Shadows slipping into the night, the Recce commandos worked quickly and quietly. Their Klepper kayaks were cached in the high reeds that sprung up in the shallows on both sides of the river. Weapon and equipment checks were performed at the admin site before the ten soldiers pulled on their fins and kicked into the main current of the river, carrying them toward their destination.
Hours prior, a Puma helicopter had dropped the combat swimmers off even farther upstream where the sound of beating rotor blades would not be heard by the communist backed rebels swarming throughout the jungle. The Kleppers had carried them halfway, paddling into a shallow cove where the canoes could be recovered later. From there on out, the 4-Recce commandos would surface swim down the river, submerging and breathing off of their rebreathers when the enemy was close by.
Deckard thumbed the button on his buoyancy compensator device to add a little bit of air to help keep him afloat. They were all a little heavier than usual, besides a combat load they also wore water proof backpacks filled with explosive charges.
The SADF commandos spread out into an extended file in the water to prevent the entire patrol from being taken out by a single burst of machine gun fire or a hand grenade. Gently bobbing up and down in the water, Sean swam on his side, kicking out in a scissoring motion with his fins. With his head parallel to the waterline, and his nose just above the surface, he and the other swimmers would maintain a lower profile, hopefully making them harder to spot.
While most of his late comrades in the Rhodesian Special Air Service had been absorbed into their own detachment within the SADF, 6-Recce, Sean had been invited to become a member of the maritime specific 4-Recce with the caveat that he first complete the attack dive school.
As it turned out, several of the 4-Recce Sergeants remembered Sean fondly from a covert operation that they had run together with the SAS, destroying the Beira Fuel yard in Mozambique. Someone must have thought that the American would be a good addition to the unit. That, or they just wanted to see him suffer in the SCUBA course as Sean half suspected at times.
The swimmers were in the water for half an hour by Sean’s watch, the luminescent hands giving off a faint glow in the night, when they saw headlights approaching from a road adjacent to the river. Checking for a good seal on his snorkel mask, Sean bit down on his air regulator and submerged himself in the dark waters, letting out a little bit of air from his BCD.
Underwater, darkness closed in around him. Holding his hands clasped together at his waist, he calmly paddled forward with his fins. Diving at night carried it’s own specific types of hazards. Inexperienced divers could become easily disoriented and work themselves into a frenzy. Panicking a hundred feet underwater was a sure bet that you’d be sleeping with the fishes, but it could happen even during a shallow dive, getting people killed and compromising the mission.
The rebreathers they used in place of normal oxygen tanks recycled air so that they didn’t leave the tell tale sign of bubbles breaking on the surface. Canting his head to the side, he could see the yellow headlights flash across the water before disappearing. Sean waited an additional minute to make sure the enemy troops had passed before breaking the surface. Spitting the regulator from his mouth, he saw the rest of the patrol emerge from the water to his front.
Drifting in the center of the river, the powerful current pulled them downstream even faster then they had anticipated. Despite the recent rainfall, the decision had been made to launch. The cold water rushed over the back of Sean’s neck and scalp, the slight chill leaving him thankful for the wetsuit he wore.
The night seemed to stretch on as they gently floated downstream. The combat swimmers spotted Angolan troops on the shores several more times, submerging once again until they had passed the threat.
Sean was counting the bends in the river, calculating how much further they had to travel to their objective. Each patrol member carried a waterproofed map but had to memorize the hydrography of the river itself, getting quizzed about it’s twists and turns several times during the planning phase of their mission.
A couple klicks out from their target, the patrol was swept down towards a foot bridge that crossed the river. Sean could already see several communist troops standing on the bridge, peering over the railing and probing the water with their flashlights. Hearing them yell in their native language, the American’s guts were churned into knots. It was as if they knew that the Recces were coming.
Biting down on his regulator once more, Sean slipped below the water with the rest of the patrol. The current was far to strong for them to swim to the shore and detour around, the best they could do was hope that they passed under the bridge undetected.
Sean was biting down on his regulator hard enough to begin chewing through the rubber.
They were in for a ride.
The first detonation tossed him like a rag doll. If he hadn’t been in the process of exhaling, the pressure surely would have burst both his lungs. As it was, the rush of running water was replaced with a dulling ringing sound in his ears. Letting air escape from his buoyancy compensator, he dove deeper below the surface even as enemy gunfire raked across the river.
Bullets crisscrossed into the water, searching him out like angry hornets. Staying well below the surface, he felt confident that the water would quickly bring the velocity of the bullets to a halt, but it was still unnerving to have a half dozen Kalashnikovs blasting away above him.
Thrashing through the water as another grenade went off in the depths of the river, Sean’s leg slammed into something, his calf muscle temporarily numbed. Struggling to kick away, he finned back into the center of the river. Staying low he managed to avoid the search lights above and the over pressure from several more grenades. His breaths were short and frantic as he sucked recycled air from his rebreather. Getting a handle on himself, hours of dive training kicked in and he was able to slow his breath rate.
The seasoned Special Operations soldier didn’t dare to break the surface and knew that the other Recces would also be diving deep until they reached their objective. Finally catching his breath, the soldier set back into operational mode, counting turns and watching the needle on his compass.
Rounding the final bend, Sean began kicking his fins and arcing himself up to the surface. He needed to get a good look at the bridge they were targeting before making a final approach. Breaking the surface, his heart skipped a beat, ducking back under just in time for a double strand of razor wire to pass just over him.
Coming back up he spat out a mouth full of water. This time he had to quickly dodge to the side, barely missing a giant steel caltrop that barely revealed a steel I-beam above the surface. Glancing to his sides, he saw that the river was full of the giant anti-tank obstacles, strands and strands of razor wire were unraveled across it’s width. Intel hadn’t mentioned any of it.
Ahead of him, he spotted the large two-lane bridge. Communist troops allied with Cuban and Soviet advisers regularly transported men and war material across the reinforced concrete bridge by vehicle, even T-55 tanks had been spotted rumbling over it during major offensives fought against the SADF.
Sean took a mental snap shot before ducking back underwater. The jungle on the sides of the river were thick and several search lights lit up the water approaching the bridge. The Angolan troops on the foot bridge had surely called ahead to their comrades as a warning, but deep down Deckard knew they had been compromised before ever crossing the Angolan border.
Someone had fed his patrol into the steel jaws of this death trap.
Maneuvering away from the steel obstacles, he finned under the search lights and surfaced just in time to grab onto one of the concrete pillars before the current swept him away. Pulling his mask up and onto his forehead, Sean spotted Viljeon being supported by Nel as they held onto another concrete pylon.
Even under ambient light Sean could tell that his team mates had not faired well. Corporal Viljeon was white as a sheet, blinking but barely conscious. Nel looked to be in better shape but completely exhausted. Above them they could hear the Angolans shouting excitedly as the search lights pitched back and forth. They were expecting to see the divers at any moment, but with the reeds running along the edges of the river and the razor wire strung everywhere, they hadn’t posted guards under the bridge itself.
“Hi, boet,” someone whispered behind him.
Turning around he saw Sergeant Terblanche with his backpack half open, pulling charges out and preparing them for placement on the pylons. Harder than woodpecker lips, the Boer soldiers were as tough as they came and would drive on with the mission as long as they were able.
“This is all that is left of us?”
Suddenly, two more heads wearing snorkels popped out of the water with the splash. It was Lieutenant Venter and Sergeant Droskie who caught a helping hand from Sean and Terlanche.
“Has anyone seen the rest of the patrol?” their commanding officer asked.
“That’s what we were just wondering,” Terblanche answered. “I think this is it.”
“Damn,” the officer cursed. “Someone should have known that this place was swarming with obstacles.”
“Viljeon was shot through the thigh back at the foot bridge,” the Sergeant explained. “We’ve got the bleeding under control but he’s going into shock.”
Venter froze for a moment, the water surging over his shoulders as he hung onto one of the bridge supports. The decision was in his hands now.
“Corporal Nel,” he whispered to the two men on the other side of the supports.
“Put Viljeon on a guide rope and tie it off to yourself. Get under the surface and move to the extraction point as fast as you can.”
“I can still-”
“You have your orders Corporal. Leave your charges with us, you’ve done everything you can. Now get Viljeon out of here and wait for the the chopper. We’ll meet up with you soon enough.”
“Terblanche, Deckard, Droskie. Get to work.”
“Roger, Sir,” Sean replied, tearing open his own backpack.
Nel helped his injured team mate get his mask back on before placing the regulator in his mouth. Viljeon signaled that he was good-to-go despite looking anything but. Sean held his breath as they disappeared into the dark water. He hoped to see them at the extraction point, for both their sakes.
The spot lights were still sweeping across the river as they went to work. Every so often the Recces shuttered as one of the communist troops conducted some recon by fire, shooting into the river. Their commander watched nervously, all of them praying that they wouldn’t see a friend’s body bob up to the surface.
The shaped charges were lashed into place, the Recces making sure that each had good surface contact with the pylons. With half the patrol missing they were also short half of their charges. They had packed enough plastic explosives to take down the bridge even if they suffered a few casualties but operating at half strength left them at a serious disadvantage.
Based on his previous experience in Rhodesia and Vietnam, Sean knew that they probably wouldn’t have enough explosives to bring down the bridge immediately, however, they would probably be able to weaken the structural integrity enough that it would drop the first time another Soviet-made tank rumbled across.
The explosives were cone shaped, pressed into the hollow of a PVC pipe, the design being adopted from the early Rhodesian design. Each of the four remaining Recces attached their charge to a separate pylon before beginning to rig the initiation system, long water proof fuses that would have to be lit simultaneously.
Suddenly another round of AK fire sounded from the bridge followed by a chorus of cheers. A lone body floated the the surface, the wetsuit and dive gear illuminated by one of the search light before the corpse drifted under the bridge. Struggling against the current, Corporal Droskie reached out and snagged the body by the web gear.
The body was so mangled it was impossible to tell how Sergeant Weitsz had been killed. The long slash marks that tore through his wetsuit and into flesh indicated a losing battle when he’d become ensnared in the razor wire. Dozens of bullets holes punctured his torso and head sometime afterwords. Droskie looked as if he was going to be ill.
“Treblanche,” the officer snapped. “Take control of Weitsz. You will swim the body down stream to extraction.”
“My charge is already in place.”
“Then move out.”
The Recce relieved Droskie of his grim task and set about a final check on his explosives and personal equipment before diving underwater, towing the body with him. The deadweight would normally float on the surface, especially in a rubber wetsuit, but the Recce was able to let some air out of his late comrade’s BCD, the weight belt around Weitsz’s waist dragging him under.
The Recces were putting the finishing touches on the initiation system when Sean snapped around, eyes piercing into the reeds that lined the shore near the bridge’s foundation. Looking slightly above the reeds helped lined up the cones in the human eye, allowing slightly better night vision when looking at an object indirectly. Scanning the shore, he could have sworn that he heard something. Going back to work on his demolitions charge, sweat beaded on his forehead in the jungle humidity.
Hearing the crunch of broken reeds under a booted foot, Sean Deckard tore his 1911 pistol from the holster at his side. Holding on to the pylon with one hand he aimed into the reeds he had looked at previously, lining his sights up on a silhouette and squeezing the trigger. The .45 barked, kicking upwards in his hand. A Kalashnikov pattern rifle fell into the river with a splash.
Multiple muzzle blasts lit up the night, a trio of Angolan soldiers having crept down into the reeds and through the razor wire while the Recces were at work. Cement dust rained down on Sean as 7.62 autofire chipped away at the pillar his charge was set on.
Droskie fired his Browning Hi-Power, dropping one of the communists and sending him spinning down the hill leading to the water where he became entangled in a strand of razor wire. He screamed and thrashed, succeeded only in tearing open more wounds in his flesh.
Sean acquired a second target, squatting behind a boulder and bounced several .45 rounds off the rock. The bullets created a spark in the night, ricocheting as shrapnel into the gunman’s eyes that sent him howling to the ground.
Lieutenant Venter freed his own pistol and attempted to fire on the remaining Angolan but in the process lost hold of the pylon he had been working on. The current quickly swept him down stream as he attempted to swat his other hand out, desperate to find a hand hold. Flailing one final time, the officer was carried out from under the bridge where he was riddled with bullets from the troops that lay waiting above.
Sean’s aim was wavering as he fought against the current, firing from a one handed grip. Expending the rest of his magazine, the 1911’s slide locked to the rear on an empty chamber, a second corpse rolling down into the razor wire where he hung limply.
Now the one remaining Recce was looking to him, both he and Droskie feeling equally frightened and nearly alone.
“Light the charges,” Sean ordered as he tucked his pistol back into it’s holster. “We’re getting the fuck out of here.”
Flicking a zippo, he lit the time fuse running to the shaped charge, Droskie doing the same. Letting go of the pylons they allowed themselves to drift down to the charges set in place by Venter and Terblanche, repeating the process. With less than two minute lengths on each fuse, they were burning fast.
The two remaining Recces dived underwater just as the first grenades splashed down from above.
Rocked by the explosions, Sean tumbled through the water, enemy gunfire spiking through the river on his flanks. Feeling something tug at his dive gear, he suddenly found himself being dragged down to the bottom of the river. Trying to achieve neutral buoyancy became an impossibility with his BCD shot through. Pulling on his regulator for air was without result, the rebreather had been shot as well.
Fighting off his rising panic, Sean undid the strap on the rebreather and shrugged out of the harness. Before letting go, he reached down and unbuckled his weight belt with one hand, letting it disappear into the murky bottom. Kicking upwards, desperate for air, his head broke the surface with a splash.
He found that he was less than a hundred meters downstream from the bridge. Angolan soldiers swarmed over it like an ant hill that was getting rained on. Large search lights vectored in, settling on his head and shoulders bobbing in the water. A literal sitting duck.
A two and a half ton flat bed truck was parked in the middle of the bridge, a ZPU-2 Anti-Aircraft gun bolted to the bed.
Sean scowled as the twin barrels rotated into position, the gunner aiming straight at him.
Look for a release some time later this month!