Well this was some fucking slog. Half past seven at night and it was already getting dark. Sloth was in the multiple, I could make out his darkened bulk against the wood – he had the GPMG on his shoulder and carried it like that pretty much all the way up this road. We went uphill where the woods got more dense and through the other side the view commanded a vista of green fields dotted with a house here or a farm there. It was a patchwork of verdant sea. Each patch would be bordered with fencelines, hedges, brooks and roads. Each of these would carry their own inherent risks and I’d lost plenty of fingernails just to get to helicopter landing sites that were in that ‘other’ field, because of a slight navigation error either on the Pilot or Team Leader’s behalf.
‘Shoey’ put a hand up and made the sign for us all to go to ground. I sat back against a tree and lifted my knees up in a ‘W’ position. I brought my rifle up and peered through the SUSAT scope back down the dwindling road that led down in to the wood. The dark crept up on us. It was seamless, smooth, jet shade that deepened with every minute and you didn’t notice it. I looked at my watch. 8pm. Our estimated time to head back was around midnight. Somewhere I could hear the chirping of thousands of crickets. A twig snapped and I could see Franky standing acoss the road, he cupped an orange glow within his hands. When he grinned at me I could see ebony, bone-white teeth which was slightly unnerving.
We moved off. I shouldered my bergen with its metal ECM equipment in the back. The ECM rattled around with heavy batteries, no doubt squashing the ubiquitous NAAFI pasty I had in there for a snack. I had to keep a good distance away from our Signaller as the ECM kit would block the signal. Often the lads would stand outside a house with the White Sifter just to piss off the residents when they were watching the box.
Franky turned to me, “Hey. Once we get through this wood we’re gonna fan out and go in diamond formation. We’ll stay in the centre and stop any vehicles coming down this road,” he said.
“Are we walking back?” I asked. We’d been flown out by Lynx so I was fucked if I was gonna walk back.
“We ain’t walking back, Dougy,” he said and flashed those ebony gravestones at me.
Chopper it is then. Thank fuck for that.
When the light had finally vacated from the sky I saw the stars. They shone and I know this may sound like a cliché, but they shone and we saw them all. Light pollution wasn’t much of a problem in this part of South Armagh. I plucked out a boiled sweet and had to remove my black gloves to get the wrapping paper off it. The Northern Ireland gloves were great, but you couldn’t peel an orange with them. I knew guys in my multiple who’d cut the index finger off them so their trigger finger was free. I did no such thing, especially when it was cold in February and I’d already fucked up my goretex gloves when a barbed wire fence put a hole in them.
The orange sweet brought colour to my taste buds and I decided I would like to live here when I left the Army. It was a place of magic. Up ahead I could make out the darkened forms of my colleagues, their shapes were distinguishable against the arboreal morass; a tangly, knot of tree and bush.
Two pin pricks of devastating light crested the hill and we all parted out to the side, like it was Abraham parting the Red Sea. The car stopped as it approached us and I was told to turn the ECM off. I removed my bergen and pushed my hand down in to it. I felt for the side of the White Sifter and located the switch, which was a pull out and flip switch.
From where I was looking and it was on a lonely road shouldered with fields, I could see a second pair of bright lights. They seemed to stop, turn and disappear.
I was ushered up to where the multiple commander was. I could see a torch and the interior light of a car which was on. A PAXREP had been called and the occupant and all passengers was to be documented and searched. This front vehicle was the lead vehicle in what may have been a movement of weapons, or a hostage for interrogation – one can only speculate. The driver of the car, Seamus, was traced to a republican organisation that had been outlawed by the British government. Basically he was a member of PIRA, South Armagh Brigade. We hit the jackpot.
“Dougy. Seamus. Seamus – Dougy,” Skippy introduced the driver to me and me to him. He kept his eyes downcast from what I could tell with all the torchlight. I could smell him from a few meters away – sweat.
I’d attended the Royal Engineers Search Team course in Sennelager. It was the All Arms course and nothing as intense to the wedge heads’ course. Ours was a 2 week course I think and I remember getting my notepad booby trapped when we left the classroom for a ‘fag’ break – it was comical that course. During the rural search for hidden caches I kept on finding the booty, I must have had a knack for it.
I searched Seamus and he was sweating like Jimmy Saville in a Nursery. I moved on to his car and went through it like a dose of salts. Nothing held behind any of the door panels, under the seats, in the seats or near the engine. There was talk of shooting him and this idea was blown quickly out of the water. The repercussions of this would have come to haunt us if we’d committed murder on that evening in the province. I felt a draft on the back of my neck and turned. Visibility had gone down to about 20 meters now, the clouds had come in.
“Let’s do him in. A bullet to the head. I’ve got a spare round.” This was mentioned, out of earshot of Seamus, of course. Again this idea was turned down by the multiple commander.
I found nothing on this guy. I finally got a clear look at his face and nearly told him he looked fuck all like his picture we had of him on the murals in the PVCPs of all the Terrorists there. We finally let him go.
We traipsed another kilometre before being told to swing right into a field. I clambered under a bush and had to crawl on my hands and knees. The antenna for my ECM got caught and I cut my lip on a thorn. Trees and nettles greeted me when I got out from the bush and I got stung on my hand. I looked up and already my team filed through a gap in the fence. I thought we weren’t meant to go through gaps in fences? It was already 11pm and we had ECM anyhow, there wouldn’t be much line of sight in this weather for an RCIED (Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Device). ECM? Shit! I unslung the bergen and fumbled for the on switch, I coughed as it made its high pitched on-tone for two seconds. Hopefully the rest of the guys hadn’t heard it. I should have turned on the ECM as we moved off!
We sat in this field for the best part of an hour. Cigarettes and coffee were traded. I heard someone being wrestled to the ground and put in a headlock. Nearer to midnight I heard the Cougar Radio burst in to life and the Multiple Commander exchange talk with someone else over it. The receiving message sounded nothing like ground call signs, but rather an air call sign, because you could hear the engine and it was in full pelt – must be airborne!
What I hadn’t noticed now was how long it had been raining for. I rubbed my cheek on to my Combat Jacket collar and felt the damp. I was damp through and I hadn’t noticed it. My trousers were sodden, boots were warm, and slightly damp from when I stepped in a stream. We’d generally wade through rivers and stay wet throughout the patrol. I think I’d cut myself on my leg somewhere at the beginning of the patrol as my inside thigh stung.
Where was the helo going to land? I couldn’t tell the size of the field as I couldn’t see the other side, but I could see power lines in the black haze. Skippy casually waltzed into the mist with something in his hand, he held it high like he was He-Man hoisting his sword in to the air. A flash pulsed in the middle of the field as he initiated his Firefly. Then I heard it, that rhythmic, heavy chopping sound in the air. It was a beat we would yearn for, especially at these times. Tired, wet, cut and in need of a bacon sarnie and then 6 hours tucked up in a sleeping bag in the Mill. My feet were sore and it was mainly from plodding on the road. At least if we were field hopping it would vary the muscle groups used in my legs and feet.
Just how the Puma got through the power cables, in the dark and mist was beyond me. The door gunner was visible because of his of the bright green glare of his NVG (Night Viewing Goggles). We ran, stood by the open door, threw our bergens by the seats and clambered on to the landing skid and then into the cabin. Rifles were pointed to the floor and as the ground gave way, forces began to tug at my stomach. We clipped in as the door gunner closed the door and we thrummed through the rain and darkness to Bessbrook Mill.
Vinny put the spade down and flexed his fingers. Fucking aching like a twat they were. He was up to his neck in this fucking field when he should be at home on the piss, especially since it was a Saturday. Well he thought it was a Saturday, he didn’t look at the days, but the dates and how many days he had left. It was the 28th May 1986. His chuff chart was beginning to look respectable back at camp.
“Stand To!” Dessie shouted from up the field. Dessy was a jumped up Lance Corporal who’d just been promoted in field. The fucking arse licking toe rag was taking liberties.
Stand To? What the fuck? He check his watch : 2155hrs Wasn’t ‘Stand To’ done at 5 in the morning?
They’d been building the tower behind him for the best part of a week and for PIRA not to take a shot at it yet was pretty fucking creepy.
Vinny ducked. It was pretty much automatic. Three very loud bangs emanated from somewhere in front of him. He looked up at the pale blue sky and saw three black objects tumbling through the sky. One of these looked like it was on a direct path towards him. (3 x Mark 10 Barrack Buster Mortar Rounds had been fired at the Watchtower by the Provisional Irish Republican Army). Vinny couldn’t breath, in fact it hurt. His eyes hurt from looking at it – this black thing that tumbled slowly toward him, to earth. No time to think, no time to pray, then it landed behind him with a thud. He waited it. Oblivion. Whatever it was. The end.
…. all quiet. He gasped, coming up for air. Breathed, too quickly. Slow down. Slow it down. He looked up and…
“Get your fucking head down. Stay in your trench!” He lay down and waited.
N.B. ‘Dessie’ is fictional, but the remainder of the account is based on a soldier’s experiences.