Soon we were to be filmed by camera crews, crossing the Line Of Departure to our impending doom through the Kacanik Defile. It was a valley through the mountains bordering FYROM and Kosovo. Would there be landmines? Ambushes? Artillery strikes? We waited for the order, patiently watching the news and chatting to ourselves. Meanwhile, life went on… in FYROM, in the leaguer area. There was the Manchester United Football match – now that was a significant event, not a non-event. I don’t like football, but from what I heard in the tent that was built especially for this match, it was a spectacular game. Manchester United versus Bayern Munich 26th May 1999 – I could hear the screams of despair, then jubilation late in the evening and I decided that Manchester United won the match.
We’d been in this same position for nearly a month now and we had a close call when a balloon was spotted across the border. Was a meteorological balloon for Artillery, or was it a child’s party balloon? This had the hierarchy in hysterics, for the next two days we wore body armour and helmet whilst exiting the BFT, like the BFT was bomb proof in the first place. I was sat in the 432 with the Commanding Officer of the regiment and Blamf. I remember speaking up and not really having a clue what I was talking about, as is normally the case. The CO and Blamf looked from the map to me for a second, then continued on their discussion on Artillery and trajectories of shells and the height of the mountains in the Kacanik defile etc.
Outside the perimeter on the road to the outer world, there were places where the locals would sell their wares. There were several CD sellers, some selling music, computer programs and dodgy movies. I bought the entire collection Visual Basic 6 Enterprise edition with Developer software, worth a £1000, but paid only 3 DM for it. Bargain. I then bough a John Miles music CD for the same amount and found out later it was the best tracks of Rick fucking Astley. A lot of these CDs were created by students in Belgrade University, the very city we were bombing.
Rick ‘fucking’ Astley. Mick Lawrence found out straight after I bought the CD and ripped the piss out of me.
In early June when, by now we were all climbing the walls, if there were any to climb, we heard that the Russians were on their way. The Paratroopers were laid out by the APOD where all the Pumas and Chinooks were being readied. There were options to land all the choppers on the runway before the pesky Russians got there. This was on a global, political scale and we waited. Once the Paras were about to get on the choppers, but were called back. They were ready to spill blood, those lunatics. A few things that stick out when I remember the Paratroopers. It was how they trimmed down their jungle hats to nubs. They’d cut the entire rim off the hat and get rid of the middle bit, then sew the end bit back on so it looked shorter. Fucking waste of time if you asked me. Another thing was their noodles, they’d have bags of the stuff and cook it up in a minute from their webbing.
Word soon came through that the Russians had just bounced onto the runway at Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. Oh fuck. World War 3 here we come. They weren’t your average conscript joe troops as they were in the ‘global eye’ and blood would be spilled, on either side. That wasn’t the case though. We stood down the choppers, cut their engines, and the Paras were hopping mad with frustration. They were hoping to do an Operation MARKET GARDEN style jump over the airport, or so I was told – but that was just hearsay and bullshit: plenty of that going around.
9th June 1999
We had a variety show at the Brigade Headquarters where we were entertained. There was a lot of music and singing to be had, I think we even had 2 cans of beer each. This was maybe the last two cans we’d ever have if they mined the route in to Kosovo.
We began to pack away our stuff the next day. We finally got the order to move out. This would end up being a fuck up of epic proportions, I bet. I ended up being sat in the back of a 432 with an Intelligence Corps Sergeant: Sergeant Eggert was his name. The heat in the back was unbearable. Sweat began to form as soon as the engine fired up and we began to vibrate our way to the Kosovo border. If you’d seen the film Das Boot you may understand a little of what it was like in there. The vibration of the engine and the slewing of the armoured vehicle shifted the shite that was stuffed in the back.
“For fuck’s sake!!” I think Shippers was driving this and Blamf had his carcass stuffed in the Commanders cupola like some Erwin Rommel ready to take on the 7th Armoured Brigade in the North African desert. Ironically those German fellows were making similar crossings nearby and would be located to the North West of the country when we got in.
The press were all set up on the official border point with all their cameras pointing towards the column of smoke and noise. It would be hours until all the vehicles would pass in this convoy and more would trickle through.
After three hours we stopped. I looked to the front and saw Blamf kneel down and peer in the back. He held up a T sign with his hand to signify a rest and I began to kick at the lever for the back door, then undid the screw bolts at the edges. When the door open, motes of dust flooded in like sepia, snowflakes rushing in to join us. Sunlight and cool air. I took my bandanna off and breathed. It was good. A cool flood of air soothed my lungs. We were parked at the side of a road. A barrier prevented cars from rolling off into a ravine and either side of us were high mountains like huge shoulders. I stayed on the hard standing tarmac – not sure what was under the rough verge. We’d heard that the place may be booby trapped and mined to hinder our progress.
“Hey, Smudge! Any chance I can bum a lift in yer Bedford?” I asked a chubby looking Lance Corporal from the Signals Squadron. The BFT was rolled up and took up most of the space in the back his 4 Tonne truck – it would be ideal to rest up in and not too hot. Plus I’d get a decent view of the Kacanik defile as we rolled on up north.
It was mid morning by now and we began to move north. We were to set up HQ for the night at a place near Urosevac and then carry on to Pristina. It would be a hastily set up HQ. The tent I was lying on wouldn’t be unrolled on this occasion, thank fuck.
I gave a wave to a Gurkha who sat by a smouldering oven that had a small kettle on it. Making tea by the look of it. His Land Rover’s front left tyre had a great big hold in it. A poncho was attached to the front of the Rover and he sat under it to act as a shade from the sun. He disregarded me as we parted. There were Apache helicopters weaving through the valley above us. I half expected missiles to fly from their pylons, but little did I know I’d see them fired seven years later in a real shit hole. We passed villages. One had a squadron of tanks by it. There were children crawling all over one Challenger to the bemusement of the crew and flowers were draped and placed on it so it resembled more like an armoured and deadly flower bed. I heard their shouts and felt something inside. Maybe it wasn’t a waste of time coming here? They certainly seemed happy to see us giving us two finger salutes for victory and shouting, “NAHTO”. I presumed that was for NATO. This was something else. I thought back to images of troops going through the Netherlands during Op MARKET GARDEN and the welcome they got from the locals, before they got encircled by the Germans.
We set up a quick HQ and soon got to learn that those ruffians, the Paras, were already up to mischief in Pristina and causing all sorts of mayhem.