RAF Akrotiri and Syria 17/18th February 2018
Phillips had been looking for Cécile, driving around the large base in a Land Rover he had borrowed from the RAF Police Flight. He had tried the beaches, although they were pretty deserted this time of year, apart from the serious windsurfers. She wasn’t in the transit aircrew accommodation where they were all staying in a single block and eating in the officers’ mess. He was annoyed to find she had left her mobile phone on her bed. Phillips had picked it up and gone looking for her. She’d been for a run and he saw her as he drove up the main drag, heading across the sports fields towards the NAAFI shopping complex. She was wearing a day sack made out of a side pouch of her Bergen, so she could have easily taken her phone.
He parked in the car park near the bank and shops and saw her go into the main NAAFI shop, although to be accurate it was a Cost Cutter, but NAAFI and Mally seemed to have stuck. He caught up with her in the shop as though she was thinking of what to buy.
“Spot of retail therapy is it Ma’am,” he said to her and she jumped slightly.
“Hello, Mister Phillips. Mr Bartlett asked me to get something for somebody who’s already out there.”
“You forgot this,” he said holding up her mobile phone. She could tell by his expression and tone that he was peeved with her.
“Oh thank you. You see, I’m not very good with mobile phones and sometimes I don’t even switch mine on. I don’t like the damn things ruling my life.”
He sighed. Sometimes she was so tiresome he could slap her. She was the most unmilitary person he had ever met, but he put it down to her being a lawyer and what was worse, an RAF one at that. And then he thought about Islamabad and how calm she’d been, firing and reloading like an automaton. No fear or emotion until they were safe and then the tears and the shakes. You’re a very peculiar and enigmatic woman, Cécile Hammond. I wish I could work out what makes you tick.
“Do you think I’ll need a ration card to buy cigarettes?” she asked changing the subject before he could nag her.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t, silly. Mr Bartlett asked me to get them for someone who is out on the team. A woman interpreter, although I got the impression she does much more than that. Four packets of Marlborough Lights.”
“Should be all right, but if they get iffy, buy two packets and I’ll buy the other two.”
“And it seems a bit unfair buying something for her and not the rest of the men who have been out there as well. Come on Mr Phillips, you’re a man. What would you like to have as a little gift when you’re out on ops?”
He thought about it, “Beef jerky, pork scratchings, dry roasted peanuts, Haribo jellies, alcohol hand cleaner, shitloads of Nivea moisturiser and Johnson’s baby talcum powder.”
“They’ve been washing and shaving in heavily chlorinated water for four months. Your parts tend to get a bit dry and flakey and it’s important to pamper your parts.”
“If I buy them, would you please give it to them? I have no wish to have a discussion with an SAS soldier about pampering his parts.”
“Sure. They’ll appreciate it. It’s a very kind thought.”
Once they were outside they squinted into the cloudless sky. They just knew.
“We’re going in tonight. I spoke to one of the RAF crews. The aircraft with the SAS team and the specialist comms technicians is landing here this evening. That’s why I was miffed with you for not taking your phone. We draw weapons at 18:00 and drive across to the other side of the airfield where the Wokkas are. I’ll give you a lift back to the officers’ mess and we’ll get a bite to eat.”
“I don’t feel like eating anything,” she told him, “Mr Phillips, are you worried?”
“I’m a little apprehensive. It’s perfectly normal.”
“Well I’m terrified. I couldn’t sleep last night.”
“We’ll be OK. There would be something wrong if you felt fine about the whole thing. Fear gives you the edge. Just think how your Bomber Command boys used to feel in the hours prior to going on ops.”
“Out of every hundred men in Bomber Command, twenty-seven would survive,” she said gloomily.
Phillips looked at her with a slightly worried expression. Don’t go wobbly on me now please, Cécile.
It was nearly dark when they drew their weapons from the armoury and this time they were driven in the Land Rover by an RAF Policeman. As well as her Sig, Cécile was armed with an L85 with a SUSAT Sight. She was surprised to see that Phillips’ personal weapon was a C8 carbine. They drove the long way round the Perry track to where the two CH 47 Chinooks of Number 7 Squadron’s Special Forces Flight stood on the distant dispersal, well away from prying eyes. The RAF copper shook Phillips’ hand and saluted Cécile.
“Good luck, mate, Ma’am.”
“Thanks for the loan of the wagon,” Phillips said and they watched the Land Rover drive off.
One of the Loadmasters came off the rear ramp of one of the aircraft to talk to them, “We’re expecting the hooligans and the comms team in about fifteen minutes. The Herc will taxi straight in and we’ll split the teams between the two cabs. That means if anything happens one of the cabs…”
“We get the picture, at least some will be left.” Cécile said.
“Of course you two stay together as you’re an item. I wouldn’t be in any hurry to get on board if I were you. It’s a three hour trip and it will be quite choppy and hairy. I hope you don’t suffer with air sickness because the skippers will be throwing them around a bit. Plenty of bags if you do, and I’ll dump them off the back of the ramp. We’ll need to put in their kit and strop it down before we get underway. You can let me have your Bergens and I’ll put them on board. You’ll be flying with me and Grant in the cheap seats. I’m Garry, rear loadie and rear gunner.”
He made it sound like he was discussing a trip on a coach to Blackpool.
“Let’s get some of the night air,” she suggested and the pair of them walked away from the dispersal into the bundu. The two Chinooks and other helicopters sat in a red glow like giant locusts. The interior lights made the rear ramps look like a greedy, gaping maws.
“Are you OK?” Phillips asked.
She reached for his hand and squeezed it, “You’ll look after me won’t you?”
He was surprised by the intimate gesture, “Sure, but we’re in their hands now. We’ll be OK.”
Ten minutes later they watched the bright landing light of a C130, seem to hang in the sky to the east as the transport aircraft made its final approach. It rumbled past touching down on the runway in a cloud of smoke and tyre dust, then ponderously taxied back to their dispersal. A ground crew with battery powered wands marshalled in the Hercules and the engines shut down.
The rear ramp went down and a bunch of tough looking soldiers got out and stretched off cramped muscles, then they began to transfer their kit and lacon boxes from the back of the aircraft into the helicopters. The movers moved the heavier items with fork-lift trucks while the loadies showed where on the helicopters the equipment should be stowed, so that the trim of the aircraft wouldn’t be affected. Then the twelve men got on board, six to each Chinook. The loadie beckoned Cécile and Phillips in and pointed up into the interior.
“Port side please, Ma’am, just rear of those two hooligans. You too please, Staff. You can be a rose between the thorns, Ma’am.”
They went in, clambering over kit and Cécile sat next to a trooper who moved up slightly to enable her to find her safety belt. She slid her rifle under her seat and put a boot on it.
“All right?” the trooper asked.
“Oh great, thanks.”
The front loadie came round to check their lap straps with a torch while the rear loadie, AKA Garry, checked his safety line was clipped on both ends and positioned himself on the rear ramp behind the 7.62 mm M134 rotary machine gun. The helicopter came alive with a hum of electronics. Above their heads the rotor blades began to turn and then the power went on. The flight crew carried out their checks, waiting for temperatures and pressures to reach the optimum. Loadie Grant positioned himself behind the right-hand-door rotary gun and carried out some inspired posing. The revs ramped up and at first, almost gently the 50,000lb Chinook lifted off and then the cyclic went on and the aircraft pitched forward for the blades to bite the air. Cécile glanced at Phillips and he grinned reassuringly.
The next two hours and fifty-eight minutes were the most terrifying that Cécile had ever spent in an aircraft. At first it wasn’t too bad as the Chinooks flew one-hundred-and-thirty miles across the Eastern Mediterranean at just under fifty feet and at least there was a slight swell that helped the pilots differentiate the sea from the horizon. Occasionally she saw the following helicopter through the open rear ramp and they roared over the odd fishing boat’s lights. It was when they crossed the Syrian coast south of Tartus that the fun and games started.
Klaxons began to sound in the cockpit and the aircrafts’ defensive aid suites picked up missile warnings, possible from MANPAD anti-aircraft missiles. The Chinooks took violent avoiding actions and streams of chaff and brilliant heat flares spewed into the slipstreams behind the helicopters. The inside of the helicopters juddered in the tight turns and the loadies hung on for dear life. Cécile couldn’t imagine sitting on the rear ramp with her legs dangling in the slipstream and she shuddered. Their flight was less erratic as the Chinooks thundered across Lake Quattinah, skirting northern Lebanon to avoid Homs like the plague.
Occasionally the aircraft would rear up, the engines screaming to fly over high tension power lines, but the key to their survival was maintaining what seemed to the helpless passengers, a suicidal low level. On one occasion as they tracked up a valley a ribbon of tracer spiralled lazily towards them, temporarily flooding the pilot’s NVGs with light. The co-pilot shouted a warning and both helicopters went under low-slung power lines that straddled the valley. It was extremely vomit-inducing that close to the ground and some of the passengers were airsick. Cécile managed to hold on to her honey and toast with willpower and Polo mints. She passed them round and the packet did a tour of the aircraft, coming back nearly empty.
To the east of the Lebanese frontier the terrain was slashed by diagonal valleys and mountain ranges. The Chinooks took advantage of the cover afforded by the terrain by tracking down the valleys, but near Al Qastal they ran into trouble again. The radar warning klaxons in the cockpit were off the scale and they indicated in the avionics “glass” cockpit that they had been locked onto by a RPK-2 “Tobol” radar. They were flying towards a ZSU-23-4 Shilka.
“I thought the bastards were supposed to know we were coming,” the lead pilot remarked calmly to his co-pilot, and the helicopters turned hard right and left to split the fire. The defensive aid suit was turning the night sky to daylight with the flares and the helicopter gunners were hosing the ground with the rotary machine guns. Firearms propellant permeated the interior of the helicopters and Cécile closed her eyes and began to pray.
A solid wall of tracer reached up for them, but the helicopters were flying so low that the ZSU’s radar may have been confused by ground clutter. The lead helicopter’s pilot spotted a narrow re-entrant in the range of hills and took it, slowing right down until the hills blanked the search radar. The second Chinook did the same with a small pass and a track and they headed south-west on either side of the valley, using the hills as cover. They re-joined at Al Twani and headed south.
“Too bloody close,” one of the pilots remarked. But Loadmaster Grant was happy. He had got to fire the M134 rotary machine gun in anger. He would have been disappointed if he knew the only things he had managed to hit and kill were two goats.
Twenty miles north of their destination, the lead pilot got on the radio, “Ad Dumayr, Ad Dumayr, this is Charlie Hotel Four Seven Bravo Victor. We are two times Charlie Hotel Four Sevens requesting clearance for landing your location, minutes five, over. Let’s hope they got the memo.”
The reply was accented, but nevertheless, in good English, “Roger Charlie Hotel Four Seven Bravo Victor, this is Ad Dumayr. You are cleared for landing on the south side of the airfield. Your landing point is marked with vehicle headlights, Over.”
“Thank you Ad Dumayr. Charlie Hotel out. Thank God for that.”
Halward’s men had swept the landing point between the HASs for FOD and had parked the Supacat and pick-up so the headlights converged two hundred metres upwind. They heard the unmistakable wokka-wokka sound of Chinooks in the distance, turned on the vehicle engines and lights, then put on goggles. The aircraft lights went on and the helicopters approached from the north, slowing across the airfield. The first Chinook went slowly over their heads and the downdraft was like a gale that threw up dust. The first aircraft flared and touched down followed by the second a hundred metres behind. The engines were throttled back and the rotor blades slowed, flexing and bouncing, the front blades as close as two metres to the ground.
Inside Cécile’s aircraft the troopers cheered and clapped sarcastically. Loadmaster Gary bowed, bathing in the ironic adulation, “What, no flowers?” he said milking the moment.
She unclipped her seat belt and grabbed her rifle, following Phillips out, off the rear ramp into a strange smelling darkness. She could have kissed the ground.
“That was absolutely terrifying,” she said with feeling. The loadies began to move out the personal kit as the troops filed off the aircraft. Cécile had marked her Bergen with police scene of crime tape and she hefted it up and made her way towards the HAS.
Inside the heaters were on and they had made a huge brew of tea. Predictably it was sweet enough to dissolve amalgam restorations. Old acquaintances were being re-met and there was much lively male banter. Cécile was surprised to see that Phillips seemed to know and was known by some of the troopers. The aircrew were in the thick of it and there was much piss-taking of the loadies by the troopers, particularly about their firing at no visible targets. Cécile looked around and saw a young woman sitting on her own, leaning against the wall of HAS, a mug of tea between her legs. Cécile thought the young woman exuded an air of melancholy and vulnerability. She went over to speak to her.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
The woman looked up at her. She didn’t look like an Indian or Pakistani and Cécile suspected that she came from slightly further north. It was the almost violet eyes that convinced her that this woman was possibly of Afghan heritage. They were the most beautiful eyes she had ever seen. She looked not unlike the young woman in the famous 1985 photograph that appeared on the front cover of the National Geographic magazine and wore her hijab in the same, loose fashion as the photograph, showing her hair. Her combat clothing was bleached and faded, darned in many places. She had stitched socks on the end of the sleeves to seal the cuffs for warmth. Her boots were scuffed, the laces having being long gone and replaced with green Para cord
“Be my guest, wing commander. I haven’t seen someone so senior in your mob for a long time.”
Cécile put down her Bergen and rifle on top of it, gratefully taking off her helmet and dumping down the body armour. She took the bun out of her hair and shook it loose.
“Don’t get too excited. I’m acting rank, a flight lieuie pretending to be a grown-up. My name’s Cécile, what do I call you?”
“They call me Ripley. My real name’s Afarin but Ripley seems easier.”
“Ripley it is. A chap called Bartlett asked me to give you these,” She delved in the side pouch of her Bergan and pulled out the cigarettes and some Olay moisturiser.
Ripley smiled, “That was really kind of him and kind of you to go to the bother of bringing it. I’m sure you had other things on your mind. I gather it was rough coming in.”
Cécile slid down the wall to sit next to her, “I was scared shitless,” she admitted, “And this lot didn’t even seem to blink. You can almost taste the testosterone at the back of your throat.”
Ripley giggled, “That is not a mental picture I want to conjure up. Do you mind if I smoke one of these? It’s been days since my last one.”
Cécile shook her head and Ripley lit a Marlborough light and blew out a plume of smoke contentedly.
“Could I ask a question, Cécile? What on earth are you doing here?”
She sipped her tea before answering, “When this lot have grabbed Mr Daffi Hashmi and flown him to Jordan, I am to be present at his interrogation, in order to put together a case for his prosecution in an international court of law. I am a legal officer, you see.”
“What a stupid idea!”
“Isn’t it though. Personally I’d rather put a bullet through the bastard’s head. I knew the aircrew that he and his chums, raped, tortured and murdered. Two of them are dead already. One blew himself and lots of other people up in a Brussels flat. The other was taken out by a drone strike in Pakistan. I was there on both occasions and I hope neither of them died too quickly.”
Ripley looked at this pretty, blonde stranger with surprise, “Gosh, really?”
They watched the antics of the troopers, comms team and aircrew with excluded female wonder.
“They’ll be flicking towels in a minute,” Cécile observed “But that chap talking to the Major, the one with the broken nose. He keeps looking at you.”
“Not me, it’s you. He likes them blonde, does James.”
“No he’s not. He’s curious and has already mentally undressed me when I came in, but it’s you he’s looking across at. I’m a lawyer and I’m pretty good at sussing things. You’re an item aren’t you?”
Ripley changed the subject, “Who’s the bald bloke, the good looking one?”
“That’s Staff Sergeant Phillips, or as I call him, the Admirable Crichton. He is my close protection officer and he is a consummate professional, although he does tend to be rather formal and stiff. A bit like Mr Stephens in The Remains of the Day. Why?”
“I just wondered, him not being a Blade, although I rather suspect he was,” And like Cécile, Ripley was good at reading people and body language as well. But sometimes it took an outsider to see the blindingly obvious, but she held her council.
“I think you’ll be sleeping with me tonight in my little lean-to they made for me. After tonight you’ll have my gaff all to yourself.”
“Because tomorrow I’ll be going into Ad Dumayr town to look for Hashmi and pinpoint his position so these rutting stags can grab the piece of shit.”
Cécile looked at her and felt a sense of guilt, “And I was moaning about three hours in a helicopter. I really don’t know what to say. I couldn’t even begin…”
“It’s what I do. I wouldn’t be much good going undercover in Scandinavia would I?”
“Have you been to Malmo recently?”
Cécile was tired and Ripley was restless in her sleeping bag. She slipped quietly out of the lean-to with her sleeping bag and found a quiet space in the corner of the hangar behind some lacon boxes. She laid it out then went towards where the men were sleeping. The sergeant Ripley had called “James” was still awake, sitting alone and looking aimlessly out into the night.
“Are you James?”
He stood up, “Ma’am?”
“I rather think Ripley would like a little company tonight. I’ve found another nice, quiet spot behind those boxes.”
“Bless you,” he said.
Cécile got in her sleeping bag and despite the cold, hard floor, she soon fell asleep, smiling to herself.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file