AS our Puma military helicopter flew low over Baghdad, the rear gunner scoured the city through the open side door – ever alert for potential danger.
Our 12km journey took us from Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) inside the city’s insecure Red Zone, to the British base, which lies within the boundaries of the protected International Zone.
Half an hour earlier, I had been strapped into a canvas seat, sandwiched in the middle of a row of soldiers, on a Hercules plane bound for Baghdad.
The city was in darkness when the Hercules landed at about 2am and within minutes, a Puma helicopter had dropped down from the night sky in a cloud of dust to collect us and take us to our final destination.
On arrival at the heavily fortified British camp, we were finally able to remove the body armour and helmets we had been wearing since leaving Kuwait.
For civilians like myself, this body armour weighs at least eight kilos – but this is nothing compared to the 18 kilo kit soldiers have to carry.
The camp, called Albert Lines, is home to the 140 British military personnel serving in Baghdad.
Accommodation here is basic, but comfortable, and there isn’t a vac-packed meal in sight.
The team of six chefs serve up a varied menu in the canteen every day – ranging from steak, sausages and curry to chocolate rice crispy cakes and cheese cake.
The 1st Battalion’s “A Company” has been in Baghdad since last November as part of Operation Telic 13 – the last operational tour of Iraq by British combat troops.
With the majority of British troops in Iraq serving in Basra, the 71 members of A Company are among only a handful of British soldiers to have experienced life in the capital city.
Private Daniel Shewan, from Tadcaster, is one of them and the 20-year-old said he felt proud to be here.
“Not many people can say they’ve been to Baghdad,” he said. “But I’ve got the T-shirt.”
The company’s main role in Baghdad is to protect senior military British representatives – namely Lieutenant General John Cooper, who retires shortly as deputy commander of all coalition forces in the country.
“We are allowing senior British people to engage at a very high level with their contemporaries within the Iraq security forces and the coalition – and that is an important job to be doing,” said Major Phil Bassingham-Searle, officer commanding of A Company.
“They need our support and protection and that is why the company is here.
“We guard the location where the General and his support staff live and we protect him when he goes out and about doing his daily business.
“We are also on show as the only British troops in Baghdad – we are representing the British Army here.”
Running the gauntlet in danger zone
During my first day in Baghdad, I was lucky enough to join a convoy of Vector armoured vehicles as they ventured out into the Red Zone to collect the General from a meeting at BIAP.
“In the past, this route – Route Irish – had a bit of a reputation for being one of the most dangerous in the world in terms of attacks on coalition troops and insurgent attacks on vehicles,” Captain Laurence Roche, from Harrogate, told me.
“But the number of roadside bombs and coordinated attacks from insurgents has died down quite a lot in the past few months.”
As we trundled in convoy down Route Irish, two gunners on top scanned the roadside and nearby roof tops for any signs of roadside bombs or insurgents.
When I had the chance to poke my head out the top of the Vector, I discovered a city that has suffered from years of neglect and bombings.
It is a city overshadowed by wasteland and derelict buildings and the silence was also striking.
The hustle and bustle that characterises most capital cities was unmistakably absent and although Iraqi soldiers could be seen patrolling the route, civilians were few and far between.
Route Irish is the main road from the BIAP to the International Zone and all supplies have to come this way.
Although the security threat has significantly improved in recent months, the American Army still searches the route four times a day looking for roadside bombs.
Acting platoon commander Sergeant Duncan Simms said: “The Iraqi Army and police service have more or less taken over security here and these days the threat is more to them than to the British military.
“But we still have to be professional to do the job we have been brought here to do and we take the risks seriously.”
For me, professional is the very word that sums up all members of the Yorkshire Regiment I have met here in Baghdad – and their families back home in York and other parts of the county should be proud at the crucial role they are playing in getting the city back on its feet.