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.
Deployment and initial training
21st October 1990
On Sunday we flew from Hamburg via Cyprus. I got hold of the 17th/21st Lancers Squadron which was on the sun and surf posting to the island and spoke to Maj Rupert Wieloch, the Squadron Leader. We flew on. It was a British Caledonia Tri-Star instead of the usual rearward facing seats on a VC-10 or the hard floor of a Hercules. I was in the cockpit as we flew down the Nile Delta and over Cairo in the early evening. The view was spectacular. We landed on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsular, in Dhahran. The 30°+ heat and humidity of the late Saudi autumn was shocking after the increasing cold of the north German Plain. We were bussed up to the port of al-Jubail, an hour or so to the north, in three double decker buses, arriving at 3am. The buses stopped outside a massive hangar on the side of the docks in the commercial port. Even at that late, or was it early, hour the Army had its procedures to run through. We were logged into theatre, collected our bags and set up home. The whole Regiment appeared to be in this one building with US soldiers one way and more Brits the other. I made a scrap of concrete in between two wooden pallets into home, in a way that only soldiers can.
22nd October 1990
When it became morning a few short hours later, there was already a mass of morale boosting mail waiting for me. Breakfast was a US Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) which had, compared to our usual rations, curious additions like cherry-aid drink. The chefs also dished out something called grits. I guess it was a US version of porridge but it was a thin gruel that looked and tasted like wall paper paste. A large water bottle was permanently at hand to keep hydrated. We had an Ops brief on the US Marines who we were to be attached to. They were deployed to the north of the port in counter-penetration lines in case of Iraqi incursion south of the border.
Tim Buxton arrived back in the port having had a night out with the Marines. He said that they had just received clearance to start offensive ops training. The CO gave a good address on how we were training for war. He emphasized discipline and comradeship as the two most important factors in the preparation and conduct of war. We spent most of the rest of the day sleeping off the flight and drinking vast quantities of bottled water.
23rd October 1990
On Tuesday morning we deployed into the desert in a convoy of 4 ton trucks and a Landrover. We got lost on the way there which amused us all. But we got to a Brigade Admin Area soon after and walked off the track 200 metres into the desert. It was an overnight familiarization exercise and it was blissful. The desert was undulating small dunes with scrubby desert plants and the odd herd of camels. We had camp beds, a 24 hour ration pack and it was cooler in the desert. We set up a circular camp and got our food going on small hexy block powered cookers. Corned hash. We stood to at last light. As night fell, and as we were away from the over lit port, the night sky revealed itself. It was as if someone had split a bag of rough cut diamonds, millions of them, across the dark night sky. It was a stunning. It was quite cold – relatively – in the middle of the night and there was a heavy dew towards dawn when we were up to cook breakfast. We all slept well and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. It gave us a small hint of the desert life that was to come as soon as our tanks arrived and we could deploy into the desert.
Captain Tim Purbrick in a dockside hangar on al-Jubail docks.
24th October 1990
Back in the port I was sticking my maps together when Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick Hine came by for a visit. He asked me what I thought about the maps. I said that they were pretty old – they were also pretty blank because there was nothing out there. He turned to Brig Patrick Cordingley, our Commander of 7th Armoured Brigade, and asked him what was being done about it. The Brigadier said that new ones were being printed by the topographic team. No doubt I will be sticking them together next week. Then the Brigadier pointed something out to Sir Patrick during which he stepped on my map leaving a boot print. He apologized. To which I replied that it didn’t really matter as there was nothing on the map to blot out anyway.
That afternoon we jumped on buses for a two hour bus journey north to spend the night with the US Marines’ Ripper Force. They were in the desert to the north of al-Jubail about 150km south of the border. Their M60 tanks were older – quite a bit older – than our Challengers but they had Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) – to disrupt incoming tank and anti-tank rounds – a 105mm main armament with depleted uranium FIN rounds – which they reckon can get a first round hit at 3,000 metres – a 7.62mm coaxial GPMG and a .50 commander’s MG. It also had secure comms. The turret was big, open and mechanical. They said the tank rarely went wrong.
We had a centralised chow for supper next to some of the 72 HumVee TOW (Tube Launched, Optically Tracked, Wire Guided) vehicles. They’ve got so many HumVees it’s ridiculous. Just after last light we mounted up and moved out. They moved around 4km every 4-7 days. We took up all round defence, put the cam nets up and bedded down for the night. It was freezing. Next time I’ll bring my doss bag. I had to wrap myself in my shemagh and curl up inside my bivvy bag, sleeping on an American cot, so much better than our own camp beds, but it was still very cold. I was learning the lessons of the desert the hard way when I should have absorbed them from reading about the climatic extremes of the desert in one of those pamphlets or books I had consumed before we deployed.
25th October 1990
After the dawn stand-to we sauntered over the rocky desert to their Company HQ for a coffee and then onto Battalion HQ for breakfast and a briefing on the Marines’ position. It’s Balaclava Day, a 17th/21st Lancer Regimental holiday to celebrate the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Regiment’s contribution to the Crimean War. In the Regimental Lines at Swinton Barracks the officers and Senior Non-Commissioned Officers would be taking gunfire – tea with a tot of rum – around at reveille before serving the boys their breakfast.
Later that afternoon, having returned to al-Jubail, we celebrated Balaclava Day by going down to the beach for a swim and church service before heading to Camp 4, our R&R base for the next few weeks while we were based in the port and in the desert close to al-Jubail. There, luxury of foolish luxuries, was air-con in the bedrooms. Wilfred Thesiger, the great explorer, would not have approved. A number of these camp complexes, built for foreign workers, were taken over by the military to offer respite from the oppressive port. Camp Four became a regular trip away from the port for a bunk bed, a swim in the pool, a mini NAAFI, dhobi and good old British rations rather than the American chow we had on the dockside. It was also a good place to catch up with or discover other friends who had found themselves deployed. David Russell Parsons, Bob Machell, who had been in my Platoon at Sandhurst, a Royal Engineer with 21 Engineer Regiment, Ed Frost, a friend from school, a 15th/19th Hussar was there and Ed Smyth-Osbourne.
In the wider world outside al-Jubail docks, the situation to the north of us appeared to have stabilized. The US had put in blocking positions to the south of Kuwait. The French Foreign Legion were somewhere to the west, in the desert complaining that we British were late to the battle because we were too busy making tea. The port itself was protected from Saddam’s Scud B mobile ground to ground missile by batteries of the Patriot anti-missile system.
‘A’ Squadron. Camouflage nets not only hid us but also provided vital shade during the day
26th October 1990
Back in the docks the next morning the tanks had arrived. Offloaded from the ferry onto the dockside, they were ready for some initial maintenance to get them ready to deploy into the desert. We worked on them until lunchtime. Then it was my turn to take a party of 60 troops into the desert for their overnight experience. Half of them were from the QRIH band, re-roling from their tubas and drums to combat medics – their Regimental war role. The other half were from D Squadron. It was another fine night’s sleep and, as usual cold and damp in the night – but at least I was inside my doss bag and bivvy bag.
27th October 1990
On return to the docks the next morning I checked the group back in at Brigade HQ which was in an air-con’d portacabin a little way along the dock from our hangar. It looked pretty chaotic with the Brigadier sitting calmly in the eye of the storm.
A photograph of two soldiers in shorts with their weapons slung and floppy hats pulled down over their eyes was captioned in The Times as ‘soldiers on guard’. As this was not the image of what the Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher, took to be soldiers on guard, which they were not in any case, we got messed about and forced to carry all our kit around with us, all of the time. It was a 3,000 mile morale busting missile. Brig Cordingley later said that looking after the media had gone from nowhere on his list to the top of his list. It was a salutary lesson for a field commander about the power of the media.
We’re trying to work out an exercise schedule for when we get into the desert. There aren’t enough spares here yet and the fuel quality for the wagons is not good enough yet. And, there’s a trade off between flogging the tanks and us to bits in training and then not having anything serviceable for the war bit. It’s going to be a compromise.
We continued to work on the tanks. As usual we were told we would ‘get everything in theatre’. Well, we are getting seven mods (modifications) but none are exciting enough to write home about – no sat nav and no secure radios. When the rest of the Troop had returned in the afternoon from their outing to Camp 4 we continued with boresight calibration, which was miles out. But the TOGS was working beautifully. Pete and I made a hessian sun shelter to put over the turret.
It’s not terribly healthy living in the hangar crammed in like sardines. The showers, which are good, drain across the dockside into the sea and the loos are plastic box portaloos which are permanently full, stink to high heaven and are twice as hot inside as the hot outside. When there’s no breeze off the sea, it’s pretty bloody hot.
The word on the street is that the SAS have already been in action blowing up an Iraqi chemical dump. As their Squadron Operations Officer reportedly said ‘they shouldn’t have been smoking so close to ammunition…’ They have also dug up a chemical mine for the Engineers to have a look at.
29th October 1990
This afternoon C Squadron deployed into the desert to keep the media wolf fed. It was all a bit manipulated as the logistic support is non-existent, there are no spares and there’s not enough high quality fuel, let alone fuel bowsers to carry it.
30th October 1990
We took a trip out to see C Squadron the next day. Tim Buxton had led his Squadron into their leaguer, navigating by the stars and with a bit of luck he said. Saw Will Wyatt out there too who had just done a night move and a Squadron quick attack. He said they were all really enjoying being out in the desert. We had a look around the desert. It was pretty featureless. Our Landrover had a puncture. Back in the port, work continued on mod’ing the tanks. We had to have two pack lifts while they sorted out the speed probe. But we also got a new GUE fan drive cable, new ABC leads, a new clamp for the biscuit, a new PRV for the coolant header tank and a few other equally unexciting modifications. We all retired to Camp 4 for a decent wash and to dhobi our kit as we’ll be deploying into the desert tomorrow.
Desert life. It was much nicer than the port and the stars were utterly amazing.
31st October 1990
We spent our final morning in the port completing the loading of additional kit. At 1240hrs we loaded the tanks onto the back of our tank transporters. These vast flat bed tractor and trailer units, were one of the most strategic assets in an Armoured Commander’s tool box. The Scammell Commander was powered by the same Rolls-Royce engine that was in our tanks. A transporter could carry one Challenger MBT or two Warrior APCs. Apart from generally moving more quickly than free running tanks, they saved track mileage on the vehicles, reserving them for the war and saving on spares, helping the whole logistic tail to keep the show on the road.
Getting a tank on a transporter is quite a ballsy drive. As the tank rises up the transporters ramp it gets to almost 45 degrees. The transporter driver has to stand on the roof of his cab in order to provide the tank driver with the visual signals he needs – ‘come on’, ‘go back’, ‘stop’, ‘left’ and ‘right’. To get up the ramp the driver must give the tank a bit of welly to power the 62 tonne mammoth up the ramp and then slam on the brakes as it flops back down on the flat bed like a breaching whale. The alternative would be to drive the tank straight over the cab and off the front of the transporter, probably not making the transporter driver’s day. For this procedure the tank’s main armament is pointing rearward and fastened into a clamp to, hopefully, preserve the zeroed weapon from being thrown around. The tank crews can either stay in the tank or a couple of them can get into the cab, one in the co-driver’s seat and the other on the driver’s bunk.
As we loaded our tanks, desert camouflage nets turned up – just as well as they would provide vital shade from the merciless sun as well as hide the tanks during the day. While the drivers went with the tanks, the rest of us piled into air conditioned buses for the short journey out to the drop off area.
Once unloaded into the desert we were bombed up with ammunition. A tank without all its ammo is only useful as a battering ram. We carried a range of ammunition for the different systems we had on board. The anti-tank round was the Armoured Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) or the FIN round. It was a two foot long tungsten arrow wrapped in a sabot sheath which engages with the rifled barrel, spinning the arrow to create in-flight stability as it travels up the barrel, before it leaves the barrel and the sabot flies off, job done, leaving the arrow, called the long rod penetrator, to fly to the target at around 1,500m/second. Impacting with the metal of the target tank, both metals act as a liquid, and the long rod penetrator is largely consumed breaking into the enemy tank so that the rear portion of the projectile enters the turret, preceded by scabbing, or fragments, of the interior wall of the target’s turret. Together they frag and vapourise everything in the turret. Overpressure and fire caused by the strike and entry will generally light up the bomb load. The remnants of the long rod penetrator may exit the other side of the turret. An accurate shot will strike the enemy tank on the turret ring which could blow the turret off the chassis. It’s not a good place to be.
The other main armament round is the High Explosive Squash Head or HESH round. This looks more like an artillery shell. It has an explosive and fragmentation effect at the target end. We would use this on enemy trench systems or lorries, called B-vehicles, and other soft targets.
There was also a smoke round painted eau de nil but we were not issued with it. These could be used to create smoke on enemy trenches or in front of an enemy position.
Both killing natures have different types of charges, the explosive element which powers the round down the barrel. The FIN round’s charge was a long orange coloured cylindrical shape about two foot long and made of what felt like cardboard. While the HESH round had what look liked linen bags full of explosives. The charges were initiated by a magazine of brass cartridges, called vent tubes, placed in a magazine below the main armament. So that, when the gunner fired, the percussion cap at the base of the vent tube was electrically struck, this exploded the cartridge which then exploded the main charge combustion chamber of the breech, and the explosion could only escape by pushing the round up the barrel. Very quickly.
Ammunition for the two machine guns was 7.62mm ball and trace. The back end of the trace round had a small red light, for want of a better word, so you could see when the cone of fire was landing. It came in belts in metal ammo boxes.
For personal use, were 9mm bullets for our sub-machine guns and pistols, smoke grenades and hand grenades for when things got very hairy. Finally, there were Multi-Barreled Smoke Grenade Dischargers on the frontal armour of the turret to fire off if we had been hit or targeted so we could pull out of the line or to cover us as we jockeyed for a better fire position.
Taking the ammunition on board involved a certain amount of reorganisation of our turret by Pete. At this stage of the deployment all that could be spared for each tank were 8 HESH rounds and charges with 10 vent tubes, three boxes of GMPG rounds, smoke grenades and flares. It wasn’t much but when we were bombed up, even with these few rounds, we felt a lot happier. Now we could fight.
We drove away from the replen and then into the kind of leaguer that we used in BATUS on the Canadian prairie. Tanks laid out in a box formation – two parallel lines with ends. The dust was appalling. This wasn’t the hard desert we had enjoyed when we stayed with the US Marines, it was more like beach sand with a foot of fine desert sand sprinkled on top. Brew and I, the two crew members with our faces outside the tank, were covered in the fine sand. It was such a fine dust that it got everywhere and stayed there. After an evening Squadron O Group giving us timings for reveille, stand to and the morning move, we hit the doss bags before it was our turn to stag on during the night.