First into Action
Read an Excerpt
First into Action
I was in my first ambush waiting to kill two men I had never seen before. Christmas was not far away and it was cold and wet. I was twenty years old and alone, outside the back door of a stone farmhouse that had been built more than a century ago. I had a partner from the other special forces unit, an SAS trooper, who was somewhere covering the front. The clouds were low and heavy, making it one of those exceptionally dark nights. I was motionless, crouched like a Gothic carving in the blackness, as much a part of the run-down building as the moss caked to its sides. The farmhouse lay in a dip in the drenched Irish countryside surrounded by clumps of bushes and a few trees. Everything was black. Spindly, leafless twigs surrounding me were charcoal streaks against a barely lighter background. Trying to figure out my surroundings was something to do to pass the time while I waited for the men to come.
I was sitting on a mound of earth and roots under a stunted tree close to the back door, gripping my black, rust-proof M16 assault rifle. The safety-catch was off and my wet, leather-gloved left hand gripped the tapered, Toblerone-shaped plastic stock, while my right encircled the pistol-grip. I had cut the index finger of my right glove to expose the finger which rested outside the cold trigger-guard. It had to remain sensitive and unencumbered to find the trigger instantly. The ground all around the farmhouse was a swamp of creamy mud pitted by the daytime traffic of farm animals and humans, every indentation filled with black rainwater. It looked as if an army had recently trudged through.
The air was still. All was silent. A faint wedge of light came from inside the house. A dim bulb had been left on. The back door was an awkward black rectangle a few yards away. I was invisible where I was, the wall of the house only feet from my back. Anyone moving to the back door would pass just in front of me and I would not miss when I pulled the trigger. I had to be that close. Any further away and I would not see them well enough to make my first shots count.
We would never have been sent out with direct orders to kill someone, but some jobs had inevitable scenarios. Going to arrest a desperate fugitive from justice, a known murderer and one who carried a weapon, was prepared to use it and would never surrender was as clear cut as a sheriff meeting a gunfighter in an old cowboy movie. Whoever got off the quickest, most accurate shot won the day.
I had been surprised, though I did not show it, when during orders for the ambush I was told I would be alone. It was indeed rare, but not unusual for an operative to be alone on an ambush, but it was new to me. There were several of us at the briefing in the TV room in our secret base-camp concealed within a regular Army camp. We were a mixture of SBS and SAS operatives. The TV was on all day and night except during briefings. Those who were not involved in the night's op, mostly admin staff , left for their rooms until we had finished. They would be back after we left to plonk back down into the musky armchairs that were never cleaned and carry on watching TV.
We were trying to cover every lead that came out of the intelligence office, keeping busy, attempting too much, which was usual when you took part in this conflict for only a few months. This tour of Northern Ireland was the first live military assignment of my career. Every ambush I had carried out until then had been in basic training with no fewer than a dozen other raw recruits. We would lie beside one another, flat on our bellies in the spiteful gorse, nudging anyone who started snoring, watching a dirt track in the middle of Woodbury Common military training area, the lights of Exmouth a faint glow on the horizon. We waited for the exercise enemy to come along and trigger a trip-wire which would set off a blinding magnesium flare behind them. Then we would open fire on the silhouettes with blank bullets and keep firing until someone yelled 'Stop' or we ran out of ammunition.
That was not much more than a year before when I was just a noddy, a raw Royal Marine recruit. But now, incredible though it may seem, I was in the SBS, and working alone was part of the job. I could not put out any trip-flares on this ambush because I did not know from which direction the two men would come. My ears, not my eyes, were to be my most important sensory equipment that night.
The farmhouse was just north of Lough Neagh. It belonged to the family of Simon O'Sally, a Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) terrorist, one of the most wanted men in the province. He was an accomplished killer, highly professional, and a man who enjoyed his work. He moved mostly at night and usually on foot across country to avoid the roads and the possibility of running into an Army checkpoint. He carried the same kind of weapon I had with me that night. It was said that he walked with it aimed out in front with the safety catch off and his finger on the trigger. If he was going to meet anyone who had no business being out at night on his turf he intended to be the first to let rip. I had the utmost respect for him as an adversary.
That night he was supposed to come to the farmhouse. It was one of the places he used to rest up and meet colleagues. I did not dare move a muscle in case he was out there, at the edge of my hearing range, watching the house, which is what he would do for at least half an hour before moving forward. I had been there for several hours and knew all the sounds around me. Keeping still throughout the night was going to be difficult, especially for someone as young and energetic as I was. I decided ambushes like this were better suited to old soldiers.
We knew that O'Sally was coming home one night that week with another member of his Active Service Unit (ASU). We knew because a third member of the same ASU was a tout, a snitch, and was being paid well for the information.
My backside ached against the cold earth, the damp seeping through my camouflaged pants and thermals. No matter where I sat on this mound a root would dig into me. If I had been more experienced I would have brought a small piece of neoprene rubber to sit on, and worn swimming trunks instead of underpants because they dry out quicker, but I did not know about little tricks like that yet. As long as I kept perfectly still I would remain invisible, to anyone without a thermal image detector that is, and the IRA did not have any of those.
My body heat had dried out the black cam-cream on my face and hands. It felt like old mud and it cracked and aggravated me when I moved my mouth and cheeks. I contorted my face in the hope that the more annoying flakes would fall off. Only when it became a distraction would I risk lifting my hand away from my gun to pick at it. The black cream was designed to take the shine off your face – even black soldiers wore black cam-cream. In training I used to apply it as thinly as possible because it was laborious to wash off afterwards. That night I had spread it on like butter.
It started to rain halfway through the night. I was not wearing waterproofs, just regular camouflage clothing. No one had yet invented a camouflage waterproof that did not make even the slightest noise when you moved. It might not sound loud in the daytime, but at night, in these graveyard conditions, it would be like a crisp packet being opened in a dark movie theatre. My nose started to run. I let it. A sniff carried a long way at night, and it sounded like a sniff . I was a little cold, but I didn't care.
'If you can't ignore being cold and wet, don't join the SBS,' an instructor's voice echoed in my mind – words we were told the first day of the SBS selection course. Truer words were never spoken.
O'Sally and his partner would not move across country in the daylight hours, so I would stay in this spot waiting to kill them until just before dawn. If they did not show, my SAS partner and I would sneak off and spend the daylight in a hide about a mile away, then be back before dark the following day. O'Sally would be home one night this week for sure, and I would be waiting to greet him. As I hunched under the tree, listening to every sound, the rain trickled through my short hair, down my face, following the cracks in the cam-cream and off my chin on to my gun. There was nothing else to do at times like this but think. I could drift away a little. My ears would instantly warn me of the slightest change in the routine sounds around. I had been in the SBS only a few months but my senses were already razor-sharp. There's nothing like a live ambush to bring out those old animal survival instincts we depended on so long ago to get through every day. I was virile and unpolluted.
I was the youngest and least experienced man in British special forces at that time, and that's why I was here – getting experience. I was alone, in the dark and rain, waiting for my first kill and when I thought about it, it amazed me. I was nineteen years old when I passed my special forces selection course, eleven months after joining the Royal Marines from civvy street. It is unlikely that the unusual circumstances that led me to be accepted when so young and inexperienced will be repeated.
As a boy, I thought the only special forces in the world were the US Green Berets, but that was because of a John Wayne Vietnam war movie playing in the cinemas at the time. Years later, when I was passing through Fort Bragg (a huge US Army camp in North Carolina) I walked by the Green Berets' headquarters and could not believe my eyes. Right outside the building's front doors was a larger than life-sized bronze statue of John Wayne dressed as a Green Beret. He had never been in special forces. I wondered if they had to get permission from Hollywood to build it.
I had no military ambitions when I was a kid other than playing war-games with Airftx tanks and soldiers on my bedroom floor. I enjoyed military history, mostly of the Second World War, and knew most of the major events of that war, but I knew nothing about the modern military and its equipment, even though the Vietnam War was often in the newspapers. I lived in Battersea with my father in a flat on the eighth floor of a council block that overlooked London. We were close to the railways that passed through Clapham Junction. A train rattled by at least once a minute, hardly noticed after a while unless there was a tense, silent moment in a TV drama. Up until moving to Battersea I had spent the first ten years of my life in a Roman Catholic orphanage run by nuns in Mill Hill in north London. My mother had died a few months after I was born. My father wanted to get away from everything that reminded him of her and so he placed me in the orphanage and took a job aboard a merchant ship bound for Australia. He had been with my mother for ten years, meeting her not long after losing all his wealth, which was rumoured to have been a considerable amount of money, in a business venture. He never told me much about her, or about any other of my relatives I had never seen. All he ever did say was that he was simply a peasant who worked hard for what he had made for himself, and that my mother was the illegitimate daughter of a Welsh nobleman. That has always been the source of some curiosity for me, wondering who my grandfather was. My mother was a beautiful woman and in her photographs with me looks composed and dignified, if a little sad. Perhaps she knew she was dying.
When my father returned from his travels he got a job working nights as a waiter in a hotel on Park Lane. When I came to live with him at age ten, he kept the same job and so I never saw much of him. He usually came home in the early hours, often a little drunk, and went into his room. I got myself up in the mornings, made myself breakfast and ironed my school clothes. When I came home in the evenings he had usually already gone to work. I would make myself supper if he had not left some out for me, which he often did. I would watch TV after homework then put myself to bed. That was my routine for many of my school years. There was a bad patch when I would head out on to the streets at night to get up to no good with school friends – bunking into the pictures or hanging around amusement arcades to fiddle money out of the machines. When I was fifteen I crept into Battersea Park late one night with four friends. Each of us had a brand new air pistol. While we were assassinating passing umbrellas from behind the park fence and coldly executing tramps, someone called the police and reported that there were 'men with pistols' in the park. Things were just beginning to heat up in Northern Ireland at that time with the introduction of Internment, the first British soldier had been killed (by a Protestant), the IRA had begun a serious bombing campaign and had also taken to shooting off-duty soldiers out on the town getting drunk. But I was oblivious to all that. I was also unaware that the police had arrived in force and were lying in wait for us at various points outside the park. As we jumped the fence to go home they sprang at us from all directions. They must have been wearing bullet-proof jackets under their coats because they looked heavy and cumbersome as they charged us, caps in one hand and radios in the other. I was swift and reckless in my efforts to avoid being caught and ran blindly across a busy road to escape, sprinting through the familiar back-streets, pausing to make sure I was not followed, before finally going home. I was the only one to escape.
However, I was grassed on by one of the others and picked up by the police as I arrived at school the following day. I spent half that day in a cell waiting for my father to come and get me. He was not all that angry and most of his lecturing was done at the police station for the benefit of the police. Not that he didn't mean every word of it. He knew I was not a bad kid at heart. Petty things seemed to upset him more, like making holes in the knees of my trousers. After I did that to my first new pair within a few days of having them, it was all second-hand clothes from then on. The air pistol incident put an end to my night activities and, although I had lied to the police that I had ditched it as I ran from them, I threw it away the next day anyway. I could not have imagined that only a few years later I would embark on a career that would see me operating mostly in the dark hours and carrying weapons many times more lethal than that air pistol.
I stayed at home in the evenings after that. I had few friends anyway and no money. I went to an all-boys' school, William Blake Secondary Modern, which was only a mile and a half from my home. I was not into football – I have never liked crowds – and I could not afford to keep up with clothing fashions which seemed to be the main interests of most of the boys in my year: Ben Sherman button-down collar shirts, stay-pressed, two-tone trousers and tasselled loafers. The group I hung out with most were five Jamaicans. It probably appeared to others, the white boys in my school in particular, that what I had in common with them was a lack of money. The truth was the six of us shared a pleasure for extreme mischievousness.
Our everyday aim was to get one another into trouble, and the deeper and more serious the better. While passing through shops one of us might slip something into another's bag or pocket in the hope they would be caught by the store detective for shoplifting. On one occasion we were having lunch in a pizza restaurant and, after the meal, I collected all the money we had between us and went to pay the bill. Moments later they saw me outside, across the street, waving and holding up the money with a sadistic grin. Naturally, on my way out I had told the lady at the cash register that the others did not have any money and she should warn the manager. It was entertaining watching them scramble out of the place, under and over tables while dodging the manager and staff . When we travelled on the underground, none of us would buy a ticket. On reaching our destination, when the automatic tube doors opened, there was a frantic, jungle-rules sprint from the platform, up the escalators and along the crowded corridors. Just before the ticket collector, the leaders slowed to a walk so as not to attract undue attention then jostled for position to get through the gate.
The first through the narrow opening would indicate the one behind, saying, 'He's got the tickets.'