The four “Pinkies” were stretched out in finger-four formation, like a Schwarm of German fighter aircraft. With this formation, corresponding to the tips of four fingers of the left hand, the Land Rovers could provide mutual covering fire if they were bounced. The lead vehicle was in the middle finger position. Edge’s Land Rover was on the extreme right flank, the position of the index finger. The vehicles threw up dust as they transited Iraq’s vast Western Desert, like destroyers making smoke.
The desert was absolutely flat and barren for as far as the eye could see. It was the Iraqi part of the Jordanian and Arabian Desert, an area of land that covers some 64,900 square miles in Iraq, mainly stony plain interspersed with sandier patches. They were covering the ground efficiently, the drivers avoiding the larger areas of rock and the odd wadi. They weren’t racing to avoid unnecessary damage to the vehicles, but occasionally the ride was hard on the spine.
They had waited in the darkness across the border for their H-hour. Some tried to sleep, but the constant roar of the aircraft and distant thumps of explosives made this impossible. Edge and Morrison had stood on top of their Pinkie and watched the daisy cutters obliterating Iraqi positions and any vehicles that were moving, directed by the omnipresent JSTAR aircraft orbiting above, unseen in the purple darkness. The explosions were miles away but the brilliant flashes of the daisy cutters affected their night vision and they had to look away.
“Some poor bastards are getting it,” Edge observed dryly and went to brew some tea.
And now as the sun climbed into the cloudless sky, the vapour trails of the refuelling tankers on their long, elliptical holding patterns were constantly above them, occasionally being joined by the thirsty little fighter bombers, the Harrier GR5s. Once in the distance they spotted a small group of Bedouin and one of the Land Rovers peeled off to investigate, but they were just what they appeared to be. Live and let live out here in the desert, unless they were Iraqi forces, or what was left of them.
The planners of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a misnomer if ever there was one, were determined that the Iraqis would not be allowed to launch missiles from Western Iraq to provoke Israel. That was of course assuming that they had any, which most on the ground thought unlikely. To that end, the Coalition Special Forces were tasked with dominating the area in heavily armed vehicles, massively supported by air power. This was no Bravo Two-Zero. This was the blades going in, massively tooled-up, with the support of dedicated ground attack aircraft. This was the SAS going back to its 1940s roots. While the American Special Forces were extremely busy in Northern Iraq, the British and Australians would dominate the country’s south-western desert.
Edge was in the back of their Pinkie with Jarvis. Cooper was driving, while Morrison was the vehicle commander. Edge had first met Morrison in Pau in France, when both of them were doing additional freefall training and initially it was mutual dislike at first sight. Morrison, a former member of the Parachute Regiment, was of the opinion that only Paras had any right to call themselves parachutists and was quite vocal in his views. He was particularly scornful of Edge, whom he called a “hat” and they resolved their differences in that time honoured method of resolving military disagreements. Despite the bruises and blood, the encounter was inconclusive.
The mutual dislike continued until four members of France’s Naval Infantry Commando, decided that Mr Morrison was being a bit too vocal in a bar in Pau that they had come to regards as their own. In the resulting attempt to persuade Morrison he was being a tad loud, the fight spilled out onto the street. A passing Edge decided that Morrison may have been a gobshite, but he was an English gobshite, he was Two-Two and he was outnumbered. Having prevailed in their national sport of fighting Frenchman in France, Edge and Morrison went to find a less stressful bar and became friends, after a fashion. But theirs would never be an easy friendship.
Edge took a mental photograph of the Pinkies, the red desert and the dust spiralling up into the azure sky and resolved to paint a watercolour, when he was reunited with his art kit. He made a swift preliminary sketch in his notebook, with a few notes on colouring detail and shadows, then slipped it back into his smock pocket, next to his racing spoon. He reached forward and grabbed Morrison’s sleeve, shaking him.
“Are we nearly there yet?”
“Why? Does Mr Tiny Bladder need a wee?” Morrison reached under the dashboard and pulled out a tin of travel sweets, offering the tin to Edge, “Just in case you’re feeling a little car sick.”
Edge took one and grinned at Jarvis with the sweet between his teeth. Jarvis raised his eyes.
Just after 10:00 Local the patrol commander received a radio message, asking their patrol to check out a desert airstrip near the east/west main supply route to Jordan. The message was passed to all vehicles and Edge scrutinised the map, finding what had been designated as H3 Highway Strip.
“It’s about ten clicks northeast,” Edge said with the map between the two front seats, indicating the position with the corner of his compass.”
Morrison nodded and put his thumb up as he was busy talking to the lead vehicle on the radio, “Roger, Red four out. OK, Boss wants us to follow him and swing round to take the airstrip from the east. One and two will come in from the west to split their fire.”
“What are we up against? Asked Cooper.
“Boss isn’t sure. JSTARS reports two vehicles dug in under nets with defensive positions.”
“Probably not. Boss wants us to stop in cover and go forward on foot for a shufti,” Morrison told them.
About five miles ahead they could just make out the bunds and radio antenna of the airstrip, which was a well-established and paved runway of some 1,600 metres. Two Land Rovers peeled off to the left to come in from the west while Edge’s vehicle and the commander’s headed north-east. A road that was elevated above the terrain swept around to the south of the airstrip and the vehicles used its cover to remain hull down. The commander’s Pinkie stopped and so did Cooper, pulling up some fifty metres behind it. Immediately Jarvis manned the top GPMG and pulled the dust cover off the Milan missile launcher. Morrison and Edge jumped down with their rifles and while Morrison moved towards the lead Pinkie, Edge took the opportunity to have a piss. The urine was very dark orangey-brown and it hurt.
When he jogged up, Morrison was talking with Captain Oake and the Colour Sergeant. He came in halfway through the conversation.
“…. Probably tracked, but not tanks. The JSTAR thought there may be infantry positions dug in around them. There has been no enemy air activity. How good is your eyesight Edge?”
“Not too bad, boss.”
Oake handed him a huge pair of binoculars, “Go up to the road and have a squint. Let us know what you can see. IR’s bloody useless in this heat.”
Edge took the binoculars and moved towards the road, his boots kicking up dust. As he drew close he crouched and then went down to crawl up to the edge of the road, made himself comfortable and scanned the airstrip with his bare eyesight to begin with. The 800 or so metres between him and the bunds shimmered in the late morning heat. He mentally noted prominent features, subconsciously working out distances between them and trying to find dead ground that could conceal practically anything. The runway seemed to have been blocked at its midpoint with a pile of rubble, but there were no signs of mines. There was no movement, no little wisps of dust or smoke that could denote occupation or movement. The only sound was the distant rumble of aircraft. This couldn’t be hurried because time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted. The vehicle crews waiting for him, predictably lit up their Coleman stoves for a brew.
Then he moved onto the binoculars, which were of an outstanding quality. He quartered the foreground (mines), middle distance and far distance carefully, the bunds seeming to leap towards him with the magnification. Then he spotted them. Two vehicles under camouflage nets about 200 metres apart, drawn up into the sides of bunds. They were both tracked AFVs, one with a large, slab-like turret mounting twin guns and the second much smaller vehicle with a low profile and small turret. Between the areas of netting were smaller clumps of nets, probably covering slit trenches or bunkers. Edge pulled out his notebook and made a detailed tactical plan map with a datum point and distances, then he drew the defensive positions, almost with draughtsman’s accuracy. When satisfied, he crawled backwards out of his position and headed back to the Land Rovers with a crouch. Morrison handed him a brew in a thermal mug, covered with bodge tape.
“JSTARS was right. Two tracked AFVs. A single ZSU-57 anti-aircraft and a BMP APC. There are several camouflaged positions around the area, but no sign of life.”
Edge showed them the map and sketch he had made of the site.
“Nicely done, Edge. I thought that ZSUs and BMPs were all in museums now,” remarked Captain Oak and got on the radio to identify the targets for the other half of the patrol at the far side of the airfield, then went off with the colour sergeant to plan the attack.
Edge lit one of the few cigarettes he allowed himself, only on operations and Morrison frowned with disapproval, “I’ve told you…”
“Yes I know, those things will kill me.”
The Captain came back a few minutes later, “Edge, did you see a missile launcher on top of the BMP’s gun barrel or on the turret roof?”
Captain Oake sucked on his unlit pipe. He thought it made him look older, more serious and he could point on maps with the stem. It didn’t. “OK, here’s the plan. Henry, move your vehicle into position behind the cover of the road, so you can get a good shot with the Milan at the ZSU. Red two will do the same at the other end of the airstrip. I’m not bothered about the BMP, but if it’s operative, the ZSU’s twin 57mm guns could do us a lot of damage.
“Once it’s knocked out, we drive hell for leather at the other positions. I’ll saturate the area with the 40mm grenade launcher. Henry and I will be hammering them with the GPMGs. Same for the other section. Any questions?”
“So it’s a cavalry charge. Do I get to sound the charge on the trumpet?” Edge asked innocently and the Captain looked at him quizzically.
“No, Edge, it’s a bugle. You just hang on for dear life.”
The vehicles moved into position, Oake coordinating with the other section on the radio. Jarvis was operating the Milan and Edge indicated the target for him.
“OK, seen. Ready boss!”
Oake briefly spoke into the radio then shouted, Shoot!”
The dumpy missile left the launch tube and its solid fuel rocket ignited as the fins folded into place. Jarvis was steering the bobbing and jinking missile with a joystick, following the missile’s IR tail light. A second missile was tracking across the airfield, fired from the other section. They both impacted within seconds of each other. There was a brief flash of fire, black smoke and the target was obscured by dust thrown up by the blast wave. In a practiced motion, Edge cut away the wire spools of the guidance system and fitted a new cassette, while Jarvis reloaded with a second Milan.
“Wagons roll!” yelled Oake and the two Land Rovers bounced across the road. Cooper was steering in a zig-zag to throw off any potential enemy fire. Edge was clinging on for dear life and he briefly saw the dust of the other section’s vehicles heading for the target area. It was exhilarating, it was fun, it was every boy’s dream and then Morrison opened up with the forward-firing GPMG. As he sent the short bursts down, he was singing his idiotic song.
Ooooohhhhhh that’s the way a-huh, a-huh, I like it, a-huh, a-huh…
Closer in they could see the camouflaged positions and then Oaks’s Pinkie opened up with the automatic grenade launcher. The BMP was bracketed first, then the camouflaged positions. As they swept past, Edge opened up with his C8 Carbine, his arm locked round the vehicle’s roll bar. The vehicles turned for a second run, but figures were coming out of the dug-outs, waving grimy white flags. Saddam’s finest had decided that H3 Highway Strip wasn’t worth dying for. The Pinkies spread out to cover the surrendering Iraqis with their GPMGs and there was a degree of tension now.
This was the difficult moment. The transition from hot, intense fighting to taking a surrender, a time where misunderstandings or misreading a situation could be fatal. Taut as piano wire, Edge went forward with the CS, their carbines covering the dishevelled Iraqi troops. The Iraqis looked a sorry bunch, wearing a mixture of clothing, unshaven and dirty. Some fell on their knees, holding out their arms in supplication, wailing and white eyed in fear. The CS gestured with his left hand, showing his palm, indicating that the enemy soldiers should kneel down.
“Get down. DOWN!”
Most complied, wailing in terror as they thought they were about to be shot.
“Does anybody speak English? Parlez vous Englais? ENGLISH!” yelled the CS.
“I speak some,” said a youngster with a hooked nose and dark, limpid eyes, “You are not American?”
“No, English. Stand up, walk slowly towards me with your arms outstretched and tell everyone else to sit down.”
The Iraqi complied. Some of the poor, wretched men were crying with fear.
“Tell them they have nothing to fear, unless they do something stupid. Who is in charge of you?”
He pointed at a man who looked like an officer and the CS waved him over.
“Tell your leader that he is responsible for all your lives. If there is any resistance, we will shoot you. Tell him.”
The officer listened and nodded.
“Is this all of you?”
“We have wounded.”
“Do you have water and medical supplies?”
“We have water. Very little medicine and some are hurt badly.”
“Tell your men to see to the wounded, but no tricks. Keep ‘em covered, Edgie while I report to the boss.”
Edge gestured for the two to sit down and looked across at the burning ZSU, “How long have those vehicles been there, the tanks?”
“They were here when we came. They do not work.”
Edge chortled, “Well that’s fifteen grand up the swanee.”
“I do not understand.”
“Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter.”
The CS returned a few minutes later and spoke to the officer through the interpreter, “We have no water to spare, but we will give you some field dressings and painkillers. You are to remain here and not move. We will radio for someone to come and get you, but our aircraft are attacking anything they see moving on the roads or in the desert. Stay in cover and conserve your water.
“First, you must put all of your weapons in our vehicles. Again, no tricks. If we search anyone and find a weapon, and that includes knives, they will be shot
The interpreter relayed this to his officer, who bowed his head and spoke slowly, “My commander thanks you for your humanity. May your God grant you safety and peace.”
They shook hands and the Iraqis dumped their rifles, grenades and bayonets in the Land Rovers. They allowed the officer to keep his pistol, in case he needed to maintain good order and discipline. The Iraqis watched the four Pinkies sweep off, heading east. Soon their shapes were absorbed into the shimmering haze of the desert. It was early afternoon. Ten miles later they dumped the Iraqi weapons in the desert.
At 19:00 the Pinkies pulled into a dry wadi and the crews covered the vehicles with camouflage nets, raised on poles so the Pinkies could be driven out in a hurry. They set up the IFF beacon, arranged a stag pattern, cooked a meal and hunkered down for the night. By 22:00 the air temperature had dropped to around 5 degrees Celsius and the troops pulled on warm clothing. Edge was listening to some music on a Discman, his sleeping bag and bivvy ready for the night. Morrison came up and spoke to him before he went on stag.
“I spoke to her last night on the sat phone. She says she’s sick of feeling like a prize Jersey. Her words, not mine?”
“When’s it due?”
“End of April. We specifically didn’t ask, but she’s convinced it’s a girl.”
“How do you feel about that, Daddy?”
Edge sighed, “Jeez, Henry. There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t question whether or not we’re doing the right thing. Bringing a child into this fucking, awful world. Moira’s delighted, the little kicks inside, how she feels more in tune with her body. But I’m constantly afraid of what’s going to happen. If it gets sick. If I’m a terrible father.”
“There’s always hope, Edgie. I would have thought you’re the last person to feel fear.”
“It eats me up sometimes, Henry. And then I get angry and I’m frightened of being angry, which leads to more fear. Anyway, get the picture?”
“You have been awarded the Military Cross, for God’s sake. You can’t tell me you’re frightened all the time. The boys look to you when it gets sticky. They admire your calmness in action. I don’t believe it, Mark Edge,” Morrison decided to change the subject, “Did she mention how Angela is?”
“Angela is fine and wondering when the hell you’re going to get in touch with her.”
Morrison leaned back against the side of the wadi and looked up at the brilliant stars, “It’s complicated, Edgie. There was someone else, you see.”
“No I don’t see. There was someone else who we’ve never seen and someone who is crazy about you, just waiting for you to see her. And I thought I was fucked up.”
“I must go on stag. I’ll give you a kick at 02:00.”
The next morning they were heading east into the rising sun, running parallel to the main supply route to their north. They were navigating by GPS, but using the time-honoured SAS desert compass and map as a back-up and to keep their hands in. The flat monotony of the desert was depressing to the senses, no variation, no other human beings in sight, just the growl of the Land Rover engines and the rumbling of the tyres on the desert stones. Occasionally a vehicle would get bogged down in soft sand, while the other crews jeered as its crew tried to extricate it.
Of the Iraqi army there was no sign. No mobile SCUD launchers, if any of them had actually existed. Just before noon, they spotted dirty smoke on the horizon and as they got closer to the road, they saw myriads of birds circling in the sky. Here the terrain was deeply cut with numerous wadis and the Pinkies turned north to pick up the main No 11 desert highway. They headed east along the road, the smoke getting nearer and the birds were identifiable as Egyptian vultures.
And ahead of them, about ten miles west of Rutba were vehicles, blackened and distorted by some imaginable heat. Some were on the road, others pulled away as if they had been trying to avoid something unimaginable. The Land Rovers slowed down and motored cautiously amongst the wreckage. Some were undoubtedly Iraqi army vehicles, but most were civilian cars and minibuses and what looked ominously like an old coach. The Pinkies came to a halt and the rear crews dismounted. The stench of fuel oil and burnt flesh was indescribable. Clouds of flies erupted from the blackened, twisted vehicles as they cautiously walked past, like writhing and hissing entities.
They had been caught in the open by a massive fuel air explosive bomb, as they tried to flee west to Jordan. Edge made his way to the coach, blackened outside, but the Red Crescent flag was still identifiable, hanging inside the melted and distorted windscreen. Every fibre of his being was screaming NO! But Edge looked at the burned steel hoops of the tyres and climbed up the steps, pulling his keffiyah over his nose to block the jolting stench. The flies hit him like a solid wall and he felt the hot bile rise in his throat.
They had once been the disabled, the forgotten ones and the Red Crescent had wanted to move them from Ramadi to the relative safety of Jordan when the fighting started. Their misfortune was to have been joined by an army convoy. The JSTARS identified vehicle movement and a C130 Combat Talon had slid the palletised BLU 82 out of its rear ramp. The 15,000 lb bomb detonating had been one of the brilliant flashes in the distance, Edge and Morrison had watched, two nights before.
They were blackened and dried like raisins, the glass from coach windows partially melted over the bodies. Their heads were thrown back, mouths open as if gasping for the superheated air. The massive 1,000 PSI overpressure had ruptured their internal organs and burst their eyeballs and the heat had desiccated their suffering bodies. Edge turned round, went back down the steps and walked into the desert.
When Morrison found him thirty minutes later, he was sitting down, his head in his hands, “Edge, what the fuck are you doing?”
When Edge turned to look at him his face was grey and drawn in grief, “Is this what we do, Henry? Is this what we’ve come to? We’re part of this. Aren’t we just fucking great?”
Morrison squatted down next to him. Edge would never know that Morrison had been as distraught as he was, but Cooper had been with him and he couldn’t show it.
“Is that what they call collateral damage? Is that just a few of the eggs that got broken making the omelette? They show precision guided bombs going down ventilation shafts on the news, but they never tell you that there are people at the bottom of that shaft.”
“We didn’t do that. But it’s what war is. It’s what it does to people. Is it any worse being slotted by a bullet, a fleschette, gas, bombs, fuel air explosive or a bayonet? People die. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Morrison put his hand on his shoulder and yanked him up by the lifting loop on the back of his chest rig. “Come on Edgie. Deal with it and move on. We have a mission, so stay focused.”
As they walked back to the road, Morrison wondered if like Edge, he had seen too much. He was worried for both of them
Edge made it home in time to see his daughter born, although his presence in the delivery room had been rather trying for Moira and the staff.
“Now then luvvie, you’re Moira’s partner, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m Mrs Edge’s husband. You can call me Mr Edge, or if you must, Mark.”
“Oh now, you’re just being silly. Please promise that if you start to feel queasy or a little light headed, you’ll sit down in that nice chair, won’t you. You may see a little blood, but a little goes a long way, we always say. Looks worse than it is. Now nothing will be happening for a while, so we’ll keep popping in and out. Try to relax, luvvie, or you’ll make Moira all stressed.”
They left, probably thankfully. Moira was obviously in the pain of labour, sweating with matted hair.
“Will you at least fucking try?” then she looked at his face, “It was bad this time, wasn’t it?”
He nodded. She never asked him, but sometimes, days, weeks or even years later he would tell her.
And after what seemed like hours later he was holding Sarah in a blue blanket while Moira was getting stitches in a place she seemed happy to present to total strangers, a place of deep mystery that Edge mapped in his lonely thoughts. She was exhausted.
Edge conducted a primary survey. Pointy head with a little pulse on the top. Mucus and matted eyelashes, like a camel, he thought. Ten toes like little peas. Greedy, little fingers with white nails, grasping his finger. He pushed the thought of maggots from his mind. Button nose, but snotty, really? Everything present and correct, like a miniature sumo wrestler.
“Well done, Moira love. I think as far as babies go, and I’m no expert, she’s more beautiful than you.”
Edge was having to drink the best part of a bottle of wine to get to sleep.
© Blown Periphery 2018