The helicopters. The first thing you noticed about these things was how fragile they looked. There were cables and wires inside the cabin area where we sat with weapons pointed to the floor. We didn’t want a round going through the fuselage, did we? The door gunner was rigged out in his flight suit, his helmet was rigged to a telecom system so he had constant comms with the pilot. He stood on the step looking out and around the aircraft. He spoke in to his microphone and the whine of the engine got louder. Winny was from another team and he was sat across from me with is back to the pilot’s cabin. I was sat next to Cuz, who was on my right and the opening was to my left. I noticed with grim acceptance the rain that was pouring outside the Wessex Helicopter.
We were to fly out to a field just outside of Belleek and walk back in to Bessbrook. We’d already applied camouflage cream, but this would soon be gone by the time we staggered in to the base: sweat and rain would have washed away this.
The whole ship seemed to shudder and I could feel myself being pushed in to the floor by unseen hands. The Mill dropped away below me as the pilot brought the aircraft banking to the right in a power climb. He then dipped the nose to gain forward momentum and dropped 50 metres until we were at the nap of the earth. Telegraph poles, barns, lamp posts, houses and farms snapped by. The door gunner had one foot on the step and swivelled the cupola mounted jimpy round to cover targets. Had this been Vietnam of the late 60s then this guy would have been opening fire. There were other men in the helicopter with me, but I can’t recall their names. They each stared out into the white, cloudy northern irish sky, one of which looked down at his boots. I noticed he gripped the side of the cabin. I could tell he was gripping tightly through his army gloves. I couldn’t believe he had army gloves on. Most of us bought our own gloves, some of which you could take your finger out the indexed finger. Some of the guys had cut a hole intentionally in their issued gloves so they had better grip on the trigger. The thrumming, craft lurched down and I instinctively put my hand out to steady myself. As it banked right and then left, it then brought the nose up and I looked to Rossy who held his hand up and then shot it out the door.
We were off. I slid off the Wessex dragging my Bergen behind me, pulling it off an into the long grass. The lads were already running to a fenceline. I had the jimpy in my hands and it felt light in an instant. I looked down and felt my guts drop out. What the fuck???
The barrel had gone spear like into the soft peat like ground. I pulled with both hands and came out with, as I could only imagine, a slurping sound. Quickly I got to one knee and slid the barrel into the housing of the main part of the jimpy. I felt it click in place and sighed. I looked back at the Wessex and could see the door gunner grinning and giving me the thumbs up as the whirling beast ascended into the clouds. No one had seen the cluster fuck of mine and I was grateful. That was worth a punch in the face.
I put my Bergen on and jogged to the fenceline, a bramble wire bush, completely impenetrable and absolutely suicidal if you wanted to get through them. The IRA and their other republican terrorist groups would booby trap the obvious routes through them. I could barely see through to the other side were another field lay, full of mad cows, no doubt.
“Come on,” Rossy pointed to me and to his right. Diamond formation was our usual patrol formation when crossing fields. We were to form the right hand section of the diamond formation. The command team were sitting pretty while the other three teams fanned out in to position, ready to proceed to the next objective. We were to act as forward right flank protection for a vehicle check point on the Newry Road just south of Belleek. From there we’d begin to make our way back to Bessbrook. Another objective was a house check on a Farm and the RUC guy would be doing the talking. We nearly always took an RUC guy with us on patrol who could do all the arresting if needed. We had powers to arrest with the phrase:
“As a member of Her Majesty’s Forces, I arrest you.”
And that was it, simple as that. But the chances were that you’d get called upon in the future to ratify your decision. Good idea I never arrested anyone as we’re getting screwed over by the legal system – don’t get me started on them.
Despite the mist and the early frost, by the time we traipsed back in to the Mill all our cam cream would be gone, or at least ran down our faces in streaks, like mascara on a teary woman’s face. The sweat would clean your faces. We had to carry a load of crap with us. Dinga had the Violet Joker and was usually up front. Cuz, on this occasion had a White Sifter. I had a Jimpy and the Antler with about 800 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition. The VJ (Violet Joker), White Sifter and Antler were all part of our ECM )Electronic Counter Measures) equipment and each had batteries to charge them up with. The batteries weighed a tonne. This equipment would be used to help counter the threat from Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Devices (RCIEDs).
For comms, Dinga was carrying the PRC320 which was a VHF radio set.
I’d learned early on in the tour not to put too much gear on, or you’d pass out through exhaustion. We had spare Norwegian shirts in our bergens, but we just put our T-Shirts on under our Body Armour and Combat Jackets and soon realised this was the best option. Wearing the waterproofs were a waste of time. I’d seen people wear them on patrol and end up a sweaty mess, just as wet, if not more, than if you didn’t bother with them. I never wore them anymore, being wet wasn’t a problem for me. We’d wade through rivers, lay in tall grass, get pissed on by the constant rain and it wouldn’t matter due to the distances we travelled.