Northern Saudi Arabia
“Two days we’ve been here,” L/Cpl Dave Scott said. “Two fucking days and we haven’t seen a soul.”
“It’s a war, Scotty,” Chalkie sipped his coffee. He winked at Scotty before calling to their colleague outside the camouflage netting. “Are you seeing anything, Derek?”
“Fucking sand.” Derek laughed. He lowered his binoculars, ducked under the netting and lifted his coffee.
“What’s up with you, Scotty?” Chalkie said to his detachment commander. “You knew the situation before we came out here. This is the job, mate.”
“Yep,” Derek agreed. “We do our little bit, and everybody with enough rank has a battlefield phone service.”
“Come here a minute the pair of you.” Scotty left the truck to walk a few yards.
The two crewmen exchanged a look of bewilderment and followed.
“What do you see guys?” Scotty waved an arm.
“Desert?” Derek guessed as he looked around.
“And a truck with a fucking big mast sticking up from it.” Chalkie laughed.
“Exactly,” Scotty said. “We’re here with a truck and a forty-foot mast in the middle of fucking nowhere.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, mate,” Chalkie said. “We’re not the only ones.”
“I know, mate. I just feel as if we’ve been dumped here, as a spare part, or a decoy.”
“Well, if that’s the case, there are a lot of fucking decoys out here. Remember, our job is about working from remote locations.”
“It’s just like an exercise in Germany,” Derek suggested.
“How many radio exercises have you done in Germany?” Scotty asked.
“Two,” Derek said. “It’s just the same, except we’re not on a hill surrounded by a forest.”
“Guys you’re both right,” Chalkie said. “The issue isn’t the location though, is it, Scotty?”
“It’s the feeling the shit might hit the fan. It means we might have to stand up and be counted, and be soldiers. We’re soldiers first and radio ops second, mate.”
“I didn’t know you were a fucking philosopher, Chalkie.” Derek laughed.
“How are those shell-scrapes looking?” Scotty asked, avoiding Chalkie’s point.
“They’re alright, mate,” Chalkie said. “I showed Derek what to do, and we’ve dug two sets of three. I placed the first three where you said, about fifty yards out, and then when you were on shift, we dug another three about fifty yards further.”
“Good thinking, mate,” Scotty said.
“Hey,” Chalkie said. “When it kicks off proper, between the enemy and our location will be some of the finest infantry and armour in the fucking world.”
“You’re right, mate,” Scotty said. “I’m sorry. I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
Captain Abdul bin Hussein drove out into the desert alone in his civilian 4 x 4. He was proud to be related to the country’s leader, but having missed out on the invasion of Kuwait, he wanted to prove himself worthy of praise and promotion.
Six camels were loitering together in an unremarkable section of desert, and they appeared to be unattended. A few yards from the animals were a group of rocks, from which a thin column of bluish-grey smoke rose.
“Omar, my friend.” Abdul approached the rocks. “Do you have news?”
“I do.” The older man indicated the visitor should join him.
The officer grinned, sat on a rock and lit up a cigarette.
They talked for fifteen minutes, and then being eager to formulate a plan, Abdul walked back to his vehicle and drove back to civilisation. He had a particular small group of friends who were privy to his idea, and now he’d be able to take it a stage further.
Northern Saudi Arabia
Chalkie was lying on his sleeping bag in the tent attached to the truck’s box-body. Scotty was inside on shift, reading a book, and monitoring the radio paths. Derek, the nineteen-year-old, was sitting on the roof with binoculars.
“Vehicle incoming.” Derek slammed the roof of the box-body with his fist.
“Direction?” Scotty stepped out of the truck onto the top step.
“Approaching from the south.”
“I can’t see a fucking thing,” Scotty said.
“I can see a dust trail kicking up, but it’s a few miles away.”
Scotty went inside and switched to the engineering channel which was more like making a telephone call.
“Hi, Sir,” he said to the officer. “Do we have a visitor today?” He listened and hung up.
“Derek,” Scotty shouted. “It’s Staff Farmer on an admin run.”
“What’s the panic?” Chalkie asked as he popped out from the tent.
“Admin run,” Derek said.
“Hi Chalkie,” Staff Farmer said. “Are you enjoying the solitude mate, or are you going stir crazy being away from the bar?”
“Could I have a word, Staff?”
“Of course, you can mate,” Farmer said. “Tommo, ask one of the lads to put on the kettle when you’ve unloaded.”
“Wilco, Staff,” LCpl Thomson commenced unloading fuel cans, water cans, and rations.
“What’s up mate?” Staff Farmer asked Chalkie, who was one of the troop’s ‘characters’.
“It’s Scotty, Staff. Since we arrived he’s been on edge, and says he’s got things on his mind.”
“The first time in a conflict affects guys in different ways,” Farmer said. “I know in Northern Ireland I nearly shit myself the first time we were shot at and don’t start me on the fucking Falkland Islands.”
Chalkie laughed, and looked over his shoulder. “I don’t know if it’s our situation, Staff. Anyway, I don’t want it to affect Simpson. He’s young, but taking it all in his stride.”
“Thanks, Chalkie, and well done. I’ll have a chat, but I’ll keep it casual.”
“Cheers, Staff,” Chalkie grinned. “I’ll go help with the resupply.”
“How are you doing, Simpson?” Farmer asked the latest member of the troop.
“It’s a bit strange, Staff,” Derek said. “It’s okay once you get used to it.”
Farmer nodded and lifted his plastic mug of coffee. “Right, Scotty, show me your defensive positions and what you three will do when the whole fucking Iraqi army comes over the horizon?”
Scotty’s expression was blank, but Chalkie, Derek, and Tommo all laughed.
“Sure,” Scotty said, dimples appearing briefly, and he followed his Troop Staffy away a short distance.
“Are you three okay?” Farmer asked when out of earshot of the others.
“Well, Simpson, as you know, is quite new to the unit and he’s excited.”
“What about Chalkie?”
“Chalkie’s a fucking nutcase. I’m hoping he doesn’t go crazy without alcohol.”
“And how do you feel about the situation?”
“I’ve got a few things on my mind.”
“Scotty, our troop commander, is a great guy for an officer, but he’s in his twenties.” Farmer made eye contact with the soldier. “I have him and fifty-four of you fuckers. Half of you are out in isolated spots.”
Scotty turned away to look at the emptiness of the desert.
“We’re soldiers, son,” Farmer said. “No matter what rank you reach, you don’t get to use the title unless you put up with the shit, okay?”
“I’m sorry, Staff. I’ve only been married a few months and my wife is flying to the UK to visit family next month, but right now she’s back in Germany, alone.”
“The only way your wife will be alone is if she locks herself into her married quarters. There are coffee mornings, bingo sessions, film nights, bus trips and fuck knows what else going on.”
“She doesn’t go to the Wives’ Club coffee mornings and stuff.”
“There are women of all ages involved mate. Being a part of our big military family isn’t for everybody—the best thing your wife could do is get involved, not sit and get lonely.”
“Was your wife young when she joined you?”
Farmer coughed up the mouthful of coffee he was drinking. “My missus was nineteen, and within the first week arriving in Germany, she caught a bus and went fucking shopping.”
“Yeah, but I bet she spoke a bit of the language.”
“No, she didn’t mate. There isn’t a lot of use for German when you live in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. Keep the letters flowing between you and your missus, and urge her to join in activities.”
“I’m probably worrying about nothing. Thanks, Staff.”
The 4 x 4 had departed from the elite Iraqi Republican Guard barracks late in the afternoon. For three hours the single vehicle headed towards the indistinct border with the country’s neighbours to the south. Captain Hussein and his three passengers were in regular uniform so nothing looked unusual.
“There it is.” Abdul pointed to a wadi out to the right. The trough was wide and deep.
“Will it be deep enough?” Yusuf asked. “If any of our patrols were to venture down this way it could land us in a lot of trouble.”
“Don’t worry,” Abdul said. “This wadi has been a dry riverbed for over three years. We can park half-way along and nobody will know.”
“I know you others are content,” Yusuf said. “I don’t like the idea of carrying only water and three magazines of ammunition. I’ll feel vulnerable.”
“Consider the extra weight of carrying more equipment, or ammunition,” Abdul said. We’ll be in combat fatigues wearing minimum equipment and carrying only a rifle, a pistol and water. We’ll be able to walk for miles.”
The two men in the back seat agreed it was a good plan, and the subject closed.
Half an hour after parking his 4 x 4, the officer and his three colleagues were walking at the far end of the riverbed. They’d changed into combat uniform, arranged their minimal equipment and then ate a light meal before setting off.
According to Abdul, it would take four hours to walk to his chosen target, which he said was marginal distance across the border in Saudi Arabia.
Northern Saudi Arabia
“Are you joking?” Scotty said.
“No,” Derek said. “Tommo said Staff Farmer told him to keep an eye on the speedo to check distance. They saw us as a speck on the horizon from seven miles away, and we stood out clearly when they were four miles away.”
“Fucking Hell,” Chalkie said. “That’s fucking incredible.”
“Yesterday,” Derek said. “Tommo drove Staff Farmer out to the HQ complex in the middle of nowhere to pick up the mail. It was fifty miles across fuck-all but sand, and no GPS, just a fucking compass.”
“When you think about it,” Chalkie said. “There is so much open space out here, a man or truck could go missing and not be found for days.”
Scotty listened to his crew, and though he didn’t take part in the conversation, he began to lose perspective. He didn’t want to be in a war. He didn’t want to be away from his wife. He didn’t want to listen to these two guys who appeared to have no worries.
“Hi Staff, it’s Chalkie White. I’m sorry for waking you. Are we on a speaker?” Chalkie was assured they were on handset only so he went on. “I thought you’d want to be first to hear about this Staff. Scotty has gone fucking absent.”
Derek handed Chalkie a coffee.
Chalkie listened to Staff Farmer’s questions before he explained the situation.
“We agreed on six-hour shifts,” Chalkie said. “We’d all get regular rest, but while on shift, we’d still be alert.” He winked at a worried-looking Derek.
“Yes Staff,” Chalkie said. “I got some water heated at 23:30, so Scotty could have a brew when he came on shift. I nipped out to the tent and his maggot was empty.”
Derek sipped his coffee and listened to his mate.
“No,” Chalkie said. “I thought he might have gone off on the call of nature, but I had a bad feeling, so I checked his maggot—it was fucking freezing. He’s been gone ages, Staff.”
He nodded at the radio. “Cheers Staff.” His usual grin had disappeared.
Derek sipped his coffee and waited for an explanation.
“Right, Derek.” Chalkie hung up the handset. “Our detachment commander has fucked off into the night with his rifle.”
“Well, if he’s gone on a shovel recce, he forgot the fucking shovel—and the bog-roll.” Chalkie sipped his coffee. “Could I have a fag, mate?”
“I thought you gave them up.”
“Maybe I’ll fucking give up again tomorrow, mate.” He accepted a cigarette.
“Seriously, Chalkie, where could Scotty end up?” Derek lit a cigarette.
“If he went from the left side of the truck he’ll be going further into the Saudi desert. If he went to the other side, he'd be heading towards Iraq, which is not far.”
“No thanks, mate,” Chalkie responded wryly, but the retort was lost on Derek.
“What does Staff Farmer want us to do?” Derek asked.
“Drop the small window screen and show a little light.”
“Will he find us in the dark without headlights?”
“Knowing that crazy fuck, he’ll be happy if the moon isn’t up.”
The four members of the secret Iraqi patrol continued in a staggered formation with ten yards between any two of them. They all gained confidence when Abdul had explained the details of the simple plan.
There would be no shooting at the remote British detachment. Abdul would leave the capture to his three colleagues, and while they escorted the British radio operators north into the desert, he would set a timed explosive device on the truck.
He assured his unofficial team that by the time the British commanders realised there was a problem, the truck would be a burning wreck, and the three crewmen would be on their way to Bagdad. Abdul could see rapid promotion and exaltations from the country’s leader.
Northern Saudi Arabia
“How did you guys manage?” Chalkie said. “The light we’re showing is only two inches by six inches.”
“We saw it from about three miles away,” Tommo said. “Up until then we were using moonlight.”
Chalkie shook his head.
“Is Scotty in the shit for this, Staff?” Derek asked.
“Only if he freezes during the night or if he’s grilled in daylight,” Farmer said. “The desert is an unforgiving environment of extremes.”
Staff Farmer and his driver set off in the Land Rover without lights, and within five minutes had disappeared.
It was three hours later when Chalkie heard a knocking on the back door of the box-body.
“Right,” Farmer said. “We’ve got L/Cpl Scott back. Simpson, get off to bed mate.”
Chalkie made the coffees and went out to wait in the Land Rover with Tommo.
“In your own time.” Staff Farmer sipped his coffee. He sat opposite the rescued NCO in the back of the radio truck.
“I received two ‘blueys’ in the mail when the resupply was done,” Scotty said. “One letter was from Harris back in Germany. As you know, he remained behind due to an injury.”
Farmer nodded, but remained silent, holding his coffee between both hands.
“Harris wrote about my missus flying back to the UK,” Scotty said. “She left Germany a week after we flew out here.”
“Who was the other bluey from?” Farmer asked.
“The second was from my missus. She said she’d made a big mistake, and wanted no part of the military lifestyle.”
“There was no hint of her being unhappy before we left Germany?”
“Before this war kicked off she said she’d be ready to try the lifestyle.” Scotty pulled the offending airmail letter from his combat jacket and unfolded the single sheet. “She said the whole idea of us marrying was a mistake, and I’m not to leave the army on her behalf.”
“When we get back, we’ll all get some leave and you can patch things up.”
“It’s over Staff. She says she doesn’t want me going after her.” He paused. “I headed towards Iraq because I was gonna kill myself.”
“You were out there for a couple of hours mate,” Farmer said. “If the temperature went any lower you wouldn’t have had a choice. What the fuck were you shooting at when we reached you?”
“I fired a couple of shots into the sky out of frustration. I was shooting into Iraq because things would have been fine if I didn’t have to come out here—to this shit-hole.”
One Hour Earlier
Iraqi– Saudi Arabian border
When Captain Hussein heard the first crack in the darkness, he raised a hand and stopped like his three colleagues. The men still standing turned to look at each other, but Malik was already laying on the sand with a hole in his neck. A shot rang out in the distance and was heard as the second crack on the wind.
Yusuf was kneeling, looking at Malik’s lifeless body. A small hole appeared in the side of Yusuf’s head above the ear, and he fell forward onto the sand.
Captain Hussein dropped flat and began crawling back they way he’d come. A few yards away his only surviving teammate was crawling back in the same direction cursing the plan. They crawled for three hundred yards and got behind a rock near a dip in the ground.
“Great plan.” Omar dragged out his cigarettes with a shaking hand.
“I was informed the remote communications of the British Army had no snipers or special protection.” Abdul lit a cigarette. He sat with his back against the rock.
“With respect sir,” Omar said. “I think it’s our communications which require attention.”
A tale taken from 'A Time for Courage: and other military stories'
Wednesday 13th June 2018
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