Saturday, January 29, 2022

Saturday Snippet: A blast (literally) from the past


A couple of years ago, I was invited to submit a short story to the third of a series of anthologies about warfare ancient, modern and future.  It was published as "Trouble In The Wind", edited by Chris Kennedy and James Young.

I wrote about it at the time of its launch in 2019.

My story was set during the Angolan War, also known as the South African Border War, in which I played a minor and insignificant part.  It was partly autobiographical, in that some of the incidents I described were from memory;  and it was certainly realistic in terms of the terrain, combat, weapons, etc.  I was never a member of any Special Forces unit (I'm what you might call "low speed, high drag", the opposite of their style!), but I worked with a number of them from time to time, so I got to hear and see a lot.  The specific incident that's the heart of the story - the capture of a visiting Soviet general, and the resulting repercussions - didn't happen;  but other Soviet personnel were captured, and almost everything else in the story actually happened at one time or another (sometimes involving yours truly).  I simply brought the details together and wove them into a unified story.

Now that more than a year has passed from publication, I'm allowed to republish my story.  It's too long to include in its entirety, but here's the first part of it.  I hope you enjoy it.

Unintended Consequences by Peter Grant

Southern Angola, 1986

       The four-man Reconnaissance Regiment stick moved slowly and carefully along the half-overgrown footpath through the African bush. Few people still used it after several years of warfare between the Angolan government’s FAPLA forces and their Cuban supporters on the one hand, and UNITA guerrillas and their South African allies on the other. Most of the villagers in or near the fluid, ever-shifting combat zone, with its unpredictable troop movements that could transform an area from tranquil to terrifying without warning, had long since fled.
       The point man brushed sweat from his eyebrows yet again, waving away the flies that buzzed around his head, trying to drink it. He began to repeat the gesture, then stopped dead in his tracks and sank to his haunches, making a sign that the others understood. Enemy ahead.
       First Lieutenant Viljoen moved up beside him, eyes flickering left and right. The brush ended abruptly ahead of them at the edge of an open area, probably a former cornfield, now covered with low vegetation as the African bush reclaimed it. On the far side were a few broken-down mud huts, between which at least a dozen dark olive Soviet military trucks could be seen. A bulldozer was parked at the edge of an eighty-by two-hundred-foot patch it had cleared and leveled in the field. Well over half of it was already covered with a layer of concrete, two to four inches thick.
       “What the hell is FAPLA doing here, Hannes?” the officer murmured to the scout. “This is just a transit route for troops and supplies. They’ve never had a base here—there’s no need for one.”
       “Ja, sir, but maybe they’ve changed their minds. There’s a waterhole nearby, and that looks like a foundation slab.”
       “It’s not thick enough for that, and there’s no rebar or wire frame—although both might be because it’s a slipshod, half-done job of work, which would be nothing new for Angolans. Whatever it is, the brass will want to know more.”
       The patrol took up observation positions along the edge of the field, staying hidden in the thick brush as they observed the Angolan troops. Several of them were unloading cement sacks from the back of a truck, while others worked on the engine of a portable cement-mixer. Idlers lounged around, not making any real effort to maintain security over the area. The smell of cooking rose from a line of fires over to one side, where the evening meal was being prepared.
       As the sun dipped towards the horizon, the engine of the cement-mixer finally spluttered to life, and its drum began to revolve. The troops standing around it gave a cheer, then looked towards an officer for instructions. He began to shout orders. Some of the troops began to mix more concrete, while others lined up with wheelbarrows to take it to the next section of the slab to be laid. The officer hurried over there, to ensure that the planks placed around it were still in position, to hold the concrete until it had dried enough to remain in place without support. He summoned a soldier with a can of paint and had him mark a big black X equidistant from the three concrete edges on the finished portion of the pad.
       “It’s already late afternoon, but they’re still working. Whatever this is, they’re in a hurry,” a Recce corporal muttered.
       “You’re right, Boeta,” the patrol commander agreed. “They don’t usually work this hard or this late.” He thought for a moment. “Remember that intel we got last month, about the helicopters?”
       The other nodded thoughtfully. Another Recce patrol had spent a week infiltrating the port of Namibe, watching Soviet cargo vessels unloading materials to be ferried to the battlefront hundreds of miles to the east. They’d noted a major transport bottleneck, with warehouses overflowing into immense stacks of supplies exposed to wind and weather. Some ships were forced to wait at anchor in the bay, because there was no room to unload their cargoes. Shortly before they left Namibe, the patrol had reported the arrival of a squadron of Mil Mi-8 transport helicopters, flown by Angolan and Cuban pilots. The squadron had established its base at the rundown airport south of Namibe and had begun flying covering missions for road convoys. However, the Mi-8’s carried no weapons. The Angolans had Mi-24 gunships, so why were they misusing unarmed transports for a job that might well lead to combat?
       “Those choppers don’t have the range to ferry supplies all the way from Namibe to the battlefront,” the lieutenant pointed out, “but if they built a refueling point, they could. That cleared area’s the right size, and we’re halfway between Namibe and Cuito Cuanavale—just the right place for it. That big X is a give-away. A second, on the other side of the pad, will make this a two-helicopter landing pad, with plenty of space between them for their rotors to turn.”
       “And there’s two fuel tankers in that convoy,” Sergeant Bothma commented, pointing at the vehicles in question. “Thing is, why use concrete? Why not just bare earth?”
       “Could be so the rotors will throw up less dust and dirt. That’ll make visibility very poor during landing and takeoff. Also, during the rainy season, the ground gets so muddy it’s like a swamp. I think we should discourage them. I’m going to call this in.”
       His encrypted message, sent on a frequency-hopping tropospheric-scatter radio system, caused a flurry of activity in an Operations Center in northern South West Africa. Approval for the patrol’s proposed course of action was transmitted within the hour, along with instructions for a nearby UNITA patrol to rendezvous with the Recces the following day.
* * *
       The same evening, an Antonov An-24 twin-engined transport aircraft of the Angolan Air Force landed at the airport south of Namibe. It taxied to the terminal building in the last of the sunlight, where a guard of honor had been hastily assembled. Its members—local levies unfamiliar with drill of any sort, let alone an honor guard—shambled to a ragged semblance of attention and falteringly presented arms as a man disembarked, wearing a major-general’s uniform of the Soviet Union. Tabs identified him as an officer of the Strategic Rocket Forces.
       An East German major stood to one side. He came forward, snapped to attention, and saluted stiffly. “Welcome to Namibe, General Shpagin! It is an honor for us to receive a visit from so senior an officer.”
       The new arrival peered at his name tag. “Not that much of an honor, Major Brinkerhoff. I was at loose ends between postings. That’s why Moscow sent me to investigate this logistics mess—I just happened to be the most senior officer available. I wasn’t impressed to see stacks of supplies all over the place as we came in to land. Lobito looked no better as we overflew it on the way down here from Luanda. Why haven’t both ports been better organized? Why is it taking so long to clear this bottleneck?”
       “I can’t speak with any authority, sir, as I’m not involved in port operations or military logistics. Local officers will brief you in the morning.” He lowered his voice to a confidential murmur. “If you ask me, sir, it’s largely because they’re incompetent and bone idle. In the Warsaw Pact, we’d be shot if we worked this way!”
       The general eyed him carefully. Brinkerhoff was a professional like himself. As such, his judgment was probably as accurate as it was damning. “Hmpfh! We’ll see about that. Take me to the visiting officers’ quarters, Major. I need a bath, a good meal, and a night’s sleep.”
       His aide followed with the general’s suitcase as his boss strode to a waiting utility vehicle.
       Next morning, General Shpagin’s invective blistered the hides of the staff as they tried to make excuses for the logistics bottleneck. He pointed out acidly, “The Soviet Union has generously provided thousands of trucks to Angola, free of charge, yet you claim you don’t have enough vehicles to move these supplies. Where are they, then?” As to claims that the roads weren’t good enough, he noted bluntly that South Africa appeared to have few difficulties supplying UNITA rebels with material support over a much greater distance, through terrain that often had no roads at all. “If they can do it, why can’t you? Your inefficiency is causing weeks of delay to valuable ships that are needed elsewhere. This must stop!”
       Nor would he give credence to claims of the mass destruction of transport vehicles by South African forces. “We know beyond doubt, through satellite reconnaissance and other intelligence sources, that South Africa currently has only a few hundred troops north of the South West African border. You have thousands of Cuban troops, fighting alongside tens of thousands of Angolan soldiers—far more than enough to defend against such a small number, no matter how skilled or well-equipped they may be.”
       A timid Angolan Air Force officer offered what he hoped would be good news. “S-sir, our new helicopter route will open within a day or two. We’re building a refueling pad halfway between here and Cuito Cuanavale, so that Mi-8’s can fly there with a full four-ton cargo of urgently needed materials. If Moscow gives us the heavy-lift Mi-26’s we have asked for, we will be able to lift twenty tons on every flight!”
       Shpagin’s eyebrows rose. “That will help, although it’ll be much more expensive than road transport. When’s the first mission?”
       “In three days’ time, sir.”
       “Book seats on it for myself and my aide. I want to see this refueling pad for myself, and inspect the cargo handling facilities at Cuito Cuanavale too.”
       That evening over supper, his aide tried to remonstrate. “But, sir, the Defense Ministry’s instructions were clear. You were not to enter the combat zone or expose yourself to danger.”
       “Pshaw! They sent me here to investigate a problem and solve it. The only way I can do that properly is to see everything for myself. UNITA and the South Africans don’t know I’m here, and they can’t possibly be aware of the new helicopter route. It hasn’t even been used yet! As for the combat zone, there’s no major fighting going on right now. All anyone’s doing is local patrolling. I don’t think there’ll be any risk.”
* * *
       As the two Soviet officers finished their meal, Lieutenant Viljoen welcomed a UNITA officer to the camp the patrol had set up, half a mile from the Angolan work site. The two shook hands, and got down to business without preamble.
       “The signal said to deliver to you all our explosives,” the UNITA man began. “We have four TM-46 anti-vehicle land mines.”
       “That’s great! Just what we need. Here, let me show you what’s going on.” The South African officer drew a quick map in the dirt using a stick. “The enemy is here. On a circle surrounding their positions, we’re here. I’d like you to place your patrol in an arc behind their positions, a third of the way around the circle from where we are. That way we won’t shoot at each other through them. I’m guessing the helicopter pad will be ready in the next two days—the first half is already dry. As soon as it’s complete, I reckon they’ll send out a proving mission, to make sure everything’s as it should be. I want to hit them when they come in.”
       “How can you be sure they’ll land on the mines? The pressure plates won’t work unless they have enough weight on them.”
       “We’ll make sure they go off. I want your people to stay quiet until they blow, then shoot the hell out of the Angolan vehicles and positions for two minutes, no more. As soon as two minutes are up, get out of here. The main convoy route isn’t far away, so the Angolans may be able to get a reaction force here quickly. We aren’t strong enough to take them on.”
       “All right. You head south and we’ll head east, to divide any enemy attempt to follow us.”
       “Agreed. Use anti-tracking, too, to make it as difficult as possible for them.”
       The twenty-man UNITA patrol headed into the bush to work their way around the enemy’s position. The lieutenant laid out the four big steel landmines in a row, and started removing their pressure plates.
       “What’s the idea, sir?” Sergeant Piet Bothma asked as he knelt down to help.
       “We have to make sure these blow, even if the chopper doesn’t land right on top of them,” the officer explained. “We’re going to replace their pressure plates with plastic explosive and a command detonator. We’ll connect them all to a firing position at the edge of the bush, and let the enemy lay concrete over them.”
       “Will they have enough blast to take out a chopper through concrete, sir?” another asked.
       “Four TM-46’s have as much explosive between them as a couple of 155mm artillery shells. I think that’ll be more than enough.”
       The questioner winced. “That’s headache city all right!”
       After midnight, when all the Angolan soldiers were asleep—including the sentries, because what possible threat could there be so deep in the bush, and so far from the battlefront?—the South Africans crept out into the cleared area. The lieutenant estimated where the second X marker for a landing helicopter would most likely be painted, then dug holes for the four mines close together around that point. The others covered them, then led the detonator wire to and beyond the edge of the cleared area, burying it. They patted down and smoothed the disturbed earth, then brushed it with leafy branches as they withdrew, removing all signs that they’d been there.
       As the sun rose and the Angolans began to pour more concrete, covering the mines, the Recces settled down to wait.
* * *
       Antennae all over the operational area, and up and down the coast, fed their intercepted harvest to the South African electronic warfare station at Rooikop, near Walvis Bay in South West Africa, eight hundred miles to the south. In the underground operations center, the signals were analyzed, decrypted if possible, then forwarded to interested parties for further action.
       Late the following night, an operator called the Officer of the Watch to come to his station. “Sir, a visiting general is making life difficult at Namibe. The Angolans are complaining to their HQ in Luanda that he’s ‘insensitive to the difficulties of operating in a war zone.’”
       “Awww, my heart bleeds for them,” the OOW joked as he began to read the signal. “Hey, that’s not a Cuban or East German name. ‘Shpagin’—that sounds Russian. Have we seen it before?”
       “Nothing in the database, sir.”
       “Then let’s get this off to the Ops Room at Defense HQ in Pretoria. They may know who he is.”
       They didn’t, but the Operations Room knew who would. By early the following morning, the CIA in Langley, Virginia confirmed to their representative in the United States Embassy in Pretoria that a major-general in the Soviet Union’s Strategic Rocket Forces bore the same name. What would a man of that rank and importance be doing in an out-of-the-way place like Angola? Questions flashed from Langley to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but the answers didn’t satisfy anyone.
       “Why the hell would they send a senior strategic missile commander to untangle logistics snarl-ups in the third world?” an American analyst demanded. “That makes no sense. They’ve got to be up to something!”
       South African Defense HQ duly ordered Rooikop and other facilities to be on the lookout for any further mention of Shpagin’s name and mission, while interested eyes in America sharpened their focus on southern Africa. Cuba was the main Soviet surrogate in the region, after all, and Angola’s ally. Could the general’s visit be the first move in a new Cuban missile crisis, more than two decades after the last one?
* * *
       The day of the first helicopter resupply mission dawned fine and clear. General Shpagin dressed carefully, the rows of award ribbons on his chest making a colorful display. He inspected his boots with displeasure, and insisted that his Angolan servant polish them again.
       “Wouldn’t it be better to wear battledress, like the Cuban officers do, sir?” his aide asked.
       Shpagin shook his head disapprovingly. “They’re playing at being fighting soldiers. They aren’t even in the combat zone, yet they all look casual and sloppy. Let’s show them what it means to be proud of one’s uniform!”
       “As you say, sir.”
       Sighing inwardly, the aide resigned himself to another day of tugging at his tight collar, while sweating buckets beneath his heavy jacket.
       Why is it, he wondered, that generals can go through the whole day looking as fresh as a daisy, while their underlings wilt? Must go with the rank.
       A utility vehicle took them to two Mi-8 helicopters parked on the airport hardstand. They were already loaded with urgently needed supplies, strapped down in their cabins. An officer motioned the general and his aide towards the first helicopter, but Shpagin held up a hand.
       “Captain, you go in the second helicopter. Nothing’s likely to happen, but let’s travel separately, just in case. If anything goes wrong, one of us must survive to submit a report to Moscow, and you already know what I plan to say to them.”
       “Yes, sir.”
       The crew chief pulled down a folding chair against the bulkhead. General Shpagin strapped himself into it, frowning at the memory of many uncomfortable hours spent in similar transports. At least, here in the southern African heat, he wouldn’t freeze his ass off.
       “What’s our flight time?” he asked the crew chief.
       “Two hours, ten minutes to the refueling point, sir, then another two hours, twenty minutes to Cuito Cuanavale.”
       The general grimaced, already regretting his second cup of coffee over breakfast. “I’ll need a pee break very badly by the time we land to refuel.”
       The Cuban NCO guffawed as he handed him a set of headphones with a boom microphone.
       “Just don’t piss out the open door as we fly, sir,” the man stated, his tone turning morose as he continued. “The rotor wash will blow it back all over you, and everyone else in here. Ask me how I know that.”
       Shpagin had to laugh as he nodded in response.
       The helicopters lifted off with a snarling clatter of rotors, and turned west, staying low over the trees and bushes. A few minutes later the An-24 transport also took off, to fly high overhead and serve as a communications relay if required. A routine signal was dispatched to the Angolan air defense network at Cuito Cuanavale, to confirm that the flights had departed. The identity of the VIP passenger was emphasized, to ensure that no missiles were launched at him in error. Their Soviet benefactors would not be amused by such a mistake.
       The routine signal was duly intercepted at Rooikop, and General Shpagin’s name noted. Within minutes a message was on its way to Pretoria.
* * *
       The concrete had dried quickly under the hot African sun, and the Angolans clearly weren’t going to waste any time putting the landing pad into service. The fuel tankers had been driven closer to the edge of the pad, and the encampment had been tidied up. The construction crew were dressing in clean uniforms, while their NCO’s marked out parade positions for them.
       Lieutenant Viljoen ordered everyone to pack their gear and be ready to move out on the run.
       “If they come this morning, and we blow them up, they’re not going to be very pleased with us,” he pointed out with a grin. “We’ll have to get away before they can get organized. I’ll be on the detonator. Hannes, we don’t have anyone else to spare, so the two of us will have to be a quick-and-dirty snatch party. If we see an opportunity to take a prisoner, let’s grab him during the confusion when UNITA joins in. He can answer questions later. Boeta, you’re on the missile.” He nodded to the team’s sole SA-14 shoulder-launched ground-to-air missile, captured from the Angolans like all their weapons and equipment.
       “Give them a chance to land,” Viljoen emphasized. “If one doesn’t, and you get a clear shot, take it down. Piet, you provide covering fire for the snatch team if we need it, then take point when we leave. Head back down the footpath we used to get here. As soon as we’ve broken contact we’ll change direction and start using anti-tracking to stop them following us.”
       They waited in the thick brush as the sun rose higher, and the heat began to grow oppressive. At last, shortly after ten, the distant sound of helicopter rotors intruded on the silence and began to grow louder. “They’re coming!” the lieutenant exclaimed, his face lighting up. “Packs on, weapons ready, and stand by!”
       Two familiar silhouettes appeared over the bushes and trees. The leading helicopter slanted down towards the pad in a curving approach, while the second circled above the clearing, obviously looking for any signs of danger. They ignored it. By now, camouflaging their positions against aerial observation was second nature to them. Boeta picked up the SA-14 launch tube, trying to get a clear view of the second helicopter.
       The lead helicopter settled almost exactly where Lieutenant Viljoen had anticipated it would. His finger trembled on the detonator switch as he waited, hoping for the second aircraft to land, so that blast and fragments from the mines might damage it as well. Instead, as the engines of the first helicopter began to shut down, a smartly uniformed figure jumped down from it and hurried directly towards them, ducking beneath the rotor blades, one hand holding his cap on, the other fumbling with the fly of his trousers.
       “Holy shit, boss, he’s coming right for us!” Hannes whispered urgently.
       “Stand by to grab him!”
       Viljoen waited until the new arrival had almost reached the bush behind which he was concealed, then hit the switch. With a colossal blast, the four landmines blew up beneath the concrete, sending fragments flying in all directions, including into the fuselage and fuel tanks of the helicopter above them. It came apart, erupting in flames as its undercarriage collapsed.
       Instantly, chaos broke out. The UNITA patrol opened up with AK-47’s, RPK light machine-guns, RPG-7 rockets, and hand grenades. Both tanker trucks exploded, one after the other, in massive orange-red fireballs and billowing smoke, spraying burning fuel and debris in every direction. Many of the Angolan soldiers, who’d been drawn up in formation to honor the new arrivals, were mown down as if by a scythe. The survivors scattered in panic.
       In the confusion, Hannes leapt to his feet and tackled the man who’d run towards them, clouting him a mighty blow on the jaw that knocked him out. His cap came off. Hannes picked it up, staring at it, then at his victim.
       “Lieutenant! This guy isn’t Angolan or Cuban! It’s a white man, and he’s wearing a ****load of medal ribbons and what look like general’s stars. Who is this ****er?”
       “I don’t know, but he’s got to be important. Come on! Let’s grab him and get out of here!”
* * *
       In the second Mi-8, the pilot was screaming into his microphone. “Emergency! Emergency! The refueling pad is under attack! The lead helicopter has crashed and blown up! General Shpagin has been captured by the enemy—I saw them tackle him and bring him down! For God’s sake, somebody help us!”
       Looking out of the open side door, Shpagin’s aide saw a trail of smoke erupt from a clump of bushes and head straight towards the helicopter. There was a loud explosion over his head, and pieces of the rotor blades flew in all directions. The aircraft dropped like a stone. The last thing he saw was the whirling ground coming up very fast before his eyes as the helicopter spun in.
       High in the sky, the An-24 radio relay plane saw and heard it all. Even as its pilots hauled the plane around and clawed for more altitude, to put as much distance as possible between themselves and any other ground-to-air missiles, its radio operator passed the news to Namibe. From there, a message was broadcast at full power across southern Angola, in clear, to all FAPLA and Cuban forces. “General Shpagin has been captured in an enemy ambush at the new refueling pad! All available forces are to converge on that location and rescue him!” Map coordinates were provided. MiG fighters and Sukhoi strike aircraft scrambled, and helicopters launched to carry responding forces to the scene at top speed.
       Almost as fast as the message spread through the Angolan armed forces, it reached South African Defense Force HQ in Pretoria via the Rooikop listening station. The initial reaction was one of shocked incredulity. Who could have launched such an attack, against such a high-value target? It didn’t take long for the Special Forces liaison officer to inform the Operations Room about Lieutenant Viljoen’s patrol, and his intention to take out the first helicopter to use the landing pad they had discovered. Was that what the Angolans were talking about?
       “Send a signal to Viljoen at once!”
       “We can’t, sir. He won’t be listening—in fact, if that was him, he’ll be running like hell to get clear before reaction forces arrive. His next scheduled communications window is tonight.”
       “And until then, we’ll have the top brass jumping down our throats, demanding to know what’s going on. What are we going to tell them?”

* * *

       The patrol had covered only a few hundred yards, dragging their unconscious prisoner with them, when they heard the roar of an overstressed engine drawing nearer from behind them. They scattered to either side of the narrow footpath as a Soviet ZIL-131 six-by-six military truck appeared, gears whining in low ratio, wheels churning in the thick soft sand, bashing through the bushes on either side of the track, its fear-crazed driver intent only on escape from the carnage behind him.
       Sergeant Bothma spun in his tracks, shouldered his AK-47, and squeezed off a pair of snap shots that went through the door and killed the driver instantly. His foot came off the accelerator and the truck slowed to a standstill, jerking as its engine cut out. Bothma ran after it, pulling open the door to check on the driver.
       “Well done, Piet!” Viljoen called breathlessly. “Throw him in the back, so he won’t be found, and take his place. I’ll join you. The rest of you, get in the back with the prisoner.”
       Within moments, the truck was bouncing down the track again. Viljoen consulted his map. “This footpath comes out at the main east-west trail in about two clicks. When we get there, turn west towards the coast.”
       “West, sir? But that’s closer to the enemy!”
       “Yes, it is, but if our prisoner’s as important as he looks, they’re going to be after us with everything they’ve got. They’ll expect us to head east and south, towards our own forces. Let’s throw them off the scent by doing what they won’t expect. The truck’s wheels will leave ruts in the sandy soil, but you can’t tell from the rut which direction it was moving. Once we hit the main trail, they won’t know which way we went. We’ll abandon this truck somewhere convenient, and head south from there.”
       “OK, sir. That guy’s uniform and insignia looked different from anything we’ve seen before. He may be Soviet. If he is, they’ll be flying in search parties from all directions. Moscow will be baying for our blood.”
       “If you’re right, we’ve got less than an hour before aircraft will be overhead, looking for us. A truck moving alone will stick out like a sore thumb. Remember that convoy the Air Force hit two months ago, just west of here?”
       “Yessir! The Angolans dragged all the wrecked trucks off to the side of the road, and abandoned them.” He sniggered. “The Air Force uses them as a navigational landmark now.”
       “That’s right. It’s about thirty clicks from here. Let’s park this truck with them. I reckon no-one will bother to count, to see if there’s one more vehicle than there was before. That’ll buy us time to get away clean.”
       “Great idea, sir!”
       It took them thirty-seven agonizing minutes to reach the trucks, peering out of the windows all the while to spot any other vehicles or a fast-moving aircraft coming towards them. At last they reached the place. The lieutenant pointed. “Take us around the back there, into the bush, on the far side of the wrecks. That’ll put this one furthest away from passing traffic, so they’re less likely to notice it’s not damaged like the others.”
       They parked the truck, then Viljoen hurried around to the rear while the sergeant started to knock the valve stems out of every tire. The prisoner had regained consciousness, and was sitting nursing his jaw, looking around balefully.
       The lieutenant tried his meager, halting Spanish, learned in case he needed to interrogate Cuban prisoners. “¿Quién eres tú? ¿Cuál es su nombre?” No response. He switched to English. “Who are you? What is your name?”
       “I am Major-General Shpagin of the Soviet armed forces. That is all I shall tell you.”
       “What the hell are you doing out here in the middle of bloody Africa?” Silence. “Are you attached to the Angolan armed forces?” Silence. “What is your mission?” Silence.
       “We can’t waste time making him talk, sir,” Boeta warned. “Listen!” They cocked their heads. Faintly, but growing louder, they heard the sound of jet engines at high altitude.
       “Those will be MiGs, looking for us,” Lieutenant Viljoen agreed. He looked back at the general. “Sir, you’re a prisoner of war of the Republic of South Africa’s armed forces. We’re going to take to the bush and head south until we can arrange to be picked up. If you don’t make trouble, we’ll allow you to walk unrestrained. If you make trouble or try to escape, we’ll tie your hands, put a tether round your neck, and bring you with us the hard way. Understand me?”
       “I understand.” Another baleful glare.
       “Right. Everyone, fill your canteens.” Viljoen gestured to the drum of water tied down in the load bed. “When you’ve done that, drink as much as you can, then we’ll drain the rest of the water. Take what you need from that box of ration packs. They’re Angolan, so they won’t be very tasty, but they’re better than nothing. We’ll carry seven days’ food per man. Empty that backpack.” He pointed to what had presumably been the personal gear of the late driver. “Fill it with ration packs and the driver’s canteens. General, you’ll carry it. If you refuse, you’ll have nothing to eat or drink, so don’t argue. Hannes, make sure he’s unarmed—no dinky little officer’s pistol concealed anywhere. The rest of you, take the canvas cover off the truck, fold it a few times, and lay it in the load bed over the driver’s body. From the road or a low-flying chopper, this truck’s got to look like just another abandoned wreck.”
       “Not going to booby-trap it, sir?” the sergeant asked as he straightened from removing a valve stem.
       “No. If it explodes or burns, the Angolans will wonder why.”
       Within ten minutes, the patrol moved out in single file, heading south, sticking to the cover of the trees and bushes, moving slowly and carefully, covering or disguising their tracks whenever possible. Their prisoner walked in the center of the formation. General Shpagin seethed inwardly, but made no trouble. South African troops had a well-earned reputation for violence towards anyone who resisted them. He had no doubt that any attempt at obstruction or escape would have extremely painful consequences.

* * *
       The atmosphere in the meeting room at Soviet military headquarters in Moscow seethed and roiled with barely suppressed tension. The Defense Minister glared at the assembled senior officers. “How do you know it was the South Africans who got him? It could have been UNITA!”
       “Minister, the reaction forces captured two UNITA guerrillas, part of a larger force trying to escape after the ambush. Under separate interrogation, both said their unit was ordered to join a South African Reconnaissance Regiment patrol, to help them attack the refueling pad. UNITA took no prisoners during the attack, so General Shpagin must be in South African hands.”
       “And who the hell thought it was a good idea to send a Strategic Rocket Forces general to Angola in the first place? He knows our nuclear target lists for every NATO country! If the South Africans get him back to their base, the Americans will give their eye teeth and sell their own mothers to interrogate him!”
       “H-he was just… available, Minister,” a hapless official stammered. “The Foreign Ministry said they wanted someone senior enough to impress the Angolans. General Shpagin had just returned from a period of leave. He said he was tired of sitting around, waiting for his predecessor to depart so he could take up his new post, and volunteered for the Angolan inspection mission in the interim. No one even thought about his branch of service.”
       A wordless glare from the Minister promised retribution for so grievous an error of judgment. “What do you propose, Marshal?” he demanded, turning to the Commanding Officer of the Strategic Rocket Forces.

So, there you have it.  The first half of a fictional mission, heavily - very heavily - based on fact.  I hope you enjoyed it.



NobobyExpects said...

Very nice, thanks!

Rick in NY said...

Peter, your words are much more enjoyable than most of the so called authors on the Times best sellers list.

jimbar said...


I read this some time ago. I asked at the time if you were planning to write more on the subject. Well?

Peter said...

@jimbar: Too many dead friends and comrades, too many bad memories. I doubt I'll write much more about it, except perhaps as small vignettes like this short story. That may change one day, but right now I can't see it.

Old NFO said...

IT's a great story!

George said...

Sneaky way to sell books Peter. I had to finish the story so I bought the book.

gbob said...

Dang, that's a good story! Now I gotta buy the book to see how it ends.

deb harvey said...

best writing!!when i get rich i am going to get all your books
thanks for a good read