THE SLEEPER PROJECT
By James Pratt
It was already April but as was common in recent years that didn’t always mean spring had arrived. In fact, as Rick neared the Scottish border, the wind had picked up and it was now blowing gusts of sleet onto the windscreen. Snow he didn’t mind but sleet was pure ice and twice as cold.
It was a seven hour drive from Heathrow Airport to his destination in South Queensferry, birthplace of his mother, where his accommodation had already been booked at the Hawes Inn Hotel, located almost directly under the Forth Rail Bridge and famous for where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped. Or so the story goes, he thought. He was looking forward to it.
The weather had turned even colder shortly after crossing the border into Scotland at Gretna Green and dark clouds were forming, rolling in from the west like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with glints of green here and there, meaning possibly more snow or sleet, if not hail.
Just as the dark clouds reached him a lightning bolt struck a large Beech tree 100 metres ahead on his left, temporarily blinding him. It was followed immediately by an ear shattering clap of thunder.
In an instant, his mind was cast back to Iraq, where he was sitting outside Baghdad having called in yet another airstrike. He saw the enormous flash kilometres away inside the city and immediately the adrenaline raced through his body and his heart pumped rapidly as the thunder of the explosion reached him. On very still nights with the wind blowing in his direction, he could often hear the screaming and then through his telescopic night goggles he would see burning bodies running from the buildings.
Intense SAS training was supposed to steel him and his men against such sights but the picture never left them.
With the likelihood of the Iraqi forces pinpointing their location by monitoring their radio transmissions, they had to quickly extract themselves and move to a predetermined position several kilometres away, where they would hide all day in the searing heat and have to do it all again the following evening.
He braked heavily at the very last minute, as his sight returned and he saw the flashing amber hazard lights of half a dozen cars stopped ahead. He swung the wheel to the left, skidded and just missed the rear vehicle by centimetres, ending up in a low hedgerow.
As the sleet came down in massive sheets of frozen icicles, a knock on his window saw a young tradesman, yelling something.
Rick wound down the window, his heart still beating rapidly.
“Are you alright mate?” asked the tradesman, holding a raincoat over his head.
“I’m fine thanks, didn’t see you until the last minute,” said Rick. “That lightning strike threw me.”
“Aye, it was huge wasn’t it? The tree’s well and truly on fire now. Even with all this rain and sleet, they’ll need the fire brigade to put it out.”
The young man guided him as he eased the car back out of the hedgerow. Luckily there was no damage other than a few scratches, so Rick thanked the young tradesman and continued on his way.
Several Kilometres further on his pulse was back to normal and he returned to his thoughts.
For the first time in many weeks, he was able to review where his life was at this time. Only a few weeks before, he had been in that intense combat situation behind enemy lines in Iraq, calling in airstrikes outside Baghdad. Ten days after the end of hostilities, he and his team had been extracted, only to learn the news that his parents had been tragically killed in a road accident in his home town of Brisbane.
Repatriated back home within 48 hours he was left to pay his respects to his parents with nothing more than a bunch of flowers laid on their grave and then to be thrown headlong into meetings with lawyers to deal with inheritance issues and probate.
After two weeks of this, enough was enough and he left instructions with his lawyers to put the contents of the house into storage and sell the property, under the watchful eye of an old family friend.
With time to think during his long drive, he found for the first time since the tragedy, tears welling up in his eyes, afterwards thinking, why only now. Was he such a thoughtless bastard that he couldn’t even cry at his parent’s graveside or was it because of all the death and destruction he had experienced in the weeks before that he had lost all feeling and compassion?
Too hard to dwell on, he turned his thoughts to other things, such as what he would do with himself now. In recognition of his outstanding service behind enemy lines, the army had generously offered him an early discharge and had given him 90 days to think about it. It was hinted by his commanding officer that a return to duty would possibly come with a promotion to Captain but was that really what he wanted to do? Five years’ service, from officer training at Duntroon Military Academy to 2nd Cavalry based in Darwin, then secondment into the SAS, followed by joint training with his team in England with the British SAS, which resulted in him and his entire team volunteering for action in Iraq.
Before Duntroon, he had earned his third mates ticket with the Australian Merchant Navy. Could he go back to sea? He could, but quickly deduced his reasons for leaving the Merchant Navy in the first place had not changed. A life at sea can be a lonely life and while he convinced himself he didn’t need anyone, he did like to meet new people.
Damn it! I’ll work it out eventually, he reassured himself. Maybe cousin Callum will come up with some ideas.
He drove on and nearing South Queensferry turned down the road that took him under the Forth Rail Bridge, passing the Hawes Inn on the left and swung his car right to park up against the stone wall at the water’s edge.
It had snowed heavily for the last half hour but had now, yet again turned to driving sleet.
For Christ sake, it’s April. Bloody Scottish weather! No wonder the Scots are always complaining about it, he thought.
The car interior was warm but he knew what to expect when he stepped out, so it only took him one minute to reach the double doors of the old pub and burst into the lobby.
He’d been here before and remembered the bar was through the doors to the right and the lounge to the left, where he was to meet his cousin Callum.
“Rick, over here,” called Callum, standing to greet his Australian cousin.
The two men shook hands and then hugged each other.
Callum McNab was shorter than his cousin but had the same muscular build. He had sandy coloured hair that even now in his late twenties was showing signs of thinning. Rick hoped early balding was restricted to Callum's side of the family.
Not having had the same schooling opportunities as his cousin, Callum had joined the Royal Marines as soon as he was age eligible. He was a tough man and a natural leader but like many natural leaders, he was placid in nature.
“You made pretty good time despite the weather,” said Callum. “We didn’t expect you for another half hour at least.”
“We?” inquired Rick.
Callum motioned to the man next to him.
“Rick, this is my best mate, Jock Munro. Jock, this is my cousin from Australia, Rick Strickland.”
Rick’s eyes widened as the big Scot stood to greet him.
Jock Munro was as tall as Rick and heavily built with a barrel chest, a head of wild red hair and arms as thick as tree trunks.
Jock and Callum had grown up together and when Callum suggested he was joining the Royal Marines, Jock immediately followed.
Jock reached over and shook Rick’s hand firmly.
“Jeez Cullum, that’s some grip your mate’s got there.”
‘‘Aye, doesn’t know his own strength. He’ll do someone some real damage one day. Mind you he’s just done a lot of damage over in Iraq,” said Callum.
Rick raised his head looking at Callum.
“Aha! I thought you might have been over there but wasn’t sure,” said Rick. “I didn’t know the Royal Marines were deployed.”
“They weren’t,” said Callum. “We were on detachment to the Special Boat Service.”
“Ah, I see.”
“Fancy a pint?” asked Jock.
“Thanks Jock. I’ll have a pint of Tennants Lager if you don’t mind. I can’t stand that other stuff you guys call beer.”
“Aye, probably too strong for you colonials,” replied Jock, smiling as he headed for the bar.
“I was surprised to get your call Rick, what with you just losing your mum and dad in that car accident. My condolences by the way,” offered Callum.
“Thanks Callum and thank you for the flowers you sent,” said Rick.
“So, it’s great to see you again cousin but why are you here?”
“It’s quite simple really Callum. I was starting to get a bit morbid hanging around the house in Brisbane, so decided I should take a break, hop on a plane and visit you for a while.”
Jock arrived with three pints of beer and handed one to Rick.
“Sorry to hear about your parents Rick. That must have been a big shock. Were you at home at the time?” asked Jock.
“No, I didn’t find out about it until two weeks after it happened,” replied Rick.
“How so?” asked Callum, puzzled.
Rick raised his glass and offered cheers.
“Ah, that’s good,” said Rick, savouring the cold beer.
“I was up country in Iraq, just up the road from where you guys must have been. It took us ten days after the ceasefire to get out of there. Still can’t believe they called it off after they kicked Saddam out of Kuwait. They should have kept going all the way to Baghdad, where we were waiting for them,” said Rick.
“You were in Baghdad, but how the hell…”
Jock jumped in before Callum could complete his question.
“I thought Australia didn’t have any ground forces deployed in Desert Storm.”
“That’s right Jock. Our presence there was naval and air force with only a few logistics personnel on the ground. However, half a dozen of us were training with your SAS in the UK when the shit hit the fan and we were given the option of deploying with one of their regiments. Four days later we were in Saudi Arabia and a week after that sitting outside Baghdad calling in airstrikes. When I got back, they told me about the car accident and I was on a plane a few hours after my debriefing. Back home they gave me the option of demobbing or staying in,” said Rick.
“And?” asked Callum.
“They gave me 90 days to decide, so I thought some time away might clear my head a bit,” replied Rick.
“Jeez Rick, I had no idea you were involved.”
“Nor I you mate, but it doesn’t surprise me that you were,” said Rick. “SBS huh! You wouldn’t have been sitting around brewing tea I assume?”
Callum sat back in his chair and raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, we saw our fair share of action,” said Callum, “but we weren’t as far in-country as you were. We were seaborne aboard HMS Exeter and spent a lot of our time on hit and run sorties up and down the coastal beaches around Basra, blowing up a lot of empty buildings to create distractions and attract Iraqi troops to us and away from the Kuwait border. We did have a couple of chopper sorties though, which were interesting, to say the least.”
“Oh yeah,” said Rick. “Tell me more.”
“On 22nd January, 36 of us, in two Chinooks, dropped into a communications hub 60 clicks in-country and destroyed a 40 metre section of cable, which put an end to what was left of the Iraqi communication grid. The trouble was that area was full of Iraqi ground and air forces. That said, we managed to avoid detection until we blew the cable, at which point all hell broke loose and a hot extraction was inevitable. I caught a blast from a mortar, which hurled me against a stone wall and dazed me for a while. This big bugger,” said Callum, slapping Jock on the back, “was just about to step into the chopper when he saw I was missing and came charging back to get me. He went off his head and must have knocked off a dozen or so Iraqis, while two of the other guys carried me back to the chopper.”
“Did he now?” said Rick, smiling. “Well done mate.”
“Thanks Rick but couldn’t leave my sergeant behind, could I,” offered Jock, looking a little embarrassed.
“They gave him a gong of course. A DCM would you believe? Corporal Jock Munro – DCM,” said Callum, proudly patting his old friend on the shoulder.
Rick nodded his head offering a genuine smile of admiration.
“So, in harm’s way yourself were you Rick?” said Jock, keen to change the subject. “Don’t tell me you went undetected the whole time you were parked outside Baghdad.”
“Oh, we did alright for a while,” said Rick. “We moved position after every broadcast of course, to avoid detection. When we got word it was over and we were still stuck outside Baghdad with no chance of a chopper extraction that far in-country and an angry Saddam anxious to pick up any stragglers and make them pay, we decided to walk out.”
“That’s a big walk Rick, no matter which way you went,” said Callum.
“The eastern border was closest but was no good, as it would take us to Iran and I don’t know which is worse, Iraq or Iran. So that was out. Heading for Kuwait was too far and with most of Saddam’s forces still concentrated in the south-eastern part of the country that was out as well.
Turkey was too long a walk, while Syria offered the shortest option at 400 kilometres. Saudi Arabia was further at just over 480 kilometres but given our forces had started out from Saudi we decided to get as close as we could to their border and radio for extraction. We figured 50 kilometres a day with kit, so an estimated 10 days. There were 12 of us in three squads of four, six Brits and six Aussies, all fit guys and tough as nails.”
“Couldn’t they do a chopper extraction for you?” asked Callum. “Given I assume they dropped you in there by chopper in the first place.”
“It wasn’t a simple as that Callum. When we first went in most of the Iraqi troops were in Kuwait or down that way, so we came in at night by two sound suppressed Iroquois’ with supplies for four weeks, which we hid in three caches around the city, raiding them only as we needed. However, now that it was over, more and more troops were redeployed back to Bagdhad, making any chopper extraction impossible. Given the distance we had to go on foot, we could only take three days of supplies with us, so we would have to forage for food and water and if we were lucky, commandeer a truck somewhere along the route.
“Good plan so far,” said Callum. “Did it work?”
“Must have,” said Jock. “He’s here.”
“Well, it worked - sort of,” said Rick.
“Sort of,” said Callum and Jock in unison.
“The plan was to start out at night and rest and hide during the day. The first two nights went to plan, then on the third night as we neared Karbala on the south-eastern side of Razazza Lake we decided the town was big enough to offer up a vehicle or maybe two, depending on size, as well as offering a chance to restock with any food or water on offer.
We found an old Dennis fire truck, long past its use by date but it had keys in the ignition and close to a full tank of petrol, so we figured it must still be in working order. We managed to fill our canteens from a water tank close by but found no food. Then it was time to kick her over and get out of there. The bloody thing took five goes to get started, by which time we’d woken half the town and all hell broke loose. Iraqi troops came from everywhere.
We’d set a few charges a reasonable distance from the truck, which we triggered as we headed off, fooling the Iraqis into blasting away in that direction at nothing. Didn’t take long though and they were after us in four half-tracks. Wish we had seen the half-tracks before the old Dennis but beggars can’t be choosers. We couldn’t outrun them of course, so as we rounded one of the steep sand dunes, eight of us peeled off in twos, at 50 metre intervals. We took out the first two half-tracks with grenades and the third with small arms fire in the hope we might be able to use the vehicle.
The fourth half-track was lagging behind quite a distance but as soon as he rounded the bend and saw the others on fire, he thought better of it and disengaged, turned and headed back towards their camp at Karbala.
We chucked the six bodies out of the third half-track and were about to head off in the direction of the Dennis when I noticed two of my men were missing. I raced back on foot in time to see them both reach the top of the sand dune and disappear down the other side.
I heard twenty seconds of gunfire and then silence.
Three minutes later the half-track came roaring round the bend and pulled up alongside me.
Harry Baartz, my corporal, yelled out, ‘miss us did you Rick?’ As usual, all I got from my sergeant, Charlie Bindarra, was a big cheesy smile that lit up his black face. Charlie is an Aboriginal from the Northern Territory and one of the most remarkable men I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Charlie doesn’t have to hear things or see things – he senses things, which has proved very handy on more than one occasion.
“A handy man to have in your squad,” said Callum.
“He sure was.”
“So, what happened then?” asked Jock.
“We raced back and caught up with the Dennis and the other half-track and were all feeling quite pleased with ourselves until we found the skipper, Captain Harkiss, had copped one in the leg. So, Lieutenant Muggins here, being second in command was all of a sudden, in command.”
“Bad Luck,” said Jock.
“For me or the troops?” said Rick laughing.
“Was it bad,” asked Callum. “The wound I mean.”
“It wasn't immediately life threatening but racing over the rough Iraqi desert wasn’t going to help it heal anytime soon. So, we had to get as close to the border as quickly as we could and risk calling in an extraction chopper. The trouble was if we kept on our current heading we’d be easily spotted, if not from the air, given we’d be under camouflage during the day, then definitely by ground troops who would undoubtedly be on our tail by daybreak.
So, after conferring with the skipper, I decided we’d take an oblique left and head down towards the Najef Sea and raid the first sign of civilisation we spotted to take on water, food and petrol if we could find it. We dumped the old Dennis after transferring the fuel to the half-tracks, which were custom designed for this terrain.
We tracked well and truly off road, through some rough desert but in the general direction of Najef and hid up during the day.
Luckily, the following night we spotted the lights of a small settlement. We knew that nearing it was going to be risky with the noise of the half-tracks because it was either going to be a village or a military camp.
Thankfully it was a village!
There was no apparent communications infrastructure, so we knocked on the door of the most substantial house we could see.
An old man opened the door dressed in a nightshirt. He stood there shaking but Charlie calmed him down quickly by offering him a cigarette. Through sign language, he explained we wanted food and water. Meanwhile, the other men scoured the village looking for some petrol – there wasn’t a single litre to be found.
The old man was generous and gave us food, mainly leavened bread and what we took to be something like couscous. It tasted great.
We left, asking the old man the way to Najef and headed off in the direction he indicated.
However, as soon as we were out of hearing distance, we took an oblique right and headed even deeper into the desert.
Reaching the border with Saudi would take at least another seven, maybe eight days and while we had enough food and more importantly water, we wouldn’t have near enough petrol. Captain Harkiss was also going to need medical help soon.
So, we decided to load everything onto the half-track that was in the best condition, including all the fuel from the other one and head south-east towards the border.
I figured three days before we ran out of fuel, at which point we would radio for extraction and I was right.
On the third day we had run out of fuel, so we waited until daybreak and radioed in the coordinates. We were picked up four hours later.
The rest you know. I was debriefed in Kuwait City and on a plane back home before I could even say goodbye to my men.”
“Jeezus Rick. What an OP,” said Callum.
“He’s right,” said Jock. “So, you’d better get us a beer while we contemplate it all.
Rick returned with a tray of three beers and three glasses of Glenmorangie single malt.
“Ah, a cousin with money,” said Jock, smiling.
“Blame Callum for this Jock,” said Rick. “He introduced me to this the last time I saw him.”
“It must be the Quinta Ruben then,” said Callum. “I thought I could tell by the colour.”
“Sláinte,” said all three, as they charged their glasses in the traditional Scottish toast.
“Now that’s beautiful,” said Callum, savouring the taste.
“So, when do you two have to report back?” asked Rick.
“We’re not,” said Callum. “We’ve demobbed, after nine years in the service. That’s enough, even for us.”
“Sad to be leaving?” asked Rick.
“Not really,” replied Callum. “We’ve seen service in Belize, Malta, and Germany and of course Iraq and Kuwait but it’s time to get on with our lives and we have plans.”
“Like making lots of money and buying this pub for instance,” said Jock.
“Sounds like a plan,” said Rick, smiling. “The only problem is, how do you make enough money to do that?”
“All in hand mate,” said Jock. “We’ll start filling the coffers by getting jobs on the oil and gas rigs in the North Sea off Aberdeen, as roustabouts or general deckhands to start with and work our way up the ladder. In no time at all Callum here will be the General Manager and making heaps of money.”
“You do haver at times Jock,” said Callum.
“What do you mean?” said Jock, raising his hands and laughing.
“Dangerous work isn’t it?” asked Rick.
“And being in the SBS, in action in Iraq, isn’t?” responded Callum.
“Working on the rigs is very rewarding financially because it is a dangerous profession. The North Sea isn’t the most pleasant waterway to be stationed in either, especially during the winter months. Force ten gales are commonplace and with them bring a higher likelihood of accidents. The potential of pipelines sheering, sending oil spills into the sea is high. So, quite often the crew have to work above decks, securing loose pipeline fittings and rigging in the very worst of conditions. The risk of fire is also constant and many lives have been lost since the first rigs appeared in this part of the world, albeit there are better safety procedures in place now.
The rigs are well equipped with recreational facilities. The food is excellent and entertainment is supplied via a room for watching videos and one for listening to music. In addition, they have an excellent library and for those more energetic like me, a small gymnasium. Tours of duty are six weeks on, three weeks off and the working hours are 12 hour shifts, seven days a week.”
“So, you’ve researched this thoroughly by the sound of it,” said Rick.
“Very thoroughly,” replied Callum. “There’s just one other fact we’d like to know more about though before we sign up.”
“What’s that?” asked Rick.
“The best money is made by the divers but the injury rate is pretty high, especially in rough weather,” said Callum.
“Och, we’ll be alright,” chipped in Jock.
“I told you Jock, we’ll wait to see what Bairdie has to say when we meet him tomorrow night in Edinburgh,” said Callum, chastising his impulsive big mate.
“Who’s Bairdie?” asked Rick.
“Andy Baird, ex-Marine,” said Callum. “We served with him in Germany. He’s a diver on one of the rigs off Aberdeen.”
“It all sounds interesting,” said Rick.
“Why don’t you come along tomorrow night and listen to what he has to say?” said Jock. “It’ll be fun.”
Callum looked at Rick and raised his eyebrows.