'We want to know what is going on,' say frontline troops

Out in the desert, the lads from the 7th Armoured Brigade had been listening to the radio and the comments they heard from Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, did not impress them.

"I was a bit pissed off really," said Richard Ashley, 18, a crew member on a four-man Challenger II tank. "We want to know what is going on. It does make you angry."

Mr Rumsfeld said on Tuesday that America had plans to invade Iraq without the support of Britain if Tony Blair found it politically impossible to offer the support of his armed forces. He later backtracked, saying he was entirely confident US troops would be fighting alongside the British forces.

But at the desert camp 50 miles north of Kuwait City, where about 25,000 British troops are massing, the damage had already been done.

"If he is saying that, he is a bit stupid. We are the best forces in the world," boasted Andrew Hopkinson, a fresh-faced 19-year-old from Rotherham. "They need us as much as we need them."

Senior officers with the 7th Armoured Brigade – better known as the Desert Rats – insist, unsurprisingly, that morale among the men is high. One of the officers even organises a nightly pub quiz for his men, albeit without the pub and the pints.

But the soldiers themselves admit the going is not all easy. Camp Coyote, which is in featureless desert 30 miles from the Iraqi border, is hot and dirty and looks like nowhere on Earth. Yesterday the temperature was no more than 28C but in high summer the mercury can top 50C.

What makes it particularly difficult for the soldiers is not the isolation but rather that they know all too well – through e-mails, letters and the use of satellite phones – what is going on back home. They are aware of the wrangling at the United Nations, they know that perhaps only 20 per cent of the British public supports military action without a second UN resolution and they learnt yesterday that the British Government had been told that without that resolution soldiers could face charges before an international court over the deaths of any Iraqi civilians. Mr Rumsfeld, they said, would have done better to think before he spoke. "Of course it's demoralising," said Troop Serg-eant Andrew Wallbank, 36, a veteran of the first Gulf War. "It's demoralising when you think the British public is not with you. We can only do what the politicians tell us. We can't go on strike." Sgt Wallbank's wife and seven-year-old son live at the regimental base in Osnabruck, Germany. "It's hard," he said. "I have had a couple of letters from him saying, 'Why did you join the army?' It's hard for him that his dad is going away to war."

If there is a war against Saddam Hussein, these soldiers – all members of the Queen's Royal Lancers regiment – will be at the forefront of any attack, punching through Iraqi defences and hitting enemy tanks.

The young men admit to being nervous at the prospect but the worst thing is not knowing when they might be called upon. "It's one of the main worries," said Ritchie Smith, from Brigg, a 19-year-old with two years' service. "If we were told [we were going in] I would be happy to do so. It's not knowing that is so difficult."

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