Brits Grit Their Teeth and Carry On

Times Staff Writers

Out in the rattling wind that whips across the desert and sandblasts everything in its path, there is more than a bit of the stiff upper lip among the 25,000 British troops massed here in northern Kuwait, poised for an invasion of Iraq.

"Apologies for the weather," Lt. Col. Chris Tickell, commander of the 23 Engineer Regiment of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, told a visitor the other day as clouds of sand bit into faces and cut visibility down to a few hundred feet at best. "The weather is the weather. Certainly, you just get on and do it."

But behind their good-natured resolve to cope with the harsh conditions here, many British troops acknowledge that their morale is being sorely tested by the growing firestorm of protest in Britain, where opposition to a war is far more visceral and widespread than in the United States.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair faces a revolt in his own party over his staunch support for President Bush's threat of war and as protesters mass in the streets, troops here keenly follow the reports from London. Many seemed perturbed by the suggestion Tuesday by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, quickly withdrawn, that the U.S. could fight such a war without British troops if necessary.

As Pvt. Becky Eckersley, 23, a driver with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers of the Army 7 Battalion, put it: "It's not very good to go to war when your country is not behind you."

At the same time, the British troops here -- among more than 40,000 in the theater -- typically say they are doing their best not to let the news dull the sharp edge their units would need to go to war, and are trusting that the public will rally behind them if they are called to action.

"It would be nice to have a diplomatic solution," said Keith Noble, 42, a regiment captain from Newcastle. "But if the military is used, it's used, and I have to believe the public will support us. They may not always support the politicians, but they do support their troops."

A similar sentiment was expressed at nearby Camp Blair Wayne, home to infantry, air and maintenance troops.

"Once Tommy Atkins goes across the border," said Lt. Col. Mark Armstrong, invoking the British equivalent to G.I. Joe, "the British people will be with us."

And some of the troops here seem not to give a whit about the storm back home, dismissing the protesters with some blunt Britishisms not exactly fit for print.

"If we'd have listened to those kind of people 60 years ago, we'd be speaking German today," Staff Sgt. Damon Hyland said with a toss of the hand.

Along with ground troops arrayed in several camps in the Kuwaiti desert and a squadron of vertical-takeoff Harrier attack planes at an air facility that is shared with the U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force, the British have also dedicated nearly two dozen naval ships to the potential war.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Argus, with 40 doctors, 88 nurses and enough equipment to outfit the trauma unit of a big-city hospital, is prepared to treat British and U.S. casualties.

The wounded would be taken by helicopter to the 28,000-ton ship, which is a few miles off the Kuwaiti coast. Although the U.S. Navy hospital ships are larger and have more equipment, they may be forced to stay farther from shore because of complex rules involving hospital ships and the Geneva Convention. The Argus is considered a combat ship and not subject to the same strictures.

Differences abound between the U.S. and British facilities, everything from military protocol to cuisine and entertainment. Lunch on the Argus recently was fresh oxtail soup, braised sausage and onions, and a Gainsborough tart. Entertainment in the evening was the Monty Python movie "Life of Brian." There is a fully stocked bar in the officers' wardroom -- U.S. ships are dry -- and detailed rules about who can drink what and when.

There is clearly less saluting than on U.S. ships. And though women make up about 40% of the crew, female pinup calendars are permitted in public spaces -- something strictly forbidden on American ships.

But another key difference, by everyone's account, is that British troops come from a country where the idea of a preemptive war with Iraq is less popular.

The British press has to some degree played up morale problems along the potential front, running articles that find their way back here.

One paper, the Mail on Sunday, recently published a letter from an unnamed corporal in the Royal Signals Regiment, who wrote, "I am feeling very isolated and abandoned by my country."

The newspapers have also reported equipment deficiencies and supply shortages, including of toilet paper, accounts that military leaders have sharply derided if not exactly denied.

"If a soldier doesn't have his own loo roll in his backpack, then he's not a very good soldier," Gen. Mike Jackson, the country's chief of staff for the land forces, said on a visit to Camp Eagle.

Jackson worked to downplay suggestions that public opposition to a war would sap troops' resolve in any way.

"The soldiers are aware that there is a debate going on not only in Britain but internationally," he said. "But they are here to do a job on behalf of the British government. I can assure you they are very focused on doing whatever they have to do to the best of their ability."

Commanders also sought to downplay the impact of Rumsfeld's comments that U.S. forces could fight without their British counterparts.

"There will be no impact on training or on command issues," said Maj. Will McKinley, a British military spokesman at the coalition's military command center in Doha, Qatar. "We are still training and preparing as part of the coalition."

McKinley said British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon had been personally reassured by Rumsfeld that no changes in U.S. military planning for possible operations against Iraq had been made.

Hoon "clarified this in a telephone call last evening, and Rumsfeld agreed that what he had said is probably not what he meant."

For now, like troops everywhere, the British forces spend their idle hours playing cards, reading and speculating on if and when war will begin. British tabloids are spread around the spacious tent where soldiers have laid their sleeping bags on cots.

Lance Cpl. Christopher Fish is reading "What If?" by Robert Cowley, a book that considers what would have happened if certain historic events had turned out differently. When an American reporter dropped by, Fish happened to be reading a chapter examining the effects of a British victory in the American Revolutionary War.

A sly smile taking hold, Fish said, "Interesting to think about it, isn't it?"

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