By now, we’re about 800metres into the world where ‘honey shrunk us kids,’ then…
BOOOM!!! The unmistakeable report of a single large cannon round very close by! “Fuck who was that??”
‘All vehicles halt!’ comes the command from Three Zero, ‘Wie het dardie ronde gevuur!’Who fired that round?” Roared the Captain down the Squad net, he’s probably getting it in the ear from the brass above.
“Drie Twee Alpha, nee!”
“Drie Twee Bravo, nee!”
And so it goes, all 90mm crew commanders, in double-quick succession rapidly clarifying they’d not fired…And then the dreadful realisation that we’d just been fired upon by an enemy tank, a fucking invisible enemy tank which was probably very close-by, laying silently in wait, clearly guided by the whine of our massive Ratel engines with its high-pitched semi-automatic gearbox, ready to rip a new entrance through you or the armour plate, a heartbeat from death, no scratch that, you wouldn’t even get a heartbeat!
We couldn’t begin to retaliate against an enemy who might be anywhere, and if the order was given to fire blindly into the spaghetti-twigs perhaps we’d give the Tank a far better idea as to our exact location, it seemed like the blindness that hampered us was similarly hampering the enemy. That should make me feel some comfort, but doesn’t.
Perhaps the Commanders didn’t even know who they could allow to fire, part of my Squadron and the remainder of the Battle Group is array behind me, if the wrong fucker begins shooting, that Tanks at my 12 will rapidly become the least of my problems!
The order quickly comes to begin a staged-withdrawal beginning, surprise surprise, with the rear-most vehicles first. Confusion reigns, drivers and Crew Commanders so friggin eager to get the fuck outta there it’s like playing dodgems at the cheap seaside fun-fair which only serves to slow the whole process down, a few bumps and scrapes as vehicles almost mow one another down, the vehicles in the vanguard obviously the last to be given the order to move.
During the delay before withdrawal, which seemed almost an eternity, I’m flooded with a heady mix of fear and adrenaline. How do I deal with this situation? Yet another they can’t prepare you for in training! Do I stand high out of the turret trying to see or hear something, anything which might tip us off to the enemy’s whereabouts, or do I hunker down and hope lady-luck doesn’t desert us? I probably would’ve looked quite amusing to the casual observer.
Head up, try scan for any sign of the enemy, head-down, please don’t shoot again! Bobbing up, down, up, down a bit like George Foreman trying to avoid Ali’s sting in Kinshasa!
If the enemy start shooting again, we will need to lay down cover fire so we must continue to face forward, HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) loaded, Herb the gunner’s finger poised on the firing mechanism, until we are well clear of the danger area.
Finally the order to withdraw comes down the line, but only for a 150 metre reverse hop. “Lets get the hell out of here David” but because the driver has no rear-view, I must quit the George Foreman routine, keep my head out the turret and face the music in order to guide him safely backwards in a controlled manner so we don’t run into our Battle Group colleagues with whom we will jockey positions until the entire BG is safely away, all the while steeling myself for the potential incoming enemy fire. We move past a Ratel 20 which now becomes the vanguard, and then we hold position again whilst they hop past us.
Directing our withdrawal was made easier because we now have a clear path to follow - the path we’d cut through the wall of wood on our way in, and our fleeing companions have torn our ungainly and rather haphazard withdrawal from the danger zone.
Finally we reach the edge of the twig-forest and are able to turn the Ratels around and hotfoot it out of there.
As we put some distance between us and the invisible enemy my heartbeat finally retuned to normal relatively secure that we weren’t milliseconds from oblivion.
In fact, we’d never know how close we came to a total gang-fuck that morning, because we’d learn later that we’d been driving blindly into an enemy Tank ambush consisting of two Squadrons (24) Russian MBT’s and that one of their gunners had fired too soon, giving us early warning, tipping us off to the immediate life-ending danger. There was some debate about the amount of enemy fire we received that day, I cannot explain the differences in accounts, I heard one blast, others heard numerous shots, the first of which narrowly missed the Commander’s vehicle, which was kinda sweet, given that they frequently sent us to meet the first bombs, however, we could only surmise that the enemy Tankers didn’t release a wall of 100mm instant-kills from all 24 Tanks because they weren’t sure where we were, and although we’d been powerless to target them in the low-visability conditions, the dense twig-forest which had shrunk my world that day ultimately may also have saved many lives.
Just another day at war, and the fright we all got, especially the big cheese, well I think we all deserved the rest of the day off, we’d just missed getting slammed by a massive right-hook, and from the enemy perspective, 17 October was more like the Bumble in the Jungle. They fucked up, we lived to fight another day!
YOU ARE READING
They call me TrinityNon-Fiction
Currently focussing on one difficult week in the 20-year Angola Civil War. David is a 19yr old conscript, part of an elite fighting unit who go into battle against an overwhelmingly large opposition who're equipped with some of the Cold War's most f...