Operation 'Flying Yeti'
Lt. Lionel Thuillier Grand
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."
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
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!
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
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.
Nations of SFOR: France
SFOR at Work