Updated: September 30, 2017
Operation Migraine was supposed to be a short sabotage mission behind enemy lines, designed to disrupt the buildup of NATO forces on the island. The intelligence report indicated the enemy was trying to consolidate its positions around the towns of Athira and Frini, bringing in long-range artillery as well as a significant cargo of ATGM, which would make any offensive by our light armor prohibitive. The army command felt we needed to take the sting out of a rapidly escalating situation, and Operation Migraine was scheduled for the early afternoon hours of June 24th.
My team was tasked with this dangerous mission, having undertaken several high-risk assignments in the previous months. We were well familiar with the island's topography, we had a good sense of the terrain, and we were accustomed to the muggy summer heat.
The strike force was composed of two main elements - the infantry group, led by me, with a select number of operatives skilled in penetration and demolition. Or primary task was to move into Athira, suppress any military presence and confiscate the cargo of anti-tank missiles, suspected to be held at the old cement factory in the northeast part of the town. If we were unable to complete this objective, we would destroy the weapons. Under no circumstances should they remain in enemy hands. Furthermore, we were to seek and destroy any AT units, so that our armor element could advance and support us for the second leg of the operation.
Two BTR-60 APCs of the 44th Mechanized Brigade formed the other element of our force, and they would initially remain behind, at Camp Hornbill, waiting for our signal that it was safe to move into Athira. BTR-60 is a fast but lightly skinned vehicle, and it does not provide much protection to either its crew or passengers on the modern battlefield. Sending them into the town without adequate support would be suicide. However, once we secured the town, we could then use their formidable 14.5mm HMG to support our push north into Frini from a safe distance.
The main purpose of Operation Migraine was the destruction of a NATO M270 MLRS battery, which would severely threaten our positions across half the island once it'd gone active, but our intel did not have a precise location on the launchers, so we had to recce the ground first. However, we did not have any illusions regarding the town's defense. We knew the enemy had deployed defense in depth, with several concentric rings of barricades and concealed bunkers, and we had to slog past these, before we could secure Frini and destroy the artillery.
Additionally, the decision to concentrate on the enemy presence in Athira first was based on several key considerations. Theoretically, we could advance across the enemy's entire left flank, and strike either in Athira or Frini, and going against the artillery sounded juicy and appealing. However, Frini was protected by a minefield on the north side, and we would have to cross a low ridge of hills on the west side, which would limit our visibility and leave us exposed to enemy fire, especially the anti-tank teams. If the resistance proved too heavy or we were forced to advanced farther south, we would end up in a pincer. A classic encirclement movement, by ourselves. That would not do.
By going against Athira first, we would approach from the southwest, limiting our contact with the foe to only one side. We would also make sure to neutralize the anti-tank threat, allowing our APCs to advance and support the attack. Finally, during the night, the air force had secretly airdropped resupplies east of Athira, so if we needed to stock up on ammo, we could pause briefly and rearm before moving north.
With the battle order decided, we initiated phase one, with a stealth approach on foot. We had kitted ourselves with the expectation of heavy contact with enemy infantry, plus the necessary gear to dispatch the artillery. Intel reported no enemy armor or cavalry.
I was armed with a Rahim 7.62mm marksman rifle. It's a very reliable piece of weapon, with good accuracy and a solid punch, superior to the SVD, but like its predecessor, it shares the same limited 10-round magazine capacity. However, it uses a dual-purpose riflescope-illumret ACOG, which offers superior visibility in both short- and long-distance engagements. With low, flat, open terrain ahead of us, I stocked up with extra ammo. The rest of my team consisted of another marksman, a sniper, who would move on our exposed flank north and protect against any enemy encroachment, a medic, a machine gunner, a demolition expert, and three anti-tank operatives, two with 127mm Titan launchers, with two missiles each.
The armor element included the two BTR-60s with their crews, including also two mechanics, a spare driver for the pinch side of our mission, and a lone combat assistant for whatever they might need. They were apprehensive, and I could sympathize with them. In the past two weeks, we had lost five vehicles to enemy AT units, and they did not relish the charge over open ground, supported by a single special ops squad.
Just before we set off, HQ informed us we would also enjoy air support. A strike formation would move in, but only on positive identification of the MLRS battery. We did not know the disposition of the enemy AA strength, so there was risk in that, and with the weather threatening to turn into a typical summer thunderstorm, the CAS was a sweet if risky notion.
We advanced at a steady pace, using the orchards and vineyards to hide our movement. The first two hours passed in sweltering silence, pierced only by the incessant buzzing of cicada. They say the buzzing frequency correlates to temperature, so if you can count the chirps, you know what the temperature is.
We reached the southeast corner of the town without encountering any opposition. There were no civilians about, probably because they knew a military buildup in their area could never be a good thing. The terrain was flat, providing no good vantage points, especially not toward the cement factory. And we needed to scout out the town before moving in.
At the outskirts of Athira, we decided on a bold move. A sentry tower, used by friendly forces before the hostilities, stood abandoned merely 500 meters from us, and it could be an excellent jump point for our attack. We discovered, to our delight, that the enemy had not bothered securing the tower or even placing a patrol around it, but we didn't spend too much time wondering. Never once to scorn good fortune, we covered the remaining distance at a crouch. There was always the chance of a trap, but we didn't think the enemy had had enough time to consolidate its position in Athira, let alone prepare any nasty surprises for us. It was the nature of the game, and we were used to operating under adverse conditions with high stakes.
Indeed, the tower stood empty. I sent the sniper up, and he took position on the second-story level, aiming toward the main road. Apparently, NATO had decided to concentrate its forces on the east side of the town, probably to minimize suspicion. With flat ground for a good few km west of Athira, vehicle movement may be observed by our recon units, and they intended to keep their preparations hidden until the last moment. At the same time, they could have used the tower to keep an eye on our positions, but for some reason, they did not. It is a tactical question I will never answer.
My sniper Ani finally reported enemy presence. An infantry squad on patrol north of us, and another, as we feared, at the cement factory. He had a good shot at the patrol near the road, but he did not have a clear line of sight toward the second group.
We left him in the tower, and moved carefully across the road. We were in enemy territory now. Urban settings are dangerous. Enemy fire can come from any direction, and it is very easy to become disoriented and lost in small, unfamiliar towns. We had never operated in Athira before, but we had studied its layout carefully, and we believed we knew what to expect.
Still no enemy contact.
About a hundred meters from the factory, we hunkered down, and I gave permission to fire. The sniper quickly dispatched of the road patrol. He left the tower and moved farther in. He had already selected his next cover; a two-story unfinished house. He was going to support from the rooftop, where he could suppress any enemy movement from the north.
We stormed the factory, keeping formation, covering each other's flanks. Overlapping fire arcs, slow, deliberate movement. The island of Altis is a tricky battlefield. The sun-burned vegetation and rocky ground allows lone gunners to remain unseen. It heavily favors the defenders. But we believed our superior training, the element of surprise, as well as respectable body armor gave us the necessary dose of confidence for this engagement.
As we reached the rusty gate into the factory's premise, the enemy opened fire. We were pinned down from two directions, from inside the compound and from the southeast. Luckily, we had the factory's thick perimeter wall to protect us from the worst of it, so we lay down, and started scanning for targets. With good camouflage, you don't look for people; you scan for silhouettes and sudden movement. Peripheral vision becomes critical.
The enemy was confused, because they soon abandoned cover. Perhaps they thought they had the superior numbers, or maybe they weren't completely sure who they were fighting, but I had my first target in my sights. I was using the scope, out to 200 meters. These seemed to be paratroopers, hardy, well-trained soldiers. Lightly armored, though. The 7.62mm round has superior ballistics, and it will bring down anyone.
Hugging the factory wall, temporarily ignoring the force inside, we moved east, firing at our right flank. Reaching a T-junction at the southeast corner, we turned left, again using the wall to minimize our exposure. Within just a few meters, we came in contact with a large enemy force.
These weren't paratroopers. These were ordinary troops, busy unloading crates of missiles from a HEMTT parked farther down the road. We had found our cache of ATGM, as well as a whole platoon of soldiers.
We opened deadly fire, kneeling among the bushes and weeds that overgrew the sides of the access road to the abandoned factory. Our machine gunner, Zabad, took position on the hot asphalt and ripped a deadly salvo into the enemy men with his trusty Zafir, scattering them. I could see sparks flying off the truck, and I had to warm him not to damage the vehicle. We had the goal of stealing this lovely cache, and it would be a shame if we, rather than the enemy, ruined the chances of completing that part of our mission.
The enemy beat a retreat into the factory. I lobbed a frag over the wall. A dull thud, followed by a rain of dust and paint. Meanwhile, the paratroopers on our right were getting more aggressive. They had good cover among the ruined, shelled houses, and they were firing at us with all they had. We were lucky the east side of the town was in a slight depression, so they only had a limited view of our position, and most of their bullets overshot. As long as we stayed low, we were relatively safe.
But then we crept up on a bunker. The intel reports mentioned a whole bunch of them, but they weren't all marked on maps, and camouflage nets foiled aerial surveillance attempts. I realized we were getting pulled into a trap. We would soon have enemy attacking us on three sides, and we still didn't even know the size and strength of the force inside the factory.
The truck suddenly became an anchor point and a shield, despite the paradoxical quantity of high explosive it carried. But we believed the enemy wouldn't deliberately try to set it off, and for the moment, it obscured the view to the bunker, and vice versa.
I had to decide. Storm the bunker or fight CQB inside the factory, with the paratroopers at our back. I felt we should extricate ourselves rather than knot in deeper. East it is then. We had to silence the bunker first, regroup at the outskirts of the town, eliminate the paratroopers so we had no one at our back, and only then take care of the remains of the enemy force inside the factory. Besides, they were probably badly trained in combat, or at least, not as good as the paras, so they became our lowest priority. In the worst case, if the task proved too hot to handle, we'd move farther east, toward our resupply point.
Meanwhile, Ani had moved again. He couldn't see us anymore, and he needed a better position to help us stave off the attacks. Risking it, he legged for the factory, and took a position close to the T junction, where he could cover the south side of the town.
Closer to the bunker, our machine gunner sneaked under the truck and started firing at the camo netting, suppressing the defenders. It was a brutal staccato of rounds, ripping the sandbags into a hail. We rushed into the prickly, thorny grass field and charged the bunker, tossing grenades. The netting stopped them, and they slid down harmlessly, exploding on the wrong side of the sandbags. But the steady fire had unnerved the enemy, and they had left their cover. Four men. They stood no chance against our concentrated effort.
We took our first casualty when Rezi, the demo expert fell to the ground, hit from somewhere behind us. The sniper was doing his best to protect our team, but it turned out, the enemy had not one, but two checkpoints at the southeast exit, both manned by paratroopers, and they were doing their best to stop us. With the bunker out of action, we could now focus on clearing the second threat.
The enemy was tenacious, but it was Ani who saved us. He singlehandedly stopped the enemy, and gave us the chance to regroup. Rezi had been shot through the Kevlar and through the shoulder. It didn't look good. Khoram, the medic was busy binding the wound, but he believed Rezi would need plasma and evacuation back to base. Once we had the truck in our hands, we would drive him back to camp.
First, we needed to secure the factory.
In we moved, Khoram and Ani still on the other - safe - side of the wall.
The factory yard was a textbook example of neglect. Rubbish, exposed piping, nasty, sharp edges to old, bent metal, chokeweed and broken concrete, sun-bleached walls that wept rust. Hiding there were enemy soldiers, badly bruised from the earlier encounter. But still quite sneaky and deadly.
They were waiting for us, of course. Again, they fired from two directions, their teams having split and taken the west and south corner of the factory, so they had a good, solid 90-degree coverage of our approach.
With bullets zinging all around us, we burrowed past the narrow entrance and hit the ground. The ample rubbish became a dear friend, protecting us from the withering barrage. We took positions behind small, dilapidated office buildings, trying to assess the enemy strength. I had Camp Hornbill in my ear. They were asking, Have the AT teams been neutralized yet? Can Butters move in?
But I was kind of looking forward to the friendly rumble of their ancient V8s and the rattly hiss of the KPV machine gun.
It's never fun fighting in close quarters. But we were well trained, and we did not buckle under pressure. Fear was a distant emotion that would come to bear in a dark, repetitive dream. But first, we had to live through this battle. You learn to disassociate your feeling, you learn to become mechanical about it. The more you train, the more you fight, the more natural it becomes. Machine before animal. The survival instinct is to flee. The machine instruction is to fight.
And so we fought.
Soon enough, I realized the enemy did not have a clear picture of the situation. They probably believed the paratroopers were still active, so they thinned their south flank and concentrated their fire from around the main factory building. This allowed half my team to slink behind the old conveyor and attack them from the side.
At this point, I was also acutely counting the minutes spent in this engagement. The Frini battalion may decide to send in reinforcements. We would be in a very tough position if they struck hard south and cut off our escape. It would also completely jeopardize the support element. That would mean we would have to retreat deeper into enemy territory, and rally around our resupply point. Perhaps we would have sufficient ammunition to last till nightfall, but then the enemy just might decide to test their new artillery and obliterate us with cluster bomblets. Just about at the lower end of the MLRS range.
We had to take control of the factory fast, send the sniper to the roof of the main building and make sure there was no enemy coming from the north. If that happened, we would abandon the main objective and retreat. We would then go for a brute-force contingency. Regroup at Camp Hornbill, saddle up onto the BTRs, and attack from the west route, mines and low visibility and all. Or let HQ decide on a more sensible approach.
Not my call.
The gamble paid off. We had the remaining survivors pinned down at the northwest corner of the factory, and soon, a ghostly silence descended on the compound. The air smelled of hot dust. But we had secured our first objective.
Once the fighting died out, we carefully examined the factory. Even though the enemy did not have much time to consolidate its position, there are always risks when you take over an emplacement. In this case, we did not feel nervous, because NATO had intended to use the factory as its base of operations, and they had been actively unloading missiles when we struck. That usually meant no mines or other nasty surprises. Still, we combed every building, every floor, and once satisfied we had the compound under full control, we focused on our next step.
We found a map inside one of the offices, and it did show what we needed - the position of the artillery battery and the minefield to the northwest. The defense rings around Frini were not marked, though, and it was likely the enemy moved them often, or it was still busy digging in.
I deployed my men just outside the factory, covering the north-south road from Frini to Athira. They had ample rockets and missiles, and they could stop any armored advance. At the same time, Ani was up there on the roof, looking over the rushes to the north. He couldn't see the rings of enemy bunkers and checkpoints, he had a fairly obstructed view of the hills to the left, the road, and the nearby 200-300 meters stretch of land on the outskirts of Athira. That would do for now.
The other marksman in my team, Rongan, volunteered to move up the road, so he could cover the hillside better. Ani agreed, and Rongan split from the rest of us, hauling it through the fields. All in all, our position at Athira seemed secure, and there was no more fighting for the time being.
It was time to call in the cavalry.
But we did it prudently. Butter A advanced first, beating a trail through the fields in a shallow southerly arc toward Athira. Butter B would stay in reserve, and always mindful of enemy missiles from our still vulnerable left flank, it followed half way and took a defensive position in an orchard just near the southwest entrance to the town. The gunner trained the turret southeast, leaving the north to Ani and Rongan. There was still some small risk of an odd paratrooper hiding among the ruins. Butter A and the weapons truck, once we had it driving to base, retracing the route the APC had just taken, would be exposed as they crossed the town without close infantry support.
I also had a tough call to make.
Rezi needed evacuation, so he would go with the truck. Not the best of medevacs, but it would have to do. I could not spare anyone from my team to escort him, especially not Khoram. Rezi would also leave his charges and explosives behind, in case we needed them.
Butter A rumbled into position around 1730 hours, even as the thick clouds moved in over the island, threatening with a fat, oily summer rain. We breathed in relief, as well as we could breathe the syrupy air, when we heard its gasoline engine moan and chug. It followed our path and stopped astride the HEMTT. The two mechanics and the driver hopped out, reloading the crates back onto the pallets. There were about 20 missiles on the ground, and they needed to go back into the truck.
Once the truck was ready to roll, Rezi stumbled into the cabin, under the watchful eye of our worried medic. One of the mechanics agreed to go with them, to provide support if needed. The other guy remained with the BTR, looking exhausted after all the lugging work.
Frini stayed put.
Sending a truck without armored support was risky. Very risky. But so was driving a loud, noisy, smelly APC through the fields back and forth. Each journey attracted unnecessary attention, and we could never be sure there wasn't an UAV in the air, using its thermal cameras to detect vehicles. A lone truck wasn't going to make anyone too suspicious, especially since one was expected to be seen in the vicinity of Athira. A proper armored column would make everyone suspicious. Besides, with Butter B covering the main roads, and the effective range of about 3,000 meters for the KPV machine gun, we could somewhat protect the truck until it exited the theater of operations.
A while later, Camp Hornbill reported the payload had been secured, and that Rezi was waiting for evacuation by a helicopter. The camp medic had administered an infusion, and he seemed to be in a stable condition. Khoram didn't look convinced.
At 1800 hours, we resumed our operation, feeling very confident. Our losses so far, if they can be classified as such, were light, we still had ample ammo, and we weren't too tired. We were focused and morale was high.
We believed we were well prepared for the second leg of our mission.
But the ferocity of the NATO resistance surprised us.
They hit us hard, from multiple directions, as soon as we left the factory. Our intel had been flawed. The enemy did not just have concentric rings of bunkers as part of its defense-in-depth strategy. It had a bloody fortress.
The intel had severely underestimated the number of troops and the strength of enemy positions. Concealed from view by undulating terrain and long stretches of tall, marshy cattail were half a dozen entrenched pillboxes and hardened checkpoints. Aware of our earlier attack and having had sufficient time to prepare, the enemy troops moved aggressively against us, trying to outflank us. The enfilade was particularly strong on the northeast.
We halted our advance and hunkered down behind concrete drainage pipes left outside the compound, probably part of a construction project disrupted by the war. Meanwhile, Butter A moved in to support us, firing the KPV. It was suppressive fire, laid down through the thicket and rushes. We were frustrated that we didn't have a clear view.
The pressure on our right flank slowly died, so we left the factory and began a slow advance through the field. Now, we used the terrain to mask our progress, keeping low. We knew there could still be enemy to the right, but the battle had shifted to the left.
Rongan reported a large force of enemy infantry moving to intercept. They were stationed in the foothills, and they were now trying to reach the main road, to block us. I didn't know if Butter B could see the enemy, but the 14.5mm HMG to the south was silent. Butter A joined us, keeping the northeast side secure.
We couldn't just focus on repelling the enemy. We had to locate the enemy artillery, too. That would determine our approach. At the moment, it seemed we had to go straight for Frini. To the east, the chain of pillboxes was a death trap - it also meant we would not be able to retreat or rearm at the resupply point. The west and north were threatened by massive enemy presence. If the odds turned out too great against us, we would regroup at the factory, and then extract to the south west.
We covered about half a kilometer in 30 minutes. Butter A advanced slowly, using the low, hand-built stone walls that demarked the arable plots for cover. It wasn't easy, but we had the initiative. We were shaping the course of the battle, and the enemy seemed to be reacting.
Ani, Rongan and I were busy using our scopes to spot and mark enemy positions, and half way down to the main road from the factory, we finally saw the prize; the MLRS were located on the hill west of the town. It was a good location. There was a low, flat depression just off the peak, where the tracked vehicles fit in snugly. The position was covered in camouflage and surrounded by HESCO gabions on three sides.
I called HQ and requested the promised air strike. They informed me the package was on its way, ETA 15 minutes. We resumed our slow progress. Half the team would advance while the rest provided cover and suppression. Zabad, our machine gunner, was busy, delayed tracers kicking clouts of dirt in the distance. Rongan was picking off individual soldiers slinking through the tall, parched grass, and they still have not pinpointed his whereabouts. Ani was moving down the road, so he could have a better view of Frini.
The sound of jet engines announced the arrival of the To-201 Shirka before we could see it. The aircraft flew in low, from the southwest, and it dropped precision munition on the artillery battery. Alas, the bombs hit the gabions, raising one hell of a dust cloud, but there didn't seem to be any extensive damage, and certainly no secondary explosions.
The Shirka veered to the north-north-west, exiting the theater, dropping flares. Two lines of silver fumes streaked up from somewhere in the town, chasing the aircraft's heat signature. Luckily, the plane escaped unscathed, but we knew there wouldn't be any follow-up passes. The enemy had strong AA in Frini, and we would have to handle the task ourselves.
With the BTR-60 as their shield, the Titan operators - Nowar and Himi moved to engage. The artillery was at the far end of their effective range, about 1,500 meters. They fired, but once again, the bastions took punishment. Second volley, same story. Damn. The MLRS were undamaged. The enemy had prepared a top-notch defensive position.
The ATGM activity incensed the foe. The return fire came in stronger, more concentrated, and the first group of the enemy infantry had crossed the road, and was moving toward us. They had the vegetation to mask them, and neither Rongan nor Ani could engage them. Butter A advanced a further 200 meters, to stop the enemy - and got hit.
The rocket slammed into its left side, crippling its wheels. The rubber and the paint caught fire, and we knew the vehicle was completely out of action. Zabad emptied an entire box of ammo as we crawled forward, trying to get the crew out of the burning APC. It wasn't a pretty sight, and now, we were taking heavy casualties. The mechanic was dazed but didn't seem injured. The driver and the gunner were in a bad shape.
Nowar and Himi helped drag the wounded back toward the factory. They would need evacuation, but we needed support. Should Butter B move in, or drive into Athira and get the crew?
Acrid smoke veiled up, obscuring the view. The stench of burning fuel and scorched grass made my eyes water. We were also down in firepower, as half the team was busy helping the injured. The enemy was advancing. Rongan reported heavy fire in his direction. He was pinned down. But he had a plan. There was a small sentry tower to the left side of the road, and if we could reach it, we would have a superior firing position, and we could stave off any enemy progress across a full 180-degree arc, west to east. This meant Zabad and I would have to charge. Ani alone had to seek out the tank-killer teams. The enemy had missiles out there, and that meant we couldn't risk any more armor until they were taken out of action.
I was surprised to see Khoram crawl back. He shook his head. His help would not be needed at the factory. We had two dead. The mechanic remained behind at the factory. He was somewhat disoriented, his ears ringing, but he seemed stable enough to sit down and hug a rifle to his chest. Butter B kept pestering me, anxious to move, all too aware of the danger. I wanted to hear the KPV rattle again, but not at the expense of three more lives inside that steamy metal hull. We were also risking our skins, but we had much better chances than an old APC.
We had to ignore the east flank completely. Whatever enemy was left there would have to wait. The cattails were a double-edged sword, and the same way they thwarted our effort to clear out the pillboxes, they would obscure us from the enemy. With the enemy's barrage directed SSE, they couldn't really move, or they would get in a cross fire. Some small luck there.
We charged, across open ground. I went first, Zabad shooting the Zafir in long, sustained bursts. Rongan was swearing into his mic. He was down to his last two magazines. I still had nine left.
Crawling through the grass, we moved north. Frini loomed ahead, ruined buildings, barbed wire, and a hive of soldiers rushing among covers. So many of them. I extended the bipods on the scalding road surface, and began shooting. We had only about 300 meters to the town, now.
Ani was behind me, Rongan to my left. Khoram, Nowar and Himi were lurking to the right. Zabad was supporting from a creeper-covered wall, shooting into Frini. The last member of my squad Semdi had an Alamut pack strapped to his back, and he was kneeling at Zabad's side, watching for any vehicles. He still had not fired his rockets, and from our current position, we could not see the MLRS.
Time crept, and the rain started. It was a downpour. Everything turned greasy and muddy in seconds, and I had a fine patina of brown muck all over my fatigues. Breathing became difficult, like sucking honey with a straw. The smell of nature intensified, sudden and alien, like a punch to the nose.
"Enemy truck," Semdi warned over the comms, already arming his RPG-42. At the town's south entrance, another HEMTT had moved in, and it was unloading troops. Reinforcements. Not good.
Zabad moved his aim, blasting the infantry, forcing them to take cover behind the barricade. The Alamut whooshed, and a rocket slammed into the truck, setting it afire. It wouldn't bring our men back, but it did even out the odds a little.
Rongan was down to his last few rounds. I had two magazines left. The weight of enemy fire had lessened, and there weren't so many men moving through those ruins anymore. It was hard confirming kills as bodies tumbled behind debris, but I believe I shot at least a dozen.
Rongan moved toward the sentry tower. He tossed a grenade, and with satisfaction, we watched a body tumble down the ladder. There was another dead enemy below. Rongan informed us he was going to use the NATO MX 6.5 mm now, so we should confirm his presence before we fired. Zabad and Himi were out of ammo, as well.
We crept forward. I was salvaging my bullets, aiming carefully, making it count. The battle impulse calls for unrestrained fire, but years of hard training call for the opposite action. You act against your instincts, and it's a difficult thing to do when someone is trying to kill you.
Rongan was in the tower now, bunkered down, firing to the north, turning the hill slopes into a killing ground. I reached the nearest corpse of a NATO operative. My loyal Rahim had done its job, now I had to salvage a new weapon from the foe. This one had an underslung 40mm grenade launcher, and there were still five HE rounds in the man's harness. I loaded them up one by one and fired at the nearest row of houses in Frini, some 200 meters out. The hollow blasts were the only sound as the enemy fire pretty much died away. The enemy's defense was buckling, and there was no one moving among the debris anymore.
Combat often starts and ends suddenly. Silence, thunder, silence. It seemed that way now. There was nothing coming at us anymore, not from the northwest, nor from the town. With half the team armed with enemy ordnance, we moved into Frini.
It was then that our right flank woke up with renewed violence.
They were hiding in the houses and in the fields. Rifle shots rang as enemy operatives fired through windows. Fighting out in the open and in an urban setting are two different things. Gunfire sounds are pretty underwhelming when there's sufficient space for the vibrations to dissipate. It's an orchestra of chaos with walls and buildings for the noise to rebound and echo. You cannot be sure where the enemy is shooting from, and town cleaning is a painful, nerve-wrecking business.
But as bruised and battered as we were, we had the initiative. We had secured Athira, and we had advanced into Frini. The destruction of the APC and the casualties we've taken had not stopped us, and we had the upper hand in this engagement. Morale has an exponential curve. And we were riding it.
We consolidated at the fork of the rural road leading into the orchards to the southeast, and started pounding the enemy pillboxes. We had a clear view now, and the enemy's attack faltered. There was still a team of soldiers harassing us from behind a grove of olive trees, but they were not organized, and their fire wasn't coordinated.
We called in Butter B to help us finish off the resistance.
The crew drove straight north and took a position just below the artillery emplacement, covering the hills and the nearby town area. With the APC covering our backs, we could fully focus on mopping up the east side.
Still, it was no game. A bullet grazed my leg, and Nowar was hit by shrapnel from a grenade. We both sat down while Khoram bound our wounds. Rongan and Ani were with us, the sniper armed with his pistol for close engagements. The rifles still occasionally cracked from behind one of the low orchard walls, and there was a dull ring of gunshots from a building somewhere to our left, but it felt like blind fire. The 14.5mm KPV roared twice, sending the entire town shuddering with its deep rattle.
Zabad, lugging an American machine gun, lay down near the last house facing east and sprayed the orchards. Back to the action, I moved across the road, knelt down and took aim. An enemy soldier showed his face. It was enough.
We followed the side road into Frini and stopped at the junction near the church. Khoram, Rongan and Ani moved toward the artillery. I led the rest farther up. Sporadic fire surged up. The other half of the team reported being fired at, and that they had taken shelter within a few meters from the MLRS.
Butter B rumbled about, but it did not advance into the narrow streets. While we were quite confident there weren't any anti-tank teams left, we couldn't fully rule out the possibility. A slow vehicle, forced to follow in between buildings with insufficient room to train its gun either to the sides or vertically presented an excellent target.
Either way, we saw this as a diversion, so we rushed to silence the remaining defenders. We had to be careful, because we did not know if there were any civilians around, and we couldn't shoot blindly or toss grenades through windows.
We found the enemy. One of the soldiers was hiding on the second floor of a house. We couldn't really approach without dashing the entire length of an alley. I couldn't see anyone else in the house, so I gave the order. Semdi fired a second RPG. There was a dazzling flash where the rocket struck, and then a huge cloud of dust billowed out of the window. No more bullets came from there.
We were out in the open again. Rongan directed us toward the last NATO pocket. A last squad, situated in a cluster of semi-finished houses just near a large olive grove. We were going to attack them from behind, but we had to make sure our own men wouldnt mistake us for the enemy. I called in twice over the comms before we advanced. The three operatives lowered their weapons for a few moments and waited.
The foe never saw us. It was a turkey shoot.
And then, truly and completely, Frini was silent, apart from the burpy drone of the BTR's V8 engine.
Plastered in rain and muck, we reached the artillery battery. The airstrike and the missiles had scored some damage, after all. One of the vehicles sported a black, sticky smear on its side, possibly fuel or engine lubricants from ruptured seals. It had probably been disabled, and no sane crewman would dare use its rockets now. The other two seemed largely intact, but they had been peppered with debris.
Objective accomplished. Almost. We had to destroy these damn things.
I called HQ, to inquire about the general situation. They reported that radio chatter indicated enemy reinforcements en route to Frini, but they would not reach the town before nightfall. We had time to complete our job and extract in a safe manner.
We placed the explosive under each vehicle and onto the launcher pods. We trailed the detonation cables a good 180 meters from the artillery site, and hid behind a building before setting them off, and not before informing both HQ and the mechanic at the factory that the fireworks were about to start.
The explosion was tremendous.
Breath fled my lungs as a blast of hot air swept through Frini, shattering windows, and disturbing a small whirlwind of wet, oily muck.
The secondary explosions were equally impressive as heat and fire cooked off the rockets in the launcher pods. Butter B waited just up the road, sputtering fumes into the softening evening rain, waiting for us to load up. I did not relish stepping into a cramped, cauldron-hot APC after all this fighting, but it was better than legging it back through the mud. We didn't have the strength to walk to the base, and we surely didn't want to be caught in the field when the NATO reinforcements arrived. It was a shame to abandon both towns, but we didn't have any illusions about our strength or preparedness to keep them. The enemy had made that mistake by rushing forward, without consolidating its positions properly. We must not do the same. Our task was to prevent exactly that, and we had. There would be more muggy summer days to resume this war.
Butter B retreated the same way it had come. At the factory, we loaded up our dead and the mechanic. The lad had recovered somewhat and was relieved to see us again. With a last look at the charred, smoking remains of the second BTR, he stepped into the miasma.
There was no talking as we rode back to safety. It wasn't a long journey, but the notion of so many men trapped in a tin box never inspired any great speeches. I had deliberately avoided asking command about Rezi's health. If he lived, awesome. But if he died, that would not have been good news for the men while fighting. One of the things we had learned over the years is to look forward. If you focused on the bullets that missed you rather than the ones that were going to hit you, you'd make for a very poor special forces operative. This kind of fatalism may look brutal, but it is sanity when you deal with death on a daily basis.
Indeed, it was another day, another gruesome mission.
We had ended this one with victory on our hands.
With a bleary sunset in our eyes, we reached camp. By late evening, it was as if our mission had never taken place. NATO troops had seized Athira and Frini again. The army command was already planning the next offensive, a much bigger, less covert one this time. Not for us. We would be sent somewhere else on the island, where discretion was needed and impossible odds were on offer.
Rezi didn't make it in the end.
The rest of us mourned our friend, bunched our shoulders and prepared for the next engagement.
That's war for you.
Disclaimer: The story behind Operation Migraine is inspired by a two-hour multiplayer Dynamic Recon Ops scenario on the island of Altis in ArmA 3, a war simulation by Bohemia Interactive. It is intended to highlight my appreciation for the game's intense realism and fun. The mission was conducted on a privately hosted server, with several friends and myself fighting as CSAT troops against NATO. The story has been adapted and tweaked to reflect a real-life combat situation more accurately, and this way, it deviates from the sandbox rules of the game. Military terminology, weapons and concepts used in the story are based on authentic weapons as well as fictional technology introduced by Bohemia Interactive. Operation Migraine may be construed as a rough version of fan fiction, and as such, it does not aim or intend to infringe on the intellectual property of the game designers in any way whatsoever. Names, places as well as in-game screenshots used as "authentic" footage supporting this story may be protected by copyrights, trademarks, brand names or other forms of creativity ownership. The story does not endorse, encourage or promote political discourse, violence or any other form of propaganda that may be inferred from its narrative, and any relation to actual people, places or events is purely coincidental.