Desert Storm Part 19: The calm before the storm

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.


9th February 1991

In the morning the wind really blew up and great clouds of fine desert sand got into every nook and cranny so that we, our stuff and the tank were covered in a very fine powder grit. There was a lot of air activity last night and quite a few missiles were launched from near where we are. We didn’t hear any of the explosions despite the Americans dropping Daisy Cutter bombs from Galaxy’s – a Daisy Cutter is a massive 15,000lbs lump of metal and explosives which, as the saying went, cut the daisies for a fair distance around the point of impact. Its effect is like an earthquake which explains the rumblings that we hear.

O Group points. Iraqi execution squads are on the hunt for deserters. Three Scuds were launched and all three were destroyed. Weapons to be loaded only in the guard trench and at stand to. Watch the bolts on the new armour – check tightness. Check fire extinguishers. The MOD are working on the assumption of 7-10 days of fighting, 3 to 6 to 8 weeks of sitting around after the war and then we will return. On return we’ll get a month’s leave, plus 14 days, plus all leave owed so far this year. No mags on weapons. An RE despatch rider was killed by his own SMG. An M109 artillery piece has blown up.


A Challenger 1 sporting additional fuel drums; Crown Copyright.

10th February 1991

I took the Uzi up to the ranges on Sunday morning. It was awesome on fully automatic. A full mag of 30 rounds went in 3 seconds in what sounded like a fart. I’ve now got 1,200 rounds on board or 1 minute’s worth of ammunition. It was sunny and clear today with a cooling breeze but it was still cold as I did my stag at 0330hrs. Col Arthur came round to see the Troop and to give us a personal update on the situation. We have a Commanders’ brief tomorrow and he asked me to ask all the questions that I had asked him again tomorrow at the Commanders brief.

Morale is high and we’re all chaffing to get on with it so that we can get home. But we’re also aware that the longer the air war goes on the more the Iraqis are being pounded and the easier it will be for us when we arrive on the battlefield. It’s all pretty horrific but when it’s him or me, I don’t care. Having said that, air activity was quiet today but that could be because the B-52s are flying from RAF Fairford in England so they come to Iraq and Kuwait via a different route – not sure where they were coming from before. We have wired a boogie box into the tank’s intercom system so now the big argument is about what we listen to as we go in…Ride of the Valkryies, House Music or George Michael.

O Group points. Put your battle links across in the Staging Area. Stand to at 1755hrs-1825hrs. No morning stand-to. Double sentry from 0530hrs-0630hrs. If you write to the Sandy Times, show the letter to the OC first.


11th February 1991

CO’s Conference at Battlegroup HQ. The CO said that the performance last week was good. In the Staging Area get your heads down for a kip. Troop Leaders to Zero Delta when the Sqn Ldr is away at a briefing so we can be ready to receive his orders on his return. Half load the Commander’s GPMG and the co-ax. Sort stowage out to ensure vision from episcopes. Fill internal water tanks. We will have no support for 72 hours. We’ll be closed down from the Staging Area. The route will be marked with blue cyalumes. Vehicle spacing to be 25m in lanes and lanes will be 300m apart. We’ll be at 30 mins NTM (Notice to Move). Expect to be in the Staging Area for up to 18 hours. If you break down, wave the next vehicle past.

Radios on low power but OK to use once through the breach. Irish Hussars Battlegroup will lead once through the breach. Our job will be to find and fix the enemy and to be the Fire Support Regiment for the Brigade. Destroy enemy from 2,000m, don’t go closer. No infantry to be dismounted. Only interested in destroying armour. On G-6/-5 there will be a Guns Raid across the border firing 3,000m over the border to assess the enemy’s counter-battery capability. If there is any, we will engage immediately with MLRS. 23,000,000lbs of TNT will be fired into the breach area. Once we have broken out 40 Fd Regt RA will be in direct sp around 2km behind QRIH BG. For the guns to stop, deploy and survey takes 15 mins. The enemy have enough artillery ammo for 5 days of intensive firing. Watch out for bomblets – blue disc – they’re dangerous.

There will be ten Challenger turret decoys issued per Squadron. They’re a third smaller than a CR turret. Place at least 50m from your tank. It’s a force multiplier. Actions on contact: from indirect fire, move PDQ, starburst and then swing back on axis; from the air, move Sqn in figure of 8 and create a cone of fire for the aircraft to fly through. Tendency to huddle under attack. Don’t. Spread out. We can survive almost anything he has at 2,000m. If hit, speak to crew, hit the smoke grenades dischargers. Shock of the hit. Treat casualties in the turret. If fire, bale out. Otherwise stay in the turret. It’s the safest place. Iraqis jump out of their tanks when they’re hit. Keep going and maintain momentum.

In Khafghi a US Bradley firing 25mm cannon at a T-62 caused the Iraqi crew to bale out. The Iraqis are being severely degraded across the KTO and Iraq. Saddam believes the ground offensive is imminent. Still expecting us up the coast road. Ships off the coast are playing recordings of tanks on the ranges as deception. Saddam has ammo dumps and fuel across the whole of Iraq. No doubt that he was going to go on for all the state in the Gulf.

Look after equipment, fuel and water. We aim to seize a water hole on the far side of the breach. De la Billiere thinks that the ground offensive will take 14 days. As soon as it is over they will try and get up home asap, at least within 2-3 weeks of the end of the war. Enemy surrenders – no one is to risk their life to accept a surrender. Wait until they move towards us with no weapons. Put IR/thermal tape in inverted V shape on the tanks. The US aims to destroy Iraq’s ability to wage war for ten years. 15,000lbs bombs are being dropped as quickly as possible because world opinion will stop the US from dropping them.

At these regular Regimental briefings the breadth of skills required to make a modern battlegroup was evident. Aside from the largest groupings of Irish Hussars and 17th/21st Lancers, we had soldiers and officers from 5th Inniskillen Dragoon Guards, the Canadian 8th Hussars, the Royal Tank Regiment, the Royal Regiment of Wales, the Royal Artillery, the Royal Army Medical Corps, the Chaplains Department and 22nd Special Air Service Regiment.

Collectively, we likened ourselves to our 7th Armoured Brigade forebears, the Desert Rats of the Western Desert, and we dressed accordingly in whatever was comfortable. No two officers were ever dressed the same. The Irish Hussars in their Thunderbird hats, some of us had Service Dress hats, or woolly motto beanies with an array of jumpers, jackets, boots and weapons that would make any visitor think they had arrived at a tinkers’ convention and not at a battlegroup on the brink of war. It was glorious sunshine all day until I woke up in the late afternoon and it was raining, again.


Challengers equipped for NBC (Nuclear Biologial & Chemical). Crown Copyright.

12th February 1991

O Group points. Have a good wash before we go up to Area RAY (Assembly Area) as we will be on water conservation from then on. Iraqis believe that the main attack will come through Kuwait and they are moving troops there. Watch out for AT-11. It’s an Anti-Tank Guided Weapon fired through a tank barrel. Range 100m-4,000m. Laser guided 125mm HEAT round. Easily disrupted by smoke. It won’t kill a Challenger so not a big problem. If you have any vital kit then send it back to Camp 4 now. A Land rover is going back with kit. Can also collect anything you need. Check the obturators for scratches. Scratches could lead to a seal failure so have them checked out by REME.


13th February 1991

On Wednesday morning I did a lot of admin like sticking maps together, going up to Battlegroup HQ to look at photographs, then to Squadron HQ for the daily O Group and then having a shower and a change of kit as well as doing my washing. The days slightly seem to blur as life revolves around O Groups, stags, sleeping, eating and waiting. The only training we can do is talking as we’re not allowed to move the tanks. We’ve probably done all the training that we’re going to do. The next move will be to war.

O Group points. Paint the nuts and bolts on the up-armour with sand paint. There is a stream, not a flood, of Iraqi deserters. No real Iraqi air threat any more. They have the capability to jam VHF nets. Two sets of body armour to be issued per tank. Run the tank’s generator for only half an hour in the morning. Scud missiles have been flying over our heads to land in Riyadh and in al-Jubail. More worrying for the Allied Coalition, Saddam has also been rocketing Israel. If the Israelis retaliate then many of the Arab nations in the Coalition, like the Egyptians and Syrians alongside us here in the desert, are likely to have an issue about fighting alongside the Israelis.

We have to keep the Israelis out of the war at all costs. Patriot batteries have been sent to Israel where, like around Riyadh and al-Jubail, they are enjoying a high hit rate against the aging Soviet Scud missile system. SAS patrols are already across the border to identify and call strikes in on any Scud Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) vehicle they find.


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