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Tank Commander Series
By Stuart Crawford - Part 29
Smoke bombs, nurses and pre-emptive strikes

Not every BA flight made it out of Kuwait. Photo of tail of BA Flight 149 that was captured at Kuwait Airport the day Iraq invaded, whilst en route to Kuala Lumpur – and the aircraft subsequently blown up.

AFTER THE TRIP to Kuwait, Headquarters British Forces Middle East (HQBFME) had the distinct feel of end of term about it. Believe it or not, however, we were still finalising the procurement of some of the Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs) which hadn’t been delivered in time for the war.

In particular, the artillery smoke rounds I had sourced from South Africa – still a pariah state as most of the international community was concerned – eventually turned up – all 5,000 of them – but they were never used. I dare say they’re still in some ammo store somewhere ready to be used, or maybe they were fired during the more recent military adventures in Afghanistan and/or Iraq (again).

It had become clear that it wasn’t just the purchase of the smoke rounds which had been unnecessary. Vast amounts of kit had been sent out to Saudi Arabia but never used, either because nobody knew where it was or because it couldn’t be found. The main depot in theatre, 62 Ordnance Company, had expanded to cover many acres and there were literally thousands of containers and boxes there. Many of these were never even opened, much less logged and distributed.

Some front-line units had become so frustrated by the usual supply system, which had been overwhelmed by the scale of the task, that they had resorted to sending their own men back to the depot to find the bits and pieces they so desperately needed. This further exacerbated the problems, because now there were additional bodies rooting through the opened boxes looking for what they wanted.

If any lesson was going to be taken from the Gulf War it had to be the pressing requirement for a comprehensive stock monitoring and tracking system to enable the army to keep tabs on what had been sent and where it was stored. No doubt there’s some sort of barcode scheme nowadays, but it got to the point where we were never actually completely sure, for example, of how many tanks we had in theatre.

We did have a little bit of fun on the social side, however, as the permanent expatriate Brits in Riyadh kindly did their level best to entertain as many of us as possible. For our part, we were free to move around Riyadh again and had the free time to do it. On one memorable occasion, a few of us were invited down to the Diplomatic Quarter to the residence of one of the British military representatives for a cocktail party. Also at this party was a smattering of nurses from 205 Field Hospital, a Territorial Army (TA) unit which recruited in the Glasgow area.

This organisation had been mobilised and sent out to the Gulf in January, and at least one of the flights carrying its personnel had arrived at King Khaled International airport in Riyadh in the middle of a SCUD raid. This was indeed an unfortunate baptism of fire; it’s bad enough arriving in a strange country in the middle of the night, but to do so in the middle of a missile raid and have to scramble into your NBC kit the minute you hit the tarmac is doubly unfortunate.

It didn’t seem to have caused the nurses at the party any permanent harm, though, and they were in fine spirits. We spent a very pleasant evening in their company, were careful with our alcohol intake, thanked our host and left. Our erstwhile companions, on the other hand, were not so abstemious and took full advantage of the drink supplied, having been teetotal since their arrival in country. An unfortunate and embarrassing episode then ensued as they too took their leave; whilst shaking hands with her hostess on saying goodbye, one of the nurses let two cans of beer tumble from where she had concealed them under her coat. We were mortified at this violation of our hosts’ hospitality, but they never batted an eyelid.

Time came to thin out personnel in HQBFME. Extraordinarily, we were informed that individuals would not be told directly that they were surplus to requirements, but that if their names did not appear on the next day’s duty roster they could assume that was the case. What a ham-handed way to deal with drawdown, I thought, and it was very poor man management. I have to admit, though, that despite the manner in which the information was disseminated, I was more than delighted when my name did not appear on the duty list. I could go!

On 10th March I got final confirmation that my services were indeed no longer required and I started to make preparations to leave. The procedure was actually quite easy; the transport and movement gurus were in the same building and I simply had to find the first flight with space on it and book myself on as a passenger. That done, all I had to do was wait, in my case for only four days. I handed in my trusty NBC kit and posted my temperate green and brown combat kit back to Germany, thereby ensuring that I’d have no option but to swank back in my desert kit. I reckoned that was the very least I was entitled to after a three-month enforced sojourn in the Middle East.

Notwithstanding that my name was firmly on the flight manifest, bitter experience of past RAF transport movements had taught generations of servicemen not to expect anything to happen until it actually happens. That final night in the Marriott one of my compatriots opened a specially hoarded bottle of contraband whisky in celebration, which was very generous as he himself had a few weeks to go before he was repatriated.

Finally, after what seemed like an age of waiting, my last day in Saudi Arabia arrived. I have to be honest and say I felt not one iota of sadness or nostalgia at the thought of leaving. I said my goodbyes in HQBFME without too much fuss. Farewells in the Services are never very emotional events because they are a normal part of everyday life and therefore expected. With a posting system that moved people around roughly every two years you can’t afford the luxury of heart-wrenching farewells. In any case, I would meet up with these people again, so I just shook hands with everyone and left.

Typically, the flight left at 0220 hours local time – the middle of the night again. Thus my little adventure ended as it had begun, at possibly the most unedifying time for any journey. I was also pretty sceptical that the flight would leave on time, for the one the night before had been five hours late. But to my pleasant surprise there was no real problem. Take-off was only 40 minutes late, and the ‘plane was a civvy one – British Airways doing their bit to take the boys and girls home.

The atmosphere on the flight was understandably jolly as all passengers were just delighted at getting out. For the first time in my experience on a military flight we were handed a tin of beer and half a bottle of wine each, which of course added to the festive air. Obviously some wise individual had worked out that the dangers of drunken mayhem on board flights out of Saudi were infinitesimally small compared to the dangers of soldiers denied any alcohol over many months hitting the town centres of Europe and over-indulging.

Accordingly, it appeared that a pre-emptive strike had been authorised, so to speak. It was probably a very sensible move, for it took the edge off many ambitions to drink the nearest bar dry on return to civilisation. The immediate practical result, however, was to send everybody on the flight to sleep within about 45 minutes of take-off, and most remained that way until touchdown in Germany at RAF Wildenrath some hours later.

I was delighted to find the CO’s staff car, plus driver, waiting for me. I loaded all my gear into the boot of the car as quickly as I could and we were off, with me rather self-consciously wearing my 9mm pistol plus ammunition on my belt. It was a long two-and-a-half-hour drive and I felt a bit odd in my sand-coloured desert combat uniform as we sped past the damp green fields of the German farmland. But soon enough I was standing on my own front doorstep and just pleased to be ‘home’ at last.

In retrospect, had it all been worth it? On balance I thought not, and I still harboured doubts over the morality of the whole escapade. I guess I’d have been more content if I had seen anything that had warmed me to the people and societies of that particular region, but I had not. But we had done what we had been asked to do, for better or for worse, and that was sufficient for the time being.

To come in Part 30; back to normal.

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