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.
10th December 1990
On Monday morning, after a game of volleyball, we headed down to al-Jubail Airport which has been taken over by the US Marines’ attack helicopter unit. We had a briefing which was almost entirely given in acronyms we didn’t know. We went out to have a look at their choppers. They’re as ancient as their tanks. The Super Cobra and the Huey have both been around since ‘Nam. The Marines really do seem to be the poor brother of the US Army. Something that really struck me were the piles of sweets and books and other stuff which was just lying around on tables. People could just take what they liked. I asked one of the Marines about it. ‘Oh that’s just stuff that the folks back home send through to us. Please take what you like we have tonnes of the stuff and you’d be doing us a favour’. Now that’s what I call public support and that’s what the Brigadier was talking about yesterday in the desert. I filled my pockets with candy. We also found a burger joint on the base so we headed off there for the full American experience.
At the evening O Group we heard that Saddam has released all the hostages he had taken when he invaded Kuwait and those who had been caught actually in Iraq. One of them was a brother officer in the 17th/21st Lancers who had been working in the British Embassy in Kuwait City and was captured during the Iraqi invasion.
I saw Piers in his Service Dress hat. I’ll get mine out tomorrow. Quite a strange thing to be wearing a Service Dress hat with combats but they wore them in the Western Desert so why not now. No mail from home as there’s snow on the ground in England.
Col Arthur came around with Sky News and The Observer. 4th Troop have been selected for tomorrow’s press call. The Sky reporter may be able to get a message to Hetty.
11th December 1990
The day started with touch rugby against Alex Cormack’s Troop – we lost 3-6. The media showed up at 0930hrs with Cuthie as their escort. We recorded some messages for home and I was interviewed by Sky. I was asked how different the training was between here and Germany. I replied that it was now clear that we were training for war. We were taking it more seriously, especially the training for chemical warfare. He also asked about the political situation to which I replied that I hoped that the politicians could sort it out instead of us having to go to war.
We were given a Sky News sticker, which I stuck onto my commander’s cupola. Then we moved back into the Squadron leaguer taking Colin Smith from The Observer in our turret. I asked his opinion on whether we should go to war if Saddam doesn’t pull all the way out of Kuwait. After ‘umming’ and ‘aahhing’ he said that we should go to war based on the UN resolution. Nothing like pinning down a journalist like they pin down politicians. It was good fun.
That night we went on a nav-ex (Navigation Exercise)and got lost. One of the checkpoints had to put up a miniflare to get us back on track. Apparently we had been 100m from the checkpoint and they told us to go left instead of right – hey ho. Back in the leaguer in time for a mug of tea followed by some of The Sun’s Mr. Kipling’s deep filled mince pies.
12th December 1990
On Wednesday we had another Engineer Open Day for the press. Obviously we’re trying to convince everyone, including ourselves, that we can deal with the Iraqi defences. Capt Andy Bellinghall RE was running the day. We were in the same Company at Sandhurst. I asked Jonathan Dimbleby, who was being escorted around by Piers Hankinson, about the meaning of the UN resolution. His take was that it meant that we could not attack the Iraqis in Kuwait through Iraq I.e. we had to go directly into Kuwait.
In the afternoon we did some gunnery checks, mainly because we had mistakenly taken the cam net down a couple of hours early so I decided to do the Commander’s Functional Test (CFT). Tiffy was quite impressed when I brought him a whole bunch of faults for him to repair. The int report is that we’re going to blow up the oil trenches before we go in to remove them as an obstacle. Don’t go within 500m of a burning well head – lack of oxygen, heat, toxic fumes. There are 300 hostages left in Iraq and another 300 who are remaining there voluntarily!
Cleaning during maintenance day. It was a grungy job – perfect for the Troop Leader.
13th December 1990
We moved to A2 (the 2nd Echelon of Regimental logistic support) this morning for a Maint Day. Luckily we had done much of it yesterday afternoon so all we really had to do was to drop the oil. We had a long conference on the Kuwait attack. Lots of gung-ho US support filled us with confidence. Another full mail bag including a lovely letter from Tin Furstenberg. I opened all my Christmas presents except for the stocking because we’re going back to Camp 4 tomorrow and I don’t want to take a whole load of unnecessary stuff north with us when we go. They were all books.
14th December 1990
We went in to Camp 4 on Friday. Card phones had been installed by BT. I spent £45 on calls home. Couldn’t get hold of the parents. Hetty has gone to Australia for a month. Eventually had success with Ann and Rosa Furstenberg. The lines were incredibly clear. We’re going to be moving north 100km to DU commission fire on a new range. There will also be a number of additional mods to the tanks coming our way soon – armour, fuel, engine and an infra-red (IR) missile jammer.
15th December 1990
I spent the next morning sorting out my kit. Minimising what I was going to take north with me. In the afternoon we took a bus down to Dammam. It was pretty run down with glitzy electronic shops but fairly clean and tidy with shops on either side of a central grass strip. When we arrived it was deserted as it was afternoon siesta time. When the locals did come back out there were thousands filling the arcades and streets. All in different forms of head dress. Women all in black and some even with their eyes covered up. There were plenty of Americans there too, including female service personnel which I don’t think the Arab men had ever seen before. I didn’t buy anything of consequence – a few cassettes, some scotchbrite for weapons cleaning and a few Tupperware boxes to store kit in dust free.
16th December 1990
On Sunday we loitered around Camp 4 writing letters and making phone calls. A few of us went out to the Holiday Inn for dinner. I fell asleep in the pudding.
17th December 1990
We were back out to the desert on Monday morning for a big Battlegroup powwow at Camp St Patrick. Each Squadron talked through a phase of the operation. My bit was the Assault Squadron on the reorganisation. I caught up with all the other 17th Lancers Troop Leaders and we went over to 4th Troop A Squadron, my old Troop, for lunch. I had a chat to Nick about our respective German girlfriends and we concluded that German girls were more reliable, like their cars. In the afternoon Archie Hamilton, one of the MOD Ministers, came round to talk at us for five minutes. ‘Have a nice Christmas’ were his parting words.
18th-19th December 1990
We spent the next 48 hours on an exercise, putting into practice what we had talked about at the Battlegroup conference. Lots of movement and even a Regimental replen, which went quite well, then into assembly areas, a forward assembly area, through the battle handover line, over an obstacle belt, into a Forming Up Position and then took the objective. Some parts were slightly chaotic but we got there.
My Troop was called forward as the Intimate Support Troop for a Company attack against a depth position. Endex was called after someone realized that we had used three weeks of track mileage in 48 hours. As we moved from the exercise to Camp St Patrick the front idler on Four Zero broke when the seal went and we were left stranded. We split the track and removed the idler and waited for the Light Aid Detachment (LAD) to show up with a new one.
20th December 1990
On Thursday morning the Fitters totally messed up the idler fix and now we’ll have to wait two to three days for a new part to be flown out from Germany!
I missed Paul Daniels who was doing a show for D Squadron thanks to the broken idler, but I caught up with his RAF Puma pilot, Stan, at Battlegroup HQ. Stan said that he would normally expect 3,000 hours out of a Puma engine in West Germany but here they were only lasting 30 hours because of sand ingestion. Eventually our idler was fixed and we rejoined the Squadron.
22nd December 1990
HRH Prince Charles visited the QRIH on Saturday. He’s a friend of Colonel Arthur. HRH turned up in what looked like a Roger Moore safari suit with a helicopter landing pad of a beret i.e. one that was so large a helicopter could have landed on it. Apparently the CO had told him that he couldn’t possibly go in front of the Regiment wearing such a beret and then spent half an hour trying to make it more soldier like – to no avail. It didn’t matter to us. We had a Regimental photo with HRH who then told us that it was good to see us all out there and he would pass on his findings here to The Queen (Colonel-in-Chief of the Irish Hussars). Tim Buxton met HRH and said that he was incredibly laid back and easy to talk to. His coming to see us on the frontline meant a lot.
What a surprise. The cat seal went again on our idler so we’re back at Camp St Patrick awaiting a second fix.
23rd-24th December 1990
In the days before Christmas we put the Troop’s tanks in a triangle formation with cam nets over the top. We decorated the whole hide with all the balloons, tinsel and cardboard trees that we had been sent. We took the side plates off the tanks and turned them into tables to eat off. And we all lived in this central area on the seriously comfortable American camp cots that we had secured from our US cousins. On Christmas Eve there was a Regimental Carol service. The CO said ‘Hereford’ instead of ‘Herod’ which got the congregation in a titter. Piers, Tim, Nick and I went back to my troop shelter before moving on to A Squadron for some singing. As we went around I was recording a tape to send to Ann and Tin as I received one from them in the mail today. It was lovely to hear their voices.
25th December 1990
On Christmas morning I got up early. It’s nice when there’s no one else around. After a wash and a shave we (the Officer’s and SNCOs) took Gunfire around the troops – tea laced with whisky and, as we did so, we sang a few carols with the help of Cpl Gardiner’s tuba. Then we settled down for an eggs and bacon breakfast. Lt Gen Sir Peter de la Billiere came for lunch in a sandstorm with the Regiment. The chefs had done a brilliant job of Christmas lunch but it was a bit gritty with all the sand blowing around. I asked the General if we were going to go with the US Army or staying with the Marines. He said that he did not know yet. Nice to have a chat to the most decorated soldier in the Army and the Commander British Forces Middle East. There was a skits evening which was hugely funny.
Christmas Day 1990.
26th December 1990
On Boxing Day I stuck some maps together and sorted out my bin on the tank. In the evening we had a Squadron Bar-B-Q and set out to raise some money for the Royal British Legion in a charity fund raiser. The deal was that if the Squadron raised 1,000 riyals all the Squadron officers would have a Number 3 haircut. We raised 3,000 riyals so we all had Number 3s. It’s short and no maintenance. The SSM has stuck all our hair together to give himself a wig, as he had no hair in the first place.