Desert Storm Part Seven: Armour

Capt Tim Purbrick 17th_21st LancersIt 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.


28th September 1990

By the morning all the tanks were yellowed up in their desert colours. We continued with the final packing of the tanks before they are shipped out to Hamburg for sailing to Saudi. Once they’re gone I’m not sure what we’re going to do. Hopefully there won’t be time to brood on what we are about to embark on. I had a couple of quotes in the Nottingham papers.

We received cocktail of jabs today. The Gymnasium was set up with tables, all the way around, staffed by medics with an array of needles, syringes, plasters and little bottles of whatever serum we were to have. We walked around the room having our arms turned into pin cushions with jabs for any of the potentially nasty lurgies that we could be exposed to in the desert. Some had adverse effects immediately. I had jabs for cholera, typhoid, tetanus and polio drops. I felt awful. Of great concern was Saddam’s proven possession and use of chemical weapons. Anthrax was a concern and we were told that a two-stage inoculation programme was being instituted. We had a dinner night in the Mess for Gen Sir Brian Kenny, the Colonel of the Irish Hussars who is also the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe.


29th September 1990

The tanks were soon to be loaded onto tank transporters for the journey to Hamburg and then by sea to Saudi. A small contingent of armed officers and soldiers had to sail with the tanks in order to ‘protect’ the Chobham armour. I caught up with Captain David Russell-Parsons, a Grenadier Guard who I had been with at school, then at Edinburgh, then at Sandhurst and lately in Munster where the Grenadiers were also based. He and 100 of his Grenadiers were attached to the Staffords Battlegroup where he is a Company Second-in-Command.

Today is my sister, Amanda’s, 21st birthday and she is having a party at home. Ann is at a party in Scotland. Everyone is having a good time and I’m in Fallingbostel – bit depressing.


30th September 1990

On Sunday we sent the tanks to the port and swept out the hangar. The next time we see them will be in Arabia and the next time they see Germany they are likely to have been through a war. A very moving church service was held in the Garrison Church. The Padre told us to make the most of the next two weeks before we deploy. Forget or suspend pretences. There were a lot of tears from the wives. Ed Smyth-Osbourne marched past me with his silver cloud beret (SCOTS DG grey coloured beret) with his Life Guards cap badge. We had a good lunch after the church service. In the afternoon I went down to Hannover with Brad and Urby to see Trooper Gus Davidson, my tank gunner, who had been put into the British Military Hospital (BMH). “He’ll be OK,” Nick Cotton told me.


1st October 1990

We continued admin and training on Monday with NBC and Law of Armed Conflict lectures, sweeping out the hangars and into the GTS for more gunnery practice. Gen Sir Peter Inge visited us – another senior officer visit.


2nd October 1990

On Tuesday morning, in great secrecy, we were taken down to a hangar on the tank park and ushered inside. In front of us was T-72 Soviet Main Battle Tank and a BMP2, a Russian BMP Armoured Personnel Carrier.

It was not the latest Soviet tank, that was the T-80, a truly awesome vehicle, but the T-72 was the best tank that Saddam had and it would be the worst one we would come up against as most of his tank fleet were T-55s. If we found ourselves up against it we would be fighting the Republican Guard Force which was the only formation in the Iraqi Armed Forces which had the T-72. Three man crew, autoloader, 120mm missile firing smooth bore main armament, turret mounted .50 machine gun with a co-ax 7.62mm machine gun. Two rear mounted, range extending 55 gallon drums of diesel.

Very low profile – watch out for it infiltrating through our frontline. Robust. Idiot proof. Reliable. It was a highly effective, battle proven weapons system. The name T-72 derived from T for tank and 72 from 1972, the first year in which our Technical Intelligence had seen the tank. By comparison, the Challenger was a T-83, although our tanks were the Mark 3 variant, the latest kid on the block, so we though of them as T-85s. We also had the Thermal Observation and Gun Sight (TOGS), a brilliant thermal imaging system.  It provided the commander and gunner with a small TV screen showing hot and cold as black or white which ever suited the operator’s eye. I preferred seeing hot as white. The lesson was fight at night as TOGS was vastly superior to the T-72’s night fighting equipment.

We got to clamber over the T-72 and the BMP. We were moderately grateful that Saddam only had them in the Republican Guard Force. We were, we hoped, more likely to come up his T-55s, giving us a thirty year technological advantage over our enemies. We had a talk from a US Colonel and Major who had recently got back from the Gulf. According to them a B-52 strike takes out the Republican Guard Force and two days of air war takes out the Iraqi Air Force. It was a bit of a morale booster.


3rd October 1990

The next day I went home to England for a few days leave. It was a frantic time of saying goodbye to everyone. It was great fun but exhausting. By the time I got back to Fally on Sunday night, I knew that it was the final time I would be in England for as long as it took to do whatever we were called on to do in the Gulf. A strange feeling. Hetty Nevill looked after me for most of the time I was at home. My abiding memory was of my mother crying as she waved me off from the station. How many mothers have waved their sons off to war on platforms?