
Snapper looked and sounded as mad as usual. 'OK, laaaads, let's smoke 'em and doke 'em!'
I'd thought he was going to do his CRW training thing, not be the team commander.
I was number three on the door. I looked at Hillbilly. 'What do you want me to do?'
No one had given me any instruction about four-man room combat.
'Just get through the fucking door. Go where we're not. If Snapper and me are to the right, you go left. Just get in where you can. If you see an X-ray, drop him. Simple as that. Just get on with it, mate. No time for mincing.'
I loaded the MP5 with thirty rounds, pulled the cocking handle to make the weapon ready and put the safety catch on. I let the weapon drop in front of me to hang from its chest sling and pulled out the 9mm, cocked it, applied the safety, and pushed it back into the thigh holster.
We were on the left of the door. Snapper was number one and on the hinges. Hillbilly was so close behind he could have got him pregnant. I was the same distance behind him. It had to be this way so we'd get through the door almost as one.
Over the next decade I'd get used to the deafening thuds from other rooms and the smell of lead and cordite.
The number four, the MOE guy, was on the handle side of the door.
Snapper must have heard Hillbilly. He grabbed hold of my arm and dragged me close enough to shout into my ear through the respirator and above the din: 'It's all about barrel time, Andy lad. Time on the weapon, that's what it's about. Don't you fucking worry about all the walk-through talk-throughs. I'll soon tell you if you fuck up.' He let go and I got back on the door, but then he came back and dragged me towards him again. 'Or Mr Nine Millimetre will. Awww.'
Snapper got back on the door with the butt of his MP5 in the shoulder, weapon up, facing where the gap would appear as soon as the door opened.
Hillbilly had his weapon in the shoulder but was pointing it down at the floor. I saw his thumb click his safety down onto single shot. All the way down would have been automatic. It's all about taking rapid, controlled shots to conserve ammunition.
Snapper had just remembered he was now on CRW. 'We want the fuckers to drop like liquiiiid – no chance of zapping back at us. Double taps to the nuuuut.'
I knew all this anyway. The CQB phase was part of Selection, but not room combat. I knew that in real time the place could be full of X-rays (terrorists) and Yankees (hostages). If you started blatting automatic fire all around, you were going to land up killing the very people you were there to save. You only made head shots. Terrorists were allowed to wear body armour as well, and they could be totally out of it on drugs or adrenalin. I'd heard about Jocks in the First World War charging on, skirts flying and bayonets fixed, sometimes taking six or seven rounds before they understood they were dead.
I checked my safety catch, muzzle pointing down. My left shoulder pressed against Hillbilly's back. We waited in silence, but it was a noisy silence. As well as the din of gunfire and shouts I could hear my respirator's rubber diaphragm clicking each time I breathed in, and the breathing itself was amplified; I sounded like a pervert on the phone. That wasn't the only problem with respirators. There was also a strong smell of rubber, and pungent, peppery traces of old CS gas. On top of that, my lenses were steaming up. I was beginning to feel like I was under water.
Snapper shouted, 'Stand by, stand by – goooo!' It was muffled by his respirator, but I got the drift.
Number four pushed open the door and Snapper and Hillbilly disappeared. They'd go as far forward as they could before firing, to leave room for others to come in and join the attack.
As I followed them a split second later, butt in the shoulder, both eyes open, torchlight burning into the gloom, I heard a series of quick double taps to my right.
I couldn't believe my eyes. There were real people in here. Some team members were sitting at tables. One was standing to my half-left, another was sitting on a settee.
I moved to Hillbilly's left. He was firing at a Hun-head between two lads at a table.
I spotted a Hun-head in the far corner, stopped, illuminated the target, gave it a double tap and moved forward. There was hardly any recoil from the weapon.
I double-tapped again, shuffled forward, double-tapped. And again. Finally, I was close enough to see the rounds making holes. That was it. He was dead, and there were no more targets, just guys sitting or standing around me.
We had all stopped firing within seconds of making entry. Snapper screamed through his respirator: 'Clear.'
We covered the number four as he swept from the right, pistol drawn, MP5 dangling over his front, checking behind the settees and in the wardrobes for any hidden X-rays.
A double tap from him into the wardrobe, then another, said there were.
The threat was only considered eliminated when a body went down and wasn't moving any more because it was dead. That was why a target sometimes got zapped by sixteen rounds. You had to fire until you knew the guy was dead. It was dark in the wardrobe and the number four couldn't see the strike marks as he fired the first double tap. So he fired again until he did.
After the embassy, I remembered listening to armchair experts complain about the number of rounds the dead X-rays had in them. 'Why didn't they just shoot him in the leg?' they were saying, or 'Why not kill them with just two rounds? This is overkill.' The people who made those comments were lucky enough never to have had a gun pointed at them.
Snapper pulled off his respirator. 'Too fookin' sloooow!'
I took off mine too. I must have had a big line round my face from the seal, just like the other three.
All the hostages, lads from Mountain Troop, gave Snapper a slagging. They said he'd gone off to the right as he came in, when the main threat, the nearest target to him, was to his left.
Snapper wasn't having any of it, and gave a perfect demonstration of why he'd earned his name. An argument kicked off in less than a second.
I unloaded my weapons and Hillbilly did the same. He pushed my arm to hustle me out, and went into Snapper mode. 'Let's leave him to iiiit.'
My hair and the back of my neck were wet with sweat. Cold air attacked it as we left the CQB house and wandered towards the 'Norwegians'. Huge Thermos flasks the size of wheelie-bins, they were picked up each morning from the cookhouse, along with the team's packed lunches. The meal never varied: a couple of beef rolls, a packet of crisps, a Yorkie bar and a battered apple. Everyone honked about them, but ate them within a couple of hours. Both of us got a paper cup of sweaty old brew.
A Worcester to Hereford train rumbled past about thirty metres away. Commuters must have had a great view every morning. The old camp was situated right next to the track and on the edge of town.
I still didn't know Hillbilly that well but at least he was making an effort with the new boy. 'When are you going on the freefall course?'
'About two weeks, then straight over the water with the troop. Were you and Nish the same battalion?'
'Nah, I met him on Selection.'
Hillbilly was from Portsmouth. He didn't have the accent, but he'd mentioned the place a couple of times. His ex-wife and daughter still lived there.
He was fanatical about fitness – but it had nothing to do with keeping on top of the job. 'Training, plus lots of, equals women pulled,' was his motto. Hillbilly lived life at maximum revs. Saturday night was new-shirt night. The local clothes stores made a fortune out of him. It was as if he'd taken on sole responsibility for keeping the women of Hereford happy. He was no Robert Redford with his punched-in face, but he had charm, lots of it, and few could resist. As he always said, once he was dressed up in a new shirt with neatly groomed hair, 'They stop, they stare, they care.'
I still didn't understand about Snapper. Was he part of the team, or CRW, or what?
'CRW.' Hillbilly unwrapped the cling-film from the last of his beef rolls. 'But he still turns up with the troop in the morning. We have to fuck him off.' He chuckled. 'Fucker's mad as a box of snakes.'
Snapper's latest derailment had come when he'd started a fight at Boss L's wedding reception. He ended up cutting down the hanging baskets with a ceremonial sword.
'What's all this stuff about him having a certificate to prove he's sane?'
'Just before Malaysia he got sent to Woolwich – Ward Eleven.'
All soldiers knew what that was: the psychiatric wing of the military hospital.
'They put him through the tests and he came up clean. He must have worked them out before they worked him out—'
The rest of his sentence was drowned out as Snapper appeared and grabbed a paper cup. He was in a good mood. 'They were wroooong. They admit it. Snapper knows beeeest.'
He stirred enough sugar into the brew to make the spoon stand up on its own.
Hillbilly almost choked on the last of his roll. 'Snapper, tell Andy about you going to see your gun – you know, the Mirbat gun.'
'They couldn't hold Snapperrrr! Slipped away to the artillery museum cos I fancied seeing it. Then when I got back there was pandemoniummmm.' Snapper loved his stories. 'They said, "Where you been?" I said, "To see the twenty-five-pounder. I was one of the Mirbat survivors." '
He waited to make sure I knew what he was on about. Of course I did: it was embedded in regimental history. A picture of one of the casualties, Labalaba, hung in the cookhouse. We saw it almost every day.
In many ways, Oman was the Regiment's spiritual home, the place where battles like Mirbat had happened and Snapper had gone loopy. Operation Storm had been a covert war, fought to stem the flood of Communism after the falls of Aden and Vietnam. The campaign was strategically vital. The West had been terrified of Soviet expansionism ever since Stalin had taken over the whole of Eastern Europe as far as Berlin. Now the Red threat was gathering momentum in Arabia, and the People's Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf – or, as the Regiment guys knew them, the Adoo – were gaining ground in Yemen and moving into the rest of the peninsula. A line had had to be drawn in the sand.
The site chosen was Dhofar, a province in the south of Oman, immediately next to the border to Aden. The operation would be tough. The place was remote, which was an advantage because it was a covert war, but at the same time little was known about it. Dhofar was isolated from the north by a 400-mile-wide desert, which rose up at its southern tip into a huge plateau, the Jebel Massif, a natural fortress 3,000 feet high, nine miles wide and stretching 150 miles from the east down to and across the border with Aden, renamed by the new management as the People's Republic of Southern Yemen.
Since early 1970, small SAS groups supported by firqats – bands of local tribesmen loyal to the Sultan of Muscat and Oman – and Baluch Askars, tough little mountain guys from Baluchistan, had established toeholds on the coastal plain immediately facing the Jebel. The war had to be fought quietly or it would affect the price of oil as producers and consumers worldwide got jittery. Operation Storm was a classic guerrilla war that was kept covert, contained and controlled so the region didn't become unstable – and it was won.
At 6 a.m. on 19 July 1972, the Adoo were still fighting hard and sent 250 well-armed men against the isolated British Army Training Team (BATT) house near the coastal resort of Mirbat. Snapper was manning the .50 calibre Browning machine-gun on the roof.
Against overwhelming odds, he and the eight other SAS soldiers stationed there resisted fiercely, holding the Adoo back for several hours until reinforcements could arrive.
The twenty-five-pounder, now known as the 'Mirbat gun', which was used by Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba (a Fijian SAS soldier) during the siege was now housed in the Firepower Museum at the old Royal Artillery garrison in Woolwich. 'Laba' Labalaba was killed in action, continuing to fire the twenty-five-pounder although he was seriously wounded. Snapper had been alongside him, in one of the most famous ever small-unit actions by the SAS, and one of the Regiment's proudest moments.
Snapper chuckled. 'They gave me a brew and tucked me into bed saying, "There, there, of course you were. Now have a nice rest and everything will be all right . . ."
'Fookin' not a clue! They must have thought I was mad, but they still gave me a piece of paper showing everyone I'm nooot!'
The grin dropped. Snapper seemed to have got bored. 'We're going to bin it. We've had enough for now. See you later.'
He wasn't talking social. We were going down to the training area for yet more freefall abseiling, but at night. With luck I'd get to see the troop, because that was where they were doing all their training.