Ah, good father,
Thou seest, the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,
Threaten his bloody stage: by the clock, ’tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp:
Is’t night’s predominance, or the day’s shame,
That darkness does the face of earth entomb,
When living light should kiss it?
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Operation Gabriel July 1994
Jarvis was now a soldier who had seen combat in Armagh’s green hell of victim activated IEDs and snipers. He was a Lancejack working on becoming a Full Screw in the Patrol Platoon and was studying to pass his selection for the Regiment’s Pathfinder Section. Life in the Depot was dull, but it gave Jarvis an opportunity to study the advanced navigation skills he would need to demonstrate for Pathfinder selection. On that Thursday 28th July Jarvis was heading towards the Garrison’s Further Education and Training block when the Land Rover overtook him and stopped and a Corporal of the Guard got out of the passenger’s door.
“Are you Lance Jarvis?”
“The Adjutant wants to see you now.”
“What the hell for?” he asked with surprise. As far as he was aware, he hadn’t been up to anything untoward that would warrant the Adjutant’s attention.
“I don’t have a clue, mate. I’ve just been told to come and collect you and take you to see the Adj.”
“Why the Adj and not my Company Commander?”
“Dunno. You coming or not?”
Jarvis clambered up into the back and the Land Rover made a U-turn and headed back towards the Para Depot. He ran through all the options in his mind with a nagging worry.
“Am I in the shit?”
The driver grinned and the corporal scoped the options, “Well now, let me see. The Regimental Adjutant wants to see a Lancejack. Not the company commander or even the RSM. I reckon you’re in yards of it,” he said helpfully.
“Cheers,” Jarvis said.
“All part of the service.”
The Land Rover dropped him off outside the headquarters building and disappeared with a cheery and extremely irritating toot of its horn. He made his way to the offices upstairs with a heavy tread and paused outside the adjutant’s office. Composing himself, Jarvis knocked on the door.
“Yes?” yelled a voice inside.
Jarvis went in and saluted.
“What the hell do you want?”
“Lance Corporal Jarvis, Sir. You said you wanted to see me.”
“Jarvis. Jarvis? Oh yes. I did, didn’t I?”
Jarvis waited patiently. He didn’t think he was in trouble after all. This was all very strange.
“You speak French don’t you? Proper French and not that le plume de ma tante est dans le jardin de mon oncle, crap.”
Jarvis was intrigued and decided to push playfully, “Yes sir and it’s la plume de ma tante as it is a feminine article and the est is not necessary in this case.”
The Adjutant looked at him quizzically, “I can see we’re going to have to keep an eye on you, you’re being an academic.”
“Is there something you want translated, sir?”
“No. You’ve been selected from a cast of thousands to undertake a special mission in darkest Africa.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“Have you ever heard of a place called Rwanda?”
Guy shook his head.
“Well to put it rather simplistically, one bunch of Jigaboos called the Hutus have decided that they’ve had enough of the other tribe of Jigaboos called the Tutsis and have tried to kill them all. Naturally, because Rwanda is a former Belgian colony, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNIMIR) have decided that the Brits should get involved to help sort this bloody mess out. The British Contingent will be under the command of CO 5th Airborne Brigade, with units from 23 Parachute Field Ambulance, 9 Parachute Squadron RE and 63 Airborne Close Support Squadron RLC. Force protection will be provided by A Company 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment.
“5th Airborne Brigade will form the British contingent’s headquarters, operating from the airport at Kigali with elements from the Crabs, Tac Comms Wing and Movers. Some genius has deemed it a good idea to have a fluent French Speaker embedded within the HQ element and that’s where you come in, Jarvis. The Airport of Disembarkation is at Kampala in Uganda and force elements will be flown forward by the Crab Air into Kigali. You’re to report to South Cerney tomorrow morning as part of the HQ lead elements and this afternoon you can collect some kit such as tropical clothes and anti-malaria prophylaxis. Transport is laid on for you.”
The adjutant smiled, suddenly serious, “It’s a nasty situation, Jarvis. Nearly a million people have been killed in Rwanda, sliced up with machetes or clubbed to death. Nobody seems to know what the situation is like on the ground, only that there is an unfolding humanitarian disaster and disease caused by bodies left to rot in the fields.”
“How long will I be out there, sir? It’s just that I have Pathfinder selection coming up and…”
“This is a chance of your life. There will be other Pathfinder selections, but you’ll never have an opportunity to operate in a headquarters at such a lowly rank again. Use it as an opportunity to excel, Jarvis. You’re a switched on individual for one so young and I shall look forward to reading your report.”
Jarvis mentally shrugged and received his joining instructions. He had never been to Africa and this wouldn’t be the last time.
Entebbe International Airport – 29th July 1994
This is not intended to be a detailed history of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, nor the events leading up to it. It is merely the experiences of a simple soldier, put in a situation, as have so many, and his trying to make the best of it and the experiences of man’s inhumanity to man.
He stared up at the Old Control Tower and noted the bullet holes in the woodwork around the observation gantry. At this place just over eighteen years previously, Yonatan Netanyahu had led his team of Israeli commandos from Israel’s Sayeret Matkal to rescue eighty-four Jewish hostages being held by Palestinian terrorists, prior to their murder. “Yoni” Netanyahu had been killed by a burst of fire from this building at the culmination of the raid, the only Israeli military casualty. The old terminal building where the hostages were held had gone, destroyed in the Tanzanian/Ugandan war of 1979. As it had been an airborne operation, Jarvis was particularly interested in the history of Operation Thunderbolt and it was still studied at staff colleges throughout the world.
Further back were the lines of British military tents, transit accommodation for the contingent destined to go forward into Rwanda. There was one aircraft on the pan, an Antonov AN12 transport aircraft in UN colours. The Brits were hurrying up and waiting for the RAF C130s to arrive. Jarvis started his run around the airport’s perimeter fence, determined to maintain and improve his fitness levels for Pathfinder selection, whenever that was likely to be. As he pounded the route, his nose was assailed with the scents of Africa, sinister and yet compelling.
He ran past a far dispersed hardstanding on the airport and noticed two aircraft and a few tents hidden under an expanse of camouflage netting. Jarvis paused and stared at the two ancient aircraft, finished in a light taupe colour scheme with low visibility RAF roundels.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Jarvis said out loud as he stared at the two Cold War relics and their attending ground crew.
Jarvis remembered as a child constructing a Matchbox model kit of an English Electric Canberra. Unlike Airfix kits the models came in two different colours of plastic. Here were two of the real things, in the corner of an African airport, when he thought they had been retired years ago. An RAF policeman unshouldered his rifle and walked towards Jarvis cautiously.
“Hello,” he said, “You’re not really supposed to be over here. Are you waiting for the Alberts?”
“Yes, and I went for a run to pass the time.”
“OK… But, sorry mate. They might be old, but they’re a bit sensitive.”
“Sorry,” Jarvis went to continue his run when a man wearing a flying suit stuck his head out of a tent. He looked as ancient as Methuselah.
“Corporal Saunders, I don’t think this young man is a Spetznaz. He looks pretty harmless to me. One of our death from the sky friends?”
“Err yes sir.” Jarvis looked at the man in the flying suit. Either he was a very old flight lieutenant or he had had a particularly hard paper round.
“Have you come to see Annie and Clarabelle, the wonders of our age?”
“Not really, sir. I was just having a run round the airport,” Jarvis noted that the flying suit had a navigator’s brevet on the breast.
The airman looked hurt, “The finest 1950s technology and you were just passing?”
“I didn’t think we had any Canberras anymore, sir.”
“How dare you. Keep your voice down or you’ll upset them.”
Jarvis concluded that hypoxia had addled this navigator’s brain, that or dementia, “Sorry, but my Dad said they were clapped out when he left the RAF.”
“Your father served in the finest of Her Majesty’s armed forces?”
“Yes, sir. He was a Vulcan pilot.”
“In that case, you must come into my private chambers for a coffee,” he yelled at an NCO on a platform next to one of the aircrafts’ canopy, “Chiefy, can I have some of your coffee for our young friend here?”
The NCO waved and put up a thumb. Jarvis looked at the ground crew and their eclectic mix of uniforms that ranged from KD safari jackets and shorts, tropical combat clothes that had been cut off to make shorts and singlets and the ubiquitous, dirty green overalls. They all wore desert boots, not the high laced versions issued to the Army, but brothel creeper ankle boots. He decided that the NCOs in his Company would have a fit if they saw this lot.
He followed the navigator into the tent that was a crew room with chairs, and surprisingly a Chesterfield sofa, a trestle table with a hot water boiler running off a small generator. He made a coffee for each of them, in proper mugs with real milk. The navigator indicated that he should sit in the sofa and handed him a coffee.
“Thanks, sir. Where’s your pilot?”
“In Kampala, shopping for trophies for the crew room back at Marham. Clarabelle’s crew are relaxing by the hotel pool in Kampala. War is hell.”
“Why are you, I mean the RAF, here?”
“Because the Belgians have asked us to look for the bad guys and John Major thought that would be a spiffing good idea and prove his European credentials. Today’s bad guys are the Hutus. Tomorrow they will be the Tutsis, as soon as they get enough machetes. But I’m fairly sure that in the greater scheme of things, we Brits will be the colonial oppressors, so the lefties will have even more cause to hate us and everything our country stands for.”
Jarvis marvelled at the older man’s cynicism, “You sound pissed off, sir.”
“Do I? Sorry. But this is tribal and has its roots long before whitey came on the scene. “
Jarvis decided to change the subject, “Do you look for the rebels with cameras?”
The navigator grinned, “Oh we’ve got all manner of kit on those old, clapped-out relics you see out there. As sophisticated as that carried by any U2 and it has been in operation since Garry Powers was at primary school. The Hutus think we can’t see them at night, which is precisely when we go and look for them.
“Now Annie is a bugger to pressurise, but she can fly a little bit higher than Clarrabelle. The reason we deploy two aircraft is so we can cannibalise bits off one, to keep the other in the air. The Canberra came into service with the RAF in 1951. Your Dad’s beast, the Vulcan was a comparative newcomer, entering service in 1963 and of course they have all been retired now, while Annie, who was lovingly crafted in 1962, is still flogging her tired arse of various runways around the world. I’m not sure about Clarabelle, but she is a re-built B2 bomber. Would you like to see inside my office?”
Jarvis forgot he was a para and this old man was a “hat” and nodded enthusiastically, “I’d love to.”
Outside of the tent and under the netting, the dappled sunlight gleamed off the jets’ flanks. They walked up to the open door on the nearest aircraft’s starboard side.
“This is Annie. The driver sits up the top under the bubble canopy. My desk is in the front with a bit more room, but not much. Depending on the mission we can carry a third crew member on a folding seat, but he or on rare occasions she, doesn’t have an ejector seat. The pilots have to be short arses because in the early days if a big bloke ejected they could get chopped off at the knees.”
“Bloody hell,” said Jarvis, “What altitude can you operate at, sir?”
The navigator smiled, “That is a state secret, but a Canberra set the world altitude record of 70,310 feet back in 1951.”
Jarvis marvelled at the cramped interior and the mixture of analogue and digital instruments and readouts.
“This might be a stupid question, but what do you do if you need a piss?”
The navigator pointed to a funnel and tube on the left side of the cockpit, “You put your todger in there, prostate allowing. The ground crew empty it so always be nice to them and they won’t block it.”
Jarvis suddenly remembered where he was and smiled at the old airman shyly, “I’d better be heading off back, sir. Thank you for showing me round your aeroplane.”
“You’re welcome. Do come again and bring a couple of those nurses next time, the female ones that is. I have a slight stiffness that needs some attention,” Then he was suddenly serious, “Do be careful when you go forward into Rwanda, son. It’s the heart of darkness. We’ve seen the bodies and the mass graves. It’s one of the things we’re looking for and there are lots of them.”
“OK, sir and thanks again.”
“Pretty ones, mind you.”
Jarvis jogged back to the lines of tents near the airport buildings. The movers were starting to shift cargo and lacon boxes from a hastily assembled Rubb Hangar to the hardstanding in front of the terminal building and he concluded that the C130s would be arriving if not that night, the following day. He had a shower and went to prepare his kit.
He was woken in the early hours by the roar of a Canberra taking off and went to the lavatory. He had trouble in getting back to sleep but was woken at 0615 for an early breakfast in the mess tent. The two C130s arrived at 0800 and the passengers were embarked after the equipment had been loaded and secured. As he filed out to the rear ramp of one of the Hercules transports, Jarvis glanced across to the distant dispersal, but there was only one Canberra under the nets. He had no way of knowing that the one he had heard taking off, was crossing Kenyan airspace after completing a flight up the Somalian coast, a little job for the Kenyan government, facilitated by MI6.
© Blown Periphery 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file