Headquarters Air Command RAF High Wycombe, January 2018
The two of them met in the conference room of A3 Operations, in one of the blocks above ground. It was a secure room that was regularly electronically swept, so neither of them carried phones or tablets. There was an RAF Policewoman based on the door.
“Good morning, Frank,” said the Chief of Staff Operations (COS Ops). He indicated that his visitor should sit down. The Assistant Chief of Staff, Personnel and Administration (ACOS A1) saluted politely, sat down, took off his hat and laid it on top of the briefcase on his knee.
COS Ops stood up and poured them both a coffee from the tray on the conference table. He handed the cup and saucer to ACOS A1 and without preamble said: “Well you’ve obviously read the report.”
“Yes, sir I did. I didn’t view the images and the DVD as you advised me not to. May I ask if you’ve seen them?”
COS Ops nodded grimly. “It’s was the worst things I’ve ever seen. The sheer barbarity of it all was overwhelming. Every politician who has a view or opinion on the war we are currently fighting should be forced to watch it. We’ve recovered Flight Lieutenant Waldrum’s body but we may never find the remains of Flight Lieutenant Halling. We must get these bastards, or the one in particular, but we must be so sure of our case. Do you have a suitable candidate?”
ACOS A1 opened his briefcase, took out a personal file and handed it to the senior officer, “This one fits the bill perfectly, sir.”
COS Ops opened the file, looked at the photograph and skim-read the first personal details, name, rank, number, date and place of birth. The attractive but slightly hard features of a young woman stared up at him from the black-and-white photograph. “A Flight Lieutenant? A bit junior isn’t she, Frank?”
“She has trained and is a qualified barrister who is an expert in the Law of Armed Conflict, specifically the legal status of organised armed groups and what constitutes “directly engaged in hostilities.” Plus she has worked with coalition forces and understands national sensitivities.”
“But a flight lieutenant? She’s been an officer for six years. She should at least have her scraper by now.”
ACOS A1 stirred his coffee thoughtfully, “Unfortunately the qualities required to be a good legal officer aren’t necessarily those required to become a senior officer.”
“Didn’t she have a run-in with Alex Pine in Qatar when all of this all started?”
“That she did.” ACOS A1 said no more. For an officer of Air Rank to change the end of operational tour report of a junior officer, red-penning the first reporting officer’s comments was not only unusual, it was petty and vindictive, saying far more about the senior officer than his junior underling.
“What’s her background?”
“She’s an only child now, her father was killed in a flying accident in 2003 along with her brother, a non-military flying accident. She was brought up by her French mother here in England, but also an uncle who lives in South Africa. He’s a very dark horse, a former Selous Scout who got out of Rhodesia, sorry, Zimbabwe, when he saw which way the country was going. She spent quite a lot of time in South Africa on her uncle’s farm.
“And here’s the really interesting bit. She developed her interest in law from her other uncle who is married to her aunt, a certain Mr Horace Cutler QC, whom you may well have heard of. Before joining the RAF she worked within a “Set” in a Birmingham law firm, where she completed her year’s pupillage and later specialised in the laws of armed conflict.”
“Do to mean the Horace Cutler, the Gunner’s Friend?”
“That’s him. And she like he is really rather good at getting hopeless cases off at courts marshal, which has won her few friends in RAF Police and Pers Admin circles. Now you can see why she’s still a flight-lieuie.”
COS Ops looked down at the file, “I would have preferred a male officer with more operational experience.”
“There aren’t any. She’s done three operational tours in Qatar, Sudan and Afghanistan and her reports from the other two are first rate. In the Sudan she was attached to the SF chaps, who rated her quite highly. Her post operational tour report from the Directorate Special Forces is in the file.”
The senior officer still had reservations, “The place where she and her team will be operating is chaotic. What about the cultural sensitivities of sending a woman out there?”
“Sir, she was operating in the Sudan. It would be difficult to find a more chaotic country than that one.
“All right, Frank. You’ve sold her to me. Where is she now?”
“She’s at Shrivenham, finishing her language course in Arabic.”
“That’s handy, because she’ll need to get STRAP clearance before she gets briefed, then she can complete a SERE course.” COS Ops said thinking out loud, “The security clearance can be rushed through for operational necessity. If she gets through that, we’ll brief her here while PJHQ puts a team together. Is she physically fit?”
“There’s nothing that would indicate otherwise, sir.”
“Still it wouldn’t hurt to get her on an advanced fitness programme. The female bleep test is a joke. Lots of stamina and warry stuff. There’s one other thing and I believe it’s vitally important.”
“She gets to read the full report. And she has to view those awful images and see the DVD. Only then will we know if she has the moral fibre to carry out the job. And if she falls short, Frank, there is to be no comeback on her.”
“Very good, sir. I’ll start the ball rolling with her desk officer and I’ll leave her file for you to read.”
When he had gone, COS Ops looked at the young woman’s photograph. I’m so sorry to ask you to do this.
Flight Lieutenant Cécile Hammond paused the CD drive and looked at the jumble of words on the page, then she repeated what she had just heard, badly. She was pretty sure that whatever she had just asked, it wasn’t “Could you please direct me to the Mosque near the railway station?” Although she spoke both French and Afrikaans fluently, she found Arabic to be very difficult. The problem for her was the highly inflectional nature of Arabic; verbs carrying attached inflectional affixes that convey subject/tense/mood. However, because verbs had such capability to carry so much information, subjects could be omitted.
It was also that there is almost no shared vocabulary with Latin-based or Indo-European languages. She had to learn every single word as a new word. In addition, there was no reliable way to form a plural, so it needed to be memorised. Or the noun form of the verb (the masdar), also had to be memorised. Added to that the fact that most words, in both English and Arabic, have multiple meanings, but those alternate meanings may overlap in completely different and unrelated ways in English and Arabic. This became particularly problematic in understanding the figurative language and colloquialisms as well as the undertones and the ability to “read between the lines” implications of the words that were chosen. For someone whose bread and butter was the understanding of the nuances of language used in the court of law, she found the learning of Arabic and its dialects quite frustrating.
But she had greatly enjoyed learning about the culture and the history of the Arabic nations, although she found the nature of the tenets of Islam to be fundamentally opposed to the western culture of justice and the law. She thought that anybody who believed that Sharia Law was compatible with western philosophy of all men (and therefore women) being equal under the law, needed their heads examined.
Apart from seeing so many senior officers walking around inside the vast building and the huge paintings of battles and former glories, a student could easily forget that they were a member of the Armed Forces. The mess served superb food with silver service waitresses at late dinner, all the accommodation was en suite with their own balconies and there was no compelling reason to leave the vast complex at all. There were two gyms on the accommodation spine, bars and games rooms. There was even a swimming pool within walking distance and a running track.
At 10:30 Cécile left the language laboratory to make her way to the library, where she needed to source a book on Islamic culture and its effect on western history. It was impossible for her not to think about the fall and sack of Constantinople and the Crusades. As she walked past the photocopying and printing area, she scanned the white board where the directing staff would leave messages for the students. She was surprised to see a message for her:
Flt Lt Hammond.
Please call your desk officer at RAF Air Command ASAP.
The telephone number was also annotated, so she decided to go to her room instead where she could make the call in private. Cécile wondered what the hell it was about. It could have been a new posting or even a short-notice operational tour, which she rather doubted. Out of area tours for legal officers were pretty few and far between. She had only met her desk officer once before, following her disastrous tour in Qatar. While the wing commander was sympathetic, however it was quite difficult for a junior officer to recover their career once a Two-Star Air Officer had decided to put the boot in. No matter how well she had done in her normal career and the operational tour with SF in Africa, the then Air Vice-Marshal and now Air Marshal Pine’s malevolent shadow had been cast over her career. As her Army boss back in Bulford had said on the occasion of her annual Officer’s Joint Appraisal Report had so eloquently put it:
“Well Cécile, I don’t know what you did or didn’t do to AVM Pine, but he’s sure as shit fucked your career.”
“I don’t have a career, sir. I have a job.”
And she thought about her job and what her Uncle Horace called “the endless precession of scrotes” that graced the Court Marshal Centre. At least seventy per-cent were there because of alcohol related misdemeanours, but the Service police were often so inept at preparing a case, it was relatively easy for her to drive a horse and cart through the case for the prosecution.
However, she was an absolute wiz on the Law of Armed Conflict and had proved to particularly adept at defending Service personnel who had had mendacious cases brought against them by carrion-feeding lawyers, for so-called historic war crimes. She may have been a ‘Guin, but one thing her tour with the SF in Sudan had taught her, was that COIN operations in a messy and chaotic environment were difficult and stressful. The last thing Service personnel needed was having to constantly look out over their shoulders for grasping and politically corrupt lawyers, who had never served their country for a day, let alone been subjected to terrorist fire.
She dialed the academy’s switchboard and asked for an outside line. Her desk officer who was a wing commander, answered at High Wycombe.
“Good morning, Ma’am. It’s Flight Lieutenant Cécile Hammond and I’ve just picked up a message to give you a call.”
“Oh hello, Cécile. How is the course going? You should finish next week, shouldn’t you?”
“Yes, final written and viva voce examinations on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s not too bad but I struggle with some of the pronunciations.”
“And then the end of course piss-up on Thursday night and they’ll keep you there until Friday lunchtime, so that you can all sober up.”
“I believe that’s the case, Ma’am.”
Why the hell did she want to speak to her?
“Cécile, I expect that you’re wondering why I asked you to give me a call. I’ve had a bit of a fast ball from ACOS A1 and you have been selected from a cast of thousands. How would you regard taking a very quick notice appointment?”
“How quick Ma’am and what does it involve?”
“From immediate effect, although of course you can finish your language course. This is rather embarrassing, but as to the nature of the appointment itself, I’m afraid that I can’t give you any details, because… Because I don’t have the necessary security clearance. I can only give you the very broadest of outlines.
“Firstly, ACOS A1 has stressed that I’m to tell you that the appointment may involve a degree of personal risk, above and beyond the normal duties required of a junior officer. The second point is that you will be given acting and paid rank two ranks above that of your current employment. So congratulations, Wing Commander Hammond, subject to meeting other criteria. You will revert to the rank of Squadron Leader following successful completion of the appointment.”
“I don’t know what to say, Ma’am.”
“Thirdly, you will be required to be directly vetted. The vetting team will visit you on Thursday of next week at Shrivenham. Do you have a problem with that, Cécile? In other words, is there anything we should know about?”
Her head was spinning, “No, I don’t have a problem with that and I can’t think of anything untoward in my past that would affect any clearance.”
“Good. Subject to being vetted, you will be required to attend a number of briefings here at High Wycombe and PJHQ. You will also have to attend a number of courses, one of which will be the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape course (SERE). I know that you’re current in your fitness test, but you’re going to have to get an awful lot fitter. We’ve got the PTIs putting together a fitness training and stamina course for you and you’ll have a personal trainer.”
“Good grief!” Cécile exclaimed.
“And finally, and this is most important, you are not to discuss this with anyone. Is that absolutely clear?”
“I know this is all rather sudden and I apologize if you’re in a bit of a state of shock. I know it all sounds rather daunting, but take it as a complement, because no other legal officers fitted the necessary criteria.”
“Thanks, Ma’am. I think.”
“For the time being I’ll attach you to the RAF Courses Department at the Academy, for pay and personnel management purposes, but you’d better get used to a nomadic existence for the next few months. I’ll let you know regarding dates and timings for briefings and courses and we’ll speak when you visit here. I know it won’t be easy, but enjoy the rest of your course and do your best in the exams. Congratulations, Cécile.”
Cécile put down the phone and stared out of the window of her room at the balconies of the next-door spine accommodation block.
“Bloody hell,” she said out loud.
COS – Chief of Staff (Air Vice-Marshal) 2 Star
ACOS – Assistant Chief of Staff (Air Commodore) 1 Star
Scraper – (The thin rank bar between two thicker bars to denote a squadron leader) equivalent to a Major or Lieutenant Commander. The RAF generally follows the RN system of rank for officers and broadly the Army rank structure for Other Ranks.
PJHQ – (Permanent Joint Headquarters)
Shrivenham – (Joint Services Defence Academy and Command and Staff College)
COIN – (Counter Insurgency Operations)
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file