Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 30 ‘Victory Tour’, honest reflections and a crass decision

Musings of a REAL Tank Commander – Part 30 ‘Victory Tour’, honest reflections and a crass decision

by Stuart Crawford
article from Wednesday 17, March, 2021

ONCE BACK ‘HOME’ in Germany I went on leave almost immediately, as we had all been promised whilst out in the Gulf. Just before departing there was a curry lunch held in the Officers’ Mess for the Gulf veterans, all of whom had come home safely, thank goodness, in the space of a few days. I think that was the point where the war quite clearly came to an end for me, for it was all so normal it appeared that nothing had happened in the interim period at all.

My holiday was a combination of gentle tourism and visiting people I hadn’t seen for a while. I quickly christened it, tongue-in-cheek, as the “Victory Tour”, for that’s what it felt like some of the time for sure. Most people had seen the vivid TV images of the bombing attacks on Baghdad, which had been pretty serious looking stuff, so I have difficulty persuading them that, for me in Riyadh at least, it hadn’t been very dangerous at all. And every conversation seemed to be prefaced by “I know you won’t want to talk about it”, but I was very happy to do so, for it had been an unusual experience.

In all I had about five weeks’ leave to savour, and then returned to barracks in Germany. It was, in fact, quite strange to be back to normal peacetime soldiering and all its niceties. For the first time, perhaps, I was aware of the trivial nature of much of the stuff we did, and sometimes struggled to get excited about matters which obviously agitated others but to me seemed relatively unimportant. My days were quickly filled by a plethora of matters ranging from training, discipline, and financial matters, all the way down to the mundane reports and returns which are the bête noir of all desk-bound regimental officers.

Although none of us thought overmuch about the last few months in the Middle East, I was left with three very strong and abiding impressions from my time there. The first was that the Iraqis had been much poorer soldiers, and therefore a much less dangerous enemy, than we had been led to believe. It is, of course, one of the cardinal sins of soldiering to underestimate your enemy, but I would contend that is almost as bad to overestimate him. While I am prepared to accept that until we knew better we were quite right to regard the Iraqi forces as equivalent to our own, we should surely have been more honest with ourselves and the rest of the world as the conflict unfolded.

The Coalition must have realised fairly early on that it was not up against a peer enemy. I refuse to believe that those directing the war did not know this, and still wonder what political imperative kept this from the rest of us. Perhaps the information was withheld to maintain the integrity of the Coalition itself, or more probably to keep public support, and particularly that of the American public, without whose backing the alliance would surely have collapsed

Whatever the reason, the truth was that the Iraqi troops were never anything more than a third world army, dressed up in first world equipment perhaps, who had about as much chance of defeating the Coalition as the Dervishes had had of trouncing the British at Omdurman.

Secondly, and with apologies to my colleagues and comrades who had served in the front line, I (and many others) thought our Division had been slow and ponderous in its operations and had never quite risen to the occasion. Too many years training to defeat the Warsaw Pact in northern Germany in a series of set piece battles seemed to have drained it of dash and initiative. True, there had been a series of frustrating delays at the border whilst the Americans breached the minefields and berm to let the Div through, which made for a slow start. But that obstacle having been overcome, it should have allowed us to take full part in the breakneck dash into Iraq.

Instead, while the Americans threw caution to the wind when they began to realise the full extent of the victory, we were plodding our steady way through a series of half-heartedly held Iraqi defensive positions and complaining of being held up by hordes of prisoners when the enemy started surrendering in droves. I don’t think there was much wrong with our soldiers, who did everything that was asked of them and more, nor was our equipment responsible for our fairly lacklustre performance.

But I did wonder whether we really had a feel for how to breed the sort of commanders we needed for this sort of high speed, intuitive, seat-of-the-pants type of warfare. Fear of making a mistake has been a flaw in many of our senior commanders through history, and perhaps the over-riding desire to have everything “properly teed up”, to use Montgomery’s phrase, prevented the Division and its two brigades being bold and decisive in its actions.

Finally, I had been most impressed by the competence of our American allies, who were the cornerstone of the Coalition and whose victory it really was. They had proved to be both thoroughly meticulous and professional in their planning, and then had prosecuted their plan with boldness and imagination. They appeared to have none of that air of enthusiastic amateurism which we Brits still admire in our military, and they were considerably the better for it. When presented with tactical and operational opportunities demanding instant decision and action, they had the self confidence and breadth of vision to seize the moment.

Whether they had to prosecute the war quite so determinedly right to the bitter end is open to debate, but there could be no doubting their determination and tenacity. Man for man (or woman for woman) I have always been of the opinion that the British soldier is a little bit superior to his American counterpart, and up to brigade level we could probably give them a run for their money, but at Division and above I don’t think we can compete. In the Gulf they were motivated, superbly equipped, and well led, and as long as they enjoyed the support of the American public they probably had no equal. They won the war with everybody else just really tagging along, and in doing so laid the ghost of Vietnam. 

For 4RTR in Germany life slowly returned to normal, and the long, slow haul to get our 57 tanks operational again began. Eventually it was completed, but it took another years or so, and other forces beyond our control had been at work in the meantime. The Government published its “Options for Change” strategy for the armed forces, which was a Defence Review by any other name, and 4RTR did not appear on the new order of battle. We knew we were to be amalgamated or disbanded, and things were never the same again. In the end, the Regiment slaved over its obsolescent Chieftains to get them fit for Hohne Ranges one more time, fired them during the last gunnery camp – and then handed them over to be scrapped. It was very sad, and an enormous effort for nothing. 

And it wasn’t just the equipment which was scrapped; large scale troop reductions were also required (sound familiar?) and the army set forth on a round of voluntary and compulsory redundancies. Within twelve months of our return from the Gulf, two thirds of the dozen or so Regimental officers who had gone to war had left the army. Most of them were forced to go, victims of their Short Service Commissions (SSC), which in normal times might have been converted to Regular Commissions for those who wanted to stay longer term. 

Funnily enough, those who had seen action were mainly SSC officers, and therefore those forced to retire were the very ones who had all the combat experience. Arguably we ended up with a remaining officers corps experienced in orderly officer duties, barrack administration, and not a lot else. It was a crass decision, and I can think of no competent large scale commercial organisation which would approach a similar problem by sacking its most successful and experienced salesmen, for example. At a stroke the Royal Tank Regiment lost most of the operational experience in tank warfare amongst its officers.

In what I thought was a fitting, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, finale to the whole Gulf saga, the Gulf officer vets presented one of the signed prints of the Terence Cuneo oil painting, which had been commissioned by 1 UK Armd Div, to the 4RTR officers’ mess. Rather cheekily, we had a plaque placed on it with the legend “Presented By The Officers Who Went To The Gulf To Those Who Did Not”, which raised a wry smile and was generally taken in the good humour intended. Then, after a few weeks, most of the decent war stories had been told, and talk of the war quietly died away.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, for a lot of this happened after I had gone, posted to the US of A, of which much more next episode.

To come in Part 31; “livin’ in the USA”.

If you enjoyed this article please share and follow us on Twitter here – and like and comment on facebook here.  

Photo of 4RTR Chieftain in Osnabruck, West Germany, 1991 (not Salisbury Plain!) thanks to George Hannah. Acknowledgment and apologies to Uriah Heep…

© Stuart Crawford 2021 

ThinkScotland exists thanks to readers' support - please donate in any currency and often


Follow us on Facebook and Twitter & like and share this article
To comment on this article please go to our facebook page