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Tank Commander Series
© By Stuart Crawford - Part 24
Patriot games in Kuwait

Patriot surface-to-air missiles

DID somebody say there’s a war on? Back at the Permanent Joint HQ in the UK (our superior HQ), they were beginning to get a bit twitchy at the number of RAF Tornado losses – five in combat and one to a malfunction. We all knew that something was wrong somewhere, for the US were flying four or five times as many sorties but were losing barely twice the number of aircraft.

Mind you, the Tornado JP233 airfield denial munition required them to fly straight and level down the middle of the Iraqi runways at about 50 feet. All the bad guys had to do was lie on their backs at either end of the runway and fire up in the air; they were bound to hit something.

By 23rd January 1991 the Coalition had flown approximately 10,000 sorties, and whilst battle damage assessment (BDA) was still sketchy, we knew that it must be having some considerable effect, if only because the Iraqis seemed unable, or unwilling, to do anything about it. There was also some skirmishing on the Iraqi-Saudi border on the night of 22/23 January, with some Iraqi prisoners taken. On a lighter note, the British medical unit 32 Field Hospital was nearly captured intact as it drove up from Al Jubail to join the Division in the middle of the night, missed the turning, and was only stopped just before it drove straight into Iraqi occupied Kuwait. What a PR disaster that would have been!

Things settled down after the mayhem of the first few days of the air war, but we were mystified by the lack of Iraqi response. Their navy was being destroyed, their airfields, command and communication centres, and political/military/economic assets were being rapidly eroded, and their only serious air sortie had been shot out of the sky by Saudi F15s. On top of all this, the Iraqi army was being hammered in situ from the air, with one of their Republican Guard Force Divisions being bombed every half hour by US B52s. There was now some speculation that the Coalition ground forces might not need to go into action at all given the success of the air campaign.

The SCUD raids continued but had lost some of their fear factor through familiarity and the fact that rarely was anyone hurt or anything damaged. An exception occurred on the night of 25/26 January when two missiles were fired at Riyadh. Four Patriot surface-to-air missiles (pictured) were launched to intercept, but there was still an extremely loud bang seemingly close to Headquarters British Forces Middle East (HQBFME) as at least one warhead landed. We were masked-up for 20 minutes or so whilst investigations found out that some damage had been done to a nearby building and possibly one person had been killed and several injured.

We now had developed a little routine for dealing with these attacks. The alarm came on our computer screens as soon as the US satellites picked up the launch signature. Non-essential personnel went quickly to the basement which offered a modicum of cover and stayed there until the all clear was sounded. Of those left, usually two of us on the Land Cell desk, one made all the required calls reporting the imminent attack to JHQ in the UK, the Division in the desert (which reportedly usually led to loud cheering as we in the cushy rear were discomfited), and to various other organisations in theatre.

The other got into his NBC suit, and then the roles were swapped. This took roughly about four minutes, and as we knew by then that the average time which elapsed between the attack warning and the missile arriving was about eight minutes, we spent the remaining four minutes reading the newspapers, telling jokes, chatting, and watching the clock. It was always quite a relief when we heard the missile land or be intercepted and we knew we were unharmed, but eventually we became quite blasť about it. Even the local citizens had become notably more relaxed about these raids and were frequently seen scrambling on to the rooftops with video cameras to record the SCUDs’ arrivals.

Around this time I received my second anthrax and whooping cough jags, plus one against bubonic plague, which came as a bit of a surprise. As expected these made us all feel a bit ropey, although we did laugh when we heard that the senior medical officer responsible for administering the vaccinations had taken the following day off because he felt unwell! Personally, I would have dragged myself into work even if half dead to avoid the embarrassment; an example of leadership a la Sandhurst ethos it most definitely was not.

To our great delight we also became “SCUD aces” when Riyadh was attacked for the fifth time. That particular night eight missiles in all were fired by the Iraqis, with six going to Israel, one towards the US base at Dhahran, and one at us. Damage in Riyadh was negligible. However, despite all the bombing the Iraqi army was still a force to be reckoned with, and the night of 29/30 January saw the first significant moves on the ground for some time. It began with reports from the US Marine Corps, more or less directly south of Kuwait City, of enemy tanks crossing the border. One of the incursions seemed to be heading straight down the coast road towards the Saudi coastal town of Ras Al Khafji.

The situation was extremely unclear for most of the night and all our attempts to get more detailed information were unsuccessful. Eventually we heard that the Marines were claiming fifteen enemy tanks destroyed for the loss of two of their own Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs). Sadly one of the US AC 130 gunships which had been supporting the operation stayed around for too long after daybreak and was shot down, killing all its crew. Later the US Marines admitted their own casualties as ten killed and about twenty wounded.

As February arrived things became noticeably quieter overall. There were still missile attacks by the Iraqis on both Saudi Arabia and Israel but we had become so blasť about them by this time that sometimes we forgot to mention them in our handover briefings to the incoming day shift. There had been some amusing moments during the raids; in one of them one of our fellow officers had scrambled down to the basement of our living accommodation dressed only in boxer shorts and gas mask. During the raid he fell asleep, and at the all-clear was left there as a joke by his comrades.

The poor chap woke some hours later, frozen, disoriented, and still wearing his gas mask, swearing terrible revenge on those who had left him behind. On another occasion the same individual and a friend were out in a local restaurant for lunch during one of the rare daylight SCUD attacks. When the alarm sounded they assumed it was another false alarm – there were many – and continued with their meal, laughing at the antics of the waiters who had only one gas mask between them and were taking it in turns to breathe through it. They quickly stopped laughing when things started to go bang in the sky, and to their dismay found they had left their NBC kit and respirators in the car and couldn’t get to them because the waiters had locked the restaurant door. Being gassed in a burger restaurant because you had forgotten to bring your NBC kit would not have been a particularly glorious way to appear on the casualty list. And he was a Guards officer too! The social shame would surely have been too much to bear for his family.

Not surprisingly, with so little going on that affected us directly, life at HQBFME became a little dull. On the night shift in particular there was little to do. We all made the most of the spare time to write home, and I must have written to nearly everybody I could think of whose address I knew. I was also pleasantly surprised by the letters I received from friends whom I had not heard for many years. I even got a couple of ‘phone calls from civilian friends while I sat at the Ops desk – how on Earth they got the number I never found out.

Use of “Freephone Saudi Arabia” was rife and rumours were constantly circulating the day of reckoning was fast approaching. On one famous occasion a spoof bill for many thousands of pounds was issued on official notepaper to one of the most profligate culprits, sending him into a deep depression until he was let off the hook. Oh how we laughed. In the end, however, we all got away with it.

The lull before the storm was to last a little bit longer yet, and I’ll cover that bit in the next instalment.

To come in Part 25; strip poker, morale, and medals.

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