Thilo

by Andrew Foote

Chapter 35

We lay in bed listening to the sound of rain pummelling the roof and the slates rattling in the stiff breeze.

Neither of us could sleep even though we'd made love for over an hour; both of us were yawning, but sleep eluded us.

"This has to be the strangest school on the planet."

"What do you mean?"

"Stupid discipline combined with the outrageous, is what!"

"Discipline I'll buy, but what's the outrageous?"

"Our bar for openers.

Is there another school in the country that, not only turns a blind-eye to the consumption of alcohol, but actively encourage it?"

"Do they though?"

"Well, Mr Amos, Mr King and Mr Collins run bar tabs in the sixth-form common room, so if that's not encouragement, I'm damned if I know what is!"

"Okay!

Do you remember your last visit to the hospital to get your leg looked at? You combined it together with a dental check-over?"

"Yes, and?"

"We entertained Westminster School's second fifteen Rugby squad that same afternoon.

I played, - we lost in injury time after they kicked a storming drop-goal."

"So, Boo-Hoo to you then.

Where's this going, Steve?"

"Nowhere far. All I was going to say was, the boys were nice; not the snobby upper-class shits I'd expected.

We gave them a guided tour of the school once tea was out of the way, and they were shocked!

Classrooms they thought belonged in the nineteenth century, likewise our accommodation, but then we showed them our common room!"

"Go on?"

"Ben, - as you know, has an aversion to ball games, so he was polishing glasses behind the bar with Mr Collins and Cliff looking over maps and making some last-minute changes to our route.

Oh, by the way. Both were drinking pints of beer!

Now, we're not talking Shock, - we're talking ENVY!!

It was like, 'booze?? You keep drink here??'

We told them that three of our teachers ran tabs but it was a sixth form thing, a privilege you earned rather than some casual arrangement.

Our common room is every bit as cosy as your average country pub bar, but with it comes the added bonus of lax opening hours!

Mr King caught shit once their Head found out.

All he said was, 'Keswick Priory prides itself as a place of excellence. Not only does it feature regularly in the top five private schools in the field of academia as demonstrated by the exam results together with University placements, but when our boys leave this place, they're no longer boys, but men. Men able to take their place in society whilst boys graduating from other fine places of learning will still have that lesson to learn.'

Do you want to know something?

I felt like crying!"

"Felt like it? I know I would have cried."

"I'll admit to moist eyes.

I need to get some sleep, babe.

I love you?"

"And I love you too. Nite-nite."


Friday came and went. We abstained from too much drinking that evening and stuck with a couple of glasses of beer each.

For some strange reason, I was nervous. We were going out on a walk across ground that was familiar to us. We hadn't explored it in any detail and we wouldn't be out of sight of the school for that long, but none-the-less I felt uncomfortable.

We took breakfast at seven-thirty as arranged, then mustered in the brigade room at eight-fifteen to draw our ammunition where Mr Collins pulled me to one side.

"This is your idea, your gig, Steve. You have a chat with the guys and arrange everything your way while I take the role of a junior rank. The only time I'll interfere is if I think what you're proposing is dangerous, okay?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Not Sir today. Call me Mark, alright?"

"Does your mother normally allow you out at this time of the morning, soldier?

Get back in line"

"Don't push it, Steve!"


We moved out at nine-fifteen. We mostly kept together until we hit boggy ground, then we'd spit into groups so we could get an idea about where the firm ground was.

Once we had skirted that area, we'd regroup, compare notes and move on. We also considered any available cover and noted these on the map.

It seemed like no time had passed before I realised that we'd been out three hours and should think about heading back, but Al was exploring a vantage point, so I climbed up to take a look for myself.

"Wicked view from up here, Steve. That had to be around a 200-degree arc and……"

"And what?"

"Shush up a moment."

He opened his gun case and removed the spare telescopic sight.

"Weird.

Can you do me a favour and get Cliff to come up here?"

"Sure."

I summoned Cliff, and Alun asked him to open his map and show him exactly where we were.

"Right here on this escarpment."

"Compass heading?"

"For all the world, we're looking due south. Why?"

"Those two hills south south-west of us. Look at the valley in between them and tell me what you see."

"Just a valley with a waterfall tumbling down from the left side of it."

"Yes, but ten minutes ago that waterfall was shielded from view."

"By what?"

"You're not going to like this, none of us are.

See that small hillock towards the bottom of that valley? It was that that was in the way.

That hillock is moving!"

"How much did you have to drink last night?"

"Two bottles of Newcastle Brown, so stop taking the piss! If you don't believe me, take a gander through this. Pick a datum point like the right side of my perambulating land mass against the waterfall then wait ten minutes and look again and then tell me I'm hallucinating."


"Al's not kidding, Steve. Whatever it is, is on the move and coming our way if very slowly."

"Nothing shown on the map?"

"No. Even if it was an old spoil heap or natural hillock, my map's scale's too small."

"I'm well out of my depth with this. I'm going to ask Mr Collins to take over."


"I've heard about these. Never seen one though. The Arabs sometimes camouflage their advancing army as sand dunes, and because the desert is constantly on the move, even a satellite pass would pick up on them. They could bivouac under them, cook under them and move them to suit, but two can play that game.

Which of you is the most competent tank driver?"

All hands pointed to Nigel.

"Nigel? You and Cliff get back to school sharpish and get the tank back here but try to stay out of sight of that hillock. Once you're here, get it in position about where we're standing, then I'll explain the next move.

One other thing. Before you leave with the Sherman, let yourselves into the armoury and bring back as much ammunition for the H&K's as you can find.

Now bugger-off the pair of you!"

Running through mud isn't easy, but they did a very impressive job of it, and just under an hour later and our Sherman rumbled into view. We hadn't heard it coming which was good. The sharp breeze was blowing the noise back towards the school, so maybe our moving hill would also be none-the-wiser.

Mr Collins had us clear away as much of the crumbling rock and scree from around Al's vantage point as possible, but then had Nigel drive into what remained.

Alun's vantage point was now completely open, - perfect placement for our tank, giving it the same arc of sight as Al had.

It was only after we finished covering the machine with camouflage netting, bracken and gorse was its purpose made clear to us.

It had fitted to it, two new 0.50" calibre machine guns capable of firing 500 round a minute. There were boxes upon boxes of ammunition belts, and if these ran out, they could be substituted with 100 round capacity reusable clips which took the same calibre rounds as our H&K's.

The breach and barrels could be exchanged at a push of a button making them very versatile bits of kit, now all we had to do was find a couple of volunteers to man them.

In the event, we were surprised when Jan stepped forward together with James.

James, we could understand, but I thought that Jan's faith might stop him.

"When turning the other cheek isn't an option, you have no alternative but to fight the good fight. I don't want to kill, but I'm ready to if push comes to shove."


It was watch and wait time. Our mobile landscape was still on the move and Clifford had plotted the most likely route. So far, he had been proved right, but still, there was no room for mistakes here.

Just after dusk fell it came to a halt, and it was then we caught the first sight of human activity as four armed men walked off to the left to rid themselves of the contents of their bowels. A few low-intensity lamps were lit under the 'hill' but there was no further movement.

At nine in the evening, they dimmed the lights, presumably to get some sleep, and it was then Mr Collins walked over to me.

"I've given the tank crew a pair of night vision binoculars together with Clifford and Thilo.

I've told everyone to get some rest, set a rotating watch of one hour on and roll it over so everyone wakes refreshed. In the meantime, you and I are going on a recci. If we can get close enough, with heat sensing gear we might be able to get a handle on how many of them are under that fucking thing.

Ready to rock?"


Two hours on found us within five- hundred yards of their encampment.

We waited for signs of activity, but there were none.

Mr Collins had talked to me while we walked, and his take on it was that they probably didn't think it necessary to set a watch given how well hidden they were, but again, complacency costs lives, and we weren't in any hurry to begin the party by being careless.

"You take a look, Steve. I count at least fifty, but some might be sleeping back-to-back."

I counted fifty-two, and told him as much.

"Fifty-two muddled by the sleeping arrangements? I think it's going to be more like seventy-plus men in there.

We should be getting back. You walk ten paces forward while I watch our backs then you stop and turn while I pass you plus another ten paces and so-on. I don't want to die getting a bullet in the back. If that's going to be the way I go, then I want to see the bastard who kills me.

Come on. Let's head back to camp."


Seven in the morning and the hills were masked by low cloud and a persistent drizzle.

This was typical Cumbrian weather in the Autumn and it hampered our view, but it wasn't going to do any favours for our creeping hillock either. Not only that, but we could sit tight and wait while they had to man-handle a fucking great big lump of camouflage across rough, rugged and boggy land.

At one point, there was a break in the clouds meaning Cliff could get a fix on their position and progress.

They were still a good three miles away and making slow progress, so Mr Collins had Nigel fire up the engine to warm it up.

Guns were stripped and cleaned, shovels handed around so the guys could find somewhere in amongst the rocks to take a dump and feel more comfortable.

'K' Rations are designed to keep shitting to a minimum, and trust me, - they work. I think that it'll take a few pints of rancid beer before anything says 'Hello' to my colon again!

Okay?

Let us move on.

Mr Collins sat us down, and for those who weren't already in the loop, explained what we might be facing.

"Last night, Steve and I went down there to see if we could count numbers. We came up with at least fifty-two men under that thing but that's probably a conservative estimate. So, there's the possibility that there are potentially seventy-plus armed fighters heading our way.

At first light, I called London.

There are no known or authorised exercises taking place in this area, in fact the closest is away over near Boroughdale, about one hundred miles east of here. We know for a fact that these people are armed, but what their capability is, is an unknown quantity so caution please, fella's.

We have been authorised to take offensive action, and that means shoot to kill, understood?

We need to create panic amongst their numbers. They will believe that they won't have been spotted and will try and get as close to the school as possible before announcing their presence. So, this is what I propose doing.

With no clearly identifiable targets to aim at, we will use the two machine guns in the Sherman to spray that thing, kill or injure as many of them as possible before they have to show themselves.

Jan?

If you have any misgivings and want to stand down, then now's your opportunity. No shame, mate, - no shame whatsoever."

Jan stood up and looked Mr Collins in the eye.

"What might they do if I was to stand up there, Bible held aloft and ask them to turn and walk away?"

"You'd be toasted before you finished the first syllable."

"I'm sitting tight then."

"Thank you. Looks as if we have somewhere to kick this thing off."

I decided to put a question into the mix.

Fine, - use the tank's armaments to start the ball rolling, but once whoever was down there got a fix on it and maybe had RPG's in their arsenal, they would be one very exposed and vulnerable target, so I said as much.

"Taken into consideration.

Once the initial panic sets in, the Sherman will retreat back around this hill and out of range of anything that might damage it and there it'll stay unless we call it back into action.

Four of you lads, I want up on that hill to our left while four more take up a position down in that gully to our right. Discuss between you who goes where, - I really don't mind, but Alun? I want you to take to the high ground; somewhere where you can get a clear view of the valley but giving you plenty of cover together with an exit route.

Liaise with Cliff who has a better handle on the terrain.

Jules, Charlie and Henry? You sit tight with the tank, while Stephen and I will be mobile and dictating moves.

Each group will be issued with short-range radio's. The guys up on high ground are Red Group, - the gully, Blue, - Alun is Green and the Sherman and our medics will be Orange while Steve and I will be Command.

No idle chatter, but feel free to exchange information. If one group feels that they need support, we'll try to assist by redirecting our forces, but we're going to be stretched to capacity here, so do your finest.

I'm sure you don't need to be reminded, but we are out-numbered and possibly out-gunned. We have the advantage of surprise, but don't think for one moment that this is going to be a cake-walk.

My belief, for what it's worth, is that whoever this is, is throwing the last toss of the dice. We're going to have our work cut out, but I want you to know. I have the ultimate respect for all of you. I have never had the privilege of leading such a tenacious and resourceful bunch of guys in my life.

I am a teacher at our school, but I also look upon you as friends.

Gentlemen? Let's get organised, and may God keep us safe from harm."


"Report positions."

"Red. In position with good cover and exit strategy."

"Blue. In position with plenty of options to change locations. Cover good. Our exit strategy is limited."

"Green. We're good. Everything sorted."

"Orange. In position. Known exit and awaiting the order to open fire."

"Understood.

Blue? No one said it would be easy. Hold you position then get out if your situation becomes untenable.

Orange, stand by."


The wait was agonising. I had questions, but Mr Collins was in full focus and I didn't want to break his concentration. Occasionally he would hand me the binoculars and mutter something along the lines of 'not long now', but otherwise he remained silent.

'Not long before we died', briefly entered my head, then suddenly he grabbed the radio.

"Orange. Open fire with everything you've got! Spare nobody and only stop when there's no target visible."

The chatter of machinegun fire rattled around the hills. Men scattered in a futile attempt to escape the carnage, - falling, tripping, weighed down my heavy equipment, some screaming in agony before the next salvo took them out, some running for cover untouched by our onslaught and some, I'm sure were playing at being dead as the firing finally gave way to the occasional gun shot from the hill's elevated vantage point.

"Report please, Red."

"No casualties. Ready to go."

"Blue?"

"Likewise. No shots fired from our position."

"Orange? Ammunition status?"

"Good to go. Over 50% remaining together with the H&K backup."

"Fair one.

I want one of you medics to get yourself out and look to the back of the tank. You will see a storage hatch just behind the exhaust stacks. Open it and place everything you see inside on the ground to the right of the vehicle. Rest assured, - I'm not asking you to handle lethal weaponry, just smoke grenades and launchers.

Happy enough?"

"No problem. Two of us should make for a quick job."

"Roger that, guys."

Mr Collins turned to me.

"Our turn to join the bunfight now.

The shear rock face to the right of their hillock probably means that few if any of their number would go there, but that doesn't mean we can dismiss that possibility.

It isn't going to be nice down there, Stephen. The dead I'm not bothered about, but there will be wounded men down there and we're not in the business of taking

prisoners.

If you happen to come across someone like that, you put them out of their misery, understood?"

"I guess so. Killing in order to survive is one thing, but killing in cold blood is something entirely different"

"It's the same thing. Trust me. They'd kill you soon as look at you so you have to think like them and act like them. You're still killing to survive. I'll carry the

grenades and you bring the launcher. Now, let's get out of here so we can finish this thing."


The ground seemed firmer than I remembered from last night and we made good time to our first observation point.

Mr Collins shouldered the launcher and pointed in in the direction of an outcrop of rocks. It didn't go Bang when he fired, it was more like popping a bottle of

champagne.

We could see the grenade clearly as it arced through the sky and landed smack on target in the outcrop. There was a cloud of white smoke but nothing else.

"Bugger! They must be further back than I thought, or else there's no one hiding there, but I don't buy that."

This time he aimed directly at the cliff face before firing. This time it had the desired effect as around fifteen men made a run for it.

We heard the rattle of machinegun fire and all but one man fell to the ground. This one guy tried to run south, but then came the unmistakable Crack of Al's

sniper rifle and he went flying onto the ground.

We did a systematic search of the area, then satisfied there was little or no danger, we made sure there were no wounded that might cause us problems.

There were none, thank God.

"I'm going to get everyone down here then call London.

We need to secure the area as there's bound to be an investigation. Take a break, Steve and I'll be back in a minute or so."


I rested back up against a sizable boulder and looked around at the carnage we'd delivered.

All I could smell was cordite and CS gas, I could even taste it, but then I heard movement behind me.

"Viscount Stephen Leon Broadhurst, we meet again."

I froze! My mind went into free-fall."

"Do we?

Who are you, where are you and what the fuck do you want!"

"You don't recognise my voice? Well, perhaps that's because someone shot way most of my right leg, and as you might well imagine, it's very painful."

"That's the price you pay for being a total arsehole, I guess. But you haven't answered my question."

"Well, if you and your little band of boy soldiers hadn't got lucky, by this time tomorrow you and your entire school would be occupying a place in future history,"

"Now it'll be you honoured that way…… Moses!"

"Well done, Stephen! Congratulations! But you'll be joining me in that final journey. You robbed me of my destiny and that is something I cannot forgive."

"And what destiny was that? Total domination over all of central Africa perhaps?

Get a life! Ian Fleming wrote about megalomaniacs with much more penache"

"I didn't need a script until you interfered. It was mine for the taking.

I knew that Thilo had the tablet; it was just a matter of extracting it.

Had he let it go, you two would be cuddled up safely in your bed, alive and well. As it is, I have to kill you. Thilo can die of heartbreak for all I care."

"Yeah, right! With a shattered leg and everything!"

"Good-bye, Stephen Broadhurst. We will meet again in hell."


I remember a deafening roar, a flash of lightening the likes of which I never, ever want to see again, a gale of stifling white-hot wind and the agonising pain as the boulder I'd taken refuge behind gave up the fight and keeled over on top of my left leg.

Somewhere in the fog of consciousness, I also remember hearing Mr Collins shouting "Man down! Man down!

Medics, get yourselves down here right now!"

Then I passed out.

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