Desert storms force troops to battle against stinging sand, choking dust and torrential rain

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The Independent Online

As the sheet of lightning flashed the ink-black desert sky to daylight, a small patrol could be seen trudging in the distance, battling at 45 degrees against the driving rain.

As the sheet of lightning flashed the ink-black desert sky to daylight, a small patrol could be seen trudging in the distance, battling at 45 degrees against the driving rain.

For miles across the flat, barren land of the Iraqi desert, small encampments were lit for seconds, then disappeared back into the anonymity of darkness.

Huddles of lookouts wrapped in ponchos in their trenches sat solid against the elements as British forces were hit by their harshest storm yet. Operation Telic, the Ministry of Defence's ironic name for the Gulf conflict, means "comfort", and that has not been lost on the men and women who have come to consider a cold flannel wash a luxury.

While the heat has yet to reach its searing peak, soldiers digging trenches in full chemical and biological protective suits have boiled beneath their helmets. At night, the light disappears as fast as the temperature drops. Without the moon, darkness seems impenetrable, with only the incandescent orange of the burning wellheads of the Rumaila oilfields on the skyline. Figures appear like shadows, and slip silently back into the dark.

Hot days are but a fond memory when the sandstorms, which blow up with monotonous regularity, descend from nowhere.

The winds create rivers of sand, snaking across the ground before building into ferocious gales. Sudden bursts send grains swirling and stinging, grazing the skin like giant emery boards. A fog descends, cutting sight of the horizon and turning the sun to a watery moon.

Tents, with their flaps tied as tightly as possible, are filled with a fine, choking dust that causes a hazy atmosphere and swirls like smoke rings in the torchlight. Newly washed trousers, hung to dry, take on the look of dirty airfield windsocks.

Outside, often in the complete darkness of the night, soldiers attempt to go about their business, wearing ski goggles, their faces wrapped tightly in the traditional Arab shamagh.

Even so, the invasive grains permeate every pocket, every unprotected gap. Teeth grind with sand, hair mats with dry filth, hands rarely feel clean.

Inside the giant canvas tents, food receptacles are layered in dirt, sleeping-bags fill with sand, once pristine possessions take on a yellowish film, and clothes send out puffs of dust when they emerge from what appeared to be airtight cases.

The worst came on Tuesday. British forces were buffeted by 35-knot gales. Visibility – vital in an area where renegade armed factions roam – dropped to a few hundred feet as winds whipped up huge clouds of sand.

Torrential rain followed with thunder loud enough to drown artillery fire and lightning, which illuminated the night sky in a spectacular array of electrical bursts. Communications masts lit up like red-hot pokers.

Pilots from the 16 Air Assault Brigade's 3 Regiment Army Air Corps, on night time missions, were forced to rely heavily on weeks of earlier training in the Kuwaiti desert as they were buffeted by the conditions while the infantry contended with the misery of flooded trenches. All through the night the downpour continued unabated, thundering on to canvas worn enough to let in the odd unfortunately placed waterfall. Damp permeated sleeping-bags and clothing.

Rivers streamed through tents, which rocked precariously as the wind ripped out camouflage nets and guy ropes. Poor souls had to face the gales to try to tame the billowing camouflage. At times the elements won the battle against man-made defences and heavy tent pegs gave way, flying dangerously into the air. Some troops suddenly found themselves sleeping underwater after rain, which initially soaked into the sand, hit a hard table just a few feet below and seeped upwards.

Through the camp, small groups could be seen trying to lift the heavy tent poles to transfer their temporary homes on to dry land. With little or no cover, the troops fought to stop electrical equipment and medical supplies being drenched. The deluge turned the now familiar film of sand into clogging lumps of dirt.

By yesterday morning the water was everywhere. Land Rovers were stranded in the quagmire. And filth-caked clothing was left hanging on lines in the hope that, one day, the heat would return.

In the words of one captain, surveying the scene: "It is like Salisbury Plain out there."

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