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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 11:02 GMT
Cold reality of the Black Watch

By David Loyn
BBC News with the Black Watch

Black Watch soldiers prepare a meal from a 24-hour ration pack
Soldiers are eating from ration boxes in the absence of canteen food
Soldiers in the Black Watch literally had their air tickets to leave Iraq in their hands when the order came to move north last month.

For them and their families, the dashed expectations were hard to take, especially when they took significant casualties in the first few days of their deployment.

Tactics were quickly changed to take account of an area where none had any previous experience.

Many have said that this seems to be a different country from the region in the south around Basra, where the Black Watch fought last year and patrolled for four months this year before coming north.

'Fishing' for rebels

They have been living up here as an expeditionary force in harsh conditions.

The Iraqi winter is beginning to bite. Night-time temperatures are below freezing, and frequent strong winds blow fine sand into everything.

A large number of the soldiers in the thick of things are only 18
The 850-strong Battle Group occupies only one small corner of a huge ex-Iraqi army complex. Their area is defended by low sand walls, or "berms", designed to stop unwanted vehicles from approaching.

In the poetic description of the second most senior British officer in Iraq, Major-General Bill Rollo, the first part of the operation stopped the "river of insurgents" fleeing south from Fallujah.

In this second phase they are "fishing in the pool" they have created in order to catch the rebels.

Dawn roar

In the early days there was canteen food. But frequent rocket attacks made gatherings of men in one place too vulnerable, and the cooks were needed to mount guard duty so the infantry could focus on moving out into the countryside.

Every day the soldiers eat from 24-hour ration boxes.

Black Watch soldiers open their post while wearing masks to keep sand out of their eyes
Frequent strong winds cause problems with sand
Typically these have a bag with sausage and beans, a main meal such as steak and vegetables, or Lancashire Hotpot, and a small tin of pate, along with brown biscuits, two Yorkie bars, and tea and coffee.

Unlike American forces, who warm up their MREs (ready-to-eat meals) with chemical elements, every British vehicle has a boiling vessel, or "BV" which warms the food and provides water for the brews which keep the army going.

If the BV is broken, that is enough to put a vehicle out of action, so important is the constant supply of hot water for a brew.

For the media, every new dawn is heralded by the roar of the Warrior fighting vehicle parked next door to our sleeping quarters. It is turned on to heat up the water in the BV for the commanding officer to have a shave.

'Father figure'

There are a few hardened concrete buildings, but all have had their doors and windows and electricity and plumbing stripped out by looters.

Some of these buildings are used for rudimentary sleeping accommodation, but whether the soldiers are in camp or out on operations, most sleep alongside their Warriors.

Few complain about the conditions, although to be living like this, without central food or laundry, is unusual 18 months after the war was said to be "over".

Black Watch troops prepare their Warrior fighting vehicle prior to a patrol
Warrior vehicles are used for preparing food as well as fighting
The soldiers are a living embodiment of an old military saying that "any fool can be uncomfortable".

Most find a space on their Warriors for camp beds and mosquito nets and put bottles of water in the sun to have a slightly warm shower at the end of the day.

For crews living as closely together as this, personal relations count for a lot, especially since many of the soldiers are very young.

A large number of the soldiers who have been in the thick of things here are only 18, and were too young to fight in the war last year.

In one Warrior I travelled with, one of the older sergeants says he is like a grumpy "father figure" to the boys. A corporal says he acts as their "mother", giving them advice and help.

When the freed prisoners were dropped off, they stood with their heads bowed, apparently expecting to be shot
Few have more than a fleeting glimpse of the countryside they are living in.

Even with the significant threat from suicide bombers, who are looking for them everywhere they go, they do try to operate in what is called the "British way", making friends where they can, in order to gather intelligence.

But the scale of poverty in the surrounding countryside - after Saddam Hussein's terror, 12 years of sanctions, and now 18 months of continuing conflict - means it is hard to gain any more than a superficial impression of what people really think.

Many local people are terrorised by the sight of any armed men, and a genuine relationship would take longer to establish than the month the soldiers have been here.

Black Watch soldiers launch an operation in an insurgent village on the Euphrates river
Many locals are terrified by the sight of armed men
The intimidation and fear experienced in the daily lives of many people here was brought home to the Black Watch when they released prisoners taken in an assault on a village last week.

Initially 26 people were brought into Camp Dogwood but, after questioning, only 10 were handed over to the Americans as insurgent suspects.

When the other 16 were dropped off a few kilometres from their village, they stood at the side of the road with their heads bowed, apparently expecting to be shot.


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