On an evening in October 1998, a C130 Hercules of RAF No 47 Squadron, Special Forces Flight, took off from RAF Leuchars, north of St Andrews in Fife. To the residents on Meteor Avenue, behind their triple glazing, the passing Hercules was a drone, barely heard above BBC Scotland News. Their homes would be shaken much later, when a COMAO of four Tornado GR4s and four Tornado F3s would blast off and track through the valleys of Scotland, in an attempt to attack the naval task force located off the Mull of Kintyre. The Falcons of Cobham Aviation Services were already airborne, weaving their deceptive electronic webs, confusing and trying to blind the radars of the task force’s ships.
In the noisy and cavernous rear of the C130 was an air dispatcher from the Joint Air Transport Establishment, an RAF Loadmaster, two RAF Parachute Jump Instructors (PJIs) and sixteen members of Nos 22 and 23(R) SAS. As soon as the Hercules turned south after the climb out, the sixteen SAS and two PJIs went onto oxygen from the black cylinders strapped to the seating stanchions between them. They were breathing pure oxygen to purge their body systems of nitrogen to prevent decompression sickness. Tonight they would be jumping from over 28,000 feet and would have to change over to their integral oxygen supply prior to the jump.
This was the final, operational jump for the men, all men, no women, male privilege, of the High Altitude Exit, Low Opening (HALO), and freefall, covert insertion parachute course. Although they were part of a NATO exercise, for the parachutists this was the culmination of a long and vigorous course. They were still under evaluation, which was why the RAF PJIs were jumping with them. The lighting in the rear of the Hercules was dimmed. Some tried to sleep, some stared vacantly at some meaningless inanimate object and tried to concentrate on breathing slowly to avoid hyperventilation.
Edge was reading with a small torch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, not exactly a rip-roaring, light hearted romp, but a sobering insight into the barbarism of mankind. It had been on the suggested reading list for his intake and Edge was catching up with it. It was very hard going, because it reminded him too much of Bosnia. He felt the aircraft bank gently to starboard as it tracked south of the Yorkshire Moors.
He felt hot, even though the air dispatcher and loadmaster’s breaths were misting in front of their faces. The cabin temperature had been deliberately kept low to avoid thermal shock as they left the aircraft. He was wearing long, silk underwear tops and bottoms next to his skin, an expensive purchase from a skiing equipment shop. Silk inner socks and Marino wool outers. The thick-soled boots were Haix’s finest (Edge’s personal favourites). Silk inner flying gloves and outer Arc’teryx Sabre skiing gloves. He had three layers under the radar absorbent smock, including Gore-Tex and two under his trousers. The bergen was between his knees with a radar absorbent cover, an M16 was strapped to his left hand side, attached to the parachute harness, muzzle pointing down. The rear sling swivel was tied with paracord to the left riser of his chest rig with a carabiner. The reserve chute, oxygen bottle, altimeter and rate of fall gauges were attached to the main harness on his chest. He had a GPS indicator on his left wrist. Edge was wearing a Kevlar ballistic helmet and goggles, with oxygen mask connected to the small oxygen bottle under the reserve chute. He was dreading the ecstasy of fumbling, as they donned and checked their kit prior to the jump.
The Hercules banked again about twenty-five minutes later and was heading north towards the Isle of Man. Edge watched the loadie go up to the flight deck and knew that soon it would be Show Time. He stowed the book and torch in a sealable polythene bag in one of his bergen’s side pockets. What seemed like an eternity later, the loadie came back down from the flight deck he and the air dispatcher went onto their own, portable oxygen supply. The PJI’s started to get them ready, although unlike their SAS trainees, they were unencumbered by bergens and weapons.
Edge stood up and turned his bergen upside down, stepped in front of it and put his legs through the shoulder straps. His buddy-buddy helped him haul it up and attach the heavy rucksack behind his knees to his parachute harness, with two quick-release carabiners and a length of webbing strapping. Once his parachute had opened (God willing), Edge would release the bergen to drop ten feet below on its webbing strap. It would hit the ground first and slow his descent. He had taped the cleats of his boots with green bodge tape to prevent them tangling with the straps as it dropped away. The process was repeated with his buddy and now none of them could sit back down. The mutual check of equipment lasted a long time. Their lives depended on getting it right. Edge’s final, essential piece of life support equipment was tucked in his smock’s inner pocket. A small, well-loved and rather grubby koala bear, called Skippy, that his mother had given him when he was five. The PJIs went round and double-checked the thoroughness of the buddy-buddy system. If anything was found, the buddy got a cuff on his helmet for missing it.
The loadmaster told the PJIs that the aircraft was getting ready to depressurise and the eighteen jumpers went onto their integral oxygen supply. This was the difficult time. Any faults with the oxygen and the parachutists would not be allowed to jump. By the time faults were sorted, the parachutist would have breathed in normal air. Even a brief few breaths would in theory be enough to induce decompression sickness. Edge held his breath and felt the puffs of oxygen from the mask against his eye. He clipped the mask on and pulled down his goggles, giving one last wink to his buddy, (in a totally manly and un-ghay way).
Up on the flight deck the crew were on their oxygen supplies and the Hercules depressurised. The loadie came round and showed all the parachutists a white board. On it was written the wind speed and direction at their current altitude, at 10,000 feet and ground level. The cloud base and height was annotated along with the zero degree isotherm, which was 8,000 feet. Edge groaned inwardly, they would be freefalling through freezing cloud.
The red lights went on above the two para doors, although they would be exiting from the rear ramp. Edge was in the first stick of eight and they waddled towards the rear of the aircraft, laden with over 100lbs of kit. One of the PJIs was with them, to assess them for the final jump. All had luminous numbers on their helmets for identification. The two going out first lugged the “bundle,” a padded container carrying their specialist equipment. The bundle was fitted with a drogue chute to give it a degree of stability and allow it to drop at the same rate as the rest of the stick. These two would accompany it, keeping it stable and away from the other parachutists. Looking after the bundle was a shit job.
The rear ramps went down and up with a whine of hydraulics and nine stepped onto it. Edge could see the lights of Ramsey far below through the clouds. The sun was still setting and the tops of the clouds were dusted with orange and pink. The horizon was a deep purple. The second stick formed up just off the ramp. They had a different landing zone and a different target and mission. The air dispatcher was right on the edge of the ramp, next to the bundle, his trousers and smock flapping in the slipstream. He was tethered to the aircraft with a long strop, facing in. The loadie gave the thumbs-up.
Edge was watching the lights above the para doors as they went green.
The bundle and its handmaidens were out first. Edge counted one-thousand-and-one and he leaped off the ramp, pitching top downwards, his legs coming up. He was inundated by the screaming of four turbo-jet engines and the gut-wrenching sensation of falling felt in his shoulders and abdomen. As he spun he saw the Hercules disappearing above away from him and got into the freefall starfish position. The freezing coldness was like lying naked on a fishmongers slab and his testicles disappeared to what felt like his throat. A boot swept past his face as another freefaller swung in too close. There were others above, one within touching distance and the bundle with its snaking drogue chute some way below. They seemed to stand out against the clouds like flies on a tablecloth.
The much more manoeuvrable PJI, formatted facing him and raised his thumbs in question. Edge gave a thumbs-up in reply, but became conscious his breathing was too rapid and shallow. He slowed it down, concentrating on breathing from below his diaphragm. As his anxiety subsided, Edge became aware of just how beautiful the setting sun and the clouds were, still thousands of feet below him and he forgot how cold he was. He subconsciously recollected a poem:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
He lurched into the slipstream of the “bundle,” which jolted him out of his spiritual reverie and Edge closed his legs slightly to reduce drag and back away from the disturbed air. Concentrate you arsehole! His altimeter registered 12,000 feet and the clouds seemed to be racing up to them. A long way to their north Edge fancied that he could see the tiny dots and vertical slipstreams of the second stick above them. He glanced at his GPS indicator on his wrist, which showed he was still over the sea, although the coastline was close, unseen below the clouds. Their forward momentum would take the stick to the coast around five kilometres southeast of Portpatrick. Then with the ram parachutes open, they could make the three or four kilometres to their designated drop zone. As the top of the clouds approached the stick moved apart to avoid collisions in the reduced visibility.
Edge’s altimeter indicated 9,450 feet as he went into the cloying wetness of the stratus clouds. It felt colder and the lack of visibility was disconcerting. He prayed that his instruments wouldn’t ice up, as the first of the ice crystals formed on the material of his smock. At 4,500 feet he put his left hand on top of his helmet and the right hand grasped the D-ring of the parachute ripcord. At 4,000 feet he said a silent prayer and pulled firmly. There was a flapping from behind and something clouted the back of his helmet. There was a violent jerk, his legs swung forward and Edge stared up. The square canopy looked good, thank you, God. No riser lines over the top to blow the periphery. They had popped the chutes at 4,000 feet because at that height, the sound of the canopy opening was inaudible on the ground.
Next he pulled the paracord attached to the pins to release his bergen. One of the straps caught on his foot, so Edge wriggled his boot and the heavy rucksack dropped away. He felt the jolt as it came to the end of the strop and it was now dangling ten feet below him. His GPS indicated he was tracking north and he pulled on the handle controlling the right risers of the chute, to make a turn to starboard. He came out of the clouds at 1,500 feet and it was nearly dark over the Scottish countryside. Edge went silently over what looked like a farm below and seemed to be coming down in a shallow valley, with woods following a burn to his north.
The ground was coming up fast and Edge chose his landing site. The bergen hit the ground instantly slowing his descent. He flared the chute and hit the ground gently, immediately twisting under the shrouds to kill the canopy. Edge struggled out of the parachute harness and bundled everything together as neatly as possible. He hid the folded canopy, reserve and his helmet and oxygen kit deep in a hedge, marking the position according to GPS. At a later date it would be retrieved by support staff to save the long-suffering British taxpayers some money.
Edge worked out his position and reckoned he was some 750 metres away from the rendezvous point, a copse just west of Stoneykirk. He shouldered his bergen, picked up the M16 rifle and set off at a gentle jog, being careful of the uneven ground. Some ten minutes later he was with the rest of his stick, holed up in the copse, under a gentle but annoying drizzle. Everyone was accounted for and there were no injuries.
“We’ll need some help to bring in the bundle. It’s about a click and a half away, but we hid it first.
The PJI gathered them together, “Right, any problems?”
Heads were shaken in the darkness.
“Number four, you looked like Korky the Cat. Arms out to the side please, and don’t be afraid to spread those legs. Nothing’s going to fall out. Well done you chaps on the bundle. All in all, an excellent jump, good exit and obviously good landings because you’re all here in one piece. Good all the way. Right, if you’ll excuse me, it’s back to Leuchars for tea and medals for me. You lot can crack on with being hooligans.”
“How will they know where to find you?”
“By the miracle of modern technology, also known as a mobile phone. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he said and left them.
They were holed up in a wood known as Grenoch Square, about two kilometres from RAF West Freugh, their target and primary objective. The Blue forces had set up two forward operating bases for their helicopters and fixed wing air assets, one at RAF West Freugh, the other at Castle Kennedy. The Blue fixed wing aircraft were still on HMS Illustrious, but West Freugh was home to eight CH 53 Sea Stallion helicopters and Castle Kennedy, the objective of the other team, was operating RAF Puma and Chinook helicopters. Edge’s team were Orange Special Forces, tasked with destroying the CH 53s on the ground. Lieutenant Colquhoun tried not to feel despondent, but the news from his recon team wasn’t good.
“It’s almost as though someone has tipped the bastards off. The airfield is crawling with patrols, if anything there’s more of them at night.”
“What about coming in from the seaward side?” asked Colquhoun.
“No chance, they’ve strung out motion sensors and they do investigate every contact. Some deer set them off last night and a patrol was out in a few minutes. They are bloody good.”
“OK, it looks like it’s operation Certain Death, then.”
“Not necessarily,” Edge observed, looking closely at the Lieutenant, “Boss, you’re a Jock aren’t you?”
Hamish Gideon Colquhoun, Ninth Earl of Kilochewe stared at Edge as though he had just made an inappropriate comment about his mother.
“Say something in Jockanese.”
Reluctantly, Colquhoun complied.
“Hmmm,” Edge observed, “What do you think, chaps?”
A trooper called Mickie Keeble who was dangerously ginger even with his camouflage gave his verdict in a Devonian drawl, “Not too bad, Boss. But do you think you can do it a little less Doctor Finlay and a bit more Rab C Nesbit?”
Colquhoun tried for another five or so minutes until:
“I think he’s got it! By George, he’s got it!”
That lunchtime, a farmer near Lochans had his meal interrupted by a knock on the kitchen door. He opened it to two strange apparitions who were dressed in camouflage clothing, with blackened faces, heavily armed and festooned with camouflage hessian strips. The nearest one dragged off his woollen hat politely.
“Good afternoon, sir. This may seem like a strange request, but please may we borrow a tractor and a trailer for a period not exceeding four hours.”
“And some sheep, probably six will do, and some straw. Dirty ones, the dirtier the better,” Said the second stranger, “But not in that sense, if you see what I mean. We may have to borrow them for a bit longer, but none will come to any harm. Emotional or otherwise.”
“Och aye?” replied the farmer, as this were an everyday occurrence around these parts, “And may I be as bold as to ask you why you wish me to provide you with a tractor, a trailer and some sheep, the dirtier the better?”
“And straw, sir.”
“And a Barbour Jacket or coat if you have one. We’re a bit, “obvious” dressed like this.”
“Sir, I regret that if we told you, we have to kill you,” he smiled to show he was joking.
“I’d like to see you try, laddie, with those blank firing attachments on your fancy, American rifles.”
That afternoon a tractor pulling a trailer of bad-tempered ewes chugged up to the security checkpoint of RAF West Freugh and was waved to a halt by two American Combat Security Policemen. The gate was also covered by a machine gun in a concrete sangar.
“Sir, this is a restricted area and I’m afraid you’ll have to turn round and go back.”
Get lost, sonny. This is where I graze my sheep and this is where these girls will graze.”
You can’t graze sheep on here. This is goddamned major military exercise/”
The man driving the tractor looked pointedly across the security fencing to where sheep were contentedly grazing, “And how do you think those sheep got in? By teleporting?”
“Shit!” exclaimed the Security Policeman, “Get that Limey liaison officer here. Let him sort it out.”
The man on the tractor contentedly sucked on a pipe and waited until an MoD police van turned up at the main gate. The Mod Plod got out and officiously pulled on his cap.
“What seems to be the problem?”
“This farmer gentleman says he has the right to graze his sheep on the airfield.”
The MoD policeman looked at the trailer that was covered with trampled sheep shit.
“Baaaaa,” said an irritable looking ewe.
“Technically, the local farmers do graze their sheep on the airfield. It keeps the grass short and saves the cost of mowing.”
Jeeez,” said the American military policeman.
“If we stop him, there will be ructions in the local community. They moan enough about the noise of the aircraft. I’ll escort him on and off and we’ll keep well clear of your helicopters.”
The tractor followed the MoD Police van and the two American policemen looked at each other. “The last century? It’s more like going back to the Dark Ages.”
The tractor pulled off the perry track and the driver started to unload the trailer. The ewes scampered off happily enough while the driver unloaded some of the straw. He paused as though tired and went to chat to the MoD Policeman, pointing at the helicopters in the distance. While the MoD Plod was distracted, four straw men lugging bergens slipped off the trailer and lay in the long grass, indistinguishable from the dry grass around them. The “farmer” finished unloading the straw and followed the MoD van off the base, waving cheerfully at the Americans as he chugged past the security checkpoint.
Edge followed Sergeant Pedlow, flanked by Mickie and another trooper towards the flight line. They went down and crawled the last few yards towards where a sentry and a dog patrolled around the first four CH 53s. Mickie raised the air rifle and aimed at the dog. Normally they would have used the silenced .22 “Hush Puppy” pistol to dispatch both the dog and the sentry, but this was an exercise. The tranquiliser dart hit the dog on its rump. The German Shepherd yelped and staggered. As the sentry bent down to see what was wrong with the dog, Edge and the other trooper bundled him onto the ground, jammed a rag in his mouth and cable tied his arms, knees and feet. They bundled the sentry into the grass and waited until the yelping dog fell over, before carrying it to join its handler.
Edge bent down next to the sentry, who was mumbling indignantly behind his gag, “Right, if you promise to play the game and stay nice and quiet, I’ll get rid of the gag and untie your hands. Your pooch is fine. He’ll wake up in an hour. Do we have a deal?”
The American sentry nodded and spat out the rag while Edge cut the cable tie on his hands. He gave him a bar of chocolate, “Now be good while we do our naughty stuff.”
Each one of them took a helicopter, moving quickly in the darkness. They all placed a simulated explosive on each aircraft in exactly the same place, then ran thunder flashes with trip wires from helicopter to helicopter. Before they moved off, Edge jogged back to where the sentry was lying.
“Everything all right?”
“Guess so, you Limey bastard.”
“Good man,” said Edge patting him on the shoulder, “Nice and quiet, remember.”
The four of them cautiously moved around the back of the buildings to get to the second package of four aircraft, some four hundred metres away. Every few yards they paused and set up thunder flashes with tripwires on every doorway they thought would be appropriate. They almost ran into the second sentry, who was having a surreptitious cigarette at the side of a hangar. He dropped his rifle and opened his mouth to shout when Edge and the Sergeant hit him. This one fought and tried to shout, while his dog took chunks out of Mickie’s legs, as he fumbled for the air rifle. The dart hit the dog between the shoulder blades and it eventually keeled over, it’s jaws still locked around Mickie’s calf.
“Do these fuckers have rabies?” he asked in a low voice as he prised the dog’s jaws open.
“No, just Ebola.”
There were no niceties with this sentry. He was gagged and trussed with bodge tape and dragged into the shadows with the snoring dog.
They went to work with the dummy explosives and thunder flashes on the second batch of helicopters, same routine as the first. Once finished, they doubled back towards the control tower, their secondary objective and waited in the shadow of a fire and rescue truck for the fun to start.
There was a flash and loud explosion from the direction of the main gate, followed by the rattle of automatic gunfire. Simultaneously gunfire came from the other end of the runway and a shchermuly flare spiralled into the night sky. Edge was first through the main door of the control tower and fired a short burst at someone running down the stairs, staring at them in shock.
“You’re toast,” Edge told him.
Sergeant Pedlow and Mickie cleared the ground floor with gunfire and thunder flashes. Up on the next floor, Edge tossed a thunder flash into a room and watched people scatter. The trooper cleared it with short bursts, then they were up to the top floor and the control gantry itself. Two thunder flashes went in followed by Edge and the trooper, their guns chattering, it was bedlam and the duty crew were on the floor, cowering in terror.
“Thank you for your cooperation gentlemen, oh and lady as well. Evening, Ma’am. My apologies if you were startled.”
As they withdrew north towards the perimeter wire and their escape route, the thunder flashes started to go off round the helicopters as the trip wires were triggered. They could hear random and un-coordinated return fire, then they hit the fence and turned right, tracking along it until they found the non-notional hole that had been cut in the fence. As they ran towards their rendezvous, Mickie started to drop behind. Edge and the other trooper helped to keep him going.
“Fucking dog,” Mickie gasped and then in the distance they heard the helicopter.
The other four were waiting for them on the landing point and the Sea King from 771 Naval Air Squadron flared and landed just north of the B7077.
“Well done, chaps,” said an extremely chuffed Lieutenant Colquhoun, “Probably the most fun you can have with your clothes still on. I trust that none of that fine gentleman farmer’s sheep were harmed by your display of thuggery.”
“They were all well when we left them Boss. Almost Wistful.”
“Mine made me promise to write.”
The Sea King headed north to HMS Gannet at Prestwick Airport and the bar was open. They poured in to get a drink and wait for the Hercules back to Leuchars, while Mickie had his legs cleaned and dressed and a tetanus booster. They were feeling full of themselves, pumped up with adrenaline and testosterone and Lieutenant Colquhoun threw open an invitation that he would later regret. He tapped on a glass to gain everyone’s attention and stood up solemnly.
“Now as you are all aware, next week I am getting married and I would like to invite all of you to my evening reception.”
“Are you sure that’s wise, sir?” said Pedlow in his best Sergeant Wilson impression.
“Of course it is. We can even invite the Crabs, whom I noticed pissed off when it got a bit wet and uncomfortable.”
Later, Sergeant Pedlow asked Edge if he was going to Colquhoun’s wedding.
“I’m not sure. What do you think?”
“His future missus will kill him. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Then count me in,” said Edge with a grin.
Whatever had been left of the bride’s family had made themselves scarce, tut-tutting as they left, wondering what the hell she had let herself in for. He had always felt like an outsider looking in and had grown bored with the military rutting rituals. He spotted a girl who had been talking to Mickie and was unattached judging by his surveillance. She was dark, looked slightly vulnerable and she was fucking gorgeous. Edge moved in on the beautiful young woman who would become his wife and saviour. But first he said a sad little prayer, Please forgive me, Jozica, but I have to move on. May God keep you and you know that I’ll always love you.
© Blown Periphery 2018