The battle for Basra – War Diary March 25-April 11

March 25

Five days passed and I still hadn’t changed my clothes or taken off my boots, let alone considered a wash.

I managed to shave twice, with a blunt blade and a splash of cold water. I felt drained and completely lacking in energy.

The night before, we were woken at midnight and had been lifted in helicopters away from our rotten trenches on the Al Faw peninsula.

We arrived in the town of Umm Qasr in time for a frantic briefing before being thrown into the first foot patrol through the area since the Americans had hit it with seven hours of heavy bombing.

This was urban warfare and we were right in the thick of it – I tried to remain calm but my nerves were fragile.

In fact, the welcome we received was incredible, one of the most memorable moments of the war. Thousands of children, men and women ran through the stinking streets to welcome us.

They cheered and wanted to shake our hands, ask our names and steal cigarettes.

At the sight of my notebook, I was swamped by hordes of people. They peered at it in fascination as I wrote – backwards to them – in English. Jon’s camera was a people magnet and he was mobbed everywhere.

The soldiers were treated as liberators and, dressed in our military fatigues, we were caught up in the middle of it all as well. It was a privilege to be there.

March 28

Action at Umm Qasr started to run thin and, every day, we spent some lazy hours sunbathing with the troops. Our home became nicknamed Camp Comfort and the CO was worried everyone was sitting around getting a bit FDH Рfat, dumb and happy.

Grabbed an improvised shower by piercing holes in the top of a bottle of drinking water and squeezing it over my head.

Today, the ultimate in cookhouse hardware also arrived … two vats of boiling water. It meant we could make a cup of tea in an instant and had our chicken and mushroom pasta in a foil rations bag (my favourite) heated to the perfect mushy consistency within minutes. Simple pleasures.

April 2

Most surreal moment so far: A scud missile landed with a shudder a kilometre away as we listened to Trevor Brooking commentating on how Wayne Rooney was running Turkey ragged in a Euro 2004 qualifier. The World Service is a wonderful thing.

April 6

One of the most emotional 48 hours I had ever experienced. It started with me waking to find I had 104 mosquito bites on my face – and ended with us sleeping on the marble floors of Saddam’s palace in Basra.

We had been flown to a site just outside Iraq’s second city and spent the night in a part-demolished college. Dirty concrete floors, broken glass under foot and insects everywhere. Four mosquitos found their way into my bag and, by the morning, I looked like the Elephant Man. Later the CO discussed where the media would be placed on the mission, and showed us a no-go area.

“You can’t report from there I’m afraid,” he said, pointing to the map, “you’ll just get killed.” This was the swansong for the Marines and there was an element of dread. They had not lost one man in battle so far – here, in the worst case, they expected to lose up to 80.

We set off down the road, the ninth vehicle in a mile-long convoy of tanks and armoured vehicles. I felt quite calm, until I asked about our vehicles.

“Are these things armour plated?” I said. “No mate,” came the reply. “They’re made of fibreglass. Any kind of grenade thrown at these and they’re blown sky high.” So we moved and we stopped and we moved and we stopped, edging ever closer to the town. The back door of the BV (battlefield vehicle or “taxi”) was propped open, ready for everyone to jump out should an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) be sent our way.

Still we crept along but something strange was happening. The looks of shock on the faces of the pedestrians turned to screams of joy. The streets became lined with crowds cheering. Basra, a city the size of Birmingham, was just opening up in front of us.

Knees around my chin, cramped in the back of the BV, fear in the stomach had turned to awe, tension was replaced by waves of relief and joy.

Saddam’s Basra had fallen – and we had been witness to a breathtaking, historic moment.

April 8

Photographer Jon Mills and I separated from the Marines and went independently on the streets of Basra. It brought with it our biggest scoop – and the most frightening moment of the trip.

We were caught in the middle of a mob chasing down two Fedayeen suspects. Rocks were flying and, as Jon ran alongside the action, one of the hunted men pulled a pistol out on him and waved it in his face.

My heart stopped. I thought he was going to get shot and started screaming at Jon to stop and come back. He stayed and got his photos – then said afterwards he knew he would not pull the trigger.

Eventually, the mob caught one suspect and tore him to the ground, thrashing him with sticks and metal pipes. I thought I was about to watch a man be beaten to death in front of me. Amazingly, a convoy of tanks appeared and Jon waved one down. They took the suspect away – in doing so, they saved his life.

April 10

Things had moved to the realms of fantasy now – we were sleeping on the marble floors of Saddam’s palace in Basra. But 42 Commando were due to move down south to the oilfields, and it was time for us to return home. I made a speech at an officers’ briefing and said my farewells.

I was desperately sad to be leaving – I enjoyed the camaraderie and lack of everyday bickering, the sense of common purpose and the conviction and compassion abundant in each and every man.

I had prepared myself as far as I could to go out to the Gulf – but you forget you have to prepare yourself to leave as well.

April 11

Sheraton Hotel, Kuwait. Forty-minute hot shower. A bed. A change of clothes. A laundry service. But still no booze. I went to a restaurant and ate crab salad and ostrich steak with a knife and fork and a napkin. After five minutes I felt sick – my stomach had shrunk to the size of a tennis ball.

I also felt empty. It was hard to leave behind people I could now call my friends. It had been a momentous five weeks – an extraordinary, life-changing experience.