Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Jun 3, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Deja Vu The Desert Rats

By Wild Bill Wilder

The Brits Are Ready

In the late 1980s, BAOR, the British Army of the Rhine, about one third of the British Army, generally deployed in Germany 11 tank and 11 armored infantry battalions.  When the Gulf Crisis blew up, BAOR was in the middle of two major equipment upgrades, replacing its aging Challenger Mark 1 tanks with more modern Mark 3s and its FV 432 series APC (an M113 look-alike) with Warrior, a sort of poor man’s Bradley.

Britain’s initial response to Desert Shield was 7 Armored Brigade from 1 Armored Division.  This tank-heavy Brigade was selected because it had completely re-equipped with the new vehicles.  It was beefed up with artillery, engineer and logistic assets to form a Brigade Group, making it capable of operating independently, a bit like a US armored cavalry regiment.  It was attached to the Marines to provide them with some extra armored support.


During the ensuing months after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the path to war seemed inevitable. Two days after Kuwait was annexed to Iraq, the Arab League voted to send troops to Saudi Arabia. On November 9th, President Bush ordered troop strength of the United States to be increased to 400,000 by the first of the following year.  Acting sympathetically, Britain decided to increase her commitment from a Brigade to a Division minus.

The Divisional Headquarters chosen to command this was that of 1 Div from Verdun in Lower Saxony.  It should be noted, however, that the 1 (UK) Armored Division fielded in the Gulf War bore little resemblance to the British 1st Armored Division intended to hold the line for NATO in case of World War 3.

The size of Britain’s commitment to the Gulf War was severely constrained by a combination of financial considerations and the availability of the modern equipment Challenger Mark 3 and Warrior.  This is why the Division deployed only 2 Brigades, not 3 as would normally be expected.

Challenger tank of British 1st Armored Division

To partly offset this, the Divisional assets, particularly artillery and engineers, were enhanced above levels normal to a BAOR Armored Division. Most of these additions represented nothing more than a division’s share of assets normally controlled at Corps Level.  Nevertheless, there had been a feeling in BAOR that treasury constrained TO&Es may not always have proved adequate operationally and steps were taken to correct some perceived shortcomings. Engineer capabilities in particular were considerably improved.

Again due to financial parsimony, peacetime manning and equipment levels were often below those considered necessary for war.  This meant that deploying units almost inevitably had to borrow both manpower and equipment from units remaining behind.  In some cases, whole companies had to be lent to deploying units to bring them up to strength for operations.

Finally, the Gulf deployment was only a part of the British Army’s ongoing commitments.  A credible force (albeit one stripped of its most modern equipment) had to remain in Germany to meet NATO obligations.  Northern Ireland maintained its demand for troops either to serve there or to undergo the specialized training required before doing so.  Some units were simply caught by the Crisis at the wrong time in their training cycle and were just not ready for war.  Such matters made improvisation unavoidable.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in 4 Armored Brigade.

In BAOR, 4 Brigade belonged to 3 Division.  Headquarters 4 Brigade was chosen to command 1 (UK) Armored Division’s second brigade because it had already been warned as a replacement for 7 Brigade if the Crisis was to continue for an appreciable time.  Finding units for it, however, was more difficult.  To quote the British Army’s own official account of the campaign, published shortly after it ended in 1991:

"4th Armored Brigade, unlike 7th Armored Brigade, was a composite Brigade that had not previously trained together and now had barely three weeks to prepare for war".

The Tension Builds

On November 29th, the United Nations issued a final ultimatum. If Iraqi forces were not withdrawn from Kuwait by January 15th, 1991, force would be used to expel them. The United States Congress, in a very narrow victory, voted on January 12th, 1991 to allow President Bush to use force against Iraq.

By now it was apparent that Hussein had no intention of releasing his death grip on Kuwait. All sanctions and embargoes had failed to change the situation at all. Instead, the Iraqi soldiers continued preparing strongly fortified positions all along the Kuwaiti-Saudi border. A full 43 divisions were emplacing all throughout Kuwait. Withdrawal would not take place. A confrontation was inevitable. If the UN was bluffing, Hussein was calling it.

The ruler of Iraq really believed that he could pull it off. His view of the situation, however, was flawed and this would lead to his downfall. First of all, he prepared his defenses on the premise that the enemy would attack head on from the Persian Gulf and across the Saudi border into Kuwait, to push Iraqi forces out. He had no contingency plan for a possible flanking move by the Allies. Nor did he expect an attack directly into Iraq itself. He was depending on strict adherence to the UN mandate, which said that Coalition forces were to expel Iraq from Kuwait.

His second error was an exaggerated confidence in his troops. The Iraqi soldiers had been fighting for nearly a decade. They were now facing a much stronger, better-armed force than they had dealt with in Iran. Furthermore, it’s hard to be enthused when guns are pointing at you from two directions. Not only did they face the coalition in front of them, but also there were squads prepared to kill any deserters or troops that chose to retreat. The options for the Iraqi soldier were limited to one. Stand and die, or run and die. This type of situation does not boost morale.

And death was all around him, especially in the air. Death could come silently, quickly. Missiles, smart bombs, planes swooping in and raining death on them day after day. Eagles, Tornadoes, and the ungainly, yet most feared "Warthogs," sought them out and killed them. Night offered no protection. Trenches did not hide them. It was waiting, waiting to die. Such a psychological climate for over a month had conditioned many Iraqis to find the quickest way to surrender and end this hell in which they found themselves.

Apache Pilot Ron Balak stated it well. “I didn’t quite envision going up there and shooting the hell out of everything in the dark and have them not know what hit them. A truck blows up to the right. The ground blows up to the left. They had no idea where we were."

One Iraqi soldier who later surrendered said it this way, "Every night is bomb, bomb, bomb. When we fought Iran, we had breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Here, there’s no water and hardly anything to eat."

The troops of Saddam Hussein lived on the edge of the black abyss called misery and death 24 hours a day, terrified, hungry and overcome with a feeling of abandoned loneliness. It was hell every minute for them, no matter where they were.

Desert Storm

As over one million men looked at one another across the border, the clock was ticking down. On January 16th (the 17th in Saudi Arabia), Desert Shield became Desert Storm. From the sea more than one hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles, never before used in combat, whooshed out from American battlewagons in the Persian Gulf. With uncanny accuracy they searched for and found their targets, hundreds of miles away in Baghdad. Peter Arnett, correspondent for CNN, watched one pass the window of his hotel room at eye level. He later said, "I have covered many wars, but this was the most extraordinary sight I have seen. It shot past with relatively little noise, unerringly streaking towards it target, which was the Defense Ministry and scored a direct hit.”

The air war had begun. It would continue unabated for the next month, averaging over 1,500 sorties a day. Within a week, enemy resistance in the skies had ceased. The coalition owned the air above Iraq and Kuwait. Hussein was made blind. He could not see what his enemy way doing.

The war from the sky had been carefully planned and then executed to the letter. It had three major purposes. The first was the destruction of any combative Iraqi assets. The enemy air force had to be shut down. The preponderance of tanks would be decimated. Artillery positions would be leveled. Anything moving on or even under the desert was in constant danger.

The second purpose was the disruption of command and control. By striking all the communication and signal facilities of the Iraqi forces, starting in Baghdad, commanders would have no way to issue orders to their troops. The further from the center of Iraqi control, the less control there was. Division commanders could not communicate to their leaders for instructions. It was total chaos within the defense structure of the Iraqi army.

Finally, the Air attacks would disable Saddam’s ability to see. With no aircraft in the sky, the Iraqi commanders were left blind. They really had no idea just what the Coalition forces were doing. There was no way they could detect even the movement of an entire Army Corps 500 miles to the east.

So the air war did what it had set out to do. Iraqi forces were decimated during the thirty odd days of unending Allied sorties. There was no centralized control of their troops and no one really knew what was going on in the camp of the Coalition.

Any initial resistance to the air attacks was quickly stifled. Captain Ayedh al-Shamrani, a Saudi pilot in an F-15 spotted two Iraqi Mirage jets armed with Exocet missiles enroute towards the British fleet in the gulf. He quickly closed with them and fired his missiles as soon as he had lock. He took out both of them. "You know the F-15. Nobody can beat it. I just rolled in behind them and shot them down. It was easy." He became the air-war’s first double ace.

[continued on next page]

Pages: 1 2 3 4

1 Comment

  1. the united kingdom fought Argentina in the Falkland wars in the eighty’s although it was dominantly a navel and marine based they did fight to retake the lost island.