Sand storms, missile attacks and deploying a laugh as a weapon of war

Western Daily Press reporter Richard Edwards  and photographer Jon Mills spend almost six weeks in the Gulf with 42 Commando Royal Marines. Here are extracts from Richard’s diary revealing his thoughts on the frontline

 

Mar 12

A baptism of fire, or sand, as the case may be. Our tent filled with choking grit. My hair and face turned grey with dust, my eyes stung, my lips and tongue were layered in dry dirt. I chewed sand and coughed for the next hour.

It was our first night in Kuwait and we were treated to a raging sandstorm. Welcome to the Gulf.

A Major gave us the first briefing and happily told us of scorpions, snakes, rabies, minefields and enemy snipers. The last slide of his PowerPoint show read: “The general risk to you is HIGH.”

“I hope you enjoy your stay,” he joked.

Mar 13

Met the men of 42 Commando.

No-one was shy of the cameras. “Marines are quite a vain lot,” the unit dentist told me. “That’s why I do not offer a teeth-whitening service, I’d have the whole of 42 Commando knocking down my door.”

We made an immediate impact: for the first time in two months the camp had loaves of white bread to mop up their evening stew, a luxury put on for the new arrivals.

“Spoiling us now you’ve come,” one marine said with a smile.

The men had not seen any outsiders for six weeks, looked incredibly tanned and fit, raring to “get the job done” and go home.

But their immediate concern was to ask us about the mood in Britain. One-by-one these chunky men introduced themselves and asked: “What’s going on back home?”

Everyone was upset at the anti-war attitude and the idea of going to battle without the support of the public. The troops genuinely feared they would be spat at on the streets when they returned home. I tried to tell them that the public would support them as ‘our boys’ on the frontline; it was the politicians the public hated.

Mar 15

Given a briefing by Buster Howes, the Commanding Officer (CO) of the unit. It was like something out of a movie; maps, grids and codenames, all by torchlight. For the most part he talked in military abbreviations we could not understand: of AOs, TAIs, FSGs, fast air, CH53s and spooks. By the end, we knew every detail of the Marines’ plan.

At that moment I held the most top secret information I would ever know in my life, but could not tell anybody. We had made notes but were told to burn them.

I was also genuinely scared. The mission would use 40 helicopters in a night raid, there was talk of anti-aircraft fire and the land being littered with mines. Up to 100 men expected to be lost in the worst-case scenario.

I thought about friends back home. Most of all, I thought about mum and my family. I had written a letter to them in case I did not come back. Now, for the first time, I thought about that letter and what I had said.

Mar 16

The men were becoming bored with waiting. They had already been given a date to invade three times but the lift-off had been postponed because of the political situation. Bags were packed, weapons cleaned, knives sharpened.

Mar 17

Proud to say that, after two hours’ sleep, an 11-hour night exercise trudging through the desert and a great deal of sweat and back ache, I am now the proud owner of a fifth of a trench, somewhere in the vast expanses of sand in Northern Kuwait. We hit rock 2ft down, the next hour or so was torture.

What helped, as always in this situation, was a sense of humour – and that is something the Marines had in bucket loads.

From the very start I was invited to take part in a pub night without the pub, join drinking games without the drink, interview two officers dressed as Batman and Robin, and play the bizarre ‘Portaloo’ game.

It was a comfort to be among such entertaining men with such a warming sense of fun.

As the days went on, so we got to know the men better, sometimes a little too intimately. One Marine showed me a pair of his wife’s black knickers, which he kept in his sleeping bag for luck.

Friday was pub night. They wore civvies, set up a cardboard bar and even dressed one poor soldier in an improvised wig and dress to serve coloured water “cocktails”.

Another pastime was to watch the Portaloos, numbered 1 to 21, on the horizon. The boys would sit there scanning each door, taking bets on which would open next.

“By the time it comes to watching toilet doors all day, I think you know you have been in this game too long,” said one Corporal.

March 20

Woken at 2am by the CO, immediate disorientation, panic and fear. He attempted to calm us by explaining the first missiles had been fired on Baghdad. Expect retaliation, he said. Sleep with gas masks in sleeping bags, he said. Don’t worry, he said.

By 8am, we had heard our first shouts of “GAS, GAS, GAS!” and made a mad scramble for respirators.

Then, just as tempers were fraying, the order came through: We would invade tonight.

Everyone looked around, by the end of this emotional night, we would not see some of these men again.

The Commandos gave Jon and I the traditional send off and set about burning any letters they had kept from wives and girlfriends.No personal items were allowed once they had crossed the border. If you were captured and the documents seized, said the CO, they could be used to break a man.

 

© Richard Edwards, 2003