March 14th, 1973
Dhofar Mountains (Jebel), Southern Oman
Ray slowly cupped his hand over his watch and quietly unclasped the leather cover. The slightest, indiscernible movement could catch the alert eye of a watchful enemy hiding in the shadows. Hours of reconnaissance and preparation would be lost in an instant.
The luminous dial read – 2:36 am.
He snapped it silently back in place and carefully slid his hand back to the trigger guard. Sound carried in the coolness of the night bouncing off the sheer, steep walls of the ravine.
He and his assault team had been lying motionless among the rocks for over three-and-a-half hours. Before installing himself in place, he had moved a few of the loose stones and pebbles from under him, reducing discomfort and avoiding hard surfaces scraping unintentionally against gravel. He gently wiggled his toes and contracted his leg muscles, forcing blood back to the heart. Drawn out periods in one position without moving a muscle stiffened the body, in particular when standing on parade – a discomfort all soldiers experienced. Inactivity could lead to pooling of blood in the legs and unless pumped effectively around the body could result in fainting – sometimes with disastrous results.
He brought an incident to mind. It was on a bitterly cold day in December 1967 – his first year as an officer cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. The Academy had been standing at ease on the parade ground for over an hour during a visiting General’s inspection. The cadet on his right was a Welshman by the name of Beddow. Ray never did get to know his first name. He was a pleasant enough personality who, as Ray recalled, struggled with the physical rigours demanded of the officer hopefuls…, which might have explained what happened next.
Failure to waggle his toes and press gently on the balls of his feet did indeed cause poor Beddow to faint. Daring not to move for fear of incurring a disciplinary charge, Ray caught him fall out the corner of his eye. He landed squarely onto his face like a lead weight, fracturing his jaw and smashing teeth. Seconds later, two orderlies rushed over, grabbed hold of him ungainly under each armpit and unceremoniously dragged the hapless fellow away, face down – gashing his cherished, polished toecaps in the process. Beddow was discharged six months later – a disfigured face, never to look quite the same again. Ray grimaced guiltily at the memory.
The chosen spot for the ambush had been scouted out and vetted a few days beforehand – going over the area several times on the pretence of routine patrolling. A suspicious adversary would have quickly drawn a conclusion from close attention paid to a particular locality. All indications had pointed to a strong possibility the adoo (enemy) would use the same entrance to a previous route he had successfully intercepted three weeks earlier – a kilometre or so further along the trail.
Bringing to mind the renowned saying derived from the poem, To a Mouse, by Robert Burns;
“The best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men often go awry,” not all his plans came to fruition – no matter the meticulous preparations. Despite the command’s historical success rate of one-in-three, deciding on a possible ambush site was still a matter of guesswork. However, expectations had become more calculated. Based on progressive experience in understanding the enemy and its unwavering commitment to continually resupply its inland forces within the constraints and difficulties of the mountainous terrain (jebel).
The wily, guerrilla army was neither foolish nor naïve and had quickly become versed in the methods and limitations of their enemy. One particular advantage was their understanding of the outpost’s mortar range. By stealthily scouting out the emplacements in advance, the adoo could determine from the lie of the land where likely ambushes might occur.
Ray understood this only too well and had decided to move one of his mortars a kilometre forward of his base at the same time that he had set out for the operation. Stretching his shortcoming to the fullest, he settled on a site at the extreme range of his mortars’ deployment at a little over four kilometres – taking into consideration the drop of eight-hundred-and-fifty feet into the wadi (ravine).
The original number planned for the assault element had been reduced by one early on the previous day. Lance Corporal Wahid had contracted a cold and was immediately dropped from the operation. The group might just as well have moved in with ghetto blaster on their shoulders as having a sniffling, coughing member advertising their presence. A late replacement was also out of the question. The two squads had spent too many hours rehearsing for the operation. Each man’s role was critically interlinked. An unfamiliar replacement could cost lives. He had allowed for such a contingency. One further depletion would still not have diminished the team’s capability. His eight-man kill squad would, all the same, be able to inflict considerable damage.
Jock and his six men were well entrenched a kilometre back and equally practised and ready to provide support for the assault team’s withdrawal as planned. It was not the first time the two crews had employed the same tactics.
Ray would always assume the lead role and, Jock the support. It had worked well in the past, and Ray saw no reason in changing a successful method with Jock’s agreement. Besides, Ray insisted he led the actions from the front.
“If it ain’t fucking broke, why fix it?” Jock had opined in his thick, Scottish brogue.
The plan, as always, was simple. Hit fast… hit hard…, and withdraw.
After all, an ambush was fundamentally a surprise attack from a concealed position to both temporarily halt and disrupt the unsuspecting enemy. Not to become embroiled in a long-drawn-out battle.
Ray’s assault team had a clear field and wide-angle of fire from elevated cover two-hundred metres overlooking the kill zone. The track was narrow with an unassailable rock face opposite denying a surprised entity easy manoeuvrability to break out – even worse with panicking, pack-animals each carrying up to fifty kilograms of supplies, weapons and ammunition. The bright, unclouded moon bathed the area in a blanket of grey-white light…, ideal for those lying in wait.
The guerrillas would usually lead with a small group probing the way for the supply column which his team would not engage…, leaving Jock to bloody them once the assault commenced. Ray would signal the kick-off by firing first. Issuing instructions over the handheld radio could alert the keen ear of the enemy. The attack would conclude upon commencement of the mortar attack, prompting a hasty withdrawal. If he had chosen the site correctly and his command was to be lucky that night, something would likely occur within the next hour.
He held his breath and over the quiet beat of his heart, strained his ears to hear for a giveaway sound. He started to feel the familiar surge of adrenaline at the thought of nearing action – the heightening of mental focus and increased energy he had learned to control. He steadied his breathing.
He didn’t have to wait long.
There was movement… A soundless shadowy figure at first... Then another…, and another, moving in single file. Ray counted five in total, looking around as they moved cautiously through the channel. His heart started to beat faster as the fight hormone was released. The others in his team had already spotted the lead group and were anxiously awaiting his signal – fingers on triggers and ready for action.
The ill-fated adoo passed by unaware of the assault team’s presence, and Jock’s surprise welcome further along the wadi.
Patience was now the order… To open up too soon would entrap too few and would result in a rapid response from the rest of the supply column. They were an astute, ruthless enemy and not to be underestimated.
Private Abdulaziz Murshidi was gently drumming his index finger on the rifle’s trigger guard when the first form came into view. His heartbeat quickened.
He was the thamanya (number eight) in the assault team – a position at the extreme right of the group he had proudly held through several ambushes. A number he was unable to recount because he was an illiterate man who had only learned to count to ten since joining the Sultanate’s army. He had seen no need to learn beyond – often boasting his new-found ability to an eager audience of equally unenlightened few in his mountain village.
Despite his anachronistic background, Private Murshidi was an excellent shot – a passionate skill he had developed in the mountains hunting wild oryx (large antelope) before the new Sultan outlawed the practice. He had put aside his trusty, long-barrelled hunting rifle he had inherited from his grandfather in favour of the army-issued British SLR (Semi-Automatic Rifle). A modern weapon sporting a thirty-round magazine with a range of eight hundred metres – a distance he could only measure on sight. It was a rifle he lovingly cared for earning him continual praises during weapons’ inspections. He was the command’s best marksman, closely matching the ability of the Captain Sahib.
Ray didn’t have to wait long.
The profile of a fully-laden donkey with its unmistakable, ambling gait came into view, ushered by an adoo holding a lead rope attached to its head collar. The silent movement of the animal suggested its feet were cloaked with cloth to mask the giveaway sound of hooves on rock. Keeping a donkey moving is an acquired skill that requires opposite reactions to a person’s natural impulses, and unlike a horse’s inclination to run when spooked, the donkey would tend to stubbornly dig in its heels. A particular failing…, if caught in an ambush.
Ray watched patiently as the column moved silently past his position, counting ten donkeys and thirty-odd unsuspecting guerrillas.
That’s five-hundred, or so kilos worth of supplies and ammunition; Ray estimated as he released the safety on his Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle. It was a weapon he had acquired during an early skirmish with the guerrilla enemy, and not a standard British Army issue. However, he had kept it for his personal use, preferring its ruggedness; its reliability; and its effectiveness in close-quarter firefights.
It was time to act.
In a single movement, Ray rose onto one knee, levelled the weapon onto the rear of the column and depressed the trigger. Instantaneously, a thunderous cacophony of rifle fire broke the silence and stillness of the night.
Private Murshidi reacted without hesitation. Taking careful aim at the lead animal, he fired a single shot catching the donkey above the eye. It swayed a little before keeling over into a heap. He was absorbed and fully focused on his specific task, oblivious to the mayhem around him. He panned his rifle to the next unnerved, pack-animal sitting on its haunches and wildly thrusting its head. He felt no misgivings about his amoral responsibility. They were not innocent living creatures; they were conveyors of death and had to be stopped. The disruption to the bulky haulage was paramount. He depressed the trigger promptly bringing down the second laden beast.
The sudden intense salvo created instant havoc on the column. The scene was one of chaos. Men were falling amid the ear-piercing gunfire while others were desperately scrambling for cover behind rocks or collapsed animals. Members of the assault team were taking deliberate aim and firing at both animals and men – the distressed braying of a beast in the throes of death mingled with the deafening sound.
The heavy, acrid smell of gunpowder hung in the air.
Ray had expelled the second empty magazine onto the ground and was inserting a third of thirty rounds when sporadic gunfire opened up from the survivors. He instinctively ducked a bullet ricocheting off rock above his head. The adoo were rapidly mobilising and targetting the muzzle flashes from the assault team’s positions. As Ray discharged short bursts into the channel, he looked over the kill zone. All the pack animals were down and still. The guerrillas attempt to move their supplies had been severely derailed. The initial objective was complete.
It was time to withdraw.
He unclipped the walkie-talkie and depressed the push-to-talk button three times, waited three seconds and repeated the action. He didn’t need a response.
In next to no time a shell slammed into the limestone outcrop a few metres beyond the kill zone exploding fragments of earth and stony shards into the night air as Ray plunged to the ground; his arms clasped tightly over the back of his head.
“Bugger. That was close, Hunar!” Ray cried out aloud, referring to a vigilant Sergeant Singh in charge of the mortar detail. He raised himself, picked up the spent magazines and in a crouch took to his heels – wild spasmodic shots ringing in his ears and ricocheting off rocks and boulders around him.
The second shell struck ten seconds later. The next two would be targetted fifty metres in – closer to the assault team’s position. The next man (athnan – number two) stopped firing and instantly followed Ray with the third doing the same – and so on. The practised withdrawal was like folding back the page of a book. The impact of the third shell sent Ray and the others diving to the ground, then up they scrambled, and continued to beat a hasty retreat. The fourth shell exploded with greater ferocity catching an ammunition cache strapped to one of the poor animals. The last man, Private Murshidi, picked himself up, shouldered his beloved weapon and scurried after the rest of the team.
Ray paused after a safe distance, stepped back and observed the men as they filed hurriedly by. The fitful return fire no longer posing a threat. He patted the beaming marksman encouragingly on the shoulder as he passed and surveyed the darkened carnage beyond. As he watched, a fifth shell struck the wall of the ravine showering the scene with shards of jagged rocks. It was a competent operation. He turned away quickly treading on the heels of the retreating squad as yet another shell exploded behind them. The mortar salvo would keep the guerrillas occupied long enough for Ray’s team to make a safe getaway to the cover of the support group.
Four more should do it; he thought as they neared the support team’s position. He pressed the walkie-talkie button twice, waited a couple of seconds and repeated the action once more, signalling Jock of his arrival. Almost immediately, a similar response indicated it was safe to approach.
“All okay?” Ray asked his second-in-command as he crouched next to him behind a large boulder.
“No problem,” he replied in his deep Scottish drawl.
“The lead group?”
“Got them all. We’ve already been down and dragged their sorry asses off the trail. Sounded like you had some fucking fun though?” He added.
“It was a big column; ten donkeys; all down. From what I could tell, we took down about ten to fifteen of them.”
“Okay, we’ll check out the site at dawn.”
“Be careful. I don’t need to remind you that they’ll be bloody mad recovering their supplies and will be expecting a further attack while they’re vulnerable.”
“No probs, Kaz.”
“I’ll leave you to it then, and get my lot back,” Ray said.
“Thanks,” Jock threw him a lazy salute.
“We’ll have some chai waiting for you,” he added over his shoulder as he led his team off in single file.