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.
28th February 1991
The moment we stopped we were ordered not to get off the tanks in case there were anti-personnel mines. We soon got over that and we were off the tanks discovering a bit more about our new home. This seemed to be it. The war was over. President Bush was on the radio calling an end to it. It wasn’t long before we were jumping into the pathetic Iraqi trenches to see if there was any decent booty going.
Typically, soldiers look for Gucci-kit. Shiny stuff. Weapons, weapons sights, binoculars, badges, anything that could be removed. This gave rise to the next panic. Don’t go into the trenches, they could be booby trapped. Too late. We were already in them. Allied Psy Ops leaflets littered the ground here as they had done in southern Iraq. I collected a selection of them.
O Group points. 1330hrs, Thursday 28th February, just east of the Basra Road around 20km north of Kuwait City, Kuwait. RGFC was destroyed when it was sandwiched between 18th Corps units. From the Brig – delighted with everyone. QRIH movement from the FUP set the tone for the Div. All happened very quickly. Satisfied with the achievement. D Sqn led for most of the time. Make sure all get back. Watch out for booby traps and bomblets. Don’t go near them. Mark with a picket 10 ft away. They have proximity fuses so will go off if you go near. No rubbish. Sqn into a circle. Clear the whole area, 40-50m out from each vehicle. Everything happens inside the circle. Security – POW threat. No helmets anymore. Home in three weeks, possibly sooner. 4 Bde in VARSITY. 7 Bde in COBALT. SODIUM is the town to the south of us.
Now on 2 hours NTM (Notice To Move). As you get closer to the coast there are mines and booby traps. May have to drive all the way back to Staging Area 3 for transporters to al-Jubail or may have to drive all the way back. Handover programme being developed. Get tanks in as good as order as possible. Souvenirs for Messes and Sqn bars. No personal souvenirs but helmets and bayonets are OK. No weapons though.
Then we started to make ourselves more comfortable. Tank bivvys went up, camp cots set up and doss bags were laid out. Cookers came out of bins and were set up. Very soon we were happy with our set up. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, came on the radio to tell us that he wanted all the troops involved in the fighting to be back home within weeks. That sounded good after six months in the desert.
1st March 1991
Brad brought us back to reality. It was time to get on top of the tanks and give them a good going over after the battle. Weapons, including the main armament, were stripped and cleaned. Barrels were ‘pulled-through’ just like a rifle or pistol to get rid of all the burnt cordite and filth. It was hard work but it was also good to do to keep the tanks in good working order in case the situation changed and because it was what you had to do to keep the tanks serviceable. At night trench raiding parties went out to scour further afield. An Iraqi Quarter Master’s bunker was found and night sights, East German Zeiss binoculars and a host of other high quality seizures were made.
In the daytime, the crew of 42 decided to make a kite out of a Challenger decoy target. The decoy was a cleverly printed almost life size picture of a Challenger turret with plastic poles to support it. The idea was to set it up on a berm so that it looked like one of our vehicles. The attacking enemy would see it and shoot it allowing us time to bug out or to fire back. We thought it was a pants idea. But when they were set up they actually looked pretty good. One use that the MOD were not expecting us to put their expensive kit to was as a kite. But never under-estimate the inventiveness of bored soldiers. It made a pretty awesome kite and the wind was constant.
O Group points, 1400hrs, Basra Road north of Kuwait City. No move for 24-48 hours. Heavy enemy vehicles are being dragged to a Bde point for a weapons effects demonstration. Any kit picked up is to be distributed as spoils of war. Not a lot left of Kuwait. Focus on equipment maintenance. All weapons to be unloaded, including main armament. Don’t yet know whether we will return to al-Jubail via Khafghi. No cam nets so keep areas tidy otherwise we will be made to put them up. Keep kit off the barrels and put caggage away under the shelters. Regimental headdress from now. Any uniform – Brit or US but not Iraqi. Maintain discipline. There’s a water shortage so no washing kit.
Battlefield trips will be arranged along the Main Supply Route (Basra Rd) south to the outskirts of Kuwait City. See damage and mass of equipment destroyed. Brief on what happened later. Sunday 0900hrs, church service. Casualties: 7 Bde – four dead with one Stafford killed taking the surrender of an Iraqi position, Iraqi position was then mortared. Fifteen have been wounded by mines and booby traps in A2 Echelon; 4 Bde – nine Fusiliers KIA in their Warrior by an A-10, plus others wounded. Mail, normal service from tomorrow. We were in Iraq from 0940hrs on 25th February and in the FUP by 1515hrs that day. At 0300hrs on 26th February, Four Zero (me) had the thermal contact with a column of vehicles. We moved forward 1,000m to a ridge. 48 hots spots identified at 0330hrs. Opened fire with HESH. Call for fire on 49 Easting. The Engineers are checking for a water point near our position.
2nd March 1991
We had numerous senior officer visits in the days which followed the ceasefire. They all wanted to know how it had gone on the frontline. Battlegroup HQ arranged a series of briefs about the key phases we had been through. I was asked to do one on the shoot we did on the first night after the MLRS launch. I took some pictures of the Generals as they came through and got them to sign my orders book. By the end I had the signatures of the chain of command from Major Toby Maddison, my Squadron Leader, and Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Denaro, my Commanding Officer, to Brigadier Patrick Cordingley, my Brigade Commander, Major General Rupert Smith, my Divisional Commander and, finally, the British military supremo, General Sir Peter de la Billiere, the Commander of British Forces Middle East. Not a bad memento.
O Group points, 1230hrs, Saturday 2nd March, Squadron HQ, Basra Road, Kuwait. Why are we still sitting here? The war is not over. A ceasefire is in place, a unilateral one by Allied Forces. A military meeting between the two forces is not until tomorrow. There is the possibility of non-co-operation so it may drag on for some time. Begin ops again? Possibly not. Iraqis still fighting to north east of us. Be wary of the odd fanatic lurking around here. Keep alert and safe. Here for a month. Unpleasant site down the road. Lots of horrible bodies. We will move back to al-Jubail and park opposite Camp 4. 17th/21st Lancers will not cease to be under command until the end of the leave period, one month. Mail to RHQ in the morning. Walk over to church at 0930hrs tomorrow, non-exemption. Reveille 0630hrs. First parade 0830hrs. Fitness training. D Sqn’s battle replen and in action went on TV. Trips away start on Monday morning.
Other visits were set up to Kuwait City, to the Muttla Ridge – to see the destruction caused by Allied airpower where a huge column had been utterly destroyed– and to neighbouring units.
4th March 1991
O Group points, 1200hrs, Squadron HQ. Official media have gone. Don’t speak to anyone. Thirteen places for a shower run. Seaking flights over area for some military tourism. Hostilities are not over until the official ceasefire papers are signed. The Prime Minister will visit on 6th March – fifteen men required from each Squadron with clean desert combats, floppy hats, weapons and respirators. Refugees – only give them water. There is no water shortage now. The mobile cinema will be here on 6th March. Tool checks and G1098 checks required. Diggers will be here to dig a sh*t pit. Reveille 0630hrs. PT 0700hrs. First parade 0900hrs.
A vehicle park was created and all sorts of Iraqi vehicles, including two T-55s and an ACRV armoured personnel carrier along with numerous artillery pieces, were brought in. A US Abrams M1A1 tank visited. We admired the ergonomics of the Abrams’ turret compared to the mess of the Challenger’s turret. Some went down to see the new Prime Minister, John Major, make a speech to the troops.
7th March 1991
O Group points. 1700hrs, Basra Road. JSTARS worked in real time with Apache against RGFC. The Tawaklana, the Iraqis’ best armed Division, was hit by air before 1st Inf Div took them out. It was degraded to 28% CE by air and then completely destroyed by 1st Inf Div. R Day was yesterday. The Advance Party for the return will leave in four days. The route back for the tanks will be over Kuwait’s southern border on tank transporters. D Sqn will be on the first flight home.
9th March 1991
Piers and I took a walk down the pylon lines and put a few rounds though the Uzi machine pistol. For the most part we sat around waiting, something that soldiers across the world are highly skilled at.
O Group points. 1330hrs, Basra Rd, Kuwait. Don’t throw food away as it can go to Kuwaiti hospitals. We will move the tanks back on 12th March. Move to the loading area at 1600hrs to get to the Release Point in al-Jubail by 0400hrs. Pax will fly from airhead to al-Jubail. Chaos all round. Padre will be round for a church service at 1400hrs tomorrow. De-kitting the tanks: cam off to Div Admin Area; fuel at half full; Trimbles coming out; decoys off; laser goggles back to SQMS (4/tank); sun compasses off (ours is buried in the desert somewhere in Saudi); jerrycans back in brackets; flash hoods and gloves handed in; keep personal NBC kit; body armour hand in; frontal ERA off.
10th March 1991
Slowly the extraction plan came together. First we were going to track back to al-Jubail but at 350km, it would have beaten hell out of the tanks. Tank transporters were called up and we would go back on them. Then it was just the drivers to go with the tanks and the rest of us would be flown back on C-130 Hercules transport planes from a desert strip.
O Group points. Squadron HQ, Basra Rd, Kuwait. Bloke in C Sqn stood on a mine/bomblet. Don’t go looking for souvenirs. Be careful. All 17/21L to RHQ tomorrow. Those smuggling enemy kit out will be caught. Parcels going home are now being checked. No more parcel post here. All will be re-directed to BAOR.
11th March 1991 to departure for Saudi Arabia
Eventually, departure day arrived. We loaded the tanks up and waved goodbye to our homes and our kit and hoped we would see them again. Everyone else was loaded onto Bedford 4-tonners, probably the most uncomfortable vehicle to travel in the back of due to its total lack of suspension and its vicious brakes which threw everyone in the back onto the driver cab every time the driver dabbed the brakes. That morning the sky turned black with pollution clouds. It wasn’t the ground level fog that we had seen before it was black clouds that blocked out the sun and light, almost like an eclipse. We were driven to the airstrip. It was a cleared piece of desert.
The C-130 was a pretty robust rough strip aircraft so maybe it had just been a matter of clearing any rocks and debris from the runway. As we arrived a stream of C-130s were coming in, taxiing back to the start of the runway, loading with troops and lifting off again. It was like the Berlin Airlift. We were dumped off the truck. The movers – soldiers whose job it was to organise our transport by aircraft – formed us into ‘sticks’ for our lift by and dished out squeezy yellow ear protectors. Then it was back to that traditional Army past time of waiting. Eventually our turn came. It was a hot loading, the aircraft’s engines didn’t shut down as we were boarding but kept spinning so they could get off quickly. We went through the hot prop wash wind of burnt fuel as walked up the rear ramp into the hold. It wasn’t quite a British Airways flight. There were no seats, just an empty hold. No safety belts. No in-flight meal. No movie. We all sat on the floor. The aircraft immediately moved off, the engines spinning the propellers up for take off. The pilot stood on the brakes, revved the engines to take off speed, released the brakes and we were off. Within a couple of hundred metres we were airborne.
The rear doors were closed. We lolled against the aircraft hull and on the hard metal deck. I stood and looked out of one of the few portholes as we flew south and only a few hundred metres altitude. I could see Kuwait City to the east of us. Then suddenly we were in Dante’s inferno. Here were the oil wells of southern Kuwait lit up by Saddam’s withdrawing forces. The RAF pilot had to jink between the burning wells. Great black lakes of oil lay around each well. The well itself was a hundred foot column of pulsating black and red fire topped by a thousand foot black plume of burnt oil smoke. Here was the cause of our battlefield obscuration, the smog we had experienced and the surreal light we had experienced at the air strip a few minutes earlier. That was a lot of money going up in smoke. They needed Red Adair. In fact, Red Adair was soon on the job of capping the burning wells.
We landed back in Saudi. We weren’t quite sure where but it must have been near to al-Jubail. All the facilities had been laid on for us. We were shown to a hole in the ground on the side of the runway which was to become our home for the next couple of days as we waited for the tanks to chug 300kms slowly south down the coast road to join us. We lit a fire from some waste wood and had a Squadron smoker. Luckily we all had our doss bags with us so we were able to get a good night’s sleep on a patch of bare earth.
Once the tank transporters had arrived we recovered our vehicles and started the process of preparing them for a long wait on the port side and a sea voyage back to West Germany. De-kitting them. De-gunging them. De-bombing them. All the ammunition had to be returned to the loggies. It was such a massive job that a huge reverse replen was set up so that we could pass down the long line of trucks handing back each nature of ammunition, bag charge and bullet to the right truck. All the ammo had to be found and recovered from all the nooks and crannies that it had been stowed in as the tanks had to be declared Free From Explosives (FFE’d) before they were shipped home. It was quite a balls ache for Pete to locate it all. We drove down the line.
We carried on with the admin process of prepping the vehicles for the homeward journey. The GPMGs were dismounted and then placed into the rear bins which were welded closed. The turret was locked with padlocks and that was it. We patted the tank goodbye. We would never see it again. It would eventually go back to Germany, maybe even to the QOH, albeit with a few more kms on the clock and battle proven.
We headed back to Camp 4 where we had been for relief breaks from the port and from the desert when we first deployed. It was a very convivial atmosphere. Personal weapons had to be stripped and cleaned ready to go into weapons rolls to accompany us home. They were the one weapon that was going to come back to West Germany with us. ‘What about the Uzi?’ I asked as I handed over my pistol. The two officers at the desk looked at each other and then back at me. ‘I suggest that you go and bury it in the desert.’ ‘I’m not doing that. This is four hundred quid’s worth of quality weaponry.’ Eventually the Uzi went onto the manifest as a 9mm Sub Machine Gun (SMG) which, of course, it was. Just a bit more of a souped up SMG that might be expected of the British Army issue SMG.
On return to England, the Uzi lived in the 17th/21st Lancers Officer’s Mess silver safe in Tidworth for a few years, coming out for the occasional range day. Until, one day, when the Adjutant told me it had to go. I got a certificate from the CO and drove it back to the arms dealer in West London from whom my Dad had got it and sold it back to him. Sadly, my story of a weapon used in a war didn’t cut any mustard when it came to the price. It was now a second hand car. I sold it back at a loss, but it had been fun. I wonder how he marketed it when he sold it on….
Soon after we were on a British Airways jet for Hanover in Germany.