Lisanelly Barracks in Omagh, County Tyrone was a scattering of old War Department buildings and more modern, but just as dilapidated buildings from the 1960s and 70s. Surrounded by a double security fence and guard towers, the barracks were close enough to the meandering Irish border to warrant a strategic importance in support of Operation Banner. It offered a certain degree of comfort and relative luxury compared to the operating bases nearer to the border, small, uncomfortable and isolated, like Foreign Legion outposts in Vietnam. Both sets of troops were fighting a similar war, separated by forty years.
A Wessex helicopter taking off from the parade square, rattled the windows of the medical centre. The platoon sergeant was chatting with the RAMC ward manager of the Role 2, bedding down facility.
“So what’s wrong with him and why can’t he go out with the team tonight?”
“Chicken pox? I thought that was supposed to be something kids get and isn’t everyone supposed to be vaccinated against it?”
The RAMC medic was preparing the notes for the next morning’s ward round. He looked at the sergeant and shook his head, “Chicken pox is a relatively harmless virus in kids, but it can knock an adult for six. There can be complications such a pneumonia or meningitis. That’s why we’ve admitted him so he can be kept under observation.”
“So how long is he likely to be off for?”
“At least a week and then he’ll be waving a light duties chit for a month.”
Sergeant Wood swore and went in search of his platoon officer, Lieutenant Attwater, who was skulking in the company office, pretending to be writing annual reports, instead of drinking tea and reading the Sun, which was hidden under the report folders. Wood went through the military niceties on entering an office where an officer was present.
“Sir, I’ve got a problem.”
“Well the orderly sergeant did say you had gone to the medical centre.”
“Very droll, Sir. It’s about tonight’s OP operation. Private Abdi has gone sick, bloody chicken pox.”
The Lieutenant looked alarmed, “I hope it’s not catching. I remember one winter when the norovirus swept through the camp. There wasn’t a man left standing who wasn’t shitting through the eye of a needle.”
Wood sighed mentally, “No, Sir. Most people have had it as kids. It would appear that Private Abdi didn’t.”
“And you’re going out for forty-eight hours?”
“Yes, Sir. A covert OP near the border overlooking Dunshaggin Farm. The Brigade tasking, you remember?”
“Of course I do,” Attwater said with a slightly hurt tone. But he had forgotten under the deluge of a thousand-and-one tasks that junior officers had to cope with. ”What about taking Private Edge. He’s a steady sort of chap and a bloody good fly-half. He’ll be in the Brigade team, you mark my words.”
This time Sergeant Wood sighed out loud, “With all due respect, Sir, Private Edge’s prowess on a rugby field is not a totally accurate gauge of how he will perform on a forty-eight hour covert OP operation. Besides, he’s a rook.”
“He was bloody good during that riot in Strabane last week. And don’t forget, Sergeant Wood, you were a rook yourself once. Let’s give the lad a chance, eh?”
The platoon sergeant realised that further argument was pointless. He saluted as he left and went to find Private Edge to give him the good news.
It was dark outside when the four of them assembled in the drill shed, waiting for the helicopter. Sergeant Wood checked their equipment meticulously, making sure that both of their water bottles were full, their two twenty-four hour ration packs were stowed in their respirator haversacks and that all loose equipment that could have made a noise was taped with the pervasive green bodge tape. He paid particular attention to Edge, making sure he had camouflaged his forearms and neck as well as his face and hands. They wore woollen headovers rather than Kevlar helmets and most wore the much lamented, black, leather Northern Ireland gloves with the padding, rather than the new, gortex gloves that always seemed too tight. They each carried the SA 80 rifle with one-hundred-and-twenty rounds of 5.56mm ammunition. Sergeant Wood sadly missed the 7.62mm SLR with its awesome stopping power.
A Puma swept in over the security fence, showing no lights and flared onto the parade square. They all knew that the base was being well and truly dicked, and that the surrounding telephone kiosks were full of bottom feeders, waiting to phone the players to tell them a covert op was underway. They clambered on board and the RAF loadmaster checked they were strapped in with a right-angle torch with a red filter. The helicopter lifted off and headed north towards Londonderry for a few miles, before making a sweeping turn well east of Omagh, then heading for the salient of land that jutted into the Republic.
The crew flew with night vision goggles (NVGs), the street lights a bright green, hazy blur in the artificial light. The Puma headed west into the salient and the lights on the ground became few and far between. This was bandit country, and Edge felt his stomach muscles tighten and his testicles draw up inside his body. He knew that the tendrils of fear were brushing him and unobserved in the darkness, he concentrated on breathing from below his solar plexus.
The loadmaster warned them they would be landing in two minutes, the slipstream blasting in through the open door was joltingly cold. They felt the helicopter descend and gently touch the Tyrone turf. As they went out the loadmaster wished them good luck. The four man patrol went out about fifty yards and the Puma lifted off. Covered by the noise of the engines, Sergeant Wood gave the order to load. Edge reached into his left hand ammunition pouch and pulled out a magazine. He felt the rounds on the top to make sure they were properly seated and gently but firmly pressed the magazine into the housing under the weapon.
The helicopter was by now a low hum in the distance, but they waited to orientate themselves with the night. Finally, Wood gave the order to move out, him leading, Edge next and close enough for Wood to keep an eye on him, then Private Henderson with Lance-Corporal Odling bringing up the rear. They moved at a fast pace that covered the uneven ground, well-spaced and irregular just like the infantry training manual. Their boots were hissing through the long, wet grass and soon, rivers of sweat were running down their bodies, inside their clothes. Edge was glad he hadn’t worn his Buffalo jacket, it was tied round his waist, tucked into the trousers underneath his smock. They had all studied their maps carefully, so they all knew roughly where they were. The border was less than two miles away when they crossed a narrow road, pushed through a hedge and start to move steeply up a hill.
By now the arable countryside had given way to moorland and large plantations of coniferous trees. They skirted a wood to their right and crossed another road into rough ground. Wood slowed the pace right down and they went into covert patrolling mode. Moving slowly, carefully and making the minimum amount of noise. Ahead was an open land, scattered with small, deciduous copses and Wood led the way towards one of them. It was late winter, but the new growth was coming and there was still plenty of cover within the environs of the copse. The sergeant halted them on the far edge of the copse and they moved into cover. Wood murmured to them in a low voice, setting out landmarks in the darkness by pointing with his hand.
“Five-two mils, at two hundred metres, farm. Our target. Cavan road to our right, five-eight to one-six mils. Wood beyond the road. Five-eight mils to three-four mils Cam Road to our left. Second farm beyond Cam Road on four-eight mils at four-hundred metres. Our secondary target.”
At midnight, Wood put them into their watches, four on, four off, making sure either he or the lance-jack was always on with Edge. Quietly in the darkness they camouflaged themselves and their hides, setting up a central bivvy area for the off watch. They were under hard routine, no noise, no lights and no hexamine stoves for a brew and no fags. It would be cold rations out of the bag and they would bag and take everything with them on exfiltration, including turds if they were unable to cork it.
Edge was on from 02:00 to 06:00, overlapping Wood first and then Odling. He was warm and comfortable because like most British infantrymen, he had spent over £500 on supplementing his personal equipment, with superior kit from the commercial market. His boots were Gore-Tex Danner from the US. The Buffalo wicking jacket was now next to his skin, under the smock and he wore Carhartt wicking long underwear. Under the smock was a German Gore-Tex lightweight jacket, because the British Army hadn’t got round to issuing troops in Northern Ireland with fit-for-purpose waterproof clothing yet. (Please note that other proprietary brands of outdoor clothing are available).
After his first stag Edge crawled into the bivvy. He tried to sleep but the excitement made it impossible, so he lay calmly and meditated, lowering his conscious state. He was back on at 10:00 and by now, low cloud and a miserable drizzle obscured the tops of the hills. He could barely see the farm and had to peer through his rifle’s Sight Unit Small Arms Trilux (SUSAT) with its x4 magnification. The second farm that he was observing was a miserable collection of single-storey buildings, constructed mainly of corrugated iron. It was absolutely deserted and a bare handful of vehicles passed on the Cam Road, despite this being a rat-run to the border.
Soon he was soaked to the skin, despite the Gore-Tex second layer. A hardy field mouse, probably driven out of hibernation by hunger, jumped up on his arm and then up onto the rifle. It paused and stared at the immobile soldier, probably suddenly realising that this was a human being. It groomed its whiskers, jumped down and disappeared into the long grass. Edge smiled. The little cameo had lifted his soul.
At the end of Sergeant Wood’s stag, he visited Edge before getting his head down. Edge barely heard him as the sergeant very carefully wriggled up next to him.
“How’s it going, Edge?”
“Right, what have we got?”
Edge briefed the NCO on his arc from left to right, what he had seen, numbers of vehicles that had passed on the road and their types.
“I’ve seen no people on foot or in or around the farm, but I did see a number of fallow deer including calves near the farm out buildings.”
“What’s the significance of that, Edge?”
“Fallow deer are very shy and skittish, which probably means that the farm is unoccupied. And there’s been no smoke.”
The sergeant clapped him on the back, “Good lad, Edge. Keep it sharp.”
And that was why Edge had joined the Army, for the comradeship and similar values, forged in adversity, a common sharing of beliefs. A sense of belonging. The real kind, not the ersatz kind portrayed in the Army’s current ridiculous and offensive recruitment campaign. It was a sense of belonging that spanned time. From the Men-at-Arms and archers sheltering from the rain on the eve of Agincourt. To the men on the gun deck of the Temeraire closing on the French and Spanish fleet off Trafalgar. To the crew of a Lancaster, jossing and bantering as they put on their kit and waited for the WAAF-driven truck to take them out into the night, to their dispersal where 55,000 lbs of fuel, duralumin, steel and high explosives waited for them to clamber inside. It was a sense of belonging and loss that could make the eyes of frail, old, men weighed down with medals, well-up on certain Sundays in November.
But the truth of the matter, despite sounding so glamorous with a frisson of danger, manning a covert observation post in Ireland’s border country was crushingly and mind-numbingly boring. There was a distraction on the second day when a van approached from the border along the Cavan Road. It seemed to swerve and end up partially against the fence nearest to their position, level with the corner of the woods. Two men got out and one started shouting at the driver. Sergeant Wood whispered to Henderson to wake the other two up to stand-to. Carefully they wriggled out of bivvy bags and into stand-to positions.
By now the fracas on the road had developed into the beginnings of a fight, with pushing and shoving. The soldiers who could see, watched the incident with amusement. It was a pity they couldn’t see the three men slip out of the other side of the van and disappear into the woods. Eventually the situation calmed down and the two men seemed to be surveying damage to the front offside of the van. They bent down and started working on the front, but they were out of view behind a hedge. The troops assumed they were pulling the front wing off the tyre after the collision with a fence post. It was all over in about fifteen minutes, and the van disappeared down the road in the direction of Castlederg.
It was the only noticeable incident during their forty-eight stint. Whatever intelligence had been received concerning the two farms, they seemed unoccupied and nobody went anywhere near them. At 23:00 on the second day, they covertly packed up and sanitised the site of all traces that they had ever been there. Dead on midnight, Sergeant Wood led them out of the copse towards the road and the corner of the wood. They were using a different exfiltration route, but the first one hundred yards were the same as the route in. By the gap in the hedge they paused, adjusting to the night. The moon was behind the clouds, which was a pity, because Wood may have spotted the gossamer-thin tripwire in the moonlight. He stood up and went to move through the hedge.
Wood bore the brunt of the blast and fragments of the exploding pipe bomb. Edge who was about ten feet behind the sergeant bore the brunt of the heat from the weed killer, sugar and fertilizer improvised explosive device. His trousers were scorched off below the knees and the right side of the Buffalo Jacket melted and stuck to his skin. Partially blinded, burned and agonised, Edge dashed towards the gap in the fence reasoning there would be no secondary devices in the same place as the first. He went down and crawled into a new position, realising with guilty revulsion that he had just put his hand in Sergeant Wood’s entrails.
A few seconds after the explosion, the ambush came down on top of them, from two positions in the wood on the other side of the road. Closest to his position was the fast, occasionally faltering and intermittent rattle of an M60 machine gun. Fifty metres to his left, what sounded like an M16 rifle being fired in short bursts at the hedge line.
A bloody mummy’s boy like you. The first time the IRA shoots at you, you’ll shit yourself.
Edge felt real and tangible fear, but he also felt his overwhelming anger erupting like boiling magma. The fear never had a chance. At least Odling and Henderson were still in the game and were firing into the woods from the other side of the hedge. But they were separated from Edge by seventy or so metres and their options of manoeuvre were limited by the hedge and fence line. Additionally, Odling was encumbered by the heavy Clansman radio. Soldiers, sailors and airmen are drilled constantly to react to effective fire in a manner that flies in the face of common sense. No amount of drilling and training can prepare a man or woman for the reality of coming under effective fire for the first time. It’s a tribute to the selection, training and conditioning that most will continue to function. But until it happens, an individual has no way of knowing how they will react.
Edge’s anger had trumped his fear. He made ready and went forward, dashing across the road to the flank of the woods and then pushed into the trees. It was heavy going in the densely packed, evergreen plantation. Ahead of him the machine gun was firing the odd burst before stopping, but beyond that, the M16 kept up a steady rate of fire. As he moved closer, he could hear two men cursing and swearing in broad, Irish accents. They were trying to operate the M60, a new toy gifted from Irish Americans thanks to NORAID, but seemed to be having problems with the weapon’s belt feed.
PPPPPP, Edge thought grimly to himself and closed in on them from the flank. They were less than four metres from him, bent over the top of the weapon, trying to fit the top slide down over the belt of ammunition.
“I told you we should have left this fucking thing behind and brought the AKs,” one of them complained bitterly.
“It worked perfectly well yesterday. You don’t have a clue what you’re fucking doing!”
Edge raised his rifle and sighted with the iron sights on top of the SUSAT, knowing the optical sight was useless in the dark. He pumped fifteen bullets into the two men, who never knew what had hit them, making the last two head shots. He pushed through the wood to where the M16 was firing. Now it was risky because rounds being fired by Odling and Henderson were cracking over his head and around him. Edge bent double, moved forward and saw the man at the same time as he saw Edge. He was wearing a combat jacket and ski mask and he swung the M16 round to face this new threat. He fired one round before Edge, which ripped through his collar. Edge fired two rounds in quick succession. The first hit the man in his upper arm and he spun round with the force of the impact, the M16 thrown from his hands. The second round missed.
“ODLING, HENDERSON, STOP!” Edge yelled, but another round cracked past.
“CHECK FIRE. THIS IS EDGE.”
The fire from beyond the road finally stopped and Edge looked down at the man who was in obvious pain.
“OK you, Brit bastard, you got me. Now get the Po-lice and a fucking ambulance.”
Edge smile unseen in the darkness, more of a grimace and put a 5.56mm round through the terrorist’s head.
“ODLING, HENDERSON. I’M COMING OUT ONTO THE ROAD. DON’T FIRE.”
Edge emerged from the trees, bent double and threw up. The other two emerged cautiously from cover.
“Where’ve they gone?” Odling asked when they joined Edge on the road.
“They’re dead. Three of them.”
Edge vomited again, “Two over there, one just behind me.”
The lance-jack was aghast, “I’ll need to check the bodies. See what you can do for the Sarge.”
Sergeant Wood was beyond any help they could give him and while Henderson prepared a bivvy bag to carry the remains of the platoon sergeant, Edge knelt down on the road next to the body.
“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
As they slid Wood’s body into the bivvy bag, Henderson said gently to Edge, “I didn’t know you were a God-botherer, Edgie.”
“I’m not. It just seemed the right thing to do rather than just pouring him into a bag. When you were in the firefight, did you ask for help?”
“I might have done,” Henderson said guiltily.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. No atheists in a firefight, or so they say.”
When Odling returned he took Edge to one side, “Yeah, they’re all dead and they’ve all been shot through the head.”
Edge shrugged, “Lucky shots.”
“We need to get out of here. It’ll be crawling with players soon and the radio isn’t working, so I haven’t been able to send out a contact report.”
By now Edge was in considerable pain due to his burns and between them, they carried the body over a mile back to the helicopter RV. At two in the morning they heard the helicopter and Odling flashed the signal using a pre-arranged blue filter. A Wessex landed in the darkness and they clambered on board after unloading their weapons. It flew directly to the Tyrone County Hospital, where Wood’s body was placed in the morgue and Edge had the burns on his legs and side treated. He had lost his eyebrows and eyelashes, but fortunately only in one area of his leg was the burn to full thickness.
As he mooched around the hospital, bored and aimless he started to dwell as to why their operation had been compromised. He had no way of knowing that they had been caught up in a turf war between MI5 and Army Intelligence, specifically the protection of a tout being run by MI5. It wasn’t the last time Edge would be involved with the dirty dealings of the intelligence services.
But the hardest part was when he lay alone on the guarded, military ward, during the small hours. He had killed three men in the space of minutes, one who had slaughtered in cold blood. He could pass off the two on the machine gun as making sure, but the third could not be so conveniently filed. In the years that would follow, Edge would kill many men and probably women, but it was the man in the Tyrone wood, with the M16 that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
© Blown Periphery 2018