RAF Odiham moved on to a war footing last week as 620 of the base’s 1,800 staff prepared for the possibility of front line action in Iraq.

With conflict seemingly more inevitable by the day it was announced at a press conference on Friday that 20 Chinooks from Odiham are heading off to Kuwait.

Five are already in the Gulf aboard HMS Ark Royal and the rest will follow over the next few days.

They will be joined by seven Army Air Corps 657 Sqn Lynx helicopters stationed at Odiham and seven Pumas from 33 Sqn based at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire — part of the UK’s contribution of around 100 aircraft and 42,000 personnel.

Some of the Odiham Chinooks will be carried to the Gulf on ships, others on aircraft from RAF Brize Norton, and the rest will fly out directly from Odiham to Kuwait.

Wing Cmdr Sean Reynolds, a veteran of action in Afghanistan, will take command of the RAF Odiham airmen.

He told the press conference he was yet to receive instructions, but his team were fully trained and raring to go.

They are ready to be involved in front line action plus the transporting of vital back-up crew such as technicians, logisticians, refuellers, caterers and medics.

“We have to be self-sufficient out there,” he said.

“We have to operate as we would here on the base and all those people will be needed, along with air traffic controllers plus engineers to build hard standings for the aircraft and to carry out any repairs and replacements.

“With no wish to be over-gloomy, people get killed and we have to have enough staff to keep everything going.”

Wing Cmdr Reynolds said a “significant proportion” of the men from 7 Sqn, 18 Sqn and 27 Sqn from Odiham had previous experience of conflict in Sierra Leone and Afghanistan and were familiar with the hot and dusty conditions they will face.

Asked what morale was like on the base, Wing Cmdr Reynolds said: “It’s pretty good. This is what we are trained to do. This is quite a challenge and when you are presented with an opportunity to test yourself, well, that is what you want.

Nobody wants to be left behind if all your friends are going out there. You want to be a part of that.”

Each Chinook will contain two pilots and two crewmen when they depart from Odiham. However, each is equipped to carry up to 44 people with a capacity for lifting 800 tons of equipment.

Around 60 women are heading to the Gulf from Odiham.

The Odiham commitment will include air crew, ground engineers, suppliers, logis-ticians, medics and communi-cations staff.

Ironically most of Cmdr Reynolds’ 27 Sqn are not earmarked to take part this time.

Defence secretary Geoff Hoon told MPs in the House of Commons on Thursday that the RAF was making a substantial contribution to the “building of a credible threat of force”.

He said the RAF can be expected to play a significant part in the opening phase of the campaign but he stressed that the forces were flexible and would be able to carry out humanitarian operations if required.

It was still possible for Saddam Hussein to disarm peacefully, he said, but time was running out.

“The Iraqi regime must decide whether it will comply with its obligations or face the consequences,” he said.

When the 20 Odiham Chinooks are in the Gulf there will be 12 or 13 on the base ready for normal duties.

Of those staff not going to the Gulf, 120 are on standby for putting out fires in the UK as back-up during the firemen’s strike.