Peter Rhodes recalls Christmas in a war zone and tidings of hope for the folk back home

Tidings of comfort and joy to you all. I recall a memorable yuletide years ago when I was sent to report on what we now call the First Gulf War.

RAF Stafford personnel returning from the Gulf War in 1991
RAF Stafford personnel returning from the Gulf War in 1991

The Coalition of 35 nations to liberate Kuwait was assembled. Operation Desert Storm, the unleashing of untold firepower on Saddam Hussein's forces was at hand. Christmas 1990 was a few days away.

As I reported then, the pre-battle mood among British forces in Bahrain was “neither maudlin nor fearful, but busy, purposeful and confident.” And yet there was apprehension. Saddam had one of the biggest armies in the world. The Brits were well within range of his Scud missiles.

Back home, families with loved ones serving in local units, including the Staffordshire Regiment, could only pray.

Their anguish was not helped by some of the media coverage. To the fury of troops on the ground, one national newspaper suggested thousands of British soldiers might be killed on the first day of the assault.

As Christmas approached, no family knew what each day would bring from the Gulf – Christmas cards or the dreaded notification of killed / wounded / missing.

And then suddenly, after much bad news and grisly speculation, came tidings if not of joy then at least of comfort.

A senior RAF commander told us how his crews had been awed by the size and power of the Coalition's US-led air armada. He predicted, confidently and on the record, that this war could be decided “in a matter of hours.” Events would prove him right. The land war lasted barely four days and miraculously, despite all the dire forecasts, only 47 of the 53,000 UK personnel deployed, were lost.

The RAF's dramatic declaration of optimism on that warm Arabian night was too late for Fleet Street's deadlines, so our London colleagues adjourned to a restaurant. But two of us provincial hacks raced across the city to a hotel, cadged a couple of typewriters and sent our dispatches in time for our early editions.

The next day our readers picked up their papers to learn that this bloody war might soon be over and, all being well, their lads would come safely home.

Over the years I've filed thousands of dispatches but none gave me more satisfaction than the night we faxed the good news from Bahrain to Blighty and sent a whisper of hope at Christmas.

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