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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 21
Shemaghs, Wooly Pullys and Whisky shampoo

ON MY FIRST DAY of posting to Gulf War I arrived at Headquarters British Forces Middle East (HQBFME) and reported on arrival to the Chief of Staff, Col Ian Talbot (Google him, it’s interesting). He had no idea whatsoever that I was joining his staff and told me not to bother unpacking as he thought I should join 1 (UK) Armoured Division (1(UK) Div) in the field up country. Two hours later he changed his mind and told me I was staying. This set the pattern for the rest of my war (see “cake and arse party” in previous episodes).

View from the roof of HQBFME

The first few weeks were a bit of a “sitzkrieg” or phoney war as the coalition forces built up in theatre and moved from the ports of entry inland. The logistical effort was staggering. At this point, being “weapons trained” – that is trained in the design and acquisition of weaponry – I joined Lt Col James Short, of the 9/12 Lancers I think, who had the unenviable task of dealing with all the multifarious demands for new equipment being made.

The fact that the Saudis and Kuwaitis were paying allowed every Tom, Dick and Harry to exercise their personal equipment aspirations and hobby-horses and requests for “vital” kit was never-ending. It amused me that we had been ready to take on the massed Soviet tank armies with our kit as it stood, but now that we were facing the third world force that was the Iraqi army everything had to be up-armoured and enhanced.

Some of the more arcane equipment that I was involved in procuring included knobby tyres for motorcycles, to give them more traction in the sand, and smoke artillery rounds for our 155mm artillery pieces. The only country that could supply the latter was South Africa, which at the time was still an international pariah because of apartheid, but it didn’t seem to stop us buying ammunition from them. (As it happened the war was over before the smoke rounds arrived).

So much kit was sent to the Gulf that we lost track of much of it. There was no asset tracking system in place as far as I’m aware and stuff got lost. Some of the containers were never opened at all, and the units up country got so fed up waiting for their bits and pieces that they sent people back to find what they needed, which only added to the confusion. More awkwardly, we lost a consignment of then top secret Chobham armour for about 48 hours, a panic which ended when it was discovered on the edge of some airstrip somewhere and immediately put under close guard. If only the logistics staff had thought to barcode everything we’d probably have been all right, but they didn’t.

During this time when the coalition forces were building up in theatre there were, I’m afraid to say, three main bones of contention which sowed dissent and envy amongst the troops. The aforementioned expenses paid to us rear area oxygen thieves (aka “REMFs”, which I will not expand upon in a family-friendly journal) ranks first and foremost of these. Details are in the previous episode, but their generosity bordered on the ludicrous, and we only got them thanks to the RAF’s innate ability to screw every situation to their own advantage to the nth degree. They didn’t last long, but the boys in the desert were peeved by them, put it that way, and rightly so. The BFPO outside in the yard was handling 250,000 per week as we all banked our allowances which gives some indication of the sums involved.

Next was the allocation of cars within HQBFME. As I wrote in the last episode, I picked up a brand new Mazda 929 with 23 miles on the clock when I arrived, and most folk would have been quite satisfied with that. However, more senior officers were forever bickering over what level of car they should be entitled to. On one famous occasion I borrowed a Land Rover Discovery to visit Divisional HQ in the desert, and when I returned there just happened to be a wheen of senior officers in the car park who immediately demanded to know how I was entitled to that particular motor, and then proceeded to berate their junior staff officers as to why they didn’t have one as well. It was truly pathetic.

But the biggest furore of all was over the issue of desert combat uniforms. The boys of 7 Armd Bde had managed to get themselves kitted out in desert appropriate clothing, with sand camouflage combats, desert boots, shemaghs and the like. They even got the rare sand “woolly pully” which was the mark of the ancien combatant and the object of envy for many Johnny-come-latelies like me. But then supplies ran out, and the rest of us turned up in our temperate green and brown combat kit (main photo) which marked us out as the new boys in town.

The issue of the next batches of desert combats became an issue – or not an issue (see what I did there?) So when the Chief of the General Staff (CGS), General Sir John Chapple, came out to visit us as he absolutely should have done, some idiot on his staff decided it would be a good idea to kit him and his entourage out in brand, spanking new desert combats whilst the troops in the field had none. I swear it looked as if his ADC had ironed the General’s outfit too, which added insult to injury. It was a PR faux pas par excellence.

Desert sunrise

However, the murmurings of discontent from the ranks were somewhat alleviated when the DCOS of HQBFME, a Colonel in the Logistic Corps who was responsible, amongst a myriad of more important items, for the distribution of said desert combats, declared that he would be the last man in theatre to get a set. He was true to his word and was the last British soldier dressed in green in theatre. We were impressed.

With such things the tail end of 1990 passed slowly and soon we found ourselves in the Festive Season but a long way from home. After getting over our outrage that the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) back at Northwood in the UK had gone on to skeleton manning for the period (“Skeleton manning? Don’t they realise a war is about to begin?”), we were invited by British diplomats to spend Christmas Day with them in the diplomatic quarter in Riyadh, which was most kind of them.

It was as jolly as could be in the circumstances, and they had even got some Christmas presents for us, which was very touching. And, given diplomatic privileges, they could serve alcohol too, which we had been more or less deprived of since we arrived in Saudi. Of course it went straight to our heads and we became unco’ fu’. But we drove home afterwards nonetheless, reasoning that a state which banned alcohol would have no need for drink driving laws and therefore we were quite safe from prosecution. And the driver went on to become a Brigadier in later life!

We did get sent alcohol from back home, of course, despite many warnings that we were breaking Saudi law. At first it came surreptitiously, disguised in shampoo bottles and marked accordingly on the customs forms. Trouble was that the WAGs who sent it never rinsed out the containers well enough, and so the Glenmorangie so transported tasted like Head ‘n’ Shoulders. Then someone brazenly sent me some marked “whisky” on the outside of the package and it arrived safely and without mishap. After that we were all much more relaxed, both mentally and physically. Lots of us had lost our taste for it, though, so there was little over-indulgence that I knew of in HQBFME.

The other great advantage we had over the boys in the desert was a facility we called “Freefone Saudi Arabia”. Basically the phones in the HQ had no barriers to private use and were open to international calling. During the nightshift, in particular, there were long hours of boredom which could be pleasantly alleviated by calls to friends and family back home. We spent quite literally hours talking to friends and relatives, all courtesy of the Saudi government. Word got out, and our chums in the field would call us on the military net and ask us to call up their WAGs to tell them that they were, so far at least, safe. We were of course happy to oblige.

And that was about it. The New Year of 1991 arrived and we found ourselves many miles from home without any real clue what was coming next. That, however, was all about to change, and the events that unfolded will be covered in the next couple (or possibly three) episodes.

To come in Part 22; the ‘fun’ starts.

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