War Crimes Part 5
The Regiment moved from Northern Ireland to Cyprus in 1991 and in the September, an extremely promising fly-half, Lance-Corporal Edge was selected to play for the 3rd Infantry Brigades rugby tour of Germany. The team, reserves and assorted skivers and camp followers were bussed to RAF Akrotiri, where a C130 was waiting for them, its two inner engines running on the hot pan. Like expectant and excited children boarding the bus on a school trip, the Army rugby tour walked towards the rear ramp and were swallowed up in the aircraft’s cavernous interior. Edge was assailed by the heady aroma of Cyprus trees and AVTUR, with the heat shimmering off the concrete. He marvelled at the accomplished scruffiness of the RAF ground crews, in their clumpy desert boots, impossibly short khaki shorts and long socks. He was pretty sure they should have been pulled up to the knees, not rolled over the top of the grimy, scuffed desert boots.
Although Edge had flown in helicopters during training and in Northern Ireland, he had never flown in an RAF transport aircraft. The four rows of canvas seats and the red netting were a novelty, so he followed the lead of more experienced and picked a seat on the starboard side, facing inwards. While they strapped in, the movers loaded pallets and lacon boxes and nets of baggage into the fuselage and the loadmaster strapped them down to hard points on the aircraft’s deck. The rear ramp went up with a whine of hydraulics and the outer engines were started. The loadmaster came round with a box full of cardboard packets, containing yellow cylinders (Plug Ear NSN 6515-01-603-3450).
Edge felt an excitement as the aircraft taxied and turned onto the runway. The engines were run up to full power and they got close and personal with the person next to them as the Hercules accelerated down the runway. Edge craned his head round to look out of the small window level with the propellers. The salt water lake and the telecommunications base slid past below as the aircraft climbed out. It turned gently to starboard and he was looking down at Paphos and the azure sea. The roar inside the cavernous fuselage was deafening. It was the first time Edge had flown in a C130, but it sure as hell wouldn’t be his last.
They all watched with interest as the loadmaster climbed up on their shoulders and the stretcher stanchions, pulled the insulation away to reveal a myriad of pipework and started to inspect the wires and pipes with a right-angled torch. He pushed his gloved hand into the spaces and inspected the fingers.
“What you looking for?” someone yelled in question.
“Stuff that shouldn’t be there,” the loadmaster replied, moving with the agility of a monkey onto the next area.
“What, like holes?”
He gave the Army bod a pitying look, “No, like oil and hydraulic leaks.”
Some exchanged worried glances. The aircraft was over twenty years old and had had a busy life.
“But don’t worry. I’ll give you a shout when we fall out of the sky.”
At 12:30 Akrotiri time, the loadmaster started to distribute the white butty-boxes, their packed lunches. Then followed the inevitable bartering and swapping of items so that all tastes were catered for. Edge opened the box with expectation: A cheese and ham pasty, tuna sandwiches, a packet of beef crisps, an apple, two custard crème biscuits in a wrapper and a small bag of compo boiled sweets.
“Edgie, I’ll swap you my cheese and pickle sandwiches for your tuna.”
After lunch, the pilot cranked up the internal temperature and most of them slept as the C130 tracked up the west coast of Italy. There was some clear air turbulence with associated air sickness skirting the Alps and then they were over Germany and beginning the final approach into RAF Wildenrath The restricted view out of the window showed green fields, clumps of houses with numerous tree plantations. As the aircraft came in on finals, Edge spotted Phantoms and their hardened aircraft shelters (HASs) tucked into the trees. The Phantoms would soon be gone, victims of the so-called “Peace Dividend.” The base would close the following year.
The troops cheered like kids as the Hercules kissed the runway and rumbled to a running pace, turning off onto the taxiway and heading for a hangar that served as the terminal building. The rear ramp whined down and they poured off the aircraft, some making improper comments to the WRAF Mover in her florescent tabard who was marshalling them towards the terminal building. A whiteboard in the building informed all members of 3rd Inf Bde Rugby Tour that their transport had been delayed for two hours. Some moaned, some cursed and some tried to find a bar that was open this time of day. Edge decided to take some surreptitious photographs of the Phantoms, despite the “No photography” warning signs in the terminal.
Mr Jennings had done a good job in introducing Mark Edge to Rugby Union. He soon realised that Mark was not only extremely fit, but he had a quick mind, very fast and sound reasoning and good communication skills. It seemed obvious that the youngster was destined to be a fly-half as his spatial awareness was first rate. Although Rugby wasn’t taught or played at Mark’s school, Jennings, a former RN player, coached the local grammar school team on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings. He invited Mark to join them, and he became an outstanding junior fly-half. He even quite inappropriately, played in a couple of games for the grammar school, but he was good and the boys didn’t care. Mark Edge was a force multiplier who could win a game when he spotted the opportunity.
But Lance-corporal Edge was just that, a lance-corporal and an effective fly-half has to efficiently direct the flow of the game and provide a crucial link between the forwards and the backs. In a hierarchical organisation like the Army, more senior team members took a pretty dim view of being directed by a Lance-jack. And there was a WO2 established fly-half who had played for years. Unfortunately, he was approaching forty, was slow, as thick as a whale omelette and had the spatial awareness of a deaf bat in a bell foundry. So for most of the tour, Edge was on the bench, waiting for the established fly-half to get knackered, which he usually did, halfway through the second half and feigned injury for a substitution.
Edge played in a couple of the warm-up games against RAF Germany teams from the Clutch Airfields, games that the 3rd Infantry Brigade easily won. But the Army team was roundly thrashed in a Rugby 7s game with the RAF Hospital, Rugby 7s being a very different game. Like all military rugby tours, the boys from the Brigade played hard on the field and hard off it. The night life of Germany and its beer was a strong pull and they headed east like a marauding cohort. On the pitch, some they won, off the pitch, nobody cared. They lost some due to injury, others due to overenthusiasm in embracing the night life, followed by incarceration by the military police. They swung back west for the final games against the tankies in Bielfeld which was won easily and the RAF at Gütersloh which was a different story.
There was a lot of history at RAF Gütersloh, which Edge was keen to find out about. The day before the game in which he would be playing, he went to the station education centre and started reading up about the base. Construction began in 1935 and from 1943-44 it operated JU88 night fighters of Nachtjagdgeschwader 2 in the defence of Germany. The base now operated Harrier GR5s of Nos 3 and 4 Squadrons and Chinooks of No 18 Squadron. The buildings on the base had an old-world feel to them, like Bavarian hunting lodges, tucked away in the pine trees. There was also a lot of the RAF personnel wearing field kit rather than their normal blues. He read the station arrival magazine and found that RAF Gütersloh was the home of the Harrier Force, where aircraft and their ground crews deployed into the woods and hides around Germany and continued to conduct armed air operations in support of the BAOR, including operations with the WE 177. He wondered if the German people would be happy to know thermo-nuclear weapons were deployed to woodland hides, but decided he couldn’t give a toss, given their previous track record.
It seemed as though a good contingent of RAF personnel had been given the afternoon off, to watch 3rd Infantry Brigade give the Crabs a good pasting. As it was an easy game, the Army fielded their standby fifteen and Edge played fly-half from first kick-off. It was a carnival atmosphere at the station’s playing fields that afternoon. Hundreds of the RAF contingent had turned out to watch, there was even a beer tent. Just before the kick-off, a Harrier screamed in from the airfield, came to a halt in mid-air above the pitch, pirouetted and bowed to the crowd. Then the aircraft stood on its arse and roared upwards at an impossibly steep angle. The noise was visceral and was a harbinger of the game to come.
From the first three minutes of the match it became obvious that this RAF side was not going to be a walkover. The back row of the home pack was not only powerful, but very fast. The RAF inside centre was over six foot, but powerful with it and he seemed determined to stamp his authority over the Army team’s backs. Within the first ten minutes, the RAF’s inside centre had sacked Edge in the lineouts, moving as fast as the Army’s scrum half could move the ball out to the backs. It was like being hit by a windmill and Edge got a good view of the turf on Gütersloh’s playing field. By half time, 3rd Inf Bde was trailing 6 points to the RAF’s 10 and were a try down. Edge had been outclassed in the scrum, failing to get the ball out to the backs before the opposition inside centre hit him time after time with monotonous regularity.
At the half-time break it was obvious that the touring had taken its toll on the fitness of the Army team. At the team talk Edge made his views known to the captain.
“You’ve got to get the balls out of the scrum and lineouts more quickly. Their back row is shit hot and all over us like a rash. We’ve got a stronger pack, try hanging on to the ball and drawing them in while we get organised at the back. And backs need to come in tighter. They’re fit and fast and able to intercept the longer passes.”
“Yeah, thanks for that, Edgie.”
“You want to beat the bloody Crabs, don’t you?” There were no dissenting voices, “So let’s tighten things up.”
The second half was a turgid affair, with both teams slugging it out in the metaphorical trenches. The RAF scored a second try and converted it, but thanks to some sterling work by the Army inside and outside centres following a good feed from Edge from a lineout, the Army responded with an unconverted try in the extreme right of the try line. The Army forwards must have listened to Edge and doggedly kept possession, forcing the RAF to concede two stupid penalties in their own half. With less than two minutes left to play with the score tied at sixteen-all, the ball was fed back from a ruck by the Army’s scrum half. Edge had space on the right and prepared to launch a shit-or-bust drop goal.
He had enough time and time itself seemed to slow. He looked at the opposition inside centre bearing down on him. He still had space, but there was an angle and Edge was left-footed. The uprights beckoned. To his left and slightly behind, his full back was in a perfect position, but his kicking had proved unreliable throughout the tour. Lieutenant Carter was a decent enough bloke. Edge ran through the options as he heard the opposition inside centre’s boots pounding on the turf. He presented the ball for the drop kick. The opposition was committed…
Edge flipped the ball one-handed high to his left. It was a perfectly judged pass, straight to the full back. Lieutenant Carter took it like he had been presented with the crown jewels. Edge never saw the kick as he was being buried by the RAF’s inside centre. Late tackle? Possibly and the knee on the side of his head stunned him, but Edge saw the ball’s parabolic curve between the uprights and heard the referee’s whistle, followed by the double whistle for the end of the game.
Edge sat up and spat mud and gum shield out of his mouth, as his team eulogised Lieutenant Carter like he was the new messiah. The RAF inside centre pulled Edge to his feet, who had been forgotten by his team mates in their celebration of a damned close thing well run.
“You could have kicked it. You had plenty of time. Why?”
Edge shrugged, “Wrong foot. He was in a better position.”
“Quite the hero now, isn’t he. I bet he’s a Rupert.”
Edge smiled ruefully but said nothing. He didn’t need the opposition to tell him he’d just won the game for the 3rd Infantry Brigade.
The RAF had laid on an all-ranks function in the NAAFI club and it was exceptionally well attended. The home team was gracious in their narrow defeat and they proved to be good hosts. The beer was flowing and the distinctions between the ranks were being eroded, at which point the Army officers and SNCOs perhaps wisely decamped to their own messes. The Hercules flight back to Cyprus wasn’t until the following afternoon, so Edge was quite happy to soak up the more relaxed atmosphere of the RAF and get slowly, but steadily merry. In the early evening, his opponent from the match weaved his way across to where Edge was chatting with a corporal from the touring side. He had three girls in tow and another male, a gawky individual with heavy glasses and an air of terminal virginity swirling around him.
“Brought you a beer, for being such a shit rugby player,” he said with a good-natured grin, “This is Alicia, Becky and Sharon, I’m Orinoco, this sad twat is Scooby.”
“Rut row,” said Scooby.
“I’m Mark Edge. This is Danny.”
“Hello, Edge,” said Orinoco.
“Hello, Mark,” said Alicia and promptly sat down next to him.
“Hello, Danny,” said Becky and sat down next to him. So Danny was sorted. Orinoco and Sharon were obviously an item.
“Why Orinoco?” Edge asked reasonably.
“All us Squadron Engineers are named after Wombles. Stupid, I know.”
“What about Scooby?”
“He’s a scribbly. He wouldn’t know a pitot from a jet pipe. He comes out into the field with us to write chits and make the tea.”
“Ass Hright,” Scooby confirmed.
Edge smiled at the girl. “Alicia, what a frightfully posh name. You must be in the RAF.”
1991 was a strange time for those serving in BAOR and RAFG. The First Gulf War was still fresh in military minds and the more astute military planners and watchers realised that things would never be the same again. Of course the politicians saw the new world order as an ideal opportunity to cut defence spending to the bone. German Reunification was well in progress and the tens of thousands of NATO troops on German soil had outlived their purpose and welcome. But the drumbeat of the Cold War still held sway for those who were serving on the former Cold War front line, and the live for today, for tomorrow you could be gasping and drowning in chemical blood agents attitude still prevailed. Alicia was the epitome of this philosophy. She had watched Edge play rugby, had admired the cut of his jib even if he was in the Army and decided he would do very nicely for one night only, but who knew what else the fates had planned? A pretty shitty hand as it transpired.
As the evening wore on into the night, Orinoco suggested that they should hit the bright lights of Gütersloh and then perhaps round the evening off at a schnelle for some pommes frites mit ketchup. Danny declined politely. He had decided to sample Becky instead. Once outside, the air sobered Edge up as they waited for a taxi. He had come to the conclusion that the RAF were completely mental, that Orinoco was a very pleasant and naturally charismatic young man. The insular part of Edge envied him. He couldn’t make out their Klingon friend, Scooby who was obviously intelligent, and could hold a conversation. He was like an insecure child, who had gone through school making people laugh rather than getting beaten up. He would have made an ideal Non-conventional, except this wasn’t school and he didn’t know when to stop. Alicia was uncomplicatedly lovely and he knew he was going to have uncomplicated sex with her, in her room that night. Poor Edge. It was never to be.
Once they arrived at the centre of the city where the nightlife was concentrated, it became apparent that other members of the military community had decided to sample the local attractions. Groups of at the moment, good-natured but noisy Brits toured the narrow precincts looking for entertainment, singing and chanting. Orinoco led the way to a boisterous bar overlooking a park and drinks were ordered. The two men had a slightly drunken resume of the rugby match they had played that afternoon.
“Your pack was better than ours, but our backs were better. We scored more tries.”
“But we won, my Womble friend.”
Scooby who had been regarding Alicia’s cleavage suddenly seemed to become more animated. He grabbed Edge’s arm, “No, no. You won with that pass. Even Orinoco couldn’t stop you.”
“Stopped him making the kick though, didn’t I? Anyway, let’s get some schnapps chasers,” Orinoco said and caught the attention of a German girl who was collecting glasses.
“Fünf Bier, fünf Pfirsichschnaps bitte, mein Teutonic lieblich,“ Orinoco said in apallingly accented German. She raised her eyes, collected the empties and headed for the bar.
Alicia put her hand on Edge’s, raised her finger in warning and gently shook her head. She nuzzled against the side of his head and murmered: “Orinoco is a piss-head. I don’t want you falling asleep on top of me later.”
Edge turned to her, “I’ve had a hard match this afternoon. You’ll be doing all the work.”
Her eyes narrowed but he smiled. There was something about the quiet, serious Mark Edge when he smiled. Alicia playfully dug him in the ribs. But she was right, Orinoco was a piss head and fairly soon, he, Sharon and Scooby were well drunk. Edge managed to dump his schnapps in a nearly-empty beer glass when nobody was looking. By 22:00 the bar was heaving with Brits, including Army supporters from the Bielefeld garrison.
“Come on, Mark. Time we were heading back,” Alicia told him. Sharon and Orinoco were eating each other’s faces, but there was no sign of Scooby.
“Where is he?”
“Probably gone to the toilet,” Edge suggested.
Orinoco came up for air, “Said he was going out for fresh air and to howl at the moon”
“Look, I know he’s a liability, but he’s our bloody liability. We need to look for him.”
Edge reluctantly followed her outside. By now there were clearly more police on the streets, who were keeping a close eye on the thickets of drunken Brits as they made their unsteady ways from bar to bar. But there was no sign of the unconventional Scooby.
“Let’s try the park.”
Edge was becoming frustrated. This missing clown was preventing him and Alicia from making the beast with two backs. Reluctantly he followed her into the park. It was cool in the moonlight and the trees were dappled with silver. Edge wondered if Alicia was up for some al fresco action, but they soon saw some action of a far more ferocious nature.
A member of the German Landespolizei in his distinctive pea green peaked hat, pea jacket and khaki trousers, was bent over a huddled body on the floor. The German copper was laying into the prone figure with what looked like an iron bar and the victim of this beating was crying out and wailing with pain, trying to shield his head from the blows. It would appear that Scooby may have gobbed off to the wrong person at the wrong time. In a way Alicia was right, Scooby had suddenly become his liability as well.
“What the hell are you doing?” Edge yelled and sprinted towards the policeman, “He’s on the ground, helpless for fuck’s sake!”
He had intended to grab the bar off the policeman, but as he closed in the Landespolizei, who was using the weapon left-handed, whipped it round and smashed Edge across the face. Edge felt his nasal septum and left cheekbone break and reeled back stunned. He tasted the blood that was running down his face and the back of his throat. Edge went into a half-crouch, his left hand up in defence. The policeman faced him side-on, the bar, which Edge now knew was an Asp extendable baton, drawn back behind his head ready to strike again.
Edge felt visceral fear, but again the boiling magma of his anger drowned it out. The policeman was watching Edges face.
“Fick dich, verdammter englischer!“ the German policeman snarled.
He should have been watching Edge’s feet. The sole of Edge’s left foot hit the side of the German’s left knee. The kick had the force of over 3,000 newtons behind it. A human femur can withstand a force of over 25,000 newtons, but the knee is a modified hinge joint, the largest joint in the human body. No matter how remarkable it is, the human knee is not designed to pivot sideways. The policeman’s lateral condyle broke away, the lateral meniscus was crushed between splintered bone and the tibial lateral ligament was torn apart. He went down screaming and the asp clattered onto the footpath. Now Scooby wasn’t the only person screaming.
Edge checked he wasn’t going to get up again, then went to help Scooby, who had at least stopped screaming in preference for wailing. He was joined moments later by Alicia who looked at the German policeman on the floor who was groaning in pain. On a whim she didn’t understand Alicia picked up the asp and tucked it in her coat.
“Herro Ejjie,” Scooby slurred through broken teeth.
“Please just fucking button it, Scooby. Give us a hand to get him back to the bar, Alicia. We can call an ambulance from there.”
Edge was sorely tempted to lay into the prostrated policeman, but settled for stamping on his hand as he tried to grab at them. Out of the park, there were more police about and a small group spotted the two of them emerge supporting Scooby. There were four more Landespolizei, but one of them was female.
“Just go, Alicia.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked, in tears by now.
“Turn myself in.”
She looked at the approaching police, “Oh Mark, I’m so sorry.”
“Story of my life. It’s all right, I don’t think they’ll give me a kicking, with one of them being a woman.”
She sobbed and he looked at her sadly.
“Wasn’t to be, was it?”
Edge watched her half-carry Scooby into the bar where there was safety in numbers. He stood in the harsh street lights, waited for the police to approach and held his hands away from his side. He would see Alicia once more, but never get to speak to her, hold or touch her again.
© Blown Periphery 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file