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Last Updated:  Saturday, 29 March, 2003, 07:07 GMT
Marines improvise creature comforts
By Richard Edwards
With 42 Commando in Umm Qasr

It was a scene of carnage, destruction, and utter depression.

The gates and fences were trashed, shells and bullet holes scarred the buildings.

Locals had raided the site of everything but the kitchen sinks, which they had filled instead with litter.

Royal Marine
The marines make themselves comfortable whatever the terrain
There was nothing left but long dark corridors, hunks of splintered wood, shattered glass and a thick layer of dirt spread over every surface.

To the Royal Marines of 42 Commando, this was home sweet home.

At midnight last Monday we were woken from our uncomfortable trenches in the sodden mud, thrown into a helicopter within quarter of an hour and retasked to a new town, Umm Qasr.

The commandos arrived to find the remnants of a UN base shot to pieces by US Marines as they bombarded the town.

Today, in typically impressive and fast fashion, they are living in the lap of luxury.

Within hours the Marines had light, latrines, a cookhouse, briefing rooms and a radio centre.

One set of troops even found an old, defunct microwave. By dusk it was cooking their dinners.

Wet wonder

Meanwhile, after a week of digging trenches and roughing it in the field, a concrete floor with a roof over it and a box with a toilet seat stuck on top were a cause of celebration.

I could even afford myself a wash and a change of clothes.

My first duty is always the same - to provide an immediate system of life support
Major Phil Bourne
Quartermaster
Last night, as the sun set and darkness fell dozens of men huddled around outside, stared at the stars and enjoyed the biggest treat of all - boiling water.

Amidst the sound of mumbling and laughter, the smell of burning metal, troops peered into four large metal trays sitting on a roaring fire heater.

Two of them are designated for wets - water for tea, coffee and hot chocolate.

The other two are for scran - tins where troops dump their bags of beef stew and dumplings or Lancashire hot pot (this week's rations) and wait for them to cook.

The luxury of having boiling water 24 hours a day is indescribable - like manna from heaven for hungry soldiers.

Without it each man has to go through a series of laborious, frustrating procedures, just for his evening meal and a cup of tea.

Camp genie

First there are the hexamine cookers - which take 10 minutes to light, then burn for only 60 seconds. They also have a tendency to make food taste like wax and char the bottom of your metal mess tin.

So to have boiling water on tap - without even the need to flick the switch of a kettle - saves at least two hours of faffing every day.

The camp, of course, does not fall in to place of its own accord.

Royal Marines

The unsung heroes are those behind the scenes, cleaning, building and crafting a better life for the men.

The chief of all trades is Major Phil Bourne, the unit Quartermaster, who feeds, clothes, waters and provides ammunition for 800 men.

Within an hour of asking him about washing clothes, he had popped away to his magic stores and found a washing bowl.

Ten minutes later some soap power. Five minutes after that some string for a line and clothes pegs to keep them in place.

He is, quite simply, the camp genie.

"My first duty is always the same - to provide an immediate system of life support," he said.

"That means sanitation, cleanliness, hot water and cooking facilities.

"After that comes personal needs, showers, proper shelter, camp-cots and the rest.

"Most of all it is down experience and improvisation."

Imagination

Chairs, then, can have the seat cut out, to become toilets - all they need is someone to dig a hole underneath them.

Broken windows are filled with perspex, electricians within the ranks are drafted in to bring power and light, carpenters to repair desks and furniture.

On Friday a crushed and flattened coke can was even used to patch up a vehicle.

While most troops are now comfortable sleeping on square tiled floors in dimly lit rooms with patched up windows, others have surpassed themselves.

One room of six managed to fix the air-conditioning and another have rewired a fridge in their block.

"All we need now is to magic up some beer to put in it," laughed the marines.

  • This is pooled copy from Richard Edwards of the Western Daily Press, embedded with British forces in southern Iraq.


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