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Gun for Hire
SPOILS FROM ONE WAR
ARMY TRAINING AREA. SEGMENT 4. LONG VALLEY, ALDERSHOT. JULY 1982.
If it had been anyone else, the sight of a lone Para tabbing out of the Company Lines across the metal footbridge which spanned the ringroad of the garrison town of Aldershot might have caused the two duty Para pickets (sentries) who stood guard on the camp side of the bridge to question the soldier's sanity. After all, who the hell would go tabbing off on a ten-miler, just a day after getting back from the Falklands War?
I too wasn't particularly happy about the task I had to carry out over the next two hours either, but it was something I had to do, and do quickly, because to prolong it would mean certain compromise.
As I approached the two pickets I felt the all-too-familiar first few drops of rain starting to run down the side of my face. A look skywards told me that it was sure going to be 'well black over at Bill's mum's!'
'Shit, here comes a keen one, what a warrior!' one of the pickets said.
I recognised the voice and looked up. It was Mush, my old mate from Pathfinders, a real old sweat in the battalion. He'd spent the past few months on 2 Para rear party while the rest of us kicked arse down in the South Atlantic. There was no way Mush could have come to 'the party' with us, because he'd been medically down-graded, after getting the best part of a three-pound lump of granite embedded in his backside during the Warrenpoint blast in Northern Ireland, a couple of years before. But this still didn't stop him pleading with our colonel, Colonel 'H' Jones.
'Now, come on, Corporal, don't you think you've seen your fair share of action? Give the younger men a chance ...'
'But, sir,' Mush reluctantly had said. He'd have relished the fight, that's for sure.
I jerked a little and moved towards them. 'Oh, if it ain't old shaggin' slack arse,' I joked.
The other Para, much younger, stared at me in horror as I addressed his corporal in such a slack unmilitary fashion. He really was a fresh-faced kid, probably still only 17, and looked every part a crow. He moved nervously closer to Mush, like a young lad might do in the presence of his father. I didn't recognise him; he must have Passed Out of Depot Para when the Battalion was down south.
At the beginning, I hadn't taken much notice of these two fellow Paras, I was psyching myself up for the speed march. My head was constantly being forced down through my action of violently pulling on both bergen side-straps at the same time, in order to get the damn thing as high up on my back as possible, thus making it less of a burden to carry.
'Bollocks to it,' I said to myself out of frustration. I hadn't gone 20 paces, and already the horns of the metal 'H' frame were beginning to dig painfully into my old bergen burns. Against my better judgement, I'd strapped two field dressings to the lower part of my back, secured in place with a ton of black masking tape. But that didn't help, the bergen back-strap was rubbing even more.
The box of dead weight, which was the last piece of kit I'd packed, had somehow worked its way down past my light kit — the doss bag and poncho — and had slipped to the bottom. I couldn't stop now and repack it, I had to get out of sight of prying eyes first. Especially Mush — he would want to chew the fat with me and make a point of going through the contents of my bergen and showing the young kid what 'a soldier should carry into war', and 'not just the standard collection of heavy weights such as bricks and bags of sand they taught you down at the Depot'. I knew Mush all too well — yeah, I was sure he'd want to make a point out of our meeting by teaching his new boy some basic rules of soldiering.
'You're not still going on this summer's SAS selection, are ya, Devs?' he shouted.
I looked up, already aware of the beads of sweat trickling down the small of my back and being soaked up by the two large pieces of padding that acted as sponges. It really irritated me. 'Well, what the frig d'you think? You think I'm going out tabbing for the sheer hell of it, do ya? I'd rather be on the piss with the rest of the lads.' I didn't stop.
Mush laughed and slapped me hard on the back of the bergen as I passed him. The slap made my legs buckle slightly, which in turn threw me off balance.
'You got the rest of your life to go on the piss, man, get your arse up Flagstaff Hill and say hello to it from me, will ya, and let's hope this rain keeps pissing down,' Mush chuckled. The young kid stayed silent.
'Fuck, that'll be a first for ya. See ya at the front gate in two hours — and have a brew ready, will ya, Corporal?' I threw back at him.
'Fuckin' more like four hours, you fat twat. I'll have a medic standing by for ya!' Mush shouted out after me.
I didn't reply; without turning around I just gave him the finger instead. I was now totally focused on what I had to do, and on doing it without cutting corners. What I was up to was highly illegal. My pulse raced as I pumped with my legs to eat up the metres of tarmac ahead of me. I felt good, a sudden surge of apprehension burst through my body, brought on by the thought of what I was carrying and the consequences if I got caught. But I wasn't going to get caught. I was too switched-on, I felt there wasn't a man or machine around that could catch me out.
I'd been through some real shit over the past few months and every bit of my military training had been tested to the max, so there was no reason why I should fuck-up on a relatively easy operation like this.
As I tabbed, I kept an eye on both the road ahead and the road below my feet. Although the going was relatively flat, there was the odd pot-hole to avoid. I steadied my breathing, got into a rhythm with my stride, and cleared my head of any doubts about what I was up to. I had mentally covered all possible fuck-ups beforehand, and now that the plan was firmly ingrained in my head, I was going for it.
I know you can't plan for every shitty scenario — hell, the battle for Goose Green had taught me that — but this was a basic job; the only problem which might occur would be twisting a leg or getting hit by a vehicle (which sometimes happened to soldiers on the public roads around Long Valley). If that was to be the case, then it was just not going to be my day. Still, if you go through life like that, then you might as well have stayed in the womb. Risk-taking is all part of this shitty rollercoaster ride they call life.
During the battle for the Falklands I had experienced my own ultimate adrenalin rush, and that was the taking of another man's life — not once, not twice, but lots of times, and every Argy I had slotted or bayoneted had put me on a different hedonistic level. The feeling I was experiencing now was nowhere near that of being back down in the Falklands shooting at Argies, but it was as close as one could get in peace time, and I was enjoying every bit of it. As far as any onlooker was concerned, I was a Para out training on his own, which wasn't unusual. On the other hand, I'd given myself a timeframe of under two hours for this task, a slight deviation from the regular route, and I knew that was pushing it.
The first mile-and-a-half was easy. I was still tabbing on the stretch of tarmac road which took me past and around the Services Rushmore Arena. After that I would be tabbing across some of the shittiest ground the county of Hampshire had to offer — a vast expanse of undulating wooded and open land, mainly used by the MOD to field-test tanks.
Consequently, when it rained, the deep ruts (sometimes three and four feet deep) caused by tanks criss-crossing the whole of the training area, filled up with thick mire, like quicksand, and they became almost impossible to cross; during dry spells these same ruts would be baked so hard by the sun that once you were in one, it would be very difficult to get out to cross grain, especially if you were carrying the Full Fighting Order, upwards of 100 pounds, a mixture of webbing, weapons, ammunition and kit. Rain or shine, tabbing across Long Valley was always a physical nightmare.
The sky turned darker. It was really pissing down now.
My route would take me over ground on which hundreds of thousands of soldiers had trained for war over the past 150 years. I was fully aware that I was now following in the ghostly footprints of soldiers who had fought for this country in past wars and campaigns: the Crimean, the South African, First and Second World Wars, and now the Falklands War. Many died in the same sorts of shell scrapes and trenches as those in which they had practised 'digging in' in Long Valley. Many never ventured on to this hallowed training area again.
I crossed over the last of the tarmac, found a quiet spot in some dead ground amongst some low-lying bushes, and went about rearranging the contents of my bergen. This took less than a minute. I knew my way around this bergen all too well — I knew all of its idiosyncrasies, such as how the straps pulled down to tighten its contents or side pockets, and how smoothly the quick-release clips operated in haste.
Time and the serviceability of 'his' equipment are everything for a soldier, especially in combat, and the ability of my bergen to function now was no different. To put something in, or to get something out, in the quickest and quietest way possible, is paramount. Who knows what might be around the corner? When you're friggin' about in your bergen, you're in effect one man out of action, one less pair of eyes, one less holding a weapon, and one more making noise. During this time of fluffing about, you're a liability to the rest of your patrol, especially if you're working in an operational environment. So getting this shit sorted quickly and quietly is part of the 'field' soldier's SOPs (Standard Operational Procedures).
I headed up towards the first obvious high feature, a spot height on top of the western part of the ridge line, aptly named Hungry Hill. This was to be my first ball-buster. I knew that I was still about one k (kilometre) away, and past assaults on this hill had told my body exactly what pain to expect. I began to gasp, my lungs trying to draw in more and more air as I charged ahead. My nose was beginning to fill with rain and mucus as I breathed in, and I was conscious of having to open my mouth more to get more air. I clamped the side of my left nostril closed with my fingers, and drove out the shite. I did the same to the right. A large 'Green Gilbert' shot out and hit the toe of my combat boots. I took note that this had cleared my sinuses.
It usually took me at least three miles to get into my stride and the bottom of Hungry Hill was about the three-mile point. It was called Hungry Hill because it was the first major feature on the ten-miler and would usually eat up the strength of those 'whippets' who had forced the pace of a tab at the onset, for one reason or another. I reached the bottom in good time. I didn't stop.
It wasn't a particularly high feature — in fact, set against a backdrop of the Brecon Beacons, it would be a pimple. It probably rose no more than 300 feet, but its angle was a right twat. At first glance the ten-foot-wide dirt track looked almost sheer. Either side of the track was a three-foot-high bank covered in thick evergreen bushes, caused by years of soil erosion and troops scrambling up it. Consequently, on a platoon tab, if you weren't right up at the front when you arrived at the foot of this hill, then, by the time you got to the top (which was relatively flat), you would find yourself miles behind the leading bunch because there wasn't much space for passing fellow platoon mates, even if you had the strength.
Because it was still pissing down, the rain had begun to wash the mud away, exposing the rock below, and now had created a small gushing stream of water about a foot wide. That would be my route up: I'll go right up the centre of it, fuck the wet feet, I thought.
The rest of the track was covered with a thin layer of gooey mud, which when trodden on took on icelike characteristics. This would make my going ten times harder. It might have been all right if I had wanted to get my calf and thigh muscles burning, or if I was on some masochistic trip, but neither was the case. I had another objective.
I looked up for the first and last time to see if I could make out the top, but I couldn't. I knew that anyway, it was just habit, a personal thing. I never looked up again to see if I could see the top, once I started my ascent. This wasn't a tactical patrol, and I couldn't give a shit who was at the top looking down at me anyway.
All I knew was that I wasn't to stop for any reason, either to adjust my kit, or even to take a breather. If I did that, then I would break the mental barrier I had built up inside me for all these years, which helped me get through tabs like this. Once again it was a personal thing, it worked for me, and I wasn't about to chance fate and change my method of attack. If I had done, I would have deemed myself to have failed.
Once on top, I headed off to the right and tabbed in an easterly direction along the ridge line towards the main feature, Flagstaff Hill.
By now the wind was driving the rain straight into my face. Coming up Hungry Hill was pretty much easy going, as it had been sheltered from the wind, but now I was totally exposed to the elements. From the ridge line one could usually see for miles. You could see right across to the town of Aldershot and Farnborough Airfield. But today, the mist was down, hanging about like the aftermath of a gas attack.
Surprisingly I couldn't see anyone on the ridge. Usually, there would be at least one or two people out walking their dogs, but I guess the rain had kept them in. Without stopping I started to look around for some dead ground down off the ridge. It had to be well away from obvious tracks made by vehicles and men, but it had to be accessible as well as identifiable for future reference.
I put myself in the shoes of a bank robber who knew he was going away for a long stretch and was looking for a place where he could cache his stash of loot in order to pick it up when he got out.
The site I was looking for had to be in a spot where it was unlikely either for a structure to be built, or more importantly, for some future platoon commander to conduct a defence exercise and start ordering trenches to be dug everywhere.
I got to the small copse of evergreens which marked Flagstaff — the highest point, the most severe side of the ridge, and indeed of the entire training area. I was aware that if I could see for miles around, then I could also be seen. I used the elements to my advantage and blended into the mist.
I gave myself a couple of minutes while I scoured the ground in front of me. To my right, and slightly back, was the ridge and Hungry Hill; to my front were acres and acres of low-lying shrubs and tank-tracks crossed by the Aldershot to Church Crookham road. To my left was an area not so flat, a part of the Flagstaff spur which gradually tapered off. In the near ground were a few large trees and beyond them was this sort of 'space-age' domed roof affair, just sticking over the tops of the trees.
I had seen this many a time and had been told that it was some kind of water catchment processor. That was it, I had made my choice — it was my only tactical option. I'll look for something suitable over by the domed roof, I decided.
On the face of it, the ground I was looking across had all the text-book factors required for the placement of a long-term cache. I started to remind myself about all the problematic factors in selecting a cache site.
One, it had to be safe and secure and also accessible if and when I required its contents. I didn't think that Long Valley would ever be built on, not in my lifetime anyway, so I deemed the area safe and secure from that point of view. After all, this entire area was considered to be a bit of a beauty spot by the civilian population of the towns of Aldershot and Farnborough.
Two, pinpointing for future 'lifting' of it: I had to select suitable reference points. Well, there were many geographical features to choose from. That was okay.
Three, waterproofing the cache. I'd sorted that out back at the basha, and I didn't think even a half-starved crazed rat would be able to chew through my wrapping technique.
And finally, four, as important as the rest, there was making an exact record of where the cache was.
My senses were working overtime. I was excited that I had identified a suitable area in such a relatively short time. Another burst of adrenalin brought me back to life. I'd been stationary for less than a minute, but that was long enough for my body to cool down and for my brain to tell me that the driving wind and rain ripping through my bergen and DPMs wasn't doing my body any good at all. Without a second thought I started to make my way along and down the tapered feature. All the time my body's senses were working flat out, taking in all of my surroundings, looking and listening, assessing the possibility that I might be being watched.