Desert Storm Part 15: The Air War Begins

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.


11th January 1991

It was freezing on Friday morning. Made it difficult to force oneself up first thing. Father Sean came by to drop off a photo of me that he had taken during The Sun visit a few weeks ago. We had a service and communion in the leaguer. As Father Sean is Catholic we were absolved of all our sins. What a relief! Staff Smith has got some kind of nasty lurgie and is being casevac’d back home. James Moseley has taken over his Troop. An ND (Negligent Discharge) is now 14 day’s pay, it’s Brigade policy.

12th January 1991

Toby borrowed Father Sean’s Landcruiser for the day. Into it we packed: Toby, Philip, Chris Millett, Alex Cormack and Alex Paine, Al Murdoch, Staff Sparks, Sgt Robinson and myself (in the boot). We went up to the Saudi/Kuwait border. We drove all the way through to the Kuwaiti passport control point with only one police checkpoint between Devil Dog Dragoon Range and Saddam’s enemy Divisions. We got out at the Kuwaiti side border control had a few snaps and then turned around. There were a lot of Kuwaiti tents up around the border. It looked quite busy but there was no traffic going through.

We drove west along the border berm that had been built by the British thirty years ago to mark the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 4km down the track we came to a mini Beau Geste fort – castellated flat roof, stone steps up to a large wooden door. It was straight out of central casting. Outside were a number of US HumVees and some Saudi guards. No one stopped us as we went up the steps and into the fort. The US Special Forces Recon soldiers inside the fort were, to say the least, quite surprised to see us. They have been there for nearly five months monitoring the Iraqis on the other side of the border. We went up onto the roof. We were asked to remove our helmets when we were on the roof so that the Iraqis watching the fort would not know what unit we were from or which nationality we were. We looked through their binos at the Iraqi positions in southern Kuwait. There was not a lot to see. JCB diggers were hammering away at something and there were a few blokes standing around but no tanks or infantry were apparent. It was obvious to us that the fort was used as US SF jump off point for patrols into southern Kuwait.

Apparently the Hind helicopters which flew over the border into Saudi a few days ago carrying high-ranking Iraqi officers had flown directly over the fort. Ron, the US Recon bloke there, said that they had also seen a Flogger (Russian made Iraqi fighter-ground-attack) but hadn’t waited around too long as they were all running for their air-raid shelter. Ron also said that a US Army A1M1 main battle tank had got itself stranded on the border berm further to their west of their position. The Iraqis must have wondered what the hell was going on. And, we never realized that the US Army had major units so tight with the border. It was a strange feeling looking into Kuwait and knowing that the people that we were looking at were the enemy. To actually see ‘him’ walking around. It was them watching us watching them – we couldn’t see them watching us but Ron assured us that they were. A bit like the Berlin Wall of old.

Most of the activity, Ron told us, happened at night which was why they had what looked like a rather old Image Intensification (II) sight to watch the Iraqis. They also had a number of sniper’s rifles ready for action. After around half an hour the Recon Battalion Intelligence Officer turned up and told us to get lost. We should have sought permission to be there from their HQ. He said that they were running Psy Ops across the border and that there was quite a bit of escape and evasion going on, which we took to mean that people were coming out across the border. All quite exciting stuff for a bunch of real soldiers. Reluctantly we left and headed for Khafghi, the most northerly Saudi town on the coastal highway, just 4km south of the Kuwaiti border.

We did some shopping in the shabby high street and then found a restaurant for an excellent meal of chicken and rice washed down with Coke in the dingy backyard of the restaurant. We had to sit there as it was prayer time and the owner could not have anyone obviously sitting in the restaurant. It was, again, extraordinary to be sitting so close – geographically and historically – to the enemy when in four days time we could be at war with Iraq and even on Iraqi soil as we race to our deployment positions. We took some photos and left for the south and the Devil Dog Dragoon Range. It was strange that there was no military traffic on the roads until we reached the Ripper area. Open door? We were back in the Squadron leaguer by 1500hrs. It was a fantastic day and one that probably no other British troops got the opportunity to do. We would never have got permission to do it if we had asked so good for Toby for just piling us into the wagon and heading up there.

Border Image

Nothing between us and the Iraqi invaders just through the other side of the abandoned Kuwait/Saudi border post

13th January 1991

I was up at 0430hrs to catch the truck into Camp 4. It was pissing with rain and there were no sides on the truck, wind whipping the canvas roof. We got completely soaked. It was a bedraggled bunch of tankers who arrived at Camp 4 at 0700hrs for breakfast. All the soldier chefs have deployed so the cooking in the camp is being done by locally employed civvies.

People were really kind all day and I got envelopes, tape and even a Gortex bivvy bag without signing for it. I met up with David Russell Parsons for lunch in the canteen. His parting words were ‘see you on the objective (the enemy position)’. I then spent the afternoon calling around for a last chat. I spoke to another of Dad’s contacts who works for HRH Prince Naif to whom I sent my regards. He said that Saddam’s Parliament was meeting and that peace is around the corner. Let’s hope that he is right. It continued to rain all day. Thank God for Garry Gortex. I cat napped inside my new bivvy bag on the way back to the desert. Someone had sent me a letter addressed to ‘CO 17/21L’ looking for our Regimental stamp on a letter – sadly we don’t have one.


14th January 1991

J Day. The operation has started to roll. The UN deadline has expired and now something has got to happen – peace or war. We haven’t heard the news so we don’t know what is happening. It continued to rain. It seems like we must have had five years rain in two days. All those scrubby desert plants have suddenly got very green. The desert has become compacted and easier to walk over. There’s no dust any more. We got new NBC filters for the tanks, dated 1989. We’re to minimize use of the NBC pack from now on as these filters are to see us through the war. The rain stopped and the wind got up, so much so that it was very difficult to put our cam net and shelter back up.

O Group points. We’re now on high alert as reports are in that 200 Iraqi SF have crossed the border two days ago looking for logistic targets. They’re in civvies, riding in civvy vehicles. And, Saddam has offered Abu Nidal $30 million to hit us. We were also told to keep an eye on the weak Syrian Division on our left flank in the Coalition force. Watch your OPSEC on the phone, in what you write and in what you say. Improve light discipline. No woolly hats. Wear your dog tags. Allied retaliation to an Iraqi chemical attack?


15th January 1991

K Day. We have no idea what all these lettered days mean. The answer appears to be not a lot because the UN deadline which we thought ran out yesterday runs out tomorrow at 0800hrs. We moved the Squadron into a close leaguer as the terrorist threat was judged to be the greatest at the moment. We had a briefing day at Battlegroup HQ. The situation in the tri-border area (Iraq/Kuwait/Saudi) is, said the Brigadier, essentially favourable to us. We may not necessarily and inevitably go in, especially if airpower does the job and Iraqi forces pull back after three weeks of bombardment. Anything is possible at this stage. We are deploying 340km to the north west. We had a talk on battlefield survival and conduct after capture from an SAS officer who is on attachment to the Irish Hussars from the 22 SAS – having been RSM and now commissioned he was spending six months attached to a line Regiment. Great timing, though I’m sure that he would rather be with 22 SAS behind enemy lines rather than in the back of a command vehicle in front of enemy lines.

He said that a Captain in Iraqi SF was the equivalent of a downgraded Lance Corporal in the Pioneer Corps. He should know, he trained them. Shouldn’t be too much to worry about the 200 Iraqi SF on our side of the border then? He finished by talking about what it’s like to be under fire. He said that he had been mortared plenty of times in Dhofar and said that, while under fire, they made brews and played cards – keep your sense of humour was his advice. Everyone is quite enjoying being magged up with pistols and rifles and with grenades in the trenches ready to lob at some unsuspecting downgraded Lance Corporal from the Pioneer Corps. At least there is now something out there worth waiting up for on a late night stag.

Brig Patrick said that it would be a ‘just war’. It was not inevitable that we would cross the startline. Saddam may make a partial withdrawal. He would get a pounding in the air war, a good show of US airpower. Continue writing home. It is awful for those at home. Have pride in what we have achieved. We are better trained than any other unit on the battlefield. Don’t be incautious when it starts. Fire and movement on the battlefield will win out. Saddam has to be put in his place for there to be peace in our lives.

Col Arthur told us to mind OPSEC. The British Army is bad at OPSEC and the Americans are very aware of it. There are good reasons why we are not getting all the information. Be conscious of who you are talking to. On the Press, Col Arthur told us to watch out for the roving reporter. There is a mobile reporting team in the Brigade Admin Area who will come forward to be with us for some of the time. All their work will be censored. Don’t speculate beyond your level of command. Stay aware of your personal security. In our Corps area, the US will go in first, the Saudis and Egyptians. The Moroccan Battalion will guard an oil installation.

Lunch at border town

Lunch in Khafghi which was later invaded by the Iraqis in an act of treachery.

16th January 1991

For the day on which the UN deadline ran out – 0800hrs Wednesday 16th January our time – and we were supposed to be at war, it was pretty chilled out. I spent most of the time writing letters. A Vickers T-shirt arrived for us to add to the collection, then another complete NBC issue and finally a complete change of bag charges from L13 to L14. Apparently the L14 are less likely to go bang if we get hit. We were issued BATS – Biological Agent Treatment Sets tablets – take one every twelve hours. We’re getting 12 DU rounds and dosimeters to measure how much radiation we absorb from the rounds – they are made deliberately so that the wearer cannot see how much radiation they have had! After the tanks have been up armoured keep the bazooka plates for Over Head Protection in guard trenches.


17th January 1991

Desert Storm! It started at 0200hrs with over 100 Tomahawk missiles hitting targets in Iraq followed by 400 fighter bomber attacks – they all came back. The USSR provided all the technical capabilities of Iraq’s Air Defence weapons, which are all Soviet made, to the US. The Republican Guard Force have been taken out by B-52s.

We were woken at 0430hrs and put into NBC kit there and then in case of any retaliatory strikes by Saddam. We jumped into the tank and started the NBC pack and shut down the hatches. Then ‘gas, gas, gas’ was shouted around the leaguer. The NAIAD at the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) had gone off. The real thing. We were under a chemical warfare attack. Luckily it turned out to be a false reading. Then there was another alarm and off we went again. Of course, it was another false alarm. We headed into Camp 4 for the day where all the phones were u/s and the locally employed civilians had done a runner. It was all quite relaxed in Camp 4, after the morning panic in the desert, and I sat outside writing letters in the sunshine.

O Group points. Watch out for the rogue reporter. Escort any media not being escorted to a Command Post. Al-Jubail and all hotels are now Out Of Bounds (OOB). War time accounting declared – everything can be written off against the war.