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."

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
i100
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model of a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution