Helmand: Staring into the mouth of Hell

Ed Macy knows what it's like to stare into the mouth of Hell . . . The former Wattisham airman tells Steven Russell about rescuing a downed marine from a Taliban stronghold

Steven Russell

Ed Macy knows what it's like to stare into the mouth of Hell . . . The former Wattisham airman tells Steven Russell about rescuing a downed marine from a Taliban stronghold

SOMETHING is wrong. Badly wrong. A four-hour pounding of a Taliban fort with 100,000 lb of bombs should have softened things up nicely for a ground assault by the Royal Marines. But now reports are coming in about UK casualties at a time when trouble wasn't expected. Army Air Corps Apache helicopters - crewed by experts like Ed Macy - had been due to go into action later, to pick off re-maining enemy personnel and identify hidden bunkers - but now they're launched within minutes and heading towards Jugroom Fort: a high-walled compound that's the Taliban's main forward-operating base in southern Helmand, Afghanistan. En route, it emerges the ground assault happened later than expected and five marines have been hit by machine-gun fire near the fort's wall. One is missing in action. The chilling fear is that he's in enemy hands.

Two Apaches, using their onboard gadgetry, spot a body. It's scanned from the air and appears warm. It seems to be the missing marine and it seems he's still alive. Lance Corporal Mathew Ford lies close to a Taliban village and it won't be long before he's seized as a prize capture, unless someone acts quickly. The helicopters take turns to watch the injured soldier and buy time by firing at the village's 15 or so buildings.

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One of the observers thinks he sees the marine move. It's going to be a while before the ground forces are ready to launch a rescue mission, and in the meantime the fallen colleague could be dying or captured.

Billy, one of the crew, comes up with a crazy idea that might just work in a time of utter desperation: pick up four volunteer soldiers (in the event three marines and a member of the Royal Engineers), strap them to the outside of the Apaches, fly low across the desert, land by the fort, strap Mathew on, and lift him to safety - while under fire from an enemy they can't see and while fuel levels drop by the second . . .

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Eventually, the top brass are convinced it's the only viable option, though highly risky. A B1 plane drops a 2,000-lb bomb in the middle of the village just before the Apaches arrive, giving an element of precious cover.

What happens next is bedlam - its chaotic atmosphere better captured in Ed Macy's paperback book Apache than in a shorter article like this. The soil is churned up into a dust storm that obscures visibility. The other helicopter - not Ed's - has to land in the grounds of the fort, rather than outside the walls: and the disoriented rescuers climbing off the bodywork head in the wrong direction.

Then there's the noise and danger: gunfire from Taliban forces who seem to appear from nowhere, and the mighty arsenal of cannon fire and missiles unleashed by aircraft trying to watch the backs of the rescuers. And all the time the clock is ticking. Ed, co-pilot/gunner on his Apache, gets out to help the soldiers struggling to move Ford in the quicksand-like soil. He writes later that “the sound of total war intensified; the constant crack of rifle rounds, bursts of cannon fire from the gunships, and the ground-shaking crump of artillery shells. The reek of cordite was so strong it seared my nostrils”.

Eventually, with the Taliban metres away, the rescuers manage to drag the injured marine to Ed's Apache and lash him to the outside. They've been on the ground five minutes and 10 seconds - an eternity - but their troubles aren't over. A freak squall nearly stops the helicopter taking off.

“Then we burst out of the dust, straight into blinding sunshine and a crystal blue sky. It was a beautiful day; I'd forgotten, after so long in the Jugroom underworld. It was mind-blowing, unlike anything I'd seen before, or will see again,” Ed remembers. They transfer Mathew into safe hands at the Royal Marines' staging post and then head for base. Their fuel drops below the minimum level for a safe landing when they are still more than seven minutes away, but they make it.

Mathew Ford isn't so lucky. He's been shot in the head and, a surgeon later tells the Apache crew, was effectively dead the moment the bullet struck - even if his body retained a semblance of life for a time afterwards. He'd have died from his injuries even if he'd been hit on a hospital doorstep.

Rescuers were decorated at a Buckingham Palace investiture - Ed being awarded the Military Cross for bravery. Two years on, however, he's still angry about what happened that January Monday in 2007.

Mistakes had been made - there was confusion because two soldiers were named Ford and Mathew had been left behind when the marines pulled back - but Ed says that's understandable in the fog of war. What bothers him is that no-one knows who killed the 30-year-old lance corporal from 45 Commando Royal Marines - and that a young soldier had effectively been blamed for about two years afterwards.

This gunner in a Viking armoured vehicle had heard bangs coming through the wall during the ground assault and had fired on a gap. It was only at the inquest in Cleethorpes last December, says Ed, that it emerged the gunner probably didn't cause his colleague's death.

Witnesses saw his rounds hit the wall, three feet above Mathew. More than two years on, and with the opportunity thus lost of collecting contemporary forensic evidence, there's scant chance of the truth emerging. The coroner gave a narrative verdict and said the evidence was not clear enough for him to say who had shot the marine.

“It's ended up as a dirty, muddied story and that's the thing that bothers me most, because I know the family very well and they just want to know what happened,” Ed tells eaman.

All we have is speculation. Could Mathew have been alive and then hit later in the head by a ricocheting Taliban bullet when he was already down? Ed asks in the book: “If Zulu Company had picked Mathew up before they withdrew, or if we'd got to him earlier, could any of us have saved his life? The answer, none of us will ever know.”

He's not impressed by the support given to a force that faced daunting challenges. The board of inquiry, he points out, found the Royal Marine company hadn't been trained back in the UK for combat in Afghanistan. “And the sub-unit hadn't even conducted live firing training together - the most basic of all company tasks. Zulu Company were given the relatively benign job of security patrolling in Kabul for the tour and even this was asking too much from a unit that had not prepared for war fighting in Afghanistan.”

That escape from the jaws of death was on Ed's last tour of duty. And his final day in uniform was when he was presented with the Military Cross by the Queen - one of two issued that day and the first the Army Air Corps received. He officially left the military early last year.

Nowadays he lives in the north east with Emily, a sharp and funny Scot who was a nursing officer in the RAF when they met in late 2002. Emily discovered she was pregnant on the morning Ed left for Afghanistan, but didn't dare tell him. Ed didn't put that in the book because he thought readers would find it too unbelievable!

He says he genuinely found out on Christmas Day, via a tiny card that said something like: You'd better come home, otherwise he's going to be called Ed. “She didn't realise at the time quite how close that came!”

The ex-soldier lives under his real name - Ed Macy being a pseudonym. Being a former Apache pilot means you're on the Taliban and al-Qaeda wanted list, so he takes “sensible but not overly paranoid precautions” to protect himself and his family. Post goes to a special PO box, he doesn't vote and his names don't appear on any contracts. “I'm pretty much invisible” - protected by the state.

With two children from previous relationships, what was it like whenever he left to put his life on the line?

He says his daughter, now towards the upper end of the school system, has found it more difficult to deal with as she's grown older. She won't watch the news when her dad's away on operations. “If she hears 'A soldier's been killed in Afghanistan,' her heart jumps.” That was one of the reasons he was keen to leave the military, in the end. “She says 'Yes, there are lots of soldiers, but I don't know that. So I've got to watch the news and try and find out if it's you, and when it's not you . . .' she bursts into tears.”

The first of his two tours to Afghanistan was going to be his last, as his service time was just about up. But the Army was short of weapons officers and really needed him to go back. “We had a bit of a kick and scream about it. She said 'They won't make you go back again after this, will they?' No. 'Then go.'”

Ed's nine-year-old son doesn't think of his dad's exploits as anything more than “basic soldiering stuff”, and enjoys donning camouflage clothing and building hides in the woods with his father. “There's no bang-bang stuff.” He doesn't talk to them about the details of the job he used to do - like the killing. “No-one asks and I wouldn't discuss it with them anyway.”

It's difficult for those of us who would be distinct liabilities on the front line to imagine unleashing stupendous violence on a fellow human being. The Flechette rockets carried by the Apache, for instance, release 80 five-inch-long Tungsten darts liable to shred anyone in their way. And as Ed himself writes in the book, Apache pilots shared the mindset of a professional assassin - like a sniper, they're able to get a detailed look at the face of the person about to be despatched.

How does that influence the way they think?

“You're so highly trained. As an Apache pilot, you know you're looking at a man who's just killed a British soldier and you've never lost sight of him once. You're verifying his outfit. You're verifying where he is. You're widening the camera out and thinking 'Right, I need to kill him, but I don't want to kill anyone else. In a minute, he's going to be in an area where I can clinically drop him down.' You want him to all of a sudden 'fall asleep'. 'That's the point I'm going to do it; I mustn't wing him.'

“You put the crosshairs on and everything's right. You're conscious you don't want to make an error. Those rounds must be 100%, first time. You pull the trigger and you feel it vibrating up your calves and your legs, and you feel the whole machine shuddering. You watch these little black dots. When they impact and explode, horrendous things happen to people. Then you look down and think 'There are body parts . . . instant death.'”

But you don't have time to dwell on it, because you're thinking of the next act to protect your colleagues on the ground. Then, when you come home, you still don't dwell on it, because you've got your family to think about.

“It's only when you sit alone on the likes of Shingle Street, with your boots off, and you pick a couple of stones up and start flinging them, that you think 'Crikey . . .' I've never counted how many people I've killed - I don't think it's a good thing to do, for your sanity. You just go back to anything that wasn't clinical.

“When you're sitting down with the sun on your back, and you're looking out to the east, that's when you think 'Crikey. I wonder what happened, because I hit that building in Kushtay. God, I hope the people inside died instantly. I hope it was clinical.'

“Although you don't beat yourself up - you're doing everything right and we've got very strict rules of engagement that don't allow us to do any form of maiming or unlawful killing - you analyse everything clinically. I don't sit and mull over things, but things do come back to me.”

What about the risk to his own skin?

“I've been in scrapes all my life. I actually love the thrill of being a soldier. I wanted to join the SAS and that was my dream, and that got curtailed. I'm not an adrenaline freak; I don't have a fear like other people have. I've escaped death so many times now that I shouldn't be walking on this earth, and the fact I am is just a prize. I don't actually wake up in cold sweats, or think 'Crikey, that were close'; I just think 'Crikey, that was fun!'”

But what about those who could be left fatherless and spouseless?

“I'm mission-focused; that's my problem. I'm very much a black and white person. I can't pick up ten pence on the street and put it my pocket; I've got to put it in a charity box. When you work it out, you think 'There's a guy down there who's probably going to be stormed by the Taliban and he's going to be chopped into pieces and filmed, but I've got the power to stop that. The chances are I might die. Am I going to do it? Of course I am. It's right and wrong. That's my job.' You should be prepared to die to save someone else.

“I don't sit back and think 'What's going to happen to my family if I die?' I've got life insurance up to the hilt. All my wills are sorted out before I go away. I'm the type of guy where probably it's going to happen to me at some point. Everything's just that little bit further than most people would go.”

Occupation, a recent BBC drama starring James Nesbitt, highlighted the sense of alienation felt by some servicemen after the Iraq campaign. Has Ed experienced anything similar on his re-entry into civilian life?

“No. No adjustment problems whatsoever. In fact, it's been an absolute godsend. You can only work at that sort of level for so long. What people don't know is that when you're not in Afghanistan you're still working 14-hour days and going away all over the place - to America to shoot, and courses to do. You're never at home and your family don't see you.

“When you're working at that sort of tempo and have been doing it non-stop since 2003, all of a sudden when you take your cheque and move on, you think 'Wowee! I've got all this time' and it's just about the family. It was that tough, that intense, that to have this time now is an incredible luxury.”

A big part of that new life involves writing. Apache, his first book, is a story of courage, technology and tragedy. As he says, it leaves readers in no doubt that the war in Afghanistan is “fast, fierce, cruel and extremely dangerous. It turns boys to men and bonds those comrades together in eternal friendships”.

A second book, Hellfire - it's the name of one of the Apache missiles - is due out in the autumn.

Ed runs his manuscripts past the Ministry of Defence, though as a former electronic warfare instructor and simulator teaching he knows what he can and can't put in the public arena when discussing military hardware. And “I won't reveal anything that's going to be a threat to national security or to men now or in the future.”

He doesn't have much difficulty with the MoD. “They always suck teeth and they would prefer it if no-one ever spoke about anything. But the general public want to know about things and I explain to them about the PR they'll be able to ride off the back of this.”

If things get a little too close to the bone, he can always pen a fictional novel based on the truth, he laughs. “I don't think I'm going to run out of material. I've had a barking 22 or 23 years! Don't worry!”

ED Macy was based at Wattisham Airfield in Suffolk for about five years, from late 1997 until early 2003 - working with aircraft such as Gazelle and Lynx helicopters.

He adored the county. “I loved the weather and the skies. I'm very much a coastal person and an outdoors person, and generally never live on-base. I moved out initially into Stowmarket, and then after a couple of years moved across to Woodbridge for three years and lived out in the sticks in Rendlesham Forest. It was only five minutes to Shingle Street and the beaches, so I spent a lot of my time there. Absolutely superb. The evening-time when the sky is magnificent, the weather's beautiful and you're alone there . . .”

The coast was a boon when he had problems with his ankles - the legacy of the road accident that punctured his dream of joining the SAS. While at Wattisham, he was told he needed to do regular physiotherapy. Ed was given a board to stand on to strengthen the ligaments. Wouldn't walking on a slope give the same benefit, he asked. Yes, came the answer.

So each morning for nigh on six months, when he wasn't away, he walked along the beach every morning for an hour or so, clearing rubbish and beachcombing. “I haven't had a problem with them since!”

Wattisham officially became Apache Town in 2007 - about five months after the rescue of Mathew Ford - when the squadron left at Dishforth in North Yorkshire transferred down. Until then, the helicopter had flown from three airfields; the other being Middle Wallop in Hampshire. Concentrating the Apaches on one site proved cost-effective.

Ironically enough, Ed stayed at Dishforth and ran the simulator as the helicopters began moving down to his old Suffolk stamping ground.

Macy the man

Hails from the north east

Parents' unhappy marriage broke up when he was 11

Admits his teenage years were chaotic

Became an apprentice engineer, but hated being stuck indoors

'At night, I'd drink and fight'

At 18, in 1984, enlisted in the Parachute Regiment

After a couple of years, and a six-month tour to Enniskillen, fighting the IRA, won promotion to lance corporal

Also served with 2 Para in Belgium, Belize, Kenya, Germany, Morocco, Netherlands and Oman

Promoted to sergeant

Wanted to join the SAS

Hopes wrecked when he was hit by a car while cycling in the rain in Aldershot

Heart stopped in ambulance on way to hospital

Injuries ended his front-line fighting career

A friend suggested the Army Air Corps

Joined 9 Regiment AAC in 1992

Flew Gazelles with a reconnaissance squadron

Five years later started flying the SAS, hunting down war criminals in the Balkans

Says he bent every rule in the book to make sure he was posted on to the very first Apache conversion course

He qualified in the autumn of 2004

Recorded 3,930 flying hours - 645 in an Apache

Has flown in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Canada, Croatia, France, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Northern Ireland and the US

Served as a helicopter pilot, captain and flight commander, specialising as air combat tactics instructor, electronic warfare instructor, helicopter range conducting officer, helicopter simulator instructor, helicopter weapons instructor, helicopter weapons officer, ending as a Warrant Officer First Class and an attack aviation specialist

Ed Macy's paperback book is published by Harper Perennial at �7.99. ISBN 978-0-00-728817-5.

Apache launched HarperCollins's new multimedia package HarperPlus. Scattered throughout the pages are symbols indicating free extras online - including real-time declassified footage of the Jugroom Fort rescue and audio commentary - that can be accessed through www.harperplus.com/apache

Web link: www.edmacy.com

ED Macy was one of the first 16 airmen to qualify on Apache helicopters - billed as the world's deadliest fighting machine - and confesses “It was the hardest thing I have ever done . . . because of the unimaginably-demanding need to multi-task.” Pilots wore a kind of monocle over their right eye, for instance, with a dozen different instrument readings projected onto it.

“Taking an Apache into battle was like playing an Xbox, a PlayStation and a chess Grand Master simultaneously - whilst riding Disneyworld's biggest roller coaster . . . Information overload was a major issue . . . Miss one vital element, and you would kill yourself and your co-pilot in an instant . . .”

US pilots called flying an Apache “Riding the dragon”.

The Apache AH-64A was initially designed by Boeing for the American government in the 1980s. Then in the 1990s, he explains, the UK military came up with a plan to license the design, use the Boeing Apache shell, and make the rest of the helicopter even better themselves. The development was carried out by Westland and the UK bought 67 of them at �46million each.

Only the top 3% of British Army pilots made it onto Apache squadrons, says Ed, and a conversion course took 18 months. For those who weren't already a fully-qualified, combat-trained helicopter pilot, the whole process - including a 16-week course in survival, evasion and resistance to interrogation - took three years.

It cost �3million to train a pilot, and each custom-made helmet cost nearly �23,000.

The Apache AH-Mk1 is more than 17m long, weighs more than 5,000kg, has two Rolls-Royce engines, and has a crew of two. The diameter of its rotors is 48 feet and maximum speed is more than 200mph. It contains more than a dozen kilometres of electrical wiring.

Ed says the 127-times-magnification day TV camera could read a car number-plate more than 4km away. At night, the thermal camera could identify a human body from 4km and spots of blood on the ground from a kilometre up.

The Hellfire II air-to-ground missiles are laser-guided, contain 20lb of high explosive, and the warhead packs a five-million-lb-per-square-inch punch. They're used for penetrating thick walls and armour.

The helicopter also carries rockets, and has a 30mm machine-gun.

In 2006, the Apache proved its value in giving air support to soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.

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