Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Scuds away...

Ok so this one then. I mean I'll probably blog the rest in due course, but it's a good place to start. Even more so as it was the oldest one of the lot I listed. So here we go...

Cast your mind back to 1990. What were YOU doing? Me I was a young liney on 29(F) Sqn. A liney? Well, when you go to the airport and see the fellows in the hi-viz jackets waving at the aircraft? Well, that's a Liney. So called cos they work on a line of aircraft. They - we - didn't just wave ping-pong bats at the pilot, they also service the aircraft and refuel, all that garage mechanics sort of stuff to make sure the aircraft are safe to fly - but I digress. So anyway I was a Liney and in 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The west flew troops and tanks and aircraft and ships 9well not flew the ships) out to the middle east to make sure that we got our oil ba-Kuwait was liberated...and I was there. Sent out on the 7th Dec 1990, just in time for the war to start in January 1991...

So there I was. In Saudi Arabia. At Dhahran...in the middle of no-where - working on Tornado F3 fighters. Occasionally I worked on the avionics equipments, the interception radar, the IFF, the radios, the display equipment, that sort of thing. We were busy. We had 18 aircraft that had to be kept at a 95% serviceability rate - meaning we had to work quickly, expertly and smartly to fix the aircraft...and if you know anything about the Tornado F3 you will know that THAT isn't easy. They are-were-just about are (still) - remarkably unreliable. They break down just by looking at them. So flying them over the desert with a full weapons and fuel load for extended periods was always going to be a bad thing!

So we were busy chaps. And to make matters worse, once the actual war had started our squadron shift was put on permanent nights. The deployment out there was actually a 43/29 composite Sqn and for some reason they decided to put 29 on the Night shift...for however long the war was to be. (I think they actually expected the war to be a very short one and not drag on for so many days.)

The war had started and for obvious reasons we were even busier than normal...It was a night that would stick in my mind forever...As you may remember after the first night of getting kicked senseless Saddam started to retaliate and thought that firing Scud missiles. To be honest his air force was shot and it was the only way he could do it...and this night he started it big time. He tried to bring Israel into the war by firing Scuds at them, and had just launched his first salvo over there...

We knew this because in our crew-room we had CNN on the TV constantly. We learnt more from the war from those buggers than our own intelligent officers (an oxymoron if EVER there was one!) and we spent every moment we could watching. We had a fairly good tea-bar crew-room, with a boiler making tea and coffee, TV and video player, a huge stack of books sent to us from publishers in the UK, magazines (likewise) and a load of goodies (cakes and chocolate and sweeties) sent by ordinary families. It was cool. It also had chairs clustered around the walls of the room which to be honest was about the size of a suburban semi's lounge-diner.

Most of these chairs were dining chairs, not very comfortable, but there were also two leather arm-chairs...fantastic huge things that took the space of two normal chairs each - but were so comfortable that if anyone tried to move the chair out - the person trying to move them would be mobbed and sent out to do the chemical sentry duties (not a good task - it basically meant that you were the guinea pig in case of a chemical agent attack).

This night, as I said, was busy, but not so busy that Taff Jones (from Pontifract) and I weren't unable to get into the tea-bar for a cuppa. I got a tea and spied the comfy chairs empty. This was odd as pretty much all the time they were always in use - mostly by the armourers (who were never really busy) and it was almost unheard of to have them BOTH free. The TV reported that Saddam has just launched another wave of Scuds at Israel and Taff and I made our way to the seats and to watch the story unfold on CNN.

JUST as I go to sit down...I am in mid-squat...I have a cuppa in my right hand...and then there is a bloody huge BANG. Imagine the loudest bang you have ever heard. Now double it. Then there was a second bang and the whole room lit up with an orange glow.

"What was that?" I said, rather stupidly really...what ELSE could it have been? But I wasn't really expecting anything...

"GAS, GAS, GAS!" was the shout somewhere behind me, and my reaction was the throw the tea away onto the floor and go for my gas mask - respirator, we call it - and get it on as quickly as possible. In training, the standard operating procedure is that in a war-zone where there is a risk of the use of chemical agents (as there was in 1991, but there isn't currently in say, Afghanistan) you have to get your ressie on in under 9 seconds to stay alive. Then get to cover.

That night, I got my ressie on quickly and then made turned to my left to head towards the door...which was filled with people trying to get outside and to the air-raid shelter...one of the armourers (Derek - a big lad) decided that he wasn't going to stay inside the crew-room and ran for it. His impetus added to the crush at the door was enough for me to say sod it and go for the OTHER door at the other end of the building. It was a longer way, but given the crush to get out it would be quicker to get to the shelter about 20 yards away from the building we were in...

I ran for it...suddenly gasping for breath inside the gas mask. Suddenly sweating more than I have ever sweated before...and this was my moment. This was the defining moment for me of the whole experience of the war there.

The sky was still orange - the time from the explosion to now had been only 15-20 seconds (if that!) and it was all wrong. It was about 3am...what the hell was going on. I slowed my run and looked to the right. There was a trail of smoke from the ground (about a mile away) up into the sky, where there was a fireball billowing...leading in to it was another trail of smoke from higher in the sky. The fireball had smaller trails of smoke coming out from it...something I recognised years later when I saw the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion on TV again. It was pretty clear what had happened...

But I saw it as something else...I discounted the smoke trail from the ground and thought that this was it...That the Israelis had had enough of the Scuds and had launched a Nuke at Iraq.

Now this sounds stupid, but there had been speculation that Israel might retaliate and that nuking the Iraqis would be one of the possible ways. Even more stupid, Dhahran was at least 100 miles from Iraq! So even if Israel had thrown a nuke, there was no-way the bast and noise would have gotten to us in Saudi.

But I didn't think about this. I was 20. I had not been trained for this. My training had been that we were going to stay in a hardened aircraft shelter and send off our aircraft and MAYBE we might get bombed by the odd Russian - but lets be honest there was never a REAL danger of a proper war with the Russians was there. So here, in the desert, with the threat of chemicals and bombs and all that stuff - a very real threat of that - scared the shit out of me.

I have never been so scared. And I hope i never will again. And this fear - had driven me to a deep down petrified state. I was to scared to actually cope with the situation and I lost all sense of reality. So when I should have known that the smoke trail from the ground was a Patriot surface to air missile (SAM) hitting and killing a Scud entering the atmosphere - I saw and heard in my mind the Israelis firing a nuke at Iraq. "They've fucking done it! It's a fucking nuke, a nuke, a nuke...It's gone fucking mental! Fucking hell! FUCKING HELL! What the hell am I doing here...?!?" These were the stupid thoughts going through my head...

I was shaking as I put on the rest of my goon-suit...my anti-chemical protective clothing...I shook as I tried to tie the laces of the over-boots, and struggled with the thick rubber gloves...and I kept saying the same words over and over again. Thankfully the shelter I was in was quiet and there were not many people...and after a few minutes I was fully dressed and I sat there. And sat there. For what felt like an hour. I don't know how long we were in there...but after an age the all clear was sounded...I slowly crawled out of the shelter and stood and looked around. I was reluctant, like everyone else, to take off my mask. We all looked at each other, not wanting to be the first...and then finally someone went for it...and we all followed suit...Breathing shallowly at first, and then deeply drawing in the fresh air to clear our lungs of the claustrophobia of the gas-mask...

The discussion was what the hell happened? Did you see it? What was it? That sort of thing...One of the aircrew was walking past and we stopped him - what was it we asked?

And he told us the story...it HAD been a Scud. The Iraqis had sent a load across to both Saudi Arabia AND Israel...they were not guided - it was basically like throwing a stone over a fence that is higher than you can see over. You launch it up and over - knowing that it will come down in next doors garden - but you don't know if you are going to hit next doors pond, the dog, or the greenhouse. And this is what Saddam had done. But this time he had got lucky...his Scud was heading straight for us. It was not only going to have hit Dhahran, but also - and this I was certain of in retrospect - was heading direct at us - at ME. I swear on my death-bed that the bloody thing had my name on it.

But the Patriot battery based just behind us had been on the ball. We later found out that the Patriot that had launched had done so AUTOMATICALLY. It was in it's normal standby sweep mode and detected the incoming target, decided it was a threat and launched a missile to shoot it down. And it did it without any human hand interfering.

The first bang had been the missile launching - and getting to MACH4 almost immediately and the second bang was it hitting and exploding the Scud high in the sky...nothing to do with Israel. Nothing to do with nukes exploding over 100 miles away...it was obvious. But at the time...I'd been stupid and hadn't really thought about what was really happening.

When people say war is chaos and confusing I know it is. And my war was crazy and odd. We lived in a hotel-like compound and rode a red and white bus to and from work. We walked down the road to the supermarket and bought chocolate and donuts. And then we went to work and got scudded. It was bizarre. Unreal.

My war confused me and made me selfish and uncaring. I think that before I went to Saudi I was no where as selfish as I was after - and still am. It made me think about myself too much and think the world was a crazy, mad, mixed up place; that I found it was difficult to understand. Maybe this whole experience was a metaphor for that...I was confused and didn't really understand what was happening.

I would like to say I am proud of what I did in Saudi...but I can't. I did things there that I didn't understand and still don't. I'd like to say that I was brave under fire. But I can't. I was scared. Shit scared. More scared than I had ever, ever been. And now I just know that I kind of want to redeem myself. I want to do something to make ammends for myself...and I have been thinking that I want to go out to Afghan and do something out there. But that itself is really selfish - I have two kids now (and another one to be born ANY DAY) how selfish would I eb to go to somewhere that is probably more dangerous...I think maybe a lot of the things I have done since - and the choices I have made in my life have been influenced by that moment. I feel like I want to put it right. It feels like a pot-hole that needs to filled in so I can continue on my way through life.

We were, and I am still in, awe of Patriot and became firm friends with the Americans operating and maintaining it. We visited their site and talked with them...swapping bits of things that they had for what we had...

Patriot launched several more times at Dhahran, saving in my mind lots of people; most importantly me. I firmly, and genuinely believe that Patriot saved my life in Dhahran...but it also made a hole in my soul.


At 9:40 PM , Blogger gemmak said...

Ok...firt respone, gut response...FUCK!!!! Jesus, no wonder you were bloody scared! Fuck, fuck, fuck!

Second, and slightly less knee jerk;

What the hell do you have to make amends for man?? Call me ignorant, tell me I don't know what it's like (which I don't), tell me I'm not inside your head, but I still don't know what there is to make amends for! You did your bit, you did more than most of us will ever be asked to and you got thru it the best way you knew how. 'Flight or fight' in a situation where you can do neither properly would confuse anyone's psych....particualrly at only 20!!

Give yourself a break eh? It may have made you more selfish but if you look for it, doubtless it has made you do/think/feel other things that you see more positively too!

At 9:41 PM , Blogger Kel D said...

Wow. That's really quite an eye opener.

My memory of the gulf war was standing with my best friend Andrew looking out of the classroom window onto all the snow on the school field. We were taking a break by sharpening our pencils, slowly. He said "Do you think there will be war?"

Then it started and loads of the Dads got posted and friends had red rimmed eyes with dark circles under them. And I remember a couple of airmen died on a training run and it was just awful.
And the journalists, they kept coming to the village pub and of course back in those days, if people were in the village pub admitting they were RAF, then the IRA might have put a bomb under their car before they drove home.
So people just stuck to the messes on base. A real bunker mentality.

It felt like we were all holding our breath.

And we HATED Saddam and then the war just sort of ended and it seemed to have been a waste of time and effort.

Two years later, I moved schools where there weren't any other forces kids and when I said "remember the Gulf War?" not one of my classmates could.

At 10:09 PM , Blogger geeklawyer said...

Fascinating! I think that's what all wars are like: a series of confused scared men round around wondering if they are about to cop it.

Pity you didn't use the confusion to blag the leather sofa :)

At 10:33 PM , Blogger Alex said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 10:35 PM , Blogger Alex said...

As a bit of an edit - I forgot to add that I have a bit of the Scud and Patriot (that was left behind) that shot it down...It is a nice momento of my time out there and is a bit of a reminder and a bit of an inspiration to me...



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