It 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.
24th February 1991
G Day. First O Group points. Phase Line IOWA has already been taken by 1st Inf Div, now ordered to withdraw. 0900hrs, Zero Delta has left for the Staging Area. 1000hrs Div O Gp, 1200hrs Bde orders. Egyptians advanced into southern Kuwait. 1200hrs, Div radio check. L Hr will be 1400hrs. M Hr will be the move from the Staging Area. We will move at 1445hrs to a Regimental concentration area. 10m between vehs. 25m between lanes. Routine – no cam, no shell scrapes, roving sentries, Troop radio stags on min power, 30 mins NTM.
Orders this afternoon. Move to Staging Area 3 will be on transporters. On arrival, same routine as for the Regimental Concentration Area. The move may possibly be on tracks. There is a map trace, don’t do the detail. The breach has been made in the Iraqi 48th Infantry Div area. It is the least capable of the Iraqi Divs in the Kuwait Theatre of Operations (KTO). 37 Bde beyond Phase Line SMASH, well dispersed, armour heavy, likely to be our objective. Assessment is that Saddam will use chemical weapons.
The French launched the offensive at 0400hrs. 101st Airborne have a 60km wide front in Iraq. 82nd Airborne were put back to 0810hrs. 1 ACR are holding on the 40 Northing. The Big Red One (1st Inf Div) is at Phase Line MINNESOTA. The Marines are 20-30km into Kuwait. The Iraqis have a good Direction Finding (DF) capability but they are appalling at adjusting fire. All moves could be brought forward. Dead bodies. Unless there are lots of casulaties we will collect bodies at the Bde RV and take them back to Saudi for burial, then exhumation and send to England. I/d discs go with personal effects. Can use area behind Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) for stowage but not in front. Clear all rubbish. In enemy territory don’t huddle. In the Brigade Admin Area the RHF and KOSB Coys are providing local defence and POW handling. No targets on the Iraqi side of the border so the arty fire plan is being reduced.
Hello, it’s now G Day. (Sounds of the crew making bomb dropping whistles and shouting ‘gas, gas, gas’ – for the benefit of the tape!). It’s twenty to four in the afternoon of Friday. We’re sitting in a Regimental Concentration Area before going up to the Staging Area. Things have been moving a lot faster than we thought they were. It looks like we’re not going to take the transporters up. We’re going to track up. We’re going to drive up to the Staging Area and, possibly, even through it. Apparently the Americans have taken 10,000 prisoners already and things look as though they are going along quite swiftly north of the border. So we don’t know what’s quite happening. I’ve got an O Group in about half an hour and, hopefully, we’ll find out more then. The American Marines have landed north and south of Kuwait City. The Egyptians have gone in, the Marines have gone in. Wait out.
Second O Group points (1635hrs, Sunday 24th February). Move 1705hrs. D Sqn leads. 7 Bde north. 4 Bde south. The French are halfway to their objective. 101st Airborne have secured Objective COBRA, around 100kms over the border. 1st Inf Div have 1,000 POWs. Joint Command North (Syrians and Egyptians) have two breaches into Kuwait. The Marine Expeditionary Force is 30kms into Kuwait and have taken 3,000 prisoners. They are dealing with a counter-attack at the moment. ZINC will be our objective. Iraqi tanks are dug in all the way up to their turrets and APCs are completely dug in. Irish Hussars will lead the Staffords in the north and the SCOTS DG in the south. N Hr is when we cross Phase Line NEW JERSEY. We are to be at ZINC by N+15.5 hours and maybe a lot quicker. Pause on Phase Line ROSE to shake out then on again. Guns fire, Apaches go in. SCOTS DG move north with Staffords and do Bde attack on ZINC. Routine – heads down, no scrapes. Don’t know how long we will be there. Dress state 1.
The initial plan was to get the tank transporters to lift us up to the Staging Area south of the Iraqi border on the evening of 24th February. But things had moved more quickly than had been anticipated. We were ordered to track up to the Staging Area. It was a night move.
(Sounds in background of tank engine changing gear as the Challenger is on the move). It’s now twenty past seven on G Day. We have moved early from the Regimental Staging Area up on the way to the Staging Area itself. We moved a lot earlier than we thought. Nearly, about 15 hours before we thought we would have to move. So, obviously things are going quite well on the other side of the border and we have heard that the Big Red One have caught 1,000 POWs so far and they’re continuing to press on. It’s obviously dark here now but everyone is driving with dipped headlights on. It just shows you the measure of our arrogance or confidence that the Iraqi air patrols aren’t going to make it through here. Looking behind me now I can see the convoy stretching back for miles, miles and miles back into the desert. B Squadron are point Squadron for 7 Armoured Brigade as we go trough the breach. We have been tasked to go for a target called ZINC which looks like it’s a Brigade of T-62s from 52nd Armoured Division.
In a slightly surreal start to our war time experience we drove north in convoy, not tactically, but with our headlights blazing. With my head out of the turret I looked back down a long convoy of headlights snaking back into the desert. We had by now achieved not just air superiority but air supremacy. After a month of pounding the Iraqi Air Force and its bases, it was just not possible that any Iraqi aircraft could have got airborne and attacked this vulnerable target.
Some hours later we arrived in the Staging Area. From here we would leave for the breach. No bivvies went up in case we had to move quickly so we dossed down on a roll mat next to our tanks or on the back decks where the cooling, ticking engines kept us warm. In the distance I heard the sounds of a lot of multiple rocket launchers in action.
O Group points. Staging Area 3, 2200hrs, Sunday 24th February. We were given a map of the locations of enemy units on objective ZINC. Two tank Bns, one tank Coy, three Mech Bns, one Mech Coy and an M-30 arty Bn. Spread out on Phase Line ROSE. Bde formation will be QRIH leading with Staffords and SCOTS DG following. N hr is when Div cross NEW JERSEY. At N+4 4 Bde will be on objective BRONZE and secure it by N+11. At N+9 7 Bde will be on COPPER. QRIH mission is to move as Fire Support Group (FSG) on ZINC to support remainder of Bde assaulting. We are to bypass all enemy up to Phase Line ROSE. Other battlegroups will take out anything else. We fix the enemy for the attack. Watch southwards for enemy coming up from south. There will be a replen in the FUP.
25th February 1991
Early in morning there was a last opportunity to get the Squadron’s officers together for an Orders Group. The American were reporting light defences with no tanks. There are already 10,000 POWs in this sector. It is being reported that they are fighting from a distance and when the Allies get up close they’re chucking the towel in. The enemy Brigade in front of us are assessed as being the worst Brigade of the worst Division in the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. Sounds good.
O Group points. Staging Area 3, 0820hrs, Monday 25th February. 7 Bde will be the first to clear Phase Line NEW JERSEY. The Bde centerline will be the far end of the FUP. Little enemy between Phase Line NEW JERSEY and Objective ZINC. If see CVR(T) in front, they’re friendlies. Waypoints issued for Trimble satnav. NBC dress state 1. In the FUP stay wide, 100-150m between vehicles. B-52s are on ZINC now. Faults into Tiffy.
It could be the last time that the officers of D Squadron would see each other until the war was over or if any of us were killed in the forthcoming action. We marked up our maps with the new phase lines to be reached and the new enemy positions to be assaulted. We shook hands and went back to our Troops to brief them. Last minute maintenance, food and other admin was taking place. And then the order came to move.
It’s now ten o’clock on the morning of the 25th and we have just had orders to move up, cross the border, and move up to sit behind the 3rd US Brigade because the breach has expanded up to the rear of our intended FUP. The orders are to move on as quickly as possible through COPPER which is basically very lightly defended and onto ZINC which is the Brigade position which is our, 7 Brigade’s, target to attack. We expect to get up to the FUP by about twelve o’clock this morning.
The snaking line of tanks moved slowly forward and then halted, in the Mother of All Traffic Jams.
We’re now six kilometres from the border. And we’re just about to leave Saudi Arabia and enter Iraq.
We have waited so long – more than an hour and a half so far – that we have turned our engines off to conserve diesel. It’s quiet apart from the occasional sound of artillery in the distance. Slightly surreal knowing that this is not a range practice but those rounds are being fired in anger. We’re getting reports that the Americans are hitting everything, which doesn’t sound as though there is going to be a lot left for us, which might be no bad thing. The Iraqis are reporting on the World Service that they are repelling us everywhere. Every man and his dog is trying to squeeze through the gap in the border that has been opened up for us. It required quite a bit of traffic management to sort it all out. It would have been another fabulous target for the enemy if they had known we were there and had the capacity to hit us.
We’re now stuck in a traffic jam about five hundred metres from the double berm which marks the border. There’s a bit of traffic crossing to our front and there are quite a lot of American vehicles that we can see the other side of the border. And we have just past some artillery positions which have been deserted. Allied positions, which still had quite a lot of shells left around them.
Eventually we got going again. We approached the border berm. A big sign had been placed on top of the berm. ‘Welcome to Iraq’. It was signed ‘Courtesy the Big Red One’. Two soldiers waved us through the breach. We were closed down – all hatches were secured. The NBC pack was pushing filtered air into the tank creating an overpressure inside the vehicle’s living space which would make it more difficult for chemical agents to infiltrate through hatch seals. This was the point at which all the int had indicated Saddam was most likely to launch a chemical attack against us. The main armament was loaded with FIN. The co-ax was loaded. Even my useless Commander’s GPMG was loaded. We were ready for battle. We entered enemy territory along a track cleared of mines and marked with tape and day glow poles.
We passed a number of abandoned US artillery positions piled high with used 155mm shell cases. The guns had moved on but the evidence of the previous night’s barrage remained. Urby broke down in the breach. He got left behind as tanks by-passed him and even the Fitter Section couldn’t help him. He was abandoned to 2nd line support which would sweep him up as they came through the breach some time later. No shots had been fired and I had just lost a third of my Troop’s fighting capability and the Squadron had lost 8% of its firepower, because of an engine failure. We continued along the taped off corridor, motoring along quite fast one behind the other in a daylight convoy. Were we crossing a minefield or was there just nothing but desert on either side of us. Either way it didn’t matter.
(Sounds in the background of the tank on the move). We’re now some fifteen kilometres into Iraq. We passed the double berm along a marked corridor. We have passed a number of artillery positions. And, it’s pretty much clear so far.
We continued 40km into south eastern Iraq such was the bridgehead that the Big Red One had secured during their first night of operations. The strategic plan of a ‘big left hook’ around the main Iraqi defences in southern Kuwait seemed to be paying off. Resistance was next to non-existent, it appeared. At the end of the marked area we fanned out in arrow head formation in our Forming Up Position ready to take up the advance into enemy territory. We were the Brigade fire support Regiment – three Squadrons of Challengers to suppress the enemy position while the infantry battlegroup closed with the objective – so we had lost one Squadron to the Staffords and had no Infantry ourselves.
We have now moved right up to the FUP just south of NEW JERSEY. Someone was just telling us that there are friendly forces about four Ks to our front. We are about to cross NEW JERSEY in about five or ten minutes and then we’ll be out pretty much into enemy country on our way to COPPER. Apparently the Tawaklana (Division of the RGFC) are moving south about thirty Ks to our north and we might see them at some time. Wait out.
4th Troop were on the left rear wing of the arrowhead. The Sqn HQ tanks were in the centre behind the point tank. We were still within the Coalition protected area, the ground seized by the Big Red One, but from here we would move forward to take up the advance from the Americans. D Squadron were the point Squadron for The Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars Battlegroup who were the point Battlegroup for 7th Armoured Brigade who were the point Brigade for 1st (UK) Armoured Division who were the point Division for the 7th Corps. We were the tip of the Allied spear. We were now just 2,000m behind the frontline, shaken out into arrowhead formation. The fuel bowser came around to give us all a quick squirt of juice. From now on it was fuel, ammunition and water that would get us through combined with our training, determination, fighting spirit and our wagons. Tiffy, the Squadron’s Artificer Sergeant Major or Chief Mechanic, pulled up alongside me in his 432 vehicle. He had a huge .50 calibre machine gun mounted in front of him which he had grasped in both hands. Under his walrus moustache his mouth was a beaming smile. Tiffy was going to war too.
25th February 1991
Advance to contact.
At 1515hrs the Battlegroup radio net opened up in my left left ear. It was the CO. His hunting horn blasted a few notes over the air waves. ‘Tally Ho! Tally Ho!’ he called. We were off. Soon we passed through the US frontline and we were it. Everything in front of us was the enemy to be shot and destroyed or to have their surrender taken. After ten rather dull minutes or ernie-ing across the rather dull, undulating desert we sighted a string of camels and their herder passing north to south in front of us. We did the decent thing and stopped until he had passed across our bows. And so did the whole of the Allied advance.
It’s three forty five and we have crossed NEW JERSEY. We’re in the bad guy’s land now. And we’re heading north east at the moment to COPPER. The Tawaklana are moving south west towards us. Out there somewhere. We’re moving in diamond formation. We’re at the rear of the Squadron. We’re in cleared ground for the next five Ks and then we’re in to the uncleared territory where we’ll have to be a bit more careful.
A few minutes later I caught a brief glimpse, looking through magnified my gun sight, of a US Apache attack helicopter wheeling over a target at low level throwing up a cloud of dust and sand some distance to our front.
It’s now four fifteen in the afternoon and we have gone firm on LARCH.
Then the enemy appeared. Three Iraqi soldiers came from nowhere, hands held high. We swept past them leaving them for someone else to pick up – we could barely fit in the tank ourselves let alone carry along three Iraqi POWs. The point Troop sighted an Iraqi T-55. Can we fire? Should we fire? Can I have clearance to fire? They hadn’t really got hold of the fact that we were in a free fire zone and that the enemy could be engaged where seen. Shoot first, send a contact report, prosecute the engagement until the enemy threat was eliminated, move on. Clearance to shoot was eventually given and then the tank about to take the shot had a computer malfunction. Immediately the tank next door slammed a FIN round into the T-55 sending the ancient turret bowling across the desert. Blooded, but we were laughing at the farce of it. It was more like a bad exercise than a war.
It’s now seven o’clock on D+1 and we’re sitting on the line ROSE having had six Iraqis surrender to us. They were just wandering over the horizon. They got picked up by the Fitters and told to walk back down the centerline. We had a contact with Three Zero. Some berms or something. And they said they’d engage it. Then they failed to fire their gun. Then Three Two had a problem with their CCMU (fire control computer) and the whole thing went for a bag of crap. The guns were going to fire then the guns weren’t allowed to fire. And now it’s night. The rain is coming down. Visibility is crap. And we’re just holding on this line waiting for something to happen. Everyone has done their TOGS servicing but that has made no difference. And we’re just waiting out for supper.
As dusk came on we continued our advance eastwards. The weather closed in on us too. Rain, sand and probably unseen clouds of pollution from the burning oil wells which the Iraqis had fired in Kuwait were whipped around the battlefield by the wind. Those wells and the lakes of burning oil would have been a formidable obstacle if we had been making a frontal assault through southern Kuwait but we weren’t. The probe into southern Kuwait was a feint and the west was where we were coming from. The weather degraded the thermal picture on our thermal gun sight to such an extent that we could barely see the tank in front thermally, let alone visually, and we certainly couldn’t see the enemy. Convoy lights were switched on – these are small lights at the rear of the tank which shone down on a square of black and white vertical lines so that the tank behind could follow the one on front at night. We rarely used them on exercises in West Germany and we weren’t supposed to at war. Then the Trimble satellites dipped over the horizon and we had nothing to go on. It was too dangerous to go on. Blundering around the desert when we could hardly see each other and didn’t know where we were. We came to a halt on leading edge of a position marked ZINC on our maps.
My head ached liked hell. The atmospherics through both radio networks had been hell all day and there was a constant, vicious static coming into my head over both the radio nets that I was monitoring. Left ear battlegroup, right ear Squadron, both ears the tank. In Germany we had been used to what we called the Turkish taxi drivers coming onto our radio nets. This could have been atmospherics from Turkey or, more likely, it was the Soviets in the Harz Mountains to the east, rebroadcasting on our frequencies to mess us around and see what reaction we made. But the static that night in Iraq had been unbelievable, like white noise torture.
Despite the rain, I could do with a leg stretch. The Squadron was deployed in line abreast facing east. I unclipped the hatch and threw it back. Rain immediately started splashing my face. Fresh air, maybe. I pulled myself up and out of the turret, helmet still on, the radio’s long, curly umbilical cord stretching back into the tank so I was still connected. I pushed the hatch down again to stop the rain filling up the tank. From the turret I stepped down on the back decks where warm air from the cooling fans flowed up through the louvers of armoured decking. I took my helmet off and relished the relief from the static. It was pitch black. I couldn’t see anything, neither front nor back. We could have been parked up 10 metres from an Iraqi tank and I wouldn’t have been any the wiser.