Desert Rats

A British Scorpion Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) of the 7th Armoured Brigade, 1st Armoured Division, advances east into Kuwait from southern Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

A Challenger crew from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards taking a rest during a lull in the fighting. The Challenger’s 120mm gun could knock out enemy tanks at 2,500 yards and beyond, and its excellent thermal sights allowed the crew to fight just as effectively at night. Its Chobham armour was enhanced by the addition of extra armour packs on the front and sides. In the background (left to right) can be seen an FV432 ambulance, an M548 Rapier missile supply vehicle and a Warrior (beyond the garbage truck).

The Basra–Kuwait Highway near Kuwait City after the Iraqis had fled north. In the background are various British armoured personnel carriers, including two ambulances, and in the foreground is a loaded Iraqi ZPU-4 anti-aircraft gun.

In mid-January 1991 it was assessed that facing General de la Billiere’s British 1st Armoured Division were seven Iraqi divisions, consisting of the 20th, 21st and 25th Infantry Divisions, with the 6th, 12th and 17th Armoured Divisions and the Tawakalna Republican Guard Division in reserve. By the end of January the Iraqi 16th Infantry Division had joined the front-line forces and the reserves were bolstered by the 26th and 36th Infantry Divisions. On paper this was a formidably daunting force. However, the front-line divisions had no overhead cover and were suffering daily under the air strikes. Nonetheless Britain’s armoured forces were about to become involved in some fierce tank battles.

Just before the start of the ground offensive, coalition Special Forces were sent on Scud missile hunting missions. Aside from the extreme dangers posed by Saddam’s chemical weapons, another particular threat faced by the Coalition’s ground troops was his considerable arsenal of tactical ballistic missiles. These had successfully rained down death and destruction on Iran’s cities during the Iran–Iraq War.

British special operations were the responsibility of the 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment and their naval counterparts in the Special Boat Service (SBS). The SAS deployed out of their depot at Hereford, Cyprus and Oman. However, a few SAS members were already in Kuwait, having been assigned to the British Military Assistance Training team advising the Kuwaiti Army at the time of Saddam’s invasion. These men were able to provide invaluable intelligence on the local conditions. Using their well-honed covert tactics, SAS patrols roamed the rear areas in their Landrover Desert Patrol Vehicles (‘Pink Panthers’) and their Longline Light Strike Vehicles. On 7 January 1991 US and British Special Forces raided an Iraqi air defence missile site and made off with a Soviet-manufactured radar system. The SBS cooperated with their American cousins, the US Navy SEALs, who were given responsibility for the Kuwait City area.

Coalition commanders were very aware of the threat posed by Iraqi missiles. Saddam had first fired his Soviet-made Scud-B missiles at Iran in 1982; this culminated six years later in the ‘War of the Cities’, in which both sides lobbed hundreds of missiles at each other. The enormity of this should not be underestimated: Saddam’s bombardment in 1988 caused 8,000 Iranian casualties and drove out a quarter of Tehran’s population. A decade later Iran targeted with missiles Iranian opposition forces that were being sheltered by Saddam.

By the time of the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam still had stocks of Scud-B missiles plus Iraqi modified variants known as the Al-Abbas, Al-Hussein and Al-Hijarah. In the build-up to the war forty-six Iraqi Scuds were fired at Saudi Arabia and another forty-two at Israel. One particular strike against a barracks at Dhahran in Saudi killed twenty-eight members of a US Army unit.

In support of Desert Sabre, Special Forces were tasked with gathering intelligence about the missiles, to vector in air strikes or if necessary destroy Saddam’s missile launchers themselves. The most famous of these was the British SAS mission codenamed Bravo Two Zero. Despite Operation Desert Storm, few of Saddam’s Scud launchers had been destroyed by coalition aircraft; Special Forces and coalition pilots claimed up to hundred launchers destroyed, but this figure was never substantiated.

Meanwhile, as part of Operation Granby, the British 1st Armoured Division, commanded by Major General Rupert Smith, came under the US VII Corps and was part of the great armoured left-hook that attacked the Iraqi Republican Guard formations. Smith’s two brigades (the 4th and 7th, under Brigadiers Christopher Hammerbeck and Patrick Cordingley respectively) were to alternate spearheading the advance. In the vanguard of General Smith’s assault were two armoured reconnaissance units. The British Army had continued its love affair with its cavalry regiments and remained wedded to the concept of reconnaissance by force. Dashing forward across the barren desert landscape, they were to probe the Iraqi defences that had withstood air attack and the preliminary artillery and rocket bombardment. Their highly dangerous job was to draw enemy fire to help locate positions that needed to be neutralized as the division rolled forwards. The firepower of these reconnaissance forces was quite considerable.

The chosen units were the 7th Armoured Brigade’s A Squadron, 1st Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and the divisional formation 16th/5th Queen’s Royal Lancers Regiment. Whilst most countries opted for wheeled vehicles to conduct this role, the British Army had developed a unique family of tracked armoured fighting vehicles known as combat vehicle reconnaissance tracked (CVR(T)s). The two main variants were the FV101 Scorpion and FV107 Scimitar light tanks armed with 76mm and 30mm guns respectively. The headquarter elements were equipped with the anti-tank Striker variant and the Spartan armoured personnel carrier, both based on the Scorpion chassis. Also in support were Sultan command vehicles, Samson recovery vehicles and Samson ambulances, again all of which are Scorpion derivatives.

The light armour was to precede the heavy tank regiments, which consisted of the 7th Armoured Brigade’s Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, reinforced by elements of the 14th/20th King’s Hussars, 17th/21st Lancers and the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, and the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars tank regiment, also reinforced by units from the 17th/21st Lancers. The 4th Armoured Brigade’s tank force comprised the 14th/20th Hussars Tank Regiment, reinforced by the Life Guards’ A Squadron and elements of the 4th Tank Regiment. The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars had four tank squadrons totalling 57 Challenger tanks and 670 men, while the 14th/20th King’s Hussars had three squadrons with 43 tanks and 650 men. The squadrons each had four tank troops, each with three tanks plus two in the HQ and administration troop.

In 1988 Brigadier Cordingley was given command of the 7th Armoured Brigade, comprising 5,000 men serving with the tank regiments, armoured infantry, artillery, engineers and support services. Two years later, in September 1990, with his force’s strength now increased to 12,000 men, he took his brigade to Saudi Arabia as Britain’s initial ground contribution to the Gulf War. The 7th Armoured Brigade had had an interesting history. In early 1940, when the British Mobile Division became the 7th Armoured Division, the Light Armoured Brigade was slightly confusingly redesignated the 7th Armoured Brigade. Nicknamed the ‘Green Rats’ or the ‘Jungle Rats’ after a deployment to Burma in 1942, the brigade then served in the Middle East before fighting in Italy for the rest of the Second World War. When the 7th Armoured Division (the ‘Desert Rats’) was disbanded in 1958, the 7th Armoured Brigade adopted its insignia and nickname. It formed part of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division when this was formed in 1976. After being briefly converted to Task Force Alpha in the late 1970s, the brigade was reinstated in 1981.

Each of the British armoured brigades had a field regiment with twenty-four 155mm M109A2 self-propelled howitzers, as well as an air defence missile battery with thirty-six Javelins, while divisional support came from the 26th Field Regiment with another twelve M109A2s. The 32nd Heavy Regiment was armed with sixteen M109A2s and twelve 203mm M110A1 self-propelled howitzers, and the 39th Heavy Regiment deployed twelve M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. Tactical air support was supplied by the 4th Regiment, Army Air Corps, deployed with twenty-four Lynx AH Mk1 attack helicopters plus twenty-four French-designed but British-built Gazelle AH Mk1 scouts.

Late in the afternoon of 24 February 1991 VII Corps, comprising the main British and American forces, launched the central coalition thrust. The US 1st Infantry Division breached the defences. The battered and bruised Iraqi 48th Infantry Division in the mouth of the breach was estimated to have lost 98 per cent of its tanks – in other words it was wiped out as a fighting force. To the left of MARCENT, the Egyptian–Syrian Joint Force Command North was directed to breach the Iraqi defences in the centre of the Iraqi border. The Egyptian 3rd Mechanized Division spearheaded the advance.

The following day the two brigades of Smith’s British 1st Armoured Division, preceded by Lynx attack helicopters, were to pour through the US 1st Infantry Division’s breach. Swinging to the right, the British were to attack the Iraqi 12th Armoured Division, held in tactical reserve, in order to protect VII Corps’ thrust towards the Republican Guard. This Iraqi division was estimated to number 13,000 men equipped with up to 300 T-55 and T-62 main battle tanks.

At 1515 hours on 25 February the ‘Desert Rats’ of Brigadier Cordingley’s 7th Armoured Brigade, spearheading the British 1st Armoured Division, began to advance into Iraq, passing through the US lines. They were to thrust eastwards into Kuwait. Facing them were elements of the Iraqi 12th Armoured Division, which was now believed to be about 65 per cent combat effective: of its 250 tanks, only 115 remained operational. However, it was anticipated that the Iraqi 12th and 48th Divisions would remain in place, supported by an unidentified Iraqi brigade. It was clear that the going would not be easy.

Attacking a series of objectives codenamed after metals, the brigade destroyed two Iraqi tanks at ‘Copper’, a position believed to be defended by fourteen enemy tanks. The British Challengers’ 120mm guns accounted for at least five further Iraqi T-55s and six APCs. Moving on to ‘Zinc’, a position that was thought to contain an Iraqi brigade with up to a hundred tanks, the 7th Armoured Brigade attacked in the darkness. All the Iraqis could do was fire back at the muzzle flashes as they counter-attacked with almost fifty vehicles. Daybreak revealed another ten Iraqi armoured vehicles knocked out in the desert sands.

On the night of 25/26 February Brigadier Christopher Hammerbeck’s British 4th Armoured Brigade was also involved in a confused engagement with about twenty Iraqi tanks for ‘Copper South’. The next day, with the 4th Brigade continuing its advance to the south, the 7th Brigade pressed on and the Iraqis lost another nine T-55s to British gunnery. Meanwhile, Hammerbeck’s 4th Armoured Brigade attacked ‘Brass’, accounting for thirty tanks and almost fifty APCs; in total, it knocked out sixty MBTs and ninety APCs. During Desert Sabre the 1st Armoured Division accounted overall for 200 Iraqi T-62s, 100 AFVs and 100 artillery pieces. British Army Air Corps Lynx helicopters also destroyed at least four T-55s and seven other armoured vehicles, with a number of other probable hits. This said much for the superior British training and firepower.

The Reckoning

Following Operation Desert Storm/Desert Sabre no conclusive body-count was ever issued. Washington estimated that over 100,000 Iraqis were killed and 300,000 wounded, with another 175,000 taken prisoner. However, these figures add up to a total far greater than the number of men originally assessed to be in the KTO. British estimates were much more conservative, with 30,000 Iraqi dead and 100,000 wounded. The air war alone was initially thought to have accounted for 100,000, but when the fighting was over this figure was revised to 10,000. The Iraqis themselves claimed they had lost 20,000 dead and 60,000 wounded in twenty-six days of air attacks. It has also since been estimated that just 10,000 Iraqis were killed during the land offensive. Despite this, a total of 20,000–30,000 dead seems rather high, and a conservative estimate of less than 10,000 remains more likely.

The irony is that, because his forces held their ground during the protracted preliminary air campaign, the ground war, although brief, ensured Saddam Hussein got a favourable cease-fire outcome (i.e. the coalition forces just 240km away did not press on to Baghdad, and he stayed in power). The loyal Republican Guard remained reasonably intact; they had lost their tanks but not their will to fight for Saddam, meaning that he was easily able to crush the Iraqi revolts that took place once the cease-fire was secure. Schwarzkopf admitted that a substantial Iraqi force was still left north of the Tigris–Euphrates Valley, but although it was ‘an infantry army, it’s not an armoured army’.

Indeed, the surviving Iraqi armed forces could still constitute a sizeable army. After the war ended, Saddam still had perhaps 250,000 men under arms, equipped with 1,700 tanks (700 from the KTO and 1,000 still in Iraq), 6,700 APCs (1,400 from the KTO and 5,300 still in Iraq) and almost 800 pieces of artillery (340 from the KTO and 443 still in Iraq). There were seven divisions around Baghdad, plus forces on the Syrian border and about nine divisions on the Turkish border. There were two Republican Guard divisions in Baghdad, perhaps 24,000 men, with another five or so army divisions in the area, comprising another 60,000 men. Although south-western Iraq had been overrun, no Scud missiles were found, leaving an estimated 300 still posing a threat to Israel. For the best part of the next decade the UN Special Commission for Iraq embarked on a wild goose chase hunting for Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Desert Sabre was a classic textbook offensive conducted with bravery, verve and professionalism by all those involved. In contrast, the Iraqi Army proved to be a house of cards. The Republican Guard Corps had been an unknown quantity: would they fight and if so how hard? Lieutenant William Ratliff of the US 1st Armored Division summed up the situation in the end: ‘I think we overestimated [the enemy]. We were told the Republican Guard was the best [Saddam] had. We expected better.’

Before the ground offensive, the Coalition’s combined air forces launched a round-the-clock air campaign, targeting Iraqi command and control sites, Scud missile installations, lines of communication, and the Republican Guard tanks and other vehicles. Vitally, air superiority over Kuwait and Iraq was achieved within twenty-four hours of the first air attacks. Some 35,000 air sorties were launched against Iraqi ground forces, of which 5,600 were directed at the Republican Guard.

According to American-derived figures, the Coalition destroyed or captured 5,297 armoured vehicles (3,847 tanks and 1,450 APCs), as well as 2,917 pieces of artillery (see table). One of the highest scores fell to the British 1st Armoured Division, which accounted for 400 tanks, AFVs and artillery pieces. British Army Air Corps’ Lynx helicopters destroyed at least four T-55s and seven other armoured vehicles, with a number of other probable hits. Similarly the US 1st Marine Division claimed about 310 Iraqi tanks in and around Kuwait City. In total, Iraq’s pre-war holdings of 10,687 tanks, APCs and artillery pieces had plummeted to 2,473.

In his account of the Gulf War General de la Billiere wrote:

The rules of the game are that the victor is allowed to keep captured military equipment from the area over which he has advanced … The rest they [7th Brigade] had blown up and destroyed, to prevent the Iraqis getting it. Norman Schwarzkopf and I had issued strict orders to our forces that they were to retrace their routes of advance during the battle and make sure that nothing serviceable was left behind. The operation of identifying, recovering or destroying equipment went on for at least ten days after the end of the war.

The complete destruction of 400–800 military vehicles and pieces of artillery a day seems an impossibility. What is more, this captured equipment lay inside Iraq, and the Iraqis, masters of invention, were able collect some, if not much, of it and restore it or cannibalize it for spare parts. Similarly the 175,000 PoWs were repatriated.

After the ground war came to a close, samples of Iraq’s armoured forces were gathered up for intelligence exploitation, ending up at Britain’s Defence Research Agency at Chertsey, and America’s National Ground Intelligence Centre at Charlottesville and the Aberdeen Proving Ground. The Coalition captured numerous Chinese and Soviet armoured vehicle types, including the Chinese Type 69-II with a laser range-finder fitted over the mantlet of the 100mm gun (Iraq is believed to have imported over 1,000 Type 69 and 59 tanks), and Type 653 recovery vehicles (based on the Type 69 chassis).

Some of the more unusual armoured vehicles to be captured in Kuwait included the Soviet BMD-1 airborne combat vehicle and the French Panhard M3 APC. Iraq had only a few BMDs, and why they were deployed to Kuwait is unclear; the M3s, of which France had supplied 200, were veterans of the Iran–Iraq War and by 1990 remaining numbers were uncertain.

Not inconsiderable numbers of artillery pieces were captured. For example, whole batteries of Soviet-supplied 2S3 152mm self-propelled guns were overrun and some M-46 130mm field guns were found abandoned in their sandbagged firing positions. The Coalition also captured Chinese Type 83 152mm and Type 59-1 130mm field guns and Yugoslav-supplied M56 105mm howitzers.

Britain’s Tank Museum acquired a Chinese-built Type 69-II main battle tank, a Chinese Type YW-701 command post vehicle (based on the YW-531 and deployed by regimental and divisional commanders) and several Type YW-750 ambulances (Iraq imported an estimated total of 500 Norinco YW-531 APCs in the early 1980s), as well as a Soviet up-armoured T-55, a BMP and a 2S3 152mm self-propelled gun. (Iraq also fielded the 2S4 240mm self-propelled mortar and 2S1 122mm self-propelled howitzer.)

At least one vehicle park contained approximately 150–200 mainly Soviet-origin armoured vehicles, including about forty tanks. Amongst the mangled debris were Soviet BMP infantry fighting vehicles, MT-LBs, and T-54 and T-62 tanks. There were other such collections scattered throughout the Iraqi desert, but the numbers seemed to belie the 5,297 claimed. Additionally, there seemed to be a discrepancy in the ratio of tanks to APCs destroyed, with far more tanks claimed.

It is not clear how these figures were derived: it remains uncertain whether they were based on air strike and tank kill claims, or the Coalition simply took an average area and multiplied the debris to create an aggregate total, or they physically counted every single vehicle on the battlefield (which seems unlikely). There was clearly some double-counting by the ground and air forces as they conducted their Battle Damage Assessments, which were largely contradictory throughout the war. Vehicles rounded up for exploitation were numbered or lettered, but again it is not clear if the numbers referred to the overall total, the particular vehicle type totals or were simply shipping numbers.

Naturally, not all Iraq’s destroyed and abandoned AFVs turned out to be the real thing. Saddam’s dummy tanks may have fooled the Coalition’s air forces, but they were also a pathetic symbol of Iraq’s ultimate battlefield weakness. Photo-journalist Gilles Sanssier saw one decoy that was simply a crude corrugated steel sheet rectangle with an oil drum and a pipe forming the turret. The whole thing was draped in a net to give the impression of camouflage. From the air the assumption was that it was a tank – from the ground it was risible.

Remarkably, during the whole of Desert Storm only four M1A1s were disabled and no Challenger 1s were lost to enemy action. The Challengers reportedly accounted for about 300 Iraqi armoured vehicles. The veteran Challenger 1 was replaced by Challenger 2 in 2001, with many of the earlier tanks being sold to Jordan. In March 1991 the US Department of Defense released the following glowing report regarding the performance of the M1A1 Abrams tank:

After 100 hours of offensive operations, the operational readiness rates of both the VII Corps and XVIII Airborne Corps exceeded the Army’s 90 per cent standard. Especially noteworthy was a night move by the 3rd Armored Division covering 200km (120 miles). None of the more than 300 tanks in the division broke down.

Seven separate M1A1 crews reported being hit by T-72 tank rounds. These M1A1s sustained no damage, attesting to the effectiveness of our heavy armour. Other crews reported that the M1A1 thermal sight allowed them to acquire Iraqi T-72s through the smoke from oil well fires and other obscurants. The T-72 did not have the same advantage. This situation gave the Abrams a significant edge in survivability, engagement range and night manoeuvre. Additionally tank crews reported that the M829A1 tank round was extremely effective against the T-72. In sum, the combined performance of the Abrams armour, thermal sight and ammunition attest to the systems’ exceptional lethality and survivability.

Of the 1,955 M1A1 Abrams tanks in theatre, four were disabled and four were damaged but are repairable. No M1A1 crew members were killed by enemy fire in the many tank engagements.

This was clearly a remarkable achievement.

Saddam had made good his threat to burn Kuwait if he was forced from it. In the aftermath of the liberation it was established that 798 wellheads had been detonated, of which 603 caught fire and 45 gushed oil. In addition, there were 100km of oil-filled trenches. Overall 62 million cubic metres of soil was contaminated and over a billion barrels of oil lost. There was both wet and dry oil ground contamination, along with a dreadful crust created by ‘tarcrete’, and scattered everywhere was abandoned ordnance of all shapes and sizes. All of this amounted to some $50 billion worth of damage. It was environmental vandalism on an unprecedented scale.

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