Malacia’s efforts in the drugs war became a thorn in the side of the bigger drugs gangs. The country’s small intelligence force was maintaining an accurate picture of the gangs’ activities, mostly through the agents in Venezuala. After the events of Hunter’s Plantation, rumours were picked up of a revenge attack being planned against Malacia; at about the same time they received warnings from the British intelligence service that the Cesarii Cartel was trying to obtain Exocet missiles. Although other threats were not ignored, efforts were concentrated on protecting civil and Naval shipping. An Exocet ‘servicing’ round was borrowed from the Royal Navy and fitted to a Viggen of the Malacian Air Force and used to simulate missile attacks. The Experimental Radio Department of the Royal Science University collaborated with these trials; apart from advice on the use of the various methods of chaff dispensing they created a decoy system nicknamed Kitesurfer. Carried on the stern of the ship it consisted of a small kite balloon with an automatic inflator, a short surfboard, a number of radar reflectors and a sufficient length of line for it to be towed behind the ship. To use this, the inflator was fired (it was also designed to inflate on immersion in the sea) and simply be thrown overboard and the towing line paid out with the radar reflectors attached at intervals. The balloon held the line aloft and the surfboard stopped it from rising too high so that the radar reflectors were suspended at the same height as the ship’s superstructure, with the effect of extending the ship’s radar image and placing the centre of the combined return to a position astern of the ship.
HMMS Demerara was exercising in the Caribbean with Jaguar, Lancer, Guardsman and Musketeer and supported by a Victor SR2; at 16:47 one of the operators in the ship’s operations room called out “Tocsin, Exocet, bearing green four zero!”
The crew followed their drill perfectly, the helmsman bringing the destroyer’s course round to put the suspected missile to 5 degrees off the starboard bow and the radio operators passed the message to the other ships. Demerara's water-tight doors were closed even as the action buzzers sounded. The Officer of the Watch leaned over the operator’s shoulder and quickly confirmed that the detected emissions were indeed from an Exocet. Seconds later another operator -this one manning the 992Q radar screens- called out “Fast trace green 25 degrees range 15 miles”.
The Officer of the Watch responded “Comms –tell the Victor; fire all starboard decoys”. The Corvus chaff rockets were fired on Panther’s starboard side, and the starboard Kitesurfer decoy was deployed. At the same time the starboard BMARC gunner closed up to his action station and nervously watched the sea off the starboard bow. After a few seconds as the ops room called off the range and bearing of the approaching missile, he caught sight of it, a tiny white mark with a light grey smoke trail behind it. He put the cross-hairs of the gunsight onto it and tracked it, waiting for it to come into range. After what seemed ages the tiny red LED in the corner of his sight changed first to amber and then to green, and he opened fire. The coarse rattle of the KCB cannons broke the silence; guided by the tracer rounds one of the heavy machine-gun mounts opened fire as well.
Soon it was clear that the Exocet was not going to hit Panther but would pass close down the starboard side, seduced by the chaff and decoy. The two gunners obeyed the ‘cease fire’ order and watched the Exocet streak past the battleship heading south, well away from the other ships.
The Victor SR2 had received the data from Panther’s radar, and calculated the likely path of the Exocet prior to its detection and found a slow moving ship some 25 miles to the North-NorthEast, with a tiny echo moving away from it at over 40 knots.
Jaguar readied her helicopters and in five minutes had a pair of Lynxes airborne carrying a boarding party. Lancer surprised the other ships by getting a pair of Hawkswing missiles fitted to her Wasp, which set off after the other helicopters less than a minute later. The Lynxes soon reached the suspect vessel, a small container ship called the ‘Caribbean Navigator’; atop one of the above-deck containers were two easily recognisable MM38 canisters, one blackened and split but the other obviously discharged with cables draped over the ship leading to the bridge. Both helicopters circled the ship warily looking for any sign of life onboard; there was none. The leader of the boarding party –Captain of Marines Piet Willems- ordered the Wasp to pursue the small ship detected by the Victor, and for the second Lynx to cover them as they boarded the ship. The eight Marines absailed down onto the ship’s bridge and once they had secured the topsides the two Lynxes swapped places and the second group of Marines joined them. They searched the ship carefully, conscious of the possibility of concealed gunmen or booby traps. The bridge and engine room were proved to be as deserted as the deck but the ship’s citadel was secured from the inside; Captain Willems radioed Jaguar and advised them of the situation. The message was relayed to Panther and the Admiralty in Malacia City and the latter contacted the ship’s owners. A few minutes later a message was passed back to the boarding party with the location of the intercom and the codeword to indicate that the ship was in safe hands.
Captain Willems made his way round to the First Officer’s cabin and saw the wall mounted first-aid cupboard. He found the internal catch which let it swing away from the wall, revealing the intercom. He pressed the call button and waited. After a few seconds there was a nervous “Yes?”
“The Navy’s here!” He announced. “I’ve been told to say ‘Haberdasher’ to you. Are any of you injured?”
“One pistol-whipped deckhand and my Chief Engineer has concussion brought on by a rifle butt.”
“Okay. If you open up, my first-aiders can take a look at them.” Willems ran back down to the ship’s citadel, reaching it as the door opened. The ship’s captain and first officer came out, followed by a young Asian man with a head bandage and an older man sporting a massive purple bruise to the side of his head. The marine medics examined both, re-dressing the head wound and administering pain killers.
Captain Willems told the ship’s captain that his men would accompany the crew and check the ship for any explosive devices left behind.
While this was happening the Wasp, following the track given by the Victor, came upon a pair of large RHIBs with about a dozen men on each, heading westwards at about 40 knots. As the pilot flew warily around the two boats his observer examined them through his binoculars.
“Well, they won’t be making landfall in those.” Sub-Lieutenant Christie said.
“No, they won't, Andy.” replied the pilot. “But I think I can see where they are headed, look in front of us.”
His observer looked up to see the stern of a small merchant ship in the distance.
"Let’s take a look.” The pilot continued.
"Okay but keep well back from it, Gerry; anyone firing Exocets at Demerara may well have something to greet inquisitive helicopters.”
It took an few minutes for the Wasp to close up with the suspect ship, and Lieutenant Gerry Chesterton kept the helicopter a fair distance away from it as he circled it in an anti-clockwise direction to give his observer a clear view.
"No flag, no name or port of registry.” Andy commented. “A few crew visible in shorts and tee-shirts. She’s got derricks rigged on both sides and Jacob’s ladders down so she probably is picking up the RHIBs.” Even as Gerry relayed this back to Lancer Andy took several photographs with a digital camera and used the helicopter’s computer to transmit them back to their parent ship.
It took quite a while for the RHIBs to reach the freighter but as soon as they did so the crews swarmed up the ladders and went straight inside and then the boats were hoisted up and lifted onto the ship’s deck.
Shortly after this Lancer advised the Wasp’s crew that the ship was believed to be the Yemeni dry bulk carrier Jerboa, which had gone missing on a voyage from Aden to an east African port. Lancer added that the two Lynxes were on their way from the ‘Caribbean Navigator’ to assist them.
“That’s typical” Gerry grumbled. “We find the ship and the glory boys drop in to claim the credit.” Neither of them, however, expected the events that followed. On reaching the Jerboa the two Lynxes hovered a few thousand yards off the ship’s port side, keeping position a few hundred yards apart. When the Wasp had circled around to the other side they saw a flurry of activity on the ship’s deck as a number of heavy automatic weapons were deployed and started firing at the Lynxes.
"Get the Hawkswings ready." Gerry commanded. Andy readied both missiles setting his sights on the ship, choosing as his target the twin barrelled cannon that was starting to fire short bursts at each of the Lynxes in turn, forcing them to keep the range open even though this meant they couldn't return fire with their own machine guns.
The ship's gunners had assumed that the two modern helicopters represented the real threat and, for the moment, ignored the elderly Wasp. The Lynxes were forced to rely on evasive manoeuvring to protect themselves from the twin 23mm cannon.
All too soon one of the Lynxes was hit and was forced to ditch, the two crew abandoning their burning helicopter as they knew it would attract more fire from the ship as a sitting duck
"Missiles ready.” Andy announced.
"Engage.” Gerry ordered.
Andy fired the starboard Hawkswing. BAe had developed this airborne version of the heavy anti-tank missile Swingfire for the British Army, but it had not been taken up by them.
He watched in satisfaction as the control system neatly steered the missile into his field of view, and he needed only the lightest of touches to keep the missile lined up with his chosen target. After what seemed like an eternity –but could only have been about 15 seconds- the missile hit the back of the gun’s base. The warhead detonated blowing the gun clean off its mount and disabled its crew, and also set fire to some of the ammunition lying on the deck.
"Fire the second missile –try and hit the engine room.” Gerry ordered as he turned the Wasp away from the ship to present a moving target to the gunfire that was now coming their way.
"Engine room it is.” Andy replied. He fired the second missile and again was rewarded by the sight of the missile settling into the centre of his field of view. He ignored the confusion of fires burning on the ship's deck as well as the small-arms fire coming towards him, and concentrated on allowing for the helicopter's movement as he kept the missile heading towards the Jerboa's engine room, keeping it as low as he dared. Again it seemed an age before a flash followed by a cloud of smoke announced the missile's detonation just above the waterline.
On board the ship the fires on the deck had spread to ropes and other debris; she had never been well maintained and the cartel's crew were only just able to keep the ship going. What little fire-fighting that remained was incapable of being used. Down in the ship's engine room diesel oil from leaky pipes coated most of the surfaces, and a mix of lubricating oil and diesel fuel swilled around in the bilges and oily rags were everywhere. Into this punched the copper slug from the Hawkswing's warhead; hardly slowed by the thin steel hull it smashed into the side of the diesel engine fracturing the cylinder block and liberally spraying the area with metal fragments. Within seconds flames were licking across the engine and, out of sight in a corner, a pair of discarded oily coveralls smouldered. The engine room crew vainly searched for extinguishers but the only one that worked turned out to have no foam compound in it, so the hapless wielder found himself spraying water onto the burning oil which simply spread it about the engine room. As he was doing this the coveralls exploded into flames with a muted 'whump'; those crew still in the engine space fled upwards.
Above decks most of the gunners had been driven back from their guns by the flames and exploding ammunition with just a few trying to fend off the helicopters with their AK47s.
To be continued.
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Copyright SR Jenkins, September 2013.