Des Doom and Schwepsy came over with their brews and cornered Hillbilly. They both had the line around their faces from their respirator seals, and Schwepsy's dirty-blond hair was damp with sweat and sticking up as if he'd had an electric shock.
Schwepsy always strode rather than walked, like an RSM on the look-out for recruits to bounce around and shout at. His back was straight as a ramrod and his shoulders were so square they looked like the hanger was still in his jacket. With his Aryan hair combed back, he came straight off a recruitment poster for the Panzer Korps.
He peeled off his pilot's gloves and I noticed, yet again, that he didn't wear a watch. Even without one, he still checked his wrist every few seconds to make sure he was five minutes early for any parade – or anything, really. If he'd been a car, he would have been a solid, reliable, value-for-money Volvo. Only this Volvo would deliver a barrack-square bollocking if your hair was too long or your beret wasn't straight, you 'orrible little man.
Des Doom got his face into Hillbilly's like he was about to conduct an interrogation. Des only had two speeds, aggressive and more aggressive. Life, to him, was one long bayonet charge. He was the only guy I knew who could make asking a server in McDonald's for ketchup sound like a demand to step outside. If the poor guy didn't hand it over quickly enough he wasn't an idiot, he just suffered from NBPE (not being punched enough). For all that, somebody loved Des Doom. He'd been married to Mrs Doom for a long time, and they had kids. In the field, nothing ever fazed Des; no matter the task, he just got on with it – aggressively, of course. If Des had been a car – well, he wouldn't. He'd have been one of Schwepsy's panzers.
'You're coming with us for a brew.'
Hillbilly was hesitant. 'Too much to do at home. Gotta sort some kit out.'
Lads streamed out of the Killing House now it had been binned for the day.
Harry was heading our way. He was in Mountain Troop, and just as Nish was a champion freefaller, Harry had become a big-time mountaineer. He was always running round Norway in his weeks off, climbing, skiing, langlaufing, all the snow business. He wasn't married, but lived with a woman down town; unlike his best mate, Des, he was very quiet and stable, a guy who just got on with the job and wished his fine blond hair wasn't thinning so quickly. Des and Schwepsy decided that because I was in Seven Troop it was OK to take the piss out of Harry because he was a marine. Harry always had other ideas. 'Try it . . .'
Harry would have been an E-Type Jag: understated but with plenty under the balding bonnet. Hillbilly? They hadn't yet built a car with him in mind.
Des turned the lasers on me. 'What you doing now?'
'Nothing. Just killing time until later.'
We got the black gear off and back into the ready bags as Hillbilly slunk away.
Des checked his watch and glanced at Schwepsy. 'Give him a head start. It kicks off at four, right? We'll make the last fifteen minutes.'
We dumped the bags in the hangar and the four of us piled into my minging white Renault 5. I'd lost the ignition key long ago, so started the thing with the wires that hung under the steering column. The right-hand wing was held on by two bungees. But the wheels went round.
We weren't going for a brew, it turned out, but to catch Hillbilly at an aerobics class in a local gym. We were like a bunch of school kids, excited at the chance of embarrassing a mate.
The aerobics class was one of Hillbilly's many and varied plans to get laid. He thought if he joined the class he'd get to talk to young fit females, and then to ask them out for a drink. What he hadn't planned on was that some of the women would be going out with or married to Regiment guys. The secret got back via Mrs Doom.
The gym was in two parts: the weights in one warehouse and, across the courtyard, the aerobics studio.
The music pounded out as we crawled under the windows.
Hillbilly was in the thick of it: the only male in a class of thirty, all dancing away as the instructor kept up the pace.
'One, two, three, four – yeah! That's good, keep going! Feel the pump!'
Hillbilly was even wearing the right gear, though his vest was too tight and his Spandex shorts were a couple of sizes too small – perhaps not entirely unintentionally.
Schwepsy savoured every moment. 'Feel the pump? He's there to feel their arses.'
Hillbilly knew all the moves. He smiled at the class as they bounced around the floor in a sea of leg-warmers and, in his case, blue socks to match his vest and wristbands.
Des wasn't pleased. 'He's going at this half-cock.' He rested his tattooed forearms on the window-sill. 'Where's his headband?'
Harry swayed to the beat. 'Fuck it, we'll say he wore it anyway. Lovely little mover, isn't he?'
We ducked back from the window as the class ended. Thirty women and Hillbilly gave themselves a clap before streaming out and crossing the courtyard to the changing rooms.
Hillbilly was in big chat-up mode; he still hadn't clocked us. 'Yeah, I really feel I've had a work-out. She plays such good music, doesn't—' At that moment he spotted the four mug grins hanging on his every word. 'Shit . . . Lads, let me explain . . .'
One of the women he'd been targeting called out, 'Can you make Gingerbread this weekend?'
'Er, don't know. But I'll try.'
Des got his face into Hillbilly's. 'Feel the pump, eh?'
Hillbilly was red as a beetroot, and it wasn't from the workout. 'I'm bang to rights, aren't I?'
Harry wasn't letting him off that lightly. 'Gingerbread? What's that? You're not going to give us an even worse name than you already have . . .'
Hillbilly almost collapsed in embarrassment. Gingerbread was a single-parent group that came together to talk about emotional issues and give each other practical help and arrange day trips, that sort of thing. His plan was to become their only single father when he had his daughter with him for the weekend. 'You know, give the girls a shoulder to cry on.' He beamed. 'Let them see my vulnerable, caring side. It's worked a treat so far.'
A couple of hours before last light we heaved our ready bags into the team's Transit vans and Range Rovers. It had been raining, turning the day damp and miserable.
There were four of us per Range Rover. The wagons were fully laden and heavy. Mine rolled left to right as the driver practised his fast-driving drills. He looked at his watch and grinned. 'Ten minutes, doing well.' There was always a race to get to the training area in a quarter of an hour.
The lead vehicle came on the net as it rounded a corner. 'Road clear.'
The carload of civilians we overtook going into the blind bend stared at us as if we were madmen. And so we were, I supposed, apart from Snapper – he had that bit of paper to show he wasn't.
Snapper wasn't with us. He'd finally realized he was meant to be on the other side of the fence, and had gone ahead to plan the abseiling party.
I'd got to know the training area pretty well during Selection. We were heading for the drive-in range, an open square of earthworks about fifteen metres high, like a three-sided berm. Targets could be engaged left, right and forward.
Three or four wagons were parked off to one side. Those range cars were used for live contact drills and they took a severe beating. Bodies milled around them. It just had to be Seven Troop.
There were a lot more bodies around the vehicles than there had been in the jungle. It wasn't just Seven Troop going over the water. Lads from other troops were going as well to make up the numbers. At least twelve guys were needed on the ground.
Everyone was in jeans and jackets. Their hair was even longer than it had been in Malaysia, and a couple even had beards. Most drank brew from white paper cups while making ready MP5s and reloading magazines.
They turned to see who was coming. As we got nearer I picked out Frank, Nish and Al near a green Astra.
The Range Rovers stopped and we clambered out. There were general slaggings and honks, then smiles when we produced the packed lunches we'd collected from the cookhouse. One of the wagons dragged out a Norwegian and a stack of paper cups.
As I walked over to Frank, I could see that the Vauxhall's windscreen was held in place by bungees. There was a neat stack of brand new windscreens on the grass, next to a pyramid of shot-up ones.
Frank was in a good mood. Al gave something approaching a smile as he shoved a Browning into the pancake holster behind his right hip. I smiled back, but mostly because of his pullover. It was one of those multicoloured Scandinavian fishermen's things that Abba might have worn when they were doing a winter video.
An arse was sticking out of the driver's door. Al grabbed its belt and pulled. 'Ken – this is Andy.'
Mr Grumpy said, 'Ken, he thinks you're a crap hat.'
The giant stood up and turned. I immediately saw why no one took the piss out of Ken. With his wavy brown hair and a few days' stubble on top of a slightly acne-scarred face, he looked more like a lifer than a soldier. The top set of falsies he was readjusting didn't soften the effect. The originals could have been punched out in a prison riot. There wasn't a hint of a smile as he looked down at me. His mouth opened, but only so he could insert a cigarette before he lit up. 'Listen in, I might be crap-hat green slime, but I'm the boss, geddit?'
At last there was a smile and a laugh as he lit up, took a quick drag and took it out again. He stretched out a hand. 'All right, mate?' His accent was Sarf London, like mine, but I already knew that that was where the similarity ended.
Ken was a big-time Bruce Lee merchant, who'd represented the UK in martial-arts competitions all around the world. I'd been warned he'd fight you for a bite of a Mars bar.
I'd done a bit of Mr Lee stuff myself, but only to get girls. At the age of fourteen I was hormonal. I might have slept in a bathroom, but without hot water in the house that didn't count for much. I started to have a shower every night down at Goose Green swimming baths, just in case I had the chance to stand next to a girl.
I wore fresh market socks and was kissably clean, but I was also overweight. I always had been. And the girls didn't seem to go a bundle on fat boys smelling of Brut in fluorescent orange socks. I needed something more.
The craze swept the country. People would roll out of the pubs and into the late-night movie, then come out thinking they were the Karate Kid. Outside the cinemas, curry houses and Chinese takeaways of Peckham on a Friday night, the pavements were heaving with guys head-butting lampposts and each other. I joined a club like everyone else, got into running and the weight fell off. The way of the dragon worked for me. But, of course, I didn't tell Ken any of this. He'd have wanted a fight to see how bad I was.
I also knew that because Ken had come from the green slime (Intelligence Corps), he had done quite a few jobs on the dark side, jobs that never got talked about. Maybe that was why he'd been sent away to learn German.
Ken leant back into the Astra and retrieved his MP5 from the rear foot well. 'All right, then, this crap hat had better get out the way. Time to showcase your talents, Andy boy. Get your weapon and go rear right.'
'Get in the fucking wagon – four-man contact drills.' He turned to Frank. 'For fuck's sake, brief him up.'
Frank followed me back to the Range Rover and I grabbed my gear. I loaded my MP5 and shoved the pistol into my jeans before jumping in behind the driver's seat. Al came in next to me. None of us used seat-belts, and we were all sitting on wet seats and broken glass.
'Met Ken, then?'
Nish jumped into the front left and Frank reversed past the Range Rovers. 'All right, mate. You on your freefall soon?'
Frank had his left arm over Nish's seat. He leant back and waffled away to Al about a girl his wife had lined up for him. She was also helping decorate Al's new house.
Nish wasn't impressed. 'Al, you don't need the Collins escort service. Bin the jumper, get a decent shirt and go down town with Hillbilly.'
Frank stopped the car about a hundred metres from the range.
Nish turned to Al. A light switch had been thrown in his head.
'I know why they're trying to get you a woman.' He pointed at Frank.
'It's him. He wants to do his pastor stuff on you. Be the man who marries you!'
The rest of the squadron had set off for the top of the berm and stood or crouched over the wet soil with their brews. Ken was jumping up and down at the entrance to the range, shouting for us to get on with it. Frank hit the gas. 'Here we go.'
Nish stared through the bungeed window as Frank put his foot down. 'Give us a nice skid, Frank. Put on a show, eh?'
As we screamed into the range a fireball kicked off in front of us, followed a split second later by a loud boom.
Nish got his weapon into the shoulder. Frank hit the brakes and the rear end slewed round on the wet shale. He battled to keep the car pointing forward as we skidded towards the fireball.
I could see Figure-11s in front of us on the forward berm. Nish kicked off his MP5 in short bursts through the windscreen. The pressure waves banged against my ears and spent cases bounced off the ceiling and onto my shoulders and head.
Al's door was open before we came to a stop, and he was gone. So was I, running four or five metres to the side to dodge the rounds the car would take in an ambush.
Nish finished off his mag through the shattered glass and jumped. Frank bailed out as well. Fire and manoeuvre: someone's always got to be firing while others are moving. That way, you're killing enemy or, at the very least, keeping their heads down so you can advance.
I cleared the line of fire and moved forward, past the front of the car, stopped, and kept double-tapping the nearest targets. The fire was still burning around it.
Frank sprinted past me, stopped and fired. He did short bursts, three or four rounds.
There was movement to my left, the other side of the car, and a lot more firing. It never stopped as we all kept moving to target.
I squeezed the trigger and nothing happened.
Frank wasn't stopping to cover me. He kept moving forward.
I had to draw down on the pistol. I kept firing, holding the MP5 in my left hand but still putting down good double taps, both eyes open, glued to the target.
It took just a few seconds but we were right on top of the targets now. We kept double-tapping into every one. Different landscape, same principle: fire and manoeuvre, keep going forward, keep hitting the enemy.
'Stop! Stop! Stop!'
I applied safety and spun round to see Ken striding towards us. He had a cigarette in his hand. The rest of the squadron had had their show and started to move – or get pushed – down the berm. Snapper shouted them on. 'Let's get to worrrrk! The helis are comiiiing!' He added his own debrief on the attack: 'Shiiiite. Only four point five for styyyyle.'
Ken turned to me. 'See you after the freefall, yeah?'
Tiny and yet another big tall guy sorted a Mazda saloon. He gave me a nod. 'You've met Ken, then, eh?' He snorted with laughter.
The tall one broke away from what they were doing and came up to me. He put out a shovel-sized hand and smiled. 'Cyril.' He had a slight lisp and looked like the oldest man in Hereford, let alone Seven Troop.
'Hello, mate – I'm Andy.'
'I know.' He smiled again. 'See you over the water, yeah?'
I walked back to the wagon. Snapper was still hollering and shouting. 'Get a fucking move on – we're burning dayliiiight . . .'
Brize Norton was even more fun the second time round. There were just four Special Boat Service (SBS) guys and me on the course. Technically, we were already part of the brotherhood, and the instructors treated us almost like mates. I nearly felt sorry for all the baby paratroopers getting marched around on the static-line course. Nearly.
Most of the instructors were members of the Falcons, the RAF display team. They apologized straight away that the stuff they were going to teach us was outdated. 'We have to go by the manual, even though it was obsolete before it was printed.' On top of that they didn't jump the same rigs as us, but we had to start somewhere. For all I cared, we could have used the ones Noah had on the Ark.
I liked having long hair in preparation for Northern Ireland. I liked wearing my sand-coloured beret. I felt how an actor or singer must feel when they hit the big-time, though of course I didn't show it. I still had a lot of learning to do. The RSM's words rang in my head: 'Wind your neck in, look and listen.'
The boy soldier who'd started out in September 1976 with no intention of being in the army long had certainly fucked up on that plan. The first three months in the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion (IJLB) at Shorncliffe, Kent, had been nothing but marching, bullshit and being shouted at, but I'd had constant hot water, my own bed and locker, and we even did our bit to keep the defence budget down. At IJLB you could only use three sheets of toilet paper: one up, one down, one shine.
More than the material comforts, I liked being part of something, the way the training sergeants shouted words like 'we' and 'us'. I couldn't understand why some lads didn't stay the course. Maybe they had something better to go back to.
Even the teachers who had to take lads like me, who were well below their reading and writing age, made me feel special. My very first day in the education block changed my life. The captain, an old sweat who had come up through the ranks and now wanted to pass something on to the new generation, came into the classroom of twenty zit-faced, uniformed sixteen-year-olds and pointed out of the window.
'Out there, the other side of the wire, they think you're all as thick as shit.' He stopped and looked at us as if we were going to disagree. I certainly wasn't. I was in the infantry because no one else in the army would have me.
'Well, they're wrong. The only reason you cannot read or write is because you do not read or write.'
He wandered between the desks, checking all the raw, pockmarked faces. In the army you shaved even if you didn't have to.
'But as from today, young soldiers, that stops.'
Not only did the army educate me, they even paid me to be angry and fight. I became the junior army welterweight champion – something I certainly wasn't going to tell Ken about. It all began because of the company 'boxing' competition. It wasn't boxing as Muhammad Ali would have known it. The army called it 'milling'. You had two minutes to beat the shit out of the other lad. If you won too easily, you went in and fought again; if you lost too easily, you went in and fought again; and if you didn't hold your ground, you went in and fought again. After six or seven bouts IJLB had found its boxing team.
It suited me down to the ground. They wanted me to fight and kill people, and gave me a great life and an education in return. I loved it. At last I had found something I was good at. I even won the Light Division Sword for the most promising boy soldier. For me, each day was better than the last.
The freefall lessons at Brize Norton were one-to-one, and my personal instructor was called Rob. The first thing he asked me was what troop I was going to.
His face creased up. 'You know Nish?' I asked.
They certainly did. The military freefall circuit was small. With Nish being a Red Fred and them being Falcons, they'd done a lot of jumps together, civilian and fun events, as well as military.
The first few lessons were a bit awkward for all of us. I felt strange learning for the sake of learning, and they felt strange teaching the stuff. I'd really thought the bullshit-baffles-brains bit was behind me. The basic problem was that freefall was driven by the sport rather than by the military. The sports clubs were where all the rigs and techniques were being perfected. They were adapted for military use, but it took a very long time. Usually it was the other way round. Military technology drove civilian technology, certainly in time of conflict.
Over the next two days it got better, even though I was just learning how to put on the basic rig. Our first jump was to be a very straightforward freefall from 12,000 feet, taking about fifty seconds, under a round canopy called a PB6, very similar to the static-line parachute. Then we'd progress to the TAP, an antiquated bit of kit that still wasn't a square chute like the sports ones the instructors were using. It looked more like a quarter of an orange. All you could do was turn left or right.
On day three, the ten of us took our places in the back of a C-130. I wasn't scared; I just didn't want to look a dickhead. I was going to jump, no problems with that, but I didn't want to cock it up.
Everybody was going through the drills, even the professional jumpers who'd been doing it for years. Mentally and physically, they're dry drilling all the time, simulating pulling their emergency cutaway of the main rig and deploying the reserve. It doesn't mean they're scared, just that they're thinking about the future.
We all sat in the plane with our arms in the air, as if in freefall, miming as we chanted in our heads, 'Thousand and one, thousand and two, check the canopy . . .' And if it hadn't opened, we mimed looking for the cutaway pad on the right of the rig, pulling that, then pulling the red reserve handle on the left.
I checked both my wrists. In training we carried two altimeters, great big things that looked like they'd been salvaged from a Lancaster bomber.
By the time we'd got to about 6,000 feet it was already getting really cold. I started to feel light-headed as we climbed to 12,000 and the air got thinner still. This was the maximum height we would jump from without oxygen. At just 10,000 feet – less than the height of Mont Blanc – the amount of oxygen present and the pressure at which it enters the body is not enough to keep you operating at maximum efficiency. As you go higher hypoxia – lack of oxygen – kicks in, followed by unconsciousness and death.
Nobody was talking. We'd have had to yell to make ourselves heard. The noise inside the aircraft was deafening. We weren't sitting in first class, waiting for the drinks trolley to arrive.
When the time came, the tailgate slid downwards. Sunlight streamed in, along with the rush of the slipstream. I thought of Frank. He'd have loved this. He'd have seen it as a message from God.
Way below us, Oxfordshire was bathed in sunlight. As the pilot manoeuvred left and right, I could see tree-lined roads and buildings.
Rob pointed me onto the tailgate. When I got there, I turned around and he pushed me backwards until the balls of my feet were right on the edge of the plate and my heels were en route to Oxfordshire. He gripped the front of my rig and fixed me with a stare as the slipstream battered my jumpsuit. We had to have eye-to-eye as the aircraft lined up and he steadied me. His eyes swivelled left and right for the jump light.
'RED ON!' he screamed, into my face.
'READY!' The green light must have come on.
'SET!' He pulled me so I rocked forward.
I leant away from him and launched myself backwards off the tailgate, feet first. I adopted the standard 'frog' position – knees bent at ninety degrees and arms outstretched, level with my shoulders. I fell straight down, eyes fixed on the aircraft above me as normal wind forces took over from the slipstream.
Rob's face was just a foot from mine. One second between jumpers equated to well over a sixty-foot gap. He must almost have jumped on top of me, but I hadn't been watching. I was too busy trying not to fuck up.
I didn't tumble. I kept looking ahead. The aircraft was way above us and getting smaller by the second. I concentrated on keeping in line with Rob. He was about ten feet away now, level with me and staring hard.
I was still more or less stable-on-heading and I wasn't tumbling. I allowed myself a moment to enjoy the pure adrenalin rush of falling at terminal velocity. It was like standing up through the sunroof of a car doing 120 m.p.h. The wind pressure was doing its best to rip off my jumpsuit. I grinned and my cheeks blew out. My whole face rippled. I started to wobble and flailed my arms to compensate. I nearly inverted.
Keep looking at Rob!
His face resembled a pug's, complete with flapping jowls. I guessed mine wasn't much different.
I was now supposed to pick a point on the ground and check I wasn't moving left or right of it. I might be stable-onheading, I might be pointing the right way, but I might also be drifting right or left. I wanted to fall straight down, not sliding backwards or forwards, left or right. Everything below me was tiny. I focused on a bend in the A40 dual carriageway. I was going down straight – I thought . . .
I checked my altimeters non-stop. As soon as I reached 4,000 feet I went in for the pull. Physically looking down at the red steel ring on the right of the rig, I brought my left hand up above my head and gripped the handle with my right. I wobbled and started to turn, but it was nearly pull time and I wasn't sure how to rectify it now I was out of the frog.
I stuck both elbows out to keep symmetry. If I'd only stuck one out, the air would grab it and I'd start spinning.
I wasn't perfectly stable, but I was all right. Rob was there somewhere, just feet away, but I couldn't see him. My eyes were filled with the alti readout on my left wrist.
At 3,500 feet, I pulled the handle. The pin that secured the canopy came away. I checked I had the ring in my hand. Not that I needed to: the pack on my back was rattling from side to side as the spring pushed the drogue (small chute) clear to catch air and pull out the main canopy. Then the para-cord lines bounced off my back and, BANG, the canopy grabbed air. I was Bugs Bunny sprinting round a corner straight into a whack from a frying-pan.
I wasn't as worried as I should have been about where everybody else was in the sky. I was busy enough sorting myself out.
I heard another canopy crack open, so someone must have been close. I looked up to make sure I had a canopy rather than a big bag of washing about eighteen feet above me. The ends of the canopy still hadn't fully inflated. I grabbed hold of the brake lines, ripped them from the Velcro on the risers just above each shoulder and pumped them hard.
I looked up, going through the drills. Everything was where it should be as the parachute fully inflated. But, fuck, my bollocks hurt! The leg straps had worked their way into my groin and it felt like someone was giving the bad boys a violent squeeze.
I checked around my airspace, ready to take evasive action. There was no one else around, no other parachutes turning left when they should have been turning right, screaming in towards me. That was it. All I had to do now was enjoy the ride.
I could see the instructors under their square canopies, swooping like buzzards round their pupils as we fell towards the earth beneath our steam-driven PB6s, with no control beyond left or right turns.
Vehicles made their way along the A40 like toys. Sheep the size of cotton-wool buds were sprinkled across the fields. The guys manning the drop zone (DZ) kicked off blue smoke. We needed to turn into the wind when we landed.
There was nothing else to do, suspended in the silent sky, but before I knew it, I was getting ground rush. As you get level with the horizon, you realize how fast the hard stuff is coming up to meet you. You're dropping at 20 m.p.h., the same as jumping off a ten-foot wall. I tucked myself into the parachute-landing-fall (PLF) position, knees bent, feet together, ready to accept the landing.
I hit the ground and rolled. Sort of. There wasn't any time to savour the moment. I had to field-pack the canopy into the big green nylon bag I had stuffed down the front of my overalls, drop it off with the RAF riggers, jump in a wagon and scream back to Brize Norton for another drop. We were doing three a day and getting debriefed in between.
The first few jumps felt clumsy and unnatural; then I started to get the hang of things. We were jumping 'clean fatigue': no Bergen, no weapon, no equipment, no oxygen gear. Before we graduated to Pau we had to be able to control ourselves in the sky: left turn, right turn, back and forward flips, track, spin, and recover from any kind of unstable exit.
Freefall is a combination of acrobatics and aerodynamics, and it can't be mastered in a classroom. Like learning to ride a bike, you just have to get out there and do it. You can be taught the physics of balance, but after that, as Snapper would have said, it's all about barrel tiiiime. And until the grown-ups took the stabilizers off, we wouldn't be going to Pau.
A lot of the manoeuvres were like trampoline work. For back flips, you tucked your knees into your chin, pushed your arms down in the air and threw your head back. The world was blue sky, then green, then blue again before we flared out back into the frog.
To achieve horizontal movement – tracking – you held your arms near your sides like a swept-wing jet, and made tiny correcting movements. You could generate enormous speed this way, and end up travelling much faster than someone falling vertically at terminal velocity.
Even after a week of it I felt the same exhilaration each time I left the aircraft. It wasn't just the freefall itself. It was passing the point of no return. Mobility Troop could pull over and stop to sort out a problem. Mountain Troop could find another route over their lump of rock, or come back down. Boat Troop could get out of the water or even float on it. But Air Troop? There was no going back once you'd exited the aircraft. Unless you were Frank, of course, and had the angels on your side.
Monday morning, week two, we were in the crew room, just coming to the end of our daily brief. It was going to be very much the same sort of stuff to start with, lots of 360s and somersaults, staying with the instructor, making sure you completed the manoeuvre and stopped directly in front of him.
A bellow echoed down the corridor outside. 'All right, mate?'
Even if I hadn't recognized the voice, I'd have recognized the fart that followed.
A burst of laughter was followed by a soft Geordie accent telling Nish to get his arse to shut up and go and fetch some brews.
We walked out to the rigging shelves to collect our gear. Frank, Al and Nish were in a huddle with the instructors. They obviously knew each other well.
Al looked over at me and shook his head. 'Fuck me, a crap hat in the brotherhood. What next?'
Everyone laughed, even the SBS lads.
There were three sports rigs on the shelves, much smaller than ours, and three plastic Pro-Tec helmets, the kind canoeists wear. Ours were much heavier Para Reg pudding basins.
Nish picked one up and grinned. 'Don't need much.' He tapped his skull with his knuckles. 'Tough as a coconut.'
It was Al's turn to smile. 'Thick as, more like.'
Nish dived into one of the neat white RAF lunchboxes and took out an orange. He threw it to Frank before coming over and studying my rig as if he was the resident expert on Antiques Roadshow. 'We came in on one of the 109s – he's waiting to pick up the CO, so we thought we'd cadge a lift and get a couple in.' He grabbed one of the sports rigs. 'Besides, old Father Frank wants to have a one-to-one with his boss . . .'
I watched the three of them rig up over their baggies – civilian jumpsuits, multicoloured and a lot looser, designed to grab air – in the back of the C-130. They had handles on the bottoms of the legs and on the forearms so they could grab each other more securely during relative work – something I wouldn't be learning till the last third of the course. Then they got their Pro-Tecs on and ran through the drills, exactly as the instructors had said the pros did. It was almost like watching a t'ai chi session: they slowly raised their hands and mimed the pull, looking up, then down at their rig, tugging the imaginary handle that would cut away the snared canopy. Then they went into freefall again, and pulled their reserve.
When we were over the DZ, Rob signalled me forward onto the ramp as usual. As I turned to him, I saw that the other three weren't facing back into the aircraft like I did, but forward, and bunched up really close to each other, immediately behind Rob, for a mass dive exit. They were coming with me.
Frank bit into the orange to clamp it in his mouth.
I thought, OK, not a clue what the fuck's going on.
Rob gave me the ready, set, go. I jumped and looked up to get eye-to-eye before I got stable-on-heading to start my exercise.
Nish, Frank and Al were directly behind him. They flew down to me, all smiles, apart from Frank. He still had a face full of orange.
They linked arms just off to my right. I still had to get my exercise done within the fifty seconds of freefall. I did my left-hand 360, making sure I stopped facing Rob. Rob nodded. I did a right-hand 360, and just overshot him. I managed to correct it and got a nod.
Nish pushed out his legs to catch air and the three of them slid towards me. Their heads were so close together they were almost touching.
Frank opened his mouth and let the orange go. It bounced about between their heads for three or four seconds before it was caught in the air and pushed out of the vortex.
My arm shook. Rob had grabbed hold of me and was gesturing. I still had exercises to do before 5,000 feet.
I did a forward roll, then a backward roll and banged out of it to stable-on-heading. Nish gave me a big thumbs-up, back-flipped out and tracked away with a wave. Frank turned, drew his arms back like a delta wing, and screamed across the sky. Al did a forward flip that took him into a rapid descent.
I checked my altimeter. It was just coming up to 4,000 feet.
Looking down at the handle, I grabbed it and waited for 3,500 before pulling down and away.
It turned out that not everyone was looking forward to going to Pau as much as I was. One of the SBS lads, the biggest, tallest, strongest on the course, one of those annoying guys who just naturally shit muscle, started to look a bit worried about it and kept asking the instructors what other units would be there.
'A couple of companies from 2 REP,' was the answer. The Deuxième Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes (2 REP) or 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment, was part of the world-famous French Foreign Legion. They served as its elite rapid-reaction force. There was never any shortage of volunteers for 2 REP, but selection was tough and restricted.
The SBS lad went very quiet. I guessed it was because he was a hard nut; maybe he didn't want to come up against the Foreign Legion and find himself lacking.
When we got there, he hid half the time and never went to the cookhouse. He lived on chocolate bars and scraps his mates brought back. It was his loss: 2 REP were great lads; they wanted to know all about us, and we wanted to know about them. They had shaven heads, but looked rather Gucci with their porte-monnaies and smart clothes. Many of them were Austrians, maybe grandkids of the hundreds of Nazis who joined the Legion in 1945 and went off to fight in Vietnam. They were hard, but we got on all right with them. Most were well educated; they spoke good English and French, as well as their own native language.
Our lad still wouldn't show his face. I thought he was a bit strange, but fuck him. Chances were I wouldn't see him again. It was only on the final night when we went down town to a fish place that he finally confessed. He'd gone AWOL from the Marines before he went to France. When he did the big romantic thing and joined the Legion, he eventually landed up in 2 REP. He only did three of the five years to which he'd committed himself. 'I just got bored.' He pushed a big lump of fish round his plate, the first real food he'd seen in two weeks. 'So I did a runner from them as well, went back to the Marines, faced the court-martial, did my prison time, went back to my commando and eventually got into SBS. When I was offered the freefall course I couldn't turn it down because every man and his dog wants to get onto military freefall. Going back to France was bad enough, but then I found out 2 REP were going to be here . . . And then it got even worse. I spotted one of my mates who'd joined up at the same time. It's something like a ten-year sentence when they catch a runner – hence all the Mars bars . . .'
Gloria Hunniford's white perm helmet was perched in front of me on the British Airways shuttle from Heathrow, but that wasn't my biggest buzz. With three days' growth around my chin, long hair, and cheap trainers I'd bought with my clothing allowance, this was the first time I'd ever been to Northern Ireland on a civilian flight. I was normally crammed into the back of a C-130 with a couple of rifle companies on the way to a tour, or in the early years, aboard a Royal Corps of Transport ferry from Liverpool docks. They were the worst. The boats were flat-bottomed for beach landings, which turned the Irish Sea into a rollercoaster – and the ride usually lasted something like fourteen hours. They were literally steam-driven.
Now here I was, sitting with a plastic cup of very black, well-stewed coffee, a dodgy, plastic-wrapped cheese sandwich and a one-finger Twix bar, listening to Gloria waffle away with her mate. Both were wearing some strange perfume, but it was heaps better than the diesel fumes on a ferry or the BO from sardine-packed soldiers in the back of a C-130.
I unwrapped my Twix and used it to stir the tiny carton of milk into the coffee. I read a bit of my newspaper. They were asking readers to write in and rank the most momentous events of the year. There were plenty to choose from. The Aids virus had been identified. The Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated. Ten million people were starving in Ethiopia. The Soviet bloc had boycotted the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Michael Jackson had sold billions of copies of Thriller, and the whole world seemed to be moonwalking to work.
Closer to home, and certainly closer to what I was about to be involved in, John Stalker, deputy chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, had arrived in Belfast in May to begin an investigation into the alleged shoot-to-kill policy of security forces in the region. In September, security forces in the Republic of Ireland had intercepted a trawler, the Marita Ann, off the coast of County Kerry and uncovered seven tonnes of arms and explosives believed to be en route to PIRA. And, just a couple of days ago, PIRA had carried out a bomb attack on the Grand Hotel, Brighton, in England, which was being used as the base for the Conservative Party's annual conference. Four people were killed in the attack and another person died later from injuries received. PIRA issued a statement directed at Margaret Thatcher: 'Today we were unlucky; but remember, we only have to be lucky once – you will have to be lucky always.'
Frank had been lucky just two weeks ago. The madman had walked straight towards a possible PIRA firing point to check if anyone was in position. He had taken a patrol to an isolated house belonging to a part-time member of the security forces. The Tasking and Coordinating Group (TCG) had found out that he was being targeted and would probably be shot as he left the house.
The plan was to set up an ambush outside the house and wait for PIRA to turn up. The problem was that there was only one bit of cover in which to set it up. What if PIRA had got there first and was already in the bushes waiting for the target to leave the house at first light?
Frank's solution was to walk across the 300 metres of open ground between the house and the cover and see if anyone either ran for it or shot him.
They would have been flapping as Frank came towards them. What the fuck was he doing? How many more of them were there? Was it a trap? If they killed him, were they signing their own death warrants?
Frank kept walking, expecting at any moment to get a burst in the face. He finally got to the bushes and parted them. No one was there.
Now the boot was on the other foot. The patrol took up position in the cover. They waited four days, but PIRA never came. Maybe they'd heard there was this guy in the area whose next trick would be to turn them all into pillars of salt.
The seat-belt sign came on, and Gloria autographed one last in-flight magazine for a fellow passenger. I looked out of the window, down at the five-mile sniper range that most people called Belfast. With my new entry skill, I felt a completely paid-up member of Seven Troop and now I was going on ops.
There hadn't been too much of a brief before I'd left. I'd collected my ticket from the squadron clerk, and he'd said someone would pick me up at the other end. And that was that, because that was all he knew.
Al was waiting for me, dressed in a pair of jeans and a bomber jacket. At least he'd ditched the jumper. 'Hello, mate, how you doing?' He sounded as though he had a cold you couldn't climb over, and there was no colour in his face.
We went through our warm and wonderful greeting ritual for the benefit of any prying eyes looking for military targets to shoot at as they left the airport, and walked off towards the car park. We got into a Mazda saloon. Al handed me a Browning and an extra mag. 'It's loaded and made ready – safety catch is on.'
I shoved it under my right thigh. He got his out of his holster and stuck it under his leg and away we went.
Al was straight into his briefing. 'We're going to the troop location. You'll be sharing a room.'
I flapped straight away. He saw it and smiled. 'No, it's OK – nothing involving Bibles or farts. You're in with Paul.'
'How's it going on the jobs?'
He gave a wry smile. 'Just done one in South Armagh – there's a little tension in the air.'
'You'll find out.'
We drove along narrow lanes. Eight-foot-high hedgerows hemmed us in on each side. I decided Al wasn't Mr Grumpy at all. He just found it hard to talk to people and seemed quite happy with his own thoughts.
I wasn't. It felt strange just sitting there, saying nothing. 'How's the new house? Frank's wife finished decorating?'
I reckoned it wasn't as big as the house by the sea he'd grown up in. He'd spent his childhood fishing and crabbing, having adventures in rock pools. Now he'd progressed to freefall, diving and driving about with a 9mm under his thigh.
'Looks good. She organized the paint, carpets, you know the sort of thing. I think she and Frank want me to babysit the kids as payment.' He smiled. 'I don't mind.'
'What'll she do when she finds you a wife? Build a nursery?'
The smile turned into a surprising, open-hearted laugh.
'Maybe when I get back. Maybe . . . I'd like to, but, well, you know . . .'
Al was a soldier. He didn't do emotions much, except to his family. But I knew what he was trying to say: when the time was right, he'd commit himself to someone outside the Regiment. But not just yet.
We drove into the confines of a well-protected army camp, then into a camp within a camp.
'Welcome to our world.'
The Regiment stockade was like a big, windowless B&Q warehouse, with doors big enough to drive trucks through and high enough to house a six-storey building. Floodlights bathed the whole interior, which was filled with blue or white Portakabins, some low level, some stacked up three or four high, like on a construction site. There were areas for vehicle maintenance, stores and equipment.
Al pointed through the windscreen. 'The armoury. Sauna. That's the gym. And those are the squash courts. They're for fights. If you want one, just get in there, get on with it, and tell no one.'
'Ken not approve?'
Al shook his head. 'He always wants to join in.'
Frank wasn't the only one in the Regiment famous for his religious beliefs. Ken believed in reincarnation: he'd been here once before as a Viking marauder and, like any self-respecting Norseman, he loved to fight. It had even got him temporarily chucked out of the Regiment.
Ken would invite guys to play squash, then say, 'Let's do some sparring.' That always got out of control, of course, so no one in the troop was that keen to take up the invitation. The only person who regularly obliged was one of the cooks. He wasn't going to be pushed about by anyone and they were cage fighting at least once a week. It had to be stopped. A bruised face was too easy to pick out in a crowd, and the cook couldn't focus properly to fry the eggs. He'd crack them open but miss the pan.
Al pointed out the cookhouse and the ops room, all the bits and pieces I'd need to know immediately. 'You'll work it all out. You're here long enough.'
A pack of six or seven supersize dogs mooched around.
'Who do they belong to?'
'Who feeds them?'
'They just get fed . . . lots.'
With a squeal of tyres, Al parked beside a one-storey breezeblock building. I followed him into a dark central corridor. The faded white-brick walls were bare and peeling. There were doors off to left and right, maybe six sets. Game-show-type TV voices jangled behind a couple of them.
We stopped by the second on the left. 'That's it. See you later.'
I entered a room fit for a Spartan. There were two heavy old metal beds, the sort that were being phased out of the army. They had been designed to be used for a thousand years, but had one fatal flaw. The bed ends slipped very easily into the metal tubes that formed the legs – and came out just as fast. And five inches of solid steel tubing with a wider bit at the end made the perfect weapon. The army was still trying to erase the phrase 'So I had to bed-end him' from its vocabulary.
A TV sat at the foot of the two beds. Two lockers, belt kit, a Bergen and all kinds of other gear had been shoved in one of the corners.
Paul was stretched out on a Desperate Dan duvet. 'All roight, boy?'
He had kept himself to himself in the jungle. The thing I remembered most about him was when we reached the road-head and were waiting for transport. He'd looked up when he heard a plane going over and said, 'You know what? The distance we've walked today, someone up there just travelled with one sip of his gin and tonic.'
Paul was shorter than me, but much stockier. He'd played rugby for the army and had a mouthful of false teeth to show for it. There were a lot of false teeth running round in this squadron. He'd been on the embassy job and in the Falklands. He'd also been on some team job in South East Asia just before Malaysia, and another in Sudan. Originally he'd been in the Ordnance Corps, from what was called Heavy Drop, the airborne contingent, based in Aldershot. He was married and had a couple of kids, and must have been born and raised near Hereford, going by the accent. I liked him a lot.
I dropped my bag. 'Where do you get a brew, mate?' I was gagging for one after the shit airline coffee.
He pointed down the corridor. 'Can't miss it – the Burco.'
'You want one?'
He eyed me with something approaching disgust. 'No! I got Channel 4 – Countdown's coming up, then it's soup time. I don't want no tea, boy.'
I wandered back into the corridor. The first room on the right was now open. I poked my head round it to see Tiny crashed out on one of the beds. His hair was longer, exaggerating the bald patch and making him look even more like a mad monk.
A guitar nestled among a pile of magazines and old newspapers strewn across the other bed. The floor was littered with plates encrusted with dried Marmite and dog ends. Something was blaring from the TV but I couldn't tell what it was – the screen seemed to have been liberally coated with bogeys.
'All right, Crap Hat – nice of you to drop in. Freefall OK?'
I guessed this was Tiny's way of being nice, approachable, even. I told him the SBS and 2 Rep story and he nearly fell off his bed. 'Yeah, but that's not all. He told me what happened when he tried to sign on.'
The SBS boy had made it all the way down to the Marseille recruiting office, but it was so late in the day the place was shut. The bloke was penniless, and he had fuck-all kit, so he went to the park over the road and hid in the bushes, just zipped up his jacket and tried to stay warm. Then it started pouring with rain. He was drenched for about three hours and spent the rest of the night shivering big-time.
'At first light he came out of the bushes to get himself sorted for when the office opened, and noticed that the only wet area in the entire park was the patch of shrubbery where he'd been hiding. That was when he realized he'd been curled up right next to the sprinklers . . .'
A voice boomed behind me. 'You're here, then, are you?' There was a series of trumpet-like farts. 'They said some wanker from the Green Jackets was on his way. About fucking time.'
I turned. 'All right, Nish, how's it going?'
He was wearing a pair of jeans, flip-flops and an old T-shirt that matched the plates. His hair stuck up on end and a cigarette was wedged in the corner of his mouth. 'Want a brew?'
'Just where I was going.'
He poked his head in through the door. 'Tiny?'
'No! Countdown! But you can bring one.'
Nish turned for the corridor.
'And take some of these fucking plates back!'
There was a war going on in that room. But who would be the first to surrender? The more Tiny complained, the more Nish enjoyed it. I bet the bogeys didn't belong to Tiny.
Nish chuckled to himself as we headed for the other end of the corridor, turned left, and came out by the toilet block, yet another Portakabin.
We got to the brew area. A Burco boiler that looked like it was kept going twenty-four hours a day took pride of place. Next to it was a big box of Naafi biscuits, jars of coffee and sugar and mountains of teabags and white paper cups. Nish carried his own blue and white striped pint mug.
'You any good at conundrums?'
'Countdown. Don't tell me you don't like Countdown . . .'
'OK, I suppose . . .'
'It's prayers at half six every night, scoff'll be on before that, about half five. Ken and the lads are on a job, but he'll sort you out later tonight.'
I could hear the chimes for Countdown. Nish rushed off with his mug and a paper cup. 'Duty calls. See you later, mate.'
I made myself a brew and wandered back to my room. I didn't unpack, just lay on the mattress getting the swing of things with Paul. We watched Carol Vorderman add a consonant here and there.
When we got to the maths question, Nish had obviously got it right. Aloud yee-ha echoed down the corridor before he gave Tiny a hard time for being so thick. Carol and the crew finished and waved goodbye to the troop.
Paul jumped up and rubbed his hands together. 'Soup time, boy – you coming?'
It was only four thirty. Nish had said scoff was at five thirty, but I followed him anyway to the cookhouse, another onestorey brick building, just the other side of the washrooms. The two lads behind the stainless-steel counter could have been manning any canteen in the world. A large steel vat of something steaming stood in front of them, and stacks of white bowls. We helped ourselves to minestrone lumps. Tiny grabbed half a loaf of bread. 'It's healthy, soaks up the juice.'
Four or five cars pulled into the warehouse, normal saloons like the one Al had picked me up in. Each was two up in the front.
The troop got out, in jeans, trainers and bomber or leather jackets. A couple of guys still had beards. They looked like factory workers at the end of a shift, until they started to unload their G3s, the 7.62mm German Heckler & Koch assault rifle, and MP5s. The staccato rattle of working parts being pushed backwards and forwards echoed off the Portakabins.
Nish glanced out of the window. Al came in and slapped him on the arm. He seemed even paler than he had at the airport. 'Looks like those two haven't made up yet, eh?'
I didn't know what he was talking about.
'Frank and Ken.'
I followed Nish's gaze. It was true: they weren't exactly heading for a group hug as they climbed out of their separate cars. Ken went over to Frank. Frank gazed up at him, not flinching or backing away. It looked like he was being invited for a game of squash.
Tiny was obviously thinking more or less the same. 'Why don't they just sort this shit out?'
I didn't say anything. Whatever they were on about, it wasn't any of my business. Maybe it was some God-squad stuff – Frank not wanting to shoot people on Sundays or something. What did I know? All of a sudden I didn't feel as much a part of the troop as I had when I was admiring Gloria's hairdo.
The soup was over and the rest of the team had dispersed. There were lots of others running around too. Seven Troop was small, so lads from other troops were making up the numbers. On my way back to my room I passed Saddlebags taking his pancake holster off his belt.
I gave him a nod.
'How's it going?'
I got one back, but he didn't hang around to answer. He disappeared into the room he must have shared with Al. There was a Mr Grumpy sticker on the door.
I tipped out my bag and made up my bed. I found a well-worn blue duvet cover that must have been left by somebody years before and passed down the line. It was only a little bit musty. I was stuffing the duvet into it when Frank appeared. 'Hiya. I'm next door, opposite Nish and Tiny.'
'You been out long?'
'Nah, just been playing around. Nothing much at all. Had soup yet?'
'Yeah. And Countdown.'
'You know about prayers at half six?'
As I carried on with the bedding, Ken came down the corridor. He gave me a wave.
'Andy. All right, mate?'
'I'll see you after prayers, and get you rigged out with all the party gear.'
He carried on walking. At least he was smiling, which was more than Frank was.
'You heard about what happened?'
I shook my head. 'Just there was a bit of drama.' Of course I wanted to know, but I wasn't going to ask.
He didn't let me down.
'Two of us dropped Ken and a couple of the guys off from a van to do a job on the border. We didn't even know what the target was. All we knew was the drop-off point, the pick-up and the emergency RV.
'We drove out of the area and parked, waiting for the call to pick them up. It was up a little track, set back from the road. I'd got the Thermos open when a car crept along the road, on sidelights. It stopped further up and came back, all very slow. It was two up.
'They came to a complete stop near our track, looked up, and then drove on again. They must have seen us.
'We got on the net, reported a possible compromise, and moved out. As soon as we were back on the road we spotted it again. It started to follow us.
'We were right on the border. The car stayed with us and was joined by another, both on sidelights. I got on the net again, expecting to take rounds any second.
'The road got wider, and the lead car suddenly accelerated to come alongside. As I got my safety off, this old Ford came alongside, two up. Both wearing masks. If I'd seen a weapon, I was going to open up. But nothing.
'We were coming up to another junction, and just as we got there, a third car joined in.
'I got on the net, giving a running commentary. It carried on like that for ten minutes. More cars joined in. It was madness – soon there were six of them. That was at least twelve players, probably more.
'We still had to stay on the target area to pick the patrol up but there was no word yet from them – and, of course, there wouldn't be until the job was finished. We were driving round in big circles and they'd even barricaded a road with rubble.
'The patrol called in ready. I told them the situation and said we'd try to lose the cars behind, but no guarantees. They'd have to be on their toes.
'Then I suddenly realized something. "There'll be five of us at the pick-up. Five against twelve – let's go for it."
'I had my G3 in my lap, and I was operating the radio with one hand and reading the map with a torch in the other. It was like navigating for a rally driver, only with six cars in pursuit and I had to be ready to draw down on them.
'We screamed to a halt at the pick-up point, and the guys jumped in the back. I radioed the pick-up was complete. But Ken cut me off.'
Frank was very bitter.
'"I'm in charge," he said, "and I'm saying we get straight out of the area."
'I said, "But we've been chased for half an hour! We've got a chance here to take out multiple players!" He said to do as he ordered. What could I do?
'The six cars chased us until we were well clear of the area. I couldn't believe it. I saved it till we got back here, then laid into him.
'I'm still angry about it now, Andy. We missed a major opportunity, and all because he didn't have the full picture, and didn't take the time to find it out. If you ask me, Ken is—'
'Oh, for fuck's sake, Frank.' Paul was back with a mug in his hand. 'Just let it go, will you?'
There were no shouts or bells to get up to prayers, everyone just assembled. The ops area was eight Portakabins, four on top, four below. I followed a couple of guys up a metal fire escape.
The briefing room was furnished with standard psychedelic army married-quarters furniture, a mixture of plastic chairs and armchairs that looked as though they'd done time in the Killing House. It was in shit state. On the walls were general maps of the Province, street maps, newspaper cuttings and piss-taking pictures of the guys. A selection of daily newspapers covered an old wooden six-foot folding table. A sign warned everyone not to take them from the room. A big black bin liner hung from a nail for the crap.
The room filled up. Some faces I knew; some were lads from the squadron I hadn't met in Malaysia. There were about fifteen of us altogether – not including the big fat Doberman panting in the corner – in tracksuits or jeans and flip-flops. Everyone had a mug of brew apart from the new boy, who had a paper cup.
Ken stood by a white marker board, a notebook in his hand. He looked around as we settled down. 'Where's Al?'
At that moment, Mr Grumpy came through the door. He looked a little better. Nish threw a crumpled-up sheet of A4. 'There he is. There's the EPC swot.'
The Educational Promotion Certificate was a qualification you needed at different stages of your career. Al must already have done his EPC Standard, or he wouldn't have been a corporal in Para Reg. No matter how good a soldier you were, you wouldn't be promoted to sergeant even if you had a degree unless you'd passed EPC. Once you were aiming for warrant officer you had to pass EPC Advanced. I'd already done my EPC and I was glad it was over with, but EPCA was somewhere out on the horizon. Nish leant forward as Al found a seat. 'I hope you've done my homework for me, or there's no apple.'
Ken had one last look round. 'Right, listen in.' His delivery was short, sharp and aggressive: to the point. He spoke about the job they'd done earlier today. An MI5 operator had met with a PIRA source. Informant, tout, traitor – they had many names. The meet was covered by Ken and the team in case it was a come-on. They happened all the time. PIRA would explode a bomb, the green army would come in and set up their cordons and incident command posts. Once the area was saturated with squaddies, PIRA would detonate another couple of devices.
The prime example had been Warrenpoint.
At least eighteen soldiers were killed in August 1979 in two booby-trap attacks in South Down, close to the border with the Republic. It was the highest death toll suffered by the British Army in a single incident since it had arrived in Northern Ireland in 1969, and only hours after the Duke of Edinburgh's uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, had been killed by an IRA bomb in Donegal Bay.
The ambush had been carefully planned. The first device, weighing half a ton, was planted under some hay on a flatbed lorry beside a dual carriageway on the border, seventy kilometres from Belfast. It killed six members of 2 Para in a four-ton lorry at the back of a three-vehicle convoy.
The surviving troops in the other two vehicles were immediately deployed to cordon off the area and call for reinforcements. The Queen's Own Highlanders flew to the scene by helicopter twenty minutes after the first explosion; as it cas-evac'd some of the injured, the second device was detonated, killing twelve more soldiers – two Highlanders and ten Paras – who had been taking cover in a nearby gatehouse.
The job today had been to prevent anything similar happening, like the SIS's man getting head-jobbed and the Figure-11s coming to find out what was happening.
Ken ran through all the other admin points that had to be dealt with when troops are living together. Block jobs, like cleaning the cookhouse and communal areas, and the general stuff, like weapons checks. All weapons had to be accounted for every single day.
There was a definite undercurrent to the proceedings. Frank was being über-calm. He just sat and nodded and agreed when necessary, not really joining in. It was like part of him wasn't there. If he hadn't told me about his problem with Ken, I'd have assumed God was running through his own admin points and Frank was listening to Him instead.
'Finally, Andy's here – obviously.'
I got some waves and smiles.
'One last thing – the dogs. Stop feeding them. Including my fucker.' He pointed at the Doberman, which, legs flailing, tried to stand to accept the applause.
Tiny, Nish and Saddlebags almost split their sides.
Ken jabbed a finger at Tiny. 'No – more – sausages.'
The laughter died and Chris stood up with his notebook. 'Block jobs, then the bar.'
I stayed in my chair and Nish got stuck into the Daily Telegraph crossword.
Once Ken had sorted out his papers, he took me down to the Portakabin under the briefing room and issued me with my weapons – a pistol, an MP5, an M16, a G3, plus all the magazines, ammunition and night sights.
'Frank and Chris are the patrol commanders, but you just go with whoever needs you. Everyone's mixed. When a job comes up, you'll be put on one.'
He moved back towards the metal staircase, heading for the ops room, then turned and fixed me with a stare. 'Look, everything we do here is strategic. That's what we are – strategic troops, sent to task. And that comes from TCG. We work for them.'
TCG (Tasking and Coordinating Group) were Special Branch, MI5, all the spooks and government advisers who got together and planned this dirty war.
'So there are no speculative ops. I don't want you floating. That, mate, will lose us the war, all right? You don't drive around, you don't look for trouble, you go and do the job you're meant to do.'
I thought I'd chance my arm. 'Frank just told me about the South Armagh job.'
Ken took a breath. He clicked his fingers at the world's fattest dog as he struggled to keep up. 'Frank didn't know what we were planting out there, and he still doesn't – no one does, because nobody needs to know. I told him, I've told everyone else, and now I'm telling you – it's intelligence that'll win this war. Intelligence, not body counts. We could have dropped those fuckers but it would have put us back months. Their time will come, don't worry.'
He clicked his fingers again and headed off, with the dog waddling behind him. 'See you at the bar.'
I found Chris in the toilet block and relieved him of his mop. Ken had made sense to me. Why compromise whatever was happening, whatever they were planting – a listening device, a camera? PIRA would have known there were Special Forces on the ground if they were taken on. Instead, by the sound of it, they knew fuck all. The van could have been pig or cigarette smugglers coming up from the south, shitting themselves trying to get away as these cars came up and checked them out. PIRA had to be asking: 'Was that van SF? But they didn't shoot, so it couldn't have been.' If Frank had opened fire, there would have been a body count. But maybe PIRA would have suspended operations in the area or stopped them altogether, and there wouldn't have been any information coming in from whatever devices had been planted. Then we would never get to deal with the rest of them.
It wouldn't be long before I came to find out Ken was right: intelligence did win the war. I was to spend a lot of time over the water getting to grips with active service units (ASUs) – not to kill them, but to get to know them better than they knew themselves.
Frank clearly did think of himself as God's agent, appointed to carry out His punishment on evil-doers, and that the Regiment really did exist to fight evil. But Ken knew the Lord sometimes had to work in mysterious ways.
I threw my paper cup in the bin by the Burco and started mopping.
I had killed one of these so-called evil-doers when I was nineteen, and it hadn't exactly felt as if I was doing God's work. It had felt like I was just trying to stay alive.
It was on my second tour and during my fourth ever contact. Despite my age, I was 'brick' commander. One Saturday evening, I was out with a multiple, two four-man patrols, in South Armagh. The overall commander was Dave, a corporal.
We came to a housing estate on the edge of town. From there it was cuds (open countryside) all the way down to a place called Castleblaney on the other side of the border, just a few minutes away.
I took my three over a river and up onto a patch of wasteground just short of the estate. Dave took his along the river; we would meet up inside.
At that time on a Saturday night the streets were full of coaches that had arrived to pick up the locals and take them to Castleblaney for the craic. They'd go for a night out, then come rolling back at two o'clock in the morning. And rightly so: if I was stuck in Keady on a Saturday night I'd want to put on a new shirt and go over there on the piss, too.
We were patrolling in dead ground. The locals couldn't see us, and we couldn't see them. I was expecting that to change once we got nearer the estate; in the meantime, we'd leave them alone. It was pointless forcing our way through crowds: it just incited them to throw rocks and bottles and our lives got even more complicated. Our intention was to outflank them and have a quick mooch around the estate to see what was going on.
A stationary patrol picked up more information than it did on the move. It was called 'lurking': we'd get to a position and just stop. It might be in somebody's back yard; we'd move into the shadows, wait and listen. It used to be great entertainment for the squaddies: we'd watch everything from domestic rows in kitchens to young couples groping in Mum's front room.
Dave's patrol was to the right of me, about 150 metres away, in dead ground to us. There was no need to talk on the radio. We'd been out there quite a few months and worked well together.
We were still hidden from the estate by a row of three or four shops. I turned right and went along the back of the buildings until I came to the fence line. By now the wasteground was more like disused farmland; there were old wrecked cars on it, tin cans, bags of garbage. I jumped over the fence and came into view of maybe 120 people on the other side of the street.
I heard hollering and screaming, which was unusual. Normally there would just have been a lot of talk and laughter; lads smelling of Brut and hairspray, and girls in sharply ironed blouses.
As I looked at the crowd I realized they were really frightened, grabbing their kids, pulling them out of the way. Some fell as they tried to run. As I panned left towards the shops and crossed the road, I came across three or four saloon cars and a cattle truck. It wasn't an unusual sight in this neck of the woods. But as I passed them, I spotted a group of men with masks and weapons.
I latched onto a boy with his fist in the air, doing a Che Guevara with his Armalite as he chanted to the crowds across the road.
He couldn't have been more than ten metres away. Close enough for me to see his eyes as wide with shock inside his mask as mine must have been.
He fumbled with his Armalite and shouted. The other masks ran from the cattle truck.
His weapon was already cocked and he started blatting away at me. I fired back at him and the other masks, a blur of movement behind him.
Another mask joined in from behind the wagon and I fired at him as well. They were flapping as much as I was, in a frenzy to get into the truck and away.
One of the boys jumped into the back of the wagon and started firing, covering the others as they clambered over the tailgate.
I hit one of them. I saw the two heavy 7.62mm rounds rip into his chest, and a split second later blood exploded from the exit wounds. He screamed like a pig as he was pulled inside the truck.
More screams came from the cab. They were also taking rounds.
By this time Scouse, the number two in my patrol, was giving them the good news from the far side of the fence. The other two were still in the dead ground, totally confused. It had all happened so quickly.
I knelt, still firing, then got the dead man's click.
The working parts still worked, but there wasn't a round in the chamber.
I was flapping. I knew what to do, but the faster I tried to do it, the faster I was fucking up.
I hit the ground, screaming my head off as bursts came our way from the truck: 'Stoppage! Stoppage!'
As I reached for another magazine everything seemed to go into slow motion. It wasn't, of course: it was fast and fumbled, but it felt like an out-of-body experience, as if I was watching myself going through the drills.
I clipped on the fresh mag and cocked the weapon. I heard more firing, I heard shouting. But the loudest sound of all was the hollering inside my head: 'I don't like this! But I know I've got to do it!'
The vehicle was on the move, and by this time Scouse was firing into the cab. But that cattle truck was sandbagged up at the back, and they'd welded on steel plates to protect the driver.
I was still the only one on my side of the fence. I ran forward, past the shop fronts. I didn't know if anybody was left outside the wagon, maybe lying between the parked cars. Or had they done a runner into the housing estate? Or the shops? Or to the junction only ten metres away and turned left? Or right, up a disused railway line? I had no idea.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw people cowering on the floor of the nearest shop. One of them jumped to his feet. I turned and gave a couple high through the window so he got the message. The glass caved in and the bloke threw himself back to the floor.
'And stay down!'
I didn't know who was more scared, them or me. It was a stupid, bone reaction to shoot through the glass, but I didn't know what else to do. I was so hyped up, anything that moved was a threat.
I legged it to the junction. Time and time again during the build-up training we'd practised two ways of looking around corners. You can get very low and close up or, better, you can move away from the corner and gradually bring yourself round so you present less of a target. It was all very well in training, because I knew there was nobody on the other side with an Armalite. I took a deep breath, got down on my belly with the weapon ready to swing round, and had a quick squint. There was nobody there.
Back at the scene of the contact, one poor guy was crawling towards the housing estate, cursing and shouting, as his wheelchair lay on its side in the road. Locals spilled from their houses to help him.
Mothers shrieked at children. Doors slammed. A woman in the shop screamed, 'There's nobody in here! There's nobody in here!'
Later, a body turned up in the south with a couple of 7.62mm wounds, and a couple of the masks received treatment in hospital for gunshot wounds. Their plan had been to drive past one of our patrols on the other side of town. The masks in the back would brass up the patrol on either side of the street, then keep driving until they'd crossed the border. My patrol had bumped them as they were doing their PR bit outside the shops and climbing into the cattle truck.
At the time, I had mixed feelings about the contact. On the face of it, the whole thing was great. They had taken casualties, and none of us was hurt. I had the credibility of the first kill of the tour and, thanks to an army incentive scheme, I had two weeks' extra leave. But there was another side to it. I hadn't felt like one of God's enforcers, just scared and fucking lucky it wasn't me who'd taken the rounds.
After block jobs I went to my room and carried on unpacking my gear. I could hear Nish's very bad version of 'Smoke On The Water' echoing its way down the corridor. To add insult to injury, he had linked it up to an amp and speaker. Music lovers all along the block yelled for him to shut the fuck up.
My Bergen and military kit had come over by helicopter the week before. I gave it a bit of a sort-out until it was time to head for the bar. As anywhere else in the army, the new boy's first job was to buy everyone a drink.
The bar had a tiled floor and maybe a dozen tables with three or four chairs round each. The counter looked like it had been lifted straight out of a pub, and maybe it had. Enough of them had been bombed, on both sides of the religious divide. It was about three metres long, bristling with optics and so on, and laden with Tennants cans, each sporting a picture of a page-three-style Lager Lovely. The girls took up about half the can, and I was a great fan.
I worked my way round the tables, collecting orders. There must have been about twenty-five guys there, including the signallers and green slime. The bar wasn't manned. There was an honour system. You signed your life away on a sheet and paid at the end of the month. I liked that kind of trust. It was a bit of a first for me.
Nish and Al were sitting with their EPCA folders on the table in front of them, unopened. Nish was bent over the Telegraph crossword, a can of Tennants in one hand, a stub of pencil in the other. Al chipped in with the occasional answer.
EPCA wasn't going to be remotely difficult for those two. Nish and Al had a lot more in common than it appeared. They weren't just intelligent, they were well educated. They came from comfortable middle-class families. Nish's father, an engineer, had flown Spitfires in the Second World War and been shot down twice. He became an inventor; Sir Francis Chichester used one of his pumps in Gipsy Moth when he sailed single-handed around the world. 'They got on well,' Nish joked. ' "Oh, how do you do, old chap? Awfully nice to meet you."'
The only big difference was that Nish was married with a small son, and Al wasn't yet – although he soon would be if Frank's wife got her way.
Nish called Frank over. 'We've got to clear this up, mate. That job where you walked up on the firing point, what was all that about? You on the fast track to heaven?'
A couple more lads turned and listened in. Tiny tipped peanuts down his neck but didn't move from the bar. I stayed put too.
'I keep telling you, I can't be killed.' It was the first time I'd heard Frank raise his voice. 'I'm guaranteed eternal life, Nish, I really am.'
Nish wasn't impressed. 'For fuck's sake, what next? We going to see you walk on water?'
'It's not about miracles.' Frank took a swig from his can. For a moment it looked as though his hand was the only thing stopping Fiona falling out of the front of her dress. 'If one of us has got to be killed, it should be me. I'm a Christian, I'm guaranteed eternal life. I'm the best one to die. That's why I did it.'
Nish's eyes narrowed. 'So what are you saying? That you've got some kind of holy insurance?'
'What I'm saying is, if any of us has got to die, it should be me. Besides, it's better to spend one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep.'
Tiny rolled his eyes and guided me towards the pool table. 'You any good?'
I shook my head.
Frank was in full flow. 'All right, I should have got the lads to check out the bushes. But there was no way we could do it without risking someone's life. As a Christian, I felt I couldn't do that. Look, I wasn't being brave – it's just that I'm not afraid to die.'
Nish stabbed the air with his pencil stub. 'You saying that I am?'
'No, Nish, no. But I do believe that God has a purpose for me. And if He wants me dead, then that's the way it's going to be.'
Frank was really stirring up a hornet's nest. Everyone was kicking off on him; the only one not saying anything was Al. He sat there with his head down, still a bit rough round the edges. Eventually he looked up. 'You've got to cool it, Frank. Religion, it's a personal thing . . .'
'So you don't need to shove it down people's throats. Just let it go.'
Tiny put his cue under his arm and applauded the voice of reason. Then he returned to the table and fucked up a spot shot.
The discussion seemed to be over. I watched Al as he left with his folders under his arm to get some work done. Nish went back to his crossword.
Tiny frowned. 'He shouldn't be up here anyway.'
'No, you dickhead. Al. He's got malaria. He should be tucked up in bed.'
The bar door burst open and Minky barged in with a towel round his waist, his face full of shaving soap. I knew him from Selection. He was one of the directing staff, and in Six Troop. He was over here as the ops sergeant, handling liaison with TCG and all the different police and spook organizations. He looked like that bloke in The Professionals, the one without the curly hair. He was almost poster SAS. Or he had been, until now.
'You bastards!' He held up a shaving stick. Whatever was happening, everyone but me seemed to be in on the joke. As they rolled up laughing, he carried on screaming, 'You bastards! You bastards!' He ended up throwing the shaving stick at Ken.
Tiny couldn't play his shot he was laughing so much. 'There's prawns in it! Took hours to get them in. He's been shaving with prawn-flavour soap for days and moaning about Gillette changing the ingredients.'
Minky had been stitched up so many times he was completely on edge. He wouldn't even use the toilet block, these days, because he expected the bowl to explode beneath him or the roof to collapse.
The next few weeks were busy. On one job, we staked out an area where we knew an IED was going to be placed. A couple more involved us ambushing PIRA weapons and explosives caches, and moving in for a hard arrest when the players came to collect.
We had to be ultra careful about source protection at all times. Ken would often circulate a picture with the warning: 'If things kick off, this is the lad that mustn't be killed.' They were all strategic jobs, working on information that had been gathered – sometimes from careless pub talk, sometimes from informers, sometimes from the sort of gear Ken's patrol had been spreading around that night in South Armagh.
I switched between Frank's patrol and Chris's. I could find myself in a vehicle with Nish or in an ambush position with Tiny or Saddlebags. As in the jungle or team training in the UK, it was all mixing and matching.
Target replacement came high on the task list. We'd hear that someone was being targeted for assassination, and the one of us who looked most like him would step into his shoes. The rest would set up ambushes to stop the hit taking place and then take on the ASU.
Ken had the troop up in the briefing room and told us PIRA's latest target was a well-known political and social figure. The information had come from the target himself. He'd noticed suspicious vehicles following him to his office. He varied his route, but the cars were still there.
'So.' Ken checked his notes. 'The plan is to replace him with a look-alike, and that's you, Al. Up for it?'
We couldn't be ordered to do these types of jobs, only asked. I went on to do it a couple of times in my career and it was scary.
Al didn't even flinch. 'Fine by me.'
Al and Frank would go to the target's house the night before the hit. Frank would get into the back seat of his Saab in the early hours and hide under a blanket. He would have a radio and a G3, and be Al's back-up when the shit hit the fan.
Al would then leave the house as the target normally would, between eight twenty and eight thirty, jump into the Saab and drive about a mile to the Tamnamore junction of the M1, cross the motorway, then head on into Belfast. The rest of the troop would be staked out in three cars ready to take on the ASU.
Everyone was preparing to get out on the ground and Al was having his hair done to look more like the target's. The TV was off and Paul was prepping his kit. I heard Frank mumbling away to himself through the adjoining wall and realized he was praying. I didn't know if it was for him, Al, or the whole lot of us, but he was going for it big-time. I left him to it: that bit was private – you don't burst in and take the piss.
Nish passed by, looking very dapper. Suits and ties were the order of the day. The target came from upmarket Commuter Land. Car pooling was common; three or four suits together wouldn't look out of place.
By 0800 everyone was in position. The three cars were staked out. Ken drove a Lancia, Nish a Renault. Both were three up. Saddlebags was on his own. He'd be clearing the route just ahead of Al and Frank. No drama.
The ops vehicles looked no different from ordinary civilian ones. Under the bonnet, though, it was a different story: the engines were souped up to cope with the weight of armour-plating in the doors and behind the two front seats, and they had run-flat tyres. As soon as they'd been used on a sensitive job, they were replaced. Tiny had laid claim to the classy-looking Renault with power windows and an electric sun-roof as soon as it had arrived with us, but because he was away on leave Nish had taken it for the job. He made sure it blended in by dumping as much crap as possible in the foot wells and filling up the ashtrays for Tiny's return.
At 0830 Ken got on the net to Saddlebags. 'OK, mate, clear it.'
He drove the route the Saab would have taken, eyes skinned. The ASU would have had dickers (observers) out to trigger the Saab away from the house and guide them in for the hit. But Saddlebags wasn't just looking for them. There were other combat indicators. Was anyone on the streets? School kids should be on their way to class; if not, why not? Any side roads blocked by roadworks? Or a broken-down truck to stop the Saab escaping the hit?
Saddlebags rattled off a P (car number-plate) check on every car he saw. The answers bounced back over the net in less than ten seconds: what the make and colour of the car should be, who it belonged to, and if the owner was flagged up as a player.
Al's voice came on the net: 'Just about to leave. There's a Mini at the end of the drive.'
Saddlebags turned round and did a drive-past. 'Roger that. Wait.' He read the number-plate in his rear-view mirror. It was fake. Had it been booby-trapped? Had the ASU gone for a remote-controlled device instead of a hit? Was it just a faulty plate check?
Ken took control. 'All call signs, wait. Al, acknowledge.'
Al gave two clicks of the send button.
Ken was on the net. 'You got anything, Minky?' Remote cameras and other surveillance devices had been placed overlooking the target's house.
'Definitely not. No command wires, nothing rigged up. Your call.'
This was when a ground commander earned his money. Should he call the job off in case there was a device in the vehicle and they had eyes on, waiting to detonate? Or should he take the risk with his men's lives?
Ken took all of three seconds. 'Al, you up for it?'
Al took just one. 'Leaving now.'
It's quite an art trying to look like someone else, especially if they've been targeted.
The ASU would know him very well by now: the way he walked to the car, any little rituals before he got in. Maybe he checked his pockets for his office keys, or maybe he always put his briefcase on the back seat. Al had had only a few hours to find all this out last night, from someone who probably didn't know because it's not the sort of thing you normally think about. The players could have been watching as Al drove off. If things didn't feel right they could simply call it off. It was a long war. That's where 'Fuck it' comes in handy. Just getting on with the job when you know you could be killed at any minute calls for a certain mindset. 'Fuck it' always seems to work.
Even knowing as much as you can about the target, it's still very difficult to walk like a man setting off for work rather than one who knows his head might be in the cross-hairs.
'Fuck it, so what?'
Al had a square of Kevlar resting on the passenger seat next to him. When they started zapping, at least he could try to protect his head while Frank returned the good news from the back seat with his G3.
Saddlebags carried on towards the M1 roundabout where Nish was parked up in the Renault.
Nish got on the radio as the Lancia followed about 200 metres behind the Saab, just like any other commuters.
'I got a dicker – brown Cortina parked up on the roundabout with a CB antenna. The job's on.' Nish wasn't the only one parked up on the roundabout. This was Car-pool Central. They parked, met mates and drove into the city together in one car.
Saddlebags cut in: 'I got a yellow Escort van in the garage forecourt. Definitely two up. They are aware, not dossing. Can't see what's in the back. The rear windows look like they're covered with silver paper, no glass.'
His plate check came back as kosher. That meant nothing. PIRA often held locals hostage while they took their vehicles. What did mean something was silver paper and no glass.
As Al approached the garage the yellow Escort pulled out in front of him, as if heading for the M1 junction.
Frank came on the net and relayed what Al told him he was seeing. Al could be heard talking through clenched teeth to stop his lips moving.
'Intending right.' Their indicator was on, but it could be a bluff.
'Slowing.' The voices from the Saab were cool and calm. Frank had the safety off on his G3, waiting for the contact to start or Al to give him the heads-up.
'Stop, stop, stop. Still intending right. No traffic – nothing to stop them turning. This is it. Stand by.'
Frank shook off the blanket and pushed his G3 past Al's head, ready to brass up the van through the windscreen.
Ken had his foot down. The engine screamed above his voice. 'Closing in.'
Frank was back on the net. 'Stand down, stand down. They've gone right, gone right. Stand down.'
Ken took control as the engine note dropped. 'Nish, the dicker still there?'
'Roger that. Continue as planned.'
Ken dropped back behind the Saab as Saddlebags crossed the roundabout, checking all the parked commuter cars. He passed Nish in the Renault and the dicker in his brown Cortina.
Al continued his running commentary via Frank of where they were and what he could see. Everyone had to have a clear picture of exactly where the Saab was.
Saddlebags continued along the route as the Saab came up to a junction, turned right and headed for Nish on the motorway roundabout. Then the Lancia emerged about a hundred metres behind, and turned.
Nish was on the net a few seconds later. 'Yellow van's back, turning right . . . coming towards you at speed.'
Nish let the van pass and cane it towards the Lancia and the Saab, which had just crossed the motorway. He slipped in behind. 'Stand by! Dicker's on the radio . . . Wait . . . Van turning left . . . wait . . .'
The net was filled with the din of automatic gunfire from the van hitting Nish's car. 'Contact, contact! Wait out!'
It hadn't been silver paper covering the rear windows but sheets of galvanized tin. The two players hidden in the back had dropped them and opened fire.
Within seconds Nish was screaming along the narrow country road at eighty plus, fighting every corner.
Cyril opened up with his MP5 through the laminated glass. Eno, who'd passed the Selection before mine, was in the back with an HK53 (the 5.56mm version of the smaller MP5). Elbows braced against the two front seats, he opened up between the other two. Hot, empty cases bounced about inside the car and a cloud of cordite made it even harder for Nish to keep on the road. The two in the van kept firing.
Nish punched through the crazed windscreen. Air blasted in, along with a shower of broken glass. The two vehicles were still firing at each other. Ken screamed for a location but no one could hear the radio.
Nish was finding it hard to close on the van and ram it.
At last they came out onto a main drag.
Nish would have been able to ram them and take them down, if it hadn't been for a group of school kids waiting for the bus. Bags and books lay strewn across the pavement as they threw themselves into ditches or tried to run across the road.
One girl froze like a statue in the middle, still gripping her lunch box. Nish nearly lost control as he swerved to avoid her.
'Paralleling the M1 – I'm on the old main road to Belfast.'
He was on a long straight. Now the Renault could take them.
Eno returned fire again as Nish closed. Cyril was in the foot well, on the net to Ken.
It was good news. 'We're on the same road, ahead of you.'
Ken was in the front and pulled Chris's seat-belt on for him. 'RAM IT!'
Chris hit the gas as the yellow target came into view.
'Can't do it, Ken. We're too fast!'
The closing speed was over 150. Everyone would die. Ken wasn't worried: he would come back into this world as a bull. But Chris didn't have much faith in reincarnation. He spun the vehicle and blocked the road. The Escort screamed towards them, swerving up a bank at the last minute and around them. Chris jumped out of the Lancia and fired bursts into the rear of the van.
Ken pushed his door open and tried to jump out at the same time as Chris, but his seat-belt held him back. Two rounds shattered his door window a split second later. But for the seatbelt, he'd have had the Viking's death he wished for.
Nish managed to avoid the Lancia by throwing his car into a big slide.
'Got him, got him, still ahead.'
Sixty . . . seventy . . . eighty . . . The Renault accelerated and was closing.
The van took a sudden left. Nish hit the brakes, trying to slow enough to follow.
Cyril was on the net. 'Ken, they've turned left, turned left. We can't take 'em.'
Vital seconds were lost as Nish battled to turn the Renault. The van was now back on narrow roads, concealed by hedgerow.
The two vehicles combed the area until they were nearly out of fuel. The army and the RUC moved in to control the panicking locals who just wanted to get to school and work without dying. TCG called the job off.
The van wasn't found until later. The ASU had dumped it in a farmyard, grabbed a hostage, cut the phone lines and continued on foot across fields to avoid roadblocks, before taking another car.
Back at the warehouse, it became clear why TCG had called off the job. An innocent bystander had been killed in the operation. Frederick Jackson had been leaving a timber yard; he was waiting to pull out onto the road as the mobile intercept passed him. One of our rounds had ricocheted off the road and gone through the car door. It entered Mr Jackson's body and exited through his neck. The car rolled back and re-parked itself. He was sitting there for ten minutes before anyone in the yard realized what had happened.
The mood in the bar that night was sombre. Even with hundreds of hours of training, shit could happen. Soldiering wasn't a science. The X factor was the enemy. You couldn't tell them what to do so that they fitted in with your plans. Like Napoleon said, if you planned for A and B the enemy would always do C.
Frank, of course, prayed for Mr Jackson. I listened to him through the wall. 'But what else could we do, Lord? We're here stopping evil.'
Nish, Frank and I had a chat about how much the three of us probably had in common with that ASU.
Even as a Bible-basher, Frank had no problem seeing them as the bad guys. 'They use violence to prevent the democratic process, and they kill indiscriminately.' He shrugged. 'They have to be stopped. Simple.'
Nish raised an eyebrow. 'But I can see where they're coming from. If you'd been born a Catholic here and had to put up with the shit they have, you might be waving an Armalite too. Fuck me, to think it's only an accident of birth that I'm not shooting at Father Frank.'
They were both right. If I'd been brought up in the Bogside estate I would have been in PIRA. But coming from one in South London, I'd ended up in the army instead.
There was a lot of hurry up and wait.
Sometimes nothing would happen for a week, although we were always on standby. If something kicked off and they wanted guys on the ground quickly, we even had our own helis parked outside. Tiny was really pissed off that Nish had totalled his pride and joy. Nish thought it was a much better stitch than just filling up the ashtrays and hanging a few bogeys on the rear-view.
During the lulls, there were only so many games of squash or fights you could have in one day. The lads started climbing the walls, especially when Nish tried to get to grips with a few chords of 'The House Of The Rising Sun'.
Frustration was expressed in many ways, but most often in stitch-ups. Minky got over the prawn incident only to have a couple of kippers stuck behind the bars of his electric heater. Nish and Tiny went at it big-time, to the point where I'd be looking under my bed before I got up in the morning in case I was going to detonate something.
It was one of those days. Paul was out doing his own thing, and Frank stuck his head round the door. 'You want to back me in the van?'
'Yeah.' I got up. 'No drama.'
Great. I was going to be shotgun for a job. 'When's the brief?'
'There isn't one. I need somebody to come with me on a shopping trip.'
'Oh. OK.' I picked up my Browning and a couple of magazines. If you weren't on standby, you could just get into a car and drive into Belfast. We were undercover soldiers; we were big lads, with lots of guns. I still couldn't get used to it.
I followed him to the admin van. The dirty old yellow thing was as beaten-up as an odd-jobber's van, which was just the way we wanted it.
'Jump in, you're driving.'
'Where we going?'
'The timber yard.'
'OK.' I had no idea where that was.
I racked back the top slide to get a round into the chamber of my 9-milly. I jumped into the driver's seat, bunged it under my thigh, and checked I had the other two magazines with me. It was a matter of choice, but I always carried three: one in the weapon, two on my belt. If I needed more than thirty-nine rounds, I was deeper in the shit than a pistol could get me out of. Anyway, the idea was to keep out of trouble, not to get into it.
We drove out of the warehouse. 'Why do you need me on an admin run?'
'Cos I'm no longer driving. Not after Tiny.'
The motor-transport officer was obsessed with chips in windscreens and that sort of stuff, to the point of being terminally anal. He was probably after an MBE. Nish had got into a contact and managed to write off a car in about five minutes, but nothing happened because it was on a job. Yet Tiny had scratched a door on an admin run and was fined the cost of the repair.
'So, new policy,' Frank announced. 'I'll drive on jobs, but I'm not going to drive any admin.'
'Oh, right. Cheers, mate – so it's all right for me, is it?'
'Of course. That's what troopers are for.' Frank was grinning from ear to ear. He was in a good mood. I liked him when he was like that.
We drove out of the compound and onto civilian roads.
Frank was still grinning. 'They think I'm weird, you know.'
'You know exactly what I'm on about.' He opened the window and let a bit of air in. The wagon stank of cigarettes and stale farts.
'You all think my Christianity's some weird kind of madness, but I've got to tell you, mate – we're all mad one way or another. We have a Viking as a boss, there's lads who'll only read about the paranormal, and lads addicted to physical fitness like it's heroin. The only one I know who's normal is Al.'
'Thanks again – what about me?'
'You're not normal. You're SAS. That's all you want to be, isn't it?'
'That's why I'm here.'
'Exactly. What a bunch of madmen we are. And they let us out on the streets every day with these things.' He patted the 9mm under his thigh.
'But Al's OK?'
'Yep, more than OK, the only one with any sense. After all that stuff that went on in the bar a couple of weeks ago, he sat me down and told me I'm annoying people with my attempts to convert them, including him. But like I told him, Christians have annoyed people throughout history. They annoyed the Romans so much they got thrown to the lions. Dietrich Bonhoeffer annoyed the Nazis. Christians have got to stand up for what they believe.'
I glazed over, not wanting to listen to the life story of some German I'd never heard of, especially a Christian one. It was hard enough concentrating on not getting fined for scratching this heap of shit.
'Bonhoeffer – you don't know who I'm on about, do you?'
'If I was that clever I'd be in the engineers.'
'He was part of the plot to kill Hitler. They executed him out of spite, even though they knew the war was lost. He was a fat little bespectacled guy, the sort of lad you'd pick on in the schoolyard. But he believed Christians must fight evil in the world, wherever and whenever they saw it. He said churches are unnecessary. All you need to be a Christian is a Bible.'
'Yours in that Claymore bag? That's your cathedral, is it?'
He nodded. 'I read it every day. You should give it a go.'
I couldn't be bothered to answer. Just get back to the jokes, Frank, that's the boy we want to hear. Like any convert to any cause, he was tearing the arse out of it. I realized that religion itself wasn't the problem. It was the fanatics that scared the shit out of me.
We drove into the timber yard. Frank had a list a mile long of stuff he needed: lengths of 4 × 2, sheets of plywood, sheets of this and that, glue, all sorts of woodwork shit. I didn't have a clue what most of it was. I'd never done it at school, and I wasn't exactly a craftsman – I was a flat-pack-cupboard-from-B&Q man.
We got back to the warehouse but Frank directed me to the range hut just outside. It was a corrugated-iron set-up that held all the Figure-11 targets we used when zeroing weapons, and all the plywood backings and little squares of paper and paste to glue over the holes so we could use them again.
I thought it must have been range stuff we'd been buying, but as soon as Frank opened the door I saw we were going into what was obviously his workshop. A large kitchen table was under construction, bright white, sprucy wood; all sanded down, ready to be stained. Four chunky kitchen chairs had already had the treatment. The hut stank of paint and freshly sawn timber.
Frank beamed with pride. 'I've made it so the legs can come off. I'll be able to drive it back to H.' I looked down at the lumps of 4 × 2 under my arm. 'Fucking hell, Frank – you're going for the whole New Testament package, aren't you?'
He groaned. It obviously wasn't the first time he'd heard that one, but at least I got a smile out of him.
Frank dropped the wood. 'Tell you what, Andy. I'll make you a table and chairs if you read the Bible.'
I dropped my pile of wood next to his and laughed. 'You're not giving in, are you?'
'Don't you believe in God?'
'No. But I'll find out if I'm wrong when I'm dead, won't I? For now, I don't really think about it, mate.'
'Aha – that means you're an agnostic. You can't make a decision because you're afraid. You know that, don't you? That means the door is still open.'
I turned to go as Frank got out his tools and continued the good work of God's family business.
'Mate, the only door that interests me is the one out of here. Do you want me to close it behind me?'
As the new boy, I guessed I was only a natural target for Frank's recruitment drive. I just hoped Nish wasn't planning to ask me to join his band.
1 December 1984
We'd heard that an active service unit was targeting a member of the security forces. The informant wasn't sure exactly who the target was, so we were working on a list of possibles in the ASU's area of operations. They'd been keeping themselves busy. A lot of close-quarter shoots had been going down. The players would go up to a front door, knock, then barge in, guns firing, as soon as somebody answered. The targets were mostly RUC or UDR people and the players had always melted away to safety before the police or army arrived.
There weren't enough of us to cover all the potential targets, so we called in a platoon from 2 Para, the resident battalion in the area. Ken's plan was to put one of the troop with a couple of 2 Para lads on each possible, apart from the prime one. This particular guy lived way out in the cuds, just metres from the border, and had been threatened a couple of times before. No wonder he kept a Stirling submachine-gun on the kitchen table while he got the kettle on.
Frank's four-man patrol, including me, would cover him. We would get on target before the rest of the troop took their 2 Para patrols in on theirs.
Boss S was also in Frank's patrol. He'd just recently passed Selection and had been sent over to get some experience. Frank didn't want him on the ground, but how else was an officer going to get to know the ropes unless he was hands-on? Besides, he knew how to shoot. Ken had another heart-to-heart with Frank. Boss S would be on the ground with us and Frank would make sure he stayed with him at all times. He was here to learn.
The fourth member was Eno. He was from the Queen's Regiment, and came up to about neck height on me. He said less even than Chris or Al, and smoked more than Nish.
I listened through the wall as Frank prayed before we went out, even though I couldn't make out exactly what he said. From my side it was never more than a mumble.
The players might already have eyes on target, so to avoid suspicion – and to stop Frank walking across to the house to see if they were going to shoot him – we were dropped off at the target's home at about 11 p.m. We tumbled out of the van like we were old mates as our good friend came to the door and welcomed us inside.
The target, who was in his mid-fifties, had seen it all before. 'I'll get the kettle on, boys. It's a cold night – I can't see them coming out in this.' Even so, he had sent his family away for a few days. His Stirling 9mm rattled about on the washing-machine as it went into spin.
If the players had done their recces, they wouldn't attack through the front of the house. It was one of those places where the front door had never been used. Vehicles and people came to the rear kitchen door via the farmyard. It was unlikely they'd drive in because it was a pain opening the gate. In any case, the border was spitting distance from the kitchen door.
From our armchairs in the warm, dry kitchen, Eno and I had a grandstand view of the courtyard, the cowshed the other side of the hard standing, the dip where a stream ran, and the high ground of the Republic beyond.
The major, Frank and Boss S went into the front room to watch TV. It was important the major kept to his routines. One of the downsides of being a patrol commander on a job like this is that you have to stay with the target. Eno and I would have the first contact.
We turned off the lights and opened the curtains. Feet up on pouffes, weapons across our laps, we watched through the double-glazed french windows. The target was right about one thing. It was cold out there. Ice had formed in the courtyard, and the freezing fog, an Irish speciality, was thickening by the minute.
Our plan was simple. As they came to the back door to the left of us, Eno would give them the good news with his LMG (light machine gun), a Second World War Bren gun, converted from .303-inch to 7.62mm. It was a great bit of kit. I had a G3, along with a couple of high-explosive hand grenades that would do the business with anyone on the hard standing. We would have shot out the double-glazing by then anyway so it would be easy to throw them out and duck behind the wall each side of the french windows.
We watched and waited while the other three caught the football.
Eno leaned over. 'I'm gagging for a fag.'
'Why the fuck do you smoke? It costs a fortune, and you stink.'
'Yeah, but it's a good kick-start. I'll give it up one of these days.'
'What – when you're less stressed than sitting here nice and warm with a brew and a clear field of fire instead of lying out there?'
Eno grinned back. 'Yep, this is the way to go to war.'
'Never tempt Providence,' Frank might have said if he'd been in the room. He came in and told us to stand to. TCG had just been on the net. The job had changed. The duty officer at the RUC police station in Kesh, County Donegal, had received a phone call shortly after midnight. 'This is the Fermanagh Brigade of the IRA: there are blast incendiaries in the Drumrush Lodge, Kesh. The reason for this is that they serve the bastard security forces there.'
I knew Drumrush Lodge. It was a restaurant on the Kesh–Beleek road, not far from the Bannagh river. TCG was taking the threat as genuine.
Frank pulled the curtains on the french windows before Eno hit the lights. 'Ken has cancelled 2 Para. TCG wants the troop down at the Lodge – now!'
Ken had already got the rest of the troop together in two cars heading for the Lodge. It was about a thirty-minute drive for them too. We followed Frank into the front room and listened in to Ken on the net. 'All call signs. We don't know if the devices have already been placed. We don't know if it's a come-on for the RUC and they're waiting. We don't know if they have a device to kick off and then wait for a shoot. So let's keep flexible heads and crack on.'
Frank got back. 'Roger that. We're going to take the target's vehicle.' He gave the registration number and colour of the Escort as Boss S checked the maps.
All four of us were soon piled into the target's old van. He wasn't fazed. He'd seen it all before.
Frank drove, Boss S next to him with the map. The weather had closed right in. Freezing fog brought visibility down to no more than about thirty feet. The roads were icy. Our headlights bounced straight back at us, like we were caught in a whiteout.
Tiny was driving one of the other cars, with Ken, Nish, and Jocky from Eight Troop. The other contained Cyril, Saddlebags and Al.
As soon as Frank took the Escort over thirty, it fishtailed off the road. Frank corrected the slide and brought down the speed before we ended up in the ditch.
Boss S gave Ken the sitrep. 'We won't make thirty minutes. The ice is slowing us.'
Frank took a corner and the back started to wander again.
We only found out later that the ASU had already packed a thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO) explosive into nine beer kegs and placed them in a culvert by the entrance to the Lodge. That amount of ANFO would make a five- or six-metre-wide crater and take out anyone and anything in the surrounding area. It was going to be detonated from just over three hundred metres away by two players who were lying in wait for the fog to lift and the RUC to arrive. Their firing point was on high ground, giving a good field of fire and escape route. Some of their mates had taken up fire positions along the link road into the Lodge. They planned to shoot any survivors, and warn the detonation team of any RUC going into the Lodge while the fog was still down.
Minky got on the net. 'We're hearing a blue van, possibly a Toyota, may be part of the job.'
'Roger that.' All call signs acknowledged.
Eno gave voice to what we were all thinking. 'It's a fucking come-on, must be. The information's flowing too easy.'
The Boss was bent over, map reading with a small Maglite between his teeth. 'Down here, turn left. Not far, maybe ten to go.'
Ken piped up from Boss S's foot well. 'OK, all call signs – listen in. We'll block the link road on both sides about one hundred from the Lodge, then move in on foot. This call sign will take the first end. Cyril, move past us and block the other end. Frank, call me when you get here.'
While we made best speed, Tiny was skidding to a halt. Nish and Jocky jumped out and covered front and rear, and Ken stayed with the radio, waiting for Cyril to pass and block the other end before they moved in on target. None of them had a personal radio, and visibility had deteriorated to three metres.
Nish was forward of the car, crouched in a ditch, when he heard a van door slide open in the fog somewhere ahead of him. He climbed onto the road, his HK53 in the shoulder. He was moving forward as Cyril's lights pierced the gloom. He got into a fire position a couple of paces past a five-bar gate. His barrel pointed in the direction he thought the noise had come from. With no visual points of reference, sound became confusing, hard to pinpoint. Stop and listen was the best way. It cut down your noise, so you could concentrate on theirs.
The gate rattled behind him.
Feet landed his side of the hedge.
Nish saw breath condense in the air. Who the fuck was it? Tiny? Jocky? Ken? His weapon was pointing through the hedge. He couldn't pull it back and turn without giving himself away.
He could hear laboured, rasping breath, then the ssssh-hiss of a radio.
Nish couldn't do a thing. Cyril's crew weren't yet in place. If he took this guy on now, the rest of the ASU would run – and might even detonate on the way out. One player wasn't enough.
We were trying to make distance in the Escort. All we got was a 'Stand by, stand by,' from Cyril. Then: 'We got a Toyota van static on the link road. Driver's door open. No movement. We'll move forward to block the road, then get back and take them on.'
'Roger that. We'll get closer to take any runners. Frank, where are you?'
The car fishtailed once more as Frank hit the gas. 'Five minutes . . .'
Ken and Tiny moved into a cut-off position to catch any runners. Jocky stayed with the car and radio.
They watched the headlights approach and took cover just off the road. Cyril parked up. His team stepped quietly from the vehicle. They checked their mags were on tight and pistols secure in their leg holsters, thumbs pushing down on their safeties to single shot.
All the while, they were being watched by two of the ASU who'd been placing the IED.
Cyril and Saddlebags moved back down the link road towards the Toyota, weapons in the shoulder. They stuck close to keep eye contact. They moved, stopped, listened, trying to work out what was ahead, hoping they weren't walking into someone else's barrels.
Al stayed with their vehicle and threw caltrops across the road, spiked chains that stopped a vehicle by shredding its tyres. If the van or any other vehicle in the trap tried to do a runner, Al would be able to brass them up as they came to a grinding halt.
The two players watched and listened, not sure how many Special Forces were on the ground. They weren't going to move until they had to.
Cyril and Saddlebags heard footsteps coming towards them from the direction of the Toyota. They stopped, let the target come to them.
Cyril took him on with his HK53. 'Stand still! Security forces!' He said it just loud enough to make himself heard, not loud enough to alert the whole gang.
'It's OK, it's only me!'
Whoever 'me' was, maybe he hoped Cyril was part of an army patrol so he'd have time to think of something or get some back-up. I would have done.
'Stand still or I will fire – do you understand?'
The footsteps stopped. Cyril moved forward as Saddlebags covered.
The boy ran.
'Stop! Stop or I'll shoot!'
Ken's team heard the shouts and moved in.
The moment it went noisy, Al knew they needed light. He left his fire position by the caltrops and grabbed a Schermuly flare from the boot of the car.
Everyone on the ground heard the whoosh, like a massive firework as it powered upwards. Most of the flare's effect was masked by the fog, but it caught enough of the running shadow.
Cyril and Saddlebags fired warning shots to the side of him. He carried on running, over a ditch and a fence into a field. They were going to lose him.
The two ASU close to Al knew they had a decision to make. They stood up and hosed down Al, at exactly the same time Cyril and Saddlebags opened fire.
Al took one round, but spun to face the muzzle flashes. The ASU legged it.
From Ken on the net we heard, 'Contact, contact, wait out.'
We couldn't see what was happening but we didn't need telling. We had our windows down and the weapon reports carried loud and clear.
Ken's team couldn't move forward now in case of a blue-on-blue. They had to stay put and wait for runners, or for Jocky to take down any vehicles. If Cyril and Saddlebags needed help they'd shout for it.
Cyril and Saddlebags had cornered the runner. He'd stopped when he felt the thump of rounds near his feet. Cyril dragged him onto the road and pushed his face into the ground. 'If you move, I'll shoot you.'
He searched him. Saddlebags was covering. 'Al! Plasticuffs!'
They had some in their car.
We were nearly there now. Ken was on the net. 'RV with Jocky. We're going to find the rest.'
Saddlebags wasn't getting any reply from Al so they dragged the player back to the car.
Saddlebags went to the boot. It was then that he found Al lying in a pool of blood.
'Man down! Man down!'
Al had taken rounds in the arm and chest.
Saddlebags gave Cyril his HK53 and grabbed the trauma pack from the boot. He needed to stop the bleeding and get some fluid into Al fast.
Cyril got on the net while he covered Al. 'All call signs, man down. It's Al – we need a heli. Get a helicopter in now. We're losing him!'
Minky came straight back. 'Roger that, confirm it's Al. Confirm it's Al, over.' They needed to match the blood type.
'Yep, it's Al. Get it in now!'
The net fell quiet for two minutes.
Minky again: 'We can't get a heli up – fog. I'm trying for an ambulance. We're going to get something in for you, wait out, wait out.'
Ken cut in, his voice thick with anger: 'Fuck the weather, I want a heli in now!'
The boy on the floor must have worked out he was in the shit. He jumped up and lunged past Cyril. Cyril dropped Saddlebags's HK53 so he could use his arm to drop him.
He was too late. The boy had melted into the fog, and so had the weapon.
'He's got a 'fifty-three!'
They both went after him.
Saddlebags drew down his pistol. They both fired and the boy dropped.
Ken, like the rest of us, had no idea what was going on. 'Contact, wait out.'
We finally arrived. Frank stopped the Escort and got on the net. 'I'm stopping anything moving out of the area.' He was remarkably cool, considering his best friend had just been shot. But then again, he still had a job to do.
We started to follow up in the area. It was difficult. Night-viewing aids were useless in these conditions; it was all down to the Mark-1 eyeball. If we bumped into any of them, it would be more by luck than judgement.
We'd heard Minky call forward the local unit's Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to cordon off the area. With luck, the players would still be inside the cordon. I was glad we were in uniform: I wouldn't have wanted to be in civvies with a weapon in my hands when the QRF turned up.
Some of their Land Rovers had already skidded into ditches. When the remainder arrived, we could tell by the radio traffic there were more chiefs than Indians. All they knew was that there had been casualties, and there were still terrorists in the area. Every time a tree branch moved it was reported or shot at.
There were bursts of gunfire in the distance. We got on the net every time. We wanted to react to it. Minky came back: 'Stand down, stand down.' It was the QRF, firing at shadows.
Ken was severely pissed off. 'Get this to the QRF – we will contain this area. They are to stay where they are. They are not to fire at anything unless one of us tells them to or they are being fired at. No patrols, no movement; stay in the vehicles. Tell them not to react to anything until they're told.'
Minky said: 'The QRF report movement in some hedgerows by the river. Are any of our call signs down by the river, over?'
Frank didn't waste a second. 'Me and Andy will take that.'
'Roger that. Frank's going down to the river. Ken, acknowledge.'
We lay in the frozen grass getting our bearings as the QRF fired another couple of rounds.
Frank knew what he wanted. 'Andy, get your IR [infra-red] torch and keep three metres in front of me. Flush them out.'
I switched the IR torch on. It would illuminate darkened areas better than the night-sight; it was like using a normal torch, except it could only be seen through the night-sight.
I took a deep breath and played the beam over the hedge as I moved along it, like some kind of high-tech pheasant-beater. But this beater also had a weapon, and it was set at full auto. It was going to be jungle rules: give it a full mag to make sure there's nothing left of them to fight back.
The river on the other side of the hedge was in full flow. Ice cracked under my feet like I was walking on crisps packets. I was in a semi-crouch, safety catch off, butt in the shoulder. I tried not to breathe too hard, kept as small as I could, eyes out on stalks.
Frank was five or six paces behind, butt in the shoulder, aiming along my IR beam so he could take anybody on. Because he was detached, it would be easier for him to react than me.
Blue lights strobed through the fog, catching us like dancers in a disco.
I took two or three steps, stopped, ran the IR beam up and down.
We moved on, stopped, moved on.
Visibility was still shit. There was a commotion in the distance; still more shooting. Running around here somewhere were players who'd just had a contact. They'd be flapping, they'd want to get out of it, and they'd be armed.
At any moment I was expecting to hear a burst of gunfire and to feel the rounds thud into my body. But fuck it, this was what I did for a living. Besides, I wanted to kill them.
We found nothing, and then came the news we'd been dreading. There was no further need for an ambulance, let alone a helicopter.
Al Slater was dead.