Desert Storm Part 20: Prepare to breach.

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.


15th-16th February

We had a 48 hour exercise – so much for sitting still and doing nothing. At the first place we stopped there were a lot of Saudi soldiers around with bolt action Lee Enfield rifles – the rifle I used in the Combined Cadet Force at school – it had been the rifle of the British infantry soldier in the Second World War. They were guarding a huge 10ft deep hole in the ground. The Saudi soldier said it was a Scud B impact. Looking around us at miles and miles of bugger all it was hard to imagine what its target had been. It could have been shot down but we were miles from a target worth protecting by Patriot batteries. Most likely was a technical fault in the ancient guidance system which had thrown a wobbly and the missile had flown itself into the deck.

A US convoy started going past us at 0900hrs and it was still passing us when we left the area at 1500hrs. It may still be going. The exercise finished with a 40km route march to our new piece of desert. It looked much the same as the last piece of desert. Endlessly flat. We were told that the exercise, which seemed quite slow to us, had been a success. There was plenty of air activity above us. Maybe we’re back under one of the inbound/outbound routes into Iraq. Way up we saw through binos an RAF Tristar refueling two Tornados. While we were out on the exercise there was another peace initiative which we were all excited about until we heard that there were 40,000 conditions attached to it. There was relief, then frustration and then a feeling that once this war machine gets going there will be no stopping it.

We tuned into the US Forces update to the media in Riyadh which we could get on FM on our civvy radio. It was the most comprehensive update we had yet heard. 2,600 sorties flown. Two A-10s shot down over Republican Guard Force positions. We never hear any of this stuff. Very importantly we have had a parcel from my sister containing 9 rolls of loo paper. At least we’ll be okay in that respect. There is also a mountain of food on board that many people have generously sent over. We could do with a Challenger trailer to cart it all along.

O Group points. Apache missions started at 0001hrs today. Desert Storm continues. Desert Sabre is ready to be launched. A bunker in Baghdad was hit. Hotel with press in it in Baghdad is also a command post. In the Staging Area, live on the right hand side of the tank. Replens come on the left side. Dig a shallow shell scrape. Put CARM over crew positions. Wear helmets and flak jackets. Put out roving sentries.

17th February 1991

The rain returns. Regimental Church Service as it is Sunday. One day we’re complaining about the dust then next about the rain. It’s never right. But the rain means that we try to be ‘inside’ as much as possible. That’s inside the bivvy or inside the tank or anywhere that the water can’t reach us. We have been listening in to the US Forces media update. An Apache attack helicopter took out a Bradley M113 APC during a hot contact with an Iraqi patrol. I’m looking at up-armouring our rear bin against Maverick missile attacks.

We received a food parcel from Col Robert, including a bottle of rum. We’re having tots in our tea which the Regiment calls Gunfire. All good for morale. There’s going to be a Regimental photo tomorrow. We’re constantly saying that ‘this is the last time that we’ll all be together’ and there always seems to be just one more time.

Sitting in our Troop hide we were startled to hear some energetic shouting coming from around 200 metres to our west. We stopped what we were doing and stood outside the cam nets holding our mugs of tea to see what was going on. It was a Centurion Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE), a bit of kit used to carry fascines (ditch filling plastic tubes), blow things up with its 105mm gun, and whatever else Engineers do with their kit. Unlike our Challengers it was a petrol powered piece of equipment. Men were sprinting away from the vehicle, shouting their heads off. By this time the whole of the Troop was lined up watching the spectacle. Suddenly the whole vehicle was ripped apart by a massive explosion that was straight out of a war movie. Fire, smoke and debris burst 100m skywards in a spectacular black, brown, fire and debris filled cloud.

It was fabulous to watch until we suddenly realized that a 40 tonne vehicle had just exploded and the air was full of shrapnel coming our way at Mach 10. Before anyone had the chance to shout ‘cover’ or dive under our tanks for safety one of the Centurion’s track sprockets landed 20 metres in front of us. As the smoke billowed away across the desert there was absolutely nothing left of the vehicle. By a miracle no one was killed or even injured. It came out that one of the crew had been cleaning the back decks of the vehicle with petrol – with petrol! – when he had spilt a container of it on the vehicle’s burning hot exhaust outlet. And the rest, as they say, was the quickest 100 metres that any of the AVRE crew had ever run.

Accidents are inevitable in training for battle. We had already lost a 16th/5th Lancer officer and crew member when one of their vehicles fell into a hole during a night move. A motorcycle despatch rider had also been killed when he fell of his bike and his personal weapon, the notoriously unsafe 9mm Sub Machine Gun (SMG), got caught on something as he came off, cocked itself and shot him dead.

Final Preparations

With just days to go before the ground offensive, last minute preparations are underway. Photo: Crown Copyright.

18th February 1991

There was a CO’s Conference. Int reports that enemy activity is low. Minor repositioning. Iraqis believe that our main effort will be in the elbow of Kuwait. They are moving forces there. None of their Divisions are more than 60% combat effective (CE) with 27th Infantry Division at 21% CE. Apaches are now operating 150km across the border. Iraqis are applying a scorched earth policy and burning Kuwait’s oil wells. The Iraqis have Fuel Air Explosives (FAE) but only for Multi Barreled Rocket Launchers (MBRL) and there won’t be many of them left by the time we get there. ‘Morale’ Battalions (Bn) are operating across the Iraqi front line units, executing deserters and anyone listening to foreign radio stations. There was a shoot out between a Morale Bn and a Regular Bn with 23 Morale Bn soldiers killed.

The plan is that the Big Red One (US 1st Infantry Division) will make sixteen breaches in the Saudi/Iraq border, we file through and then breakout with 2 ACR (US Armoured Cavalry Regiment) on our left and 1 ACR on our right, they’ll be heading up the Wadi al-Batin, which will be a feint. The Syrian and Egyptian Divisions will attack Kuwait directly from the south along with the Marines. It will be larger than D Day in 1944. QRIH BG will be point for the Bde. We could be in a counter-penetration line for 10-12 hours waiting to see if the Republican Guard Force Command’s (RGFC) Tawaklana Division mount a counter-attack against US movement towards objective COLLINS. Do your job to the best of your ability under all circumstances. Post the Staging Area we will be in enemy territory, think discipline. Remember, you’re good.

O Group points. Do your Gunnery servicing. The shit pit diggers are here. Dhobi system is up and running again. G Day will be 21st. We will cross the breach on the night on 22nd.


19th February 1991

An incredibly hot day. Sometimes I think that I prefer the cold, wind and rain. At least you can run around and get warm but there’s no escaping the heat. Stand to has been abandoned so we have a lie in until 0700hrs….very late for us. We had a day of Gunnery servicing which actually took only 40 minutes followed by our Squadron O Group. Yet another peace initiative is on the table. This one is Russian and has been rejected by President Bush. Then the Iranians made an announcement and then our friendly US media update said that this had been rejected too. None of these initiatives seem to make one bit of difference to the military air campaign which saw 2,800 air sorties go north and the loss of one A-10 Warthog over Kuwait. We can hear muffled crumps of artillery and bombing to our north but it must be a long way from where we are.

I went to have a shower in the Mobile Shower Unit and stood for a glorious ten minutes under the hot water. I felt like a million dollars when I got out but I still can’t wait to have a bath. I stuck my maps together. It’s vast. We all reckon that we will tear off the parts we have passed as we won’t be going back that way. But we also think that we’ll hang onto the maps and use them to wallpaper our downstairs loos when we have houses!

We had a very mellow afternoon sitting in the, now cooler, sunshine chatting over a cup of Lapsang. We could have been a million miles from here. There was no warning that the coming night would herald the Mother of All Storms with lightening, 100mph winds, thunder claps, electrical storms and lashing rain. I snuggled further down into my sleeping bag and shut it all out until dawn when we got up to discover that most of our little home had been wrecked.

O Group points. Op planning continues. Apaches conducted a raid against Iraq’s 45 Inf Div 40-60km north of the border. The Iraqis got out of their trenches and waved white flags. Mobile Bath Unit is here again. There will be a Regimental gathering tomorrow with the Brigade Commander speaking to us at 1000hrs (transport from Squadron HQ at 0900hrs) and a Commanders Conference afterwards. Supply priorities are for battle winning equipment and combat supplies. No food resupply for a week. Parcels will stop but blueys will keep coming. NBC kit is not battle winning equipment so expect to fight dirty. New S10 respirator haversacks are being issued today. Check out radios today. Make sure that the radio earthing lead is properly secured. Multi Barreled Smoke Grenade Dischargers (MBSGD) – check they’re disconnected.

An airhead is being established behind our position so that kit can be flown into us directly from England. Troop Corporals to Zero for map issue at 1400hrs. 1330hrs shower run for five men. Water replen at 0630hrs-0730hrs and again later in the day. Points back from CO’s O Group. We will go in on G+1. The Brigadier says that we are still on course. What will it be like? Noisy, frightening, chaotic and stressful. Will it be quick? Air superiority means we can kill all on the battlefield. We have better equipment, we will outnumber everywhere we attack. They are not as sustainable as we are and their morale is not as good. Chemical weapons? Yes. The US will retaliate in some way to chemical weapons. Relax on gas. Just cause? Saddam wanted to take the whole of the Middle East. HRH Prince of Wales has said that his thoughts and prayers are with us. The Brigade has been together for two years. It is best trained, bold and aggressive. Don’t take casualties. Take prisoners. Start taking NAPS again at G-2.


20th February 1991

We had a chat from the Brigadier today and formal orders for the operation. The Brigadier answered our questions and told us about some of the letters he had been receiving. In orders, our mission: Irish Hussars Battlegroup will conduct a forward passage of lines though 1st US Infantry Division, advance on orders within boundaries destroying the enemy tactical reserve. D Squadron will lead. We are at G-3 and holding.

Otherwise the rest of the day was spent tinkering with our tanks, getting some new issues of equipment and administrating ourselves. I did a clothes wash in shampoo and hung the wet kit out to dry. It only too about two minutes and ten seconds to dry in the warm wind. Piers told me that he had spoken to Col Robert in Tidworth on the phone – some kind of military phone, Ptarmigan, I think. He said that it was rather a strange conversation as they couldn’t think of anything to say to each other as they were rather surprised to be on the phone together.


21st February 1991

Just another day of sitting around in the desert receiving letters and writing them as well as continuing with all the mundane chores of maintaining our equipment and ourselves. The Squadron medic came around to show us how he would be using IV drips on us. I volunteered to be the Troop pin-cushion. He missed my vein three times and there was blood pissing down my arm. I felt a bit wobbly and Pete got me a mug of water. Peace initiatives are all falling over and Iraqis are surrendering in their hundreds. Reports are that 500 Iraqis surrendered on one position when it was attacked by Apaches. The Americans flew in Chinooks to pick up the POWs and went back the next day to collect some more as well as do some intelligence exploitation. They’re using Kuwaiti interpreters who, I suppose, won’t have much sympathy for the Iraqis.

I had a letter from Poppy at Eton. When HRH The Princess of Wales visited Eton the other day she told Poppy that she was writing to soldiers in the Gulf and sending them soap.

All the time we had been in the desert my bank account was filling up with unspent cash. Luckily for me I didn’t have a wife and kids at home spending my money as if I was still at home. I had none of those responsibilities. Instead, I had been eyeing up car porn while sitting in the turret doing midnight stags. I wrote home and ordered a red Alfa Romeo 33 Boxer 16v 1.7 litre Cloverleaf, tax free, to be collected in West Germany on my return.

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