CHINOOKS from RAF Odiham have been in the thick of the action as British and American forces charge towards Baghdad in a bid to topple Saddam Hussein.

Twenty helicopters and about 650 crew from RAF Odiham are helping in the war on Iraq.

On Monday a spokeswoman for RAF Odiham said the Chinooks were supporting ground troops throughout the Gulf region.

“They are carrying out numerous tasks including the transportation of troops and equipment,” she said.

“They are a vital element in the support of current ground operations.”

Disaster struck the war effort when an RAF Tornado GR4 bomber was accidentally shot down by an American Patriot missile battery close to the Kuwaiti border as it returned from a successful sortie.

“The cause of the incident involving the GR4 is currently unknown,” said the RAF Odiham spokeswoman.

“RAF aircraft are fitted with a Secure Identification Friend or Foe Transponder which is designed to identify the aircraft to incoming defences.

“This is one of many means of identifying inbound aircraft.

“No system is 100% foolproof but the UK’s combat ID capability is as effective as possible and is compatible with, and comparable to, our allies’.”

Five RAF Odiham-based Chinook helicopters are in the Gulf aboard HMS Ark Royal, while last week another 15 were operating in Kuwait moving British troops and equipment towards the Iraqi border.

The highly versatile helicopters will be involved in front line action and have also been helping to transport vital back-up crew such as technicians, logisticians, refullers, caterers and medics.

They have also helped transport air traffic controllers, along with engineers to build hard standings for aircraft and to carry out any repairs and replacements.

About 60 women from RAF Odiham are in the Gulf.

Most of the crew have been away from RAF Odiham for about six weeks, putting pressure on their families who are eagerly waiting for their safe return.

“There is obvious concern among the families at RAF Odiham and the thoughts of all concerned are with the families and colleagues of those injured or killed at the weekend,” said the RAF Odiham spokeswoman.

“RAF Odiham has a strong welfare package in place which offers support 24 hours, seven days a week.

“The families are regularly updated with news from theatre and weekly briefings provide an opportunity to meet and discuss issues with their peers.”

Officer Commanding Administration at RAF Odiham, Wing Commander Sheila Haughton, said the base also keeps families updated with newsletters giving details of forthcoming events and important contact numbers, as well as news from loved ones and an insight into life in the desert and on board ship.

The station is also busy setting up a help scheme manned by volunteers from those left behind to help with tasks such as shopping and cutting lawns.

Local schools have also been doing all they can to make life as smooth as possible as the war on Iraq rages.

About 35% of pupils at Mayhill County Junior School in The Bury, Odiham, are from RAF families.

Headteacher John Gawthorpe said as well as keeping an eye on any change in pupils’ behaviour, the school has also made its computer suite available to RAF families so they can e-mail loved ones, and opened its staff room as a drop-in centre.

The Ministry of Defence has issued helpline numbers for worried families of British troops in the Gulf.

Families of RAF personnel can contact 0845 780 0900, the number for the Army is 019 8061 5500 and the Royal Navy and Royal Marines number is 0845 741 4544.