By Richard Edwards in Camp Gibraltar, Kuwait
With the first shots fired, British troops in the Gulf are ready for the beginning of the end game in Iraq – and have been placed on four hours notice to move.
Royal Marines from 42 Commando based at Camp Gibraltar in Northern Kuwait were woken in the middle of the night on Thursday to be told about the individual missile strike into enemy territory.
They were warned to be on their guard for a retaliatory strike – and told to keep their gas masks near their sleeping bags.
As the men woke up to the headlines of war, an extra focus and anticipation gripped the camp.
It was heightened further when a chemical weapons alarm saw men scramble for their respirators and protective suits just before 11am.
It was a false alarm, but for two minutes it all seemed very real as men furiously strapped on their respirators and blocked themselves into the sweaty, hot confines of any nearby tent.
Captain Charlie Hewitt, of Lima Company, said: “It was not a case of actively thinking of anything – it’s just pure self preservation.
“The guys know their drills and they reacted very quickly. There was no flapping.
We take every threat for real and make sure we are fast enough to counter the threat.” After five minutes in the heavy, protective suit, the men were dripping with sweat.
But they were safe, the heartbeat had slowed and soon they could take off their masks and gulp in the fresh air. It tasted beautiful.
Lance Corporal Chris Kedward, 30, of Bristol, said everybody felt they were close to moving on Iraq.
He said: “The chemical alarm and being woken in the night to be told about the missiles sharpens the troops and really reminds us we are about to go to war.
“Everyone is prepared in their mind – it feels as though this is the beginning of the end.” A sense of humour in camp also remains, even after 43 days in the parched Kuwaiti desert.
Placed at four hours notice, all the soldiers’ personal kit has been separated and removed to be stored away. The only things Lance Corporal Adam Palmer has left as his items of luxury are a hip flask and a jar of hot pepper sauce.
Others have even more exotic tastes – wives’ underwear are a popular lucky charm and baby wipes are always welcome.
Every troop is now anxious to move, itching to leave this dusty existence and get their job done.
All they can do to pass the time is sharpen their knives, clean their weapons and wait for the final call to arms.
Meanwhile, a few cling to their last home luxuries.
Lance Cpl Palmer, 26, from Bridgwater, said: “I keep the chilli sauce for my food – we call it ration repair kit.
“The baby wipes are important to get rid of the grit and dust that builds up – they are easier than soap. And the flask is for a celebration drink afterwards.” Corporal John Rutherford, 25, from Portsmouth, has a more bizarre keepsake.
Lying in his sleeping bag and surrounded by his mates, he pulled out a pair of his wife’s black knickers.
“I will be wearing them in the field, ” he announced proudly. “My wife gives me a pair every campaign I go on and they bring me luck.” Last night the men were also treated to a rare expansive dinner.
After almost seven weeks eating the same variations of stew – potato stew, meat stew, spaghetti stew – they were shocked to be served a plastic plate of burgers, chicken wings and potato salad.
“I don’t know whether to eat it or frame it, ” joked one Marine.