It had been a bit of a whirlwind but, as I sat in the back of the helicopter flying low over the sea towards the Lebanese capital Beirut, I had time to review what I had to do when I arrived and what had happened to get me here, at 0900 on Monday 25th April 1983. Commanding the only shoulder-launched SAM Battery in the UK, I was the obvious choice when Major David Godsell, running the armoured car squadron currently in Beirut as part of the Multinational Force in Lebanon (MNFIL), needed some advice.
Since 1975 the Sunni Muslims and Christians who occupied the coastal cities, the Shi’a Muslims in the south and in the Beqaa Valley, and the Durze and Christians in the mountains, had been engaged in a civil war, each faction wanting to control this nation in The Levant. 120,000 people had died and the Paris of the East, as Beirut was known, was being destroyed street by street, square by square. The United Nations had authorised MNFIL to deploy as a buffer between the conflicting groups, so that peace talks might eventually start. The UK, France, Italy and the USA provided forces.
MOD Operations had called me at home in Fleet, Hampshire on Saturday just after breakfast. What did I think about deploying Blowpipe, a short range Air Defence missile system, to strengthen our forces in Lebanon? I really hadn’t appreciated what we had provided to the MNFIL but gave a considered opinion that the operational constraints would be too many to overcome. “Wait out!” was the reply. On the Sunday morning the telephone rang again. “Duty Officer MOD Operations here. There’s a C130 Hercules leaving for Cyprus at 2100 tonight from RAF Lyneham. Be on it. That will get you to Cyprus; I am working on how to get you to Beirut. Bye!”
Collecting some gear and a pistol from the Regimental Lines in Wing Barracks Bulford, I made my way to Lyneham. The cargo hold of the C130 was full of a spare jet engine and a Landrover …… and one seat ….. mine! The aircraft is noisy and vibrates quite a lot, so it was a relief to land at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus …… in time for breakfast and a visit to the duty free shop to get some supplies for my host. Ninety minutes after landing, I walked across the apron to the waiting Puma, its rotor blades turning lazily in the morning warmth, and strapped myself in. We lifted off and headed east on the short flight.
I listen to the radio traffic as we approach the coast, am somewhat alarmed that the pilot can’t raise the French sector Air Traffic Controllers to say who he was, and more alarmed when he said “Oh! Well! I am sure it’ll be OK” to his crew. The side door is open and the GPMG Gunner alert.
Beirut, reduced to rubble, still trying to function
We approach the city from the east, aiming for the Charles Helou bridge over the Beirut River. On arrival we bank to the right over the rush-hour traffic, and zigzag low along the deep-sided river banks, going south. Suddenly we lift up over the top and land on a dusty, sandy, local football pitch. The pilot gives me the thumbs up and I disembark, not at all sure where I am! As the dust subsides I spot a couple of British Army vehicles and make my way over, relieved to have made contact.
Once into the tower block that is the base for C Squadron, Queens Dragoon Guards, I meet my host and he briefs me. Operation Hyperion is part of MNFIL, whose task is to try and create the right conditions for peace talks to take place between the various fighting factions in Lebanon. “We have rules of engagement for fighting in the streets and we have contingency plans to deal with a suspected truck bomb aimed against us. What we don’t have is anything to protect us from a suicidal air attack.”
The Ferret Scout Car used by C Squadron QDG
We talked through some of the options and then I was left to do a ground recce of likely approach routes etc. Later I gave my initial thoughts to the MOD. They didn’t change and by the end of the long afternoon of discussions, we drew a line under the idea of providing a Blowpipe section on the flat roof of the block. The problems were identification and reaction time (see note).
The British Army is always good at making the most of where it finds itself and after dinner in the little Officers Mess with its table silver and hunting prints on the walls, one or two frames disconcertingly showing a bullet hole, it was up to the top of the block to watch the locals firing at each other. Occasionally a tank shell went overhead, tracer rounds lifted into the night sky, a flare hanging from a small parachute illuminated a particular street corner …….. and I sipped my coffee, drew on my little cheroot and hugged my glass of Port.
The following morning I was taken to the airport (note 2) and boarded a C130 for Cyprus. I realised as I landed I had about two hours before the RAF VC10 left for the UK. I bummed the use of a car and drove out into the countryside, to visit my then mother-in-law’s half-brother. I knew the name of the village but not much else; a few questions and we meet for a coffee. Then a mad dash back to RAF Akrotiri; I was so late I had to run to the steps of the waiting aircraft, the doors closing as soon as I was on board.
I was home in time to read a bedtime story to two year old Jade. At work the following morning I got a funny look when people asked where I had been on the Monday and Tuesday. “Beirut.”
Richard 12th June 2020
PS In PC 182 I mentioned a Peter Brookes cartoon. I have since found an old photocopy of the cartoon; it wasn’t by Brookes but by Jak.
Note 1. In every peace-keeping operation there are ‘Rules of Engagement’ defining when and how you can open fire. The difficulties of having Rules of Engagement for an ‘air’ scenario are huge, as the speed of the potential threat calls for advanced action. There was no ‘no fly’ zone in and around Beirut, so it would be impossible to distinguish a potential suicide pilot with a playboy out for a Sunday afternoon jolly ….. until it was too late!
Note 2 Someone took a photograph of me with the bombed city in the background ….. and promised to send it to me. Sadly it never arrived (Oh! For an iPhone!)