Ash Shaddadi, the Syrian Governorate of Al Hasakha, December 2017
Darkness was falling and they could smell the petro-chemicals from the oilfields out to the west. The winds had shifted round from the north and it felt slightly warmer. The Yazidi fighters had had enough for the day and were hunkering down in the rubble. It was extremely frustrating as they had only pushed forward into the town some 200 metres and Halward suspected that small pockets of the Jihadists would infiltrate back into the ground already taken.
The main stumbling block was a large, three-storey building, an old factory that dominated the crossroads on the main road north into the town centre. They had tried to supress fire from the building with the .50 Cal, but the ISIL fighters simply appeared in another part of the building. They were well armed and had at least two DShK heavy machine guns, probably taken from the Syrian army. The fact they could lug these 34 kilogram guns plus the heavier tripods round inside a building meant they were facing well-trained fighters. The Yazidis had sustained a number of casualties as soon as they tried to approach the factory and they were wavering. Halward knew that he would have to call in an air strike the next day, but he was reluctant to do so, as he was certain the building could provide the mother lode for intelligence.
Their two vehicles and the troops were laagered in an olive grove some 150 metres south of the factory buildings and they had cleared two buildings for use as prisoner holding facilities. The troopers were tense and stood-to. It was going to be a long night.
Halward was on the radio to Major Martinez, outlining his situation and a plan of action. He believed that the building being so heavily defended was the key to rolling up the ISIL forces from the south. What he was proposing was a risky undertaking, for troops whose role was normally intelligence gathering, but his directive had indicated in crouched terms that risks had to be taken. Halward requested support in terms of smoke and flare mortar fire to cover his troopers as they went in and Martinez reluctantly agreed.
“You’re taking a pretty big risk.”
“I know. But thanks for your support and you may be able to capitalise if we’re successful.”
Once he had finished on the radio, the Major gathered the troopers together. He bemoaned the fact that there were so few of them to clear what was in effect a factory and they had no idea of what the layout was like once they were inside. By now it was dark and a circle of expectant faces peered at him. Ripley was slightly behind and to one side and she was nursing a cold dread.
Halward outlined his plan of action, timings and the level of support fire from the Americans.
“We’ll be going in in pairs, myself and Manny will clear ahead. Mengele and Frank will go left. Shippers and “Larry” Grayson will go right. Mr Hogan will be Tac Com and he’ll be lugging demolition charges. Weapon slings on tonight please, gentlemen. “Ruth” Ellis will remain here to guard the vehicles, act as back stop and as a reserve. Ripley, you will stay with Ruth.”
Ellis looked at the floor and swore softly.
“We’ll chat after this briefing, Mr Ellis. We’ll all have role radios and NVGs, but don’t become fixated with them. We’ll leave the Minimes and just take our C8s and as much ammo, fragmentation and phosphorous grenades as we can carry. Once we take the ground floor, we’ll have a better idea of the layout and move up to the next floor. Same drills. If I go down, Mr Hogan takes over and then Manny and then Shippers. Once we’ve cleared the building, Frank and I will search for any Int or data. The rest go all round defence to prevent them taking it back.
“Watch out for tripwires and make sure they’re dead with head shots. I think it will be high-on impossible to take prisoners, but if any decide to call it a day, hog-tie them with cable ties and move on. We’ll worry about them later.”
Then he outlined timings and call signs, actions on and asked for any questions. He then asked two of them questions on the plan to check understanding of his intent and beckoned Ellis to follow him for a private one-to-one.
“I can’t say that I’m particularly happy about this, Boss.”
“James, I can’t even begin to tell you just how important Ripley is to our mission. You played an absolute blinder when she was sick. I know they take the piss out of you, if you’ll pardon the expression, but you are the only person I can fully trust to keep her safe.”
“Judging by today’s little escapade, I think Ripley can look pretty much after herself,” said Ellis, “What the hell is she? A bloody android?”
Halward smiled, “Ripley is a riddle wrapped up in an enigma. James, I want to be absolutely straight with you. If it all goes wrong in there tonight, you are to take what’s left of the patrol and go north across the border into Turkey and find a coalition base. This is most important. If it looks like she will fall into the hands of ISIL, the Syrian Army, the Iranians, the Russians or even the Turks, you are to kill her.”
Ellis gasped and stepped back from the major. Halward grabbed his shoulders and stepped in close. This is absolutely vital, James and you must tell nobody, got that?”
“But why for fucks’ sake? It just doesn’t make any sense. I couldn’t do it, Boss.”
“If you knew what they would do to her, you would. And you must! It may never come to that, please God but prepare yourself.”
“My God, this is madness. Why?”
“I don’t know, but those are my orders. And now they are yours.”
Ellis turned away, disjointed thoughts swirling in his head, “She shouldn’t have been put in a position like this. It just isn’t… Look, I know that she’s a… Well you know…”
“James. Our job is sometimes shit, but I would go and join the Forestry Commission the instant I no longer thought it was worthwhile doing it. I don’t do it for the politicians, for the senior officers and I certainly don’t do it for the Queen or her heirs and successors. But sometimes we do things for a reason we can’t quite quantify. Look after her, James. Please.”
“All right, Boss. I need a few minutes just to think.”
Halward patted him on the shoulder, “Thank you, James.”
“You’re quiet tonight. Are you pissed off having to babysit me again?”
Ellis sighed, “No. I just sometimes wish I knew who you are.”
“So I’m not going to be Scheherazade tonight. Look, James. It’s not my fault that Mr Halward won’t let me play with the big boys.”
“Jamie said that you put five rounds in the head of a moving target at twenty yards. Personally I’d let you play with the big boys, but the Boss said you’re the special one.”
Ellis moved position and scanned the night sky to the north and west. They had put out trip flares and Claymore mines as warning if the enemy fighters tried to infiltrate from their flanks and he was armed with a Minime. Ripley had her carbine and both their faces, necks and hands were blackened.
“From what he said, it looks like you and me are going to be inseparable.”
“As long as you don’t follow me when I need to go. And I draw the line at sleeping with you, James. I know that we have in the past and I’m grateful to you, really I am,” she briefly touched his arm, a strangely intimate gesture in that God forsaken place, “So you really are going to be my gallant Sir Tristan.”
She unwrapped something from around her neck and handed it to him, “And it is only fitting that you should carry my favour.”
It was a piece of material, several of which most of them had to wrap round their necks. NATO nomenclature of: RAG SWEAT DESERT SAND CG 8420-99-978-7002. It smelled faintly of her.
“Yondah lies da castle of my foddah,” Ellis said in his best Tony Curtis voice.
Ripley giggled while Ellis tucked the sweat rag down inside his smock. It was an extremely alluring sound in the loneliness of the night.
Suddenly the night sky was turned to day by a parachute flare and the thonk, thonk of mortars ripped apart the silence.
“They’re going in,” Ellis said somewhat needlessly.
Moments later there was an enormous explosion from the factory that shook the ground and stirred up a blast wave of dust. The trees rustled and swayed with the force of the detonation and Ripley and Ellis went into cover.
“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off, Mr Hogan.”
Normally to enter a building the assault team would use a door breaching charge. They didn’t have frame charges or shaped explosive tape and as they had no interest in the safety of the people inside the building, they were going to blow a hole in the walls with an M2A4 Shaped demolition charge with 15 lbs of explosives. The charge was shaped like a double funnel, dark green in colour with a yellow band indicating high explosive.
The flare suddenly burst above them, followed by the smoke mortar rounds. It was a pretty accurate demonstration of support fire as the two smoke rounds landed close to the southern aspect of the building, immediately shrouding it with dense, maroon smoke. Hogan dashed forward into the smoke carrying the demolition charge, closely followed by Roberts who was lugging four sandbags. Hogan placed the charge at the base of the wall and Roberts packed the sandbags around it. They attached the wires and ran them back to cover. The detonator was from a Claymore and Hogan squeezed it.
There was a tongue of flame from the back blast of the charge and the ground shook. The team was on their feet, Halward leading, closely followed by Corporal Cohen. The charge had blown a fifteen feet wide breach in the wall and they went through, moving forward. The inside of the building was an eerie and granular green through the NVGs. A body was lying contorted on the floor and Cohen put a quick burst in its head. There were machine parts and rubble strewn across the floor. Ahead were rooms like offices, which were cleared with grenades. Bursts of gunfire came from their left, the fast rattles of C8s and they guessed Jamie Cairns and “Frank” Carson were dealing with bad guys.
“Right is clear,” said Grayson in his earpiece.
“Left is clear.”
Two steel stairways went up to the second floor and behind the stairway on the right was a steel door.
“Steel door behind right stairway. Watch it Tac Com, when we go up.”
They went up the stairs before lobbing grenades high up to the second floor. Halward saw a figure to his right in the NVGs and fired a burst. Halfway up the stairs they were fired upon and Corporal Roberts went down. They dragged him back down the stairs, trading fire with around four defenders on the first floor. Roberts had been saved by his body armour but he was severely shaken and winded.
Halward yelled, “Take cover Mr H. They are a bunch of lively bastards. Shippers, Larry, see if you can find another way up. Perhaps a fire escape, internal or external. We’ll keep ‘em busy.” Then he spoke into the role radio, “Ruth, Get the Fifty Cal up and running. Windows on first floor. That is the middle floor for clarification.”
Grenades started to bounce down the steel stairs and they took cover behind some machinery and packing cases. Roberts and Grayson found another stairwell in the right, back corner of the building and they ascended cautiously. At the first floor was a typical fire door with a reinforced glass window. Roberts peered through but it was impossible to make anything out due to the swirling smoke and the .50 Cal tracer rounds howling round inside the building.
“Willie, Pete and then HE,” Roberts said in Grayson’s ear. Willie, Pete was the code for phosphorous grenades and they pulled out a green cylinder about the size of a can of shaving foam with a white band.
Roberts pulled the door open and they launched the two phosphorous grenades into the interior. They waited for the brilliant incandescent burning to stop, then tossed in two HE grenades and retreated part of the way down the concrete stairs.
“We’re going in. Check fire with the Fifty Cal.”
“Roger. Ruth, Check, check, check.”
After the thuds of the exploding grenades they went back up and burst into the room beyond. They fanned out at the top of the stairs which was a mezzanine floor with more rooms to the rear. There were screaming, writhing figures, dying in agony as the white phosphorous burned through their flesh down to the bone. The fighters had moved a DShK machine gun to cover the stairs, but the burning phosphorous had caught them. Roberts and Grayson cut them down with short bursts and cleared the rooms at the rear with more grenades.
“The first floor is clear.”
Haward led the four troopers up the main stairs, but then Grayson yelled: “STOP! TRIPWIRE.”
A thin strand was stretched across the steel stairs, connected to the safety rail on one side and a bundle of rags on the other. The rags hid a Russian grenade.
“Good spot, Larry.”
Halward cut the wire to the grenade’s pin with his fighting knife, then they moved up the stairs.
“OK, last floor. How are you Shippers?”
“OK Boss. Chest hurts when I breathe in.”
“Well don’t. You and Frank up the fire escape this time. We’ll take the stairs.”
“Ruth, standby in case we need you.”
“Roger, Star shine.”
The fire coming from the next floor was somewhat desultory as the Jihadists had decided they were being attacked by an overwhelming force and they went to ground in the warren of offices and storerooms. It took around twenty minutes to clear the top floor while Roberts and Carson cleared the roof. There was some fire from above as a couple of fighters tried to make a last stand. One attempted to jump down onto the next building, but woefully misjudged the distance.
It had taken almost an hour and they went back down to the ground floor to deal with whatever lay beyond the steel door. Halward told Ellis to radio the Americans to inform them that the building had been taken and they may be able to capitalise on it and push some of their forces forward. Leaving two on each floor, Halward, Cohen and the warrant officer regarded the sturdy steel door.
“There’s no time for niceties. Demolition charge the bastard.”
Halward warned everybody in the building to take cover and they blew away the door and most of the surrounding concrete with a second charge. A set of stairs led away down into the darkness and from below sounding far away, they could hear women screaming.
“Come out now! Move it!”
The screams turned to a high pitched babble, but no one appeared from below.
“I’ll go down and get them,” Hogan offered, “They won’t come out otherwise.”
“We’re not taking any chances, Mr H. We’ll Willie and Pete them. Let the smoke bring ‘em out.”
They tossed a phosphorous grenade down the steps and stepped back out of the way when it exploded and dense, white, choking smoke billowed out of the doorway. The screams rose in intensity and a few minutes later, shrouded figures came out through the doorway, coughing and choking. There was nine of them, all wearing niqabs and they were ordered to lie face down with their arms above their heads.
“Mengele and Frank, cable tie their hands and search them” Halward ordered, “Then take them back for Ripley to process. We’ll see what’s down there.”
The female Jihadists were persuaded to move with some shouting and prodding with carbine muzzles and guarded by the troopers they headed off out into the night.
Ripley was hot after moving the belts of ammunition and she had removed her Hijab. Ellis had shown her how to feed the first link in to the left hand side of the .50 Cal and the treble cocking action until the first link dropped away on the right hand side. They had gone through the drills several times and she had become adept at loading. However, she had pouted when he refused to let her fire the weapon.
“Not in a live situation like this. Out in the desert perhaps, when you can see where the rounds are going.”
During the lull after the fighting they shared stag in a companionable silence, boot-to-boot in cover, watching opposite sides of the vehicles. She heard them first approaching from the north, a procession of the women guarded front and rear by Cairns and Carson.
Ripley frowned and stood up. “You should have cable tied their arms behind their backs.”
“They’ve had to clamber over rubble, it’s hard going and most of them are in sandals.” Jamie Cairns said slightly indignantly.
“Tough, put them in the first building against the wall. Six feet apart facing in, then take over from James and me.”
She picked up her carbine and nudged Ellis, “You coming?”
“I don’t want to see your nasty side.”
“You won’t. That’s for when I go one-on-one with them.”
When they went into the building and Ellis closed the door behind them as the other two troopers went out.
Ripley broke a cylume and walked slowly past the nine women, some of whom were crying, but she felt absolutely no pity for them.
“Right you bitches. Get those fucking niqabs off so I can see your faces,” she snarled in Arabic, “Come on! We haven’t got all night!”
As they started to comply, wailing, the shrouded figure second from the left half turned and delved under her gown.
”Allahu Akbar!” screamed a male voice and a Russian RGD-5 grenade bounced twice off the hard earth floor and rolled towards Ripley’s feet.
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file