Iraq Crisis: Thursday War in the Channel is dress rehearsal for real thing in the Gulf

HMS Illustrious will arrive in the Gulf next week, amid growing tension, as Saddam Hussein continues to defy the United Nations. Before she left, the ship took part in a mock battle in the Channel to prepare for her deployment. Ian Burrell joined Armed Forces minister John Reid at sea as he viewed the exercise.

"Oh my Christ, we've been hit!" shouted the minister from the depths of the operations room on the destroyer HMS Edinburgh as the news came in on his headphones that a Soviet-made missile had ripped into the side of the ship.

Seconds later, he was being whisked down a passageway where sailors were fighting to overcome a series of fires that had broken out on the lower decks.

The Edinburgh and four other warships, including the carrier Illustrious, were guarding a Navy tanker while under attack from the air, land, sea and submarine by a fictitious Middle-Eastern enemy.

As low-flying fighter jets fizzed over the bows of the ship, their potential for wreaking destruction was manifested in the bloody scenes being acted out in the bowels of the vessel. Prostrate men, with broken bone hanging from gaping wounds, and screaming "For God's sake, help me!" at their pressured colleagues, helped to create a sense of awful realism.

Dr Reid was in the thick of the action, fighting for air just like the sailors as acrid smoke seeped from open hatches.

It appeared to remind the minister of his fondness for nicotine, and he retired to the captain's quarters with a packet of Embassy filter-tips and a debriefing on the battle so far.

Despite the damage, the British force was performing well, protecting its tanker and reacting effectively to enemy attacks. The exercise - known as the Thursday War - had been drawn up in minute detail by officers from the Navy's Flag Officer Sea Training (Fost). It was intended to create conditions as close to a real-life confrontation as possible.

The minister had embarked for the exercise shortly before 8am, and cutting through the heavy mist in a pilot launch, he looked over towards Plymouth Hoe, where Drake was first told of the arrival of the Armada, and said: "There's something romantic about this; better than working on the Child Support Agency."

With the armed services nervous about the priorities of a Labour government and the possible effects of its Strategic Defence Review, Dr Reid's "up and at "em" approach is clearly a source of comfort. "He looks and sounds like a sailor," observed one naval officer. "He is making all the right noises. Let's just hope he can deliver."

As the minister had not experienced such a "battle" before, Navy chiefs were intent on convincing him that their training not only helped to save the lives of sailors but brought in money and good will from overseas.

Fost recoups about 10 per cent of its pounds 10m annual budget by persuading foreign navies to send their sailors to Plymouth for instruction. In past Thursday Wars, ships from Holland, Germany, Portugal and elsewhere have been called into action. Talks are being held with Russian admirals to persuade them to do the same.

Last week, the French air force played a role, dispatching Super Etendard fighters which first appeared above the Channel as small specks before screaming overhead.

The authenticity of the exercise put Dr Reid in mind of the tragedy at San Carlos Bay in the Falklands, where Super Etendards released their Exocets onto stranded British vessels. "It must have been bloody awful in bomb alley," he said.

As he watched the radar showing the incoming movement of a hostile fighter plane, he became acutely aware of the limitations of rules of engagement which only allow ships to respond after they have been attacked. "We have to make a threat assessment and look at the wider strategic issues, such as whether we are prepared to lose a ship rather than start a war," he said.

As he spoke, Illustrious was on the horizon, undergoing its final preparations for almost every eventuality when she replaces HMS Invincible in the Gulf, including the nightmare possibility of a chemical weapons attack. Dr Reid has seen for himself that she could not be better prepared.

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