Operation Palliser – May 2000
Jarvis was at his parents’ house, being spoiled rotten by his mother and indulged by his father. But the happy families’ illusion was deceptive, because he knew that his parents were more-or-less living separate lives, albeit under the same roof. He was also concerned how much his father had aged in the years since he joined the Army. The fit, vibrant man his father had once been, seemed to have shrunk into himself and his complexion was sallow and grey. He knew that his father had told him the previous year that he had been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, and Jarvis had done enough research to know that the prognosis wasn’t good for that type of cancer.
He finally plucked up his courage and asked his father what treatment he was receiving.
“Well they have told me that surgery isn’t much of an option because of where the tumour is located, so I’m mainly having chemo and they’ve put a stent down to help me swallow stuff.”
“Oh, Dad, I’m so sorry…”
“Don’t feel sorry for me! I’ve had a good crack at life and at least I didn’t have to drop those bloody, awful bombs.”
“Six months at best. Everything is in order and I’ve left you a little nest egg for when you settle down. I know that you’re too busy now, scoping and carving out your career, but my only regret is never meeting your children, my grandchildren. Unless you’re a starfish tickler?”
“No, Dad. I like girls, lots of them. It’s just I’ve never been lucky enough to meet one who would put up with my lifestyle. And that’s not a very PC term for somebody who is Gay.”
“Does your generation think that you invented homosexuality? We have always had homos. It’s just that we tolerated them and never worshipped them, like they were a higher form of the species.”
His father topped up Jarvis’ glass with another finger of finest malt, but he didn’t think it was time to tell his father that he didn’t really drink a lot.
“What are your plans for the future, Guy?”
“I’m going to apply for Special Forces selection this year.”
“What are your chances?”
“Pretty good I would say. The Pathfinder training is very similar to SF training, so I should have plenty of transferable skills.”
His father studied his younger son with a mixture of pride and sadness, “I can remember the two of us sitting in this room, discussing your options for the future. I think I said something like: You will be mixing with really tough kids, youngsters who are tough bastards and will view you with suspicion, even contempt. Well, Guy, I’m glad to admit I was wrong. There is a hidden ruthlessness in you. You must keep it under control because if it gets out, it will consume you.”
“I do keep it reigned in, Dad. But sometimes it isn’t easy.”
Jarvis looked down at his glass of malt, “Yes that was bad. I lost someone who I was close to. She died horribly.”
“Don’t drag it up, Guy. Keep it buried for the sake of your sanity.”
Jarvis drained his glass. The Scotch seemed to burn as it went down.
“You’re right, Dad.”
Jarvis couldn’t help but wonder if his father’s penchant for good malt slightly watered was the cause of his problems.
The following day the phone rang and Jarvis’ mother answered it. He was still in bed, having been out the previous evening, catching up with old school acquaintances over a few beers and a meal in Lichfield. His mother called up the stairs.
“Guy, there’s a gentleman on the phone who wants to speak to you. He says it’s urgent.”
Jarvis padded down the stairs, just wearing his shreddies and took the phone from his mother,
“Hello, this is Guy Jarvis.”
“Corporal Jarvis, I’m the duty clerk and I’m trying to round everybody up. You are to return to barracks within six hours and draw your kit and weapons.”
“What’s it about?”
“I can’t tell you over the phone. Just make sure you have all your kit for a briefing in the Garrison cinema at 18:00 tonight.”
He hung up and looked at his mother who was hovering in the kitchen, “I have to get back to base, Mum.”
“What is it, Guy?”
“Damned if I know, but it must be fairly important to drag me back off leave.”
* * *
The briefing at barracks consisted merely of telling them they would be moving to South Cerney by coaches, where they would receive an operational briefing. They were all instructed to write their name, rank, number and unit on a piece of green bodge tape and their mobile phones were marked and taken off them. They were issued with anti-malarial prophylaxis, ammunition and then the briefing got underway.
Anthony Lynton Blair’s “ethical” foreign policy
Many of them had never heard of Sierra Leone, let alone know where it was on the map. It is a country rich in natural resources, particularly diamonds and riven by factional wars. In early May 2000, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), one of the main parties to the civil war, advanced on the country’s capital, Freetown, prompting the British government to dispatch an “operational reconnaissance and liaison team” (ORLT) to prepare to evacuate foreign citizens. On 6 May, the RUF blocked the road connecting Freetown to the country’s main airport, Lungi. The next day, the British military began to secure the airport and other areas essential to an evacuation of entitled British nationals.
Special Forces were already on the ground and the advance party of Para Pathfinder, RAF medical teams and movements staff were bussed to Brize Norton for embarkation onto a VC10, bound overnight for Dakar in Senegal. After a meal and a drink, the advanced party clambered on board an RAF C130 to complete the trip to Lungi International Airport. As the prop-jet transport droned south-east following the African coastline past Guinea, Jarvis had plenty of time to muse about his father’s illness. The Paras would form the airport’s force protection, while the RAF medics would set up a medical facility and screen those who were going to be evacuated. Unknown to the passengers on the C130, there were two RAF Chinooks already at the airport, which had been flown directly from the UK, a mammoth trip as the RAF still lacked a heavy lift capability. The initial plan was for Jarvis and the Pathfinders to move by SBS Rigid Raiders across Tagrin Bay to secure the ferry crossing. The other section of Pathfinders would protect the airport’s Yoko International Hotel. At the ferry terminal they would link up with the SAS and take over the protection of the hotel, its ferry crossing and the surrounding area.
To Jarvis this all felt like the plot of The Dogs of War and not far away from the fictional country that Fredrick Forsyth had used, that was so closely based on The Gambia, the tiny country swallowed up by Senegal. They had not been issued with ROE (Rules of Engagement) because of disagreements between the MoD, DFID and the FCO, so the troops were using a diluted version of the Northern Ireland Card Alpha. Even while the C130 was making its approach to Lungi airport, the plans were changed yet again. The Pathfinder captain was called up to the flight deck, where he received an update from the units already at the airport. A few minutes later he called the HQ section and the squad leaders to the rear of the aircraft for a noisy, ad-hoc briefing.
“Sorry fellers, there’s been a change of plan. We will be moving into Freetown and the hotel by Chinooks. The Crabs have managed to fly two of them directly from the UK with a couple of refuelling stops en-route.”
“What? And they didn’t go unserviceable at the Costa del Sol?” One of the troops declared cynically.
“It would appear not. We’ll be relieving the Hereford boys at the hotel, so the two multiples that were to secure the ferry crossings will come with us to the Yoko International. We’ll be setting up the Tac HQ there and screening the evacuees for non-entitled personnel.”
“Shame, they’ve already earmarked council flats for them in Kensington.”
They went back to their seats and strapped in as the transport turned above the creeks and lagoons to the east of Freetown. Jarvis looked intently out of the small window and saw the bush give way to the ever encroaching jungle. To be on the safe side the C130 made a Khe Sanh approach to avoid potential ground fire. As the aircraft rumbled down Lungi Airport’s single runway, Jarvis saw two Chinooks sitting on the pan in front of the airport terminal, like downed locusts. One of them had its twin rotor blades turning and the transport aircraft turned onto the same pan. The rear ramps opened and Jarvis was hit by the heat and familiar smell of Africa, once sampled never forgotten.
He led his multiple off the rear of the C130 to follow the command element. Four groups of four Pathfinders, each rifle section consisting of a sniper, a Minime and two M16 rifles, the number two with a tactical radio. As they crossed the heat baked area of concrete, Jarvis suddenly realised that he had been awake, apart from a doze on the VC10, for around forty-eight hours.
They embarked onto the Chinook from the rear and waited as a group of the RAF medics followed them onto the helicopter, carrying lacon boxes full of medical equipment, to set up a Role One Medical Treatment Facility (MTF) in the hotel. The Chinook pitched upwards and turned to head south across Tagrin Bay, to the spit of land on which the Mammy Yoko hotel had been built to cater for passengers bound for the airport. Because it was on a spit of land that jutted into the sea, the hotel was a good defensive position, with a single access road.
The Chinook landed on a car park a hundred metres north of the hotel, the rotor blades blowing up a blizzard of dust. The Pathfinders were off first and their captain went to speak with the Special Forces troopers, who were currently providing protection for the British nationals gathered within the hotel grounds. As Jarvis and the rest of the Pathfinders went into all-round defence, they saw heavily armed white men in a plethora of different uniforms moving in the hospital grounds.
“Bloody hell,” one of Jarvis’ section remarked, “The Hereford boys have gone native!”
There was something familiar to Jarvis about one of the SF Troopers. He had adopted the look of a Mexican bandit and his camouflage clothing was of French pattern. He carried a C8 carbine with an underslung grenade launcher and a LAW anti-tank launcher was slung at the side of his bergan. Jarvis stood up and walked over to him.
“It’s Ives isn’t it? I wondered what happened to you.”
The man turned round and grinned, “Well, well, well. Guy Jarvis. Fancy seeing you here.”
The awkward and clumsy teenager who had wanted to kill Jarvis in the milling ring was long gone. This Ives was tough and self-reliant. The man had chased the boy away and Jarvis felt suddenly inferior because he would never have thought that Ives could make it through the selection process. The realisation of just how wrong he had been was humbling.
“Wow, Ives. I just don’t know what to say.”
“And look at you,” Ives said with a grin, “Close protection for a bunch of Crab nurses. It’s the life eh?”
“Well actually we’re supposed to be securing and guarding the civvies in the hotel. The nurses are just an added bonus. How long have your lot been here?”
Ives thought about it, “A couple of weeks, since the rebels started to move in on the capital. Now you’re here we can go out and do some ultraviolence. Must go. The boss wants us to move out tout suite now you’ve arrived.”
“It’s been good to see you again, Ives. Take care and congratulations by the way.”
“You should go for selection, Guy. I reckon you’ll breeze it”
“That’s the plan. Take care of yourself, Ives.”
“You too Guy. Keep the nurses warm for us, just the female ones that is.”
Jarvis watched him walk off and wondered just what had changed the bumbling Ives into tough, mature soldier. Because Jarvis couldn’t see it, he had no idea just how much he had changed as well.
The Pathfinder captain held an O-group meeting later that afternoon once the SAS had moved out. They were all exhausted after the long flights down from the UK, so they would do stags of four hours, one in the Tac HQ with four guarding the hotel, two hours on the VCP and two patrolling the hotel grounds. It meant they would have eight hours to catch up with some sleep and Jarvis’ section was lucky enough to be third on stag. He had the luxury of eight hours rest before he needed to go on stag. He found a quiet spot in the hotel reception area, behind the reception desk, so he and his section got their heads down.
He felt as though he had just dropped off when somebody gently shook him. He opened his eyes and stared at the sergeant RAF nurse who had woken him up.
“Why don’t you boys go and sleep in a proper bed. We got our heads down on the VC10 and we’re setting up a medical area here. Your snoring is off-putting.”
She was quite an average looking young woman, but she did have a nice smile.
“Bed?” he asked rubbing his eyes.
“Yes, there are some empty rooms at the back of the hotel. Nothing salubrious, but they have beds and we’ve moved in. You and your boys can sleep there while we get the medical facility up and running.”
“Rooms? Beds? Trust the bloody RAF…”
“Any fool can be uncomfortable. Get your team and follow me.*
He woke the rest of his section and lugging their weapons and kit followed her.
“Two of you will have to share a room but there is a double bed,” She looked at Jarvis, “You can have my room. There’s no bedding but I guess you’ve got a sleeping bag”.
She showed them the three rooms, “There are toilets and a shower down the end of the corridor. No hot water but it’s quite warm from the roof tank. This is my room.”
Jarvis grunted with pleasure and dumped his Bergen and webbing. The rifle went on the bed next to where he would sleep.
“This is brilliant. Thank you.”
“Now I don’t want to catch you in my underwear. What time do you go on guard?”
“02:00 local and it’s called stag.”
“I’ll wake you at one…” She looked at his name on his smock “Corporal Jarvis”
“God I’m tired.” He lay down and was asleep before she shut the door to the room. She smiled to herself and went back to the reception.
True to her word, she shook Jarvis awake at 01:00 and gave him a tea in a plastic cup, “There’s no sugar and milk in it. I guess you have some 24 hour ration packs in that big, macho bag of yours. I’ve left some mugs of tea outside the doors for your chaps.”
“You really are kind… Sergeant?”
“What’s so amusing?” she asked.
“I take it you don’t watch Fireman Sam?”
“No. I’m in the RAF, not the Army. We don’t have much time for children’s’ programmes.”
“Well thank you, Penny.” He delved in the side pouch of his Bergen and pulled out a packet of anti-malarial tablets. She looked at the package and frowned.”
“Mefloquine. That’s not good Mr Jarvis.”
“It’s Guy and what’s wrong with it.”
“It has nasty side effects, Guy. Sleep disorders, the runs, headaches and possible long-term mental disorders. We won’t let our aircrew touch it. I’ll see if we can get you, all of you a course of chloroquine and proguanil. They haven’t given you enough for a full course anyway. When did you have your last dose?”
“Don’t take another one. Collect the tablets on your way out, from our med centre.”
“So you really are a nurse, a proper nurse.”
“Yes, Guy and I work in a proper hospital with proper doctors and proper patients.”
He sipped his tea then said: “Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that. Where do you normally work?”
“In the acute wards at Peterborough hospital.”
He nodded thoughtfully, “What do you know about oesophageal cancer.”
“That it’s nasty and the prognosis isn’t good. Why?” Her voice was concerned and she fervently hoped that this young man didn’t have it. He would have to be a P1 aeromed patient out of theatre.
“Because my dad told me that he had it, last time I was home on leave. He said he had about six months left to…”
She held his hand, “Oh Guy. I’m so sorry.”
“He’s in his late sixties but he said he’s had a good and full life. It’s just that…” The tiredness and stress of the constant travelling suddenly swept over him like a wave. Jarvis turned away, his eyes burning, “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to listen to me feeling sorry for myself.”
She didn’t let go of his hand, “It’s all right. Sometimes it’s better to talk about these things. Your Dad sounds like he’s no fool and has come to terms with it. But you should never give up hope.”
There was a long silence between them and Jarvis finally felt under control. He looked at the nurse and smiled shyly, “You are a very kind person, Sergeant Penny Morris. Thank you for looking after us.”
“And thank you for looking after us. It’s all a bit daunting isn’t it? Africa’s a strange place.”
“It sure is,” Guy agreed, “But it’s a wonderful continent and once you come here, it gets under your skin”
“You’ve been here before?”
“Not here but Rwanda back in ninety-four.”
Jarvis suddenly thought he could get lost in her smile, “I’d better get the others up and go on stag.”
“Good. I can have my bed back.”
When he got back from his shower, Penny was asleep, curled up under her sleeping bag, which she had opened up like a quilt. He looked at her and quietly picked up his webbing and rifle and went to collect the rest of his section. The four of them went to the hotel reception, half of which had been turned into an ad-hoc medical centre, complete with screens. There was a steady trickle of civilians waiting to see the doctor before onward move to the airport when it was light. Another nurse, male this time, gave them packets of anti-malarial drugs.
“It’s not as strong as Mefloquine,” he told them, “But we’re close to the coast and not going up country, so it should be effective. You must continue to take it for two weeks after you get home.”
“Thanks,” Jarvis said and led his section outside to relieve those already on guard. ‘He had even managed to find space for them to sleep in the hotel’s outbuildings. He kept quiet about the rooms he and his section had used.
The guard stint was long and uneventful. Occasionally there would be a rattle of gunfire from Freetown and a sporadic trickle of entitled personnel came to the hotel, carrying their worldly possessions in bags. They were directed to the hotel reception for processing by embassy staff and medical issues were dealt with. At 07:00 the Chinooks commenced shuttle runs between the airport and the hotel, but if the truth were known, the stag was boring and uneventful.
After they were relieved after eight hours and Jarvis; section went back to the hotel for a meal and to get their heads down. Penny was manning the med centre and he went to speak with her.
“We’ve got somewhere to kip in one of the outbuildings, but thanks for everything.”
She looked at him, “I don’t need the bed. I’ve just gone on shift so you might as well continue to use it. Remember Mr Para, any fool can be uncomfortable.”
“Are you sure?”
“Why not? I’ll wake you up at five.”
“OK and thanks again, Penny.”
This time when he slept, it was a normal sleep, not the unconsciousness of exhaustion. He was having a wonderful dream when he was gently shaken.
“Ugh, hello, Penny,” He looked at his watch, “It’s only just after four. What’s wrong?”
“Absolutely nothing, Guy Jarvis.”
Her hair was still wet from a shower and her boots were in the corner next to her smaller bergen. She must have tip-toed in while he was asleep for her wash gear. She pulled the t-shirt over her head and stepped out of her tropical trousers. She had decided to go commando.
“Bloody hell,” said Jarvis, “This is a dream isn’t it?”
“Put that damned gun on the floor and move over.”
She nestled up next to him under the opened sleeping bag. Jarvis thought she smelled particularly good A Chinook thumped overhead, jarring the shutters and rattling a glass on the bedside table.
“I’m sorry I woke you so early. You can go back to sleep if you want to.”
“I don’t think so, Penny Morris,” he said and kissed her neck.
* * *
During the next week around 500 entitled personnel were processed and evacuated to the airport, for onward move to Dakar and a strategic flight home. The RAF medics were recalled to the airport on the sixth day and in those days Jarvis had spent nearly every off-duty waking and sleeping moments, in that bed in an African hotel. He was devastated when the RAF contingent moved out. In their last time together, Penny and Jarvis promised to stay in touch.
“I want to hear how your Dad is getting on,” she told him.
“I will. Goodbye Penny Morris.”
“Goodbye Guy Jarvis.”
But they both knew that he wouldn’t. The next day he watched the Hercules drone overhead and waved, knowing that even if she had been looking, she would never have seen him. He turned a page in his life and went back to man the VCP with a feeling of unfulfilled sadness. One week later he was back in Aldershot, sure that he would never see Sierra Leone again. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
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