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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 20
From Wilderness to Gravy Train



Stuart Crawford meets the Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, in the days when we were still able to shake hands.

BY LATE 1990 4th Tonks had become an Op Granby (Gulf War I) support regiment, with our tanks stripped for spares to support the troops in Kuwait and increasing numbers of personnel being told off for other duties outwith the normal functions of a tank regiment. After my relatively short time as C Squadron leader I was now Regimental 2ic, nominally in charge of training – there wasn’t any – and equipment – it had all been rendered useless. But there still seemed to be stacks going on.

Part of my new job was to publish the Regimental forecast of events, a document that in normal circumstances got updated from time-to-time and distributed to keep everybody up to speed with what was happening. During Op Granby it very quickly because an impossible task and we just started living day-to-day. Things changed constantly, much in line with the old army adages “greatcoats off, greatcoats on” and “rush to wait”. There is another, less complimentary army adage which describes the circumstances, and that is a “cake and arse party”.

At this point I should probably say that I have written about this particular time in great detail in my short book Sending My Laundry Forward: A Staff Officer’s Account of the First Gulf War (Troubadour, 2012, ISBN 978 1783064 182) and encourage you to go out and buy a copy. Except that you can’t, because it’s out of print. Actually, not quite true, I’ve just checked on Amazon and you can buy a new copy for 600. I would advise against this – it’s not worth it, believe me.

I am honour bound to say, therefore, that a lot of what follows hereafter is me plagiarising myself, shamelessly transcribed verbatim out of my last remaining copy of my book. (I thought you can’t plagiarise yourself, by the way, but my better educated children tell me otherwise. Who knew? Well, apart from them obviously).


Gulf War - Sending my Laundry Forward

Where was I? Oh, yes, the cake and arse party. So, in the autumn of 1990, the Regiment’s tanks were all VOR (vehicle off the road), the subbies were falling over themselves to volunteer to go to war (although interestingly not the NCOs, with one or two noticeable exceptions), the boys were being send hither and thither to provide manpower for various tasks, and anything we planned came to nought. At this point I engaged my famous and immaculate sense of perfect timing and went on leave – to get married, leaving chaos behind.

My honeymoon was spent exploring the farthest flung expanses of that unexplored wilderness…

…known as Devon, and on my way back I made the fatal mistake of popping into Regimental Headquarters Royal Tank Regiment (RHQ RTR) in Bovington in Dorset on my way past. I think I had to pick up something to take back to Germany, but, be that as it may, it was there that I heard for the first time that I might be bound for the Middle East. I think the deliverer of the information, the Regimental Colonel, was disappointed that did not appear more pleased, but bearing in mind I had been married a mere three weeks and had enjoyed my foray into wilderness I think my lack of enthusiasm was quite understandable.

Thus it came to pass, as they say in the Bible, that a few short weeks later I found myself bound for Saudi Arabia. Typically, when the army wanted you to go anywhere it chose the most inconvenient time for you to travel, and I left by car for the airport at the grisly time of 3.30 am. It was always the RAF’s fault for they always insisted on early arrival at the point of departure and then kept us waiting around while the pilots had a leisurely breakfast at the nearest 5 star hotel where they had stayed the night, said a leisurely farewell to their girlfriends and mistresses, then strolled over to their aircraft giving the best impression of Tom Cruise in Top Gun they could manage. We all hated the RAF transport system and personnel with a vengeance.

Also typically, this time of RHQ RTR, I had been told I was to join the Headquarters British Forces Middle East (HQBFME) in Jeddah. Unfortunately it wasn’t there, it was in Riyadh. Thankfully that was where my ‘plane was going’, and I was in it together with lots of other poor souls on their way to war. Our journey was cheered up somewhat by the magician Paul Daniels, who was on his way out to visit the troops. He was brilliantly amusing and, unlike some of the senior officers in the forward “business class” end of the ‘plane, at least took the time to come back and chat to we mere mortals in “economy”.


Riyadh

I found myself in Egypt for the first and – so far – last time in my life when we landed to refuel in Cairo. My Dad had been in Cairo at various times during his time in the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) in 1946-48, and I was amused that I was in some small way following in his footsteps. Thereafter it was a relatively short hop to Riyadh – or “Riyadh–Saudi Arabia”, as the Americans would say, with a twang. It has always seemed to me the geography teaching in their high schools leaves something to be desired.

Arriving at HQBFME was a bit of a Staff College reunion. I was picked up at the airport by Ian Rodley (RTR) and Richard Aubrey-Fletcher (Grenadier Guards), both of whom had been on the same course as I had. There were more when we got to the somewhat shabby and rundown office accommodation on an ordinary street which was to be our initial location. Friends and relatives had assumed we’d be in some bomb-proof underground bunker somewhere, but the only protection the building had was a guard company from the splendid Queen’s Own Highlanders and a few sandbags round the entrance which we put up ourselves later.

The veterans of this organisation had themselves only been there for a matter of weeks. One of the first tasks of the early arrivers had been to go out to local stores and purchase their own desks, chairs, filing cabinets, and other bits of sundry office equipment and then put them together so the place could operate. The money came from a seemingly bottomless treasure chest under the control of the QM. We now know that most of it was provided by the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments, and they were unstinting in their generosity. Hardly surprising, I suppose, with the enemy at the gates as it were.


Marriott Hotel

What did surprise me was that we were all housed in the Marriott Hotel. The reason was that the RAF were lead service for this particular little jaunt in the sand, initially at least, and they as an institution have never been known to settle for a 4 star hotel when there is a 5 star establishment available within a couple of hundred miles. So the Marriott it was. Had the RN been lead service I dare say we would have been billeted in some rusty, leaking hulk off the coast in the Gulf, and had it been the Army we would doubtless have inhabited some vast, soulless tented camp in the middle of the desert, miles from any solace or entertainment. So for once the RAF’s involvement was a blessing.

The fact that we were in a hotel did rather piss-off the boys who were up country living off the back decks of their panzers, but what really hacked them off, and rightly so, was that we base-wallahs also got paid vast allowances for subsistence until the proper service catering services arrived and were set up. Our accommodation was free, and on top of our normal military salaries we were paid an additional 41 per day for food (1990 prices, equal to 85.29 today according to Google). And as we were dining mainly at the Wendy’s Burger restaurant near the HQ there was no conceivable way of spending it.

It was a gravy train, and no mistake. By the time I arrived a little ritual had been established which I was advised to follow (and did). I drew my first batch of allowances – 540 if I remember correctly – from the Paymaster’s office and then went directly across the yard to the British Forces Post Office (BFPO) in the next portacabin, where I deposited the bulk of my money in a Post Office Investment Account. By the time these outrageous allowances were stopped most of us had considerable savings in our accounts.

This theme of largesse continued when I went to pick up my staff car the next day, a brand spanking new Mazda 929 with 23 miles on the clock, courtesy of the Saudi government. It all felt a bit unreal, to be honest, and didn’t last forever. But more on this next time!


Sentry with Machine Gun

To come in Part 21; a very strange type of war.


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