Read Hostile Territory (A Spider Shepherd short story) Online
Authors: Stephen Leather
By Stephen Leather
SIERRA LEONE. October 1997.
Dan ‘Spider’ Shepherd yawned as he watched the line of the sunrise inching down the mountains. He was standing at the edge of a palm-fringed white sand beach, listening to the ocean lapping at the shore. Jock McIntyre, Geordie Mitchell and James ‘Jimbo’ Shortt were sitting around a small campfire. Geordie was making a brew while Jimbo shared out the rations. It was meagre fare; they’d been on half-rations for the first ten days they’d been stranded on the beach and were now so short of food that they’d reduced it to one-quarter rations for the last two days. Throughout that time, Shepherd had been reporting in to base every morning, asking for a helicopter lift out, and every morning he’d received the same reply: ‘Negative, no air resources available. You’ll have to stay where you are until resources can be spared.’
‘We’re short of rations,’ Shepherd had told the man for the tenth time. ‘We need to be lifted out.’
‘Nothing available,’ the voice over the radio had said. ‘You’ll have to wait.’
That morning Shepherd had been determined not to be brushed off again. ‘Base, we need a lift-out,’ he had said as soon as he made contact. ‘I don’t think you realise the seriousness of our situation.’
The same mantra had been repeated. ‘Nothing available. You’ll have to wait.’
‘Patch Super Sunray into this,’ he’d said, using the NATO signals designation for the most senior officer involved in the operation. Super Sunray denoted the Commanding Officer of 22 SAS, the most powerful Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army. Shepherd had no means of knowing where the CO was - he could be in Hereford where he should be, running the overall operation from where he could support it best, or he could be on the ground in Sierra Leone medal hunting. Until the advent of satellite communications it was understood that the CO would be in the base in Hereford fighting the political battles, but there are few medals to be won there and since the Falklands War the CO had more often than not left the running of the operation to the Ops Officer while he got as close to the front line as he could.
As soon as he had confirmation that the CO was part of the conversation, Shepherd outlined his situation. ‘Boss, we’re very short of rations and we’re short of ammunition.’ Shepherd knew that while he had to explain how precarious their situation was he mustn’t overstate his case - he had no way of knowing if other patrols were in graver situations and being truthful in operational situations was the very essence of SAS soldiering. ‘If we get into a contact with the rebels there’s every chance they’ll over-run us. If that happens you’ll be one patrol short because we gave them the good news ten days ago and if they get a chance at us, they won’t be slow to take revenge. So if you can’t find a helicopter anywhere in Sierra Leone for a lift-out, you’d better order up four body bags instead.’
There was a long silence. ‘Wait out,’ the disembodied voice had said.
Shepherd had sipped his brew as he waited for the Head Shed to come back on the line. The CO’s voice had been impassive. ‘LZ. Grid 127704. 1200 hours local.’ Shepherd had acknowledged and the connection had been broken. ‘Hallelujah,’ Jock had said when Shepherd told them the news. ‘I was beginning to think I’d never see a Scotch pie or a deep-fried Mars Bar again.’
Jock was a Glaswegian hard man who delighted in playing up to every kilt-swirling, bagpipe-blowing, Irn Bru-drinking Scottish stereotype, but Shepherd knew that despite the lack of a formal education, Jock was one of the most intelligent men he’d ever met. Only a short fuse and a reluctance to suffer fools gladly had prevented him from reaching high rank. He’d risen as high as Sergeant twice but both times had been busted back down to the ranks after settling disagreements -first with an Admin Warrant Officer, and then a Squadron Sergeant Major - with his fists. Had he not been such a good soldier, or had either of the men he flattened been commissioned officers rather than NCOs, he would almost certainly have been RTU’d - sent back to his former unit. But even the SAS was not so well off for good men that they could dispense with a man of Jock’s qualities.
Jock was older than the other three members of the patrol, who had all gone through Selection together. The patrol medic, Geordie Mitchell, had a broad Newcastle accent and looked the least fit of all of them. He had a milk bottle complexion, watery blue eyes and thinning hair that made him seem much older than his years, but he was as tough as an old army boot and a very gifted medic. He had joined the Regiment because it offered the best opportunity to practise his skills in his chosen field - battlefield trauma.
As soon as Shepherd passed on the news they packed up their kit and began making their way along the coast towards the Landing Zone. Their route took them close to an inhabited village, evidently one that the rebels had so far not targeted and destroyed. They skirted it at some distance. A couple of gaunt figures appeared at the edge of the village, watching them pass by, there was no attempt to intercept them. Something didn’t seem right to Shepherd, and it took him a while to work out what it was. Then he had it: there were no dogs. He realised almost immediately why that was – Sierra Leone was a land where everyone was on the brink of starvation and pets and guard dogs had become just another food source.
Three miles beyond the village they reached a broad stretch of sand, bordered by low scrub, that the Head Shed had designated as the Landing Zone They carried out a recce to make sure the area was secure and then readied the air marker panels so they could mark the LZ when the chopper was close. The panels were reflective plastic which were virtually invisible from ground level but which showed up vividly from the air. Job done, they settled down to wait for the helicopter to arrive.
Just before noon they heard the sound of rotors and saw a black speck in the sky, growing rapidly larger as it flew towards them. They were astonished to see that it was not one of the usual Special Forces choppers - a Puma or Chinook - but a Russian Mi-2 helicopter, known by its NATO nickname of ‘Hoplite’. It looked clumsy and ungainly in flight with the bulge above the cab that housed its engines and air intakes almost as large as the cab itself. ‘Will you look at that?’ Jimbo said. ‘It looks like two helicopters mating.’
‘I don’t care what it looks like,’ Geordie said. ‘Just as long as it gets us the hell out of here.’
‘Keep your fingers crossed about that then,’ Jock growled. ‘From what I remember, it’s got about the same load-carrying capacity and range as a Mini.’
They laid out the air marker panels and went into all round defence mode as it came into land. The downdraught from the rotors lashed the palm fronds and whipped up flurries of sand, almost blinding them. To their amazement the pilot then shut down the engines, which went against every SF and RAF rulebook. Shepherd dashed to the pilot’s door and could immediately see the reason for the error. Instead of a fresh faced RAF SF pilot, he saw a middle-aged man in a Russian flying suit with Czech badges on both sleeves. Shepherd pointed at the rotors and made a whirling sign with his hand but the pilot simply shrugged.
When the dust and noise had finally settled, they discovered that the nationality of the pilot was as surprising as his aircraft. Jerzy was a stocky Czech who looked more like a nightclub bouncer than a pilot.
‘This is the only chopper available?’ asked Jimbo.
‘This is all there is,’ Jerzy said in heavily accented English. ‘You don’t want to fly in it, that’s fine by me. I get paid either way.’ He shrugged carelessly. ‘Anyone who doesn’t want to fly with me can stay here.’
‘No, we’ll fly in it, providing you think you can get it airborne with all of us and our kit on board,’ said Shepherd.
‘We have a lot of fuel on board which we need to get us to Freetown but the only way to find out is try, yes?’ said Jerzy. He grinned. ‘Shall we make a wager?’
‘I don’t suppose you brought any food with you?’ Geordie said. Jerzy shook his head. ‘No, I didn’t think you would have.’ Geordie gave a theatrical sigh, threw his bergen into the Hoplite and clambered aboard. ‘Come on then you guys, chop chop. If we get a move on we might just be in time for an all-day breakfast at a Freetown greasy spoon.’
‘I can see that being a receipe for disaster,’ said Jimbo. ‘I think I’ll stick with ration packs.’
‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ laughed Jock, slapping him on the back. The two men followed Geordie into the back of the helicopter.
Shepherd sat up front with the pilot and the initial frost between them soon thawed as Jerzy went through his preflight checks. ‘What brings you to Sierra Leone?’ Shepherd asked.
‘When the Cold War ended there wasn’t much demand for ex-military helicopter pilots back home so I thought I’d try my luck in Africa,’ said the pilot. ‘Until recently I was earning a reasonable living ferrying airline passengers between the airport and the capital. The airport’s at Lungi on the north side of the Sierra Leone River, Freetown’s on the opposite bank. There’s no bridge so passengers heading for the city either have to take a ferry or a very long road detour - about 180 kilometres - and the roads are far from secure. Anyway, the unrest and the Civil War here has cut the number of civilian flights - and the number of people on them - so that I’m lucky to see one or two passengers a month these days. So until the British Army arrived, I’d been whiling my time away in Freetown, making a dollar where I could, but mostly drinking too much beer and watching satellite TV whenever there wasn’t a power cut. But now I’m - how do you say it? - back on Easy Street because I have a contract with the British Army. They don’t have enough helicopters to support their operations, so I fill in for them where I can.’
‘So you’re a mercenary?’
‘A soldier for hire.’
Jerzy laughed and slapped his leg. ‘That’s what I am,’ he said. ‘A soldier for hire.’
There was a whining sound from the turbines as he pressed the starter, then the engines coughed like a heavy smoker clearing his lungs and rumbled into life, belching out diesel fumes. Jerzy shifted the lever into flight idle and the rotors began to turn, slowly at first but accelerating rapidly into a blur of motion as the downwash whipped up such a storm of sand and dust that the beach disappeared from view. His gaze flickered across the gauges, then he gave a thumbs up to Shepherd, and raised the collective. The helicopter lifted on its springs with an almost human groaning sound. Even though they’d been carrying minimum kit, the four passengers on board were stretching the Hoplite to its limits. The helicopter rose painfully slowly, struggling to break free of the ground effect. It juddered in the downwash, its engines screaming and its airframe vibrating so hard it sounded as if it was shaking itself apart.
‘Bloody hell!’ Shepherd said. ‘Good thing we’ve been on starvation rations for a fortnight. If we hadn’t lost a few pounds, I don’t think we’d have got airborne at all.’
‘Jimbo’s just shat himself if that’s any help,’ said Geordie.
The rotors eventually bit into cleaner air and the noise and juddering decreased as the helicopter rose sluggishly from the beach and wheeled away towards Freetown. Looking down, Shepherd could see the scorch marks and devastation as they flew over the ruined village he and his patrol had found when they carried out a recce on their first day in Sierra Leone. It was a reminder, if any was needed, that the orphaned and brutalised children they had freed from the rebels were not yet safe and he made a private vow to himself to do whatever he could to help them.
Shepherd was grateful that the flight to Freetown was a short one because the fuel gauge had been falling like a stone throughout the flight. It was showing close to empty as the helicopter breasted a ridge and approached the capital in the foothills of Mount Auriol. A small cluster of high-rise buildings at its centre rapidly giving way to ranks of ugly concrete buildings and palm-roofed shacks.
Jerzy overflew the civilian heliport and brought the Hoplite in to land at the Sierra Leone Air Force Headquarters near the head of Aberdeen Creek. As the rotors wound down and the dust settled, Shepherd and the others shook hands with Jerzy and then strolled across the cracked and weed-strewn concrete hard-standing towards the barbed wire compound where the SAS Operational Squadron had set up its headquarters.
The first thing they did was to find something to eat and they then went to report to the Operational Squadron commanding officer. He kept them waiting for twenty minutes and when he did see them, his body language and the way his gaze kept straying to the papers on his desk suggested he already had his hands full running his own squadron and the additional presence of Shepherd’s patrol was a distraction that he felt he could do without.
He nodded distractedly as Shepherd completed his report on the task that had brought them to Sierra Leone in the first place: a beach landing that the patrol had organised by what had turned out to be a troop of South African mercenaries, and then spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. ‘I’ve nothing for you at the moment lads, and you’ve earned a bit of downtime, so why don’t you check in at the Tradewinds Hotel on Lumley Beach Road?’ He scribbled a signature on a printed form and handed it to Shepherd. ‘It’s one of the few hotels still operating. Just hand that to the owner. We have an arrangement with him, so just relax and take it easy and if I need you for anything, I’ll give you a call.’