British battalion 'attacked every day for six weeks'
By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent
An infantry battalion serving in Iraq has been awarded the dubious distinction of having been attacked more times than any British Army unit since the Korean War.
The officers and men of the 1st battalion of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment have been "in contact" with enemy forces on more than 250 separate occasions since they arrived in Iraq six weeks ago.
The regiment, which recruits troops from the southern Home Counties, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands, has sustained more than 40 casualties - 21 of whom have been evacuated back to Britain, where they are being treated for gunshot or shrapnel wounds in civilian hospitals.
Despite the number and ferocity of the attacks there have been no fatalities. The battalion of 700, which is based in a bombed-out former Iraqi army camp at Abu Naji, south of Al Amarah, in the Maysan province of southern Iraq, has been under daily mortar attack for the past six weeks.
The unit has also been ambushed, attacked with rockets and home-made bombs and has been repeatedly sniped at by Iraqi gunmen.
The area is a centre of anti-Coalition activity and is close to the town of Majar al-Kabir, where six members of the Royal Military Police were murdered by Iraqi gunmen last June.
The attacks are being carried out by "gangsters and terrorists" who are seeking to force Coalition troops to withdraw from the area. The Ministry of Defence has been unwilling to release details of the frequency and intensity of the attacks because of fears that the news could increase calls for troops to be withdrawn from Iraq.
Senior Army officers, however, by contrast believe that the fact that the unit can still function effectively is a reflection of the courage and professionalism of the troops in the battalion and that their actions should be commended publicly.
A senior military official said: "The battalion has had more than 250 contacts since they arrived in Iraq at the end of April. They have sustained casualties but they have shown tremendous grit and determination.
"They are being attacked virtually every day and sometimes several times a day, usually with rockets or from mortars. They are tired, primarily because the attacks mean sleep is constantly interrupted, but their morale is high."
Two weeks ago, 28 men from the battalion took part in a rout of Iraqi gunmen who had been terrorising the Route 6 motorway which links Al Amarah to Basra. The troops had been ordered to rescue two vehicles and their occupants from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which was ambushed by a group of 50 Iraqis.
The battle, one of three separate attacks against British troops in the area on the same day, ended when the soldiers fixed bayonets and stormed a series of enemy positions dug-in by the road-side. About 30 Iraqis were killed, 12 were captured and a further dozen are believed to have fled from the battlefield.
After the action, Capt Justin Barry, a military spokesman, said: "The fighters engaged were basically terrorists and gangsters - people who are out to destabilise the area, drive out the Coalition and suck as much out of Iraq as they can.
"But at the end of the day, we got the better of them. The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment were engaged in very heavy hand-to-hand fighting and bayonets were fixed. There's a great sense of satisfaction among the men with the way this turned out."
The level of anti-terrorist activity directed against British forces in the area has led to an additional 370 members of the 1st battalion of the Black Watch and Royal Engineers being deployed to help secure Route 6. Announcements on further troop deployments are expected in the next few weeks.
The last time a British regiment sustained such a high level of attacks was, according to military officials, during the Korean War, between 1950 and 1953, when British Army units were under sustained attack from Chinese and North Korean forces for weeks on end.
In military campaigns since the Korean War, such as the Falklands War, battles may have been bloodier with higher casualty levels but most lasted less than 24 hours. No Army unit since the Korean War has been under continuous daily attack for six weeks. In Iraq, after hostilities were officially declared to be "over" last May, the number of attacks against British units fell sharply.
Most units were told to expect between five and 10 "contacts" in a five-month tour, although that could rise to several a week in periods of high terrorist activity.
A "contact" is defined by the military as an encounter with the enemy and can include anything from a single round fired to a unit coming under artillery fire.
The Queen's Lancashire Regiment experienced a two-week period at the end of August last year when its troops were under attack almost daily. Several soldiers were injured and Capt Dai Jones was killed when the vehicle he was travelling in was destroyed by a mine.