Desert Storm Part 16: The Move West

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.


19th January 1991

We needed to up-armour our tanks. A Henry Ford production line was set up in the desert and we drove our tanks through the day long programme to fit 80cm deep boxes of Chobham plates onto the sides of the tank. They were like Meccano sets. We continued working into the night under arc lights. Not very tactical at only 150km from the border, we are well within Scud and bombing range. It is rather ironic since we practiced so hard during the ‘peace’ to be tactical and now that there’s a war on we’re firing up arc lights at night and making a huge noise. Al Beveridge, the QM(Tech) of the 14th/20th Hussars was there. I had last seen him on the Prison Guard Force at the Maze in Northern Ireland, a tour that they had finished without incident. The additional tonnage of armour seemed to have only a minor performance delta for the tanks, so we were quite happy to feel even more secure than we already did and still belt along at 40km/h.

The Doc, Capt Andy Fernando, came around for a talk on the pills and jabs we are taking and getting. Apparently we are going to be immune to anthrax for two years after we have had all three jabs. We practiced with IV jabs. I missed the vein in the plastic arm three out of four times.

We also got a mod to the twin 55 gallon barrel mounting. Another bright spark had come up with the idea of fitting long range fuel tanks to the tanks. Essentially, this was just stealing the Soviet idea of tying on a couple of 55 gallon drums to the rear of the vehicle to add range, in particular in case the logistical tail was not able to keep up with a fast paced war. To refuel the vehicle, we had to unhitch a latch, swing the drum in its bracket up onto the rear decks of the tank, and let gravity pour the fuel into the Challenger’s fuel tanks via an attached nozzle and hose. The new mod included a better lock for the drums and a decent fuel-to-tank hose which meant we didn’t get covered in diesel when fuelling. We buttered up the welders and they put another water jerry can carrying bin on the side of the food bin. It might look like a mobile tinker’s camp but it was going to do the job for us. Anyway, additional bins were like stand-off armour – surely.

O Group points. Coalition SF launched attacks at 0100hrs on strategic targets. Iraq launched 8-12 Scuds at Israel – 1 at Haifa, 2 at Tel Aviv, 1 in the sea, 1 in unpopulated areas, 1 at Nazareth, 1 in Iraq and the rest unaccounted for. 3 Scuds were launched at Dahran – 1 hit the airfield, 1 was destroyed by Patriot and 1 went AWOL. When the Iraqis shelled north east Saudi, US A-10 Warthog tank killers went in and took out the whole of the Iraqi artillery position. It was reported that Syria had permitted Israeli overflights on bombing missions in Iraq. All quite odd. Start taking NAPS – Nerve Agent Pre-Treatment Sets – tablets. Expect a slight rash and the runs. Check armpits.

I wrote home and asked for a replacement Swiss Army knife with two blades and a can opener to be sent to me after the one I had got lost in the desert somewhere.

After up-armouring

After up-armouring.

20th January 1991

Shortly after our return from Khafghi, the plan started to be revealed to us. We were going to be transported from our current position, north west of al-Jubail, to a spot around 250km to the north west and some distance south of the border Saudi/Iraq border. It was the first move of the big left hook that we were going to be making, hopefully hitting the Iraqi Divisions in south east Iraq and in Kuwait in their right flank as they faced south. We would be attacking their vulnerable flank rather than a frontal assault, with the additional benefit of surprise as the Iraqis would not be expecting to be attacked from the west. Others would have the job of hoodwinking the Iraqis by feinting a frontal attack up the coast road and keeping the Iraqis guessing about a seaborne invasion on the Kuwaiti coast.


21st January 1991

It was an overnight move for us. Brew and Pete stayed in the wagon and Gus and I climbed into the tank transporter driver’s cab. I kipped for most of the way on the bunk in the back of the Commander. The greater part of the route had been on tarmac but the joggling down the last 30km of desert track as we approached the Drop Off Point woke me. It was raining hard. The desert here is an unremitting flat plain. The surface is hard and stony, which should be good for tank movement.

After we had dismounted from the transporters at the Div RV, just 80km south of the Iraqi border, Martin Bell, from the BBC with reporters from Reuters, The Mirror and The Times, were conducting interviews and doing some filming of the deployment. Capt Roddy de Norman of the Royal Hussars, was the Media Escort Officer for Martin Bell. Roddy got me to do an interview with Martin on our preparedness for the coming battle and the trip north to the border. Like all War Correspondents’ interviews, this one was pooled with the rest of the media. I learnt much later that my interview with Martin had gone global. Hetty, a news researcher for Sky News in London, was on duty in the ‘bunker’ at Sky HQ in Isleworth when Capt Tim Purbrick hit the world’s media. Appearing on her favourite media apparently swung the cards in my favour.

Once released from our media duty we roared out in a fast convoy across the desert to our new position around 13km from the Div RV. As we convoyed out to the leaguer, Martin’s cameraman, Nigel Bateson, was filming the Squadron from the turret Alex Paine’s Warrior (Zero Delta). When we arrived we reversed the Troop in on itself in an all round defensive crow’s foot position and dug a trench 10m to front of my tank. When we stagged on one soldier would be on guard with a dismounted GPMG in the trench and the other would be in the turret connected to the trench with a length of DON10 communication wire and handset while the other would be in the turret connected to Squadron HQ either by radio or, more likely, by another, much longer length of DON10 that was run out across the desert and dug in.

O Group points. The main threat in this much more northerly position was assessed as being Iraqi SF. There was a contact – firefight – with an Iraqi SF patrol about 50km to the north west of our current position. Two Iraqis were killed and the rest captured. Other major threats included a counter-attack by the Republic Guard Force using the Wadi al-Batin as their centerline to hit Hafar al-Batin, King Khalid Military City (KKMC) and our Log Base Alpha. We have to carry our NBC kit with us everywhere now and we’re on radio silence – no electronic emissions that might give away to Iraqi ears that a Corps had moved west and now threatened their western flank. Another character on the battlefield was a former Grenadier Guards officer, now a journalist with Frontline Media, masquerading, we were told, as an Army officer with a uniform, I/D card and an Army landrover. He was not an accredited journalist – a war correspondent – so his output could not be checked and, anyway, he was dressing up in uniform when he should not have been. He is to be arrested on sight. Water is tighter now that our supply lines are longer. We will have to be more conservative until they have the lines properly opened up.

The Iraqis flew 27 air sorties against us. Most were shot down. We flew 2,150 air sorties against them. All battle targets have been dropped so that air can focus on Scud hunting and nail them before Israel is forced to react. We’re expecting rain. There have been four negligent discharges, three in the same unit. Don’t do it. Ten Scuds were launched yesterday and all were shot down by Patriot batteries. Two of the Transporter Erector Launchers were hit. It’s assessed that they have five or six left. US satellites watched a Scud being prepared at 2138hrs last night. It was launched at 2155hrs and shot down over al-Jubail by Patriot a few minutes later. We have air superiority. Keep your Nomex (flameproof) coveralls for the war otherwise you’ll wear them out if you use them all the time now. We’ll run up the tank engines twice a day at 0630hrs-0730hrs and at 1715hrs-1745hrs. Otherwise, complete silence and no lights at night due to the SF threat. We have started taking Nerve Agent Pre-Treatment Sets (NAPS) pills. We take one every 8 hours and they make us 40 times more resistant to a lethal dose during a chemical attack.

As we settled down into our new home we could hear rumblings to the north. It could be bombs exploding on Iraqi positions on the other side of the border or it could be thunderclaps as the weather is filthy here. There are many more planes in the sky above us.


23rd January 1991

A turbo prop aircraft flew over us very early in the morning. D Day gets closer, mentally and now physically. This is probably the last place that we will be able to relax a bit before moving to the forward assembly area. As usual the World Service appears to have given away our position. Now I know what it must have been like to be a soldier at Goose Green in the Falklands War where the same thing happened. We saw the Egyptian tanks today on our right flank. They’ve got M48s, so even older than the tanks belonging to the US Marines. But they look very well maintained. They are moving off to the north east in a few days, to be replaced by 800 US Army A1M1 Abrams – a slightly warmer and fuzzier feeling was felt by all present. We have also been issued with 6 L26 Jericho Depleted Uranium rounds for T-72 killing. We’ve put them in the ready rounds rack where they look quite incongruous with egg boxes and loaves of bread stored between them. Another anthrax jab is on the way too.

We had a Study Day at Battlegroup HQ at 1100hrs. There was a lengthy intelligence briefing on the air war so far. We were briefed on our counter-penetration option against an Iraqi attack down the Wadi al-Batin. We launch from line TIGER which is 13km from our current locstat. We will fight 4 Squadrons up because counter-pen requires the maximum barrels being brought to bear. We talked about providing intimate support to the infantry on the objective and the NOTICAS procedure including KIA, WIA, MIA and battlefield burials. I saw all the other 17th Lancer Troop Leaders and Piers. Back in the leaguer we had no rations, mail or water. The rest of the day stayed cloudy and chilly until evening when the wind dropped to a stunning silence with the only sounds being the noise of people quietly getting into stand to positions and the distant movement of some vehicle.

O Group points. From the 17th January we started to qualify for an active service medal. The Div water point has been contaminated. There is no more hydrogas for the suspension units in theatre. Smoke generators will be issued. Watch out for Iraqi deserters. Options for Change is being postponed until after OP GRANBY. The Iraqis have set a number of oil wells on fire. The al-Wafrah oil field has been alight since 20th January. Two Scuds were launched at Tel Aviv last night. There are assessed to be twelve TELs (Transporter Erector Launcher) left. Twenty enemy aircraft were destroyed in dogfights. Two Iraqi officers who deserted claim that there are no chemical weapons forward. Two Iraqi SF patrols have been interdicted by the Saudis. One had an RPG north of al-Jubail and the second was a frogman. Air was not being as successful as hoped because all the aircraft are Scud hunting.


24th January 1991

I was in and out of Squadron HQ which is a 400m journey across the desert. We are the rear right Squadron in the Battlegroup which means The A1 echelon is right behind us. I received a mountain of mail including one from HRH Prince Mohammed bin Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia inviting me to visit him. The weather was better today. We saw a few planes flying over but heard a lot more including distant rumblings from the north.