War in the Balkans: Royal Navy - Sombre mood of exhausted pilots

THE MOOD on board this symbol of the British Naval presence in the Kosovo conflict is sombre and full of expectation of the conflagration to come. The aircraft carrier has been at sea for 18 months, in the Gulf and now off the coast of the former Yugoslavia, chalking up a total mileage equivalent to five times around the world.

In the next stage of the steadily rising stakes in the Balkan war, Invincible will play a key role in imposing a blockade to restrict Yugoslavia's oil supplies. Her Sea King helicopters will be Nato's eyes and ears in tracking any ships that try to take oil to Montenegro, Serbia's fellow Yugoslav republic and its outlet to the sea.

This could bring her into conflict with Russian ships. Captain James Burnell-Nugent is acutely aware that any boarding of a Russian vessel would be as much a political decision as a military one. However, he says, if the need arises he will be ready.

In the meantime, the pilots on board the aircraft carrier are already flying to the limit of their operational capability every night. The flights, which last up to five and a half hours in darkness, including taking off and returning to the craft, are hazardous as well as taxing. The pilots are reporting a steady increase in Serbian anti-aircraft fire and increasing levels of combativeness by their missile defences.

A senior pilot, who has flown every night for the past two weeks in missions over Kosovo and Serbia, and has also been at sea for seven months, said: "It's exhausting, but it is getting very interesting. We are getting quite serious anti-aircraft fire, and I am finding now that Serbian missile defences are locking on to us. You can see the red laser dots, and you know you are in their sight. Then they switch off. They are saving themselves. They are gauging us, just as we are gauging them. Obviously this is something for the future."

Among many in the ship's crew there is a feeling that the conflict is "a just war". Repeatedly those on board stressed their frustration at not being able or allowed to help the Kosovars in refugee camps just a short flight away.

One helicopter pilot said: "If we are not being used operationally, we'd much rather be in Albania trying to move the refugees, or using our expertise to build camps, putting in sanitation, or just loading trucks."

Two young pilots, Ian Sharrocks and Andy Watson, both joined up on the same day five years ago. They now find themselves about to face their first war together. Lieutenant Sharrocks, 24, wears a badge on his flying suit saying "Nato Tigers - Hard to be Humble".

The main concern for him and Lieutenant Watson is how they can help the refugees: "We can strip down our machine and carry out 30 people at a time. We are heavily armed for combat, but we are also very, very keen to do what we can for the refugees."

Lieutenant Watson agrees with him: "We know what it's like in the camps, and it's not just a wish - we feel a need so deeply to help these people."

Invincible carries sailors, airmen and Royal Marines. Some of the Marines say they know a little of what is going on inside Kosovo. One crew member said: "The reports we are getting are so horrific, so terrible, that even I, someone who has seen some dreadful things in my time, find it difficult to comprehend.

"I've spoken to people who have been inside Kosovo, I do not want to say in what capacity, but the butchery there is frightening. We are dealing with a bunch of fascists. No one now believes there will not be a land war.

"It is simply not true that the politicians were told that this war can be won by air strikes alone. The terrain makes that impossible.

"You need troops to gain ground and hold ground. That's what we shall have to do, albeit belatedly."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own