Welcome to the adventures of Jim The Eagle

Hello, I am a freelance writer and photographer who specialises in aviation, defence and transport subjects. Occasionally I get out of the house to actually see something, but not all of what I do makes it in to print. When it does, it can be a bit on the dry side. I got into this game because I love flying and hanging out with military equipment. The people you meet are fun, too, so here is somewhere to put those bits of writing that don't have a home.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Fondue on the Firing Range, a Pilgrimage to Axalp

In early October last year, fresh from working on a NATO exercise off the French Riviera, I took a train to the middle of Switzerland. I found it hard to explain what I was up to, even to military people. The best I could do was to say that I was “going to an airshow up an alp”. Actually, that doesn’t really describe it. The full name of the event I was attending is Fliegerschiessen Axalp or Air Force Shooting Axalp, held on a firing range 2240m above sea level in the Swiss Alps east of Interlaken.

Neutral Switzerland maintains a small but well-trained air force equipped with F/A-18C Hornet and F-5E Tiger II fighters, mainly used for air defence and air policing. The F-5s are flown by reservist pilots. The Schweizer Luftwaffe has limited air-to-ground weapons but emphasizes aerial strafing, which is fairly old school in this day and age.

The Axalp event is the annual opportunity to demonstrate to VIPs, the public and potential aggressors their capability to blast mountain passes accurately with small amounts of lead. If the Austrians ever choose to invade via Liechtenstein, they had better watch out.

There are several ways to do Axalp, which usually has two training days and two public days, (although this year one of the latter was rained off). If you can find a room, stay in the village of Axalp on an alpine clearing 1.5km above the valley and start the climb to the viewing point when you like.

Otherwise, you have to get up early.

Wind on through the hills
As the narrow road to the village closes to cars at 5AM, the keen visitors will have driven up earlier and started their walk in the dark. For me, staying in the chocolate box lakeside town of Brienz, 566m (1,857ft) above sea level, I caught the 7AM shuttle bus to Axalp village (1539m/5,050ft) and then a chairlift to 1905m (6,250ft). Many people decided to forego the lift and its queue for a hike on winding paths, adding another 90 minutes to the climb.

Then the hike began, following the crowds along muddy paths and over loose rocks. The surface is pockmarked by frost action, so the going is sometimes more jumps from hummock to hummock than walking. Despite the terrain, I only fell over once.

At about 9AM the first jets appear overhead for their practice runs. This is why the real enthusiasts start before dawn, so they can get into the best photo positions before the first aircraft arrive. Pairs of F-5Es dive for the mountain above. Short crackling burps from their 20mm cannon can be heard as they disappear from view. The hikers plough on between runs, inspired by the spectacle above. The F-5s are followed by Hornets, whose M61 rotary cannon makes a different noise; a rattle, a pause and a viiiiip, leaving a thin white trail punctuated by smoke puffs. The steepest part of the climb has a gradient of 55 per cent, broken by some permanent metal steps and a guide rope through a narrow rocky channel.

 Now I can’t claim to be that young any more or ever having been very fit, but with a few short rests and regular restorative fruit juice and chocolate I made it to the top without dying. Some other people found it harder going and an American boy was heard to tell his father he’d rather be at school. It reminded me of climbs around Arthur’s Pass in the Southern Alps when I was a geography student at Canterbury many moons ago, but as far as I can recall the Sugarloaf at Cass didn’t have a tent selling bratwurst and beer at its summit.

Get to da choppa!
The first viewing point and food tent is on a hilltop called the Brau, and many choose to stop here for the day. Beyond that is another steep slope to the Tschingel, which looks down to a saddle and back up to the observation post or KP. Here is a permanent building for the range observers and a fenced off enclosure, reached by a cable car with very few gondolas, or by helicopter, which is how the majority of VIP guests have arrived. A steady succession of Eurocopter Super Pumas and Cougars shuttles people from Meiringen air base nearly two kilometers below.

The morning fog over the valley below eventually burns off, giving an excellent view of the turquoise blue lake below and Brienz, where I started this morning. All around are jagged peaks, most of them bare in the early autumn, but there is plenty of snow on the higher north-facing slopes.

More cheese, anyone?
By 11AM, although events don’t start for two hours, about 7,000 people are settling down for the show, admiring the view and watching the helicopters, drinking beer and eating bratwurst bought from the tents. A distinctive smell suggests at least one person is indulging in something a little stronger. With a gunnery target as close as 130m away on one side and nothing but a flimsy plastic fence preventing a tumble to oblivion on the other, I stick to a local soft drink, which turns out to actually be cheaper than at Geneva airport, despite having been delivered by helicopter.

The hardy Swiss bring all sorts of picnic equipment up the alp. Several people set up fondue sets supported by walking sticks and break out bottles of red wine. Another starts a small log fire. They probably laugh at those photographers, many of them from mountainless Holland, who are carrying 15kg of cameras and lenses and a squashed sandwich.

Finally, heralded by a pair of Hornets flying through the valley pumping out flares, the show proper begins and the F-5s begin their firing runs.

Aircraft can approach from six directions to attack at least four targets, on some flying and firing maybe 100m above the crowd. As most attack in pairs, in quick succession, things happen very quickly. Approaching along the main axis, the jets line up quickly, fire a short burst, cross the saddle and then climb the face of the Wildgarst mountain, rolling inverted and diving down the far side. It’s then when you notice that there are people up there too, the ones who started walking at 1AM. They are getting spectacular photos of inverted jets coming at them with the lake behind, but I wonder about their chances should the weather change. Hidden by the landscape. The fighters line up again for another approach, the target is briefly obscured by grey dust as the shells strike home and they are gone again, rolling inverted and diving into the valley below.

Spot the really mad ones

 You can see when the jets are firing by a thin trail of smoke behind them. The sound follows a second or two later. At least one photographer managed to capture the cannon shells and the supersonic shockwaves they formed as they traveled at 900 metres a second from an F-5’s twin cannon. Admittedly he did need a 1300 mm lens and a very high shutter speed for that.

Dakka, dakka, dakka!

Take that, rock face
It’s not all gunfire, however. There are displays from a turboprop PC-21 trainer, helicopters and paratroopers and liberal use of self-defence flares for added spectacle. Aircraft participation is usually an all-Swiss affair at Axalp, but this year there was a special guest in the form of the Swedish Gripen Demo, flown by Swiss pilots. This is the prototype for the Saab Gripen NG (New Generation) fighter, which Switzerland has selected as a replacement for its F-5s.

The Gripen Demo didn’t shoot - mainly as in common with other two-seat Gripens it doesn’t have a cannon, but the 22 single-seat Gripen Es that Switzerland are buying should be bringing their 27mm Mausers to Axalp from about 2016.

They caught their train
Gripen over the VIPs
The show ends with a highly impressive solo Hornet display and then the red-and-white F-5s of the Patrouille Suisse close the show, apart from the arrival of eight Cougars to start lifting the VIPs down again.

Along with much of the crowd, I have already started the walk down, in what proved to be a futile attempt to catch my train to Geneva. One surprisingly elderly gent got a lift under the rescue helicopter, not because the walk was too strenuous, but because he chose a direct route down a slope that even the younger ones felt was too steep, demonstrating the old joke about how to make a Swiss roll. Another chap brought himself to the chairlift by parasail, which was still only half way. The image of Switzerland may be one of rules against everything and high taxes, but they seem to allow a fair bit of personal responsibility as well.

But Sven always gets to ride in the rescue helicopter...

Axalp must be the only public air event where live ammo is flying about and you look down on the participants. Getting there is a bit like a pilgrimage to a mountaintop shrine, which is of course half the fun. The event will be held next year on October 9 and 10, but will take a break for 2014. It’s one of those things that should be on every aviation enthusiast’s must-do list, although can’t really be called a cheap day out. I may go again next year, but might see if there are any press seats on one of those helicopters first….

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Olympic Guardian – Air Policing the London 2012 Games

(Written in May 2012, published in  NZ Aviation News: http://aviationnews.co.nz/july1203.html

RAF fighters at Northolt, again

 In London, with the Olympic Games fast approaching, the Royal Air Force and other UK armed forces have been preparing their response to aerial threats with a series of exercises and deployments around the capital.

Since 2001, air defence against potential 9/11-type threats has been de rigueur at major sporting and political events. The first to see fighter patrols seems to have been the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and since then, the host nation has protected the airspace of every Olympics, World Cup, Euro soccer tournament, G8 meeting and World Economic Forum, adding hugely to the security bill.
One of the few events to have no air defence was the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

With the Olympics less than 100 days away and even the contestants in the recent Mayoral election agreeing that London was the biggest terrorist target in the world, Olympics or not, it was inevitable that the UK military would be a large part of the security plan.

The air defence plan also needed final testing over the actual area of the games. Following exercises at RAF Waddington and Linton-on-Ouse dubbed ‘Taurus Mountain’, all the elements came together in early May under the banner of Exercise ‘Olympic Guardian’. The most visible (and audible) element of this was the temporary deployment of four Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 fighters to RAF Northolt in suburban northwest London and the erection of temporary ‘Rubb’ hangars for them. Temporary arrestor gear also needed to be installed as the 1687m-long runway is considered marginal for fast jets. Some video of them using it is here:    

Northolt is famous for its role in the Battle of Britain and for the Polish-manned squadrons that flew in 1940-42, but it seems to not have operated combat aircraft since September 1944 when 140 Squadron’s Mosquitoes moved to Normandy. From then on it was largely a base for transport and communications aircraft, including the Royal Flight. Today it is home to No. 32 Squadron with BAe 125s and 146s and AgustaWestland AW109s for VIP transport, as well as the secretive Station Flight, whose Britten-Norman Islanders are often seen orbiting London, purportedly intercepting cell phone calls and observing with various electro-optical devices as part of regular non-Olympic anti-terrorism efforts.

A media facility for the arrival of the first fighters to be based at Northolt for 68 years allowed some questions to be asked about the air policing of the Olympics themselves. The Typhoons will be kept on a high state of ground readiness or Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) rather than a continuous CAP (combat air patrol), although that posture may be adapted during the games in light of the threat assessment. The only flights are likely to be aircraft swap-overs, so any Typhoon flights are likely to be “real events of some level” said Air Vice-Marshall Stu Atha, the man in charge of the air security, who also joked: “I never thought I’d be representing the Royal Air Force at the Olympics”.

The noise issue was acknowledged, but short take-offs would help reduce the footprint. The noise was said to be comparable with a Gulfstream V, which is debatable to say the least, your correspondent feels, and he could certainly hear them take off from his house, nearly 10 km away as the Eurofighter flies.

Olympic Guardian was designed to test the integration of layered air defence elements, consisting of much more than just a section of fighters. The normal civil and military radars will be backed up by a mobile Type 101 radar unit and a trailer-based control centre somewhere in London, as well as E-3D Sentry AWACS and Sea King Mk 7 airborne radars. For anything that evades these, teams of three personnel with binoculars will be deployed around the capital, shades of the Royal Observer Corps, which was disbanded in 1995. 

Sea King Mk 7

Although plans to base one or more Type 45 destroyers on the Thames and in the English Channel seem to have been quietly dropped since they were proposed last year, perhaps because their Sea Viper missiles are not yet considered operationally ready, two sorts of surface-air-missiles were displayed to the press at Shooter’s Hill overlooking Greenwich, site of the equestrian events. The Rapier is a trailer-mounted radar-guided system with a range of about 5km, and batteries may be deployed along a north-south line crossing the Olympic Park in London’s east end. The more portable Starstreak HVM (high velocity missile) might wind up on water towers and blocks of flats across east London, including the 17-storey Fred Wigg Tower in Waltham Forest, which has a wide view over the Olympic Park and much of east London. Unsurprisingly, residents are a touch concerned about becoming a SAM site, and some only found out about this possibility during Olympic Guardian when uniformed men with boxes were encountered on the stairs.

The perceived militarisation of the games and the growing security bill, estimated now at £1 billion has caused predictable grumbles, but in the modern era If all the above fails, we can’t rely on Team GB’s clay pigeon shooters as the final line of defence.

Everyone from the Defence Secretary on down says there are “No specific threats” to the games. AVM Atha told reporters that no single measure has utility against all potential threats and that the measures planned were against the worst-case scenario, not necessarily the most likely. Potential threats fall into two categories, “regulated” and “unregulated”. The first include airliners and general aviation aircraft, and the latter radio control aircraft, improvised unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and who knows what else. An army Lieutenant Colonel at a meeting to assure residents of one potential missile battery told them that the threat could come from lash-up unmanned vehicles carrying poison, launched at the stadium from within the same inner suburbs. Another artillery officer stressed that the missile deployment was only a test and that any decision to actually base them during the games was yet to be taken.

A Lynx launches from Ocean
Not to be left out, the Royal Navy also played its part when the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean sailed to Greenwich, squeezing through the Thames Barrier flood defences with little room to spare. On board were landing craft, speedboats and helicopters, which conducted exercises up and down the river against simulated wayward boats and aircraft. Aboard were four Army Air Corps Lynx helicopters carrying snipers tasked with targeting low slow flyers, and four Royal Navy Lynx with Royal Marine snipers looking for suspicious river traffic.

One landing craft was spotted carrying an LRAD or long-range acoustic device, also called a ‘pain ray’, although the MoD says they will only use it for its loud hailer capabilities.

The exercise concluded after 10 days and everything flew, sailed or drove away until July, except the hangars and arrestor gear at Northolt. The Defence Secretary said the idea was that the military would now “fade into the background” and “not dominate the games”.

When the games themselves roll around, GA pilots better familarise themselves with the changed airspace. The advice leaflet being distributed to aero clubs says: “Deviation from R112 – the Restricted Zone Rules, or Violation of P111 – the Prohibited Zone will result in Interception.”

Wayward light aircraft may be intercepted by Typhoons, which will rock wings and break left to right in front, firing flares if necessary. Crew in Puma and Lynx helicopters will hold up a ‘Follow Me’ sign, fire flares or shine lasers to get the pilot’s attention (something which is usually frowned upon in aviation). The appropriate response in every instance is to rock your wings, follow the interceptor and turn away from London. Radio failure procedures are to stay out of the Restricted Zone. What happens if a pilot still bimbles on his merry way is not spelled out, but can be imagined.

Presumably they don't mean on Twitter
The standard QRA loadout for a Typhoon is four radar-guided AMRAAM missiles, four infrared ASRAAMs and a 27mm Mauser cannon. The cannon, which contrary to legend, is actually fitted to British Eurofighters, has not actually been cleared for use in the air-to-air role by the RAF yet.  The Northolt detachment commander Squadron Leader Gordy Lovett said the Typhoon force hoped to do some air-to-air firing before the games.

The Pumas, based in a tiny Territorial Army centre to the east of the Olympic stadium will carry RAF Regiment snipers. Royal Marine snipers will be on the Lynxes flying off HMS Ocean, backed up with 0.50-calibre machine-guns.

The shotgun on right should deter any Jihadi R/C modellers
Since 2001, no-one has shot down an intruder over an event, and these measures can be seen more as an (expensive) deterrent than likely to be used for real, but it doesn’t mean potential threats are not taken seriously. Something of a stir was caused in April when one of two Typhoons sent to investigate a helicopter somewhere near Bath went supersonic, rattling windows across the West Midlands and southwest England and convincing many there had been an earthquake (rare, but not unknown in the UK). The miscreant was a civilian Gazelle returning from a day at the races whose pilot had inadvertently squawked the code for a hijack.

In July and August undoubtedly the RAF will scramble at least once to steer away someone who can’t read a NOTAM. The chances of any of the massed firepower arrayed around being used for real over London are extraordinarily remote.

Nonetheless, as one of the lucky ones to secure tickets for an athletics session I hope that all that crosses the sky that August evening is Valerie Adams’ shot put on its way to a gold medal.

11 Squadron Typhoon

Note: Since the above was written, the Games have begun, the Typhoons, helicopters, missiles and HMS Ocean have returned to London under the banner 'Op Olympics'. Another media event was held and I also visited Ocean herself at Greenwich. The skies have been mostly quiet, although the Typhoons have launched a couple of times, once to check out a BBJ owned by a US basketball team somewhere off the south coast that probably had the wrong radio switches selected.

Note 2: Valerie Adams won the Silver medal on the night, and the only other things airborne were pole vaulters and a TV helicopter. A week later, she was awarded the Gold when the Belarussian competitor was disqualified for a failed drugs test

Bomber Command Memorial Unveiled

Under sunshine uncharacteristic of the British summer so far, the Bomber Command Memorial was dedicated in London’s Green Park on June 28. Around 7,000 veterans from the Commonwealth, Eastern Europe, USA and Caribbean and their families attended the ceremony. This included thirty-two New Zealand veterans, flown to the UK on a 40 Squadron RNZAF Boeing 757.

The memorial commemorates the 55,573 members of Bomber Command killed on operations during World War II. Around 6,000 New Zealanders served with Bomber Command, and 1,851 did not return home, a loss rate of thirty per cent. Canada’s losses were around fifty-eight per cent of the personnel sent. Speaking at the dedication, Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the Air Staff pointed out that the wartime casualties were greater than the strength of today’s RAF. He singled out the stories of Canadian Andrew Mynarski, who was posthumously awarded the VC for attempting to save a fellow crewmember and Briton James Flint, whose George Cross came about in similar circumstances, but who was able to attend the dedication.

Queen Elizabeth II unveiled the centerpiece of the Memorial, a sculpture of a typical seven-man heavy bomber crew, depicted as if having just returned from a raid over Occupied Europe. Princes Phillip, Charles, Andrew and Edward were also in their roles as honorary RAF Marshals and Air Commodores, but there were thankfully no politicians or celebrities. One of the latter who did much to make the memorial possible was sadly missed, however. Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb, president of the Heritage Foundation which had raised much of the £6 million cost of the Memorial, died on May 20.

The Memorial was a long time coming. Although Sir Winston Churchill’s quote of September 1940: “The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide our means of victory” is inscribed on the west side of the Memorial, the destruction of Dresden, attacked on his direct order, and other German cities dampened his enthusiasm for bombing. Bomber Command was not mentioned in Churchill’s 1945 victory speech and he refused Bomber Command chief Sir Arthur Harris’ request for a campaign medal. It has taken nearly 70 years to get a national memorial built, by which time the surviving veterans have mostly entered their 90s.

One of the younger ones, Aucklander Ron Mayhill, 88, who served with 75 (NZ) Squadron at Mepal said: ”I think we now have a broader and more balanced view of what we did. We were there to win the war and I think Bomber Command did more than its fair share”.

The Memorial itself, in sight of the New Zealand War Memorial on Hyde Park Corner, was designed by architect Liam O’Connor in classical style and is largely made of Portland stone. The 9 ft high bronze figures that comprise the centerpiece were sculpted by Phillip Jackson and are accurate down to the last detail of parachute buckle and microphone lead, although they wear no badges of rank.

Aluminium from Halifax LW682 of 426 Squadron RCAF which was shot down over Holland in 1944 forms part of the roof, which is braced inside in a pattern inspired by the Geodetic construction of the Vickers Wellington. Above the heads of the figures it is open to the sky. On the park side of the memorial is a bronze wreath sculpted by an Australian veteran, Colin Dudley DFC, who was a Halifax navigator on No. 578 Squadron.

One of many real wreaths laid at the feet of the statue commemorated brothers John and George Mee from Becks, Central Otago, both Lancaster pilots who died over Germany in March and April 1944 aged 25 and 26, respectively. A note with it read in part: “As with their comrades they did not seek glory, they asked for no collateral for their lives, they demanded no privileges, no power or influence as they flew steadily into the valley of death”.

Five Tornado GR.4s, today’s counterpart of the World War II ‘heavy’ made a flyover, followed by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s Lancaster, marked as ‘Phantom of the Ruhr’ of 100 Squadron. Aboard was Ron Clark, 90, pilot of the original Phantom, who last flew a Lancaster on VJ Day, 1945. Today he was in charge of the release of poppies over the ceremony, one for every Bomber Command airman lost. Arriving in the London control zone, the Lanc’s navigator Squadron Leader Russ Russell checked in with London ATC: "10 POB (people on board) with 55,573 souls."

Photo: MoD Crown Copyright

This also appears in the July 2012 issue of NZ Aviation News:

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Gurkha Tank Battle Part 2

At 0335, one of the Warriors opens up with its cannon and machine-gun. Eight “pax” (people) have been seen to break out of the woods. The guns chatter for a few seconds, then cease. Another Warrior lets fly a little later, but that’s all the action before dawn and the end of any hope of sleep for me.

0422, we hear that the ‘Omelet’ team will go in first. This is not to prepare breakfast, for OMLT is an acronym standing for Operational Mentor and Liaison Team, which is a British unit that works to train the ANA to be effective and professional and to eventually work on their own. Another piece of intelligence is passed to us – three linked command-wire detonated surface mines have been spotted in the woods.

The starry sky has now been replaced by a dull overcast. The Kandaks have arrived, and their commanding officer, who wears a Lt Colonel’s three stars, is briefed beside the command vehicles. The approaches to the wood from different directions are discussed. The importance of the ANA giving reports of their position is stressed – everything north of their line will be considered unfriendly.

The trucks and Warriors load up with ANA and British troops for the short distance to the woods themselves. In our “Pinz”, Emily catches a few more winks of sleep.

A final brief at the edge of the woods – the ANA commander wants to assault from the south east of the woods. He will use Sound Commander – a man-portable loudspeaker system – to call for the enemy to surrender. Just in case they don’t, a Warrior will be there as back up. An Apache attack helicopter (AH) clatters slowly overhead. “We have AH on call.” Says the briefing officer, somewhat unnecessarily. “Any questions...? Ok, we move in two.” he finishes and the group breaks up.

We have joined a reserve squad of soldiers made up from 1st Battalion, the Rifles (1 Rifles) and the ANA, including an interpreter in a blue jacket. We form up in two lines and move out on either side of a forest path. The helmeted Rifles soldiers in their green camouflage and copious kit contrasting with the desert-camouflaged, baseball cap wearing ANA, who appear to have nothing but their guns.

On the edge of a treeline we wait as the first Sound Commander broadcast issues forth in harsh-sounding Pashtu. More walking and then we enter an area of tall green grass and plants, including nettles that I soon put a hand in and trap behind my knee as we crouch behind cover. I conclude that war is hard on the knees in general, and hope we can move on before they lock up and I fall over sideways.

The Apache clatters above, the Sound Commander repeats its call. The reply comes from surprisingly close “Allahu Akbar!” Hmm… it’s not looking good for the commander’s hope of avoiding bloodshed. The message is repeated in English, beginning with a good old cliché: “Resistance is useless. Come and join the government of Afghanistan”. The response, even as the message goes on, is a series of jeers and catcalls. We seem to have surrounded a football crowd. Four distant shots tap out like a woodpecker at work. The Sound Commander presses on regardless: “Any civilians in the woods should make their way to the left-hand side of the woods, in the direction of this noise. You will see white smoke. No harm will come of you”.

Suddenly a Warrior opens up with long bursts and the battle is on. Unseen guns and grenades fire around us. Our squad leader, a small NCO with a huge amount of equipment on his back, including a radio with a long aerial, relays messages to the ANA via the unarmed interpreter, who has to travel up and down our line and around a corner.

“Warrior is engaging. AH is engaging…Ok, there’s going to be quite a few casualties in this. They’re dug in and it’s not going to be easy to weed them out. Stand by.”

He darts about here and there, despite his bulky kit. He stops to speak in my ear “There’s the mother of IEDs in there and tripwires everywhere. Stay in the tracks of the man in front and be careful”. I ask how far away the shooting is and he says: “120 to 150 metres, but you would have to be pretty unlucky to be hit by a bullet in here” he reassures me, though not all that much.

At 0620 we are called in and run from our cover. I know the time because a few seconds earlier the alarm on my mobile phone rings cheerily. I am fumbling to switch it off when the patrol leader calls “Go! Go!” It was good thing that the shooting had started a couple of minutes before. Not good embed form to attract attention to the position of your hosts while creeping up on the enemy. Another one for the ‘next time’ list.

Across open ground, Emily speeds up to a run without looking around, following the troops in front. Despite my appalling level of fitness, I keep up and am right there when the column stops. At the edge of another piece of woodland, the troop spreads out, guns pointing into the trees to prevent anyone escaping. After a couple of minutes, the squad leader calls “alright, let’s move up!” and we follow him into the woods.

The bangs and shouts continue from somewhere deeper in the woods. Following the translator and Emily, I take a position alongside a path. About a dozen captured ‘AOF’ are herded out. Men of different shapes and sizes and a variety of headwear file out with hands raised. One in a blue robe is very fat and carries a bottle of water. A British soldier tries to take charge of them, but his officer shouts “Let the ANA deal with it! We can’t wipe their arses all day”.  Warriors draw up to take them away, their engines grinding and tracks squealing.

Just when it seems the fighting is over, gunfire erupts again. I find myself fallen on my bum at the mouth of the forest path as soldiers run by, back into the fighting. I scramble back to Emily. The next thing to emerge from the trees is a pair of wounded civilians. Both are dragged backwards by two soldiers. One has a brown kameez and green trousers, soaked with blood. His left leg is missing below the knee. Medics work on the two men and stretcher them into the back hatches of the Warriors. The shooting has stopped and the final act in the parade that passes before me is a group of four unwounded civilians, two men and two women. Last in line is a large woman in a maroon burkha and white tennis shoes. Actually, it might be John Simpson for all I can tell, but whoever they are they are led to another Warrior.

After that it is all quiet, if you can call the chugging engines of the Warriors that pull up beside us quiet, and you can’t. The Apache makes a pass low overhead as a show of force. The rotors of a Chinook bringing medical help for the wounded beat the air. Despite the relative lack of exertion and mild temperatures, sweat is running down from my helmet and stinging my eyes. No-one else seems to be perspiring at all. Emily looks like she just put on make up and hasn’t spent the last two weeks in a rather Spartan army camp at all.

It’s now I tell her that I can’t find my phone. When I say where I last saw it she’s pretty sure it’s an ex-phone, somewhere in the tread marks of a Warrior. This particular phone has survived worse than being dropped on a battlefield, however, notably spending four days in a rubbish bin in Yuma, Arizona, and I am less surprised than Emily is when the first ANA soldier I ask produces it from a pocket.

Most of the troops, including us are sent away from the wood while the EOD team defuses the giant linked IED they found. We sit in a clearing off a forest path with a small group officers and men of 1 Rifles. I dig out my civvie map of the area and we try and locate where we are and where we were last night. Their estimate of the latter is miles away from where we must have been, given we were in sight of the woods. Well, at least we raided the right one. I guess.

A daddy-long-legs spider marches purposefully over us, looking like a tiny potato on stilts. Someone remarks they are the most venomous creatures to be found in these parts, but their teeth are too small to pierce the skin. I move this one with my notebook onto a nearby plant already occupied by some of its chums. A soldier produces a thermos of coffee brewed on a portable cooker. It is way too hot and easily the most dangerous thing I have encountered so far this morning. My deadline is approaching, but the operation is expected to last another “figures one-twenty” or two more hours. I can’t really wait that long if I want to get any material in before the deadline. Then there is a radio call that the colonel wants the arms cache photographed with the ANA. I am not too sure my role as a journalist is to produce propaganda for the coalition, but I am the only one with a working camera, and doing it might get me out of here quicker.

I take group shots of the ANA with their haul – a half-dozen rifles and machine-guns, a military radio, a laptop computer and a mortar shell case, all wrapped in clear plastic bags for evidence purposes. It seems a fairly small “cache” – the Met Police would probably find more if they randomly raided a row of lock-ups in south London, and according to the ANA commander, 15 enemy died for it. With my recovered phone, I relay these statistics to the radio studio, plus our lack of casualties and a quote from the colonel.

We get a chance to take the last seats in a Chinook going back to Musa Q’Aleh. With little warning, the big twin-rotor chopper zooms over a ridgeline and plops down next to a green smoke grenade. Fifty soldiers and one tired journalist are aboard in a minute and up and away en route to base. We unload even faster and the Chinook disappears off into the distance leaving nothing but a diminishing trail of dull thuds behind it. The last event of this adventure is a short hike to the camp behind the four-man Gurkha recce team, who spent the last 10 days in a hide, silently and secretly watching the enemy come and go from the woods. They are loaded down with backpacks almost as big as they are, carrying piles of equipment including tents, shovels, a machine-gun and ammunition. “And if I know them, probably a bag of shit as well” adds Emily.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Gurkha Tank Battle – Messing Around on Salisbury Plain

These events took place during an Afghanistan mission rehearsal exercise (MRX) a couple of years ago and was written soon afterwards. All places mentioned were not actually in Helmand Province, but were stand-ins on Salisbury Plain (‘Helmandshire’ if you will). After acting as embedded media for 10 days, it was only on the last that I got near the action.

Finally, after what seems like weeks of waiting, I get the chance to join a unit going out on a mission. I meet up with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles or 2RGR at their camp at Musa Q’Aleh in Helmand Province. My escort is a petite blonde captain in her late 20s, known to all the Gurkhas as just ‘Emily’. Her primary job is education officer, but she also doubles as unit press officer or UPO for 2RGR. She speaks Nepali and teaches English to the Gurkhas. She is the only woman among 700 men.  In her spare time she does 24-hour mountain bike races for fun.

Emily asks another officer how close will I be allowed to the action. She is told: “He can go as far forward as you do”. We will be part of a reserve platoon, following behind the actual strike force. Not far behind, though, as it turns out.

The pre-mission brief takes place at 8PM in the battle-group’s command centre. Officers from all the main units at Musa Q’aleh sit or stand around a big table. Brigade headquarters listens in via a radio link. The different sections – intelligence, artillery, forward air control and so on, say their pieces. The various incidents of shootings, rocket attacks and so on in the last 12 hours are outlined. There has been a drive-by shooting at a forward operating base or FOB. Nine mortar rounds landed inside another FOB and a patrol was fired on. A local police station has received a threatening ‘night letter’ warning that locals should not join or help ISAF and should take their children out of school. Most relevant to us is that the source of much of this trouble has been identified and tracked down to a location known as Prendegast Wood. Observed by a Gurkha reconnaissance squad, who have been hiding nearby for over a week, sentries have been seen and a vehicle has noted coming and going from the woods. The force I will be joining is to go and sort them out, and recover a suspected weapons cache. A last-minute update comes in – a van has dropped a further five suspected enemy at the wood. Actually, the word enemy isn’t used. The colonel in charge prefers AOF, which stands for armed opposition forces. The meeting breaks up and the officers go to brief their own men.

The plan, Emily tells me, is to move out in a convoy to FOB Edinburgh, have a final brief and a rock drill, where the squad leaders practice their locations and timings for the assault on a large-scale map laid out on the floor. From there we will head to a line of departure where we will meet the ‘Kandaks’ (the name for an Afghan army battalion) and their vehicles, expected to be Viking tracked personnel carriers. We head out to where the convoy, consisting of about a dozen Pinzgauer light trucks and Land Rovers, is lined up, engines idling and stow our gear.

The officer leading the convoy isn’t too happy at the size of this “train set” as he calls it. By the time the ANA are expected to join us, “we’ll be about 400 metres long by then” he says. There is a chance that a guided rocket strike will be called in on the target before we arrive, and if so, there won’t be much to do except to pick up the pieces, which will destroy the arms cache and the “exploitation value” of it. We are in the second vehicle, a Pinzgauer with a Gurkha driver and gunner. In the back are Emily, myself and two soldiers from the Estonian Army, here as observers. If there weren’t two of them, one might be forgiven for thinking that the larger of them was the Estonian Army, so much gear is he carrying. He says he visited Stonehenge this week, and I suspect he might be taking substantial parts of it back to Tallinn with him in the copious pouches attached to his webbing. A last minute decision to leave behind 30 helmets in plastic bags that we had aboard seems to suddenly make room for us all without anyone having to sit on anyone else’s lap. I sense the disappointment of the Estonian next to Emily.

Just after sunset we set off, down roads at first then across open country. Forty minutes later we stop in a large open field that slopes away gently to our right and get out of the wagons. The transports are arranged in an arc at a distance around the command vehicles. The squat silhouettes of Warrior fighting vehicles of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (PWRR) stand sentinel on our flanks, their cannon pointed ahead of us toward the woods from which bad things have come. The afterglow from the sun is now just a bruise on the horizon.

As the last light fades, the vehicles dotted around us soon become indistinct black shapes like sleeping cattle. I recognise a short but tough looking EOD engineer from yesterday, when we both flew on a Chinook helicopter for a medical response mission to pick up an injured Gurkha. He was as interested in what I do as I was in his job, which mainly seemed to involve being the first out of the helicopter clearing bombs and mines so the injured could be rescued. If the helicopter can’t land, he will rescue the wounded himself while dangling from a rope. He asked me if we journalists were issued with a personal weapon. I was just about to tell him all the reasons why that would be a bad idea when our helicopter arrived and we had to break off the conversation. My flight time on the Chinook yesterday had been only 15 minutes from base to casualty to base, but he tells me he spent seven hours on it, which is enough for a lifetime, he thinks.

Emily comes over. “We are going to stay here until H-hour.”
- “We’re stopping in a barn and all of that?” I ask.
- “No. We may still get called out for a couple of things, this and that. I guess we will just wait for everything to kick off, I think. Everything’s in position, I think, but I get the feeling that it won’t be a standard night. I recommend you get your head down. If you want to lie down by the vehicle, feel absolutely free to do so, but if you can sleep sitting up I recommend doing that in the vehicle”.

A few yards away, two officers are discussing why we have stopped here rather than gone to FOB Edinburgh and then attacked under cover of darkness.
“It’s only because you guys don’t want to clear a fucking wood in the night time!” Says one.
“I can’t believe we are waiting here for fucking five hours!” Says the second officer, laughing.
“The thing about waiting here is that no-one can get in and no-one can get out.”
Emily asks them what has happened to the original plan.
“The plan at FOB Edinburgh changed…” says the first officer “…because recce – the legends that they are – identified eight people inside the objective, laying a command wire IED now. So we said, roger, ok, let’s get ROE [the rules of engagement] to do something about it. That was granted but then we said fuck it, if we drop something on them now then we won’t be able to recover the weapons cache. So we said let’s go in, secure it. We know there’s only eight in there now. It can only get worse in terms of more and more enemy coming in. So we thought put a cordon around it now, no-one can come in or out. (At) first light the ANA can come down, shout at them a bit, tell them to put down their guns because they are hopelessly outnumbered. No bloodshed, clearance of the cache, big thumbs up all round, thank you very much.”
“Very good.” says the second officer. “I wouldn’t mind going in and smashing it all up, though.”

The moonless July night is so still and mild that I choose to lay down on just a roll mat under the stars. Sleep doesn’t come easy. First there is the anticipation of what might happen on tomorrow’s mission, which will be my first time in a combat environment, then an RAF Typhoon arrives high overhead, turning and climbing, diving and wheeling. I try to ignore it at first, in the interests of getting as much kip as I can, but then give in and lie back to watch it thread its way through the Milky Way, its wingtip lights adding two blinking red and green stars to the cosmos.

Eventually it goes away, but then a Warrior starts up to our left, its engine throbbing in the distance. At midnight, what I take to be Scimitar reconnaissance vehicles grind past our trucks. Uncertain that they are as aware of our prone bodies as we are of them, most of us sit up to give them a chance to not squash us under their tracks.

Finally, I get some sleep. The temperature has dropped enough to warrant digging out the sleeping bag. With five layers on my upper body, including body armour, but only a fairly thin pair of trousers, my knees are starting to feel the cold.

WOOOSSH! I am awoken from drooling sleep at 2AM by the hiss of a rocket speeding overhead. For a moment I think the guided rocket strike has happened, but as I fall out of my sleeping bag, it appears to be only an orange flare, bursting over the woods. Whatever it is, I’m sure it means I might find myself alone in a field if I don’t get my stuff together. I get my boots on and sleeping bag packed away in record time, I am approached by a soldier who is just an outline against the descending flare light, but sounds like he hails from somewhere on the Mersey.
“Are you the one doing the filming?” he asks, as another flare pops behind him.
- “…ahh…” I say, wondering if the focussing light on my camcorder might have given away our position earlier. ‘…not at the moment, no”.
“The attack is still supposed to go in at first light. We won’t necessarily be moving out right away”.
- “So it’s not guys preparing to attack us from the trees then?”
He considers this thought. “Errrm… it might be”.

Nothing comes our way, however and the flares continue to fly and fall, sometimes two, three or four at a time. For the next two hours or more, there seems to always be one yellow light falling gently in the distance, or in a couple of occasions dropping right overhead, lighting us all up. Mostly it has the feel of a somewhat cut-rate Bonfire Night display, but as some of the flares descend on their parachutes into the forest, their fall triggers flickering patterns through the trees and an eerie glow as they hang in the branches. It must be terrifying in there, and later I am told that the intention of this spectacle is to deny the enemy sleep and confuse him of our intentions. It certainly worked for me.

Some of the soldiers manage to stay asleep through all of this, except on a couple of occasions when another on guard duty or ‘stag’ trips over the dark cocoons of their sleeping bags, something which makes me chuckle with each grunt and ‘sorry!’ I have unintentionally avoided being stumbled over by bringing a pale blue roll mat that reflects light like a police beacon.  Deciding that being kicked is a lesser discomfort than getting us all killed, I make a mental note to look for a green one before next time.

To be Continued...

Saturday, 29 October 2011

A Longish Day

This week I had a chance to view the Royal Navy put on a maritme combat power demonstration, something that’s been held in various forms under various names for many years, but not recently open to the media.

Up at 0-dark-thirty in finest naval tradition for a train to Portsmouth. Turns out it was also full of MPs from the Commons Defence Select Committee on an away day. Last night they were probably rebelling against the PM’s line on Europe, but today it was tweeds and flat caps for a day messing about in boats, joined by at least two admirals and one general that I recognised. Some Canadian officers and a group of academics plus about a dozen of us journos made up the party.

We began events literally by walking the plank from Warrior Slip onto a Landing Craft Utility (LCU), which in due course set off for HMS Bulwark, anchored somewhere between the Isle of Wight and Browndown Beach near Gosport. Bulwark is classed as a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) ship, which essentially means it can land and launch helicopters from its flight deck, and boats and landing craft from its semi-submerged well deck at the stern.

The back door is how we arrived, and the large LCU slipped inside the starboard side of the well. Ramp down, we stepped aboard. This was my second visit to this ship, having been aboard for one night off the Outer Hebrides about three years ago. Most of it, including the shallow stairs for the embarked military force (EMF) and the unnecessarily steep ladders in the rest of the ship was fairly familiar.

Friday, 5 August 2011

If it's Thursday, it must be war

Thursday morning, and the Wallian crisis has tipped into outright warfare. Joint Warrior 10-02 has moved into the operations phase. We have switched sides and our Falcon is now simulating a Dragonian Sukhoi Su-24 ‘Fencer’ armed with AS-17B ‘Krypton’ air-to-surface missiles for an attack on the carrier Ark Royal and other ships of Caledonia’s task force.

The ‘Fencer’s radar is simulated by NATO-supplied electronic warfare pods, fitted alongside Cobham’s own jammers. Our ‘missile’ is actually a BAe Hawk trainer, flown by Marcus of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Requirements and Development Unit (FRADU), who joins us as we pop out of the cloud that covers all of Scotland and hangs tightly off our wing as we descend over the Minch, the strait that separates the Outer and Inner Hebrides.

After a low-level run we climb to 1500 feet, the Hawk tucked in close alongside. We paint a target with the NATO pod, simulating the ‘Slot Back’ radar of the Su-24.

“Launch Marcus” calls Caroline the Falcon’s pilot, waving her hand forward. The Hawk banks vertically, rolls inverted and dives for the deck out of sight.

We pull a 1.4g turn away onto a reciprocal heading, jamming behind us as we go, before turning back towards the carrier. When Marcus calls an estimated five miles to run, EW operator Mal turns on the simulated missile head and transmits it at the target. The Hawk itself has no radar or weapons, but we can provide a fair simulation for the ships’ defensive systems operators. The Hawk is authorised to overfly the carrier at 100 feet, but today there are issues with helicopters, including the Apaches that ‘Ark’ is carrying, operating below 500 feet near the ships. With the cloud level at 1700 feet and hanging lower in places, we don’t see many warships ourselves.

Marcus rejoins us at another predetermined gate for a launch at the Greek frigate Themistocles. This time we are too low for the inverted dive, so he accelerates away on the level at our signal. Again we paint, jam, turn, reverse and illuminate, and repeat the process once more before the Hawk leaves us for good.

Our last task is a run on the Dutch frigate De Zeven Provincien, a very modern ship with a sophisticated 3D radar system. We are joined for this by ‘Starbeam’, Tony, George and Ted in the other Falcon, which has mainly been stand-off jamming so far. We launch them off our starboard wing then become a missile ourselves. Restricted by helo activity to 1,000 feet, we are an easy target for DCA, - defensive counter-air – a Royal Navy Hawk on combat air patrol playing the part of one of the fighters ‘Ark’ used to have, but despite technically being blown out of the sky, we press on. Passing the tiny Shiant Islands, I glimpse Ark Royal, two Apaches and a Lynx. On the other side we catch the Dutch frigate in a cluster of four ships, which start turning hard to evade us and to present clear arcs for their anti-aircraft weapons. “There’s the Turk” calls Caroline as we pass abeam the Babaros, helpfully flying a large national flag. De Zeven stands out with its paler paint and straighter lines and we zoom over her from stern to stem. “A good catch”.

 I don’t know if we ‘hit’ Ark Royal, but a week later the UK government’s spending review got her, with a ceasing of operations with almost immediate effect. Her regular complement of Harriers followed soon after and RAF Kinloss closed for flying in July 2011.