Spirits and high in the city of tents

By Richard Edwards

 

Camp GibraltarĀ is a basic home, set up near the bleak Iraq and Northern Kuwait border.

The surroundings are bare and unsatisfying to the eye – from all angles there is nothing but a vast expanse of dusty, off-white terrain.

Dozens of large cream tents blend into the background, surrounded by thousands of bootprints in the sand, the tracks of the troops as they move around in their beige desert camouflage.

The only striking colours on the horizon are the reds, whites and blues of the Union Jack flags which stand proudly beside the shelters.

Earlier in the week a sand storm raged through the camp.

Soldiers were temporarily lost in a haze of choking grit. They could taste its dry residue in their mouth, feel it layered on their skin and lips, and smell it as it caked the inside of their nostrils.

Despite being issued with goggles, one soldier could not see another one five yards away.

But yesterday the sun returned, and with it a searing heat.

Members of the 6 Troop Lima Company battled against the sunshine as they marched around the camp, carrying their monstrous 13st rucksacks.

These are the bergens they would take into battle, stuffed full with ammunition, weapons, food and water, together with a precious few personal items.

The men yomped into the distance, each carrying the equivalent of a cruiser-weight boxer on their broad shoulders.

A mile completed, one Marine said: “After just a couple of hundred yards it all hurts. The blood is cut off from the shoulders and neck and my hands started to tingle.

“But of course you keep going … because you have to.” Brawn and brains come together on the camp and 50 yards away a group of Marines try out their Arabic in a role play.

MARINE Gavin ‘Buster’ Brown, 22, from Norfolk, said: “We just learn a few words and the basics, like how to say sit down, stand up, calm down, stay there.

“It’s useful if we are capturing prisoners and we enjoy learning something different.” Inside their tents the troops lie on the sandy floor, protected from the cold at night and the dangers of scorpions and spiders by a mat and sleeping bag.

Food, meanwhile, is a favourite talking point.

Every night for the past six weeks the men have been dished up stews, or variations thereof.

For lunch they get an American MRE – Meal Ready for Eating a mix of sticky, bagged meats and sweets, together with a sickly powdered fruit drink.

After the meal and several drills in the field, the soldiers took time to relax and sunbathe.

Some played football, others hunched over a chess board or simply read a book. They also crafted a volleyball net, and proudly named their new game ‘desert ball’.

Despite the scorching midday heat, nearly all of the soldiers filled the downtime with some personal training – press ups, a long run, chin ups and dips.

“It’s great to train in the sun,” said one. “I like to push my body and I think you’ll find nearly everyone here has a six pack,” he added, looking down at my untoned stomach.

As the sun dropped, it spread like a cracked egg into a layer of orange dust on the horizon.

Darkness descended on 42 Commando, but the work went on into the night.

Under a beautiful moonlit sky, the soldiers once again donned their bergens for a night manoeuvre.

Their day finally over, they then took time to shower and eat, and use the toilets.

One of the facts of soldiering is that a man spends hours of each day doing things that would take only a few minutes in his own home.

Cooking and preparing food, washing, shaving, building a shelter and going to the toilet all become infinitely complex and laborious tasks, especially when surrounded by clinging grit.

But at least there is a giant TV to provide some light relief. EastEnders, in particular, drew an appreciative crowd of 50 men, who followed the plot with excited ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.

The men work hard and play hard, their humour no more evident than when we met a group of senior mortar officers for lunch, only to be greeted by men in Batman and Robin costumes.

“We want to be on Page 3 of the Sun,” they said, revealing a pair of Union Jack Y-Fronts.

It is very comforting to be amongst such colourful, amiable and professional men with the prospect of war literally just over the horizon.