Musings of a Real Tank Commander – Part 25 Medals, Mark Urban and the Man from Oz

Musings of a Real Tank Commander – Part 25 Medals, Mark Urban and the Man from Oz

by Stuart Crawford
article from Friday 29, January, 2021

NONE OF US were particularly enamoured with what little we saw of Saudi social life. We had expected a male oriented society for sure, but I don’t think we were ready for the true extent of it. The women were very much in the background, and we seldom spoke to any. Funnily enough, when we bumped into them without any Saudi men around, in the lift at the Marriott for example, they were very quick to open the conversation, but as soon as a Saudi male entered they were silent.

I used to watch the men socialising at night in the hotel, a ritual which seemed to consist entirely of drinking coffee with the male members of their families, and my immediate thought was how sterile their social lives were. This, of course, was an entirely ethnocentric judgement. I just couldn’t understand how they enjoyed themselves, that’s all. A social life without alcohol is easy and no barrier to fun, but the absence of female company is another thing altogether.

Rumour had it that the women’s custom of dressing in black from head to foot and wearing a veil gave them complete anonymity and allowed them to partake in all sorts of indiscretions, but I doubt it very much. I felt sorry for the women and, correspondingly, a degree of antipathy towards the Saudi male. As for the country as a whole, it felt to me as if a society of mainly simple peasant people had suddenly been granted riches beyond their wildest dreams in the space of a generation and was struggling to come to terms with it, which is of course more or less exactly what had happened.

Our morale got a fillip with the announcement that the Saudi government was going to give us all a medal, so all 43,000 British service(wo)men were going to have something to hang on our chests afterwards. We all hoped that the British government would also authorise a campaign medal, and wondered whether the Kuwaiti government would follow the Saudi lead too (They did, but we weren’t allowed to wear them. Spoilsports ). I think we had visions of returning with chestfuls of medals clanking as we marched in the victory parade down the Mall. In fact, the award of campaign medals became one of the more emotive issues in the war, right up there with the payment of allowances, the issue of desert combat uniform, and the previously provision of hire cars.

All of us thought we were entitled to them having been in theatre and been fired at by the baddies, but we became quite irritated when we learned that, for example, those working at JHQ back in the UK considered themselves worthy recipients too. Where did one draw the line? In the end it was all sorted out amicably, but there were all sorts of anomalies. A celebrated, and possibly apocryphal, example was that those attending a polo course in Cyprus, which technically was within SCUD range, were to receive the Gulf medal despite having absolutely nothing to do with the campaign. I was pleased to hear that some COs had banned those who had “won” their medals in this way from ever wearing them.

A couple of nights later the Americans dropped two 15,000 airburst bombs on the Iraqis, and we watched video footage of them being launched from the open cargo bays of Hercules transport aircraft. For the first time I heard doubts expressed on the morality of our actions. It seemed to be an awful lot of death and destruction to visit on people who were essentially defenceless against air attack by this stage, and some of us didn’t like it very much. We hoped the US wasn’t just using the war as a convenient testing ground for its weapons systems. It was interesting to see that, even in a war which most of us felt was justified (although we were generally cynical as to the real reason we were there), a strong sense of “fair play” remained. This feeling was to emerge again later in the war when the Iraqis were caught from the air on the Kuwait to Basra highway, the infamous “Highway of Death”.

Around this time I met Mark Urban, now the BBC Newsnight anchor, in Riyadh. He had served with 4RTR back in the early 1980s and I knew him quite well, so we had lunch together at the Marriott. By this time I was fully au fait with the Coalition ground attack plan, which was of course secret, but naturally Mark sounded me out on what I thought would happen. I couldn’t say anything, but by starting from first principles he already had an extremely accurate view of how the ground attack might enfold. For a start, he knew that 1 (UK) Division was not where we said it was but much further west. He had also assessed the terrain from which he correctly guessed would lend itself perfectly to the Division executing an armoured left hook into northern Kuwait, thereby cutting off and isolating the bulk of the Iraqi troops there. In fact he got most of it right, and in retrospect I’m surprised the enemy didn’t second guess it too. After our short meeting Mark went up country and I didn’t see him again during the campaign. 

On 10 February the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, came round the HQ on a visit (pictured). I shook his hand and remember thinking how ill he looked. He was terribly nice, and I attempted to brief him using the large scale map on the current situation but without much success. It wasn’t helped when he said something along the lines of “So this is where the Division is” and pointed at a spot on the map about 500 kilometres off its actual location. To be fair, I reckon he had more than enough on his plate at that point and the precise location of our chaps was the least of his worries. But at least he came round to say hello and broke up the general tedium at the time. 

We did, however, now know the date of G Day, the day the Coalition ground offensive was due to start. John Cantwell, an Aussie on attachment to Div HQ and who claimed to have been specially “licenced to die” by the Australian Government so he could take part in the war, came down to Riyadh from the Division. He was looking for any information we could give him on Iraqi dispositions in the path of the Division’s projected advance. Despite the Coalition’s array of sophisticated surveillance and target acquisition systems and its ability to fly at will across Iraq, the troops in the front line had very little information on the enemy at the tactical level, it seemed.

The intelligence system was simply swamped by the vast amount of information being gathered from all sources and very little properly sifted intelligence filtered down to those at the sharp end. In particular, 1 (UK) Div wanted photographs of the Iraqi positions they would have to attack and I think we at HQBFME were able to get some for them. The Americans didn’t seem to be capable of getting this sort of low-level information, although their strategic and operational stuff was remarkably good. Cantwell told us his task in the forthcoming operation and my reaction was that he was a goner and we wouldn’t see him again on this Earth. Thankfully I was wrong. He made the most of his short stay in the Marriott with us and enjoyed his first bath for a month, following it up with several more one after the other.

On St Valentine’s Day the news was dominated by the deaths of approximately 500 Iraqi civilians in a bunker in Baghdad, hit and destroyed by two bombs from an F117 Stealth Fighter. The US authorities were adamant that it was a communications centre and therefore a legitimate target, but it was a terrible event and in HQBFME we felt awful about it. For all the trumpeting there had been about the new generation of precision weapons and concomitant reduction in collateral damage, innocent civilians had still been killed and injured. We hadn’t made much progress over the past 50 years.

There was also the suspicion that the RAF might have killed some Iraqi civilians on the same day during a bombing raid on bridges over the Tigris, and the media picked up this one too. Later we saw video footage taken by the attacking aircraft which confirmed our worst fears; at least a couple of bombs had failed to be guided to the intended target and had hit the village beyond it. How very sad.

But the ground offensive was not far off. I’ll deal with the opening gambits next episode.

To come in Part 26; the ground war starts.

© Stuart Crawford 2021 

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