Halward’s Road Trip 15/16th February 2018
They were glad to be leaving Raqqa and now they felt despite the dangers, that they had a purpose. The Americans had been generous with fuel and equipment and provided them with the latest intelligence for the journey. The Major briefed them on their destination, mission, routes and actions-on. He briefed Ripley separately and told her of her mission once they arrived at Ad Dumayr. She had nodded quietly and took herself off for a few minutes, where she thought about what she had to do and how she would do it. She was terrified.
They headed east at first, the intelligence indicating that the road following the river was fairly clear, but reports indicated that the town of Madan had been re-infiltrated by ISIL fighters that had been booted out of Iraq. Both sides of the river had roads, set in a broad flood plain. About three kilometres south of the river, the ground rose steeply to an escarpment that dominated the settlements along the river and the town of Madan. They consulted a map and Google Earth and Mr Hogan pointed to a track on a spur of land that reached down from the escarpment.
“We could navigate the track south to avoid Madan, skirt the town and pick up the oil pipeline’s track south.”
“But we have to go through this outer district of Raqqa,” Halward said cautiously.
“We would have to go through it anyway and take the risk.”
The Major thought about it for a few moments, “OK, we’ll push forward and go to ground hull-down behind that line, which looks like a bund on Google. We’ll push four chaps forward when it gets dark for a shuftie, and depending on what they find, we’ll blitz the township coup de main, all guns blazing.”
“Like the charge of the Light Brigade?”
It was getting dark when they crawled forward for a few kilometres and pulled off the road behind a protective flood bank. Both Supacats had been up-gunned since arriving in Raqqa. The smaller four-wheel command vehicle was armed with a TOW missile launcher, two Minime Squad Automatic Weapons and an L16 81mm mortar. The latter was used mainly for smoke or illumination rounds, although the vehicle carried a limited number of HE rounds. The larger six-wheeled support vehicle also carried a TOW on the rear roll bar and a .50 cal heavy machine gun on the front. Again there were two Minimes, a mortar and four ILAW anti-tank rockets. “Larry” Grayson also had a .338 Lupa Magnum rifle as he was the patrol’s sniper. Both vehicles carried assorted mines and demolition charges. They had also cadged several FIM-92 Stinger Manpads from the Americans for anti-aircraft defence. With the application of focused violence, they could have taken on an armoured infantry company, but that wasn’t their job.
From the top of the command vehicle, Halward swept the cluster of single story buildings ahead of them with field glasses. He spotted two armed men walking to and away from a small building on the outskirts of the township and made an educated guess that they had set up a control checkpoint point on the main road and the side road into the buildings. He called for James Ellis who went up next to the officer.
“James, I want you to lead the foot patrol. I think there is a checkpoint to our two-o-clock on the main road with at least two. The larger building about 600 mils to the right is their headquarters. I need to know where they are and how many including vehicles. Are they awake? Are they alert? Come back and tell me and don’t take any unnecessary risks. Take an infra-red scope and don’t use NVGs unless you have to. It’ll be you, Frank, Shippers and Manny. Two Minimes, one on each flank. If it goes tit’s-up get out and we’ll cover you with the Fifty. Move out when it’s dark. Questions?”
“Brief your team and take it easy, James.”
He jumped down and almost fell over Ripley.
“We never did get to scratch that itch, did we?” she said in a slightly sorrowful voice.
“They’ll be other nights and other itches.” He said quietly and tenderly. They head-butted like cats.
“Nothing stupid please, James.”
“I still have my lucky favour.”
He gathered the other three to brief them and as full darkness fell, they checked their weapons and equipment and waited to gain their night vision.
Time on reconnaissance is seldom wasted
They advanced in a staggered arrowhead formation with the two support weapons on each flank. They moved slowly and silently, pausing and crouching every ten or so metres, waiting and listening. Three hundred metres from the buildings Frank and Shippers split away and moved around to the east. They would rendezvous back at this point marked by a small grove of date palms, or if there was a contact, fall back independently. The ground consisted of narrow, cultivated fields separated by broken stone half-walls, although no crops were growing at this time of year. Ellis and Manny cut round towards the southwest and the escarpment. There were lights in the buildings ahead. James clicked his tongue in his mouth twice and they both stopped and went to ground. To their right was a low orchard of gnarled fruit trees, leafless and barren.
He scanned the ground ahead, focusing slightly off-centre to make the most of his night vision. Manny knelt, Minime ready to defend their right flank. It had taken them nearly an hour to move the five-hundred metres from the vehicles to the edge of the settlement, but the sweat was running down inside their body armour. For all his jocular banter, James was the consummate, professional soldier. Out here, he was the Boss. They were all professionals, honed by years of relentless training despite their human foibles. In the darkness they both listened and heard the sound of voices coming from a small building, that Halward reasoned may have been a check point. He raised the infra-red scope and looked at the building, but the image was swamped with white light from the door and windows. They must have some kind of stove in there.
Ellis carefully scanned the ground ahead and the settlement. To his eleven-o-clock and about five hundred metres away there were two faint heat sources lying down and he grinned to himself. Frank and Shippers were in position. There were vehicles in the village that looked like pick-ups and one had a warm engine. There was also the clear outline of a person guarding them. To his two-o-clock was a larger building, still only a single storey, but judging by the heat signature it had multiple occupancy. He clicked once and he and Manny moved forward to make a close reconnaissance of the building. He didn’t use the scope now because they could clearly hear harsh, male voices. He estimated at least two were in the checkpoint, one or more with the vehicles and at least five in the larger building that could have been their headquarters. Or were they just civilians? Unlikely. A lot of the dwellings seemed empty or that the normal inhabitants were maintaining a low profile.
Ellis stood up and they retraced their steps. By the time they got back to the date grove it was 01:25. They waited for ten minutes until Frank and Shippers came in so silently they never heard them until they were almost on top of the two of them. The four-man patrol retired back to the trucks and they put together a briefing. Ellis drew a tactical map from memory in the dim glow of a cylume and then called for the Major and the Warrant Officer.
“OK, Boss. You were right. The small building just off the road is checkpoint and it’s manned by at least two. The larger building is their command and billet building and I heard at least three different voices, so we have to assume there are more asleep. It’s a pity Ripley wasn’t with us to see what they were talking about, but they did seem slightly agitated. I saw one man guarding around four pick-ups that could be Technicals. You can’t see them from this position and Shippers thought there might be a few more in another building behind the vehicle park. If we assume four to each pick-up, then we’re looking at around sixteen to twenty of them. I drew this map from our observations and it is to scale.”
“Good work, James. OK, so there’s more than we thought. We’ll need to give them something to think about when we go through. TOW the checkpoint building and their billet and have the Fifty Cal up and running when we go past their vehicles. Minime operated by each vehicle commander but apart from the TOWs, hold our fire until we come under their effective fire. What do you think, Mr H?”
“I reckon the fourth man in each vehicle should have some Willie and Pete grenades ready. Just to blind and confuse them if they get a bit lairy.”
“Good. Larry Grayson’s about the best with the TOW, so if your vehicle will take care of the checkpoint, we’ll do the billet. Even James couldn’t miss that. We’ll lead in the command vehicle, you follow up with the Fifty Cal. James as soon as you’ve done the business with the TOW, take over the Minime. Manny, stand by with the grenades. You will loose off the first TOW at the checkpoint at 03:00. We’ll give it a couple of seconds and then ours will go, then we move out, fast and no lights with NVGs. Make sure everyone and everything is bolted down. Where’s Ripley?”
“I’m over here, Major.”
He walked over to her and steered her away from the vehicles, “Now don’t get in a Paddy, but you’re too important to do the Calamity Jane bit. You’re destined for greater things. I want you to lie in the back of the Supacat with all the personal gear piled round you. “You’re to stay there until we’re well clear. Have you got that?”
He had expected her to throw a strop and was surprised, “Are you OK?”
“No, Paul, I’m not OK. I would rather die in the fire fight than go into Ad Dumayr.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m deadly serious. I’ve done that sort of thing before and living in constant terror doesn’t even begin to cover it.”
For the first time he was convinced that this rather strange and perplexing woman was probably the bravest person he had ever met and her fear humbled him.
“Does anybody else know?” she asked.
“No. Only you and me.”
“Then please don’t tell anyone. I’ll tell James when it’s time. He will only worry.”
“I worry about you. I wish there was another way.”
“But there isn’t and you and I both know it’s why I’m here.”
“Have you thought of a cover story yet?”
“I’m working on it. It had better be a bloody good one.”
Ellis was covering his eyes as he heard the woosh of the first TOW missile on its way. He counted to four and heard the roaring thump of the explosion just after three.”
“Good shooting, Larry,” said Halward, “Your turn, James.”
Ellis felt Ripley tap his boot from the pile of Bergens as he peered into the TOW launcher’s AN/TAS-4 night sight. It was comforting. He picked out the building and the dim light of a window opening. Finally they seemed to have gone to bed. Time for their very early morning wake-up call. He pressed the trigger on the tubes traversing unit clamped to the roll bar and there was a one-and-a-half second delay as the missile spun up its internal gyroscope and the thermal battery reached operating temperature. The initial soft-launch rocket fired to take the missile out of the tube. As it left the tube the flight wings and tail control surfaces snapped into position. Seven metres out of the tube the main rocket motor fired, boosting the missile’s speed to 600 mph. The warhead was armed by G-forces from the acceleration of the flight motor, a safety feature intended to protect the operator if the flight motor failed to ignite. The flight motor burned out 1.6 seconds after launch and it glided for the rest of its flight time.
The launcher tracker continuously monitored the position of an IR beacon on the missile’s tail relative to the line-of-sight, with the fire control system generating course corrections sent via the command link to the missile’s integral flight control unit. All Ellis had to do was keep the sighting crosshairs on the target, Raytheon Co’s finest technology did the rest. The missile with its six kilogramme warhead sailed through the window and exploded inside the building. The thicker internal walls contained the blast, which ripped apart partitioned walls and people. Ellis didn’t reload as it would be impossible for him to fire on the move. He flipped down his NVGs attached to his helmet and picked up the Minime.
The Command Supacat breasted the berm with its engines roaring and spewing out rank diesel fumes. It sped along the road in the darkness towards the smouldering and destroyed checkpoint. The missile had comprehensively destroyed the building and the lead vehicle rattled over the rubble. Carson was driving in the ghostly glow of his NVGs and up ahead he saw vehicles and a number of men to their left. He shouted a warning as the first effective fire cracked past. The second Supacat pulled up level as they barrelled through the buildings. Ellis supported the Minime on the roll bar and fired at the men by the vehicles in short, concentrated bursts. The hot empty cases cascaded onto the deck and Ripley caught the noxious fumes of nitrocellulose.
Ellis saw one of the enemy go down and they passed the devastated HQ building on their right. Somebody must still have been alive because a long burst of fire went harmlessly over their heads. Doctor Mengele threw a phosphorous grenade towards the building and the sudden burst of brilliant light swamped their NVGs. The fiery trail of an RPG rocket streaked from between two houses, going low and partially exploding under their Supacat. The vehicle lurched but kept going, the tyres maintaining pressure and viability.
Mr Hogan was firing a Minime from the support vehicle and then Cohen opened up with the Fifty Cal. The heavy rounds carved chunks out of the pick-ups and one exploded as a tracer round ignited the fuel. The back of the pick-up reared up and the bonnet was blown off its mountings. It sailed up into the night sky, over the top of the Supacats. Cohen dropped one of the men who had been trying to beat out the flames on his clothes and two Fifty Cal rounds eviscerated the third. And then they were through and grinding up the narrowing track towards the escarpment. Cohen swung the heavy machine gun until it was facing behind them and Shippers reloaded it with another pannier of ammunition.
It was hard going up the escarpment, but finally they levelled off and the burning buildings were lost from view. They pushed on into the darkness and the track became much better as it followed a pipeline some one hundred metres to their left. Halward gave the order to halt and they went into defensive posture and listened for signs and sounds that there was a pursuit. The silence of the desert surrounded them. They were breathing quickly, senses hyper alert, their bodies flooded with adrenaline.
People ask why on earth would anybody want to do that as a job? The simple answer would be because in those brief, fleeting moments of combat, they had never felt more alive. It was the raw, primeval exhilaration of killing or being killed. It was having to deal with these situations days, weeks and in cases years down the line, when the support networks have gone, that some would find the mental side effects stalk their sleeping hours. Their heart rates returned to normal as they scanned the rear horizon and Doctor Mengele’s leg began to hurt.
“Could someone please get these bloody Bergens off me? I can hardly breathe,” Came a little voice from the back of the command vehicle.
Carson jumped up and helped Ripley from under the piles of baggage. She wasn’t wearing NVGs and she looked at the scattered empty cases on the deck of the vehicle. Some seemed to be covered with a black, sticky fluid.
“There’s blood in the back here,” Ripley told them.
“Blood? Is everyone all right? Check each other.”
Mengele moaned, “I think it’s me. I’ve been shot in the leg. The back of my right thigh hurts.”
Shippers examined his fellow medic with a pencil torch held in his teeth. There was a dark stain on the back of the trouser leg, “Keks down please Jamie.”
The back of Mengele’s thigh was split open with a laceration about three inches long in the subcutaneous tissue, “I think it was a ricochet fragment because there’s no cavitation. Either that or a round broke up on part of the vehicle. It looks like it came up at an angle and missed the cheek of your arse.”
“It fucking hurts.”
“Stop being a baby, Jamie. Ripley’s was bigger and you didn’t hear her whimpering like a girl. I’ll clean and stitch it, then put on a dressing. Can you take the pain?”
“Big boy pants on now Jamie. Ripley, would you hand me down Mengele’s medical Bergen please?”
It was late morning and they were following the track that ran parallel to the oil pipeline south-south east. Doctor Mengele was sleeping off the excitement of being their only casualty. Ripley was in her usual spot behind Halward on the folded camouflage nets. James was sitting behind Carson who was driving, trying to finish A Column of Fire, but he was thoroughly bored with it and doubted the book would ever be read. Halward was doing the good officer thing and consulting a map and the desert compass to keep his hand in. It was all rather unnecessary with GPS, but desert navigation from the days of the LRDG and the early SAS were important skills that were easily forgotten. The Major enjoyed the challenge. Carson was driving steadily, avoiding the worst of the potholes and keeping a good three hundred metres behind the lead Supacat to avoid the dust.
James sighed and put down the book. He looked up and saw Ripley smiling demurely at him, her Hijab shielding her face from the sun. She gently prodded his thigh with her boot, high up and close to his groin. James marvelled as he often did, at just what had drawn them together. They were an unlikely pairing, but he knew that he loved her more than anything in the world. He wondered what his sister would say if she knew. The trouble was, he didn’t know where she was and when he went back to the house in Manchester a few years ago to see her and his mother, they had gone. Evicted. He pondered if he should track them down. He did miss his sister.
The vehicles were approaching some high ground and Carson dropped down a couple of gears. Then came an imperceptible shaking from under the rear of the vehicle and the transmission began to emit a high whining. Suddenly there was a bang, the Supacat shuddered to a halt and they could all smell hot oil and the rancid smell of burning metal.
“Bollocks!” Carson said.
Mengele awoke with a start.
“That sounded very bad,” Halward observed with a worried tone.
“I’m afraid it’s worse than that, Boss. I reckon the rear transmission has just gone and eaten itself.”
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file