Halward’s Road Trip 16th February 2018
The lead vehicle saw the following command Supacat grind to a halt and doubled back. The crew had dismounted and Ellis and Carson were under the vehicle. James Ellis would have made a very good mechanic if he had applied himself at school. He wriggled out from underneath and looked at Halward.
“Sorry, Boss. To use a technical term, it’s completely fucked. I think that RPG misfire did more damage than creasing Mengele’s arse. Where the drive shaft goes into the rear diff, looks as though it’s been chewed. The casing’s ripped away and you can see the grindey-movey gubbins inside. Even if we had a spare drive shaft and rear axle, we’d need a workshop to fit it.”
“Oh Bollocks!” Halward exclaimed angrily, “Right, adapt and overcome. Thank God it was the 4×4 and not the 6×6. We’ll need to move all the comms equipment onto the fire support vehicle. Rip out the seats and everything we don’t need. Spike the TOW and we’ll put a demolition charge under it, with some diesel fuel cans and all the ammo we don’t need. One hour’s delay for us to get clear. We’ll need to find another vehicle, the question is where?”
The Major and Mr Hogan consulted a map then waved Ripley over, “If we double back do you think this place would have a pick-up dealership?”
“Probably. Most towns do, but how do you propose to pay or will you just take a vehicle at gunpoint. That might not be a good idea.”
“Only as a last resort,” Halward assured her, “We’ll use the gold Sovereigns. I think each one’s worth about £270.”
“How many have you got?”
“I’ve got twenty inside my belt and so does Mr Hogan.”
“You are well prepared, aren’t you?” said the woman who had twenty half-sovereigns in an aluminium cigar tube in an inside pocket. The tube could be hidden in other places if necessary, “Have you considered that there might still be some Syrian forces in Ash Sholah?”
“Which is where you come in. If necessary we might have to ask them very nicely to leave us alone. I don’t want to risk a political shit-storm by calling in an air strike on Syrian forces.”
Halward went back to the troopers, who were already beginning to load the comms equipment onto the support weapon Supacat.
“Right, the question is what we leave behind?” said the Major.
“We could leave Ripley here. Her arse takes up too much room in the back as it is.”
Ellis glanced sharply at Cohen. He was sometimes convinced that there was something of a Muslim/Jewish thing going on here that seemed just short of open warfare. What he didn’t understand is why Ripley didn’t flare up. He often felt like punching Cohen’s lites out. Ellis had misread the situation. Cohen was as besotted with Ripley as he was. On the night of the feast by the river, Cohen had slipped away, making the excuse he couldn’t eat water fowl for religious reasons. Funny that because bacon grill had never seemed to bother him.
He found Ripley, they had chatted affably and then he had made a clumsy pass at her. She had gently and kindly told him to wind his neck in. Cohen apologised and took himself away in shame. Now he was a good looking man and if Ripley didn’t want to sleep with him, there must be a very good reason. The bickering was really Cohen’s coping mechanism. How right Mr Hogan was about not having women on the front line, especially such alluring women as Ripley, whatever her bloody name was.
By the time they had finished, the Supacat’s exterior was festooned with their kit, weapons and jerry cans. Food would be a problem as there just wasn’t enough room to take all that they needed and they would have to go onto short rations. Even so, it would be very cramped in the back of the vehicle and as “Larry” Grayson had remarked, “We’re going to look like the bloody Bombay to Calcutta express at this rate.
They would leave one of the mortars, a TOW launcher and a couple of the Stingers, which were spiked by having their electronics smashed. Some of the food was left, mainly Menus A and D, although they took the tins of sweets, chocolate and matches. The disabled vehicle was wired for demolition and covered with a camouflage net, so it couldn’t be spotted from the air until the demolition charge went off.
They clambered onto the remaining vehicle, fighting for room in the back. The positions next to Ripley were particularly popular and she ended up sandwiched between Cohen and Shippers. Mengele needed the most room because of his leg. As they headed back up the track, Halward took one last look at the camouflaged vehicle.
“Heap of junk,” he said finally.
“To be fair, Boss, it was hit by an RPG. Just unlucky really.”
Fifty-five minutes back up the track there was the distant rumble of an explosion and a minute or so later a smudge of black smoke was seen on the horizon.
“Goodbye, Connie,” Frank Carson said.
“Who the bloody hell’s Connie?” asked Cohen.
“Connie the Command Cat.”
“You gave it a name?”
“I gave her a name.”
They were well behind enemy lines and out of range for normal resupply from the air. However they were Special Forces, so being behind enemy lines was part and parcel and there were no lines as such in Syria or Iraq. There were too many in an already overloaded vehicle and they would have to operate on a limited food supply. They were going to go into a heavily defended enemy town to grab a scumbag from Leeds and fly him to Jordan, when Ripley could easily beat the crap out of him in situ. Larry Grayson started to sing.
We’re all going on a winter holiday
We’re all gonna slot a, Daesh or two
Fun and laughter on our winter holiday
Plenty of worries for me and you
For a week or two or three or eight or, twenty-two
James looked at Ripley and raised his eyes. He realise he had left A Column of Fire in the destroyed Supacat. They turned off the track onto a metalled road that headed east and by the early afternoon they could see Ash Sholah in the distance. They passed signs of the siege that had been lifted by the Syrian army the previous year and in the suburbs of the town there were clear signs of bomb damage.
“Keep your eyes open for some kind of vehicle dealership, pick-ups even lorries if necessary,” Halward told them.
The locals looked at the Supacat with curiosity and the inevitable crowd of children coalesced around them. Ripley leaned out of the vehicle and asked one of the older children if anywhere in the town sold cars or trucks. The boy pointed up the main highway to the north-east and said something to Ripley.
“He said his uncle has a Toyota but no money for the fuel to run it.”
“But is it a diesel? We don’t have petrol.”
She asked the boy but he didn’t know.
“Tell him to show us where on foot. We’ll follow.”
They reached a low-set building that was a house with what could have been an attached workshop. Sitting on the front of the lot was a battered Mercedes car and a light blue Toyota pick-up.
“Please would you ask your uncle to come and speak with us? Tell him that if the Toyota is a diesel we will give him gold for it.”
Halward looked round assessing potential dangers, “Run the Supacat behind that wall across the highway, so we can cover both directions with the TOW and Fifty Cal. Larry, get up on top of that building across the way with the sniper rifle. All round defence with the Minimes. James, you come with Ripley and me to check out that wagon. Do you think it’s a diesel?”
“Dunno, boss. It could be. A lot of those old ones for export were diesels.”
The boy came out with his uncle who seemed reluctant when he saw their carbines and combat clothing. He looked around nervously, hoping that ISIL had not returned.
“As-salāmu ʿalaykum,” said Halward. Ripley bowed her head politely and went to stand behind the Major, as befitting her place in this society.
“Tell the Gentleman my name, that we mean him no harm and wish to buy the pick-up with gold, if it is a diesel. If it isn’t, ask him if he knows of anyone willing to sell a diesel vehicle.”
Ripley translated and the man nodded. He said a great deal of words after that, then she nodded and translated.
“It is a diesel. It was very important to him, but he now has difficulty in getting fuel for it, since the Syrian army has requisitioned most of the stocks. He wants a good price for it, so he can afford to buy a better one, once things are more stable.”
“Tell him I will give him a fair price, in gold sovereigns. Tell him each sovereign is worth around $350 US Dollars. James, go and get a jerry-can of diesel from the wagon. Ask Mr Hogan for five of his sovereigns and when you come back and have looked over it, tell me how much you think it’s worth.”
James trotted off at the double and came back with a jerry-can.
“Give me one of the coins please James and then have a good look at it and fire it up. It’s no good to us if it’s a clunker.”
Whilst James put in half of a jerry-can and checked over the Toyota, Halward asked Ripley to find out what the man knew about the area and who was in control. Either he couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them much. As James looked at the engine and underneath the vehicle, he concluded that this was one of the most surreal moments of his life. He started it up and with the owner’s permission, took it for a test drive up and down the highway. He came back after ten minutes and reported to Halward.
“It’s mechanically sound if a little tired. Transmission is OK and the engine is clean.”
“What’s it worth?”
“Back in the UK, five hundred quid, but out here… It could be one of the most important things in the world to someone in this country.”
Halward gave the man the sovereign and naturally he bit it. Then the protracted haggling started. The issue centred on the man’s ability to purchase a better pick-up when the time was ready and his knowing that these soldiers really needed his old one badly. Of course he could have just pointed his carbine at the man’s head and demanded the keys and under different circumstances he may well have done so. But in the end they settled for four gold sovereigns and Her Majesty’s Government and the Directorate of Special Forces, became the reluctant owners of a very used Toyota pick-up. Halward insisted on a receipt.
They shook hands and James drove it across to the Supacat to start loading kit into the back. During their time in the town, a small number of vehicles had passed on the highway, mainly heading west. They had almost finished when the sound of an engine and tyres on the road surface came from the east. Larry who was still on lookout on the roof called down to them.
“Boss, I think we may have a bit of a problem.”
The major looked to the east and saw a stationary BRDM-2 Armoured Scout Car of the Syrian Army stationary on the road about four hundred metres away. The troopers stood-to, manning defensive positions and the Supacat’s support weapons.
“Don’t open fire unless he does,” Halward looked at Ripley, “It never bloody rains. What do you suggest?”
“Let’s go and talk to them. No weapons. Nice and easy. He can see if we’re tooled-up. What are they armed with?”
“Heavy machinegun and coaxially mounted MMG. He may have anti-tank missiles but I can’t see any on top of the turret. The commander is watching us through field glasses. I really don’t want you to come, but I can’t see any other way.”
“Let’s go then, Major.”
“If anything kicks off and we go down, Mr H, banjo the bastard and proceed with the mission.”
They put down their carbines and Ripley un-holstered her Glock and put that down as well, “It’s been nice knowing you, Major.”
Keeping their hands out to the side, the two of them began the lonely walk towards the Syrian armoured car. The road surface shimmered in the warmth of the afternoon sunshine.
“This feels like High Noon,” said Halward.
“Well you’re no Gary Cooper, too short and I sure as hell aint Grace Kelly.”
“Too dusky,” Halward agreed.
“I wish I’d gone for a wee first,” she said, “I’m scared, Paul.”
As they got closer they could see the turret guns pointing at them and the vehicle commander watching them carefully. There were no missiles on top of the turret, which was something.
“If they open fire and you’re not hit, don’t run back down the road. Head forwards going forty-five degrees left, I’ll go right. It will split their fire and hopefully the TOW will take them out.”
They stopped about ten yards in front of the vehicle. The commander was wearing a Soviet padded helmet and he had an aquiline nose and a bushy moustache. Despite their situation, Ripley couldn’t help but notice that the Syrian commander was a strikingly handsome man. He spoke to them in Arabic.
She translated, “You are not Daesh and you are not Russian,” he had looked pointedly at Ripley as he spoke, “You are Westerners and you should not be in my country.”
“Tell him I am Major Halward and we mean no harm. We are not here on offensive operations. Tell him that we are trying to rendezvous with Russian forces at Ad Dumayr airfield.”
The Syrian listened and spoke again, “He says you are not Americans. You are either Australian or British Special Forces and you should not be operating in this area, or any area within Syria for that matter.”
“Repeat the rendezvous with the Russians.”
“He wants to know why and if we are Special Forces.”
“Say that the nature of our mission is classified and we are not at liberty to discuss the nature of our unit. Ask him his name and rank.”
“He says he is Lieutenant Fahd, he knows we are English Special Forces and wants to know if we have a medic.”
“Because his co-driver is injured and they were trying to find a hospital. They have been fighting ISIL at Deir ez-Zur. It might not be a bad idea to see if we can help, Major.”
Halward thought about it, then got on the role radio, “Shippers from Star-shine. Bring your medical gubbins and hoof it up here would you? Leave your weapons.”
“Ask him what the problem is with his driver.”
“He has a crushed foot and we suspect gangrene,” the Syrian said in flawless English. Ripley and Halward looked at one another.
“It would appear the good Lieutenant has been hiding his light under a bushel. You might as well go back and join the others.”
The Syrian officer watched her walk away, “Your interpreter is very agreeable to look at.”
“But she is a useless cook,” both men smiled, “Where did you learn to speak English?”
In London. My cousin owns a Syrian and Lebanese restaurant near Wembley Park. I worked there for a year when I left university.”
“It’s a small world. I bet I’ve eaten there.”
Shippers trotted up to them lugging a medical Bergen, “What’s the problem, Boss?”
“One of the crew is injured. Could your men take him out and put him on something at the side of the road please, Lieutenant Fahd.”
The other two crew lifted the man out through the front hatch and laid him on a sleeping bag off the road. The co-driver was obviously in considerable pain because he groaned through gritted teeth as he was moved.”
“His foot was crushed by a tracked vehicle some days ago. It is now badly infected,” the Syrian officer told them. Can you amputate it?”
The medic gently removed the driver’s boot and stained dressing. Halward looked away with a groan and the Syrian officer winced. The driver’s foot was a seething mass of tiny maggots and the little, next and middle toes were black. Shippers leant forward and sniffed the wound.
“How the hell do you get rid of those maggots,” Halward asked with disgust, but the medic would not be hurried.
“He’s lucky,” Shippers concluded, “It’s dry gangrene because there’s no smell and the last thing we want to do is get rid of the maggots. They are eating the dead flesh which is the source of infection and they produce an enzyme that kills bacteria. When there’s no more dead flesh to eat, they’ll drop off. He will lose his three black toes, but keep the big and next toes, which is important for walking and balance.
“I can’t amputate anything because I don’t have any bone saws. I’ll give him a shot of antibiotics and a week’s course of follow-up antibiotics. Four a day starting tomorrow and I’ll even throw in some pain killers.”
The Syrian officer translated while Shippers gave the injection, dressed the foot and helped the driver put his boot back on. They all helped to put him back in the armoured car.
“Where will you go to find a hospital? We have information that Palmyra is an ISIL stronghold.” Halward said to the Syrian.”
“To the military hospital at Damascus if necessary. You realise that I must report your presence, but I will wait until I arrive in the Capital. By that time you should be with the Russians if that is really where you are going,” he saluted rather formally, “Good luck, English. Jump up and I will drop you off by your wagon with the TOW missile.”
The BRDM stopped next to the pick-up and the Major and the Medic jumped down, “May Allah guide you with all speed back to your own country,” As the armoured car headed away south-west, the commander looked down at Ripley and nodded. She blushed.
“I never knew that you were in the Saddam Hussain fan club, Ripley,” Cohen said casually and they watched the Syrian vehicle head out of town, “I bet that ‘tache could fair tickle your fancy.”
“Well he was rather good looking… For a man.”
They headed east out of Ash Sholah on the main highway and through another small town called Kobajjeb, but they were through it too quickly to generate much interest. After twenty kilometres they picked up the pipeline track they had been on that morning when the command vehicle had broken down. They were in the heart of the Syrian Desert and it was getting cooler as the sun went down. They turned west onto a metalled road and about fifteen kilometres south-east of Arak, Halward stopped for the night. They camouflaged both vehicles with a net and settled in for the night routine.
“Hard routine tonight I’m afraid, chaps. No stoves, cold rations and two on each stag, one hundred metres away east and west up the road. Plenty of fluids please and it’s going to get cold.”
© Blown Periphery 2020
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