It's about half nine in the evening and it's dark. The only light is the orange glow of the few working street lights, and the occasional bright flash of petrol bombs either directed at us or the other units running around the place. We’ve been running about for the best part of 8 hours, my throat is raw from constantly shouting at the top of my voice, every muscle aches and is screaming out for fluids as my trousers and top underneath my coveralls are completely drenched in sweat. The various bits of armour are digging into places that I would rather they didn’t and my knee pads have developed an annoying squeak every time I move. Through my heavily misted visor I see him poke his head around the corner of the alley just off to the right, at the same time my colleague calls him out as loud as possible to the rest of the serial “ALLEYWAY TO THE RIGHT, PROTESTOR!”
As we turn the shields to face the threat, he launches a couple of bricks in our direction, no bother, they impact squarely on the shields which take the hit well and he buggers off back around the corner. Our serial Sgt has already told us our objective is to secure and clear the alley complex before we can move up to the next junction. Once we’re there we can relieve the PSU (Police Support Unit) that is currently taking a battering from bricks and petrol bombs so they can move on and give the protestors some good news. It shouldn’t be too hard, the alley and courtyard is only about 15 meters deep.
Mateyboy pokes his head back round and then jumps out again to throw some more bricks before ducking back in. I feel a heavy tap on the shoulder so I look at my colleague, we both see him and hear him shout over the din of heckling and exploding petrol bombs “the next time he comes out, I want you two to get in there and f&cking do him, clear?” we nod in unison. We start to move up to the alley entrance, it’s about 3-4 meters away and badly lit so we can only see up to the first corner. We step over the bricks as we move and discoloured shards of broken glass smash and crunch as we walk over them. Rolls of charred ignition paper still smoulder as they burn up every last vapour of petrol.
As we get ready to go in, I lift my visor slightly to wipe the steam and mist off so I can at least see the shape of the alley. It’s just wide enough for us both to fit in side by side, on the left the 2 meter high wooden fencing is charred from countless incendiaries, the concrete wall on the right is black with smoke to well over ten feet high. The first corner is about another 10 feet in before it bends to the left, opening out into the courtyard. I try to regulate my breathing so I don’t steam up the visor again, the slow deep breathes helping to bring my heart rate down.
After hours of exercise and overheating my heart beat has been blasting in my ears making hearing extremely difficult, the adrenalin tends to shut hearing down anyway but at least my vision is up, every slight movement and flinch keeping me focused. I’ve been holding it the same way all day but I check my grip on the long shield again, top left, bottom right. It must be in the right position to get as strong a hit as possible, if I can get in close enough to blade him with the shield I will do, it’ll serve him right for chucking bricks at my head anyway. I remember the instructor’s words “think about your target area, lift high and strike anywhere from chin to knee with the bottom edge, no one will walk away from that one happy, and they’ll certainly think twice next time”
We watch the alley for any sign of movement; we both see the foot poke out from the corner as he starts to come at us again. That’s the cue, there he is, our turn now. We both lift our shields and sprint towards him screaming “POLICE, POLICE!!” as we go in. He stands at the end looking at us as we move on him, within a second we’re into the alley, closing on him as he stands at the corner. He turns and starts to run back to the courtyard. As we get to the corner we can see the alley opening up and then I see them, two petrol bombers waiting for us, a ready bottle in each hand. One is standing on some stairs up to the gangway and the other is hiding behind the fencing, both obscured from the alley until you get to the end. It’s a trap, and we’ve just sprinted right into it.
Almost immediately as we see them the first two bottles are launched at us. I shout “MISSILES!!” as my colleague shouts “OH SHIT!!” as he sees the same thing. No time to turn and run back, we get ready for the impact, a split second later then BOOM, one explodes at out feet. Another immediate BOOM as the second hits the wall to our right spraying our feet, legs and shields with glass and petrol. The flames have nowhere to go in the confines of the alley other than upwards and we are instantly surrounded from head to toe by searing hot fire, the impact from the rapidly combusting and expanding gases knocking us back. I remember the cover up drills to escape the flame, hold the breathe you’ve got, chin down to get a good seal with the visor on your chest and then drag back with the shield for protection.
We both get into the cover up position as the flames surround us and we start to pull back, stamping our feet to shake off the burning petrol and dragging the shields on the floor to use them as cover. Then more bombs come in before the first have the chance to burn out, a third and a fourth explode at our feet, encouraging the flames around us to grow even higher, every part of our bodies engulfed in bright orange fire. All I can see through my visor is my arms and shield, everything else a hot bright yellowy orange as the flames heat up without anywhere to dissipate to, the alley seemingly turning into a blast furnace.
I can feel the heat on every part of my skin, even through the fire resistant coveralls, armour and soaking wet clothing. It takes no more than a couple of seconds to get out but it feels like an age, my lungs are burning as the breath inside is trying to get out, my body screaming for more oxygen as my heart rate sky rockets.
As we get to the entrance of the alley I can’t hear a thing but I see the white smoke of the halon fire extinguishers blasting around us, subduing the flames on our legs and feet. We stamp our shields on the floor to get rid of the last little splashes of petrol and I look at them to see the previously clear Perspex is now completely black from the flames. I look over at the man wearing the orange tabard who sent us in there and say “you did that on purpose didn’t you?” he laughs and replies “of course I did, that was well funny! Good cover up drills by the way lads” my colleague looks at him and says “Yeah. Thanks for that, staff”
As the instructor walks over to confirm the next actions with the PSU commander my colleague says to me “That was hot. Bastard” I nod in agreement “yeah, just a bit” We finish up the incident and go for the team debrief in the hangar, we discuss what went well and what lessons we learned. In the cold air every one of us has taken our coveralls down and upper armour off, steam is rising from everyone as the sweat in our clothes evaporates. Everyone looks red faced and knackered but most are smiling. Our instructor has won his own rivalry contest with the other instructors, overall we did rather well getting through the incident in a quick time. Despite a couple of hiccups, we performed considerably better than one of the other PSU's from a neighbouring force who came to train with us.
A couple of hours later after having a drink at the bar, my kit is hanging up in the room, stinking the place out with petrol fumes and sweaty clothes. I get a cracking nights sleep in the short narrow plastic bed despite the world’s loudest frogs outside, thanks more to exhaustion than comfort. The next morning we get up to finish off the rest of the training and incidents, after getting dropped back at the nick, it's home for some well needed sleep and a damn good wash of body and kit.
There are many things about our job that suck, and it’s obviously not everyone’s cup of tea but public order training has always been one of the highlights for me. Although I personally haven't taken petrol bombs outside of Gravesend yet, I can tell you that scaffolding clips, bricks, bottles, broken paving slabs and sharpened coins are pretty regular attenders at the football matches and large scale disorder jobs that have gone pearshaped when I've been at work!!