Desert Storm Part Two: The Cold War

Capt Tim Purbrick 17th_21st Lancers

It is 25 years since the 1991 Gulf War when British troops contributed (OP GRANBY) to the successful Allied operation which prevented Saddam’s invasion of Saudi Arabia (DESERT SHIELD) and then liberated Kuwait (DESERT STORM).

Capt Tim Purbrick commanded a Troop of Challenger Main Battle Tanks during the 1991 Gulf War. This blog is written from his diaries, notebooks and a tape recording he made during the war.

The blog will follow his work up to the war and then the war itself, day by day 25 years on.


The Cold War

It wasn’t long before I was on the European motorway system making my way to Munster in Westphalia. A very Catholic city which Hitler had trouble with during his 13 year Reich. It was a rich source of good German beer. The officers of the 17th/21st Lancers frequented Sthulmachers bar in central Munster’s cobbled streets. The kaffee und kuchen – coffee and cake – shops, smart clothes shops and restaurants were evocative of a bygone era, more like Vienna before the Great War than northern West Germany in the 1980s. Altbierbowle – a glass of beer with fruit ladled into it – was a favourite of mine in the bars of the student quarter of Munster. It sounds disgusting but has to be tasted to be believed.

The 17th/21st Lancers was based in Swinton Kaserne (Barracks), on the south east edge of the city. All the buildings on the barracks were cream coloured bungalows, probably built for temporary use in the 1950s and still being occupied in the thirty years later. Armed sentries guarded the gates and patrolled the interior. There was a strong Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) threat as well as the Soviet and Warsaw Pact. The Regiment was part of 4th Armoured Brigade.

I was a Troop Leader of three Challenger Main Battle Tanks in A Squadron commanded by Major Marriott. Major Marriot’s right hand man was the Squadron Sergeant Major (SSM), Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Needle. Together, they made a great pairing. With similar outlooks, ideas and standards, they ran Squadron Headquarters. On my first evening in Munster I found a note from Major Marriot in my room in the Officers Mess. It was a series of squiggles which, in time, I was able to regularly decipher. The squiggles ordered me to appear at the Squadron’s First Parade at 0815hrs the following morning.

Generally, all a junior officer was expected to do was show up to First Parade and attend coffee in Regimental Headquarters at 1100hrs. If you were in the Mess for the evening, we had to put a suit on for dinner and come to a pre-dinner drink in the anteroom and then dinner in the dining room with the table lined with Regimental silver – it’s how you get a sense of your family history. The Tank Park rumour was that most young officers spent their days lying on their beds in the Mess listening to loud music.

For the soldiers, their view was that this was probably the safest place for some young officers. I enjoyed being down on the Tank Park with my 11 soldiers and three Challengers, wearing a set of scruffy green tank coveralls helping out with maintenance on our vehicles. A soldier who had been sent to find me saw a pair of legs sticking out of the driver’s cab. The normal way to attract the attention of someone on a tank is to rap the door knocker, otherwise known as one of the towing points on the front of the glacis plate of the tank. When I answered that I was the Troop Leader, the word went around the Tank Park about the officer in 1st Troop, A Squadron being a) caught on the Tank Park, b) caught wearing coveralls and c) caught actually doing something to a tank.

The Challenger was a 62 ton mobile pill box dressed in secret Chobham armour. It had a 120mm rifled barrel through which the war ammunition was Armoured Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) for taking out A-vehicles such as tanks and armoured personnel carriers, and High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) for taking out B-vehicles such trucks or for hitting infantry positions. The bomb load was of mixed natures of this ammunition. A 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) was mounted co-axially, or alongside, the main armament, known as the co-ax and a further 7.62mm GPMG was mounted in front of the commander’s hatch.

1st Tp A Sqn 17_21L in a Tp hide in a back street of a West German village

1st Troop, A Squadron, 17th/21st Lancers parked up and completely blocking a village street on a major exercise in West Germany

There were four crewmen. The commander, the gunner, the loader/operator and the driver. Commanders had to pass the Crew Commander’s course which young officers did as part of their Special to Arm training and which was a big step in a soldier’s career, usually wrapped up with a promotion and more pay.

The Troop Leader, call sign 10 – one-zero, for 1st Troop Leader, so four-zero was 4th Troop Leader – was usually an officer but could also be a Staff Sergeant. The Troop Sergeant, call sign 11 – one-one – was a Sergeant, a very experienced and highly professional tactical tank warfare expert with a background in Gunnery, Signals or Driving and Maintenance (D&M). The Troop Corporal, call sign 12 – one-two – would be in his first command of a tank and would be aspiring to be promoted to Troop Sergeant. The loader/operator was responsible for loading the main armament and co-ax, for operating the radios and keeping us fed and watered. In the Troop Leader’s tank he could be a Lance Corporal or even a Corporal while in the other tanks all other members of the crew were Troopers.

The gunner was responsible for scanning the turret around the environment to check for enemy tanks and targets and for firing the main armament – although the commander could also do this from his crew position. The gunner occupied a very claustrophobic crew position at the commander’s feet where he sat and festered for days on end often being kicked in the back by the tank commander, both accidentally and on purpose.

The driver lived in the hull of the tank, separate from the other three crew members in the fighting compartment of the tank’s turret. With his hatch opened he could sit up and when closed down he lay down on his back. He steered using tillers or sticks mounted horizontally on either side of his seat that he pulled or pushed, a semi-automatic gearbox with an accelerator and brake. Under his right foot was a Rolls-Royce CV12 26 litre, 1,200 bhp engine which could get the tank up to 35mph, or 56km/h, with a range of more than 400 miles using 1,500 litres of diesel. That too was a pretty grungy place to be, cut off, hemmed in and awkward or almost impossible to get in and out of in any position unless the gun (read turret) was over the side of the vehicle. Safety switches around the tank were there to prevent anyone turning the turret around and cutting the driver in half as he climbed out of his hole.

Obviously, we got to use our tanks, occasionally. Once a year there was a Firing Camp and once a year there was a major exercise. Every few years we would go to the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) in Alberta, Canada where we conducted dry and live firing exercises in a much more realistic setting than the ranges in West Germany or the exercise areas or major exercises amongst the people. Firing Camp was the Gunnery God’s heaven. Gunnery appeared to involve a lot of pointless shouting at one another, strange sewn-in creases on tank coveralls, before eventually pulling the trigger and, hopefully, killing the dangerous cardboard target. This involved both static and moving firing, though hitting anything on the move was more luck than judgment given that the gun was not stabilized.

Doing well at Firing Camp marked a Regiment out and the 17th/21st Lancers always came first in BAOR. There was always a huge amount of time spent in the Gunnery Training Simulator (GTS) getting the procedures right and practicing the crews. Small scale exercises took place on military training areas. Dorbaum was a very small area near Munster, known mainly for its polo field, which we used to drive out to and back – when we were allowed the track mileage to do so. Track mileage was our bugbear. Driving tanks around wore out parts and cost money so the bean counters didn’t actually like us to use our toys that much. There were constant restrictions on track mileage. Soltau was an 11,000 acre training area on the Lunenburg Heath in Lower Saxony where we were allowed unrestricted access and could practice limited deployments. Hohne Dry was another we used. It was known as Dry because it was otherwise in use as an impact area – Wet, I guess. Bergen-Hohne was home to a number of British units who regularly used the 70,000 acres available. These larger training areas all involved en-training the tanks and bussing the troops up to the exercise areas to meet the tanks at the railhead.

Swinton Barracks in a photo taken from an RAF Puma returning from a Recce Tp ex with 21 SAS. Note the Officers Mess building just above the football pitches

Swinton Barracks, Munster, 1990. Taken from a RAF Puma helicopter on return from a Recce Tp exercise.

The most enjoyable exercises in Germany were the major exercises which saw us deploy into West Germany and use the whole countryside including towns and villages, fields and farms, woods and rivers as our exercise area. It was incredible but it was also important. We were training over the areas that we would have to defend if 3rd Shock Army of the Group of Soviet Forces Germany had decided to make a run for the Channel ports. On Scheme, as the exercises were sometimes known, we would bivvy up in farm yards.

Taking a Regiment or even a Squadron of tanks across a field of crops or down a farm access track would utterly destroy it. Major exercises were seriously expensive. My uncle had been up for taking the Regiment across an asparagus field and destroying it, costing £21,000. Although this would be a fairly run of the mill event on a major exercise, the underlying offence was that he had got the whole Regiment to write to their MPs to complain about the reduction in the Local Overseas Allowance (LOA), a balancing mechanism which meant that soldiers could keep pace with the higher West German living standards. The chain of command supplied two charges for this offence, one was for destroying the asparagus field and the other for being drunk on a military flight. The latter was the product of an RAF no alcohol policy on their flights to Canada.

Uncle Reggie had a hip flask and this led to the charge. He was relieved of his command. On my Special to Arm course at Bovington a soldier from another cavalry Regiment approached me to ask if I was related to Colonel Purbrick. I said that I was. He held out his hand to shake mine. ‘Sir, I’d just like to shake your hand. Colonel Purbrick is a great bloke’. Quite some reputation and name to live up to.

Off the battlefield the 17th/21st Lancers Officers Mess had a reputation for playing as hard as we worked, and we universally acknowledged ourselves to be the finest cavalry Regiment in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).

On my first evening in Munster, as I was trying to decipher Major Marriott’s note, Freddie Elwes, a fellow Lieutenant who had been in the Regiment for a couple of years, breezed into my room and introduced himself. ‘You’ve been invited out to dinner this evening by a local German family.’ He announced. ‘I have?’ ‘And’, said Freddie, ‘I am coming too’. I had a fist full of names and addresses of all Uncle Reggie’s contacts – they were mainly Princes and Princesses in schlosses across West Germany – and I couldn’t quite believe that they already knew that I had arrived in Munster. It was only the next day that I found out that the only reason that I had been ‘invited’ was that Freddie had recently been banned from driving, speeding of course, and he needed a driver to get to the dinner where he was pursuing one of the daughters of the household. I was the new kid. I had a car.

I hadn’t been banned from driving. I would be his chauffeur. The German family were the Furstenburgs who lived near Glandorf. A beautiful family in a beautiful home. Gustav, the patriarch, ate cloves of garlic for breakfast, ran a gun making business and was what I imagined a proper Prussian gentleman to be – quite fierce to start with but, once he had the measure of you and you met his standards, a firm friend. Paula, the matriarch, became mein Deutsches mutter – my German mother.

Then there were the thousands of Furstenberg children. Tin – pronounced Teen, short for Christine – was the eldest, Franzi, was doing national service in a German Alpine Regiment, Carly, Resy, who wanted to become a nun and was an artist, Ann, Rosa and Yoshi was the youngest at 11 or so. They all became friends. Glandorf was some distance from Munster and you arrive at the house down a long drive through woods. Up stone steps and into a double height hall with a galleried staircase. As I had a British Racing Green soft top, V8 Triumph Stag there was a certain amount of instant kudos on arrival at the Furstenbergs. Its engine didn’t sound too far off a tank. I was sat opposite Ann at dinner, a devastatingly attractive, elfin faced and figured girl of 22. ‘So, I expect that you will be one of those typical British officers who runs back to their girlfriend in London every weekend,’ was her opening line in an almost cut glass English accent. Ann spoke better English than I did. ‘Actually, I am learning German, I’m here to enjoy Germany and I don’t have girlfriend in London.’

My German lessons were coming from the German Made Simple book and tapes – pretty basic but it showed willing. Even though I never got knackered driving back to London every weekend, as some did, I got knackered driving to and from Glandorf when I was lucky enough to go out with Ann myself. It didn’t last. When I impressed myself with the effort of flying down to Florence where she was doing a course, she dumped me on the Ponte Vecchio after a party.


Lt Tim Purbrick in pain, uphill skiing near Lillehammer in Norway

One of my first tasks in the Regiment was to build a floor to ceiling white rabbit head with light bulb eyes just inside the front door of the Mess. The Officers Mess was renowned throughout BAOR for our annual summer party. Invitations were highly sought after. Our summer 1988 party theme was Alice in Wonderland. It was all hands to the pump as the Mess was transformed from a boring, crumbling bungalow into a surreal Lewis Carroll theme park. Charlie Hamilton-Russell turned one room into an under sea experience. I looked at one of the fishes that he had painted and said that it looked like him. From then on Charlie was Russellfish or just Fish – even now he and his wife are known as the Fishes.

Everyone had nicknames – Fats, The Ox, Daffers, JimJam, Lettice, Dot, Arthur, Modo, The Emir, Gungy, Thugsley, Bugle, Modo, Roller, Stumpy, Kings Road, Whizzlong, and Twice. Like all Regimental dinners, the party started with a shot of Stolichnaya vodka and continued in the same vein until the early hours of the morning.

After a year as a Sabre Troop Leader in A Squadron, I was selected to be Recce Troop Leader. This was the top junior officer’s job in the Regiment and I was following Whizzlong who had taken me as his 2ic on the Regimental Cross Country Ski Team the winter before. Recce Troop not only had the best soldiers in the Regiment, we had a very different role as the eyes and ears of the Regiment and the personal toy of the Commanding Officer.

I was chuffed to land such a job after just a year in the Regiment. It also meant that I had to go back to Lulworth and Bovington for the Recce Troop Commander’s course to learn how to be a Recce commander and Troop Leader in the Scorpion light tank. The vehicle was made of aluminium and ran on petrol, not good as it goes bang and bursts into flames when hit. Tanks run on diesel. The Scorpion had been designed to fit down the narrow lanes of sugar plantations in Malaya and here we were 35 years later using it on the north German Plain. Armed with a 76mm gun and a machine gun, it had a turret that was turned by hand – get that after a Challenger’s electrically operated controls. It was very steam driven but it fabulous to have such a small, flexible, fast, Jaguar powered vehicle after a tank and an almost independent command within the Regiment.

Recce Troop Leader works directly for the Commanding Officer. My first CO was Lt Col Cumming. Occasionally, we practiced crashing out of the barracks to our wartime positions. Recce Troop would lead, sprinkling its eight Recce cars along the route the tanks would take, usually at key junctions, to make sure the beasts got to their positions in good order. One misty Westphalian winter night Recce Troop was lined up at the Regimental POL (Petrol, Oil and Lubricants) Point ready to roll out of the back gate at the appointed hour. At almost the last moment, I wondered if we should be masked up with our respirators. I couldn’t ask anyone over the radio as we were on strict radio silence.

The Sovs would have picked up our transmissions and got wind of what we were up to. As the seconds ticked down and with no time to leap across the POL point to ask my Troop Sergeant, I suddenly caught sight of a figure on the edge of the POL point. Ah, perhaps I could use him as a messenger. I waved him across. The figure stayed still. I waved again, a little more vigorously. The figure pointed at themselves as if to say ‘what, me?’ ‘Yes, of course, I bloody mean you, get over here’, I waved back. As the figure started to saunter slowly out of the mist I realised the error I had made. It was the CO. ‘How can I help?’ ‘Er, Colonel, apologies I did not see it was you. I wanted to check that the Troop knew that we had to mask up.’ ‘And you want me to tell them?’ ‘Er, Colonel, that would be very kind.’ The clock ticked past the deployment time as the CO wandered over to the next vehicle in the line. It was the moment that my Confidential Report took a nose dive. We deployed out of the barracks and down the road into another military complex. Only Recce Troop was deployed that night.

One thought on “Desert Storm Part Two: The Cold War

  1. Happy memories of Munster; was attached to the 17th/21st Lancers as a REME Gunfitter on my first tour of duty on the 6th of October, 1989. Many, many happy times were spent in Swinton Barracks with the lads of ‘C’ Sqn. One of the finest regiments I served with during nearly 12 years in the British Army. Makes me sad to look at what has become of Swinton Barracks these days.


Comments are closed.