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Last Updated: Monday, 25 December 2006, 01:42 GMT
'Just another day' for Christmas
By Huw Williams
BBC News, Basra

Soldiers with festive headgear
Soldiers do their best to get in the festive spirit

Thousands of British servicemen and women are facing Christmas in southern Iraq, marking the occasion with special events and services. But for most of them, work goes on as usual.

"It's Christmas time, there's no need to be afraid".

The words rattled round inside Bulldog armoured personnel carrier, call sign Two One Charlie.

But it was not thanks to the assembled celebrities of Band Aid. This time it was one of the soldiers crewing the vehicle.

And he was singing as the attack alarm at Basra Palace base warbled out the urgent warning that we were under fire.

Eight mortar shells crunched into the ground, one landing just a few hundred metres away from where we were parked.

Then another of the Royal Green Jackets joined in: "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a mortar bomb in a pear tree."

Some of the lads in the Bulldog laughed. Almost unbelievably, a couple of them at the rear of the vehicle closed their eyes and settled down to try to get some sleep.

Christmas Day will be pretty much the same as any other day
Lieutenant Josh Mulira

And I sat there, thinking about the fact that someone on the other side of the Shatt al Arab waterway was trying to kill them. And me.

But the soldiers' verdict was "no dramas". There are a lot of phrases like that in the military.

"Sleep is for wimps" is another one. And so is "Christmas is for civilians".

Or "Christmas is for the RAF", as an infantryman who was trying to wind-up a colleague who's an airman told me, with typical inter-services banter.

Unusual celebrations

But of course they will be marking Christmas at the various bases around Basra city. Engineers at the air base are planning a scrap-heap challenge.

One platoon commander at Basra Palace told me with pride about the "Secret Santa" he had organised among his men.

Mind you, there is only one shop at the base so there are only limited present-buying opportunities, and not much chance of surprises.

There are official Christmas parcels for every serviceman and woman - as well as hundreds and hundreds of presents and cards sent in by members of the public addressed simply to "A British soldier".

Christmas trees, tinsel and decorations, and even a giant inflatable snowman pop up in the most unexpected places.

Officers will serve the other ranks their Christmas dinner. And there will, of course, be midnight masses, and Christmas Day services a-plenty.

I sat in the Divisional headquarters at Basra air base, listening to one of the padres leading an impromptu choir, as they rehearsed a whole series of carols.

Desert carols

It is a bit surreal, to be honest, listening to the strains of The Holly and the Ivy and Good King Wenceslas echoing round a building in the southern Iraqi desert, with the sounds of Hercules transport aircraft and Warriors drifting in from outside.

But Padre Tim Cole, senior chaplain for the British-led Multi-National Division (South East) told me people taking part in the services will get comfort from thinking about family, friends, and loved ones singing the same words, to the same tunes, back at home.

Troops in Basra
Soldiers slept, joked and sang during the mortar attack

"Everything in this environment is brought into sharp relief," he told me - as one of the choir walked away whistling The First Noel loudly in the background.

"While the bad things are very bad, the good things are also very good.

"And it is an astonishing privilege to be here with soldiers in these difficult circumstances, and to see their courage, and their humour, and their ability to overcome obstacles and to get on and do the job."

And, he added, when people's lives are at some risk, they are more willing to think about really important and serious questions - like whether there really is a God.

"The old, slightly hackneyed expression is that there are no atheists in fox-holes," he added.

Any other day

Lieutenant Josh Mulira, from the 1st battalion, Staffordshire Regiment, told me he has to face many of the same issues with the men in his platoon.

"Christmas day will be pretty much the same as any other day", he said.

But his soldiers will be thinking about wives, girlfriends, and children at home.

"Obviously we do as much as we can to help. And obviously we've get telephones and the internet so that they can speak to people back home," he told me.

"But to a certain extent they just have to get on with it."

Back in Two One Charlie I was starting to understand a bit more about what getting on with the job means, when you're serving with the UK military in Basra. One of the soldiers told me their Bulldog is the luckiest vehicle in the battle group.

Just a few days ago a rocket-propelled grenade had landed on the roof and exploded.

He had been knocked out by the blast, and part of the vehicle caught fire. But other soldiers had been able to bring the flames under control, and they had all got out, all safe.

The old, slightly hackneyed expression is that there are no atheists in fox-holes
Padre Tim Cole

The personnel carrier still bears the scars - the lads are almost proud of them.

But how had they felt the day after the attack, I wondered, when they had to get back into the vehicle and go out on patrol again?

"We just had to get on with it," Corporal Matt Nunn, known as Chinny to his mates, told me.

And just about everyone you speak to here has got a story like that.

Whatever the politics and the rights and wrongs of the war/invasion/liberation of Iraq, Britain's servicemen and women are getting on with the job this Christmas.

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