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

Deja Vu The Desert Rats

By Wild Bill Wilder

The "Hail Mary" Plan

And the Coalition forces, under General Schwarzkopf, were busy indeed. While Iraq’s army shuddered and crumbled under the hammer blows of the Coalition air attacks, the Allies were busy shuffling troops. In a massive logistical triumph, an entire Army Corps, the XVIII, was moved across the Saudi Desert some 500 miles. This was the more mobile of the two corps, including units of the 101st and 82nd Airborne, along with the reinforced French 6th Light Armored Division and other important units.  Their task was to keep enemy reinforcements moving from Baghdad to open the highway.  They would penetrate hundreds of miles into the very heart of Iraq and be within striking distance of Baghdad in a matter of two days.


General Norman A. Schwartzkopf

By the end of the third week of February 1991, the preparations and movement was complete. One US Marine Division, plus strong Arab, Kuwaiti and other smaller countries had their units up against the Kuwaiti border near the Gulf. Out at sea was another Marine division, giving the impression of an amphibious assault about to take place. All appearances were that the main thrust of the Allies would come through the heart of Kuwait into the capital. The Iraqis bunched up their divisions to meet the challenge.

Schwarzkopf later recalled, "…as long as they weren’t sending troops out to the west, we were in great shape. I knew we had the ability to defeat them by this turning movement."

Just east of these powerful Coalition forces, the armor heavy VII Corps was lined up against The Iraqi border, just west of Kuwait. This included the British 1st Armored Division, the US 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, 1st Armored Cavalry Division, 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized) and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. This would be the heavy punch hurled across the border into Iraq. Once inside, they would sweep to the right and head just north of Kuwait City to cut off the enemy forces.

It was an awesome lineup of some of the best fighting units in the entire world. In addition, they had in their hands the ultimate in combative tools to do the job. Much of the equipment, just as the men who used it, had never been tested in combat. That was about to change.

The plan was simple. The XVIII Corps would make a combined land-air assault far into the center of Iraq. They would keep the enemy from moving to or from the capital. The Coalition and Marine units would begin to fight their way across the border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, aiming for Kuwait City. The armor-laden VII Corps, the "Iron Fist" of the Allied forces would slam across the Iraqi border just north of the enemy defenses, create an opening and deal with the better armed and more dangerous Republican Guard units. General Schwarzkopf called this whole concept "The Hail Mary Plan". It was wide graduated flanking maneuver that would be totally unexpected by the enemy.

The Rats Enter the Storm

Taking a very important role in the assault of the VII Corps was the British 1st Armored Division. With their Challenger tanks and Warrior armored personnel carriers, they were to guard the right flank of the intrusion. It was their task to keep the enemy at bay and stop the rest of the units of the Corps from being flanked and cut off. It was by no means a "secondary task." It carried an awesome responsibility and the Brits were up to it. Succinctly stated, their mission was to "destroy the enemy tactical reserve with the aim of protecting the right flank of US VII Corps."

The 1st Armored Division carried with it the heritage of the famed Desert Rats of the 7th Armored Division of the Second World War. It was the 7th that had fought all the way across North Africa, and then all the way across Europe. These troops were the progeny, the standard bearers in the 90s of this proud and successful unit.

Warrior IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle) of British 1st Armored
Division is directed into position behind a sand berm

Commanding the Division was Major General Rupert Smith. His two Brigade commanders were Brigadiers Christopher Hammerbeck of the 4th and Patrick Cordingley of the 7th. Both were very capable commanders and well liked by their subordinates.

The British participation in the ground operations (to be known as Desert Saber, or as they would spell it, Desert Sabre) was meticulously planned and its various components were rehearsed a number of times to insure success. [With typical British precision, a timetable of movement and action was developed. It was to be strictly followed.] All contingencies were considered and included in the planning [. A new system was used, called] which became known as the OPB (Operational Preparation of the Battlefield). It included a full analysis of their mission, targets identified, orders of march, location of control lines and the preferred sequence of battles. Time and space calculations were made to make the best of their time and combat assets.

The two Brigades would leap frog to their objectives, first one, then the other. While one was fighting, (and benefiting from all the Division’s combat support assets) the other would be resupplied and re-equipped for the next attack. [By doing this, the British force was still relatively fresh and fully ready to go another round if need be. This was in contrast to the rest of the VII Corps who had literally "run out of gas."] It was hoped that the coalition forces would face a discouraged and frightened enemy. The preconditioning bombardment and isolation from reinforcements were anticipated to be factors that would weaken the defensive structure facing them.

And it did. One Marine, situated near the border on the day of the beginning of the war on the ground watched the fireworks. He saw the enemy trenches filled the oil, set afire by napalm from Allied aircraft, burning fiercely. He heard the horrible racket of multiple-rocket launchers, howitzers and air-delivered cluster bombs as they shattered the positions of the defending Iraqi troops. He noted, "It’s like perching on the rim of hell and waiting for orders to jump in."

G Day

The beginning of the ground war took place on February 24th, 1991. It was G-Day. The British 1st Armored Division moved into position to shoot through the hole opened by the American 1st Mechanized Division. It would be a step into the unknown and all commanders and troops were naturally apprehensive. One officer quoted the words of an American Civil War veteran, "Between the physical fear of going forward and the moral fear of going back there is a predicament of exceptional awkwardness."

The weather in the region was abominable. It was cold and wet, miserable to the men on the ground (although the cooler weather did make bearable the wearing of the heavy chemical protective suits).  Thermal imaging was on many occasions the only way to see what was ahead of them. The helicopter assault of the 101st Airborne into the heart of Iraq had to be postponed until G+1. The foul weather simply would not allow it.

With the initial assaults going better than expected, the Brits, along with the rest of VII Corps, had their start time brought forward by 15 hours.  At 15.15 (3:15PM) therefore, on G+1, the 7th Armored Brigade got the order to advance. The 4th followed close behind, ready for its own breakout into the open. By later afternoon, both Brigades were inside Iraq and ready to do their job.

The objectives to be taken were for the most part concentrated enemy defensive positions, communication centers and strategic locations. They were all code-named after metallic substances. One by one, they would be taken by the Brigades as the war developed.

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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.