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When I was asked to attend a ‘Nuclear, Biological and Chemical’ training course in January 2003, I realized that my name was clearly in the frame to become an ‘embedded journalist’ in a possible war with Iraq. By early March we knew it was happening and the BBC’s mighty logistical wheels started to turn.  Tents, sleeping bags, satellite dishes, radio equipment, sat phones, food, water, tape stock, editing packs, camera’s, safety gear - it was all arriving in Kuwait City and quickly filling up the trailers in our 4x4 convoy.

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Stage One was setting up the ‘Forward Transmission Unit or FTU’ camp in the Kuwaiti desert just south of the Iraqi border. The BBC group was ten in total with slightly smaller teams from ITN, Sky and CNN. From there we embarked on a punishing routine of providing television and radio packages including ‘lives’ around the clock. Then it started with the first incoming ‘Scud’ missile on the afternoon of March 19th. At that point we didn’t know if anything chemical or biological was attached to the missile tip so it was a truly terrifying experience. The car horn started honking and that was the signal to get our gas mask on in 9 seconds then run to the bunker and get our protective suits on within 60. 

It was chaos every time with one ITN correspondent making a run for it without detaching himself from the ‘live’ mics and earpiece first. He brought the whole camera and tripod smashing to the ground resulting in a very grumpy cameraman.

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Over the next few days the ‘scud’ alerts were relentless. On one day I counted 13 and we only just got our One o’clock News package on air. I remember our team leader Andrew Roy saying in his calm Kiwi accent  “Just end it there and pull it”, it was probably one of the shortest edits I’ve ever done. Exhaustion soon set in with alerts running all day and into the night. I resorted to sleeping in my suit and gas mask at the bottom of the pitch-black bunker in the vain hope of some rest. However the sporadic influx of colleagues, tripping over me as I tried to sleep soon saw and end to that idea.

After roughly a week we got the order to move into Iraq. It took several hours to de-rig the camp, whilst being constantly shouted at by our Territorial Army minders; military folk don’t give orders any other way.  They’re dismay at our disorganization was etched across their faces. Then disaster, a massive sandstorm hit and we were grounded for 24 hours with little protection. Our tents had been packed; in fact everything was packed so we just huddled beside the vehicles on a few camp chairs. Eventually the winds died down and it was deemed safe enough to set off, we were after all a massive convoy of land rovers, 4x4’s and trucks by this point. 

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Our new home was an old UN base a few miles south of Basra. It had a watch tower and Hesco bastion stacked several meters high. But there wasn’t much room so our tents were now squeezed around the base walls, tents pitched side by side. My neighbor was the lovely ITN correspondent Tim Ewart who was very welcome; it was just his snoring that wasn’t! Oh well, who needs sleep...in fact we got very little so it hardly mattered.  Then came the ‘grab for land’ as each broadcaster claimed a room (or two!) to edit in and store equipment. At this point I was starting to lose my rag, I was exhausted and trying to bring some order to everything but it was hopeless.

 In the end I just let my colleagues throw their bags into a pile and then smiled when they complained they could find their ‘laptop’, ‘microphone’, ‘stash of pens’, ‘wet wipes’, ‘jelly beans’.... endless!


Now we were in Iraq I expected our roles to switch to doing mainly ‘lives’. Near Basra the BBC had a correspondent and cameraman embedded with 3 Para (Jeremy Cooke & Andrew ‘Sarge’ Herbert) and 40 Commando (Clive Myrie and Darren ‘DC’ Conway). They were expected to send their news footage and packages back via the new TVZ ‘store and forward’ systems using geo stationary satellites. However no one had anticipated that the American’s would block all communications satellites except their own.  At the FTU, we had our own miracle workers in the shape of satellite engineers Harvey and Martin so suddenly we were called on to provide TV & radio packages as well as ‘lives’.  But the one problem was transport. All of the broadcasters were reliant on the TA to escort us around and they were very reluctant to take us anywhere near any actual fighting. Realizing we needed wheels, and armored ones at that, a message was sent to the BBC team in Kuwaiti City. The next day the armored wheels arrived, driven by security adviser Jed and finally we were allowed off the lead!  

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Numerous filming trips to the port of Um Qasr and the outskirts of Basra followed. When word reached us that the Basra Technical College was under attack. Correspondent Ben Brown and I set off. As we approached we could see the British tanks maneuvering down the dual carriageway towards the city then positioning themselves on the scrubland in between. Smoke was rising urgently from the College building; it had obviously just been hit. I quickly started filming out of the sunroof of the armored and captured another volley of shells as they hit.  Then everything was quiet. It stayed that way for several hours.

I went for a wander to see how close I could get. A huddle of photographers caught my eye...ah, the ‘Bang Bang’ club.  A well-known group of photographers working mostly for the tabloids, all very ruthless in their quest to photograph the horror of war. After all, that was what their editors back in London demanded. They were gathered around a mound of earth. My approach revealed a mangled and bloody Iraqi body, he laid akwardly at the bottom of a ditch, his Kalashnikov lay beside him. He’d clearly taken a direct hit from a shell. The photographers were all snapping away, the shutter clicks mirroring the sound of gunfire. This was the first dead body I had ever seen in a war zone so I was paralyzed for a moment. Seconds later autopilot kicked in and I started filming. I’m not sure why. I knew that the images would be too gory to be transmitted. But I was there to record events, history as it was happening so that’s what I did. I moved around the ditch to get different camera angles. Suddenly I’m being yelled at by the Bang Bang’s, “get out the way, you’re in our shot”. I was out numbered; there was six or seven of them and just me doing video. There’s a pack mentality in this business and they knew they were Alpha in that situation. I moved out the way without argument, it was probably the last time I would ever do so without protest but it felt appropriate at the time.  I moved away.... right away, away from the whole distasteful scene.  

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A few hours later a local man approached the British troops, his arms out stretched in a plea for help. His brother had been caught in the crossfire while he tired to change a tyre. Through an Army interpreter he explained that he wanted to recover the body but needed a ceased fire to do so. The Brits agreed so he walked off with another relative and a make shift stretcher. 

I filmed from a distance as they headed back, a lank arm hanging down from the stretcher. When we got back to base there was much discussion, could we show this on the Six o’clock news, should we show this...most of us felt we should, we had to. Up until then the audience in the UK had been protected from the realities of war, it was time they saw for themselves. But for the ‘Six’ it had to be an image that wasn’t too horrific. The bosses back in Britain made the call, it was on the SIX with a ‘before the watershed’ warning. It was the first transmitted footage showing a dead body and about time. The one thing I hate is not showing people what is really happening, if you don’t then nothing changes. 

A few days later Ben and I were back on the frontline. It was still in the same position but it felt different this time. Soldiers were crouched behind sand ‘burns’, tanks dotted out ahead. There had been a lot of fighting earlier in the day but it was quieter now. Ben, Jed and I approached a young Private and he was happy to be interviewed. As he told us how quiet it had been and nothing much was happening, the sound of an incoming shell filled our ears. The soldier started to yell “incoming, incoming” then a loud bang. Jed then shouted “ in the ditch, in the ditch”. Ben and I ran towards where he was pointing. It wasn’t a particularly deep ditch but it was better than nothing. Luckily for us the shell landed in the marsh beside the road and produced nothing more than a muddy eruption.  Fifteen meters closer it would have hit the tarmac road right next to us. That would have been a life changing, if not life-ending event for sure. We were very lucky. Of course I had been filming during the whole thing so Ben was thrilled that we had a bit of drama for his Ten o’clock package.... that’s the news business!

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Then the day came, Basra was to finally fall. Ben, Jed and I were out in the armored again. We spotted soldier’s spread out and walking down one of the main routes into town. Was this the big push, were they going to meet resistance? We slowly followed them as they marched along. Jed was driving; I was sat in the back on one side with Ben on the other. As we glided along I was straining to see out the tiny window above and behind Ben’s head. Suddenly a group of crouching soldiers came into view, then two very familiar faces. It was Jeremy Cooke and Andrew ‘Sarge’ Herbert. They were with 3 Para. 

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As I looked in amazement, Sarge spotted me through the window. To this day the image of him flicking the middle finger at me is still vivid in my mind. But I totally, instantly understood.  He and Jeremy had spent weeks in the desert, digging sleeping holes in the rock hard ground, coping with the lack of food, water, sleep, plus barely getting a frame of footage on air. They both looked like shit and no wonder.   And to then add insult to injury along we come in our 'fancy' armoured car and ruin any chance of an exclusive. (yes there's competition within the BBC as well as with rival broadcasters)

We watched as they marched off, by now well aware that there would be no big, final ‘exclusive’ gun battle. Their weeks in the desert with just one battalion was always a gamble, unfortunately for them, it didn’t pay off.

We immediately stopped and got out. We offered them water; they could only carry so much on top of all the technical gear. We sat and chatted for a while, it was the first contact they had had with BBC colleagues in over a month. Then 3 Para were on the move again. I offered Sarge a bottle of water but he declined, he just couldn’t carry it. 

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The BBC's Jeremy Cooke and cameraman Andrew 'Sarge' Herbert

We pushed on into the center of town. The front section of 3 Para were already there. Some locals stood watching and bemused from street corners and doorways as soldiers walked along their pavements. But many people just continued with their normal business. A woman in a black hijab wandered past as a kneeling soldier waved her through, but she was seemingly oblivious to his presence. We moved on to Saddam’s Palace, the Marines had set up camp in its glorified rooms; a union jack had already been hung. The feeling was one of victory. But it didn’t look that way a few days later. Riots and looting erupted across Basra and the mood quickly changed. 

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Back at the camp we got a warning. An Iraqi man had turned up at the gates claiming to be from the local village. He said he had heard that men loyal to Saddam were planning to attack us the next day. It could have been an empty threat but we couldn’t take the risk. The decision to leave came quickly. A mad scramble to pack everything eschewed and by dusk our press corps was heading south to Kuwait. Although we knew the story of the Iraq war would continue, and indeed I would be back again in Basra a year later, at the time we were all rather relieved. We were so tired, dirty and in need of a hot shower that the Hilton Hotel had never received such thankful guests. As I stood in the shower, a layer of sand slowly built up below. When I dried off I realized I hadn’t been properly clean for weeks and blimey, did I sleep well that night!

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The Battle for Basra

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