Saturday, June 20, 2009
Deborah Haynes, Defence Correspondent
The Iraq mission is over for Britain’s combat troops, but hundreds of support soldiers are still hard at work destroying, selling or transporting out of the country six years of military kit, in a quiet reverse of the 2003 invasion.
It is the biggest logistical challenge that Group Captain Richard Hill, Deputy Commander of the Joint Force Logistic Component, has ever faced.
“Having the opportunity to bring the whole headquarters to do a theatre extraction and drawdown, that’s very interesting and rewarding,” he told The Times from a US camp in Kuwait, where the military removals force is based.
From Challenger tanks and Lynx helicopters to socks and boots, everything has to be accounted for. The 1,000-strong team dealt with equipment needed for combat missions in Afghanistan first, including Mastiff armoured vehicles and devices to counter the threat of roadside bombs.
British Forces have amassed mountains of gear since they rolled over the border from Kuwait in March 2003. If every ISO container was stacked on top of each other it would stand more than two and a half miles above the desert.
The majority of the equipment, including computers, tables, chairs, Land Rover Discoveries and tents, ended up at the Contingency Operating Base, a sprawling camp just outside Basra city, where thousands of US troops are now located after some 4,000 British forces pulled out.
In an operation dreamt up last summer and put into action earlier this year, the military assesses every item to decide what needs to be brought back to Britain or a British base in Germany, what can be left behind and what should be destroyed.
The 5,000 ISO containers, stacked up like Lego bricks at the Basra base, are central to the mission. However, it transpired that many had deteriorated over the years under the burning Iraqi sun. So, in a novel attempt to recoup cash, the logistics team filled some of these cast-offs with other unwanted items — such as army towels and rolls of barbed wire — and sold them though a private contractor at auction to local Iraqi businessmen.
The rest of the damaged ISO containers were sold for scrap metal. The military also flogged other piece of kit, such as a number of the Land Rover Discoveries and pick-up trucks, because it would have been more expensive to ship them back. In total, the troops raised more than £1 million through the sell-off.
The remainder of the gear, anything from generators to air-conditioned dog kennels, is bound for home. Night after night, long lines of convoys make the 185-mile journey from Basra to the Kuwaiti camp and then on to the port, laden with ISO containers packed with kit as well as trucks laden with combat vehicles.
Up until May 11, the convoys were run by the British military, but as troop numbers decline — there are only about 50 military personnel left in Basra — the remainder of the gear is hitching a ride with US convoys.
Even some helicopters are driven out by road. Warrior armoured vehicles are stripped down and loaded up. They are destined for Britain for a complete overhaul.
Members of the logistics team in Kuwait go through the containers, assessing the kit before it is loaded into cargo ships — private roll-on-roll-off ferries rented by the Ministry of Defence.
In the latest departure, MV Hurst Point is due to dock in Marchwood next week after setting off from Shuaiba port in Kuwait at the start of the month. The ship is carrying 200 ISO containers packed with gear and 51 armoured vehicles.
Sergeant Justin Crocker, 28, from Wales, helps to load the vehicles on to the boats. “We just make sure that they get on the boat without any accidents,” he said, adding that each vessel takes about eight hours to load. Soldiers have to unload and check the kit inside the containers in temperatures up to 60C/140F.
“It is interesting. I have never done a tour like this,” Sergeant Crocker said. “It is a bit of a weird tour for us.”
In a symbol of the Iraq exit, British Forces handed back the sand-coloured stone building that served as their headquarters in Basra for the past six years to the Iraqi authorities on Monday. It is one of the last British-occupied buildings in the south to be returned.
“I am not a sentimental chap,” said Group Captain Hill, who attended the handover. “It was the final act as far as the Iraqis were concerned of the British Forces’ extraction from Iraq.”
The building, which is situated close to Basra airport, is expected to be converted into a hotel or a conference centre.