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.
1st November 1990
We were up at 04.15hrs on Thursday. ‘Stand to’ was at 04.45hrs and the Squadron moved 500m at 05.15hrs before we cammed the tanks up, got sentries out and had breakfast. In a pattern that became established over the coming weeks, we had briefings in the morning to discuss tactics and intelligence and then, in the afternoon, we deployed from our harbour area to practice attacks, movement, navigation and drills.
Intelligence was reporting that the border between southern Kuwait and Saudi was now, thanks to Iraqi efforts, an obstacle with quite some depth: triple concertina wire with anti-personnel mines, a 3-5m high sand wall or berm, anti-tank minefields covered by infantry and tanks with a depth position protected by more anti-tank mines. Along the border itself were a number of gas and oil pipelines more than 2 ft high which would provide a further obstacle. The Engineers thought that it would take 2-3 hours to crack through the obstacles after they had been softened up with 48 hours of aerial and artillery bombardment. We did slightly wonder what would happen to the oil and gas pumping through the pipes when it was bombed to hell – a worse obstacle maybe. But it also brought home to the Troop the seriousness of the defences that we might have to break through. Morphine is due for issue soon. We’ve been told that the tour here is due to end on 28th April 1991.
One of our first night marches was supposed to be 5km and ended up being 28km as we all got lost. We didn’t get back to our leaguer until 21.00. Happily, the mail came in the night and I had my breakfast sitting on my canvas chair , taking the cool desert morning air, eating my sausages, eggs and beans out of my doggy bowl while reading The Daily Telegraph. It wasn’t all bad.
NBC training started immediately. We trained in our leaguer wearing full Individual Protection Equipment (IPE) including the respirator, otherwise known as the gasperator because of the difficulty in breathing while wearing it, let alone exerting yourself while wearing it. The NBC instructors had flown out from the NBC Warfare School at Porton Down and they took it pretty seriously. With good reason. Saddam had a track record of using chemical weapons on his own people and he wouldn’t blink about using them against us. The experts see the Iraqis using chemicals as we go into the attack, possibly a non-persistent nerve agent, while they anticipate that the Iraqis will use a persistent nerve or blister agent on the rear areas such as logistic centres (al-Jubail), ammunition dumps (if they know where they are) and even desalination plants on the coast. We were all exhausted at the end of the training. Wearing the noddy suit and respirator on the North German Plain in winter was one thing. Wearing it in 30° heat in the desert was completely debilitating. We needed to take a lot of water on board and sucking it through a 2mm tube on the inside of the gas mask just wasn’t enough. We were allowed to chill out for the rest of the day under our cam nets. The heat of the day gave way to dusk and the rapidly sinking sun and lengthening shadows combined with the constant light breeze was quite lovely. By full moon up at 1830hrs, Brew and I were sitting on the back decks of Four Zero having a drink and listening to the distinctive sounds of Challengers and 432s (Armoured Personnnel Carriers) moving around us on night exercises.
2nd November 1990
In the morning we moved my tank, Four Zero, out of the leaguer to do some Gunnery servicing. Once we had completed this we thought we would be smart and not return to the leaguer so that we didn’t have to out up our cam net. Bad call. When we did get back, up the cam net had to go but it was a ‘good’ cam net ie went up well and provided the right amount of room under the net so that we could move around easily under it. Sad to say, but these little things were very satisfying. In the afternoon we went to watch another Squadron do some manoeuvres. It took an age to work out what the hell they were trying to do. Eventually we settled on it being an ‘advance to contact’ – a purposeful trundle across the desert before encountering the enemy. Will Wyatt waved as he drove past in his tank. As the day turned into late afternoon we went through a replen in our own tanks. We rolled into a maintenance leaguer and then harboured up for the night. As my clean dhobi had come back from the wash I crawled out of my minging combats, had a full body wash by moonlight and put on my clean kit. Seriously good for morale.
4th November 1990
At dawn on Sunday we moved off, practicing half Squadron movement. We then drove down to the Ranges to prep the tanks for firing. We had a briefing on the format of the Gunnery Day, which has already been put back to next Tuesday because the Saudis in Riyadh have not cleared the range for use.
At 1800hrs we had a bollocking about battlefield discipline from the Commanding Officer. He was looking for someone to sack. He wanted to impress on everyone that this was not just another major exercise. We were going to war and we needed to understand this. He was after soldiers sky lining themselves on the turret of their tank at night, in that way giving away their position to approaching enemy infantry. This became the mechanism through which the CO was going to demonstrate the seriousness of our predicament. A Troop Corporal was quickly caught and sacked for having a wash on his turret at night. He had to sit the war out in Germany. It made the point.
Willy Wyatt came round to our harbour in the evening. He said that the Squadron replen they had been through was shockingly slow – around 2hrs 45mins for something which should have taken just 45 mins. Nick Cotton came by even later.
Intelligence has started to flow and at each O Group we get an update on what is happening to the north and in the wider world. Saddam’s Scuds are pointing west. 20,000 Syrian troops with 100 tanks are expected to join the Coalition. Economic sanctions will taken 9-10 months to work.
5th November 1990
As there was no firing this morning, we did a dress rehearsal. Everyone seemed to think that it went better today. Though it was not helped by my losing all comms so not having a clue as to what was going on. After the exercises we bombed up with 34 DST rounds – Discarding Sabot Trainer, they were the practice FIN round – and 6 boxes of GPMG rounds. We had to do our own ammo bashing – breaking the ammunition out of a heavy duty carrying packaging. The Intelligence update at the evening O Group said that the Iraqis were pretty set to resist our attack and that good int is coming in from the satellites showing which way the Scud-Bs are firing, which is at Israel at the moment.
The Troop, before being up armoured.
6th November 1990
The planned range package was cancelled as the Saudis still had not been able to clear the airspace to 10,000ft above and behind the ranges – gives you some idea of the ricochet range required. So we played at being enemy for the rest of the Battlegroup by skulking off down range and putting in a series of snap ambushes. It was nice to have a bit of independence again.
At the replen I got a fruitcake in the mail from my mother which we ate in its entirety as we pulled away from the replen. We should have a US Marines ANGLICO – Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company – team with the Battlegroup. They do air, naval and artillery gunfire support from US assets. They might come with a battleship that could sail all the way up to Kuwait City and use its twelve 15in naval guns in the direct fire role. A French reporter has been arrested for digging around. 100,000 more US troops are coming to the Gulf. They’ll be in place by the end of January. The oil filled tank ditches that the Iraqis have put in place are giving off noxious fumes. The S10 respirator can handle it.
7th November 1990
The range was opened the following afternoon. I was pretty annoyed off about having to loan one of my tanks to B Squadron for their shoot but I was told to wind my neck in. After a full systems check we were on the firing point to CAB(F) – four rounds blatted off at the target. Then we trundled off down the range hitting targets as they appeared. It was totally unlike a Range Day in BAOR or even in BATUS. There were no rules. We leapt frog through C Squadron. Pete had a moment when he had ‘bag charge loaded no projectile’. If we had pulled the trigger on that there would have been the most almighty explosion of fire out of the end of the barrel because no round was loaded. It took him five minutes of nervous exhaustion to extract the bag charge. He nearly had another one later on. All part of the fun. Apparently Cuthie, the Adjutant, loaded three bag charges around the wrong way – now he’s to be known as ‘Bag Charge’.
We moved into an evening leaguer. Apparently the whole Battlegroup is within 1,000m of each other. Of course we had to be messed around that night as we were ordered to debomb the rounds we had left over from the range practice. We got them all out onto the turret ready to hand over and then no one came to collect them! Now we are getting four sets of a new desert combat pattern.
We’re starting to be restricted on track mileage. So, we could be stopped in our tracks. We have got 250km of mileage for a two week exercise. A plastic chemical resistant sheeting called CARM (Chemical Agent Resistant Material) was issued so that we could add a protective layer to our bins to make a ‘chemically clean entry point into the tank’. In the end it made the best shower floor when standing in the desert under the barrel bucket shower. Local boy stories will be required for recruiting. The PM said in the House of Commons that we will soon chuck the Iraqis out of Kuwait. Little change in Iraq’s stance on Kuwait.
8th November 1990
Thursday was a Maint Day. We dropped the plates off the sides of the tanks and cleaned all the weapons after the ranges. Maint continued on Friday with a new TDB being fitted and a Traverse Indicator Detector – a TID, perhaps – to show us which way the barrel was pointing. It might sound strange but unless you are used to it. It is very easy to get disorientated in a tank turret. It could be spinning one way while the vehicle is driving in another direction. I spent the day listening to my boogie box and then had lunch at Four One during which Brad beat me 2-1 at backgammon. At last light we moved 500m to a night harbour. At the evening O Group we were told that we had to paint an Irish name on the side of our tanks. It’s some strange Irish Hussar thing. The names have to begin with a D as we are D Squadron.
9th-10th November 1990
For the next couple of days we travelled up to the Jerboa Range.
11th November 1990
We had a Remembrance Day church service after the demo. Martin Bell of the BBC was there to film it for the TV news. Then I led the Squadron to the north end of the Range where we had a Maint Day. Lunch was corned beef, strawberry jam and cheese sandwiches stuck together with liquid marge between two sheets of stale bread washed down with desalinated Gulf and melted chocolate. I have received a star chart in the mail from home. Johno is a bit of an expert on the stars. It will be useful too as we often navigate by them at night.
At the evening O Group we were told that the US were going to try and provoke Saddam into reacting by flying 100 jets at the border and doing an assault landing just 3 km south of the border. Does he really need provoking?
BFBS are starting to broadcast for a couple of hours a day and I got some new military binoculars from the SQMS.
13th November 1990
One Maint Day was followed by another. I had to go up to Battlegroup HQ to copy a trace for the Brigade exercise. Cuthie showed me around. It’s quite a large set up with Javelin as point anti-aircraft defence, an ANGLICO team of forward air controllers from the US Marines and a whole bunch of other caggage including two tanks, one for the CO and another as his wingman. The wind picked up at night perhaps heralding the first of the season’s sandstorms. But at least at the north end of the ranges the desert is much harder than we have seen to date – much like it was when I visited the US Marines and their M60s – so its faster going for the tanks and easier to walk around.
Corporal Urby Urbacz, commander of Four Two.
15th November 1990
The next morning we invaded Kuwait. Well, it wasn’t really Kuwait but it was an obstacle belt set up to mirror the Iraqi obstacles we would face when we got to the border. Fourth Troop led. It was not a terribly exciting exercise at Troop level. It was more of a Command and Control exercise for those further up the food chain. Later that day I said ‘good afternoon’ to my tank barrel as I stupidly smacked my head against it as I was walking around the tank. It knocked me flat and I had to take a trip to the medic.
16th November 1990
Friday was a serious bomb up day. We took on board 32 rounds of APFSDS, 16 HESH rounds, 18 boxes of 7.62mm GMPG rounds, 20 smoke grenades, 10 hand grenades, 10 schermulys (handheld night to day rockets), and 10 packets of mini-flares. We spent most of the day working out storage and servicing the vehicles. Sitting in the turret that afternoon, looking around at a fully bombed up Challenger Main Battle Tank with service (war issue) ammunition was awesome. I had never seen it before and I doubt that many others had before either. We were all a lot happier to have a full bombload. Curiously, we felt safer. Now we could not only protect ourselves but we could take the fight to the enemy.
In the mail I received another fruit cake from home. But this was no ordinary fruitcake. On gently slicing it open the centre had been hollowed out and a bottle of whisky had been inserted wrapped in greaseproof paper. Along with the cake were packets of Lapsang Souchong tea which the boys call Langsang Soiledsocks or Lapsang Shoeshine.
I ordered a desert coloured Guernsey jumper from Jonny Ormerod and I’ll stitch my 7th Armoured Brigade desert rat onto the right arm when I get it. Although we had come from 4th Armoured Brigade, we were proud of the ancestry of 7th Armoured Brigade as the Desert Rats of the north African campaign during the Second World War. Now we were the new generation of Desert Rats and we have a heritage to live up to.
At our O Group the intelligence was that Saddam was withdrawing a number of his forces into central Kuwait to form a counter-attack force for when our liberation starts.
At the end of the exercise period we moved west to our new operational area. We thought that we would be going further north but where we have ended up is no further north than the north of the ranges where we were this week. I navigated the Squadron into position with the assistance of Recce Troop.
Even after this short time in the desert I think that my sense of smell has sharpened. Letters seem to smell as if they are on scented paper, even though they’re not. They bring olfactory messages from thousands of miles away along with their written words. It reminds me of a passage in Wilfred Thesiger’s book ‘A Life of My Choice’ in which he visits a castle in Syria which has been built using different herb oils in the bricks of different rooms. Asked which room they preferred his Syrian guides stood by the window through which the wind blew the desert air and said, ‘this one because it smells of nothing’. That is the desert.
20th November 1990
Spent most of Tuesday zizzing by our tanks, writing letters and eating. In the evening we received a note from Col Arthur in which he said: ‘I am confident that we are ready for war’. The CO’s note went on to say that ‘as long as the time lasts between now and the time when we have to do something (fight) there will be room for improvements’. Toby told us that he was borrowing a Magellan sat-nav. He is planning night moves with Squadron attacks at the end of them.
Ex Desert Womble was called today and half the Troop were sent off to pick up rubbish just like we used at at Soltau. I spent the afternoon digging a guard trench and then, when it collapsed, I dug it out again. My clothes were a disgusting, sweat and sand encrusted pile of yuk. Luckily I had some clean combats to change into after a strip wash. A moderately, militarily successful trench. Physically, very successful.
The US have renamed the operation from Desert Shield to Desert Sword. There’s a message of intent in there somewhere.