The soldier's tale: 'A lot of people on the ground are very angry about what happened'

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The Independent Online

In the days immediately following last Monday's violent clashes between British troops and rioters, 2nd Lt Gerald Johnston has found he and his men have a lot of explaining to do.

As a platoon commander in charge of a mixed unit of 24 Coldstream Guardsmen and men from the Staffordshire regiment, Lt Johnston now finds himself acting as an ad hoc ambassador for the coalition.

"We're trying to rebuild what relations will have been damaged from that incident," he said. "I have spoken to a lot of people on the ground and they've been angry about what happened. I have just taken the time to explain. It will take a little time to patch that relationship up."

Lt Johnston, 24, from Dorset, on his first operational tour since leaving Sandhurst,found himself involved in holding back the furious crowd last Monday afternoon. The incident led to cases of heat stroke and dehydration among the troops involved, while others were "battered and badly bruised".

His unit was in the thick of it for six hours, twice as long as a normal patrol, enduring temperatures of close to 50C, wearing full body armour, helmets and riot gear, with little chance of any drinking water. "They were up close and personal with the crowd. There were people kicking and punching, metal bars, petrol bombs and buckets of petrol being thrown at them," he said.

Since they arrived in Basra in April, the threats have mounted. With a surge in the use of hidden roadside bombs, a Warrior armoured personnel carrier is assigned to every two vehicles.