The attack came with shattering noise, repeated flashes of orange flames lighting up the dark night as Hellfire missiles and cannon fire struck their targets. British Apache helicopter-gunships were carrying out their first strike inside Libya, a move designed to break the stalemate on the ground, but also, the military acknowledges, one that escalates this war.
The advent of the Apaches into the conflict has been described as a "game changer" which could help to hasten the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but yesterday's attacks, in conjunction with similar French aircraft, led to questions about the direction of the campaign being taken by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy. Militarily, the operation was a success. The Apaches hit a radar station and a vehicle checkpoint near Ras Lanuf, on the eastern coastal route. French Gazelle and Tiger helicopters reported destroying a command-and-control post and 15 military vehicles at Brega, further to the east.
It was just after 00.20 yesterday that two Apache WAH 64Ds, accompanied by a Sea King 7, their dark silhouettes rising up and wheeling away into an inky black sky, were launched from the assault ship HMS Ocean. Twenty-five minutes later they were at the first target, the military radar station used to monitor sea and air traffic, which was hit, along with surrounding areas, by four laser-guided Hellfire missiles.
The Apaches then moved further east on the coastal route. Much of the regime's armour has been destroyed in the weeks of pulverising bombing by warplanes enforcing a "no fly zone". But Col Gaddafi's forces had shown an aptitude for improvisation – hiding their artillery in built-up areas, and using four-wheel drive vehicles and private cars – and this was the next focus of the Apache's attentions. A mobile checkpoint was hit by accurate 30mm cannon fire, destroying a vehicle.
One of the helicopter pilots, an Army Air Corps officer based at Watersham in Suffolk, who has served in Afghanistan, said: "We came under a direct threat at that point. We had made sure that we were looking at a definite military target, rather than a civilian one, and we took out the threat. Most of our pilots have experience of Afghanistan and, of course, we are facing something completely new in Libya. There is always a degree of trepidation, but the Apache provides us with great protection and brings us safely back home. Launching from the sea is much more difficult, but we have been practising for a long time and tonight everything went according to plan. We know we will be carrying out more missions in the future."
The French helicopters flew further east, at Brega, the frontline between the regime and rebel forces. Both British and French aircraft faced limited fire from the ground, an indication that the regime's air defences have been severely depleted by Nato attacks. These first raids concentrated on the coastal areas, the ones in the future will be further inland.
While Downing Street officials insisted that sending the Apaches did not mean an escalation of the war, military commanders on the ground have a more realistic view of what is unfolding. Lt-Colonel Jason Etherington, commanding officer, 4 Regiment Army Air Corps, said: "This is an escalation in support of the civilians who Gaddafi is persecuting. We will be given targets that perhaps fast jets cannot target because of the risks of collateral damage. We can fly lower and slower, and have smaller, more precise weapons. This is all part of the campaign to step things up. We are bringing another capability for the protection of civilians. The Apaches bring something else to the party."
Meanwhile, two months after intervention by Nato, more than 30 Western warships are gathered in the Mediterrane-an. Captain Andrew Betton RN, the commanding officer of HMS Ocean, said: "The mission has been successfully completed thanks to the performance of our Apache force, but also there has been a huge team of others who have worked extremely hard behind the scenes. This was part of a wider Nato operation and this multinational task will continue."
But will the rebel forces, whose performance has been marked by ineptitude, at last be able to take advantage of the path through the Gaddafi ranks being cleared for them by Nato? "That is up to the rebel leadership. They will have to decide," said Captain Betton. "All we can do is continue with our task, which is protecting civilians."
The use of the Apaches will also, it is held, cut down the risk of civilian deaths. There have been a number of highly publicised cases of "collateral casualties" caused by friendly fire to both fighters and civilians in rebel-held areas.
Commodore John Kingwill, the commanding officer of HMS Albion, the flagship of the British taskforce, said: "The unique ability of an attack helicopter is its ability to identify and engage targets with huge precision. That's something the fixed wing is not at the moment achieving. That enables me, if required, to provide a level of protection to the civilian population in Libya, which at present we are not providing."
The revolutionaries claim that more than a hundred of Col Gaddafi's commanders have defected in the past few weeks, bringing the ultimate end to the suffering of Libya's civilians – the end of this bitter civil war – closer. But younger officers, more fanatically devoted to Col Gaddafi, are said to be taking their place.
Nato, meanwhile, extended its part in implementing the UN Security Council resolution by a further 90 days. Captain Betton, during his daily ship broadcasts, known as "pipes", reassured the ship's company this did not directly reflect on their immediate future.