Musings of a REAL tank commander – Part 26: briefings, de la Billiere, boardgames and body armour

Musings of a REAL tank commander – Part 26: briefings, de la Billiere, boardgames and body armour

by Stuart Crawford
article from Tuesday 16, February, 2021

AND THEN, all of a sudden, it was G Day. At 0100 hours GMT on 24 February 1991 it all started – the biggest land operation since the Normandy landings in 1944, so we were told. As is well recorded elsewhere, the Coalition attack on Iraq was phased, with different elements attacking at different times to catch the enemy unawares and deceive him as to where the main effort lay.

At H Hour, 0400 hours local time, the American XVIII Corps and the French 6 Armoured Division, on the Coalition’s western flank, were first off the mark into Iraq and made remarkably quick progress. In the eastern part of the theatre, the US Marines attacked north into Kuwait and towards Kuwait City, and immediately had the strange and unforeseen experience of being hampered by crowds of surrendering Iraqi soldiers as soon as they breached the border berm. After about six hours they were some thirty kilometres into Kuwait and it appeared there was nothing left to stop them.

Even at this early stage in proceedings we began to wonder if it might be all over much faster than we had originally thought. We were really rather busy for the whole shift for once – briefing JHQ on developments as best we could as communications with the Division were poor – and looking to see if we could bring the schedule forward if the enemy was truly routed. 

Our Chief of Staff (COS), Col Ian Talbot, was buzzing around the HQ like a bluebottle on amphetamines and quickly became labelled as “the rogue Patriot” for his behaviour, reminiscent of a missile which had lost its guidance. The pace was indeed frenetic, but soon settled down as we became used to working in a climate of constant change and imperfect knowledge. As the end of the first day of ground action arrived 1 (UK) Division was all set to go, just waiting for the US 1st Infantry Division – the Big Red One – to secure the breach in the border berm and minefields.

General Sir Peter de la Billiere (our boss) got a briefing every morning, and the night shift presented it at 0800 hours so the day shift could be brought up to speed at the same time before taking over. I often marked up the main briefing map at about 0630 in preparation, and it was not unusual for the General to appear at that early hour from his nearby bunk, still in dressing gown and slippers with a mug of tea in his hand, to get an early informal update on what had happened overnight.

Such was the uncertainty and difficulty in getting accurate information from the boys in the desert that he sometimes left these early morning sessions none the wiser, for I recall that I often had to reply “I don’t know” to his questions. I’m sure he realised the difficulties we faced and was always understanding of our lack of detailed knowledge. We were usually a little bit better informed by the proper briefing at 0800, but even then we never really got any information on the fortunes of our Arab allies apart from BBC and CNN news reports.

These formal briefings always followed the same format. The RAF watchkeepers spoke first with a weather forecast for the next 24 hours followed by a review of air operations over the last 24 hours. We were on next, with me briefing on the flow of Coalition operations in general then Richard Aubrey-Fletcher on the progress of 1 (UK) Armoured Division in detail. The Navy came next, and then a host of others on supply, medical, prisoners of war, etc. It usually lasted about an hour and was videotaped throughout. I was struck once again by the similarity of the proceedings to a typical Staff College exercise at Camberley, and it was sometimes hard not to regard the assembled audience as the Directing Staff from that institution who had come to assess and grade the performance. I rather enjoyed these briefings by the end, for I quickly realised that, whilst I actually knew very little of what was happening across the theatre of operations, most of the audience knew considerably less and accordingly my confidence grew daily.

The ground campaign made dramatic advances over the next few days, and I won’t bore you with the detail of unit movements and clashes which have been well documented elsewhere. It was breath-taking in its scale and yet the enemy was failing to respond. Perhaps, rather like us, they were almost mesmerised by the drama as it unfolded and were somehow rendered unable to do anything about it, or perhaps it was the Coalition’s mastery of the skies which kept the bulk of the Iraqi forces stationary and concealed as best they could manage. 

Even at this early stage we became critical of our own success, and much ado began to be made of our Division’s relative immobility to date, having not yet moved through the breach which was to be delivered by the Americans. This theme was to resurface on a number of occasions later and I had to agree at the time that compared to our US allies we sometimes appeared pedestrian and lacklustre in our Division’s manoeuvres. But in this particular case it was solely because the US “Big Red One” Division took rather longer than anticipated to move itself through the breach it had created in the border defences – such as they were. I fielded a number of agitated phone calls from JHQ in the UK from people who rather irritatedly asked “what was wrong with our Division”, and did my best to explain.

Such was the speed of progress overall, however, that Op Trebor, the HQBFME draft plan to move elements of our HQ to Kuwait itself as soon as was feasible, were soon being dusted off. We realised that we might in fact be back in Kuwait well before we had imagined. I must admit it was hard at this point to understand exactly what was going on in the desert. Our communications were temperamental, we were living in a luxurious hotel and driving to work like civilians, and we were in no real danger. For us the whole affair was always in danger of degenerating into a gigantic board game.

On 26 February the boys for the Kuwait operation were chosen, that is those who were to set up HQBFME (Forward) in the old Embassy building in Kuwait City, and with a mixture of disappointment and relief I wasn’t one of them. When this op had been first mooted I had been warned off as a likely participant, and no sooner had I heard than I was being measured up for body armour, which I was cheerily assured I would definitely need. 

The plan had been that we chosen few were to land on the roof of the embassy building in the second helicopter, the first having carried in our special forces who would secure the landing site. We were also told that that the site was likely to be “hot”, i.e. still in the middle of an ongoing firefight, and I had all sorts of visions of being machine gunned on arrival or shot down by some overzealous Coalition soldier as we flew in. So I wasn’t too disappointed not to be going! As it happened, the Iraqis had fled by the time our chaps got there and there was, thank goodness, no bloodshed.

By the morning of 27 February all Iraqi troops were in the process of attempting to get out of Kuwait, except for some units of the Republican Guard. All the routes out of Kuwait, however, were cut by the Coalition air assets, and the end result was a huge pile up of vehicles. The Iraqis were jammed on four lane highways with nowhere to go and the skies were full of every aircraft the Coalition could get into the air to destroy them. 

The end result was illustrated dramatically by the television pictures of the Kuwait to Basra highway – the “Highway of Death” which I flew over at low level a few days later – displayed on screens all round the world. We heard through our liaison officers that some of the US pilots were sickened by the one-sided destruction that was now going on, and not for the first time the morality of such an unequal contest was called into question.

At the morning briefing General Sir Peter said he thought it would all be over in 24 – 96 hours, which filled us all with relief. The HQ “stepped up” to Kuwait as planned in Op Trebor swung into operation, but it was carried out so secretly that nobody knew what was going on and it became a bit of a farce. In the end everybody was let in on the secret and things progressed smoothly thereafter.

To come in Part 27: getting the boys and girls back home again.

© Stuart Crawford 2021

Photo of Kuwait-Basra Highway by the author. 

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