Desert Storm Part Three: Northern Ireland

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.


Northern Ireland

I was on a short service commission when I joined. But, it was still the era when the Army wanted officers to convert to Regular commissions, a career to 55 years old. If only the individuals could be persuaded. Capt Hughes, the Adjutant, the CO’s right hand man and a Captain like me, but the most senior one in the Regiment, summoned me to see the CO. ‘We would like you to become a Regular officer,’ said Col Cumming. This statement was also a hanging question.

As a cavalry Regiment most of my brother officers rode horses, and polo ponies in particular. Having spent a year cattle mustering during my year off in the Northern Territory and along the Snowy River Australia, I preferred 62 tons which did what it was told rather than 1 ton which semi-thought for itself. Other young officers’ answer to this hanging question usually went along the lines of ‘Colonel, I am honoured to be asked. I would love to become a Regular officer. Er……Have you, Sir, heard about the Argentinian/New Zealand six month polo camp this summer on which there are still places…?’ The officer was duly released for six months of learning to go from a very negative goal player to a slightly less negative goal player and the Regiment got another Regular officer. A very satisfactory result all round.

At my interview I asked if I could do a tour in Northern Ireland. Slightly incredulous look from the CO on the other side of the desk. At the time Northern Ireland offered the only operational soldiering in the Army. The rest of us were facing down the Cold War in West Germany or on public duties in Britain. After some negotiating with Personnel Branch 17, PB17, the Cavalry Manning Branch at Stanmore in Middlesex, a posting order was produced as a Platoon Commander with 11th Battalion, Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) at Mahon Road Barracks in Portadown, County Armagh. This was slightly unusual too. I had been expecting to go to West Belfast or South Armagh with a Regular Infantry Battalion. The UDR were locally recruited men and women who knew the ground and the people intimately. They were of their own communities. Although they were not deployed in the ‘hard’ areas, there was still a job to be done of patrolling the hinterland to the Troubles.

On one of my final exercise as Recce Troop Leader on the Soltau Training Area, before deploying to Northern Ireland, my CO, by then Lt Col Gordon, ordered me over the radio to report to a grid reference. As I arrived, expecting to be briefed on the next phase of the exercise, there was the Corps Commander, General Sir Charles Guthrie – the Army’s most senior officer in West Germany. The General said some important words of wisdom to me, which I entirely fail to recall as I was still being quite impressed that a person of absolutely no tactical importance whatsoever (myself) had been introduced to such an illustrious commander, senior General and my Corps Commander.

I caught the ferry across from Stranraer to Belfast and was met by my Company Commander on the dockside. He escorted me, in convoy, to my new home. It wouldn’t have been clever to get lost in West Belfast on arrival, especially with UK mainland number plates and not Northern Ireland plates on my car. My new home was Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, known as HMP Maze, the Maze or, to the Republicans, the Long Kesh. It was where the hardest terrorists from both sides of the divide were kept in the infamous H- Blocks, named because of the shape of the prison housing. Nesting at one end of the prison in a grotty encampment of portacabins was accommodation for officers and soldiers who were guarding the Maze, commanded by Major Shirreff of the 14th/20th Hussars, who I knew from Munster, and a few odds and sods, like me, who needed a bed and a base because they had no where else to go.

UDR_gradI had a tour of the Maze prison itself. We went around a wing that had been recently vacated. It was pretty bleak as I imagine most prisons are. There was a lot of bad Republican and Loyalist art on the walls, depending on which wing of the segregated prison you were in. We were not allowed to pillage them as trophies. Apart from having a bunk in the Maze I spent little time there. As a UDR officer I had a much less restricted regime than if I had been serving in a Regular Army Battalion. I commuted to work in civvies and got changed at the barracks. Perhaps the only difference between me and the other commuters was that I had a loaded 9mm Browning pistol under my thigh, ready to pull out should there be any trouble. Not that I have ever been able to hit a barn door with a pistol.

I spent a large part of my tour mowing the lawns at Colebrooke House, in County Fermanagh. Colebrook is beautiful, if austere, on the outside and wonderfully warm inside. I often stayed in Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke’s bedroom. Sadly, none of the Field Marshall stuff ever rubbed off me and while the saying goes that every soldier has a Field Marshall’s baton in their knapsack, I have yet to find my knapsack. General Sir Roger Wheeler, the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland, came to lunch one Sunday. He came in a suit without fanfare, just his close protection officer driver, a female Royal Military Police soldier. I had always imagined that such senior officers went around in convoys or helicopters, particularly in the dark waters of the bandit country of Fermanagh.

Life settled down to a steady pattern of day and night time patrols across our Area of Responsibility (AOR), mounted in land rovers and carrying SA80 rifles. We would randomly throw up Vehicle Check Points (VCPs) to see who was going where. The huge advantage of the UDR soldiers was that they really knew their communities because they were their communities. They could tell from a name, the accent and other indicators what kind of person we had stopped.

Some weeks into my tour, on 2nd August 1990, I was sitting in 11 UDR’s Ops Room at Mahon Road Barracks when the news of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait burst onto the TV screen. Iraq had always claimed Kuwait was its 19th Province. Now, Saddam was also accusing the Kuwaitis of stealing Iraq’s oil by drilling obliquely across the border and sucking it out of the Iraqi oilfields. My immediate action drill was to get on the phone to the Adjutant of the 17th/2st Lancers, Captain Hughes, and tell him that the Regiment was not to go anywhere without me. Not that anyone British had even got as far as being ordered to the Gulf, the invasion had only started that morning.

The United States, with ship mounted Divisions of kit continuously at sea, were driving those ships hard up the Gulf and flying the troops from around the world to meet the kit in the ports of eastern Saudi Arabia. They needed to support the Saudi Armed Forces and put blocking positions across the coast road from Kuwait to al-Jubail and the rest of the Middle East’s far wealthier oil fields. If Saddam hadn’t stopped his Republican Guard Force at Kuwait’s southern border post, he would probably have taken most of the coast by the end of August.

Captain Hughes laughed down the phone and told me to get on with what I had volunteered for in Northern Ireland. Over the next few days I grew increasingly frustrated as it became obvious that our Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was going to commit UK troops in support of the American and French forces which were already getting into Saudi or en-route.

I was on duty as the Guard Commander at Thiepval Barracks, the Army’s Headquarters in Northern Ireland. The Ops Rooms phone rang. It was Captain Hughes. I was ordered to get back to Germany as fast as I could. I had been selected by the CO to lead a composite Troop of 17th/21st Lancers to be attached, with three other 17th/21st Lancers Troops, to The Queens Royal Irish Hussars (QRIH) Battlegroup (BG).

The next few days were spent madly packing up in Northern Ireland, handing over kit and having final interviews with my CO at 11 UDR, Lt Col Jelf, during which I met my Brigade Commander, Brigadier Mike Jackson, for the first time. He wished me well. There was not a little envy in the air. We all join up in the hope of being able to put our skills, knowledge, experience, training and ourselves to the ultimate test, how would we cope in combat. Pretty much everyone serving in Northern Ireland at the time would be staying exactly where they were during the Gulf War – in time a few more came across as the size of the British contingent ramped up to a Division – but for the moment, I was it.