Red Cliffs book cover

Chapter 9

We had fair winds and nice weather the first few days out, giving us good daily mileage runs and an easy ride. None of Colonel Rainborow’s embarked team were seasick past the first day or two. Good weather also meant that the men living in the cargo hold could escape its confines and enjoy the fresh air and infinite horizons available on deck.

The galley dinette table was the one place down below where the men could relax in comfortable surroundings, so it was rarely left unoccupied. At any time of day or night men worked on jigsaw puzzles, played chess, read paperbacks, scribbled in journals, and fiddled with gadgets. But during the day, outside of mealtimes, priority was given to mission planning. I passed the dinette dozens of times a day on my way between my cabin and the galley or the pilothouse above. I never intentionally hovered around the team during their briefings and other mission preparations, and they didn’t go silent or cover up their maps and papers when I was near. The team just ignored Hung, with his limited English and apparent social self-isolation.

It was the same plan they’d pitched to me in Ireland. Rainborow believed that military trucks traveling in convoy under cover of darkness would make such an impressive showing of counterfeit Royal Moroccan Army military might that their unexpected appearance would cause any local gangs or militias to stand aside as they roared past. A covered truck might be transporting a squad or more of infantry, armed to the teeth and ready for battle the instant they spilled out of the back like angry hornets from a disturbed nest. Unless a suspicious adversary was ready to attack all three trucks with heavy weapons, simultaneously, he was not likely to pick a fight with what could be a combat-ready infantry platoon. If a late-night checkpoint guard had any remaining doubts, belt-fed machine guns mounted on each truck’s cab would help him decide to let the convoy pass unchallenged.

But instead of carrying Royal Moroccan Army soldiers, Rainborow’s trucks would be empty on their way in and full of rescued schoolgirls on their way out. It was a bold plan, depending upon pure bluff for its success. I thought the SAS motto about daring and winning was a flimsy foundation to build a mission on, but it was Rainborow and his team who were going ashore in Morocco, not me. Even so, I couldn’t help but admire their courage and wish them the best of luck.

Victor met with their two patrol medics at the dinette table to go over their medical gear and compare opinions about combat casualty procedures. He was glad to share his knowledge and experience, and was also interested to hear their ideas on treating combat trauma. An afternoon of seeing the table covered with tourniquets, bandages, hemostats, and the other tools of the combat medical trade reminded me of what I’d be losing when Victor left the boat. Without his past interventions, I would have been dead years before.

The crow’s nest high up the mainmast was occupied continuously from before dawn until after dusk. Sergeant Major Tolbert asked if it was all right if the team used the mast steps for practice, to maintain their climbing strength and keep their hands toughened. Of course I agreed, and it became a familiar sight to see them ascending, chatting with the lookout, and then shinnying down again.

Long ago, I’d mounted a pull-up bar between two lower wire mainmast shrouds where they are only about a meter apart. The bar, cut from a stout piece of aluminum tube, was lashed to the wires high enough above the deck that I have to hop up to grab it. I don’t use it as often as I used to, but it was in frequent use by the team. I hadn’t been formally briefed on the mission, but I knew that the final stage of the rescue meant climbing, and climbing required a particular type of strength that was highly perishable.

The amount of time the team dedicated to physical training indicated to me that they were professionals. They did calisthenics on deck in groups and singly. They did endless sit-ups and push-ups. The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war, as the saying goes. The team did a lot sweating, staying in shape for the cliffs of Cape Zerhoun. They were obviously very serious about the undertaking ahead of them.

Most of the Hajis I’d tangled with back in the day didn’t train at all. Instead, they took the path of trusting Allah to get them through every scrape. This blind trust even extended to Allah guiding the bullets they fired, eliminating the need for them to carefully aim their weapons. Some of the Marines called them skinnies; I think that expression was handed down from grunts who had served in Somalia. While not as thin as Somalis, the Iraqis I’d seen without a shirt or a man-dress on had not been impressive physical specimens.

Our Moroccan surfer, Kamal Abidar, was not cut from that skinny Arab mold. He had a substantial amount of chest and arm muscles on him. You won’t find a genuine longtime surfer without some serious arm and shoulder meat. Mixing it up with big waves on a frequent basis takes strength, stamina, and guts. Sometimes you can be held underwater for long periods after a wipeout, your body being thrashed like a rag doll in the mouth of a terrier. Kam had said that he was half French and half Berber. As far as I knew, he was the very first Berber of any sort I’d ever met.

Like every voyage made with a fresh cast of characters aboard, I had the opportunity to hear some interesting personal stories. Most of the news about current events in Europe that I’d been able to glean had been third-hand rumors I’d overheard on my single-sideband. The national radio news services were an absolute joke. On the presumably private stations, everybody seemed to have a national, ethnic, or religious ax to grind, and it was impossible to verify any of their versions of events. I assumed that most of the supposedly independent voices were fronting for some interest group or government entity. For example, depending on whom you chose to believe, the situation in Germany ranged from worse than during the Nazi regime to a long overdue return to national pride and identity, with the assistance of their new Russian allies. A confusing picture was a hallmark of the times.

A ten-day passage would give me a chance to compare notes with men who had actually been living through the strife, at least in the British Isles. During one of the first mornings of the voyage, I was in the cockpit with Colonel Rainborow, chatting over tea. I assumed that as an ex–SAS officer and the leader of a private military outfit, he would be as tuned in to current events as it was possible to be.

“So what’s really happening in Europe? Ireland was as close as I’ve gotten in a few years, and I don’t know how to judge what I hear on the radio. It’s almost all propaganda, as far as I can tell.”

“The radio? Propaganda? Yes, it mostly is. I assume that you know about the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower?”

“Sure, of course: seven-ten was the French nine-eleven. That was two years ago, at the beginning of their civil war. They were both blown up at the same time, on July tenth.”

“Not quite the same time,” said the colonel. “The Louvre was first. A lorry delivered four tons of Semtex. A small team of jihadis hijacked an art shipment and made the switch out in the countryside. Drove the lorry right into an underground car park and straight up to the receiving dock. The blast killed two thousand tourists and cratered the place. And needless to say it destroyed a thousand years of priceless Western artwork.”

“So the Louvre bombing was a diversion.”

“Right. It pulled away all the French security forces, and then the Eiffel Tower was attacked by a much bigger team of terrorists. About thirty of them held a hundred tourists on the observation deck and threatened to kill them and destroy the tower. After what had just happened at the Louvre, the French had no doubt of their sincerity. The terrorists tore down the big French tricolor on top and raised a gigantic black flag of jihad. They declared the Eiffel Tower to be the minaret of the new grand mosque of Muslim Europe. Paris was called the capital of the European Caliphate.

“They brought their own television and radio equipment with them. Loudspeakers, generators, the lot. Then they made the usual demands: free all the Muslims held in European jails and remove all European forces from Muslim lands. And then on Bastille Day, when none of that had happened, they began pitching hostages off the tower one by one, starting with an elderly Jew. Goes without saying they raped all the women and children. The Caliphate declared it a major victory for Islam. The terrorists held out for a week, leading the call to prayer from on top of the tower, black flag and all. And after each call to prayer, another hostage was thrown down. Finally, after nine days, French commandos tried a helicopter assault behind a smoke screen. It was a bloody fiasco—the terrorists were ready for them—but they didn’t have enough Semtex to completely destroy the tower. They only had enough to demolish the top third of it. French sappers had disabled the charges they’d planted lower on the legs.