Mission still uncertain as troops set off for Gulf
By Michael Smith, Defence Correspondent
(Filed: 11/01/2003)


The Government will announce the deployment of British ground troops to the Gulf next week when tanks from 1 (UK) Armoured Division are due to begin loading on ferries in Germany bound for Kuwait.

But amid continuing Government dithering, it remains uncertain whether they will be used during an American-led war or held back for peacekeeping.

The decision to take members of 16 Air Assault Brigade off firefighting duty suggests that they and the Royal Marine commandos, who leave for the Gulf next week, will form the main British ground force.

The advantage is that they respond more quickly to a changing diplomatic situation and are not so obviously belligerent. "If you put commandos on board ships you are showing force of intent but if you send out tanks you are showing intent of force," one defence source said. "It is just a nuance but in the current circumstances it is important."

Only 100 Royal Marine commandos will be on board when Ark Royal sails but up to 3,000 will eventually join the task group. The aircraft carrier will set sail for the Gulf today without any aircraft, because of problems with the engines on its six Harrier GR7s. It will sail first to Scotland to take on ammunition before working up in the Western Approaches.

However, it was loaded with 144,000 bars of chocolate, 100,000 cigarettes and 36,000 cans of beer. Captain Alan Massey, the Ark Royal's captain, said: "They should keep us going for at least the first week at sea but then we may have to start on the crisps."

The carrier Ocean is expected to sail on Thursday to join Ark Royal and the rest of the task group which includes four escort ships: the destroyers Liverpool, Edinburgh and York and the frigate Marlborough, as well as a nuclear submarine equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

The task group will form up in the South-western Approaches on Friday before sailing to the eastern Mediterranean for an amphibious exercise. It will then sail to the Gulf and join the destroyer Cardiff, the frigate Cumberland and four Royal Navy minehunters.

Capt Alan Massey said yesterday he had warned his crew that they could play a leading role if Britain and America decide to attack Iraq.

"You always hope for the best," he said. "But you are prepared for the worst and this ship is ready for war. Everyone on board is aware of the prospect of being called into live operations and the ship is coiled like a spring ready for action."

Lt-Col Ben Curry of the Royal Marines said the commandos provided a very flexible force. "The enemy knows we can be on his doorstep in hours."
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