Tim’s pal Billy was the only bloke anyone knew of who didn’t do this and since he looked like a dark-haired version of Dan Dare and I was impressed by the way he applied himself to flying, I decided to follow his example. In the Air Corps, I had glimpsed the life I wanted. I would have to touch every base if I was to become an SAS pilot.
Rejecting the cheat-sheets paid off when the instructors decided to set a new paper on every subject for our intake. Blind panic ensued and more guys fell by the wayside.
I listened cautiously, therefore, to those who recommended cheat-maps for the advanced tactical course: recce positions that had been highly marked during previous exercises. When we got to Fremington and were briefed on our ‘mission’ – to identify an ‘enemy’ vehicle convoy heading from the east on the B3042 towards the A377 – I took one look at the cheat-positions and decided to formulate my own plan.
I walked into the ad hoc planning room – little more than a broom cupboard – and studied the three faces gazing expectantly at me.
Herbert and Bateman, the two instructors, looked like they wanted to eat me for the breakfast none of us had had yet – and wouldn’t get until we returned from the sortie. The other guy, a fellow student called Mick Baxter, was peering at me so intently I thought his eyes might explode.
‘Right,’ I began, trying to sound authoritative, ‘for the purposes of this exercise, I am the patrol commander and I am going to lead us out. I am flying with Mr Herbert and you, Corporal Baxter, will be flying with Mr Bateman.’
Mick’s Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. Warrant Officers Herbert and Bateman were already busy with their clipboards.
Today’s exercise was about reconnaissance: finding and observing enemy convoys while maintaining tactical superiority; seeing and reporting without being seen.
After briefing the met, air traffic and timings I proceeded to the execution of the mission. ‘When we leave here, we’re going to follow this valley south-east.’ I pointed to a black line on the map behind me. ‘We will conduct an under-wires crossing here, where the pylon line crosses the River Taw.’ It was the lowest point of the pylons just south-east of Chapelton.
‘There are no roads and no villages nearby, so there’s every chance we won’t be seen. We’ll continue to fly the marked route until we reach the confluence of the two rivers at Copy Lake, our Final Rendezvous point. Then we’ll continue up to the OPs, catching the vehicles at the very end of their route, here…’
The two instructors scribbled away furiously. This was my big departure from the routine suggested by the cheat-maps. The instructors’ preferred Observation Positions for viewing convoys moving through this area were a few miles to the east, on a wooded ridgeline with an unrestricted view of the B3042. In my book, they also allowed unrestricted views of our helicopters. We would be skylined while the enemy blended in with their surroundings – absolutely the opposite of what I felt we needed to achieve. The eye is drawn to movement and I knew that positioning our Gazelles on top of a ridgeline in combat would be suicide – an open invitation for an artillery barrage. And if the convoy stopped we would be heard; the wind would carry the noise of our aircraft directly towards it. They were shit positions.
I’d done a thorough map-study (something they called ‘intervisibility’ in the Paras) and had found a spot at the bottom of a valley with an equally good field of view. We could see the convoy easily, and wouldn’t miss them since they’d be at the end of their route. I could pop myself and Mick between the trees beside the river, and a huge hill behind us would provide a stealthy backdrop; our green recce helicopters would blend perfectly with our surroundings. In the unlikely event we were seen, we had a fantastic escape route that would allow us to melt away in a heartbeat. Bonzer.
‘As soon as we’re at the FRV, both our aircraft will point towards each other and we’ll carry out our drills,’ I continued.’Anti-collision strobes, navigation lights and transponders will be switched off. We will not emit at all. A full 360-degree turn will signal that I’m ready to move. I will know you’re happy, Mick, when you turn your nav lights off. I will then depart and you will follow me to our OPs.’
To get to our OPs we would manoeuvre through the trees until we ended up eyes-on the road. We would wait there, masked by the trees and our backdrop, until the convoy appeared. We’d count the vehicles, wait until we were sure we had the lot, then skedaddle back for the debrief.
Baxter still looked like he’d swallowed a yo-yo. The instructors said nothing. Like driving test examiners, Herbert and Bateman would sit silently beside us until we got back to camp. They’d only tell us how we’d done when we were back on the ground.
By way of chit-chat, I asked Herbert what he’d done before joining the Army Air Corps.
ACC, he said, in some place I’d never heard of.
Army Catering Corps. If we fucked this up, at least we could count on a Full English.
We took off just after the sun came up and headed out towards the exercise area. The wind dropped; Devon spread out before us in all its glory and the sea twinkled behind us. We slipped under the wires together fourteen klicks from the FRV, barely six feet off the ground, either side of the river, and began nap of the earth flying – at tree-top height, using the low ground for cover, to keep below the radar horizon. With a final klick to run I dropped down to fifteen feet and began to weave between the trees. I could see Mick a tactical bound behind, following me nicely.
We were as stealthy as any helicopter could be both from the ground and the air – small, camouflaged, and very hard to spot at this height unless we had to fly around someone out walking his dog.
The Gazelle wasn’t always quiet. It was difficult to pick up rotor sound from a distance because it was light and had a fenestron tail rotor – thirteen blades housed in a Venturi – but its gears and bearings did emit a high frequency whine when it was in the hover.
The sun had crested the hills to the east of the FRV point. My goldfish bowl of a cockpit was beginning to warm by the time Mick’s lights were finally extinguished, signalling he was ready. I led the way, a few feet off the ground, climbing for fences and gates.
As an ex-Para, I knew the value of terrain-masking ingress and egress within an area of operation – no matter whether you were on foot, in a tank or a helicopter.
I wound us through the belt of trees until we arrived in the OPs. I spotted the road in the distance, uphill through the gaps in the trees – sunlight glinted off a handful of cars threading their way along the dual carriageway towards the Cornish border. The OPs were awesome. The trees cast their shadows across us; even God wouldn’t know we were here. We were nice and early and all we had to do now was sit and observe.
Mr Herbert took over the controls and I grabbed the pistol grip of the Gazelle Observation Aid, a sight like a periscope built into the canopy above the left pilot’s seat. I peered through its rubber browpad and positioned its field of view on the road nearly a mile away. Eventually I spotted the headlights of the first of the four-ton lorries as it crested the hill to our south-east.
For the purposes of the exercise, the four-tonners represented main battle tanks; the Land Rovers that accompanied them were supposed to be armoured personnel carriers (APCs). We had been told roughly when to expect the convoy but not how many vehicles would be in it. After five minutes, I counted five fourtonners and six Land Rovers. Now I just had to wait and see if it was a split convoy or if there were any stragglers. Five minutes passed, then ten. Glancing through the trees to my left, I could almost feel Mick’s frustration. No matter. I was doing this by the book. As a soldier, I knew that battlefields weren’t neat and ordered – that you should always expect the unexpected. I didn’t want to get back to Fremington to be told I was on Strike One because we’d missed a second convoy travelling a few miles behind the first.