Only when we were approaching our fuel ‘bug-out’ point did I decide that it was safe to return. I led Mick back to the FRV and he led us back to the camp. We landed with just enough fuel to have coped with a diversion should we have come face to face with unexpected enemy on our return.
After shutting down the Gazelles we were directed into the improvised briefing room while our instructors checked in with the convoy to see if we’d been spotted.
‘How did you think it went?’ Herbert asked as he closed the door.
I knew that my flying was okay, so the only thing he could fail me for was the mission itself. ‘We achieved our mission, sir,’ I replied. ‘We got there in plenty of time and concealed ourselves before the enemy turned up. We counted the vehicles and I’m confident we didn’t miss any. I’m pretty damn sure we remained undetected throughout, and on the egress. I don’t think it could have gone much better, to be honest.’
Herbert arched an eyebrow. ‘Really?’
‘How do you think it went, Corporal Baxter?’ Bateman said.
Mick took his face out of his hands and glanced at me before replying.
‘We achieved our mission,’ he said without blinking.
Herbert let rip. ‘Your choice of OP was piss poor. You waited far too long and the information you brought back was untimely.’
Mick’s face disappeared into his sweaty palms again and I could feel my blood begin to boil.
‘What you should have done is find an OP further to the east so you could have picked the convoy up sooner,’ he barked. His slightly ruddy face was turning a deeper shade of crimson.
He walked over to the map. ‘If you’d chosen one of these two positions in this area here’ – he indicated the points I’d been advised to use by my peers – ‘you’d have detected the vehicles a lot quicker. Then you could have carried out the task and returned to camp a great deal sooner. But you waited till you were almost out of fuel. You not only endangered two helicopters, Corporal Macy, but you were late in providing valuable tactical information to your commander.’
I looked at him. Fuck, I thought, he’s having a laugh…
I took a deep breath.
‘Well?’ His face looked as though it was about to burst into flames.
I gave him my answer as slowly and calmly as I could manage. ‘With all due respect, sir, I’ve been recceing positions for years. Sat on a bare-arsed, skylined hill like that, we might as well have been flying a banner behind us saying “over here”.’
Mick’s head began to move from side to side. I wasn’t sure whether he was just questioning my approach or looking to escape through a crack in the floorboards.
I continued, undeterred. ‘If the sun, glinting off our bubble cockpit, didn’t give us away first the noise surely would have, because that position is directly upwind. And I didn’t hang around the area for the hell of it. I waited because there was every chance that the first vehicles were just the vanguard of a bigger convoy. I needed to be sure that there weren’t any others.’
They looked at me in disbelief and then at each other.
‘Sir…If I’d left too early and more vehicles had turned up, I’d have brought back the wrong enemy strengths and the commander tasked to destroy them could have found himself getting killed in his own ambush. That convoy was travelling at about twenty miles an hour, allowing us time to plan an ambush – making my information both 100 per cent accurate and very timely.’
Herbert was unimpressed. The marks he gave me said everything: I’d almost failed.
At breakfast with the rest of the students I completely lost it. ‘In a real battle, skylined on that ridgeline like that, we’d have been shot clean out of the sky. Instructors – put ‘em in combats or out in the field, expose them to real tactics and a little rain and they’d fucking melt! Herbert doesn’t have a tactical bone in his fucking body!’
Everybody had stopped eating. My marine buddy Sammy, who I’d spoofed the day we received our grading results, eventually said what everyone was thinking. ‘You’re supposed to pass the course, you tit, not teach the instructors tactics and declare war on the system.’
‘You were a gnat’s cock-hair away from getting us both failed for not using their OPs,’ Mick said. ‘We only scraped a pass because your plan was bombproof. If we’d made one tiny error they’d have fucked us with it till our arses bled. You need to fucking wise up, Para-boy.’
After Fremington, I flew with three different instructors. Up until then, I’d had pretty good grades. The new instructors were assigned to find out what had gone wrong with Herbert and me. Fortunately, they put it down to an aberration.
Fremington taught me a lesson every bit as valuable as tactics and tactical awareness. It had taught me coursemanship – when to speak and when to keep my big stupid trap shut. No one liked a smart arse, and in my determination to get into the thick of it, I’d forgotten a crucial ingredient: humility.
CHOPP ER PALMER’S WINGS
Middle Wallop, Hampshire
No one at Middle Wallop wanted to find himself in the cockpit with a ‘chopper’, especially when it came to exams, and, as I’d already discovered, there was no instructor more feared than Darth Vader.
Mr Palmer and I had already crossed swords once and that was enough. I hadn’t forgotten our first encounter: his huge frame filling the doorway as he’d strolled into stores for a new pair of gloves, glaring first at my beret, then at me. Ever since, like everyone else on the course, I’d gone out of my way to avoid him.
Late in the month my luck finally ran out.
After returning from Devon, I had several days more flying to do before my Final Handling Test – make or break day, when I would either earn my wings or get booted off the course. First there was a halt in proceedings beforehand because of the International Air Tattoo, a huge fly-in, normally organised by the RAF but staged this year at Middle Wallop.
IAT (or ‘RIAT’ as it is known today – they’ve added a ‘Royal’ to it) is the biggest air show in Europe. Hundreds of military aircraft take part, from vintage Hurricanes and Spitfires to modern fighter jets and combat helicopters. It’s an organisational nightmare because tens of thousands of spotters descend on the event and traffic has to be diverted around the southern half of England. Marshalling this number of aircraft is a huge job and falls pretty much to the host base to organise; we students were told that we were the ‘work party’ – the guys on the ground responsible for ensuring the visiting pilots taxied and parked where they were supposed to. The man in charge was none other than Mr Chopper Palmer.
I knew I hadn’t helped matters by wandering around the place with the maroon machine on my head and sporting a set of Para wings on my arm like they were the only ones that mattered – before I’d realised that all that Para stuff wasn’t necessarily the best way of becoming an AAC pilot.
On the day before the Tattoo I walked over to the air traffic control tower to get a bird’s eye view of the proceedings, to orientate myself before the show started. As I wandered from window to window, getting my bearings, wondering how we’d fit all the aircraft in, I turned to see a petite, middle-aged woman engaged in a meaningful conversation with one of the controllers. I tuned in, because I’d overheard her mention that she had a couple of sons in the Paras.