Don't mess with my mastiff!

IT weighs 27 tonnes, is packed with state-of-the-art technology and is one of the army's most heavily-armoured vehicles - and sat behind the wheel is a hire car firm employee from Ipswich.

Grant Sherlock

IT weighs 27 tonnes, is packed with state-of-the-art technology and is one of the army's most heavily-armoured vehicles - and sat behind the wheel is a hire car firm employee from Ipswich.

Bradley Hambling is living the dream for those who love the thought of driving big vehicles.

Private Hambling has been chosen as one of a few among the army's force protection troops operating out of Kuwait and Iraq to drive the latest addition to its fleet of armoured vehicles.

The imposing Mastiffs have only been in what the army calls “operational theatre” for 14 months but have already made a big impact.

They are being used to protect convoys of trucks transporting supplies to the 4,500 British troops stationed in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

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The convoys, sometimes more than 100 vehicles long, snake their way between the US Army Kuwait Sup-port Facility base in northern Kuwait and Basra each night.

They take different routes so that they don't present an easy target to militia capable of laying IEDs (impro-vised explosive devices) by the roadside but still the threat remains.

And if anyone is going to be in the firing line it's Pte Hambling and the other soldiers aboard his Mastiff - call-sign Tango 1.

The vehicle is the first vehicle in the convoy's vanguard - the scouting vehicles which go ahead to check the route and inspect for anything suspicious.

“I'd be the first to take it,” the 23-year-old said.

“I try not to think about it. I just concentrate on driving. The worst thing you can do is think about it. My priority is getting from A to B as safely as possible.”

Driving the deserted roads between Basra and Kuwait is a world away from the A12 and A14 but Pte Ham-bling has settled in quickly, along with his colleagues from the Territorial Army's 202 Transport Squadron, which is based in Yarmouth Road, Ipswich.

They are a unique breed - volunteer soldiers who have taken time out from their civilian jobs to offer their skills to the army.

Last year a group from the squadron volunteered for a tour of Iraq and it has been a rollercoaster ride ever since.

Some are based at the British camp at Basra Airport, while others like Pte Hambling were chosen for force protection duty while training in Germany and have been based in Kuwait alongside US Army troops.

The force protection soldiers are responsible for protecting the huge convoys of civilian lorries, driven mostly by Iraqis, which bring supplies to the troops in Basra.

Some travel in Snatch vehicles - lightly armoured Land Rovers converted to suit the army's use - while others, in particular those in the most vulnerable positions at the front and rear of the convoys, travel in the state-of-the-art Mastiffs. The bulky vehicles pose unique problems for the drivers as visibility can be difficult through the small windscreens so some manoeuvring is done using cameras positioned in various locations on the exterior.

Despite the level of difficulty, it's a job Pte Hambling is pleased he got.

“They had to select a certain number of drivers and luckily enough I got chosen to do it,” he said.

“Driving the safest vehicle around is quite a good number really.

“I am a driver in civvy street so if you can drive a Mastiff you can drive anything.

“But it's hard work. It's like playing a video game when you drive using the screens. It is hard to get used to.

“On one occasion I had a civilian vehicle hit me. It took off two of my cameras. We're told to stand our ground when we're driving and this vehicle was coming toward us.

“He carried on coming, he swung off the road and came back on and as he came back on he hit the rear of my vehicle.”

Luckily it's the only scrape Pte Hambling has had during his four months in Iraq. So far the convoys ha-ven't encountered any opposition, with the possible exception of a single small arms round thought to have been fired at a vehicle at the back of a convoy earlier in the tour. But even that isn't certain and if it was fired at the convoy it is thought to have come from a landowner taking a pot-shot rather than a committed militiaman.

Back home in Ipswich, Pte Hambling's parents Kev and Lynn, his twin brother Ryan - who is a regular army soldier in 13 Air Assault based at Colchester - and his sisters Alicia, 25, and Carrie, 31, are following his progress in Iraq closely.

Pte Hambling speaks to them as often as he can, fitting in calls between the hectic schedule which sees the troops drive through the night before arriving in the early morning in time to debrief, take part in an exer-cise drill, before getting as much sleep as they can before they have to hit the road again later that day to do the return journey.

It's a rigorous schedule which they carry out each day, leaving them exhausted but, in most cases, happy that their gruelling work regime means their time in Iraq is flying by.

“The time is going very quickly,” Pte Hambling said. “I'm glad I'm doing this job rather than any other job because we're constantly going back and forth.

“We've got everything here in Kuwait. We've got good facilities, contact with home is quite good, it's just a matter of finding the time to do it.”

On his return he plans on spending a year recruiting for the TA before considering another tour, possibly to Afghanistan.

“It would just be nice to get another tour to get that experience.

“I've got used to the heat now. The hardest bit is when you get out here at first, it just hits you.”

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