Operation 'Flying Yeti'

Lt. Lionel Thuillier Grand Jean
First published in
SFOR Informer#159, March 6, 2003

For the first time since the creation of the Spanish-French Battle Group (SPFR BG), part of Multinational Brigade Southeast, the control of Border Crossing Points (BCP) has been conducted with snowshoes in the Gacko area, at an altitude between 1,200 and 1,800 metres.

Avtovac - On Saturday, Feb. 22, an 11-men French patrol from the SPFR BG controlled BCPs 207 to 211, at the Montenegrin border. The patrol took off in a Spanish 'Cougar' helicopter from Mostar; after a 30-minute flight, they were ready to begin the mission. At first, they hovered over BCPs 206 and 207 to take some photos of the two points that were temporarily out of reach due to the accumulation of snow. Then they headed to the drop point close to BCP 208. The helicopter couldn't land upon arrival: firstly, SFOR helicopters are only allowed to land on registered Helicopter Landing Sites (HLS). And secondly, there was so much snow, that it was really impossible for the pilot even to consider a landing attempt.
Carry out the mission
The control of the BCPs is part of the mission of the SPFR BG. In winter, due to the harsh conditions, one cannot reach them with the yet highly mobile 4WD tactical vehicles. In this case, there are only two options: wait until the snow melts at the beginning of the spring, or find another way to fulfil the mission at any price.
Capt. Ronan de Cadoudal explained: "For us, the challenge was to cancel or to innovate; of course our intention was to innovate. Taking into account that the BCPs with Croatia are quiet, we are focusing on the Montenegrin border, which is regularly crossed by drug- and cigarettes-smugglers, using mules or snow-bikes. Fresh track prints had been found the week before during a reconnaissance in nearby Bileca. Actually, our mission is not police oriented, however waving the flag along the border helps preventing illegal activities, and contributes to the safe and secure environment we are looking to establish. Smugglers are troublemakers and they shouldn't feel free to organise their business simply because we're just not there to report. That's our duty to know what's going on in our sand box."
Good training…
The patrol had to complete a 20km-walk that day, that is to say between the drop from the helicopter on the BCP 208 at 9.40 a.m. and its takeoff from the HLS B386 in Avtovac (near Gacko) at 6.00 p.m. It was not easy, but even if the French soldiers from the 3rd Hussar Regiment (Esterhazy) don't belong to the alpine troops, they are familiar with this kind of terrain. They are garrisoned in the German Black Forest as part of the light armoured reconnaissance regiment of the French-German Brigade.
To make the mission as safe as possible, the Mine Information Co-ordination Cell (MICC) provided a map of the mines in the area. A permanent radio link was also maintained with the patrol, while the helicopter along with five light armoured vehicles was poised to intervene at short notice close to the recovery point.
…But hard conditions
The weather on Saturday was splendid, and the mood of the patrol in the helicopter was relaxed and warm. But after the drop on the BCP 208, the noise of the helicopter decreased and it looked and sounded like Siberia. Nobody on the earth, snow everywhere, and not the slightest trace of vegetation or noise, the perfect silence but the blow of the wind. As the snow was packed and frozen, it was decided to begin the patrol without the snowshoes.
The BCP 208 was the first stop and at this point one couldn't guess that it was a piece of cake compared to the rest of the patrol. As the snow became deep and powdery, soldiers put on their snowshoes to keep on the patrol. Then, they continued their progression to the next BCPs, 209 and 210. They were hardly visible even on the spot!
GPS
Thanks to the Global Positioning System (GPS) the soldiers were able to follow the border in an unbelievably rugged landscape. The planned 20km within 8 hours appeared few hours before as a quite reasonable task - indeed child's game. It began to turn into a gamble. So the midday break (in fact, the 01.30 p.m. break) had to be reduced to the minimum to respect the foreseen timetable.
After the break, the vegetation appeared and by the same token new difficulties. Cpl. Nicolas Manceau, signaller, stated: "I've got 24kg on my shoulders, and it's really hard for me to go up and down, carrying the radio set." Pvt. Benjamin Pradella, the other signaller, equipped with a different type of radio, had other worries: "I have to take care of my antenna, and it's a hard job in this terrain, because there are branches everywhere."
There also was a huge quantity of falls on this uneven landscape and Capt. Christian Bachman, Commanding Officer of the 'Escadron de reconnaissance et d'investigation' (Reconnaissance and Investigation Company) was awarded with the record of falls. After the last control of the BCP 211 in the forest, the soldiers managed even more laboriously to reach the saddle, that allowed them to go down to Avtovac.
Back to civilisation
On their way to this small village, the members of the patrol had the opportunity to see a wonderful sunset on the Gacko valley. But they were not that much receptive to this kind of nature's beauty; they only wanted to reach the helicopter as soon as possible. The - very patient - wheeled patrol, led by Capt. Johann Pourcel came and picked them up in their light armoured vehicles near the church and drove them to the HLS, where the - very patient too - Spanish helicopter crew had been waiting for since 9.45 a.m..
On the flight back to Mostar, it was really quiet in the helicopter, not only because of the noise generated by the turbine, but also because the soldiers were exhausted. Nevertheless they are able to certify there were no smugglers on the four BCPs they controlled. They neither saw anybody or even the Yeti, only a very brave dog who accompanied them from the beginning to the end of the patrol, and who seemed to be very sad when the doors of the helicopter were closed to take off.

Related link:
Nations of SFOR: France
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Photos: Lt. Lionel Thuillier Grand Jean

Boarding at 09:00 a.m. on a Spanish helicopter.


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Arrival at 09:40 at Border Crossing Point 209.


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The patrol in the vicinity of Border Crossing Point 208.


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The patrol arrived at Border Crossing Point 210. What is the best way to head towards Border Crossing Point 211?


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In the vicinity of Border Crossing Point 211.


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Border Crossing Point 211 is almost the end of the patrol.


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Midday break in the middle of nowhere.


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Capt. Ronan de Cadoudal and Yeti the dog.