Friday, 5th January 1996
Kentobi, Central Africa
From under the trees, Phil McKenzie observed the two helicopters take-off. They adopted a forward tilting attitude, engines screaming as they gained height and speed. When the leading aircraft reached 200 feet Phil fired two rapid shots into the front of the Perspex canopy.
“Do you really think it’ll work Phil?” Joe Conroy asked his team leader.
They watched the Russian-built Hind plummet to the ground, hit the Kentobi dust, and explode in a ball of flame.
“It’ll work,” Phil replied. “Without his escort, the fearless dictator will turn back.”
They watched as the second Hind, containing General Amadi Meterenge, banked to the right taking evasive action. The General’s helicopter also went out of control, spiralled to the ground and exploded in a ball of flame.
“Shit!” Phil said through gritted teeth. “Just before it spun, the Perspex splintered on that second chopper. There was another shot.”
“Long range with a suppressor fitted,” Joe said. He scanned the countryside to the north with his binoculars. “I reckon it came from that outcrop, but who the fuck was it?” He continued looking. “That’s a range of at least 500 metres.”
“No time for that,” Phil said, before turning to the other two members of the team. “Let’s go lads. We can’t hang about here.”
Pete Kelly and Dave Carter had been lying prone behind Phil and listening in. They were keeping watch to the rear of the group. When they heard the second explosion and the conversation of the others, they exchanged a glance before continuing to observe their individual arcs.
Phil was the leader of Bravo Two One, a team of British Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers. They had jogged 15 kilometres across the undulating scrub under a rising sun, and through forest to meet their deadline. The team had arrived with minutes to spare. They found themselves leaving the scene in a hurry, in lightweight combat kit still saturated from the first run.
In the opinion of his peers and superiors alike, Phil had the ability to lead, or blend in and be the ‘grey man’. His short dark hair and athletic build allowed him to look unassuming and ordinary in civilian clothes. On a mission, he was 100 % emotionless weapon of war.
According to those who knew him well, and there were few, he was always emotionless. No humour or sadness, only concentration. He was handsome and fit, but an automaton. Training and instinct had served him faithfully over the years in many operations around the world. He lived for his job.
Joe was 36 like Phil, but there the similarity ended. At 6 foot 2 inches, Joe was four inches taller, had blonde hair and a muscular build which got him the nickname ‘Viking’. He had served with Phil for seven years, and they’d been in many tight scrapes together. Joe’s dry humour usually helped in the bad times, aided by his selfless attitude.
Apart from the brief exchanges between Phil and Joe and then Phil’s instruction to move out, nobody spoke for 20 minutes after the shooting. The other two team members had been bewildered when the second helicopter had gone down, but they knew better than to question the change of plan. Phil would explain.
They all concentrated on keeping up a steady pace when they left the scene. There was relative shelter under the forest canopy, but when they reached the western side, they would be in the open for at least half an hour.
Phil stopped and signalled a halt while still inside the tree line. He was breathing heavily like the others, because of the dry heat. He looked around at their faces before speaking. There was no sign of panic or apprehension. These men respected their team leader and would trust him in any situation.
“Okay lads,” Phil said, taking deep breaths. “I don’t know who else is out there … but somebody wanted the General dead.” He paused. “Now think about our flight out here.”
Like the others, Dave used the stop to take in some water. He capped his bottle.
“While we’ve been runnin’,” he said, “I’ve been thinkin’, an’ it doesn’t make sense.”
Phil said: “You guys really don’t see it – it was a bloody set-up?” He looked at Joe. “Viking?”
“Now that you mention it,” Viking said, having caught his breath, “that pilot wasn’t happy when you said we’d continue the mission on foot.” He nodded slowly as he recalled. “For a pilot, he seemed more agitated by your decision, than he was by his helicopter malfunctioning. If it were one of our regular pilots, he’d have been cursing the machine.”
“When we reach our chopper,” Phil said, “watch our air crew.” He glanced at Joe and nodded. “We’ll bring it up at the main debrief. I don’t want anybody to say anything to the two flyboys.” All of the men made eye contact with Phil to acknowledge, and then they continued to watch for danger.
“Let me talk,” Phil continued as he packed away his bottle. “I want you guys to observe that crew. Something isn’t right.” The others each turned briefly and nodded, then they all set off at a trot.
Dave was more confused than before. At 24, he was the youngest of the squad. He was a short, dark-haired Scotsman with a great soldiering attitude, a quick mind – and sometimes a quick tongue. Having completed SAS selection only six months earlier, this was his first live mission.
He had been in the Highland Light Infantry before his transfer, and his personnel assets were his weapon skills and medical knowledge. He was usually good at logical thinking, like all who passed the rigorous selection process to join the SAS. It had been suggested that Dave should control his tendency to question everything, but this situation defied simple explanation.
Phil’s team were at peak fitness but still dehydrated rapidly under the intense heat. They stopped after another 15 minutes, each going down on one knee, watching terrain and skyline whilst listening for any signs of military hardware or human movement. All they saw as they took turns drinking were the grazing wildebeest, zebra and giraffe in the distance.
Pete was a ginger-haired, 30- year-old ex-Para who had worked with Phil and Joe on several missions and trusted them both. Phil had saved Pete’s life twice but would never cast it up to him. Taking care of comrades was natural to some men.
As ‘Tail-end-Charlie’ in patrol formation, Pete kept his rifle butt in the shoulder and a watchful eye to the rear whilst also listening. Wherever his eyes looked, his rifle pointed. He was a wiry man whose head and eyes moved constantly, like a wild animal. He spoke when there was a need, but as they covered ground, he was continually thinking.
Dave said: “It must be 30 minutes flying time for any of their planes to get here.”
Pete smiled but said nothing, knowing that his young colleague was on the edge.
Phil considered the statement. It occurred to him that Dave needed reassurance that a helicopter gunship, or a brace of Kentobi fighters wasn’t about to show. He winked at Viking.
“Don’t worry Dave,” Viking said and grinned, “by the time they get that organised, we’ll be in a different fucking country. We’re not dealing with NATO here.’
Something was nagging Pete, and Phil could sense it by his silence.
“What’s up Pete?” Phil said. “You got something on your mind mate?”
“It might be something and nothing boss,” Pete glanced at the others. “Just before you fired, I turned to do a quick 360 – and for a split second I thought I saw something.” Pete seemed uneasy as he recalled the brief sighting.
“Go on,” Viking said, “spit it out mate.”
“Just before the boss fired at that chopper there was a flash or reflection on the outcrop away to the north of our position.”
“Fuckin’ hell,” Dave said.
“Dave,” Phil said, “shut the fuck up!” He turned to Viking, “What do you reckon mate?”
“It could have been binoculars,” the big man said. “It just might have been a telescopic sight.”
“A ‘pro’ wouldn’t be that careless though,” Pete said, “aiming at us and then not firing.”
“Unless it was a pro with a last minute briefing,” Viking said, “and they just refused to continue.” He nodded. “Maybe one of us was meant to be a target.”
Dave’s top teeth closed on his bottom lip. He was silenced by a raised eyebrow from Phil, and he cancelled the expletive, but not the thought.
“Keep everything in mind for the debriefing,” Phil said. He agreed with Joe’s idea.
“Boss,” Pete said, looking to their rear. “Unless we’ve discovered hungry lions hunting in the daytime … .” He pointed to a herd of wildebeest that had suddenly taken fright. Their dust trail camouflaged whatever had spooked them, until two separate dust trails rose behind them.
“They’re fucking big lions,” Viking said.
They all stood up and set off again at a steady jog. Pete and Dave had the unenviable task of stopping occasionally to look back at the indistinct shapes in the heat haze. Both hoped that whatever the vehicles were pursuing them, they didn’t have mounted machine guns. Even in unskilled hands, heavy machine gun fire could send its deadly message over a serious distance.
The border was indistinct at best, with no official markings, but they could make out the helicopter sitting in a haze about five kilometres distant. They had reached a point where there was no cover, only open range for any pursuing troops. Any other men might feel an extra burst of adrenaline and start an early, meaningless sprint. Those sprints faded over distance. The men of Bravo Two One continued at their steady pace.
They could see an acacia tree between them and their helicopter, and that tree was the closest thing to a border recognition point. Spits of dust started to fly up in a row a few metres to their right. Just a few seconds later did they register the thud, thud, thud of the machine gun. The team zigzagged as they ran, but on hard, pitted ground, it was hard going.
As they passed a large solitary boulder, Joe stopped and turned to face their rear.
“Viking!” Phil shouted and glanced back.
“Go boss.” Viking called as he took cover behind the boulder and fired at the approaching forms in the dust. “Pick me up,” he called over his shoulder. He took aim again and started to fire single, effective shots at the pursuing vehicles.
“Move it lads,” Phil said to the others, who had also stopped and turned. He ran to Joe’s side where he placed two loaded magazines next to him. “We’ll be right back mate.” He knew how difficult a decision it was to take on the role of rearguard. He had done it himself more than once. Viking was a man’s man – a warrior.
As Phil ran, he held his rifle up across his chest and kept a fast, steady pace, confident that he would be okay. There were no more bursts of automatic fire landing around his feet, and he could hear the regular single shots from Viking and the rapid fire, now aimed at Viking himself. The big man would be firing at one pursuit vehicle and then the other to prevent them taking aim.
Phil caught up with the others easily. He knew every second was going to count for Joe. It was five agonising minutes before they crossed the open border into Mowhandi and their helicopter. When he was still 500 metres away, Phil raised his left hand with the forefinger extended and made a circular motion.
The pilot and co-pilot had been standing, staring into the heat-haze from the shadow of the Puma’s fuselage. They appeared to speak to each other before they donned their helmets and climbed into their seats. When the three elite soldiers reached the machine, the rotor blades were circling, and a cloud of dust was being lifted all around.
“We’ve got one to pick up back there!” Phil screamed, as he leaped into the cargo area.
“I’m not crossing the border-,” the pilot started to say, but stopped when a pistol barrel was pressed to his kidneys.
“You pick him up,” Phil said, “or your fucking co-pilot gets a fast promotion.”
The helicopter’s engines screamed on take-off and the pilot glared over his shoulder at Phil. The other two men in the fighting team eased themselves into the large doorway, rifle butts in the shoulder, heels of their boots hooked into the metal runner beneath the open hatch. They exchanged a look, and Dave stifled a laugh. He was excited at changing from the hunted to the hunter.
It had taken less than five minutes before the Puma was close to the boulder, flying at only 50 feet above the ground, nose inclined forward, rotors kicking up dust. Against his better judgement, the pilot turned his aircraft side-on. He knew it was the wrong thing to do defensively, but briefings aside, he knew that his passengers were the best in the business and could shoot more accurately with a full view.
Phil knelt close behind the others in the doorway and surveyed the scene below. One vehicle was overturned, and four bodies were strewn around the area. A second vehicle was within 100 metres of Viking’s location. There were two bodies near the vehicle and one spread-eagled in the open. It looked like a single surviving Kentobi soldier was exchanging fire with Viking.
“I’ve got him boss,” Pete said in a conversational tone amidst the noise of the Puma. He squeezed the trigger and the Kentobi soldier flew backwards with a hole in his head.
As Viking ran towards the aircraft, he and Phil nodded to each other. That was as far as it went by way of thanks either way. Viking threw his rifle to Phil before climbing aboard. It was only then that the others saw the blood streaming down the big man’s injured left arm.
It was a 40-minute flight to the nearest military airbase in Mowhandi, and there was no conversation. Immediately they were airborne, Dave got out some painkillers and dealt with the bandaging of Viking’s wound. Dave nodded towards the pilot, narrowed his eyes and shook his head.
Viking nodded his understanding then gave Dave a thumbs-up for the first aid.
Phil sat with his back against the bulkhead and looked at his team with pride. He had been around a while, but there were few greater feelings than knowing your men had your back covered and believed in your judgement. He knew that whatever the pilot and co-pilot said at any subsequent hearing, they would be outvoted.
Lieutenant Colonel Sebastian Barrington-Cross of the Royal Lancers was the United Nations Liaison Officer for the troubled region. Several UN members had officers in African countries, and Barrington-Cross was the British representative. He had taken the job because of the international flavour of the challenge, and to gain another medal. Barrington-Cross had been a young Lieutenant during the first Gulf War in 1990/91 and had survived the conflict because of a strong bunch of soldiers. On one occasion, his NCO’s had saved him from making a catastrophic decision and the Company survived the situation unscathed.
In an effort to be associated with glory, the young officer later attended an SAS ‘Selection’ Course at Hereford. He had trained hard physically for six months prior to the attempt but failed. He had seriously misjudged the full criteria of the process and his attitude was noted by more than one instructor.
The men who wore the winged-dagger badge had more going for them than fitness. Barrington-Cross was ‘Returned to Unit’ on the third day. He had let down a long line of distinguished ancestors – again.
As these things do, the word spread and the disappointed officer’s postings had been structured toward less arduous roles. He was fiercely jealous of the men who were capable of making fast, accurate decisions under fire.
He now stood across the desk from Phil. The officer was scowling at the SAS man, knuckles pressing on the desk as he leaned across to address him. Unlike the heat that the team had experienced, this officer’s temporary workplace was cooled by the low buzz of an overhead fan. He had commandeered the small building solely to conduct this discussion.
A hint of alcohol reached Phil’s nostrils when Barrington-Cross spoke.
“Who the hell do you think you are McKenzie?” the officer growled. “That winged-dagger badge you people wear, it doesn’t give you the right to assassinate whoever you please.”
Phil fixed his gaze on the senior officer, ignoring the other two men in the room. They were diplomats, or politicians as Phil thought of them, and he didn’t like politicians. He waited until the liaison officer had walked around the desk and stood within arm’s length before he replied. Phil stared into the man’s eyes.
“I was fulfilling my brief – sir.” The statement was loaded with sarcasm.
“Don’t you come the bloody smart arse with me my friend,” the officer said. “Your helicopter pilot told you that the mission would have to be aborted because of a mechanical fault, so he landed while still in Mowhandi.” The officer paused and narrowed his eyes. “You, however, insisted on continuing into Kentobi on foot.”
“We had a mission to accomplish, sir,” Phil said, once again spitting out the ‘sir’.
“You put the lives of your team in danger. You even had the audacity to tell the pilot to radio in his aircraft’s position, but wait for your return.”
“I don’t know who these two gentlemen are sir,” Phil said, emphasising his distaste. “If you want me to speak freely in front of them I will.” He paused and looked at the pair of them. “Would you like me to do that, sir?”
Barrington-Cross stared into Phil’s eyes and knew he wasn’t going to browbeat a man of this calibre. He also knew that Phil was wise to the ways of government. He had learned earlier in his career that Special Forces personnel are not hired killers. They are intelligent; modern warriors and most have a firm grasp of the political situation of the day. The burly officer smiled before turning to address the two men in suits.
“Gentlemen, I would appreciate a few minutes alone with Sergeant McKenzie … if you would be so kind. I think we should discuss this,” he paused, “at a military level, before I make my report.”
One of the two diplomats opened his mouth to argue, but his associate nodded towards the door and looked back.
“Five minutes Colonel.”
“Thank you so much,” Barrington-Cross said, and watched the door close before he turned to face Phil. “Now you bloody explain yourself,” he said and smirked. “I have a feeling you’re about to be arrested for the assassination of an international statesman.”
In the absence of witnesses, Phil’s showed his true contempt. A dimple appeared in his right cheek, and he shook his head.
“You might as well get rid of the uniform and dress like those two arseholes out there.” Despite his self-control, Phil could feel his face warming and pulse quicken.
“You had better watch your step McKenzie and remember who you’re talking to-,”
“Why?” Phil interrupted. “Is this being fucking recorded?” He turned his head to look into the corners of the small office as if to emphasise the point. Phil’s nostrils flared as he breathed, but he kept his mouth closed when not speaking. The scent of the officer’s aftershave drifted to Phil’s nostrils. It seemed out of place amongst the other aromas, the whirring overhead fan and the intense heat and dust.
“Okay,” the officer said, “you tell me. What do you think is going on?”
Phil levelled his gaze on the liaison man and spoke for five minutes, explaining the political and military situation in each of the four neighbouring countries. When he named the head of state that had been assassinated he emphasised the rank by laughing when saying, ‘General Amadi Meterenge.’ He concluded his speech in a matter of fact tone.
“I don’t know who did shoot down his aircraft, but they did the world a favour.” As Phil spoke, he watched the liaison officer. The big man’s eyes lost the intense glare; his cheeks relaxed and his jaw sagged. Phil nodded at him with confidence and finished.
“You’re not making any fucking reports Colonel. You don’t even know the original brief. I reckon you’ve been told to pull me in and rubber stamp my arrest. You are to point the official accusing finger.”
The Colonel couldn’t help the twitch in his left eye. This bastard was good. For a fleeting moment, he wished once again that he had made the grade all those years ago.
“How much I know,” the officer said, “is no concern of yours soldier. The point is that you are now relieved of duty, and you’ll be escorted from here under armed guard.”
“Before my armed guard arrives, sir,” Phil said, “I have two questions for you to ponder.”
“Go on,” the officer’s eyes squinted as he stared at the SAS man.
“First. How long was the helicopter crew supposed to wait before they abandoned us?” Phil smirked when the colonel’s eyes widened. “Secondly, how is it that such a faulty helicopter made it back here without a hitch?”
While Phil’s unofficial debriefing with Lt. Col. Barrington-Cross was taking place, a white Toyota Land Cruiser pulled up at the entrance to the small building. It had ‘UN’ painted on various body panels in large black letters. Two burly soldiers, one white and one black, got out. They were wearing UN insignia and light blue berets. Both glanced at the armed men outside before entering the remote building. A few minutes later, they came out with Phil in handcuffs. One of them was carrying Phil’s weapons.
Phil’s team had been sitting on wooden pallets in the shade of a roof extension. They were drinking water and discussing how the smell of wildlife seemed to reach everywhere. When they saw Phil being led toward the Toyota, their first response was to stand and raise their weapons into a firing position.
The UN soldiers hesitated. Phil made eye contact with his team and shook his head. The armed escort continued to glance back as they ushered Phil into their vehicle.
The liaison officer stepped into the doorway of the small building. As he addressed the team, the two men in suits were right behind him.
“You three gentlemen,” the officer said, “will be debriefed on this sorry affair and then flown back to the UK.” He glanced at the Toyota. “You will face military proceedings should your Commanding Officer so wish.” He cast a glance at the departing Toyota and his left eye twitched. He was still pondering Phil’s parting questions.
“I will of course furnish your CO with a report of the facts. Your plane will leave in approximately one hour.”
“What about our fuckin’ boss?’ Dave said, stepping forward, his rifle across his body.
“Your boss, will not be returning with you – and don’t push your luck soldier.”
“Well,” Dave said as the officer turned and went inside, “I reckon we should go after that Toyota and spring Phil from those fuckin’ UN gorillas.”
“No point mate,” Viking said, “we’d only end up joining him. You saw his blank expression. He knows how we feel an’ he’d want us to do the right thing.”
“Which fuckin’ is?” Dave said, his brow furrowed and eyes squinting.
“We shut the fuck up,” Viking said. “We let the head shed deal with it when we get back to Hereford.” He turned to look at the departing UN vehicle. “Phil will be fine.”
Pete cleared his throat and spat onto the dust before voicing a rare opinion.
“If the boss man at Hereford thinks there’s anythin’ to worry about, we’ll be comin’ back here mob-handed to get Phil out. I’ll personally tackle both of those fucking gorillas.”
Dave and Viking laughed. They both liked his idea and hoped to return.