page / news / 23 pioneer regiment news / operation telic
Operation Telic -
following the activities of the 23 Pioneer Regiment in Iraq
Soldiers from the 23 Pioneer Regiment of the Royal Logistic
Corps - based at Arncott and Graven Hill - were initially
sent out to the Gulf to set up bases and camps. But within
a week of the war beginning, they were given a new role, delivering
humanitarian aid - though there were problems at first because
the supply ship HMS Sir Galahad was delayed by mines. The
Army has declined to say how many members of the regiment
have gone to the war zone - but it is a significant number.
There are many stories and pictures on this page and I shall
continue to add to them when I get more information. Latest
stories are at the top and are in date order. Where possible
I have put recognition to the original author of these really
good articles and they are :-
- Burham Wazir and James Meek from The Guardian / Observer
who's reports below are a good read.
- Bill Glauber and Laurie Goering, from Knight Ridder / Tribune
- The BBC
'Moving On' by
Burhan Wazir, The Guardian
Tuesday 8 April, 2003
Burhan Wazir says goodbye to his friends, the men and
women of 23 Pioneer Regiment, who have left the outskirts
of Basra to patrol the streets of Umm Qasr. My friends, the
men and women of 23 Pioneer Regiment, have gone. On Saturday
night, a whole two weeks after inaugurating the flow of humanitarian
aid to Zubayr and the outskirts of Basra, the entire regiment
was re-tasked. The men pulled down their tents, and left for
the port of Umm Qasr. For the next few months, the regiment
will patrol the streets of the port town.
The troops had been uneasy and pensive for a number of days.
After having travelled up from Camp Centurion, and having
personally delivered much-needed water and rations to Iraqi
civilians, an air of disappointment enveloped the camp when
the troops were told they would not make it to Basra. "We're
always getting fucked over," said one man, bitterly.
The final hours, however, were joyous. As the sun set over
the Shaibah Airfields, a small group of us wandered over to
a newly opened army recuperation centre for dinner. And in
the mess hall, complete with seating and tables, we sat and
ate rice, salad and chicken stew. For dessert - a surprising
pleasure - we ate chocolate cake and custard. It was sweet
and runny, and immediately reminded me of school canteen dinners.
Despite the appalling state of our personal hygiene - sweating
sand into out meals - we were all unanimous in our verdict.
The meal had filled us with enjoyment. And, for an instant,
we imagined ourselves back home in a friendly hostelry.
Over the next few hours, however, the troops went back to
work. The British army, I have come to think, is an engine
of efficiency. They pulled up and packed away the poles that
commanded the communications tent; eased down their accommodation;
stowed away food and bedding; and quickly arranged everything
into trailers and trucks. By the end of the exercise, Shaibah
Airfields looked as we had found it - empty and soulless.
As the troops sat in the vehicles, waiting for the order to
travel to Umm Qasr under cover of night, I wandered from room
to room. Aside from the last burning embers of the rubbish
pile, there was little indication anyone else had lived here.
All the tell-tale signs of an occupying force - cigarette
ends, toilet paper, chewing gum wrappers - had vanished.
As the troops waited for the order to move, we took photographs,
exchanged handshakes, hugs and addresses. It has, undoubtedly,
been a remarkable few weeks, with a number of highs and lows.
In all, I have come to admire my close friends in the 23 Pioneer
Regiment. Having being saddled with a journalist, they adapted
well and were more than accommodating. There were moments
of sadness; laughter and irony. For the most part, though,
we just got along. Conversations ranging around cinema, pop
music, women and literature became our currency.
I have promised them I will visit them in Umm Qasr. It is
a commitment I intend to keep. The troops, I have been informed,
will be based in an abandoned hotel in the middle of town.
From the building, they will conduct the operation to keep
the peace on the streets of Umm Qasr. While disappointed not
to have reached Iraq's second city, they will undoubtedly
throw themselves into their new role. And, when we are all
back in the UK, we have arranged to meet at a regimental dinner.
In the meantime, I have been attached to a new regiment -
a well resourced outfit who will start to deliver large quantities
of aid into Basra. It feels like starting all over again -
making new friends and acquaintances. And I admit I can't
but help feel a little maudlin this morning. I guess I miss
my old friends and their jovial banter ("Get out of bed,
ya lazy bastard?"; "Make us a brew"; "Geeza
cigarette"). Soldiers, I have come to realise, live off
transient relationships. It is an unmistakable truth of the
profession that steady companionships and friendships often
suffer. For all those reasons and more, I hope they are successful
in performing their duties in Umm Qasr. And I look forward
to our reunion at home.
· For Billy, Mickey and Paul (aka "Jock")
'Iraqis face water crisis in battle zone'
by Ewen MacAskill & Burhan
Wazir, The Guardian
Saturday 5 April, 2003
Army humanitarian effort falls short as aid groups express
fears of cholera outbreak. International aid agencies yesterday
criticised the British military for the slowness of the humanitarian
aid effort in southern Iraq, especially the chaotic distribution
of emergency water supplies. The agencies contrasted public
relations pictures of British soldiers engaged in relief work
in southern Iraq with horrendous conditions on the ground.
The army responded that it was not capable of doing anything
more than a quick fix and that even that was difficult to
achieve in what was still a battle zone. Patrick Nicholson,
working in southern Iraq for the Catholic Agency for Overseas
Development (Cafod), said yesterday that in Umm Qasr, which
has been under control for a week and is deemed to be safe
militarily, "there is a humanitarian need for water and
it is not being met". He said that if the British could
not supply a town of only 40,000 with water, it did not bode
well for Basra, a city of more than a million, and other places
Unicef, which has had a long involvement in Iraq, also expressed
concern about the water situation in Baghdad in the event
of a prolonged siege. The electricity blackout since Thursday
could disrupt the pumps that supply water. A Unicef spokeswoman
said the city has back-up generators that, theoretically,
could keep the pumps running for three weeks, if staff can
reach their workplaces. The area suffering the severest water
shortages remains Basra, where part of the electricity supply
was knocked out by bombing at the start of the war. About
40% of the population have no - or limited - access to water.
People in Basra have been taking drinking water direct from
a river that is also used for sewage.
Save the Children expressed concern that the lack of electricity
and fresh water in Basra could lead to outbreaks of dysentery,
cholera and other diseases. An estimated 100,000 children
are at risk. Unicef sent 10 water tankers across the border
from Kuwait into southern Iraq yesterday but the amounts were
tiny compared to the need. Damien Personnaz, a Unicef spokesman,
said: "The water needs are really serious, and they're
going to get worse" as temperatures are rising. Mr Nicholson
said he had visited a hospital at Umm Qasr and although Cafod
had been assured it would be supplied with water, it had been
without a supply for three days. He added that people were
crossing the frontline from Basra into Umm Qasr in a desperate
search for water, only to turn back disappointed.
Mr Nicholson said the water was not reaching the neediest
people and that, amid the chaos, profiteers have been exploiting
the situation, selling 20 litres of water for 250-300 Iraqi
dinars - a lot for the average Iraqi. The UK military said
it is urgently investigating Cafod's claims. The British Humanitarian
Task Force, led by the 23 Pioneer Regiment, has been at the
heart of the aid effort. Even before the first aid - water
and rations - hit the ground around southern Iraq, Colonel
Peter Jones admitted British forces were able to offer little
more than a "Band-Aid" until non-governmental agencies
"We are not here to remedy the situation," he said.
"We cannot offer the Iraqis everything that they want.
What we can do, however, is get the infrastructure of southern
Iraq working again. We need to be able to quickly restore
electricity and mains water supplies to the region to allow
the people to be independent." For the past two weeks,
the 23 Pioneer Regiment has been delivering water - initially
in quantities of 24,000 litres - to the suburbs of Zubayr.
In recent days, the number of water tankers has increased.
On Thursday the Pioneers delivered 84,000 litres into the
Zubayr's town centre. Tomorrow the Pioneers will deliver an
estimated 35,000 rations to Umm Qasr. Yet army staff admit
the aid is little short of a quick fix.
The water and food drops have come under attack on a number
of occasions from militias from Zubayr and nearby Basra. "It
is difficult to deliver aid in an area that is still an active
battle zone," said Colonel Jones. "All kinds of
security measures have to be put in place. We need to be accompanied
by armoured vehicles, the area of the drop-off has to be scouted
for safety measures beforehand."
'Swearing to serve Queen and country'
by Burhan Wazir, The Guardian
Wednesday 2 April, 2003 - THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SOME PROFANITIES
Burhan Wazir meets one soldier who took the pledge of
allegiance a little too literally. Early this morning, having
agreed to accompany a humanitarian aid convoy into the sprawling
tomato market of Zubayr, I climbed aboard a "four tonner"
truck. Blinking in the morning light, I sat back and listened
as the soldiers around me engaged in their usual conversations.
One voice, however, was unmistakably louder than the rest.
Sitting directly on my left, a Scottish soldier - I would
hazard a guess that his accent originated from the industrial
environs of Edinburgh- was in full flow.
Within five minutes, he had built up an enviable head of
steam on his grievances. And they all came bubbling to surface
in a glorious stream of venom and rage. I have detailed them
here complete with their colourful sense of literacy: On the
subject of officers: "The fucking cunt came over today.
Guess what he had in his hands? A fucking pair of pyjamas.
Can you believe it? What is that twat doing?, walking around
a war zone, wearing pyjamas? And guess what - he put them
down to dry on my tent. Next time he does that, I'm gonna
burn 'em in front of the twat. Twat."
On the equally angering subject of Regiment catering facilities:
"It's all fucking crap. How come we always gets the shite
stuff. Look at the Yanks, they fuckin' get everything, fucking
Burger Kings, fucking Big Macs and fucking soft drinks. And
all the sweeties they can carry. We always gets the shite
stuff. Our fucking cook house can't even fucking get a plate
of chips together." The young man continued, flush with
rage, this time on the subject of Turks: "They're dirty,
dirty bastards. Stick fingered cunts the lot of 'em. I hated
that place. Remember they stabbed those English fans? Well,
I haven't got much sympathy for the English, but they should've
invaded the placed there and then. Dirty bastards. Dirty bastards."
Sitting next to him, I laughed. There was little else to
do. The irony was only too immediately apparent: here we were,
snaking through the streets of Zubayr to deliver humanitarian
aid, and the young Scot was oblivious to it all. "It's
all fucking shite," he repeated. "Everything".
We pulled into town and spent nearly three hours delivering
water and emergency rations. The work was hard; the sun high;
and the men quickly tired.
The drop, however, was an unparalleled success: the Iraqis
were happy to see us and gratefully accepted everything they
could carry. By the time we clambered back on board, tired
but jovial with good spirits, I was convinced I would find
the young Scot in better, if not more animated, spirits. He
was, however, apoplectic. "Do you see those thieving
bastards? They were trying to steal the lights off of the
van. Thieving bastards. Did you see them? And I tell you another
thing: they didn't look hungry to me. Some of those cunts
were right fat bastards."
I should probably here explain what drove me to try and catalogue
his innumerable outbursts. In the course of my time with the
men belonging to 23 Pioneer Regiment, I have come across two
basic types of soldiers. Those elder and, for the most part,
uncomplaining statesmen who have now spent over a decade in
the British armed forces. They willingly obey orders; execute
them to the best of their abilities; and rarely complain.
They are in stark contrast to their younger counterparts,
the so-called "Playstation generation". This young
lad was undoubtedly an example of the latter.
As we entered our base at a nearby airfield, the young Scot
clambered down from his position and hit the ground. He was
continuing to complain: around him, his fellow men shrugged
their soldiers and feigned concern. "Fucking back here
again," he grumbled. "I can't believe it. This place
is a shite hole. Fucking traffic is worse than Sauchiehall
Street on a fucking Saturday afternoon. And the food is shite
as well. God, I could murder a fucking kebab."
'A bitter chaos as trickle of aid begins'
by Burhan Wazir, The Observer
Sunday 30 March, 2003
British troops near Basra escort convoys of food and water
to help a resentful population under the eyes of a vengeful
enemy. Viewed from the northern edge of Zubayr, the bone-dry
flatlands of the Mesopotamian plain are ablaze with Allah's
wrath. Salah Mehdi, 35, watched the inferno burning in the
nearby city of Basra. Close by, another sign of what Iraqis
describe as 'Qiyamat', the Muslim Day of Reckoning, the skies
are marked by thick, black smoke from scorching oil wells.
Mehdi, a geography teacher at Zubayr elementary school, remembers
when Basra was last in flames. In March 1991, Saddam Hussein,
the Anointed One, Direct Descendant of the Prophet, ordered
his forces to storm the sprawling ancient Shia citadel to
quell an uprising. Mehdi saw hundreds of bodies. 'When we
were running from the soldiers, we were falling over them.'
Twelve years later, Basra is burning once more. Inside, soldiers
loyal to the Great Uncle of the Iraqi people are dispensing
his punishment again. British forces nightly shell the metropolis.
Mehdi has not seen his brothers for nearly two weeks. Mithal,
27, an engineer, and Ali, 28, an office administrator, are
being used as human shields inside the besieged city. 'The
Iraqi soldiers are not letting my brothers and their families
come out,' he said. 'And the British are bombing the city.
Maybe they are dead. Maybe.' 'My father is there,' said Nawaf
Aja, 23. 'I have not seen him in a week. No one can get out.
Iraqi soldiers use using people like him to slow down the
attack. Many will die, I know.'
While Basra burns, the 23rd Pioneer Regiment is leading what
is tantamount to an emergency humanitarian exercise in the
middle of a war zone. Morning and afternoon, convoys laden
with water and emergency rations leave Shabiah airbase. It
is a curious way to deliver aid: the large processions is
always accompanied by British tanks. The deployment of humanitarian
supplies in the middle of a battle is viewed as a 'Band-Aid'
until non-governmental agencies are able to enter Iraq in
an estimated 30 to 45 days. 'We cannot expect to fix everything,'
admitted Colonel Peter Jones, the regiment's commanding officer.
Puffing on his trademark cigar, Jones said: 'What we can do
is get the Iraqis some structure to their lives. We can make
them self-sufficient for the time being. After that, the UN
agencies take over.'
The aid drops have been subject to attack from Iraqi forces
and militia still active in the area. Last Wednesday afternoon
the first drop in the dusty town of Zubayr was disrupted by
gunfire. The convoy, accompanied by three American Humvee
Jeeps, was forced to retreat. Earlier, several hundred people
fought over boxes of water. Iraqis, like the British soldiers,
are quick to see the irony of the situation. Jalil Ali, 25,
a scientist at the Ministry for Higher Education, threw a
bottle of water on to the ground. 'Take it back,' he said.
'Why are they giving water and food when they are bombing
us as well? They are giving us water and food because it is
cheap. In the meantime, they want the oil.'
'First, America invades us,' said Khalil Mustafa, 29. 'Then
they try to buy our loyalty with water. Last time, hundreds
died when America left. I do not trust them.' By Friday morning,
Jalil Ali was unbowed in his thinking. He refused to join
the queues for food and medicine. 'The Americans and the British
are the enemies of Allah. First, they bomb. Then, they try
to help. This is deceit.'
Basra, at the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers
and once a playground for Kuwaitis who thronged to its discos
and nightclubs in search of alcohol, marks the nexus for the
British humanitarian effort. The city is a sprawling and sophisticated
hub. Here, most of all, the British 'hearts and minds' aid
effort is crucial. A self-sufficient Basra, goes the military
reasoning, would ensure a self-sufficient south. Earlier last
week UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned of an impending
humanitarian disaster. 'We have learnt that the citizens of
the city have been without food, water and electricity for
a number of days now,' he said, in his characteristically
solemn delivery. 'This is obviously grave news. Help must
reach the people of Basra soon.'
Annan's warning has not gone unheeded by British forces who
are concentrated in the south of the country while the American
s head for Baghdad. On Friday, Colonel Jones and the 23rd
Pioneer Regiment set off for the out skirts of Basra with
20,000 litres of water and a mobile medical unit. After looping
around Zubayr, the convoy pulled up at an open field in the
late afternoon. Two Challenger tanks trained their sights
for signs of trouble. The mission was fraught with logistical
problems. The field was a wide and open space, absent of shelter
and vulnerable to attack. Quickly, fighting erupted among
the crowd. As panicked soldiers threw boxes of bottled water
into the crowd, one man was hit in the face. He walked away,
blood streaming down his left cheek. Chaos ensued when an
Iraqi fired at the static convoy.
Convoys laden with water and emergency rations leave Shabiah
airbase bound for Iraqi civilian heartlands. The deployment
of humanitarian supplies, in the middle of an active battle,
is viewed as a "Band-aid" until non-governmental
agencies are able to enter Iraq. "We cannot expect to
fix everything," admitted Colonel Peter Jones, the regiment's
commanding officer. British aid convoys have come under attack
a number of times. Jones said: 'We just can't have people
throwing boxes of water at the civilians. It leads to injuries.
Similarly, we have to get the crowd to sit down. Control is
everything. If they won't sit down, force them to. They have
to be managed in an environment where we and they feel safe.'
The convoy regrouped under cover of nightfall and started
for a small embankment on the outskirts of Basra. As soldiers
ordered the Iraqi civilians to sit down in orderly lines,
some streamed towards a medical ambulance. British doctors
work with minimal supplies. Earlier in the day, a mother had
brought forward her six-month-old baby. Miriama had severe
burns across 70 per cent of her body after her father had
tried to light a gas lamp. After injecting a painkiller, the
doctor could only look on helplessly at her swollen eyes and
disfigured hands. 'I can't do anything else,' she said, sadly.
'I just don't have the equipment for it.' Afterwards, Miriama's
father said: 'I am happy for the help. But I am sad they cannot
do much more for my child. What am I to do?'
of 187 Squadron, 23 Pioneer Regiment, hand out food and
fresh water to the local population in a village just south
boxes are eagerly welcomed.
carrying empty containers run as they hope to fill them with
water supplied by soldiers from the 23 Pioneer Regiment, in
the southern Iraqi town of Safwan Monday, March 31, 2003.
'Oxfordshire and the War' by
|Thursday 27 March,
Soldiers of Bicester-based 23 Pioneer Regiment went out to the
Gulf in advance of the war to establish military bases. Within
days of the conflict beginning, they found themselves switched
to a new function, delivering humanitarian aid.
They have 7,500 days' worth of rations in plastic ration
boxes. Colonel Debbie Noble said the role-change coincided
with warnings that the aid operation needed in Iraq would
be of epic proportions. Almost immediately, they faced frustration
when mines prevented HMS Sir Galahad bringing the disaster
supplies ashore. It took days to make it safe for the vessel
to berth and begin unloading.
The Pioneer Regiment was due to transport more than 200 tonnes
of supplies to a "safe" location in southern Iraq.
Colonel Debbie Noble told BBC South Today about the regiment's
new task."In their base they are holding nearly 160,000
litres of bulk water," she said. "They have 7,500
days' worth of rations in plastic ration boxes, and nine containers
full of disaster relief kit. "That includes things like
jerry cans, blankets, wire, shovels and so on to assist the
local population in helping themselves get back on their feet.
"It does have its dangers." We try to make the
distribution points be in areas that are benign. "The
division assesses all the population areas, and where people
more most needy we will obviously put distribution points
into those, whether they are benign or not."
'First Aid Convoy rolls into Iraq' by
Bill Glauber and Laurie Goering (KRT)
There were the dirty-faced kids fighting over bottles of water
and juice boxes torn from plastic shopping bags. There was the
slight woman with sad brown eyes wordlessly begging anyone to
get her some food. And there were the young men stacking food-filled
boxes on wheelbarrows and hauling them away a half-mile to their
dusty town in this hard land. This was the scene Wednesday when
three Kuwait semi-trucks full of boxes of food and water, among
the first large-scale shipments of humanitarian aid to arrive
in southern Iraq, pulled over the Iraq border Wednesday and
were immediately mobbed by several hundred residents on the
southern outskirts of Safwan.
The chaotic conditions that confronted aid workers could
serve as a warning of what might lie ahead in the immense
project to deliver humanitarian supplies to Iraq's hard-pressed
population, impoverished by decades of war and years of international
sanctions. Around 60 percent of Iraqis are reliant on food
handouts, often the only source of income for families. Humanitarian
aid, slowed by the battle to seize the port town of Umm Qasr,
began flowing in earnest into southern Iraq on Wednesday,
a week after the start of the war.
Along with the Kuwaiti delivery, a convoy of British aid
- food, water and medical supplies - passed the border Wednesday
afternoon, headed for a new aid distribution point expected
to be established south of Basra. The British convoy included
100,000 humanitarian meals, packed in 20 metal shipping crates,
and followed 80,000 liters of water shipped into Iraq on Tuesday.
Coalition soldiers also were working on building a water line
from a United Nations post on the Kuwait side of the demilitarized
zone to Umm Qasr in an effort to deliver water there.
Humanitarian aid was supposed to arrive almost immediately
after the start of the war, via the deep-water port at Umm
Qasr. But the coalition's failure to pacify the port until
early this week has delayed shipments. The first is due to
arrive Thursday when the Royal Fleet Auxiliary's Sir Galahad
is expected to pull in carrying 900 tons of food, water, medical
supplies and other aid. Minesweeping vessels and divers have
worked over the last few days to clear sea-lane mines left
at the port.
But just getting the aid into Iraq is only part of the problem.
Delivering it to the people also could prove difficult, especially
in wartime, when fear runs wild and political passions are
at their highest. Even though Iraqis reportedly have enough
food stocks to survive about a month of war, food and aid
are commodities that can be bartered. So tossing out boxes
of food from the back of a semi was like tossing out dollar
bills. This is also why the aid drop in Safwan was sobering
and a little alarming.
In a muddy no-man's land littered with ruined light poles
and stray boulders, the distressed people of a hardscrabble
town of 10,000 overwhelmed a disorganized, skeletal aid staff
from Kuwait's Red Crescent Society. Workers tossed boxes full
of aid - plastic bags of water, juice, bread and other supplies-to
the shoving crowd until men piled into the semis and either
threw the goods out to the crowd or took them away, rushing
through muddy puddles. On the roadway, military convoys rumbled
by, and British troops manned the perimeters, guns at the
Young men with red-and-white checkered scarves wrapped around
their faces to conceal their identities, chanted for gathered
television cameras: "With our blood and our souls, we
sacrifice for you, Saddam." But away from the cameras,
some of those sitting on boxes of assistance confessed that
"they will shoot us, they will bomb us, if we say anything
against Saddam." The strong got the aid, the weak or
the less resourceful came away empty-handed."This is
not well organized. We're getting very little, and I have
10 people in my family," said Sabah Masol, one man who
had managed to secure only a single plastic shopping bag of
food. Others were angered, even ashamed by the handouts, in
part it seemed because the aid came from their enemies to
the south, the Kuwaitis.
Nasser Al Shami, a 27-year-old student with a wispy beard,
gray robe and dirty black shoes, looked on in resignation
as the mob fought over the boxes. "There is food (in
Iraq) but no freedom," Al Shami said, noting that before
the war families regularly received a dozen bags of flour,
and five bags each of rice and sugar. Coalition officials
view the aid delivery as a vital part of the overall war strategy,
which involves not only removing Saddam Hussein's regime but
trying to win over the broader Iraqi society.
"This is huge. It's as important to get this right as
it is to get military action right, and that's been recognized
from the start," said Chris Wilton, the British ambassador
to Kuwait, who visited the border to see some of the first
aid delivered. "We're replacing a regime, not destroying
a people. If we do this right we can persuade them we're the
good guys." Coalition forces have stepped up protection
for supply lines, including convoys of humanitarian aid, in
recent days in southern Iraq. As troops raced forward to Baghdad
in the first days of the war, the rear lines were left with
little protection. Now armed guards patrol the entrance to
Safwan, one of the first towns over the border, and most convoys
are accompanied by heavy machine guns.
"When you go forward at that speed your supply lines
are vulnerable," said Capt. Andrew Smith of the British
23 Pioneer regiment, which is leading the humanitarian aid
push. "But we'll overcome that. From now on you'll see
more a tactical change, with more military escorting."
He admitted, however, that such protection could slow the
pace of troops toward Baghdad. "When you take people
off one task to another, you have to change your plan. This
may slow down the advance," he said.
Even with the additional protection, drivers in aid convoys
worry that the job leaves them particularly vulnerable. Suicide
bombers, for instance, could find their way into crowds like
the one that mobbed aid trucks in Safwan on Wednesday, British
military officials said. "I'm very, very much worried
about being overrun," said Lt. Mike Weir of the Pioneer
unit. "When we go out we're very much on a limb. "When
someone attacks, we can fire on their position. But when someone
walks up, you don't know their intent," he said.
© 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
'Reliving Old Battles' by
Burhan Wazir, The Observer
|Thursday 27 March,
On a grim night spent at an abandoned airfield in southern
Iraq, Burhan Wazir finds it hard not to imagine the ferocious
fighting that took place there during the last Gulf war. The
men of 23 Pioneer Regiment are in unanimous agreement: last
night was undoubtedly one of the most gruelling evenings of
the campaign to date.
After driving into Iraq from Northern Kuwait, a journey that
took us an arduous 24 hours to complete, we made camp at Shaibah
airfields. The natural elements were against us for most of
the time. Cold rains and unforgiving winds battered the men.
And this morning, we woke up damp and miserable. In the second
week of war, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that
Allah - temporarily at least - is on the side of Saddam. Shaibah
Airfields, or rather, what is left of them, are a series of
hangars, runways and outbuildings on the Basra Road. There,
however, all similarities with conventional airports or military
airbases end. The runways are littered with the bric-a-brac
of war: engines, burned-out vehicles, armaments and masonry.
I would hazard a guess that some of the wreckage was abandoned
by fleeing Iraqi troops during the last Gulf war. Most of
the debris, I believe, was deliberately placed by Iraqi troops
over the last few months. The presence of the rubble of war
slows down allied troops, who are trying to use the base as
a campaign base. Negotiating a course through the runways,
for most civilians, would be akin to attempting a u-turn around
a penny coin. Yet it is the hangars themselves that are the
most remarkable facet of Shaibah airfields. We took shelter
in one last night. It was a great hulking building that seemed
both dead and alive at the same time.
As the winds whipped up throughout the night, forcing rain
and mud through the great bulk doors - it would drench sleeping
bags and soil shoes - the hangar's tin roof provided an accompaniment
to the sounds of battle. Every part of the building seemed
to groan in its own inimitable way. The hangar is, of course,
supported by a series of offices and outbuildings. Here, all
the decade-old injuries of war are apparent. To the casual
observer, buildings, or at least those occupied by men and
women, are the very fabric of life.
Offices and homes contain memories - cheerful or otherwise.
The empty yawning buildings of Shaibah airfields, however,
seem to speak only of years of blood-letting and death. A
night inside them is a profoundly depressing affair. The roofing
has caved in, the walls have collapsed and rubble is strewn
across all the floors. Save the three stray dogs who entered
this morning to sniff around their new and temporary lodgers,
the offices are abandoned. Outside, smaller buildings - they
were once administrative and supply bases - are all in a similarly
Yet standing in them, and looking up at the walls pock-marked
with hundreds of bullet holes, it is hard not to imagine the
concentrated ferocity of the attacks that forced those Iraqi
soldiers to flee their posts. Many of the men, otherwise law-abiding
citizens with wives and families, would have run outside to
seek shelter underneath the trees that surround the hangar.
Most of them would have died in the process. Others might
have preferred to crouch down in the many small outhouses
that surround the airstrips: many of them also, presumably,
died in the raids.
To some considerable extent, however, the men of 23 Pioneers
are attempting to turn the hangar into a more comfortable
abode. Hot drinking water was available last night. And, as
they waited for the next stage of their operation to be verified,
the building was at least full of the sounds of men talking
among themselves. I suppose on last night's evidence, it can
be argued that any building, no matter how derelict, can always
be reclaimed. For my own part, though, I always find something
uniquely disheartening in the abandonment of buildings - I
always find empty structures inexorably linked to economic
and social misery. Here, the Iraqis were forced to give them
up. More likely, they had no other choice.
'Hard Routine Kicks In' by
Burhan Wazir, The Observer
Thursday 20 March, 2003
Life is getting tougher for the soldiers, who fear chemical
attacks as the war begins in earnest, writes Burhan Wazir.
Passing away hour upon hour in a trench, after the initial
yell of "Incoming" echoes out from the Regimental
Head Quarters, you learn to rationalise time. Today, on four
occasions, the men from the logistics brigade have rushed,
while pulling on their gas masks, towards a trench 30 metres
from regimental headquarters. Leaping into the 5ft deep trench
is a comforting feeling that suffuses an air of immediate
safety. Then the doubts kick in.
Last night, as the 23 Pioneer Regiment bedded down in its
most northerly position in this campaign to date, operations
were ratcheted up. By this morning, the air strikes had begun
in earnest. And Saddam Hussein, the autocrat who has held
power through the rule of three prime ministers and an equal
number of presidents, replied in time mannered fashion.
He lobbed a few Scuds into the Kuwaiti desert. This morning,
I heard a distant thud as one landed in the desert around
15 km away. We had left behind our camp at Centurion earlier
yesterday. Leaving a small group of men to ensure the camp
was in working order, the tents containing the regimental
headquarters came down. As the air war against the Iraqi regime
gets underway, the ground troops are jostling into position
near the border between Kuwait and Iraq.
Driving through a hard wind, we saw American convoys, most
of them led by the now distinctive Humvee jeeps, heading further
north. We reached our new location mid-afternoon. And, as
I stood and watched, the tents and communications were quickly
re-established. The men toiled for most of the afternoon and
evening, digging trenches, strengthening their positions and
eventually sleeping in their vehicles or in two-man tents
hidden under camouflaged webbing.
For the foreseeable future, life is getting tough for the
men of the regiment. They are adopting what theircommanding
officer has described as a "hard routine". Loosely
translated, this entails behaving like John Rambo behind enemy
lines. The men are probably expected to sew their own wounds
shut and roast camels over naked flames. If before, we were
enjoying the luxuries of "soft routine", this tougher
regime reminds me of life on the fictional island in Lord
of the Flies.
The threat of a chemical weapons attack is a primary concern
on the minds of the men in the regiment. At the time of writing,
we have undergone four alerts already. The "gas! gas!
gas!", or incoming" alerts, supplemented by horns
from all nearby vehicles, see the men rush to open their respirator
bags. The soldiers then run into their tents and pull on their
chemical suits. The danger is palpable. In the tents and trenches,
the hooded and masked men seem not to breath in fresh air
from their canisters, but the stomach-cramping fear that this
balmy morning might, just might, be their last.
This is the essence of the war for the common soldier: a
willingness to realise and overcome all dangers. The men of
the logistics brigade have taken to it with relative ease.
Soldiers quantify their emotions. Now, one step closer to
the end game, there is a sense that they are about to deliver
their mission. A few minutes ago, as we stood in a trench,
two of the soldiers laughed and joked about reliving an experience
from the last Gulf war. "Christ, I never thought I'd
end up here again," laughed one soldier. "Compared
with this, Ireland was easy. Sitting in bushes and staring
into houses. I can do that."
Fear and uncertainty always encourages a black humour, though.
This morning, pulling on my chemical weapons suit over my
outer clothes for the second time, I started cursing to myself.
In the heat, struggling to tie my velcro strips, I was tempted
to give up the ghost. As I struggled with my suit, I watched
the trained men around me yell "gas! gas! gas!",
while checking each other. All of us, I can safely say, were
Time in the trench is further elongated by the severe heat
and, eventually, boredom. The gas mask starts to dig into
the scalp after a while. And the suit itches against the skin.
Add the sand, the endless quantities of sand, and the feeling
is extremely unpleasant. Trench warfare, it seems, has rarely
progressed in the past 100 years. While the masks and the
suits have seen a quantum leap in technology, the upshot in
the event of a missile attack remains the same: dive in and
sit. Which is when the doubts kick in.
'Thoughts and Crosses' by
Burhan Wazir, The Observer
Wednesday 19 March, 2003
While many aspects of army life have changed almost out
of all recognition over the past century, the regimental priest
continues to play an important role in times of war, writes
Burhan Wazir from northern Kuwait.
Each morning, around 7.15am, the 15 or so unit officers of
the Logistic Brigade make their way to the desert-camouflaged
tent that hosts the regimental headquarters. Around a makeshift
wooden table, the freshly showered men, straight out of the
breakfast tent, ease themselves onto benches and wait for
their commanding officer, Peter Jones. Jones, a man the size
of a small bungalow, normally appears at the head of the table,
one hand clutching a flask containing steaming hot tea. As
the men individually tick off their agenda for the day, or
update the CO on the previous 24 hours' progress, Jones will
often mutter and issue orders.
With deep-set olive-black eyes and a weather-hardened face,
Jones, for the most part, is an amiable companion. Every now
and then, though, upon hearing frustrating news, the eyes
harden and his mouth narrows into a thin line. At that point,
you can almost see the men sink into the sand as they desperately
try to avert his piercing gaze.I normally sit at the opposite
end of the table to Jones, next to a man called Paul Swinn,
the regimental priest. Swinn, in his early 40s, has been out
in the desert of northern Kuwait for the past six weeks but
to look at his skin, the hue of which is like freshly-rolled
pastry, you would think he had just arrived.
In contrast with the rough-and-tumble and understandably
macho gestures of the rest of the regiment, Swinn is a quiet
presence. He normally passes the meeting shuffling through
religious texts, or adding to his notebook in a neat, near-microscopic
script. Army priests have come a long way in the last 100
years. In The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer's seminal
denunciation of war, priests attached to units have a tendency
to come across like the Man in Black, Johnny Cash, with pronunciations
of hellfire, evil and purgatory. Similarly, during the Vietnam
war, US army clerics were derided for espousing the same political
soundbites to troops as the propaganda emanating from politicians
These days, however, in accordance with changing times and
diverse intakes, the padres working within the British army
are less inclined to resemble automatons cut from the cloth
of the Church of England. In fact, the make-up of Logistic
Brigade - the regiment boasts a healthy number of Fijians
and British-Asians - dictates a more subtle approach. Said
Swinn earlier this week: "I can't afford to be too preachy
when I speak to the men and women. I can't be seen to be speaking
down to them. A lot of my work is simply involved with having
conversations. I try to relate to their experiences. And they,
in turn, are encouraged to tell me how they are feeling."
It is during the morning meetings, however, that Swinn comes
to life. When his turn comes, he holds up some notes and,
with shaking hands, begins what he announces as his "thought
for the day". Earlier this week, he read from Psalm 68.
His reading was well-measured and tempered with the universal
fears of the days ahead. Two days ago, he said more simply:
"Just because we have forgotten Jesus, it does not mean
that he has forgotten us."
In general, I have noted a respectful hush descend upon the
table whenever Swinn begins to speak. Perhaps in an age where
politicians prefer to speak of "collateral damage"
and "friendly fire", the sight of an obviously nervous
man, shakily delivering a simple sermon, strikes a simple
and much needed profundity about the days ahead.
The role of a priest might strike some as an anachronism
in these modern times but I must confess to having been seduced
by the simplicity of the notion. In my time here, I have come
to look forward to Swinn's talks. Similarly, the regimental
officers seem to appreciate his words. While army life has
undoubtedly benefited from technological quantum leaps in
terms of technology, an old-fashioned ethic is stubbornly
refusing to die. The occasional drinking of port, Graham Greene
novels and the "padre" are undoubtedly the last-standing
vestiges of a by-gone era.
"I only started my 'thought for the day' because I never
had anything else to say," Swinn told me a few days ago.
I was standing in the middle of the camp, leaning against
a bin in an area cordoned off for smokers. "Every morning,
we went round the table, and I never had anything to say,"
He continued. "So I just came up with an idea: a thought
for the day. To be honest, I've been surprised by the reaction.
Hopefully, the men look forward to what I have to say."
defensive trenches to protect their camp.
'Bacon, sausage and sandflies in the army's
desert oasis' by James Meek,
Monday 24 February, 2003
Caterers struggle to cope with the huge build-up in Kuwait.
In the desert north of Kuwait city, behind a sand rampart,
Major Larry Downes and his colleagues have erected a vast
marquee dedicated to a feeding task of biblical proportions.
Under canvas, under the mighty, silver extractor fans powered
by generator, scores of army chefs chop, peel, grate and boil
around the clock. "You look at this facility and you
might think it's fairly austere," said the major fondly.
"But actually this is pretty Gucci in field catering."
The Ministry of Defence doesn't want to say how many of the
26,000 British troops who will eventually be assigned for
a possible invasion of Iraq have already massed in the desert.
But the fact that in the past fortnight they have eaten 280
tonnes of potatoes is a clue. Many of them are already here.
"We're getting between a thousand and a couple of thousand
arriving every day," one senior NCO said.
Over the weekend, the MoD lifted the lid a little on the
assembling British forces. Although there is still a wariness
about giving the media access to front-line troops, an escorted
visit to the supply centre - which includes Major Downes'
field kitchen, capable of feeding 5,000 - revealed how rapidly
British force numbers have built up, as the diplomatic manoeuvring
in Europe and the US continues. Three weeks ago, driving up
and down Highway 80 - the six-lane motorway that cuts straight
through the desert from Kuwait City to Basra, the "highway
of death" in the 1991 war - the Guardian saw only one
British military vehicle, a Land Rover, among the US military
On Saturday, the proportions were reversed. Hundreds of British
trucks, tank transporters and Land Rovers were grumbling north
and south. Most still had their green European camouflage
on, with "How's My Driving?" written in German on
the mudflaps. A company of British combat soldiers, some wearing
the shoulder flash of the 16th Air Assault Brigade, sped north
in convoy, exhausted from their journey to the emirate. In
helmets and goggles, most with checked Arab scarves round
their necks, they slept against each other in the back of
trucks like toppled skittles.
Their Land Rovers, crowned with black machine guns, had been
painted so as to be invisible in the desert, and would have
been if only the desert was the colour of custard, and not
a blinding near-white in the afternoon sun. Three weeks ago,
the desert east of Highway 80 was thick with the tents of
picnicking Kuwaiti families and Bedouin herdspeople. The spring
grazing of thin grass and herbs was being cropped by thousands
of camels. Now they have all been moved south, and a new tribe
has arrived - the British, and the number of their tents is
beyond counting. Supplying this mass of troops in a place
where everything has to be brought in from outside has been
a struggle. Each member of the force is supposed to get six
litres of water a day to drink and 25 litres for washing.
When the ad hoc division is at full strength that means 800,000
litres a day coming out across the sands.
Regimental Sergeant Major Adie Mycroft, of 23 Pioneer Regiment,
the army's camp builders, said: "Lastminute.com springs
to mind. We should have been here a little bit earlier."
The whole regiment was not in place until just over two weeks
ago. "Now, we have solar showers. We were here for a
long period of time with minimum equipment. The first people
who arrived here literally survived with what they had on
The central field kitchen cooks two hot meals a day for troops
at 24 satellite kitchens. It boxes them up for collection;
the units send trucks to pick up breakfast and dinner. On
Saturday night, dinner was pasta carbonara. Behind the marquee
a newly arrived field bakery was gearing up to make 20,000
bread rolls. The evening's meals were stacked up and labelled
unit by unit in the marquee's loading area: more than 2,000
for the air assault brigade, almost as many for Royal Marine
units. Forty of the commandos had requested, and been given,
vegetarian meals. Major Downes had many more stats to impress
about the appetites of the army in the past fortnight: eight
tonnes of beef, 17 tonnes of chicken, 44 tonnes of fruit,
7,000 cans of baked beans, 50,000 litres of fresh milk and
It all comes at a price. Major Gillian Jenkins, a 33-year-old
from Edinburgh who has the job of ordering the food and drink
from suppliers, said they were feeding the soldiers for about
£6 each a day - more than £1m a week for the whole
division. "A lot of it comes in by Antonov, a very large
Russian aircraft," she said. "To get food in quantity
by ship, if you order it today, you would expect to see it
in about four weeks. My first shipment arrives today. "It's
a bit like planning a dinner party for 20, and 30 turn up.
The decisions made by No 10 have been made very quickly so
there have been occasions when things like baked beans or
sausages have been in short supply. Then you take it round
the area so that everybody gets a full British one day and
a half-British the next."
In their sprawling camps, signposted according to London
districts - Holloway Road, Hammersmith - the British are in
the same strange limbo as the Americans, brought from the
UK or Germany direct to the desert, where for weeks on end
they will see no civilians or any reminder of civilian life,
no buildings and virtually no vegetation. The British armour
has yet to arrive, but the next time the troops see civilians
and their world, they expect them to be Iraqis, and that anticipation
hangs over their tents.
Asked what he thought about the situation, RSM Mycroft, 37,
from Doncaster, said he tried not to think about it. "If
I was down, or seemed to be down, it would probably have an
effect on the rest of the lads. If they see me bobbing around
and cracking jokes, it keeps morale up. "The only thing
I miss more than anything is it keeps me apart from the family.
One of the lads hit the nail on the head the other day when
he turned round and said: 'Do you know, if I could go home
at weekends, this would be brilliant'."