Pride and fear for the sons of Norton Fitzwarren

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The Independent Online

Norton Fitzwarren is the stuff of picture postcards: a cluster of listed medieval cottages, barns and churches. But today its residents wait for the unpredictable consequences of a war thousands of miles away.

The small Somerset village is also home to the 200 elite Royal Marines that will spearhead the allied assault on the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's camps from the Allied taskforce now assembling in the Gulf.

Despite the bright autumn sunlight bathing the village yesterday, the families and residents fear for their sons, brothers, husbands, neighbours – the young troops who make up the 40 Commando Royal Marines.

For Jane, the mother of one 21-year-old member of 40 Commando, Tony Blair's warnings that British troops will die are painfully real.

"I am so worried about him," she said yesterday. "I fear he may be dropped into Afghanistan and left on his own to scout out the area. Although he is well trained, I dread to think what could happen to him."

Jane lives a world away from battle-scarred Afghanistan – a country whose own rich medieval history and once-famous fruit groves have been obliterated by two decades of war. Norton Fitzwarren, meanwhile, still boasts a Grade II manor house once owned by the Bowes-Lyon family and the peaceful Ring of Bells pub, presided over by Jan Morton. Yesterday, a banner displayed at the entrance to a garden centre opposite the razor-wire fencing of the camp advertised fireworks for sale.

Jane has been braced for this day since her son, then 16, first announced he wanted to be a marine. She last spoke to him by phone two weeks ago, when his attempt at reassurances failed. "He said everything was OK and he would be home next month but they don't tell you everything because they know how we worry. When I saw the Harriers taking off I thought, 'Oh my God, what's going to happen now?'"

Geraldine Chappell feels much the same. Her husband of 18 months, Jason, is an Arctic warfare specialist who could find himself battling through the hellish conditions of an Afghan winter, where temperatures plunge to -40C. "Everything goes through your mind. I know he's a Royal Marine, but he's my husband and I just want him to come home," she said. "We've got our dreams, our goals to meet, like everyone else." Jason's mother Marian, however, is more confident. "Seeing the training Jason has gone through, I'm positive I'm going to see my son again."

The marines arrived 18 years ago at Norton Camp, where millions had been spent on converting the 140-acre site into a modern military base. Office blocks and married quarters were built under the shadow of the nearby Neolithic hill fort.

Yesterday, Norton Fitzwarren residents were both pragmatic and unhappy about the regiment's prospects. "That's what they joined up and trained for – it's their job and that's the hard line of it, although we are sympathetic towards them," said church warden Michael Hawkins.

John Franks, a retired steelworker, agreed. "The wives and families of men going into action will be concerned and rightly so, but the men are probably happier doing that than more weeks of exercises."

However, Sharon Davies, the village hairstylist, suggested fear had turned to resentment. "We have a number of ladies from the married quarters among our customers," she said.

"A lot of people are asking: 'Why is it our lads who have to go in and not the Americans?'"

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