Banter keeps spirits up

DURING the day temperatures under the desert sun can soar above 30 degrees and at night dip below zero. Between these two extremes of heat in this unforgiving dustbowl, the British soldiers of 16 Air Assault brigade are doing what they do to keep their spirits high – banter.

By James Fraser

DURING the day temperatures under the desert sun can soar above 30 degrees and at night dip below zero.

Between these two extremes of heat in this unforgiving dustbowl, the British soldiers of 16 Air Assault brigade are doing what they do to keep their spirits high – banter.

As an army marches on its stomach, the ribbing naturally turns towards the food. And the stew, which is bussed over from the main camp.


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"Sometimes there's brown stew and sometimes there's orange stew. But it is always stew," as our driver Corporal Hewitt drily remarked

Squaddies – and we journalists – are bedded down in dozens of Bedouin tents in Camp Eagle, just more than 30 miles from the Iraqi border.

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Sleeping around 50 to a tent, the close proximity to each other and to the ubiquitous sand breeds humour that is both zany and black.

The men I'm billeted with – from Wattisham's 3 Regiment Army Air Corps who provide air support for the brigade, brigade engineers and artillerymen – have furnished the padre, Major O'Keeffe, a former West country parish priest with a lads' mag poster of a bevy of bikini-clad beauties.

Officially he denies anything to do with it. But he hasn't taken it down.

Physical exercise is the main leisure pursuit. In an improvised gym set up among the rows of sand camouflaged Landrovers, arms pump breeze blocks up and down to the sound of tracks from the British Forces Broadcasting Service – and someone has even brought a rowing machine to this driest of desert camps.

Preparations for the off – for "going over the top" are gearing up.

As I write boxes of grenades, flares and anti-tank launchers sit at my feet. People wander around camp with gas masks strapped to their hips, knowing they are within range of Saddam's chemical-laden rockets.

Breakfast yesterday (chicken sausages and beef 'bacon' – Kuwait is a Muslim country) was accompanied by the buzz overhead of an unmanned drone gathering intelligence for the attack which lies ahead. While by nightfall a steady stream of jets, visible only through night vision goggles, made their way into Iraqi air space to give, as one AAC officer put it, "to give some a shoeing".

Maps are being pored over by section leaders with increasing urgency and concentration but relentlessly morbid sense of humour maintains a healthy dose of reality.

At a briefing on the danger of landmines we were trained how to work our way out of one of the many minefields that are spread across the border country up north.

Look, feel, prod, a metre every three minutes, under fire maybe more.

"But if you step on one," said our Royal Engineer tutor, "Don't worry – you'll just be turned into a purple mist. Happy? Good. Trust me, if you do find yourself in this situation you'll remember everything I said."

For me and the troops of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who are likely to spearhead the push into Saddam's condemned country, the phoney war is almost over.

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