Long hours, heat and a 'coffin' for a bed

BENEATH the baking sun of an Iraqi desert, there is little respite for British troops in Basra.

Grant Sherlock

BENEATH the baking sun of an Iraqi desert, there is little respite for British troops in Basra.

As dust swirls around the British base at Basra airport, they make the most of what can only be described as difficult living conditions.

Heavy body armour only makes the conditions worse, but going without is not an option because the threat of an attack is ever-present.

Temperatures at this time of year sit in the low 40s for much of the day, with warnings about the heat stress level ringing out from the bellowing PA system which covers the sprawling base around the airport.

Just three weeks ago the soldiers were having to cope with 52C heat, making even the simplest of tasks exhausting.

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Their only respite is in their living quarters - a complicated network of tents which block out the intense heat outside.

Powerful air conditioners fed by noisy generators keep the troops cool, allowing them to sleep in an otherwise unforgiving landscape.

Soldiers sleep six to a tent, with their personal space marked out by a waist-high wall of concrete blocks designed to shield them from shrapnel in the event of a mortar attack.

Inside each area is a thin single mattress at floor-level and above it sits a steel plate, topped by sand bags, apparently strong enough to take a mortar impact.

Colloquially named “coffins” by the troops, the unusual beds provide the best protection in a war zone where at one stage it was a daily occurrence for militia to launch mortars into the camp.

Some bring with them a few of the simpler comforts of home, adorning their walls with photos of loved ones and placing rugs on the floor. Others though accept the temporary nature of their tour and lead the simplest of existences, with a sleeping bag, a few spare clothes and a wash kit among their only possessions.

Life in camp is dominated by long hours of work. In the case of Suffolk's troops working with UK Logistic Battalion, either delivering supplies to British soldiers around Basra, protecting convoys travelling between Kuwait and the southern Iraqi city or carrying out guard duty shifts on the base.

Whatever their job, the overriding feeling among the troops is one of continual fatigue. The heat and long hours combine to create the toughest of working conditions.

They count down the days to the two-week R&R break which allows them to return home part-way through their six-month tour. On their return, the counting down switches to focus on the end of their tour when they long to return home to be reunited with the loved ones in the pictures pinned by their beds.

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