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Ross’ Dirty War

Sky News correspondent, Ross Appleyard has just returned from the War in Iraq.

Here is his story of life under fire in the desert where sleep was rare and a wash unheard of.

While planning its war coverage Sky News came up with the idea of a Maverick team in Iraq.

We would be working outside the security of the coalition forces as unilateral journalists therefore we would have to take care of ourselves unlike the ‘Embeds’ who had the full force of the British or American troops behind them.

But everything was done to make the operation as safe as possible. We all had full combat and chemical warfare training before we left. In addition, an ex-special forces soldier called John was assigned to the team to babysit us and stop us plunging headlong into the Iraqis or stepping on landmines.

We had several clear objectives. The first was to broadcast live from Iraq before anyone else once the land war had begun.

To that end we hired a farm near the border beyond the interminable Kuwaiti checkpoints so we would be in a good position to cross into Iraq soon after the soldiers. It worked.

Terrifying

While other journalists languished in Kuwait unable to get past the military police we were ready to cross the border and soon found ourselves in the small town of Safwan a few hours after the ground forces moved in.

The first night was, quite frankly, terrifying.

We had assumed, wrongly, that the troops had taken Safwan and routed the Iraqi Army there but the battle was raging all around us.

We set up the cameras on the roof of a garage and filmed the battle for Safwan live.

During forty minutes of broadcasting we watched the artillery blast Iraqi positions before Cobra helicopter gunships took their turn and finally the infantry moved in to accept the surrender of the remaining forces.

Gas masks

That night as we camped by the side of the road an American Humvey approached our vehicle and two marines screamed at us to get our hands in the air.

They were lost, fully dressed in NBC suits with gas masks and were so scared they were shaking.

They didn’t seem to want to believe we were journalists and demanded our accreditation at gunpoint.

After what seemed like hours they shouted at us to keep our hands on our heads and stay in the light of the headlights.

Eventually one marine said, “Sir, do you know where Route 80 is?”

“That’s one hell of a way to ask for directions,” I answered before telling him he was in fact on Route 80.

Terry Lloyd

The next day we arrived at a crossroads at about the same time ITN’s Maverick crew led by Terry Lloyd.

We decided the road to Basra looked too quiet and headed for Baghdad tagging on to a military convoy.

Terry, a fantastic reporter and a good friend, went on to Basra. It was the last time anyone saw him alive. He was tragically trapped in crossfire.

Terry’s death shocked and upset us all but we were confident that the expertise of John who had fought in the first Gulf War would keep us safe. He knew how far to push ahead and when to seek solace among friendly Marines.

Schoolboys

On the journey north we stopped alongside a tank battalion and asked if we could camp for the night. We had to abide by strict military rules – no talking – no lights etc but that was a small price to pay for the security of sleeping in the midst of row upon row of Abrams tanks.

John had impressed on us the need for complete silence so we couldn’t help giggling like schoolboys when he inadvertently leaned on the car horn as he searched for his sleeping bag.

Further up the road we latched onto the first British troops we’d seen. A battery of field guns attached to the Parachute Regiment was setting up a gun line just south of Nasariyah and they invited us to join them for the night.

We filmed as they undertook their fire missions and the noise was incredible. In the middle of the night they took incoming mortar rounds and we all had to dive into an old Iraqi trench for cover.

Sandstorm

The morning brought a huge sandstorm that blasted dust into our faces and made life pretty miserable.

By late afternoon we managed to get our tents up and crawled inside for respite from the hundred mile an hour winds. Despite the noise of the wind and heavy guns we were exhausted and fell asleep only to be wakened a short time later by torrential rain.

The wadi where we’d taken shelter had become a small lake and the tents floated under three feet of water.

At first light we moved on again and did a series of live broadcasts while watching the battle for Nasariyah.

A small group of Marines took pity on us and let us stay the night close to their first aid post. At six o’clock a Major came over and said he had intelligence reports that a thousand Iraqis were mustering close by and would attack within the hour.

Rocket propelled grenades

The hundred or so Marines around the camp looked nervous but we must have looked terrified.

The night sky was suddenly lit by flares. Rocket propelled grenades and heavy machine gun fire flew across our tents. There was no time to put the satellite dish up but I described the battle on the phone live into Sky News.

I could hear a series of metallic thuds coming from the car beside me. I turned around expecting to see bullets hitting the metal but found Jamie, one of the cameramen, trying to burrow under the car. Unfortunately his helmet wouldn’t fit and he was banging it against the sill.

The Iraqis withdrew but we were left with another night without sleep.

No one seemed to be going north of Nasariyah, it was a major stumbling block for the coalition forces and they couldn’t secure the roads around the town.

The many battles provided spectacular backdrops for live broadcasts but we were getting rundown by the lack of sleep and the attention of millions of sandflies that left your arms and legs swollen and itchy.

toilet roll and shovel

Sanitation too was a problem.

We hadn’t washed for three weeks and going to the toilet consisted of a very public stroll into the desert with a toilet roll in one hand and a shovel in the other.

The last straw for me came shortly after the battle for the camp. Tired, dirty and sore I crawled into my tent determined to get some sleep.

In the middle of the night there was a huge crash and I woke to find someone grappling with me. I thought the Iraqis had overrun the camp and peered out through my broken and ripped tent.

“I can’t believe I did that sir,” said the Marine who was standing to attention at my feet. He’d tripped over the guy rope and smashed my tent to pieces.

We had taken provisions for ten days and were now well into our third week on the road. I decided enough was enough and we should head back to Kuwait.

Live surrender

Our war was drawing to a close and the Maverick team had achieved all of its main objectives. We even had an Iraqi soldier surrender to us live on air.

I phoned my wife to tell her I was coming home.

“Oh good,” she said. “I’ll book a family holiday. Perhaps somewhere hot with a nice beach,” she mused.

“Not bloody likely, how about Iceland?” I replied grumpily.

Credit: This Article was taken from the Sky News Website. Thank you

Updated: Thursday 10 April 2003