AND SO 1991 ARRIVED and found all of us at Headquarters British Forces Middle East (HQBFME) in reasonably good spirits. By now we realised that the chances of resolving the crisis in the Gulf without going to war were slipping away. With nearly 430,000 US troops in Kuwait Theatre of Operations (KTO) and Saddam Hussein threatening to attack Israel, it seemed that there was little room for diplomatic manoeuvre left.
Actually the New Year was nearly a very short one for me (pictured above at al Jubail airstrip). Travelling down the motorway to visit Div HQ in the desert we had a blow out in our car at 100 mph. It was exciting at the time but the driver managed to keep control, aided by the fact there was no other traffic on the road. Got the heartbeat up a bit but otherwise we were OK.
The desert was… pink! Did you know that? I always thought it was a sandy colour but the bit I saw was definitely pink. Which might explain why the SAS, who are well hard and not generally associated with girly colours, tend to paint their vehicles accordingly when involved in desert ops. Who knew? I didn’t, but now I’ve seen it with mine own eyes I understand.
But I digress. The desert was absolutely covered with military kit. As far as the eye could see there were vehicles static and moving, tented camps, supply dumps and all the other paraphernalia that signifies a major military operation. It took some time to locate Div HQ as signposting wasn’t a major success and one tented location looked just like the others. I found it eventually, but it was in the middle of an NBC exercise and everybody was masked up and in their noddy suits. I put my stuff on to conform, but communications were nigh on impossible. It was farcical to be honest.
When the exercise ended and we all got back to normal I did my rounds of the various desks to ask what people needed. At the end of the day I went for dinner in the HQ mess tent, noting with much amusement that the guards on duty had already all gone a bit native and were dressed in a combination of British temperate and desert combats, bits of American kit they had swapped, and the bright pink Saudi shemaghs that the locals favoured. Nobody paid a blind bit of notice, perhaps because historically the British army has always seemed to go a bit T E Lawrence in the desert.
Queen’s Own Highlanders formed the guard at HQBFME
After an uncomfortable night in some temporary hut, sharing with a sergeant-major who complained bitterly that “he hadn’t joined up for this sort of thing”, I made my way back to Riyadh. At that time, and maybe it also applies now, I thought it the most soulless city I had ever visited. It was as if vast wealth had suddenly come to a backward and mediaeval people and they had decided to spend it all on aping their idea of American culture. Oh, hang on a minute…
Back at HQBFME our spirits were hardly lifted by a visit by the Prime Minister, John Major, of whom some of you may have heard previously. If you haven’t don’t worry because you haven’t missed anything. He came and gave a little morale-shattering (boosting, surely?) speech to the staff, but I couldn’t be bothered going next door to listen to a stream of well-intentioned but mindless platitudes, and so I caught up with my paperwork instead. To be fair, nowadays it would be Boris Johnson visiting, so we must be thankful for small mercies.
On 12th January 1991 we went on to 24 hour manning and I was designated to join the nightshift on the Land Cell operations desk. Things became noticeably more serious at this point; the Americans started wearing helmets and body armour and our guards from the Queen’s Own Highlanders became doubly vigilant. Worst news for many was that, there now being sufficient numbers in HQBFME, we now qualified for a catering unit and therefore subsistence allowances were to stop. As the unit’s gravy train arrived our own personal one came to an end.
I shared the nightshift with Richard Aubrey-Fletcher and Henry Spender, both nice chaps, and we all got on well. Generally speaking there was much less to do at night although we were to have some excitement in the weeks ahead. Working through the wee small hours was a bit strange to begin with, and we all found it extremely difficult to stay awake initially. However, after a few nights our body clocks adjusted and we were fine. Just as well, for we were to be on constant nightshift for a couple of months.
Much of our time began to be taken up answering some rather basic detailed questions from Joint Permanent HQ (JPHQ) at High Wycombe back in the UK, the pettiness of which began to irritate us. It was, in retrospect, a sign of how little they had to do and how left out of the picture they sometimes felt. We tried to explain that there wasn’t actually all that much going on in Saudi Arabia, but they never quite believed us and always thought we were hiding something. I was taken to task once for not reporting the discovery of a hand held rocket launcher on the beach, such was their thirst for information, any information. Did it mean that Iraqi special forces had landed behind our lines they asked? Did it Hell I replied, probably one of our allies had forgotten about it after a swim.
It was clear though that time for a peaceful solution was running out fast. We got to the point where the Iraqis couldn’t actually get out of Kuwait within the parameters set by the UN resolution even if they’d wanted to. I was still unaware of any plan to oust the Iraqis from Kuwait but I guessed that some of my colleagues were better informed than I. It didn’t take the brains of an Archbishop to work out that any operation would probably start with some sort of air attack, but that’s about as much as I had thought about it. We all knew it was coming soon though.
The night shift reported for work at 2130 hours on the night of 16th January ’91 and we were instantly aware that something was going on. Nobody said anything, nor was there anything out of the ordinary happening, but we could feel that the atmosphere was quite different. There was something intangible about the place, an unspoken anticipation that set us all on edge. We went for “lunch” at midnight as usual, a meal taken outside the HQ in a lean-to shed in the back yard where the RAF cooks produced standard forces fare which had come as a welcome relief after our first few weeks’ existence on Wendy Burgers and little else.
As we munched on our sausage and chips I was aware that there was a seemingly endless succession of aircraft taking off from the airport nearby. I mentioned this to Richard A-F, who looked at me in a funny way and said that he thought that maybe “something was going on”. At that point I knew that he knew, and that I was about to find out.
Sure enough, I was back at the Land Cell Ops desk at 0150 in the morning when the Assistant Chief of Staff Ops (ACOS Ops) announced that US forces had just launched 100 cruise missiles at Iraq. We were briefed formally at 0200 hours that hostilities against Iraq had commenced. At long last the air war had started.
As it turned out, we were being briefed just as the first raids were starting, although we learned that US special forces had gone into action some time earlier to neutralise some Iraqi radars thereby allowing coalition aircraft to cross the border undetected. Suddenly aware that it was all happening, we turned to the television with a kind of awful fascination to confirm what we had just been told.
Lockheed F117As lined up – if your eyes used radar you wouldn’t see them.
CNN was broadcasting live from Baghdad and we were treated to the mother of all fireworks shows as every Iraqi gun blasted blindly into the night air, not being able to detect the US F117A Stealth Fighters that were bombing their city. Back in Riyadh we then embarked on a series of air raid and NBC warnings which had us struggling in and out of our NBC suits. Nothing actually came our way that night, of course, but it did add to the excitement of the occasion!
It wasn’t too long before the Iraqis fired back at us, but that will have to wait until the next episode, in which I detail the personal and very important part I played in Saddam’s downfall.
To come in Part 23; SCUD raids on Riyadh.
© Stuart Crawford 2020