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  • Citrus

    Second Lieutenant Mario Ciber quickly scanned his instruments as he and three other Yugoslav Air Force F-5E Tiger IIs flew at treetop height towards their target on the Sava River. The four aircraft call-sign “Opal” had just departed their base at Ladevci-Kraljevo. The airfield had been bombed three times by the Soviets since the invasion began a day earlier. The runway and base facilities had been plastered and the few remaining aircraft that did survive the Soviet aerial assault were sent to safer locations near the Adriatic coast. The ground crews did their best after each enemy bombardment to keep the station going but after the second round of enemy strikes the runway was declared permanently out of action. The four remaining operational F-5Es that made up Opal Flight used the main taxiway since it was left relatively unscathed by the Soviets. Each aircraft was loaded for bear with rocket pods, iron and cluster bombs to Maverick missiles and napalm. Major Branimir Vojnic led the foursome in Opal 11 with Lt. Milorad Stefanovic piloting Opal 12. Lt. Andrej Buncic flew Opal 13 with Lt. Ciber operating the last aircraft Opal 14. Their objective was to hammer a Soviet bridgehead that was being formed across the Sava near the town of Sabac. A major section of the existing concrete structure spanning the river was destroyed by JNA sappers. As a result the Soviets used bridging equipment to construct a pontoon bridge. The JNA wasn’t making the Soviet engineer’s job easy what with constant harassing artillery fire that they brought down along the entire area. For their part Soviet counter battery fire along with Mi-8 and Mi-24 gun-ships were tasked with trying to keep the JNA at bay. If the Soviets crossed the river in great number then they were in an excellent position to strike into Eastern Bosnia, something the Yugoslav High Command wanted to delay as long as possible.
    Since the Soviet engineering operation had begun six hours previously the Yugoslav air force had done it’s best to bomb the growing concentration of enemy troops along the eastern side of the Sava. Most of the aircraft and JNA Gazelle helicopter gun-ships sent to perform that task had been shot down by a deadly anti-aircraft net designed to ward off any air attack. Most of the Yugoslav pilots saw it as something of a suicide mission but then again nearly every air mission they performed could be declared as such. The Soviets, and their Warsaw Pact allies in this invasion; the Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Albanians had the upper hand.
    Major Vojnic quickly addressed the others in the flight during the short 10 minute journey to their target, “Okay Comrades remember make one pass at the bastards, then get out and head to any airfield to the south. Good luck.”
    Lt. Ciber and the other pilots made a terse reply in acknowledgment. All of them were nervous. Ciber’s heart was pounding, his mouth dry as a desert and his palms sweaty inside his flight gloves. Outside his Tiger II the patchwork yellow and green countryside zipped by. Opal Flight’s airspeed was over 550kts. Ciber’s head was pounding from a classic textbook case of a tension headache. Keeping the fight-bomber at this height took skill and concentration. All he could hear was the sound of his own breathing and the faint hiss of the slipstream beyond his canopy. Right now he felt as if every muscle in his neck and shoulders had seized on him in the strain. There was an annoying itch along the side of his nose that he couldn’t get to under his oxygen mask. At any moment his superior, Major Vojnic would make the call for the flight of four to split into two groups so that their attack came from different directions. The Major’s aircraft Opal 11 was loaded with two Mavericks and a pair of 68mm rocket pods. The airplane felt heavy from the load.
    “Opal flight break, break,” said the Major’s voice over Ciber’s headset.
    On cue Ciber and Opal 13 cut right to course 020 degrees. He had a brief glimpse of Opal 11 and 12 banking sharply to follow the Sava River to their target. From the briefing earlier Ciber and his wingman were to fly for three minutes on this heading before turning to 240 degrees. They would fly 75-100 feet then hit afterburn and climb to 5,000, roll into their targets and release their ordnance. After which they would dive to the deck and dash south. It all sounded quite simple. Ciber knew it wasn’t.
    He had already flown several missions in this new war and had lost friends both on the ground and in the air. This wasn’t like some WWII movie where the good guys had all the luck. Here you could be snuffed out in a heartbeat. Sought out by some enemy soldier manning a SAM battery watching your arrival by radar. Then in a blink of an eye and the push of a button you would be hounded by a missile until you were destroyed. He had no idea this war would come. Until two days ago it was just theoretical, something taught by instructors in a class room. Followed by boring war games and simulations. Now here it was for real and it was all happening so fast, too fast in fact for him or any other pilot to grasp. In a matter of hours you go from theory to reality and oblivion. Ciber looked at his onboard clock. It was time.
    “Opal 13 turn left to 240 now,” Ciber said.
    The F-5s banked onto the new heading. They flashed over the countryside. Their altitude was 85 feet A.G.L. (above ground level). A warning tone sounded in his helmet telling him enemy radar was tracking them both. Suddenly Ciber noticed winking lights out of the corners of his eyes followed by tracers, lots of tracers some seeming to pass inches from his canopy causing him to flinch. He heard his wingman curse over the radio which made him smile. Suddenly there was a quick bright flash off to Ciber’s right. A detonation from an enemy missile perhaps?
    “Opal 13 that was close,” he said.
    He quickly glanced to his right and he saw nothing, “Opal 13?” His heart skipped a beat. ‘No it couldn’t be,’ he thought to himself. His wingman Lt. Buncic was there just a second ago. Andrej couldn’t have been downed, not that quick. ‘He had just been engaged to his sweetheart last week’, Ciber recalled. There was muted detonation and Ciber’s F-5 shuddered bringing back to reality.
    “Climbing now!” he shouted automatically.
    Pushing his throttle forward to afterburn sent the twin engine aircraft hurtling skyward. The tracers followed him, small black puffs from exploding shells appeared ahead. The G forces pushed him back against his seat. There was the sound of what could be best described as a thousand marbles striking sheet metal surrounding his plane. Another muffled explosion below his aircraft, quite close now. Ciber looked at his altitude then to his left. The town of Sabac was entirely ablaze across the Sava. Pillars of smoke and fire dotted the attempted river crossing and eastern bank. A myriad of helicopters appearing like so many dragonflies flew back and forth over the battlefield. Ciber wondered if any of the damage below on the Soviet side had been from Opal 11 and Opal 12’s bombs. He truly hoped so.
    The altimeter read 5,000. Lt. Ciber rolled his fighter-bomber over and dove towards the target below. The F-5s flight was stabilized and he placed the gunsight pipper on a forested area that was crisscrossed with vehicle tracks. The ground was coming up awfully fast. An explosion and something slammed his plane to yaw left. A metallic snap came from somewhere behind him. His heartbeat faster, a bead of sweat rolled down inside his oxygen mask. The sun’s reflection off of something on the ground caused him to blink. Perhaps a vehicle’s windscreen? The warning tone in his helmet sounded and told him the enemy had locked on to him. A missile on it’s way? He had no time to look. Only enough time to drop his load of 12 500lb iron bombs. A streak of tracers flashed by the canopy and struck his left wing causing his plane to roll. The warning tone boring into his head. ‘Come on correct the roll and dump the bombs!’ he thought. Ciber pickled the button on top of the flying stick. ‘Drop them all, no time for a second pass!’ He hissed out loud as a Soviet Mi-8 nearly collided with him. The chopper crew banking crazily to avoid being struck by his fighter bomber howling by at over 500kts. Ciber felt the plane lift slightly as the total weight from the ordnance left his aircraft. ‘Pull back on the stick a bit. The ground is coming up. I have to get down to the dirt!’ The river filled his windscreen, fires from something unrecognizable clotted the middle of the river. He wondered briefly if Opal 11 and 12 had been successful. No time to ponder Ciber fire-walled the throttles going to afterburn. ‘Head south to Mostar now. Live, I want to live! I can make it!’ his mind screamed. ‘Bank left or,……‘ a bright flash, falling, then nothing. Lt. Mario Ciber had momentarily forgotten about the SA-3 that had been launched seconds before.

  • #2
    This is another chapter to the story:

    Moscow +23 Days, July 6th 1986

    A shaft of sunlight woke General Yuri Minashkin from his sleep. He was having a dream about some huge party of friends and family that he had trouble getting to for some odd reason. He hadn’t slept very well at all that night. At least the few hours sleep diverted his mind from the melancholy state he had been in the evening before. As he slowly rousted himself from bed he could feel that sadness trying to come back. Yuri finally sat up in bed put his slippers on and got up drawing the curtains aside to let in the bright cloudless morning that welcomed Moscow. He could hear his wife Anna making him breakfast in the kitchen. Yuri scratched the back of his head and walked into the bathroom turning on a radio for news. He flipped on two switches one causing the ugly fluorescent bulbs above the mirror to flicker on and the other for a warm overhead dome fixture that when on flooded the space with golden light that suppressed the sickly blue-green hospital light from the fluorescents. Yuri so despised hospitals.
    He stood before the mirror above the sink turned the tap for hot water to shave and inspected his face through his reflection. Yuri was 53, thirty pounds over weight. He possessed a round face with few wrinkles, a genetic gift from his mother aged 86 who still had incredible skin at her age. His hair was full but graying at a faster clip than ever before. The past year had probably aged him 5 years from the stress. He took off his pajama top and saw that his nemesis, a small potbelly was still there. He had sworn off sweets several years ago but still had his weekly round of beer, vodka, or red Georgian wine. These were his only vices save for a daily cigarette which he enjoyed late at night. Yuri heard his wife call for him that breakfast was ready. He quickly shaved and showered.
    Anna had laid out his uniform upon the bed. It was the uniform of a General-Polkovnik, as Yuri commanded the newly formed Soviet 9th Guards Tank Army. He dressed but stayed in shirtsleeves as the day looked to be yet another hot one. Before leaving his bedroom he picked up the receiver to a blue telephone which sat on top of a night table next to his side of the bed. The phone was for official military business only. A man picked up on the other end of the line to which Yuri ordered, “Comrade Sergeant have my car out front by nine and phone my personal secretary Comrade Sabaneyeva to be ready in front of her apartment by ten o‘clock.” Anna once again called for him to come and eat. He hung up the phone and finally decided on something he had been mulling over for months; the decision to tell his wife what was coming.
    He had been a faithful servant of the Party and State, a member of the Soviet Armed Forces since he was 15 but for the first time in his life he was about to disobey an order. Yuri reconciled his decision on the fact that every other high ranking “big-wig” was telling or had told their family members on the upcoming events. Why should he keep his mouth shut and have his wife and children at risk? He had no doubts his apartment was bugged for security reasons to prevent what he was about to do but with less than three weeks before the launch of the “exercise” the STAVKA would be hard pressed to find a replacement as skilled as he, not that they wouldn’t try. Nevertheless Yuri decided to tell his wife regardless of what his superiors might say. It was all arranged anyhow and too late to back out now. Yuri procured travel documents for his daughter and wife to travel to place far from Moscow. That place was a secret bunker, one of many set aside for high ranking Party members scattered throughout the country.
    Coming into the kitchen he saw a small black and white framed photograph of his two children when they were small hanging on the wall. They were much older now. His son Oleg, now 22 was in the Navy serving aboard the destroyer Udaloy for the Northern Fleet. His daughter Galina 21 was attending the University of Moscow to be a doctor of medicine.
    “Yuri, the food has been ready for quite some time now. Here drink your tea luv. By the way how long is this military exercise of yours going to take this time?” she asked as he sat down at the table.
    He looked at her as she got a few napkins and a plate of sliced cheese and tomatoes to bring to the table. ‘How long has it been since we first met? You have been so loyal to me, such a good mother to our children. It seems like ages ago that we first met in Kishinev back in 1944,’ he thought to himself. The pang of melancholy was working back into his thoughts once again.
    “Galina will be coming home on Saturday. Apparently she has some sort of residency position now. It begins in less than two weeks. Neither she nor I have the slightest notion of why. After all she still has yet to finish another term which won’t finish until January at the earliest. Why is she eligible for such a position so early?” Anna said as she sat down.
    “Anna I want you to listen very carefully and I do not want any argument from you on what I’m about to say. Do you understand?” he said in a hushed tone.
    “Yuri? What are you talking about? Is this about Galina’s new position?” she frowned putting her tea down on the table.
    “I want you to go with Galina. You and she are going to Syktyvkar. The travel documents are on the dresser in the bedroom. Everything has been arranged,” he whispered.
    “What? What on earth are you talking about Yuri? Why would I need to go with Galina, she’s a grown woman. Besides she wouldn’t want me to assist her, she says I always get in the way,” Anna said in a normal tone of voice.
    “Anna shut up for once,” he said his face getting red.
    “What? What’s the matter with you Yuri and why are you whispering, I can barely understand what you’re saying? Did you just tell me to shut up?”
    Yuri was beside himself. Besides being incredibly nervous and paranoid he hated when she went on and on like some broken wind up toy. He leaned close to her and whispered in her ear all that was going to happen. Anna’s eyes slowly became wider and her mouth hung open. She dropped her tea and the cup smashed upon the floor. As Yuri whispered she began to make whimpering sounds and her body began to shake. By the time he was finished she appeared close to having a meltdown. ‘Please Anna don’t scream!’ he thought to himself.
    “Now you will do as I say Anna. You and Galina are going to go. You must do it for me and our son Oleg. We will fight and do our duty but you both must seek safety just in case,” he finished placing his hand upon hers.
    Her face was as white as a ghost. Anna’s eyes stared ahead as if in some catatonic state. Yuri knew him telling his wife would produce such a reaction. Who wouldn’t be afraid? He had known for nearly a year of what was to come. His poor wife was only acting as any normal person would at such news. She was no stranger to war or hardship. She had been in the Army as a driver for a transportation company and had her fair share of being shelled and shot at by the Germans in the Ukraine, Romania, and Hungary. However, that was forty years ago and memory fades with time. This war was going to be something entirely different.
    “Anna I have to know that you will take Galina and do as I ask. To do my job I have to know you two will be secure. Do you understand?” he said in a quite tone.
    She said nothing for minutes. Her face seemingly frozen until a tear rolled down one cheek.
    “I will do everything in my power to make certain that this exercise is over quickly and for it to end well. No one is willing to destroy everything for the West, even the Westerners as well. They will want a negotiated end to any trouble. The West Germans are weak Anna. They will fold and sue for peace when they see what we can do in the first day. They won’t allow the Americans to dictate what will happen to West Germany. They remember how their country was destroyed 40 years ago. The West Germans don’t want a repetition of that ever again. Anna everything will be fine trust me. Look at America’s allies in Europe. The Dutch only care about prostitutes and drugs. The Belgians are divided amongst themselves. They don’t know whether they are French or Dutch. The British are pompous asses who’s own government has cut funding to their own armed forces time and time again. The Italians only care about expensive clothes, cars and cooking. I won’t even mention the Greeks and Turks. Besides being ignored by their masters in Brussels they hate each other more than they hate anyone else including us. As for the Americans they have it so good that they don’t wish to upset their way of living to fight another war in Europe. Anna my dear, NATO is a paper tiger,” he explained.
    She looked at him and he handed her a napkin to wipe away her tears. He smiled reassuringly to her and patted her hand, “Anna it will be alright. However, just in case for your own safety and Galina’s you two must head to a more secure place. After all there may American agents in Moscow who may try anything when our exercise begins. They are quite crafty you know.”
    She smiled and nodded. Yuri looked at his watch which read 09:10 which meant his car was waiting. Instead of leaving he stayed another hour to eat and help reassure his wife that everything would turn out well. His personal secretary would simply have to wait for him to finish before being picked up.