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.
26th February 1991
0100hrs. Objective ZINC, Iraq. Then suddenly….Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Holy f**king hell! We were under attack. I had my helmet on and was back in the turret within seconds, slamming the hatch behind me. ‘What the f**k is going on?’ ‘Where’s it coming from?’ ‘Are we the target?’ Everyone was using their episcopes and gun sights, looking around frantically for the source of the artillery or whatever it was. We weren’t being hit, at the moment anyway. I looked 360° through the commander’s episcopes – mini armoured glass periscopes fitted all the way around the commander’s crew position to offer a limited all round vision. Behind us. ‘It’s behind us.’ ‘What’s behind us?’ ‘Missile launches.’ They must be ours. I opened the hatch gingerly and looked about. As I did so the whole horizon to our east exploded in swirling red clouds of explosions.
Behind us I could see and feel the missile launches of a Multi-Launch Rocket System (MLRS). White streaks of light trailed the missiles as they exploded out of the rectangular boxes on the rear of their tracked launcher vehicles. The white lines arced in the sky above us and went out as they crossed above us before joining the explosive death at their target end. They must have been firing at their closest range as they did not appear to be parked far behind us and the missiles weren’t landing that far in front of us. The Grid Square Removal Company, as MLRS were known, had joined the battle. We all clambered out to enjoy the world’s most spectacular and dangerous fireworks display. It was awesome. Now I could see the tanks on either side of me, lit by the missile trails and explosions.
The line of tanks snaking away into the distance with the next Squadron lined up either side of us. To the north, in the light of the MLRS rocket fire, I saw recce cars moving from behind our lines and out to the east. They could have been our Recce Troop or it could have been a Squadron of Divisional Recce from 16th/5th Lancers, off to check out the enemy for tomorrow. Like all fireworks displays, this one came to an end and, with no spectacle to keep us in the open, we retreated from the rain back into our bunker.
(Popping sounds in background are MLRS missiles being launched). It’s now a quarter past one on the morning of the 26th. And we have just reached objective ZINC. We have been sitting here for the last two or three hours. And there’s an MLRS strike going in about two Ks to our front. Sounds like a f*****g great bang from behind us, we can see the rockets fly over the top and all to our front the horizon is lit up by the explosions, red, bright explosions of the MLRS rockets.
We have all pulled back to the west of the Three Zero easting and we are waiting while the strike goes in on area ZINC. And, out there, there are about four T-62 tank battalions. It’s still pissing with rain. It has been pissing with rain all f*****g night. Utterly f*****g miserable. And we just wait. Once the MLRS strike has gone in, I guess more artillery will go in and then the Staffords and the SCOTS DG will come in from the north to do their clear up. But it is quite phenomenal the power of the MLRS strike.
D Squadron advancing across the billiard table flat desert. Iraqi positions were widely dispersed.
26th February 1991
After the MLRS barrage, the word came around that we would be staying put for the rest of the night. It was thought to be a good idea to get all the tanks into scrapes so that we would at least have some hull down protection when the sun came up in a few hours time. As we only had one dozer blade in the Squadron, and this was fitted to the 2ic’s tank, it was the Squadron 2ic, Philip Napier’s, job to dig us all in. A wearying task at the end of a long day and one which also used up more of their fuel.
The whole Squadron went off-line as people zonked out in their crew positions. Soldiers can kip any where at any time. Power napping is a required habit and activity for the time when you are inactive. I took the first watch scanning the horizon, visually and thermally, flicking between the two systems. I used the commander’s grip switch, a pistol grip with a trigger, press the trigger and turn the pistol switch and the turret moved, to turn the turret in the direction I want to look, generally a 90 degree or wider arc in front of your tank.
I had been scanning for 10 or 15 minutes, keeping my eye on Philip’s approaching tank as it busied itself digging in the Squadron. Suddenly in the distance I started picking up hot spots on the thermal sight. What the hell were they? They were moving from north to south and then, it appeared, away to the east. At the range they were and with the degraded sight picture, I couldn’t tell what they were. But they were targets. Most likely they were Iraqis bugging out in their tanks and trucks to a fallback position to the east from which they could fight us another day.
I woke up everyone in the tank and got Gus to confirm what I was seeing. I spoke to Philip Napier on the Squadron net and he told me to fire it up the Battlegroup. It’s very unusual for any Troop Leader, apart from Recce Troop Leader, to come up onto the Battlegroup net. That was the usual preserve of the Squadron Leader and occasionally the 2ic but certainly not a pee-on such as me. I put a situation report into Battlegroup HQ.
Capt Piers Hankinson was the duty watchkeeper. We were cleared to engage, there were no friendlies to our front he confirmed with Brigade HQ. Now the whole Squadron was up. We picked targets and started firing. We had FIN loaded but the targets were too far away. ‘Stop loading. Load HESH,’ I ordered when we have fired off the FIN. ‘On,’ I said laying the gun onto a distant target. ‘On, ‘ responded Gus. ‘Loaded’ from Pete. ‘Fire’ from me. HESH selected came up on the screen. ‘Lasing’. Gus fired the laser at the target. The return gave us the range and computed the elevation of the barrel. ‘Firing now’.
The turret rocked as the heavy shell left the barrel. There was a huge explosion about 100 metres in front of the tank. ‘Holy s**t’ from Brew in the driver’s seat, ’what the f**k was that?’ Crest clearance. The round had slammed into a ridge in front of our tank and exploded. It was the same all along the Squadron. I got on the net and we moved up onto the ridge and started the engagement again. It was difficult to tell but we claimed a number of hits at the fleeing and fleeting target.
The ongoing theme for the war. Thousands of Iraqis surrendered as we advanced eastwards.
It’s now five o’clock in the morning and we have just had our first action against what we thought was probably guns all lined up but there were about forty six vehicles. We took them on at far too far a range because we all got a bit cab happy. People started firing HESH rounds into a ridgeline about a hundred metres in front of us. So we wasted six HESH and one FIN and it looks like we got two, miles in the distance. But the rest, the other f**king 35 vehicles, have f**ked off and they’re left behind fifteen or twenty just sitting in the position.
Could be a dummy position. We’re holding now at the moment. We don’t expect to go forward until dawn starts to break at about half five, in about half an hour. So, a bit of waste of time. We could have pursued them and engaged them closer which would have been a lot more exciting. But we stood off and engaged from a long way which was good fun. Good to get a few rounds down but I don’t think that we really achieved that much.
After all the excitement we zoned out again. The post adrenaline low after the combat high. The battlefield went quiet. There was no further action. We had brief kips in our crew positions before dawn started breaking from the east.
As the sun came up over a misty desert scene the weather cleared and our systems were back on line. As the light changed we began to pick up targets on both thermal and visual. Tanks. They were ensconced behind sand walls or berms to protect their hulls from our rounds. We picked one. We had HESH loaded from the night before. ‘HESH tank, on’ from me. I handed the shoot over to Gus. ‘Loaded’ from Pete. ‘On’ from Gus. ‘Fire’ from me. The executive order to kill the target. ‘Lasing…firing now!’
The tank rocked as the round tore across the desert. ‘Stop loading, load FIN.’ It was time to load the tank killer round. ‘Loaded.’ The HESH round exploded against the berm. Shrapnel and sand showered the T-55. ‘Fire’. ‘Lasing…firing now.’ The FIN round departed with a purposeful recoil of the breech in the turret. No effect target end. ‘Loaded.’ ‘Fire.’ It was going like clockwork on the ranges but the target was not falling when hit. ‘Lasing…firing now!’ I glanced at the Commander’s Range Read Out (CRRO). 3,600m to the target.
Three times the battle range of the Challenger, which was 1,200m. Eyes back into the sight as Gus said ‘now’. The tank recoiled. Through the smoke and obscuration of the firing came a small lightening flash. ‘Target’ called Gus. The white flash indicated that the tungsten of the FIN round had struck the metal of the enemy tank. The flash was like a lightening strike. It shone through the smoke and explosion of the cloud of dust and explosives from our tank firing. This third round fired at the enemy tank had entered through its front glacis plate and exited vertically through the gear box at the rear of the vehicle, igniting the tank’s bombload and removing its turret. ‘Target stop’ called Gus seeing the destruction he had wrought on the enemy tank. ‘Loaded’ from Pete. Other tanks in the Squadron were picking off T-55s across our front. It was a turkey shoot. We were probably too far away for them to see us, let alone to shoot at us and hit us.
I found a new target on thermal. It was at this point that the shouty, gunnery approved engagement orders routine went out of the window. ‘What’s that?’ I asked Gus laying the gun onto the target. We flicked between visual and thermal to identify what kind of vehicle it was. ‘No idea. Shall I shoot it anyway?’ ‘Yeah, why not?’ ‘Loaded’ chipped in Pete. ‘Fire’ I ordered. ‘Lasing’ from Gus. I looked at the CRRO, 4,700m. A slice over four times our battle range and a shade under three miles away. ‘Firing now.’ The FIN round rent the air as it tore across the battlefield. At 1,500m per second, it took just under 3 seconds to reach the target. By that time the smoke and obscuration had cleared from the front of the tank, carried off by the light wind.
There was a blinding flash from the target and, a millisecond later, a massive fireball of boiling black and red smoke lifted off the target. It was a vast explosion. ‘Loaded’ from Pete. He dashed across the turret to his own episcope for a look. ‘Holy f**kin’ Christ’ from Brew in the driver’s swamp, ‘what the f**k was that?’ ‘Yiehaw!’ from Gus ‘first round hit at 4,700m.’ I put my blackened, red rimmed eyes into the visual sight. Underneath the mushrooming ball of smoke and fire were hundreds of match stick men running for their lives away from the inferno we had just created.
There was no feeling for the death and destruction that we had just wrought. No smell. No sound. No sensation of killing. The primary emotion was elation at the technical achievement of a target kill with the first round hit at four times the tank’s battle range and the resulting spectacular explosion. Either it was a fuel bowser or a tank with an ignited bombload, who knows and none of us cared less.
(Situation Report or Sitrep given to Squadron HQ) “Hello Zero, this is Mike Four Zero. Sitrep. We took out the T-55 and the possible petrol tanker in depth. Further to that, all enemy vehicles appear to be withdrawing or have gone static. Out.”
We’re now consolidating on this position that we have just attacked. It’s quite large. About thirteen prisoners just advanced forward holding a rather large, billowing white sheet, to advance towards us and surrender. We took out a T-55 at about 4,000, at about 3,600 metres. And, another petrol type vehicle at about 4,700 with FIN which was bloody good shooting. Most of the people on the position have gone to ground but there are some coming out, walking out towards us. The position itself is about 4,000 metres away from us. We’re just holding while the Zero Deltas go forward and pick up the EPWs (Enemy Prisoners of War).
Looking back at the Wai al-Batin behind 42, which had caught up with us the previous night, having broken down in the breach.
The target we had hit continued to burn with a huge smoke plume rising off it for the rest of the morning as we continued to pick off targets across the enemy position.
A battle replen had been organised about 1,000m behind the frontline. In turn the D Squadron Troops peeled off. When our turn came we reversed out of our position keeping the turret with our main armament and our best armour pointed towards the enemy until we were a couple of hundred metres behind the Squadron line. Through the episcopes I saw the replen, a column of B vehicles lined up and ready to refuel and rebomb us. Brew then threw the vehicle around and Gus kept the turret pointing towards the east so that the gun was over the back decks.
We curved round into the replen so that the SQMS’s vehicles were on our left side as we approached from the west. A number of vehicles were lined up to give us fuel, ammunition and any water or rations we needed. The first replen vehicle was the fuel bowser. We now kept the gun over the rear decks so that we could access the diesel tank caps on the rear decks. Pete got some gloves on, to prevent diesel contamination, and, as the tank, came alongside the bowser he jumped down from the turret onto the rear decks and tugged open the fuel cap of the first tank. The tank deck was level with the deck of the bowser so it was only a matter for the soldier manning the bowser to thrust the fuel hose into Pete’s hand so that he could start refueling the first fuel tank.
There was some cheery banter between the vehicles. ‘How’s it going?’ ‘What’s goin’ on up there?’ ‘What was it like so far?’ That sort of thing. In less than 10 minutes we were refueled. We rolled gently down the line of vehicles to the ammo truck. Pete dived back in the turret to sort out the stowage and order the ammunition natures that we had already expended. Gus jumped out of the turret to help pass the ammo across from the replen into the turret where Pete was frantically stowing. I was on top of the turret with my headsets on so that I could monitor the radio nets for any developments. No 7.62mm or 9mm bullets needed. FIN and HESH came on board along with their bag charges and some more of vent tubes, the rounds which sat in a magazine under the main armament initiating the main charges of the 120mm. Full bombload.
I ordered Brew to move us down the line. ‘Do we need any rations or anything?’ I asked Pete. ‘No, we’re good.’ Gus was back in his crew position. I waved off the rations guy on his vehicle. He waved back. ‘OK, Brew, back into the line quick time’. We accelerated hard past the end of the line of replen vehicles going quickly up through the gears. I looked back. We were clear. ‘Gun front’. Gus brought the turret round over the front of the tank as we continued to accelerate back into the line. In less than a couple of minutes we were edging into a position not far away from the one we had left less than 20 minutes earlier. Text book replen, faultlessly executed. We were back in the fight.
It’s now twenty five minutes past eight and we have entered the reconstitution phase where we are waiting for more POWs to come out of the position that we have just been taking on. So far Zero Delta has got about thirty EPWs including a full Colonel who has been taken straight back and is, apparently, being pretty wilco.
There is one English speaker amongst the ones that Zero Delta has got and we’re going to try and get some more information out of him. It looks as though there are a lot more people than the thirty that have come forward so far. Maybe they have just gone to ground on the position while we take on some of the vehicles that we are retreating. And we’re all sitting, lined up, facing the position waiting for the POW situation to sort itself out. I think that they have got an infantry company to come up and help with that. And so we’re having a brew time.
Our 4,700m target was still burning in the distance. In fact, it burned for so long that it formed the centre marker for the infantry assault done by the Staffords Battlegroup as they swept down from the north across the centre of the Iraqi position with the tanks of C Squadron QRIH. Will Wyatt in 4th Troop, C Squadron leading the assault, used our burning target as his centre marker. Once the Staffords started coming onto the enemy position we ceased firing. It was time for us to move on.
We headed south for a new enemy position. Moving in arrowhead formation with 4th Troop on the right wing. The weather deteriorated. Not rain but the wind. It whipped up the sand for the first 20 metres above the ground into a frenzied sandstorm. You could see the sky above but the sand storm started to close down visibility close to us. We were swinging the turret to scan for targets and to guard the flank of the Squadron. Suddenly, out of the sandstorm came a T-55 at full tilt. ‘FIN, tank, on.’ ‘On.’ ‘Loaded.’ ‘Fire.’ ‘Lasing, firing….now! Target.’ It must have been the same set of fire control orders in every tank down the side of the Squadron.
One times T-55 had received a Challenger Squadron broadside. It exploded and we gave it a wide berth as we passed flames reached above the sandstorm and what was left of the turret popped and fizzed with explosions as its bomb load and bullets ignited in its death throes.
Just as suddenly as it had arrived, the sandstorm blew itself out. In front of us, as we still headed south, were Iraqi forces withdrawing off the position. A truck was going pell mell away from us. Another tank engaged. Usually you would kill a B-vehicle like this with a HESH round but everyone had FIN loaded from our engagements that morning. Pell mell it might be going but it wasn’t doing more than 1,500 metres per second.
Another Troop engaged. The FIN round went through the truck from back to front and probably kept going for quite a few more miles. The whole of the vehicle’s chassis distorted and the blokes in it fell off the sides and onto the ground. I’m not sure that any of them were killed but those that were thrashing around were holding their hands to their heads, blood coming from their ears because of the over-pressure caused by the brief encounter between FIN round and truck. In a way they were lucky. If it had been a HESH round they would not have lived.
The Squadron swung east again and came to a halt on the edge of what could be a minefield. No one quite knew what to do or when we were going to do it. Ordinarily this was an obstacle. Obstacles are usually covered by fire, so we kept a good eye looking east for any signs of trouble. There were none. Then, usually, the Engineers would come up with either a mine plough or flail to carve a path through the minefield or, if it was available, we could use a Giant Viper – a trailer mounted 100m long sausage of explosive filled rocket assisted minefield breaching kit. The Engineers would drive it up to the minefield. Press ‘fire’. The rocket took off, dragging the explosive snake in a massive arc behind it. When the rocket ran out of juice the snake flopped to the ground. The operator would then press ‘fire’ again and the snake would explode, blasting a 3 metre wide path through the minefield. It was great to watch. But, God knows if a GV would show up now.
So, we waited. 90% boredom, 10% terror. That’s war. It was a chance to get some food down our necks, have some quick zeds and listen out for further orders. We were now on the right flank of the Squadron. Away to my left I could see the Squadron Headquarters huddle of Toby and Philip’s tanks with Zero Delta, the Warrior APC commanded by Capt Alex Paine. Zero Delta was carrying BBC journalist Martin Bell and his cameraman, Nigel Bateson. Alex and his team were also responsible for POWs. Not that they could fit any into their already crammed Warrior.
Instead all Alex could do was point them westwards and tell them to keep walking until they were picked up by the people whose job it was to process POWs. Frontline troops have never been much good with prisoners. We didn’t have the capacity to deal with them and, unless it was quick intelligence we needed, there was little point in being distracted from the ones who wanted to fight by the ones who didn’t.
We hadn’t been in position for long when an Iraqi soldier appeared from nowhere out of the ground about 30 metres in front of our tank. Immediately Gus swung the turret around. ‘Co-ax, man on.’ Pete reached across the turret and made sure the co-ax was cocked and ready to fire. ‘Loaded’. The Iraqi soldier was now looking down the wrong end of a loaded 120mm tank gun and a 7.62mm General Purpose Machine Gun. One word and he would be dead.
But we looked at him. Was he a threat? Did he have a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) or an AK-47 assault rifle or a grenade or even a pistol. None. He didn’t have a helmet. He had no boots on. His shirt was undone to his waist. His arms were raised and tears were pouring down his unshaven cheeks. He had probably been on the receiving end of the 15,000lbs Daisy Cutters for the last month. He had probably got woken up last night by the Grid Square Removal Company firing their MLRS barrage. Probably he had wondered for the last month whether that day or that moment was going to be his last. And now we had turned up, right in front of his trench.
When he realised we weren’t going to kill him he went back to his trench and pulled out five more blokes in a similar state of disarray. They sat cross-legged on the ground just in front and off to the right side of my tank. They all put their hands on the backs of their heads and they were all crying. They were clearly terrified. From the remoteness of the death and destruction that we had been causing since last night we were now face to face with the results. The reality of war. It was hard not to empathise and even sympathise with the poor bas***ds. Abandoned by their officers they had been left to fend for themselves in this remote patch of nowhere in south eastern Iraq. All we could do was point them over to Zero Delta and off they willingly trotted. Alex had a chat to them and then sent them walking westwards. Of course, it all could have been very different if the boot had been on the other foot.
Advancing across Kuwait. Note the air recognition panel strapped to the back bin (bottom left).
(A bit of crew interaction as to what day we’re on). It’s now half past one in the afternoon of G+, what are we? G+2? 1? G+1? 2. Yeah we went in on G+1. G+1 (2! Shouted in the background). This morning we took out those things I talked about before. We sat there for a while and watched C Squadron come down from the north. And now we are moving to the south and south east of that position. We’ve taken out a few more T-55s. Most seem to have been abandoned. It’s rather pathetic to see all these people who are just surrendering straight away. They just have their white flags out and all being herded together and passed back down the centerline.
It was clear that we were going to be in this position for a while so we started doing some battle admin. I felt like a shave and a bit of a strip wash so Pete warmed up some water in the BV. I jumped off the side of the tank and set up a wash station at the rear of the vehicle. My personal weapon was to hand. And then the POWs started flowing across no-man’s land. They had obviously heard that we had arrived and the word had gone around that we were not killing them out of hand as they surrendered, so they joined the flow.
Tens of them walked past me as I tried to have a shave. They all had the Psy Ops leaflets in their hands which told them that if they slung their weapons barrel down, held their hands up and walked towards us they would not be killed. It was working. I picked up some of the leaflets which were scattered across the desert. One had a picture of a B-52 dropping shed loads of bombs. The leaflet was written in Arabic. The implication seemed to be, ‘tomorrow we are going to bomb your neighbouring Division. You will be next. Surrender now’. Another leaflet showed an old man worried about his son at war.
Some of the Iraqi soldiers looked as if they were on a Sunday walk out. They were chatting, laughing, smoking as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Maybe they didn’t. They didn’t strike me as battle hardened veterans either. They certainly weren’t the Republic Guard Force. No doubt they were conscript soldiers who didn’t want to be there in the first place. They looked as though they were happy to have survived.
Now, at last, they would be safe from the bombings and they would be fed and watered, held until the war was over and then probably repatriated home. I took their rifles off them as they passed by and placed them under our tanks tracks where we would crush them as we moved off. I didn’t want them wandering into the second echelon troops carrying weapons.
Without weapons there could be no doubt that they had surrendered otherwise some slightly nervous rear echelon type might be looking for an excuse to shoot or the Iraqi soldier could have a negligent discharge and put himself and others in danger. They were all quite happy to hand their weapons over to the rather strange enemy they encountered, stripped to the waist, face covered in shaving cream, dog tags around my neck, taking their weapons off them. And this was the victor.
With so many surrendering Iraqis walking across the supposed minefield, the minefield in our minds turned out to be a phantom. We drove on through. As we did so orders came through from Battlegroup HQ.
We’re sitting here on G+2. Three o’clock in the afternoon and we’re just hearing over the World Service that the Iraqis are basically withdrawing from Kuwait. Starting today, finishing today or something like that. Because of superior forces. We’re sitting in a counter-pen line waiting for the SCOTS DG and the Staffords to sweep down and clear this position in front of us. And so we continue with our job here. There are hundreds of POWs walking in all around us, walking in over the hills and ridges.
While this lamentable process goes on we are taking out all the bits of armour that he’s left behind, any T-55s, BRDMs, TACPs get taken out. It’s a good chance to use the FIN round. So far it’s more like a souped up BATUS (the British military training programme on the Canadian prairie) than it is a war. Because, we were just trying to work out whether we had had a shot fired against us in anger. I am sure that it will happen. But, at the moment, everywhere we have gone the Iraqis have given themselves up to us in droves, in their hundreds.
For the first time since we had gone into action the orders were in BATCO, battlefield code, otherwise known as BATSH*T. So far everything we had said on the radios had been in clear, without encoding anything. But then we had not really come across anything deserving of encoding. Now we had to decode the orders to find out what we were up to next.
As only Troop Leaders had Battlegroup radios, Squadron HQ had to decode the orders, recode them as Squadron orders, and pass them onto the Squadron. We were being ordered to leaguer up for the night. We used our sat-navs to guide us to the grid. Left a bit, right a bit. It was a bit basic with the Commander relaying driving instructions to the driver but at least we all got to the right place.
(Sounds of tank driving in the background). We are just driving back now to a Regimental leaguer having had 48 hours pretty much continuously on the go. We have picked up hundreds of prisoners and sent them all back into the chain. And, as they come towards you, they have their weapons unloaded and slung over their shoulder. They throw up their hands and come bouncing towards you. I put the weapons underneath the tracks and crush them under there. And any of their tanks or trucks get shot up.
We’ve only had two call-signs with the Troop because Four Two broke down as we came through the breach. We haven’t seen them the whole time that we have been here. The last forty eight hours. I hope that they’ll be able to join us within the next twelve hours while we’re in this rest and recuperation phase. We don’t know what the plan is.
We could push on to SMASH tomorrow. We have heard this talk on the radio about withdrawal in the media. We haven’t paid them any attention so far and there’s no reason why we should now. So, we’ll just crack on. The Colonel just came on the air and he said how proud he was with everyone for the last forty eight hours and thanked everyone. But watch out. Be vigilant for the enemy and be vigilant for accidents.
We leaguered up. Tanks were backed in on one another in Troop crow’s foot clusters for all round defence. We were able to shut down and properly get off the vehicles for the first time in more than 48 hours. Cam sets were not required. Everyone was completely chin-strapped but Brad kept us focused on essential battle admin. We got our first hot meal and then set out our sleeping bags for a proper kip. Guard tanks were nominated and sentries put out.
In what felt like the middle of the night we had a rude awakening. Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! It was incredibly loud and incredibly close. The air was being ripped around us. We were all up in a second reaching for personal weapons and clambering up the sides of our tanks to prepare ourselves for the counter-attack which must be coming in. Then, as suddenly as we were up, adrenaline pumping, we were down again. As the Whooshing! continued, we saw that it was an MLRS Battery parked just 200 metres from our position. They had decided to open up at tomorrow’s enemy.
The rockets arced through the sky towards their targets. This time they were targeting something too far away for us to see or even hear the impacts. And, actually, we’d seen it all before last night. So passé these MLRS strikes. We were dog tired and crawled back into our scratchers and went straight back to sleep, despite the noise. In fact the noise was quite comforting. It was our noise. Outgoing artillery was a good sound, it was the incoming we had to look out for.
No sooner as I had got my head down than I was being shaken awake again. Stag already? No, it was Urby and 42. He was back in the game. His Challenger had been fixed and he had motored without anything more than the blank piece of paper the cartographers called a map, and no sat-nav, across 100km of the battlefield to find us in the middle of the night. It was a heck of an achievement. They were desperately upset to have missed the last 48 hours but I got the impression they had been conducting target practice for most of the 100km at abandoned Iraqi equipment. Urby was keen to join the fight and to make up for lost time. The Troop was reunited. We all got our heads down, apart from stags, until first light.
27th February 1991
After a hasty wash, shave and breakfast, I was ordered to Squadron HQ just a few metres away across the desert. What was planned next? We couldn’t be too far from the Iraqi/Kuwait border. Were we going to push into Kuwait or were we going to swing north into the teeth of the Republican Guard Force on our way to Basra or even Baghdad? The Iraq/Kuwait border was marked by what had come to appear to us as the almost mystical feature of the Wadi al Batin.
The Wadi had caught our imagination from when we had first heard of it before the ground war had started. This physical feature marked the border between Iraq and Kuwait and trailed south of the border into Saudi – the tri-border point. We sat around Toby who had already been to Battlegroup Headquarters to receive his orders.
New maps were issued to add to the tennis court of mapping folded up on my knees. I had already torn off the parts of the map that we had already past and thrust them into one of the bins on the side of the tank. There was no going back. Our new limit of exploitation, Toby announced, was the River Euphrates. As far as we knew there was no River Euphrates in Kuwait. Well noticed, boys. It’s in Iraq, past Basra, the main city in south eastern Iraq. This wasn’t just going to be ‘Free Kuwait’, as the stickers given to us had announced, this was going to be ‘Smash Iraq’.
O Group points, 0730hrs, south eastern Iraq just west of the Kuwait border. We will move north then east into Kuwait and onto objective VARSITY where we’ll get a replen. We will then clear north up the Wadi al-Batin through the 6th Inf Div and take on the Hammurabi and Medina Divs of the RGFC.
The Line of Exploitation is the River Euphrates. US are continuing to attack. 7 Bde’s task is VARSITY. QRIH – A Sqn lead, D Sqn left with Recce Tp on the inter-Div boundary to our north, B Sqn right. There are T-72s out there. Not a lot between here and VARSITY. A Coy of T-72s were hit last night. Ready to move at 0730hrs (now!). Much more difficult today – fighting. D Sqn Order of March: Three Zero lead, Four Zero left, One Zero right, Two Zero on the centerline.
We returned to our Troops with the new orders, issued the maps and mounted up. The advance eastwards began again. The orders also said that all Iraqi equipment encountered was to be destroyed. We came across a T-55. ‘Take it out.’ ‘Loaded’. Bang. Miss. Miss!? From 200 metres? What the f**k was going on? 42 smacked it straight away sending the tank’s turret bowling across the desert. How could you bloody miss from 200 metres? I learnt later that a bit of kit called the Link Temp Comp Bar had not been switched on. This obscure piece of kit on the right side of the gunner’s crew position did something obscure but crucial and its lack of functionality had thrown off our shot.
It’s now G+3 and we’re moving eastwards. Everything has gone out of the window. We’re moving now into Kuwait, across the Wadi al-Batin, swinging north through the Hammurabi and Medina Divisions then through the north west border of Kuwait and up, maybe as far as the Euphrates River in Iraq. There are T-72s out there. And we are heading right now towards a Company of T-72s that got hit last night by MLRS and M109 which woke us up in the middle of the night with a phenomenal amount of missiles and bangs quite near to us. Finally, Four Two has come back to us so the Troop is complete. We’re now motoring out of Iraq, into Kuwait and then back into Iraq.
Not long after we came across the famous Wadi al-Batin. It was more like a steep ridge as we approached from the Iraqi side with a drive-able slope down its eastern flank. We slipped over the edge, ran down the slope and the liberation of Kuwait by Coalition Ground Forces had begun. The invaders had become liberators. It was our third country is as many days.
From invader to liberator. D Squadron spills over the edge of the Wadi al Batin and enters Kuwait from Iraq.
It’s now ten o’clock in the morning and we have just crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait. So far we have only encountered small pockets of enemy and we have taken out a static T-55 which was abandoned. Two abandoned T-55s. Apart from that we have now crossed the border down through the Wadi al-Batin into Kuwait itself. As we go eastwards there are still small pockets of enemy on the ground, flinging down their weapons and surrendering. We’re waiting for some tanks to come down from the north east.
We continued eastwards into Kuwait. The desert resumed it flat and gently undulating aspect, relative to the cliff edge that had been the Wadi al-Batin. There were no Iraqi positions so it was merely a matter of driving east while covering our arcs to ensure we weren’t surprised. For the first time on our northern flank we saw US Forces. Ahead of ourselves on our left flank and to our north. Abrams M1A1 Main Battle Tanks. The QRIH BG was running on the inter-Divisional boundary so it was not surprising to see them. What was surprising was that they were firing across that boundary into our Divisional area. I passed a warning to Squadron HQ and we hung back while the US tankers cleared their target and moved off.
In between us and the Americans was our own Recce Troop. Capt Al Murdoch’s Recce Section was on our left flank, marking the boundary for us. It was a proper use of Recce Troop, to give the armoured Squadrons warning of any enemy approaching our flanks. The irony was that the height of the Challenger and the quality of its optics meant that it could see further and with better quality than the Scorpion recce cars could. While Recce Troop was great fun in the complex terrain of West Germany, sitting in an aluminium box on top of a petrol tank in the flat terrain of the desert with crappy optics and toy gun was not my idea of fun. I was a lot happier in my Challenger. We could see Al’s section on our flanks, dipping up and down over the landscape. A call came across the Battlegroup radio net. Al had spotted an Iraqi position. White flags were flying and he was going to take their surrender. It must have been only a few hundred metres to our north. The Squadron slowed in response, just in case Al needed any assistance.
A new, immediate, call came over the Battlegroup net moments later. Casevac requested. Al’s Section had been hit. Treachery on the battlefield? Abuse of the white flag? Two men down. Helicopter requested now. Battlegroup HQ got on with the task of mustering the medical support. It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was the Americans who had hit them. Al’s Section had come under fire from a pair of US M1A1 tanks. One recce car had taken a main armament shot through the glacis plate, killing the vehicle and injuring one soldier.
As the others had rushed to help, the US APCs had hosed them down with machine gun fire. Al’s men took cover behind a sand dune and surrendered to the US troops using the same white flags that the, now melted into the desert, Iraqis had used to surrender to them a few minutes earlier. We were ordered to stay firm. Adding our tanks to a trigger happy situation would have been a recipe for disaster. ‘Oh, Gee, sorry pal. That’s happened a couple of times already this morning’ the Americans casually told Al, tossing some field dressings down from their vehicle before hurrying on to catch up with their own unit. It was a blue on blue. Friendly fire. But no fire is friendly and this was unfriendly fire. A chopper came in and casevac’d the injured. At least the Field Hospital would be happy. There had been so few casualties that they must have been bored to tears.
It’s now half past eleven in the morning and it looks like we have had our first casualty because of a blue on blue. American M1A1 came and engaged Victor Two One and Two Two who were trying to take some EPWs and the American tanks came down from the north, fired a main armament at Two One and co-ax’d Two Two. The operator of Two One has got severe head injuries and the operator of Two Two has got an arm injury. The emergency helicopter is coming in and let’s hope we get it all sorted out. But it’s typical, unbelieveable that the first casualty that we have to take is a blue on blue casualty.
As we were about to move off another radio call came though on the Battlegroup net. ‘We’re under fire. Machine gun fire.’ It was Capt Piers Hankinson in one of the Battlegroup HQ’s command vehicles. And he was calling for help. Battlegroup Headquarters comprised two Challengers, the CO’s tank and his guard tank and a number of Sultans, the Command variant of the Scorpion series. Unless the tanks were with them they only had 7.62mm GPMGs to protect themselves. It was likely that the CO was right up the chuff of the leading Squadron with his wingman and it sounded like Zero, as Battlegroup HQ was known on the radio net, needed help now.
Toby came up on the Battlegroup net. ‘Hello Zero, this is Delta Zero Alpha, support is on its way. Out’. Toby then flicked to the Squadron net. ‘Delta Four Zero, go help them out.’ My Troop had been pinged to dash across the battlefield to Zero’s position and deal with the enemy attacking them. We swung out of the line. In a hurried exchange I got Zero’s position, plugged the co-ordinates into my Trimble sat-nav control panel and issued Quick Battle Orders (QBOs) to the Troop about the task. We swung our turrets around to face the enemy threat we were approaching and our vehicles accelerated out of the Squadron formation and across the desert towards Battlegroup HQ.
We had got no more than 200 metres when a second message came through on the Battlegroup net to say that the situation was now under control and support was no longer required. Bang went our hero moment. We were released back to the Squadron and took up our position on the left flank again.
As we rolled eastwards through the desert of western Kuwait a thick smog descended across the battlefield. Dusk fell into the smog. We turned to face north in a counter-penetration line.
We have tallied up the numbers for the amount of tanks we have got. We have killed fourteen T-55s, seven APCs and – how many artillery pieces was it – about three artillery pieces.
We’re on our way now to a sort of counter pen line where we expect to be for the rest of the day, about thirty Ks into Kuwait and after that we expect to head north east through Kuwait back into southern Iraq again.
We were facing the threat of a Republican Guard Force attack sweeping down from southern Iraq and into western Kuwait. We parked up with 30-50 metres between the wagons in a line facing north east. It was admin time.
It’s now twenty to nine on Wednesday 27th February and we’ve crossed the border into Kuwait for the first time. We had that blue on blue with Al Murdoch and the American M1A1. They took out his wagon. His operator has got severe head injuries and was choppered out along with the operator for Two Two has got a bullet in the femur and shell splinters in the arm. But, apparently, they’ll be OK. They were choppered out.
Now we’re in a defensive line facing north east where we can see lots of American M1A1s and Bradleys about six Ks to our north. All facing the same way. All, I guess, from 1 Armoured Cavalry Regiment, the Division to our north. And they were also the guys who shot up Al Murdoch’s people. So we’ll just sit here. We have had no move until eighteen hundred tonight (sic). So we’ll wait here and see what happens.
But, as we thought we would catch up with all the essential maintenance, food and sleep, our tank’s generator went u/s. An unserviceable generator is not the end of the world but it would mean that we could not use the tank without the main engine running and the usual start up procedure was to run the genny up before using it to turn over the main engine. It was a pain in the arse quite frankly. We got on the phone and spoke to the Tiffy.
Amazingly he had a spare genny on the back of his vehicle and he would be delighted to fit it to our tank if we would be so kind as to present ourselves at his location. We could mosey on down to his temporary garage and get ourselves fixed. Hurrah!
We reversed out of the line and drove carefully east along through the smog behind the line of the Squadron’s tanks and then slightly behind the line to where Tiffy was set up next to the other Squadron HQ vehicles. We parked up next to his shop and slung the gun over the side so that the mechanics could get to our engine bay and then we shut down.
If anything happened like enemy action or an order to move while we were being fixed we would be sunk. Our tank would be in the garage and we would, like Urby, be left behind, or worse, if the attack was in-coming, we would be shot to bits. Luckily Pete had the BV going already and we were able to get a hot meal. Then it was a matter of jumping off the tank and mooching around while the REME team got on with the genny exchange.
There was nothing more that us tank soldiers could do. In the old days of the Chieftan tank much of that tank could be fixed with farmer’s binder twine as it was such a simple vehicle. Its engine bay was huge and you could get to where the problem was. Challenger was a whole new ball game. The engine bay was full to the brim with complex, computer controlled Rolls Royce engine and, apart from the basics, like checking levels, any kind of issue in the back decks was ‘report to REME’ for a fix. On exercise in West Germany my tank had had an engine fire. All my operator, Cpl Robb, could do was crack a couple of fire extinguishers, lift the engine louvres and toss in the fizzing extinguishers before letting the back decks crash back into place. It killed the fire but the tank was a Challenger Mark I hulk.
We chatted to other crews who had also come along to Tiffy’s location for some or other maintenance issue. It was pretty much the first time during the advance that we had the opportunity to share stories with each other and talk about what might be happening next. Soldiers love rumour-control and rumours were running riot that night as to our next move. We still had the maps for the Euphrates and if we went north from our current position, through the northern border of Kuwait and on, passing to the west of Basra, we would hit the Euphrates. But it was just guesswork.
28th February 1991
After a few hours of hoisting out and in, reconnecting and testing, Tiffy declared our vehicle fit to fight again and we headed back towards our position in the line. Such was the thickness of the smog that we had to ask our Troop to listen out for our engine noise as we burbled along back to the west behind the Squadron line at no speed. Eventually we found our way back and eased into the position we had vacated a few hours before. Time for the usual combination of shut eye and stag.
The Charge of the Heavy Brigade
28th February 1991
One minute we were fast asleep the next it was dawn and everyone was shouting. The Immediate Action Drill for this eventuality is to get your kit packed and yourself back into your crew position as quickly as possible and then find out what the hell was going on. It was madness. Tanks were firing up their engines all along the line. Columns of blue-black exhaust smoke shooting diagonally up into the air from the tanks’ twin exhausts. Turbos screaming and turret systems coming on line. Brew got the tank started.
Pete flicked the radio systems into action. Gus got the Gun Control Equipment warmed up. I reached into the turret and pulled out my helmet with its integral radio fit so that I could start to get some situational awareness. Were we under attack, were we moving, where to and why? In minutes the whole Squadron was all on board in their crew positions.
Either side of me Brad and Urby gave me a thumbs up. We were ready to go and fight. I looked left and right down the Squadron line. It was a similar madness of activity. Tank commanders were gesticulating to each other as if to say ‘I haven’t got a fu****g clue what just happened but now we’re ready to go, what is it all about?’
Toby gave a quick set of battle orders. The Armoured Regiments of 7th Armoured Brigade are to advance in line to secure the road from Kuwait City to Basra and we were to do it before then UN deadline for the cessation of hostilities. What deadline? What time for the cessation of hostilities? This was news to us frontline mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed on shit. Apparently some bright spark in the White House had come up with the catchy ‘100 Hours War’ phrase.
Now we had no time whatsoever – an hour – to cover the 40km from our current position to the Basra Road before the expiry of the deadline. ‘Four Zero, you’re point navigator,’ ordered Toby. Outstanding. On the point for the Squadron for a 40km cavalry charge. I plugged the eastward waypoints into the Trimble. ‘Go, Brew, go’. We accelerated out of the line, Brad and Urby either side of me. ‘Go f**king where, boss?’ ‘Turn right and go straight. I’ll keep you straight’. Brew pulled a right stick and we came round to face the east. I glanced rearwards through my episcopes. The rest of the Squadron was falling in either side of me and slightly to the rear in a flat arrowhead with Squadron Headquarters tucking in behind me. We accelerated away to the east.
The Staffords adance forward in their Warrior IFVs. Crown Copyright.
(Tank engine roaring in the background, gear changes and rattling of turret equipment) It’s now zero seven hundred on the 28th. We came into that fire position that I described yesterday and we suddenly had orders in the middle of the night to move very, very fast eastwards to put in a VCP (Vehicle Check Point) and investigate a barracks and we’re doing that now. Four Zero is the point at the moment and we are making our way quite swiftly eastwards. We are passing a number of defensive positions which are lorry borne troops. Lorries all abandoned. Nobody is around here at all. We have just come over a road when an abandoned BMP was. We’re cracking on.
‘We’ve got to really go for it,’ came the orders from Battlegroup and Squadron HQ. Even better. ‘Pedal to the metal, Brew.’ The turbos lit up and the tank leapt forward. The desert was hard. Almost as good as the highway. I looked left and right down the line. Squadrons to the left of me. Squadrons to the right of me. Yea, into the Valley of Death went the 600. It was the charge of the Light Brigade all over again, 137 years later. This time we had swopped our one ton beast of burden, lances and sabres for a 62 ton mechanical monster with a 120mm main armament and two 7.62mm machine guns. Far from being a Light Brigade we were definitely a Heavy Brigade.
The weather was clear and sunny. There were no enemy guns so far. I kept glancing down at the Trimble. It gave little arrows to show whether we were left or right of track. ‘Left a bit’. ‘Right a bit.’ Inside the turret everything was vibrating with the speed of the tank. It was being shaken apart. We crossed a few incongruous tarmac roads. We saw Iraqi vehicles. All of them destroyed. We weaved in and out of a bunker position. Off to a flank James Moseley’s tank sank gracefully through the roof of a bunker and there he stayed for the rest of the war, literally.
We kept going east at full pelt. 40km/h. But this was no Valley of Death. It was a straight forward, old fashioned charge. It was hugely exhilarating. None of us had ever envisaged when we started our military careers in Munster that we would take part in the longest and fastest modern day cavalry charge. More than a hundred tanks in almost line abreast, charging to the east. If there had been any Iraqis in front of us, it would have been a truly awesome and frightening experience. The ground shook like an earthquake. Clouds of desert dust and exhaust dust billowed up behind the tanks. At the base of the clouds, small black dots, gradually becoming larger and then suddenly, they were tanks. We would have swept straight over any resistance like a steel tsunami, without hesitation, without break.
As the distance between us and the Basra Road counted down, so did the minutes to the deadline for the cessation of hostilities. The pollution clouds billowed in again, reducing visibility to only a few hundred metres. We slowed but maintained our movement eastwards. We were nearly on top of the highway now. A Gazelle recce helicopter materialized out of the smog on our left flank, flying at no higher than the turret of a tank. A couple of Iraqi soldiers appeared out of the murk. They were old men in greatcoats waving their hands above their heads and walking around in a dazed manner. Perhaps they had been victim of one too many air strikes or maybe they had been abandoned when their unit had pulled out. We by-passed them.
Over the radio came the shocking news that a US A-10 Warthog tank buster had taken out a Warrior killing a number of British troops. A Warrior would not have stood a chance against an A-10. It was armed with air-to-ground armoured-vehicle-killing Maverick missiles and a 30mm gatling gun firing depleted uranium tipped, milk bottle sized rounds which would have ripped open an Armoured Personnel Carrier. The frustration and rage was huge. So far the only battle casualties that we knew about had been ones that we had from being shot up by our Allies.
At a brief halt, and despite the still present clag all around us, soldiers could be seen out on their turrets adjusting the large day-glo air recognition panels fixed across the rear bins of their tanks. Others broke out the Union Flag and the Irish Tricolour and attached them to their radio antennas. Anything to make ourselves visible to the death to our sides and to the death above us.
Instead of Lancer pennants pointing at the enemy as they had at the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854, our pennants now pointed skywards as a warning to a pilot at 8,000ft. It was almost a mediaeval display of pageantry. The wind changed again and the pollution blew away to somewhere else leaving us to drive up the highway embankment and cross the Basra Road in clear sunshine. Disappointingly there was nothing on the road. No convoys of retreating Iraqi troops to shoot up. Just a few burnt out vehicles on either side of the highway. But we had made it by the deadline. Objective secured.
It’s now half past eight on the morning of the 28th and we have moved about forty Ks eastwards into Kuwait to intercept the main MSR. The whole Division appears to be moving into quite a small area. On the ground there are quite a lot of shell scrapes. Now we’re waiting in a big circle waiting for the other call signs to catch up with us.
Was that it? The 100 Hours War? Or, would we get new orders to turn north and advance back into southern Iraq. We continued our advance eastwards but now at a walking place as if we were looking for a place to hold hard. Ahead the desert dropped away and I could see massive electricity pylons marching away from us. Their huge cables lay uselessly broken on the desert floor, victim of an air attack or maybe Iraqi sabotage.
We drove into an abandoned Iraqi artillery position. The guns had been left in place but all the blokes had gone. There were plenty of tank positions set up with small, low sand walls around them. They wouldn’t have stopped a tank round. Trench systems abounded but they looked shallow and had poor overhead protection. They would have been utterly useless against air or artillery and would not have given us any trouble either. But surely the bombardments of the last month would have encouraged the Iraqis to dig deeper and to improve their protection? Perhaps the position had been abandoned before the air war started. But, why had they left their artillery in place then? It was all a bit inexplicable. Strange things happen in war and this position was one of them. We came to a halt more or less on the position.