Desert Storm Part 17: The 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.

 

25th January 1991

It was a bloody miserable day weatherwise. It rained so much so that it leaked through the bivvy and onto my bed. We had a Commander’s meeting. Martin Bell spoke to us for ten minutes on the press. I asked him not to ambush me if he was asking me questions on one subject and then sprang one on another. He said that it was not intentional and that I should just say that I’m not happy and he will stop. Not much news on the Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA). The CO said that we should be in no doubt that we were going in. My guess is 1st February. Intelligence: 16 Iraqi aircraft shot down; 6 Scuds launched – two at Riyadh, two at Dhahran and two at Israel, all were shot down, not one has had a successful hit in Saudi.

We had a brief on the press. There are 150 of them in Dhahran. Two Mobile Reporting Teams will deploy. Reports will be sent to a satellite at Div. A Lt Col will check all the film before it is transmitted. Martin Bell said that the US commanders of the operation were all Lts and Capts in Vietnam. They don’t want the same mistakes to be made. We were briefed on the move to the Assembly Area and the move through the breach into Iraq. Top cover as we take up the advance will be 40 A-10 Warthogs, an Apache Regiment and Spectre Gunships – converted C-130s with a 105mm belt fed gun and 5 x 40mm cannon – they fly in pairs. We will have air recognition panels for the back of the turret. The bypass policy is that we’re not interested in infantry, unless they might be a problem for A2, otherwise we’re looking for tanks. Two transport aircraft flew to Iran under a Combat Air Patrol. Saddam is claiming that we have used chemical weapons – this may provide him with an excuse to use his on us.

In the leaguer there was another briefing and an O Group to discuss the counter-attack operation that we are practicing tonight.

I took the Mossberg pump action shotgun onto the ranges, lined up three 55 gallon drums and put a hole in all three from 20 metres using the 1oz lead shot. I had an anthrax jab.

We heard on the news that a RAF Tornado bomber was shot down by a Patriot missile battery and the crew killed. Another Tornado was shot down during a low level bombing run on an Iraqi military airfield. It seemed like a suicide mission in the first place. Fly your heavy, bomb laden jet down the centerline of the enemy airfield at zero feet, drop your bomb over the middle, get even closer to the hard deck and max revs for your five star hotel in Bahrain. This time Flt Lts Peters and Nicholl came a cropper when, for whatever reason, the bomb didn’t fall off their plane when it should have done and the over laden plane became easy meat for the Iraqi air defence systems ringing the airfield. Luckily they had time to eject. Unluckily they were quickly captured. During their captivity they were tortured and forced to make on camera ‘confessions’ which were put on the TV by Saddam. It made us angry and even more determined to do our job.

26th January 1991

We set off on the exercise at 0200hrs. It went really well. In the distance we could see US convoys heading north as the light came up. We returned to the leaguer through a replen. The rain had gone and the sun came out but there was a bitingly cold wind. We’ve had some berms made around our hide. They provide protection from the wind and give us a bit of privacy to do our own thing. We were issued with a huge new desert cam net which fits over the tank really well. I received a large parcel form Owen and Candida. We had an excellent supper of herring in dill sauce – sent by Owen and Candida – with chips and baked beans washed down with a mug of Lapsang Souchong tea.

 

27th January 1991

It was a miserable rainy day which eventually gave way to a biting wind. After a wash and shave I was straight back into my doss bag with my woolly Regimental hat on to listen to the tape that Owen and Candida had sent me. It was lovely to be tucked up in a warm bed with the rain coming down outside, knowing that it couldn’t get at me. One of my letters was an overdue Mess bill from 11 UDR for £9.02. If there’s one thing that’s for sure, whereever an officer is in the world, even at war, his Mess bill will always find him. Poppy at Eton has got the whole of her class writing to me and Sebastian Nokes sent me a pile of newspaper clippings. We were issued with a US shermagh today. Not so much a shermagh as much as a tea cloth. Toby Maddison, our Squadron Leader, came around in the afternoon. He said that 14 Iraqi jets had defected to Iran yesterday but apart from that there was not much int to be updated on. Brad and I went for a walk around the Troop hide. With the berms around it’s actually quite a large position. But, we concluded that the only significance of the berms was for wind protection.

The weather is colder now and wet and windy. The wind is incessant and constantly shifting direction. It was restless, like us. There are some truly spectacular storms and electrical storms – end of the world is nigh type of storm. Everyday I am wearing a T-shirt, combat shirt, desert Guernsey and my Garry Gortex waterproof jacket and I’m still cold. Still we are still far better off than the Iraqis to our north. I could almost guarantee that they are not as well kitted out as we are and, also, we’re not having daily B-52 visits.

The desert turned a shade of green overnight as dormant seeds took the opportunity of the heavy rain to push up above the ground. Amongst the grass were occasional patches of flowers. The grass is so green that it almost resembles a putting green. It’s a pretty amazing sight. Even if it is not a Swiss mountain meadow in spring, it might as well be for us. The green almost hurts our eyes it’s so bright after months of no colour except sand.

 

28th January 1991

It was 4°C when I stagged on at 0020hrs. The day was rain free and sunshiny but there was a bitingly cold wind which kept me in my Guernsey jumper all day. We had a day’s briefing at Battlegroup HQ. Not that we seem to have the plan but we talk through options get int updates and generally see each other, particularly the other 17th Lancers, and chew the cud. The plan that we know so far is that we will move 40km into Iraq, which should be unopposed, before taking up the advance. The Div is the Corps’ main effort so we will get MLRS – the Grid Square Removal Service – with two Batteries of 6 launchers spreading 644 bomblets over a 250m x 250m area.

Our FIN round will take out a T-80 at 2,000m and, if it’s hull down, 1,000m. DU will take out a T-72 through the frontal armour, and then keep going. HESH should be good out to 3,000m. Drop the round short of the target to get the forward V of the blast effect. We should ‘fight forward’ in the 2,000-3,000m band. Use the Challenger dummy screens in the counter-pen line. There is no one for the Iraqi soldiers to surrender to at the moment. Only when we get to their positions will they have the opportunity to surrender. See white flags, ensure that no enemy fire is coming from the position. Wait for further orders.

Back in the Troop hide I passed on everything that I had learnt during the briefing. There’s nothing worse than not knowing anything. I’m the lucky one who gets to go to all the briefings and see people so it’s important to pass on as much as I know and in that way we have the horse’s mouth version and we’re all in the same information boat. We were issued some more DU rounds today. I have been issued with some combat body armour. It’s a bit like a Northern Ireland INIBA jacket. It’s desert coloured with an anti frag vest and two bullet stopping ceramic plates, one front and one back, to cover the heart.

 

29th January 1991

On the overnight stag I went into the trench instead of the turret. It was bloody cold. I wore everything, including my NBC suit. I had the GPMG and grenades. It was a full moon and I could see for miles. No Iraqi SF patrols came my way, sadly. Later that morning we fitted Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) to the glacis plate at the front of the tank, which should keep the drivers happy. It looks pretty smart.

We have also had a sat nav fitted to my tank. The Trimble satellite navigation systems were fitted to all Troop Leaders and Squadron HQ tanks. The Trimble, a white plastic cap mounted on a foot long pole on the turret roof linked to a read out and control panel fitted next to the Commander’s crew position, relies on 8 satellites to give an accurate fix of our position on the ground. You could kiss it goodbye if the tank came under artillery strike as its vulnerable plastic receiver and its spindly pole would probably not survive. For the first time we are going to know accurately where we were. Up until then it has been steam driven navigation with a compass, which doesn’t work on the tank as the tank’s metal interferes with the north pointer. I guess that is why someone also came up with the idea of fitting a sun compass to the turret. But, as there was no sun and the bloody thing kept snagging everything, we buried it in the desert. Our only other navigation aid are maps the size of tennis courts with absolutely nothing marked on them except for empty grid squares.

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There was nothing out there to be on a map. No roads, settlements, rivers, railway lines, woods or even features like hills and vallies. There were, however, patches of sabkha. Sabkha is very soft sand, almost like wet concrete. Drive your tank into one of these and it was often a one or two tank recovery operation to get you out. Ideal for turning your mobile pill box into a static one in less than 50 metres. But even the sabkha locations were just guesswork by the cartographers. The last person out there was probably Wilfred Thesiger or some other explorer. Wrestling with a useless, vast, map which constantly required refolding as you made progress across it, in the tightly confined space in the commander’s crew position made command of the tank even more difficult. As it was we believed that a Challenger tank commander had more buttons to push and flick than there were in a Tornado pilot’s cockpit. Add your respirator, grenades, personal weapon, body armour, tank servicing manuals, report cards, Nomex flameproof overalls, Royal Navy anti-flash masks and gloves….we were like Michelin men and could barely get in and out of our crew positions. It was so bad for a shorty like me that I asked the Fitters to knock me up a metal ladder so that I could climb on and off the tank more easily. They got me to cut up the angled steel and then they welded it all together in a ladder. It’s brilliant. It sits on the ERA when not in use and props up against it when I need to climb up onto the tank.

We did some gunnery servicing and I spent time playing with the satellites on the Trimble.

O Group points. 100 Iraqi planes have flown to Iran. No one knows why. It’s assessed that Iran will not let them back during the conflict. The bombing that we can hear to the north is the RGFC Tawaklana Div being hit. We could get four medals – a British General Service medal, a campaign medal, a UN medal and a Kuwaiti medal.

 

30th January 1991

I had the second anthrax jab. More flash hoods are at A2. In the mail I received a bottle of whisky from Simon Marriott, Patrick’s elder brother, who had fought in Saladin armoured cars in the Oman campaign and had been awarded the Omani equivalent of the DSO. He wrote that he had seen me on breakfast telly on 23rd January. Apparently there was also a bit in Nigel Dempster’s column in the Daily Mail saying that a ‘dashing young cavalry officer of the 17th/21st Lancers was trying to get hold of a sub-machine gun but the stuffy MOD wouldn’t let him have it’. How the hell did they find that out?

Khafghi was invaded by the Iraqis today. They had come over the border with white flags flying and their guns to the rear, as if they were surrendering. Then they flicked their turrets around and attacked. That’s not a ruse of war that’s an abuse of the white flag and a breach of the Geneva Convention. After the Iraqis had taken the town the Americans went in and took them all out with tanks and helicopter gunships flying down the streets looking for Iraqi tanks. All of the Iraqi vehicles were destroyed. Everyone is to crap at least 50m from the leaguer. The Iraqi grid network is down and will take two years to repair. There are no intact bridges over the River Euphrates. Basra and Baghdad are severely jammed with 50km traffic jams each way.