They are bankers, abattoir workers, solicitors and HGV drivers, but they also have a second job - part-time soldiers. Foreign correspondent of the year Audrey Gillan was given unique access to the Territorial Army in southern Iraq, where she found out what it's like to be fixing the office photocopier one day - and getting shot at the next.
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Thursday October 14, 2004
The shots are not quite as loud as you might expect them to be, but still they are too close for comfort. The bullets fly past the head of a shocked Territorial Army soldier and embed themselves in the wall, just inches from where he is standing. A sharp voice shouts: "Contact to our left, three or four rounds." Seconds later, there is a small burst of fire.
They call it a contact and what it means is that somebody, somewhere, shot at British troops. It happens every single day in Iraq. Today they think it might be a warning that they have stayed in this area for too long, but in truth they really don't know. It is one of the first forays British sol diers have made into the town of Amara, north of Basra, for quite a while and the locals aren't happy. On the wall of a nearby community centre, a scrawl in red paint reads: "Dawn No No USA Brtish [sic]".
This group of 12 Territorial Army soldiers from 52 Lowland Regiment Y Company have been escorting a man from the Ministry of Defence to another British-built community centre. The civil servant - known as a political adviser, or "polad" for short - has flown up from Basra to check that British government funds are being properly spent. Colour Sergeant Keith Irving from Hawick in the Scottish Borders is in charge of this expedition, and is standing on a street outside the community centre, watching for possible trouble, his SA80 rifle at the ready. He is surrounded by dozens of cheeky-faced children shouting, "Mister, mister, Saddam donkey," while showing him the soles of their feet. But as the convoy pulls off later, the children's faces turn resentful and they start throwing stones.
It's just another day for the Territorial Army soldiers serving in Iraq - people who, most of the time, live daily lives every bit as ordinary and banal as yours or mine, but who find themselves, in times of war, called upon to do an extraordinary second job in a very dangerous place. The mobilisation of reservists for the war in Iraq was the biggest since the Suez Crisis, and it continues to grow through the postwar phase. There are 1,210 Territorial Army soldiers serving on Op Telic 4, as the current operation in Iraq is known, making up 14% of the 8,069-strong British force. Roughly 10% of the TA contingent are female, many of them nurses.
As the British army has come to rely ever more heavily on part-time soldiers, the contrast between the jobs they do at home and what they do in "theatre", as the military call the Iraqi conflict zone, has become more striking than ever. There is the Calor Gas tanker driver who is currently gathering intelligence; the joiner who runs a job creation scheme for Iraqi people; the marketing officer for the National Archive at Kew who now spends his days trying to liaise with public service officials; as well as the mechanics, plumbers and City analysts doing guard duty. Then there are those on a busman's holiday of sorts: the two electricity specialists working on the Basra power grid; the doctors and nurses working in the military field hospital; the chefs now preparing meals for thousands of soldiers stationed in the desert.
The soldiers from 52nd Lowland Regiment have spent most of their time in Iraq on force protection, interspersed with what they consider the more boring job - guard duty. They are coming to the end of their six-month stint in Amara and their morale is still pretty high. At home, they belong to various TA units, training in their different bases in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ayr and other towns across Scotland during the week, coming together as a brigade at periodic short residential camps. While they may have met each other's wives and families at dances and other TA events, they don't like to talk about home too much.
Irving, the broad-accented Scotsman, is typical of the TA soldiers here in that he believes that he is just as professional as any regular in the field. He served in the regulars for five years, then signed up with the TA 10 years after leaving the forces. "Having seen it from both sides of the fence, I think commitment-wise the TA guy is the better soldier," he says. We are standing outside a British-funded blacksmith's shop. Inside, the owner is telling the MoD man that he is now employing five members of his family because of the funds he received to kit out his workshop. The MoD man is happy, even though this marks just a small success in terms of the British attempt to help rebuild the country.
Outside on the street there is a perception that the tension is mounting. The road is busy with cars and bicycles and people, all of them staring: most don't look particularly friendly. It's not the numbers on the street you need to worry about, says Irving, it's when the crowd suddenly disappears that you know something might go wrong. I ask him if he ever gets scared. He shrugs his shoulders and quips: "Wit's for ye will no go by ye," a fatalistic Scottish expression which means whatever happens happens. In his other life, Irving delivers medical oxygen across the Borders of Scotland.
Another day, another scene. It is just past 7am and a watery sun is burning a hazy white light across the flat landscape that British soldiers have taken to calling the "Gifa". Territorial army fusilier Michael Greville explains that it means the "great Iraqi fuck all".
Greville is 26, and usually works as a credit analyst for Cazenove, a city investment bank. It's an office-bound job and most days he finds himself by a computer. In Iraq, when he is not soldiering, he goes back to his accommodation to study his notes for the chartered financial analyst exam which he hopes to take next year: "When I am really bored, which is pretty much 12 hours a day when we are not working, I go back to my room and study." Being here means he is missing out on his city bonuses, but Greville is enjoying the tour anyway.
This morning some of Four Platoon from Messines Company, the London Regiment, are on their way north, escorting three vehicles from the British divisional headquarters at Basra airbase to the Dutch army camp near the town of Samawa, south of the flashpoint city of Najaf. Like 52 Lowland, they provide armed escort and covering fire should the convoy of regular troops meet any insurgency on the road.
They may work alongside the regulars, but ultimately all the TA soldiers in Iraq are under the command of the British Forces General Officer Commanding Major General Rollo, who is a regular soldier. Those serving with Messines Company are led by a TA Major Conrad Giles whilst those attached to a regular regiment such as the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment take orders from a regular commanding officer. The TA frequently provides protection for regular soldiers who are not fighting on the frontline but who have to move around southern Iraq. In such situations the regular soldier must obey the TA unit's senior ranking soldier.
In this instance it is Colour Sergeant Rob Denman, and he is calling out orders through the radio to the two guys in each of the vehicles whose heads are sticking out through a hole in the roof to provide covering fire. They are known as "top cover" and find themselves in one of the most exposed situations of all the military - a number of the recent deaths and injuries in Iraq amongst British troops were of soldiers doing top cover.
Up top, one soldier faces the front and another the back, one with an SA80, one with a Minimi light machine gun, both looking for a possible threat. They cautiously keep their eyes open for snipers, mortar teams, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and the particularly lethal improvised explosive devices, IEDs, that can be left on the side of the road and detonated some distance away by remote control. If the convoy stops or slows for too long, they must dismount and try to move the trafficon while at the same time watching out for potential assaults. The rebels in the south have yet to use the suicide car bombs seen in Baghdad, but the soldiers are anxious that they soon could.
"Just so you are aware, there's one pax [person] standing up on that flatbed coming towards us," says Denman. "As we move up the MSR [main supply route] make sure the vehicles are tight. I don't want no civvies in between us." The previous night, another Messines Company force protection team was the target of an RPG, which shot through the gap between two of their vehicles. They need to stay close.
Nicknamed the Colourman because of his rank, Denman is 37 and works as a principal officer at Wandsworth prison. An hour and a half outside of Basra, he spots a cloud of black smoke up ahead. He tells the boys to approach slowly. They soon realise it's a traffic accident involving a Dutch military vehicle and a local car.
Three Iraqis have died in the accident (the casualties were quickly removed by locals), but the Dutch soldiers have been standing by the side of the road for a while apparently doing nothing to police the situation. "Maybe they are in shock," says Denman. He jumps down from his wagon and orders his soldiers to enact the drill they have trained for to deal with this situation. Denman starts to set up a vehicle checkpoint and control the traffic; the rest of the guys are sent to guard the peripheral area. An hour and a half later, the Dutch "quick reaction force" arrives and he can stand his men down. "It's not very quick, the quick reaction force, is it?" someone pipes up. "Yesh, we have just come from Camp Shpliffy," cracks another. The Dutch, whose camp is called Smitty, are the butt of a lot of British jokes.
Denman calls his boys "the PlayStation generation" because "all they can use is their thumbs", but really, he admits, "I think they are the mutts' nuts because they bring all