Basra October 2005
At 07:30 local Jarvis was dreaming he was lying next to Bluma in a requisitioned hotel. He could tell it was Africa because of the hot, cloying air. There was a terrible smell, like overcooked pork. Jarvis reached out to caress Bluma’s face and the skin sloughed off revealing the muscles underneath.
“It doesn’t hurt any more, Guy,” she said and he woke up screaming and smothered in sweat, although Cooper in the next bed thought it sounded more like a whimper. The dream had been in colour.
A Mercedes saloon was sitting by a junction in the Al Jameea area of Basra City. The two men inside the vehicle were wearing Arab clothing and headdress. A few street kids were playing football before school and one of them miss-kicked the ball towards the Mercedes. The ball bounced off the passenger door and the man turned towards the boy as he ran up to retrieve the ball. He stared at the boy with cold, bright green eyes. Green eyes are not uncommon in Basra’s Shia community. However, ginger hair is. The boy ran back and told his friends what he had seen. His friend told his brother. His brother told his friend. His friend was a mover and shaker in the JAM.
They had a late breakfast and the combined messing facility was almost empty, apart from the night shift coming off and in no hurry to go to bed. They would be going home that night, and had the rest of the day to kill. Everyone knew who the four men sitting alone were. While American Special Forces tend to look like ZZ Top roadies, the British preferred to go in for the Viva Zapata, crossed with the Comanchero look. Only Morrison had shaved and moisturised that morning, because he was so vain. He was sitting as far away from Edge as he could get. It was clear to Jarvis that he hadn’t dreamed of the argument the previous night and wondered what it had been about.
While they finished their scrambled eggs and processed sausages, Flying Officer Louise Skelton was dying by degrees of hypovolemic shock, a ruptured spleen and a flail chest. A young woman from Derby was conducting a close reconnaissance of the Muwafaqiya Police Station, where two members of the SAS were being held after an ill-advised undercover operation. Sergeant Giles Gilmore was being dragged out of a sewage outflow pipe, where he had tried unsuccessfully to hide and the City of Basra was a seething mob of rioters.
When they drove back to the compound, the sky seemed to be full of helicopters and vehicles were racing up and down the base’s roads.
“Something is definitely going down,” Jarvis observed.
Back in the SF compound they went into the Ops room to find out what was happening. The Major was on the phone as was a harassed captain and a flight lieutenant. The major threw down the BRENT phone in disgust. “Plant life!”
“What’s happening, Boss?” Morrison asked.
“Mickie Keeble and Moose Jaw have been rumbled and we think they’re being held in a police station. They were doing some dicking on the JAM.”
“Who the bloody hell thought it was a good idea for Mickie to do covert stuff? He’s more ginger than the Tango man,” Edge said incredulously.
The major sighed and pointed to the map, “Apart from you hired killers, I’ve got the other half of Mickie’s team in the city. There’s a team watching the border at Al Salman, another one at Um Qasr with the boys from Poole covering the Al Faw. Up in Baghdad, however, there are more squadron members than you can shake a stick at. There’s a “Det” team doing a close eyes-on of the cop shop and Percy’s off to meet them later this morning.
“But that’s not the best bit. About half an hour ago we were told that a Puma has gone down in the city. We’ve got the crew’s names but as yet, don’t have a clue where they are. One of them is a lumpy.”
“Exactly, Mr Morrison. Another victory for the feminists, except it’s never their bruised, battered and raped bodies that appear on Al Jazeera, is it? I’m really sorry, but you boys won’t be going home any time soon.”
Morrison shrugged, “What can we do to help, Boss?”
“You and Edge could man the phones for a bit, so my SO3s can at least have a bite to eat and a coffee. Poor Flight Lieutenant Uphill is long overdue his pedicure,” The flight lieutenant smiled good naturedly. At least it wasn’t his usual handle of “Uphill Gardener,” “You other pair can wait in the crew room, as we’ll be needing you for some goffering I expect.
Morrison and Edge were soon to learn that staff work in a fast-moving, operational headquarters wasn’t as easy as they thought it was, particularly as a myriad of information was constantly flowing in through various media as two operations were running in tandem. They were mightily relieved when the two SO3s came back on shift. By late morning the Captain came back from his meeting with the “Det” and a plan to attack the police station and spring the two SAS men was roughed out. They needed a heavy vehicle, so Edge and Jarvis visited the engineers to borrow a bulldozer, driver and transporter. A composite assault force from Old State Building was put together and the Major flew out from Basra to brief them.
Later that afternoon, two of the helicopter’s crew were located, but they were unfortunately dead. The CSAR team went out to retrieve the bodies and Morrison’s team looked at the photographs of the crew, the high quality and well composed photographs that everyone has taken before going out on operations. They looked dignified, a last recording of a life, rather than some holiday snap in an idiotic pose where alcohol featured prominently. How their families would want to remember them. Jarvis looked sadly at the photograph of the co-pilot.
“This is the crew that picked us up from Al Amarah. She waved at me,” Cooper said in a slightly choked voice.
“She is… Sorry was very pretty,” Jarvis replied with sadness in his voice.
“We don’t know where the Loadie is yet, this guy, Sergeant Gilmore.”
“Well if the JAM have got him…” Edge didn’t bother finishing.
That evening a Lynx helicopter dropped them off on the roof of a building that overlooked the Muwafaqiya Police Station, from a considerable distance. Jarvis and Cooper went down into the building to cover their emergency exit, whilst Edge with the sniper rifle found a comfortable firing position on the corner of the roof. Morrison hunkered down next to him with the radio and to spot. They had barely exchanged a handful of words all day. Edge’s job was to take out anyone on the roof or who attempted to fire out of the windows.
All around them they could hear vehicles and the sun was casting long shadows when the bulldozer trundled into view, its front blade down and heading for the security fencing. The radio crackled in Morrison’s ear piece.
“Take the shot, Edge.”
He fired at the first man in the OP on the roof and he slid out of view. His colleague looked around bewildered and joined the first man a second later. The bulldozer cut through the fence, dragging a section with it and headed for the double doors on top of the loading ramp. Immediately men rushed from the surrounding buildings, following the tracked vehicle through and into the compound. A face appeared in a window, Edge made sure it wasn’t one of their captured oppos and fired.
The bulldozer paused on the ramp, then accelerated and crashed through the doors. It was followed by troops clambering into the building. From their vantage point, Morrison and Edge watched flashes from inside at the windows and then came the distant rattles of gunfire. Edge fired five times more as members of the JAM and the police came onto the roof to escape the assault in the building. Finally a Chinook landed in the police complex and two figures were led out. Edge followed them through his telescopic sight.
“It’s Moose and Mickey. Mickey’s been given a shoeing judging by his face. Probably gobbed off, or they don’t like ginger Janners.”
The Chinook took off and thirty minutes later, the police station was destroyed with demolition charges. The Lynx came back for them and the team was back at BAS within the hour. Over a couple of cans in the Camel’s Toe bar, Jarvis was chatting with Mickie, asking him how he was and telling him about the Puma that had gone down.
“Pilot and co-pilot both dead. The Loadie’s still missing and the grown-ups think the JAM have got him.”
“Poor bastard. They’re going to be pretty pissed off now we’ve been sprung. Makes ‘em look weak. That poor, bloody Crab is going to come to a nasty end, I’m afraid. Especially after what we’ve been up to regarding their pals.”
Jarvis couldn’t argue.
The following afternoon the compound had a visit from the SO1 SF from the Divisional Headquarters. Morrison was summoned to the O Group and came back an hour or so later. He gathered his team in the crew room.
“The “Det” team has found him. He’s being held in a secure house in the Al Hayyaniyah district. The CSAR boys don’t have the necessary expertise to storm a house so guess what, we’re going to do it. Mickie’s team will be back-up for obvious reasons. The CSAR team will provide perimeter security. Edge, I’d like you to come in with me to help us plan. We’ve got some good quality pictures of the building and area that the Crabs have taken with their recce pods. Someone from the “Det’s” coming across to brief us in a couple of hours.
“Just the four of us to clear a building? It’s not enough, Henry,” Jarvis observed, who was the enfant terrible of the “Killing House.
“It’s going to have to be. Jarvis, Cooper, scour the base and armoury. I think we’ll need frame charges and shitloads of flash-bangs. There must be some for when they do hard knocks. See if Old State Building and Basra Palace have got any. I’m not too bothered about CS gas but see if you can find any rappel ropes, as we may have to go in through the roof. We’ll be using our own personal weapons, nothing fancy. No time to zero anything else. Edgie, you can use my carbine as I’ve managed to find a shotgun with bridging rounds. Questions? OK then, let’s go!”
Edge spoke with Morrison on the way to the Ops room, “Have you forgiven me yet, Henry? My waterworks are A1 now.”
“Don’t push it, Edge.”
The Intelligence Officer gave the assembled teams a briefing on the ground, situation and enemy forces.
“OK, I’ll hand you over to one of the surveillance team who pinpointed the Loadmaster’s location.”
The strikingly beautiful young Asian woman had borrowed a T-shirt and trousers that were far too big for her. She was still wearing sandals when she went in front of the assembled bad-arses to brief them. They could tell she was nervous about speaking in public and blinked uncertainly in front of the thirty-odd members assembled in the Divisional headquarters briefing room. There was the main four-man assault team and four more back-ups. The force protection who would secure the area, the drivers, helicopter crews and medics. The ground teams were all armed, faces and hands blackened and looked at her expectantly. She had been introduced by J2 Int as “the eyes.”
Henry Morrison froze and Jarvis who was sitting next to Edge gave a start. Jarvis felt his heart give a sudden lurch as he looked at her. She looked slightly older, but the air of vulnerability was still there and she looked so small in clothes that were too big for her. Jarvis knew that the feelings had never gone and he loved this woman in a way she would never know, simply because he couldn’t articulate it. Edge picked up on it straight away and said to Cooper, “You know her. So does Henry.”
Her name is Afarin and she was our interpreter in Afghanistan. Came from the RAF. Bloody brave with incredibly big balls. I think Mr Morrison had a thing with her.”
Edge nodded and smiled. Morrison glanced at him and Edge gave him a beaming grin and a wink. He looked away angrily. She started off by outlining the ground area, routes in and out, helicopter landing points and RV points. The Int boys and girls had been busy putting a PowerPoint presentation together, which included images taken from the Tornado RAPTOR pods. Her precise drawings had been scanned and included in the presentation. As she spoke her glance swept across the audience and she faltered when she looked at the assault team at the front of the audience. Henry Morrison was regarding her coolly and Jarvis was avoiding looking at her. He felt so incredibly bereft.
Her eyes shyly scanned the room and at first missed them because of the equipment and blackened faces, but there was something incredibly familiar about the man with long, wavy hair and the beardless man sitting next to him.
Oh my God, she thought.
Stumbling over her words, she kept going, but her face was burning. Henry looked away, a strange expression on his face. She was glad to finish the scripted bit, but the questions were endless. The helicopter crews wanted to know about power lines and obstructions in and out of the LZ. The state of the ground on the LZ regarding FOD. Rotor clearances. Dust state on the ground. Bright lights in the area that could glare out the NVGs. The assault teams wanted to know how many were in the building, the state of the windows, obstructions inside the walled complex. They asked her to stay while the aircrew, force protection, medics and assault team split off to do their planning. They continued to fire questions at her and she looked exhausted.
They decided to go in by unmarked vehicles and out by helicopter. Edge was given the job of killing Gilmore if they couldn’t get him out. Once they were clear, a Tornado would drop a Brimstone on the site and obliterate everything. Before they left, Edge went up to the woman and smiled at her. He looked terrifying.
“I bet you’re tired. Try and get some sleep. We’ll bring him back.” He was struck by just how young she looked.
Morrison and Edge were the last on the pick-up, encumbered by their kit. Out of the earshot of the others he grabbed Morrison’s arm, “Henry. She’s lovely. Now I understand.”
“I haven’t seen her for three years. I thought there was something between us. Clearly not.”
“So now you know what she’s been up to. Come on. Let’s get Gilmore. By the way, he looks vainer than you in his photo, Henry.”
Jarvis stared emptily into the darkness and Edge shook him, “Focus, Guy. You look like a lovelorn teenager.”
The night smelled of thick, heady tobacco smoke, hydrocarbons from the GOSPs and the stench of raw sewage coming off the Tigris. No dogs were barking, unlike in other cities. The only sounds were snatches of wailing, caterwauling Jinglie music from a distant radio. Jarvis was a knot of fear and he could feel the beginnings of the trembles, the sweat was running down his back. He pulled off the ski mask and head cover because he was too hot. It was a lucky move as the burning synthetic material tends to stick to flesh. The frame charge was cumbersome and he would be glad when he could leave it to do its job. Why am I so damned scared? This is your bread and butter. Get a grip on yourself!
Edge was crouched in the deep shadows between two parked cars. His personal radio was turned down low, its earpiece taped in his ear, throat mike in position. He was wearing SBAV Sentinel body armour with groin protection, as he would be going in first. Morrison was just behind him, talking very softly on the radio.
“Red team in position. Radio check.”
“Two,” said Edge.
“Three,” came Jarvis’ voice. He was tucked in an alley with Cooper behind him, his carbine slung as he was lugging a frame charge.
“Four,” Cooper affirmed.
“Blue team ready,” came over the net. Edge recognised the voice as Moose.
“Go, go, go!”
There was an explosion from the roof of the building, the external lights went out and Jarvis scurried along the wall, carrying a large, elliptical object, which was effectively a plastic frame holding a circle of C3 explosive. He went through the gap in the wall and Edge and Morrison waited either side of the gap and were joined by Cooper, carrying more frame charges. Edge was armed with Morrison’s standard C8 Carbine while Morrison carried a Remington 870 shotgun, loaded with Hatton breaching rounds, solid shot to blow off door hinges and locks. A Hatton or Breaching round is 12 Gauge and weighs 1.4 ounces. It is composed of powdered steel or copper with a wax binder. It is designed to destroy locks, deadlocks or hinges, without harming anyone within the room beyond. However in an enclosed space up to twenty feet it is lethal. Like Cooper and Jarvis, his C8 was rear slung. Assault operations was one of the few occasions SF troops used slings. They were all carrying respirator haversacks packed with stun grenades and wearing ski masks.
Moving quickly, Jarvis placed the frame charge against the main door, clamping it in place on the upright jambs. He pulled the fuse toggle and turned to move back out into cover. Something didn’t feel right as he pulled the toggle on the charge, as though it was stiffer than expected. The fuse may have been faulty and the frame charge went off prematurely, catching Jarvis in the blast. He was blown off his feet, his smock, trousers and hair burning and he felt hot fragments burning into his flesh. He stifled his agony. He was beating out the embers when Edge and Morrison went over him, followed by Cooper. There was no time to go to assist their comrade, who was for the moment on his own.
He had managed to get up and arm to protect most of his face, but most of his eyebrows and eyelashes were burned away. His fringe was burning as well, blisters were forming on the burned flesh of his face and he was winded by the concussion of the charge. He was also in agony from partial thickness burns to his legs and the sole of his left boot was partially melted.
Edge went through the wrecked doorway, the torch taped to his C8 sweeping the hallway, which was full of choking smoke. At the end was a door. Edge pointed the torch at the handle and Morrison blew off the lock. They each threw a stun grenade into the room, then they both hammered through the door, Edge going left, Morrison right. A man in a long robe was standing over a body cowering on the floor. Edge fired a three round burst at the standing man’s centre of mass and he slid down his own blood on the wall. Somebody appeared from a doorway on the right and Morrison blew in the man’s chest with a Hatton round.
Somebody yelled: “GILMORE STAY DOWN!”
Edge looked at the cowering body and realised that it was chained to the radiator, “Gilmore?”
Edge was horrified. The RAF crewman’s head seemed twice its original size and his body was smeared with blood and his own filth.
“The fucking bastards!”
Jarvis came in, slightly unsteady on his feet and a trouser leg and sleeve partially burned away, while Cooper cleared the room off where they had forced entry. Cooper threw a phosphorous grenade into what resembled a well-appointed film studio, complete with backscreen a setup camera, sound and lighting. They knew who was going to be the star of the show and the long knife on the black flag confirmed it. A man staggered out screaming, the phosphorous burning through his suit and into his flesh. Both Jarvis and Cooper fired at him, nearly cutting the man in half.
“It’s Gilmore!” Edge yelled above the gunfire, as Morrison was being a bit feisty with somebody on the stairs. He placed his hand gently on Gilmore’s head and Jarvis used bolt cutters to cut the chain.
“Wait until we’ve cleared upstairs, then get him to the chopper.”
Edge bypassed Morrison who had finished sweeping the empty kitchen area. He went up the stairs first, stepping over a body, Morrison following. As he turned on the landing, a round hit him on the front trauma plate of his body armour, hurling him against the wall and winding him. He swung the carbine and a torch illuminated a woman with a pistol. She obviously wasn’t used to firing it as she raised it again. Morrison fired from below and the Hatton round shattered her pelvis. She went down screaming and Edge finished her with a short burst to the head. They cleared the rooms with stun grenades, firing at wardrobes and throwing stun grenades under beds. In the second room, a man fell out of the riddled wardrobe.
Edge changed magazines and burst through the door of the last room after the boom and high-pitched screech of the flash-bangs. He fired at a cupboard’s twin doors and swung his carbine to the bed. Two terrified and screaming children looked into the torchlight. He thought about the Loadmaster’s battered and degraded body.
“Leave them, Edge!”
They both went downstairs and Morrison went on the radio, “Red team. Target clear, we have our man.”
Cooper had been trying to do some rudimentary first aid on Gilmore, but it was difficult to know where to start. The loadmaster was shaking and uncontrollably weeping, overwhelmed by what had happened to him and Jarvis felt his heart go out to this battered and broken piece of humanity. He had survived a crash, seen his crew die and finally had been beaten to something that no longer resembled a man. Morrison produced a folding canvas bag and with Edge, they went through the building lifting every electronic communication device they could find or papers, including searching the bodies. They heard the wop-wop of the Chinook and trying to be as gentle as he could, Jarvis lifted Gilmore who screamed in agony.
Jarvis went on the radio, they were all on the same net and the ground forces could speak directly to the helicopters, “Red team, we have Golf, Golf and he is still alive. Stand by to evacuate the casualty.”
“Sorry, mate. We’ll get you outside and the medics will look after you. You’re gonna be OK,” But Gilmore had passed out with the pain of his broken ribs.
Once the Chinook had taken off for the field hospital, a Merlin landed and the assault, cover and force protection teams got on board quickly. As it lifted off, the dust of the wretched city swirled in its wake and Edge felt sick for what he had contemplated doing.
12,000 feet above Basra, a Tornado GR4’s weapon systems operator (WSO) released a Brimstone missile. Its solid fuel rocket boosted the little missile to supersonic speed, while the WSO maintained sight of the target with the laser designator. The missile’s modest HEAT warhead would avoid collateral damage in the streets and buildings around the target. The Brimstone impacted with the building’s flat roof and the crush fuse activated the warhead a few milliseconds later after it had punched through into the room below. Everything within the top floor was vaporised, causing the upper storey to pancake down onto the ground floor, crushing everything below. It was like Edge had said:
“They show precision guided bombs going down ventilation shafts on the news, but they never tell you that there are people at the bottom of that shaft.”
At 03:30 those waiting at Basra Air Station heard the helicopters returning and a few minutes later the bad-arses burst into the room, reeking of firearm residue, explosives and blood, mixed with testosterone.
“We got him,” Morrison said, “I need a drink!”
Afarin who had expended a great deal of emotional energy on Giles Gilmore asked him softly: “Will he make it?”
Morrison looked at her as though noticing her for the first time, “He’s not good. The bastards gave him a right old kicking, but the medics think he’ll get through it.”
“And what about the…”
“Dead. Every last fucking one of them. Pour encourager les autres.”
The Station Commander of BAS authorised the opening of the All Ranks Club, “The Camel’s Toe” despite it being the early hours. The party was tinged with sadness because although Gilmore was safe in the field hospital, the bodies of Andy Mount and Louise Skelton lay still as eternity in the refrigerated reefer behind the medical centre, waiting for their repatriation flight. Afarin was exhausted but smiled at Jarvis, glad of his company. He was speaking loudly to her because he had been temporarily deafened by the frame charge going off prematurely. He had spent the past two hours having his wounds debrided and dressed in the station’s medical facility, but the painkillers had kicked in.
“Oh, Guy. Your lovely hair burned away,” she said with genuine feeling, “And the burns on your face
“It’ll grow back and the burns are superficial they told me. The one on my foot’s the worst. What about you?”
“It’s been different, Guy. This is my life now.”
He held her hand and she made no attempt to pull hers way, “Afarin, there’s something I must tell you.”
She smiled at him curiously, “I’m all ears.”
She would never hear what Jarvis had wanted to say to her or its importance because the Sergeant Edge with the hard face and twisted nose came across to speak with her. To her surprise, he put his hand on her shoulder and smiled at her. It seemed to light up his soul through eyes that had been grey and cold.
“You are an incredibly brave woman. A man owes his life to you, not to me or everyone else here because I’m just a trigger man. She who saves one life saves the world entire. Thank you.”
And then he was gone.
Afarin didn’t feel even slightly brave, just tired and lonely. Jarvis had gone having lost his nerve and she looked for him, because there was something she wanted to say to him. There was no sign of Jarvis who had suddenly lost his nerve so she went outside craving a cigarette and stared up at the stars and the lightening sky to the east.
“I tried to find you for two years,” said a voice from the shadows.
She went to Morrison and they embraced.
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