Chapter 1: Rogue Operator
3pm, 16 July 1995, Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, (formerly part of Yugoslavia)
‘Captain, the Cheshire Regiment have reported that there is a truck on the road to Tuzla,’ said the radio operative.
‘We’re witnessing the largest exodus of civilians since World War II. Did you expect them all to be riding donkeys?’ Captain Carlisle stepped forward. ‘Still no reports of any males among the families?’
‘Only young boys and old men.’
‘The Bosnian Serbs may have promised safe passage, but that bastard General Mladić is up to something.’
The sound of rotor blades grew louder, as one of HMS Chatham’s Lynx helicopters landed on the helipad.
‘Who’s on it?’ asked Captain Carlisle.
‘Maximum security, no names,’ replied Lieutenant Cole, who was standing beside the captain.
‘Thankfully, not the admiral then. Royalty I expect. With any luck the Queen Mother; superb company. Check that we’re OK for gin, Lieutenant,’ said the captain.
The radio operative lowered his voice. ‘Sorry Captain, the truck . . .’
‘What of it?’ snapped his superior.
‘It’s parked on a bank . . . ,’ he said and turned to look up at his commanding officer, ‘. . . pointing in the opposite direction, towards Bosnian-Serb-held territory.’
‘What!’ said the captain, peering at the screen in the communications room of the naval frigate. The grainy, black and white aerial footage was transmitted by a US Tomcat monitoring the train of refugees and NATO trucks fleeing from the town of Srebrenica. ‘Jesus, who the hell is mad enough to enter a war zone? The MiG-29s will descend on it like vampires.’ He glanced across several screens on the control panel. ‘Where are the two MiGs now?’
‘They’re continuing to harry the refugee convoy,’ continued the radio operative.
‘If they open fire right in front of us, it’s World War III,’ said the captain.
‘The Bosnian-Serbs are not crazy enough to give that order with UN troops all around, are they?’ said the lieutenant.
‘Whether they give the order, or one pilot has an itchy finger, the outcome will be the same,’ said the captain.
The radio operative monitoring the truck zoomed in, then spoke again: ‘Captain, smoke is starting to pour from the exhaust.’
‘That’s all we need,’ said Captain Carlisle.
‘Could it be one of the Rogues?’ asked the lieutenant.
‘Leave conjecture to the pen-pushers in Whitehall,’ replied his superior.
Another radio operator turned her head. ‘The vehicle is registered to a charity, Nurses Abroad, and said to be carrying insulin for a children’s hospital in Mostar.’
Captain Carlisle paused. ‘It can’t be a Rogue. They’re either dead, in straitjackets, or on the run.’ He leaned further forward to view the live feed. ‘It has to be some other kind of lunatic.’
A woman strode over to the two men and peered at the screen. ‘One Rogue retired,’ said Commander Stanford.
Sunlight entered the room, causing the officers to turn towards the open door.
A dapper-looking rotund man in his fifties, with wild grey hair, entered.
‘Bloody hell!’ said Captain Carlisle. ‘We really are on the edge of Armageddon if you’re here, Foxy.’
‘I’ve had friendlier welcomes,’ said Viscount ‘Foxy’ Foxborough. ‘Captain, Commander,’ he nodded as he strode over to the control panel.
‘I take it you know the driver?’ asked Commander Stanford.
Foxy said nothing, and peered anxiously at the screen.
‘It’s edging forward,’ said the radio operative, sitting up.
The engine of the twelve-wheel Roadrunner T45 truck roared angrily, as its gears began to stir its pistons into life. The driver eased the engine into second gear as it crawled along the bank at an angle to the crowded road. The driver worked the accelerator and gear stick smoothly changing it up to third gear and then fourth within a distance of 100 metres.
Hundreds of weary heads began to lift, as the gleaming unmarked truck quickened its pace as it thundered up the bank towards the makeshift roadblock. Dutch UN troops began to shout, ‘Hou op!’ (stop!), and a few refugees waved their arms. The truck was deaf to their pleas.
A little boy’s hand slipped from his mother’s, as he stumbled down the bank into the path of the climbing truck. The driver pulled sharply to the left, hitting a branch and shattering the windscreen.
The truck ploughed through the field, before turning right to once again scale the bank.
In a troop carrier parked 300 metres ahead, the commotion alerted two Serbian troops who were lighting their cigarettes. The truck was coming right at them. They leapt from the vehicle towards the abandoned field of rapeseed. The baying roar of the on-coming truck’s horn startled the Serbian soldiers as they fumbled to find the triggers of their submachine guns. Now only metres away, the two soldiers disappeared into the yellow-carpeted fields. The truck steered to the right as it finally burst onto the road. It punched arrogantly through the barrier of the road block, as if it were balsa wood. The two soldiers scrambled back into view and ripped back the triggers of their sub machine guns as the vehicle sped past, releasing their deafening rage.
Bullets ricocheted off the armour plates that shielded the truck’s wheels but continued upwards shattering the driver’s side window. UN troops and civilians dropped to the ground or disappeared into the fields of yellow to the right. With the road a hundred metres ahead packed with refugees, the driver kept the accelerator flush to the floor while veering the truck left at the fork in the road and onto the empty road leading towards the Gradina Hills. The MiGs veered away from the exodus of civilians and UN troops towards the barren road, before screeching directly over their next target.
‘The MiGs are turning full circle heading towards the train of refugees again,’ said the radio operator. ‘Even lower this time. They’re practically scraping the ground.’
‘Anti-aircraft missiles?’ asked Foxy, solemnly.
‘We’re too far away,’ replied the captain. ‘Even if we weren’t, No 10 would have to sanction it.’
‘Only after they talked to the White House,’ added Foxy, shaking his head. ‘Can you remove their warheads?’
‘We have dummy missiles for range practice, Sir,’ added the lieutenant.
‘They still have guidance systems?’ asked Foxy.
The lieutenant nodded.
‘But if they’re unarmed and can’t reach their targets what’s the point?’ said the captain.
Commander Stanford interjected, ‘The missiles may not reach them, but their guidance systems will lock on to the MiGs. When they do, it will send the aircrafts’ defence systems in the cockpit into orbit. They will withdraw, we can abort the rockets and let them fall into the sea.’
Captain Carlisle frowned. ‘High risk. If the MiGs shoot them down first, or if anything blocks our signals to the guidance systems, we’ll all be sitting on the bottom of the sea.’
‘Once the truck is destroyed, I have no doubt they will turn on the refugees,’ said Foxy. ‘Launching your missiles may be our only hope of averting war, Captain.’
‘The MiGs are zooming in on the truck now,’ said the radio operative.
‘Load dummy missiles,’ ordered Captain Carlisle.
‘Four MiG fighters are reported to have taken off from Belgrade’s Surčin Airport,’ said another radio operative.
The ship’s blaring tannoy scrambled the crew to their stations.
‘Missiles loaded. Green light!’ said one of the operators.
‘Launch missiles,’ ordered Captain Carlisle.
Within seconds, two Sea Wolf anti-aircraft missiles were screaming through the skies towards land.
Everyone in HMS Chatham’s control room watched the game of death played out on the black and white screen in silence.
Counting down the seconds behind the cracked face of the Rolex watch, the driver of the truck kept the accelerator flat into the pool of blood on the floor.
‘The MiGs are less than a thousand metres from the train of refugees,’ said the radio operator, swallowing quickly.
The British officers stared at the two advancing Russian-built grey-winged insects on screen, while Foxy squinted at the grainy small black box in their flight path. He lifted his hands and clasped them in front of his face, resting his fingertips on his nose.
‘Captain, the MiGs are rising,’ the radio operator said, reading the rapidly increasing numbers by each speeding insect.
As the caravan of refugees began to disappear into the horizon, the two swooping silhouettes became more distinct. The driver peered up at the broken rear-view mirror to be met by glacial-blue eyes. The first strafes from the MiGs’ autocannons ripped through the abandoned fields and tore up the road ahead. The roar of the aircraft above the truck’s cabin was deafening. The MiGs had missed, but now they had their line. The driver ripped the scarlet bandana wrapped around the Redfield telescopic sight on the dashboard and pressed it against the shoulder wound. The accelerator pedal disappeared beneath the bloodied boot.
‘They are coming around again. Both MiGs are locked on the truck,’ said the radio operator. The calm demeanour of the officers in the control room was exposed by their still, grey faces.
‘Both missiles have entered Bosnian airspace. Two minutes to impact,’ said the radio operative coolly. ‘90 seconds. 80 . . . Sir! One MiG’s broken off.’
‘Abort!’ ordered the captain, calmly.
The ship’s klaxon fell silent, as both Sea Wolf missiles fell from the sky into the sea. With the convoy of refugees edging off the black and white screen, all eyes returned to the small white rectangle and the single lethal grey fly heading towards it.
‘The guy in the truck is ploughing ahead,’ said the captain, shaking his head.
‘The truck is heading for the mountains, but the forest is not dense enough and it will still be visible from the air,’ said the radio operative.
‘God help him. Whoever he was, he had the biggest pair of balls on the planet,’ said Captain Carlisle crossing his arms.
Commander Stanford shook her head. ‘Balls?’
Foxy gripped the top of the chair in front of him.
‘That’s one cooked goose,’ noted the captain, as he watched the final attack on the screen. ‘At least he saved those poor bastards on the road, though.’
Commander Stanford turned to the British diplomat. ‘I guess that was the plan, Foxy, but at what cost?’
Foxy pressed his hands against his face and closed his eyes. ‘MiG’s missiles launched!’ said the radio operator.
The truck’s driver breathed slowly, to ease the flow of blood seeping into the bandana as the MiG reappeared above the Majevica Mountains to the right. It began to turn towards its easy prey, covering the exposed valley in seconds. The driver watched as two flashes obscured the MiG’s wings as it released its lethal cargo. Two S-24 rockets raced towards their target. The blistering sun was replaced by darkness.
All was silent inside the control room on the HMS Chatham. The radio operator looked up at Captain Carlisle, who turned to Commander Stanford, who was shaking her head and staring at Foxy.
Foxy slowly dropped his hands from his face, slipping one inside his tweed jacket to retrieve a silver flask. Slowly, he unscrewed the top and raised his trembling hand to take a long swig of Talisker single malt.
Captain Carlisle turned to Foxy, and to the surprise of his exhausted crew, he began to clap slowly. ‘A tunnel! A bloody tunnel!’