Day Two: 25 February 1991
On 25 February, XVIII Airborne Corps units continued their drive into Iraq. The 82d Airborne Division began its first sustained movement of the war; although, to the disappointment of General Johnson and his troops, the division had to stay on the ground and rode to its objectives in trucks. The 82d followed the French 6th Light Armored Division north to As Salman. Meanwhile, the 101st Airborne Division sent its 3d Brigade out of objective cobra on an air-assault jump north to occupy an observation and blocking position on the south bank of the Euphrates River just west of the town of An Nasinyah.
In the early morning darkness of the same day, General McCaffrey put his 24th Infantry Division in motion toward its first major objective. Following close air support and artillery fires, the division’s 197th Brigade attacked at 0300 toward Objective BROWN in the western part of the division sector. Instead of determined opposition, the brigade found only a handful of hungry Iraqis dazed by the heavy artillery preparation. By 0700, the 197th had cleared the area around BROWN and established blocking positions to the east and west along a trail, which was then being improved to serve as the Corps main supply route. Six hours later, the division’s 2d Brigade followed its own artillery fires and attacked Objective GREY on the right, encountering no enemy fire and taking three hundred prisoners. After clearing the area, the brigade set blocking positions to the east.
At 1450, with the 2d Brigade on Objective GREY, the 1st Brigade moved northwest into the center of the division sector and then angled to the division right, attacking Objective RED directly north of grey. Seven hours later, the brigade had cleared the RED area, set blocking positions to the east and north, and processed two hundred captives. To the surprise of all, the 24th Division had taken three major objectives and hundreds of men in only nineteen hours while meeting weak resistance from isolated pockets of Iraqi soldiers from the 26th and 35th Infantry Divisions. By the end of the day, the XVIII Airborne Corps had advanced in all division sectors to take important objectives, establish a functioning forward operating base, place brigade-size blocking forces in the Euphrates River valley, and capture thousands of prisoners of war-at a cost of two killed in action and two missing.
In the VII Corps, General Franks faced two problems on this second day of ground operations. The British 1st Armoured Division, one of the units he had to have when he met the Republican Guard armored force, had begun passage of the mine breach cut by the 1st Infantry Division at 1200 on the twenty-fifth but would not be completely through for several hours, possibly not until the next day. With the 1st and 3d Armored Divisions along the western edge of the corps sector and the British not yet inside Iraq, the 1st Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions lay vulnerable to an armored counterattack.
A more troubling situation had developed along the VII Corps’ right flank. The commitment of some coalition contingents had concerned General Schwarzkopf months before the start of the ground war. Worried about postwar relations with Arab neighbors, some Arab members of the coalition had expressed reluctance to attack Iraq or even enter Kuwait. If enough of their forces sat out the ground phase of the war, the entire mission of liberating Kuwait might fail. To prevent such a disaster, Schwarzkopf had put the 1st Cavalry Division next to coalition units and gave the division the limited mission of conducting holding attacks and standing by to reinforce allies on the other side of the Wadi al Batin. If Joint Forces Command-North performed well, the division would be moved from the corps boundary and given an attack mission. Action on the first day of the ground war bore out the wisdom of holding the unit ready to reinforce allies to the east. Syrian and Egyptian forces had not moved forward, and a huge gap had opened in the coalition line. U. S. Central Command notified the 2d ACR to prepare to assist the 1st Cavalry Division in taking over the advance east of the Wadi al Batin.
But Franks could not freeze his advance indefinitely. The VII Corps had to press the attack where possible, and that meant on the left flank. Maj. Gen. Ronald H. Griffith’s 1st Armored Division and Maj. Gen. Paul E. Funk’s 3d Armored Division resumed their advance north shortly after daybreak. Griffith’s troops made contact first, with outpost units of the Iraqi 26th Infantry Division. With the 1st Armored Division still about thirty-five to forty miles away from its objective, Griffith’s troops coordinated close air support strikes followed by attack helicopter runs on enemy targets. As the division closed to about ten to fifteen miles, artillery, rocket launchers, and tactical missile batteries delivered preparatory fires. As division lead elements came into visual range, psychological operations teams broadcast surrender appeals. If the Iraqis fired on the approaching Americans, the attackers repeated artillery, rocket, and missile strikes. In the experience of the 1st Armored Division, that sequence was enough to gain the surrender of most Iraqi Army units on a given objective. Only once did the Iraqis mount an attack after a broadcast; and in that instance, a 1st Armored Division brigade destroyed forty to fifty tanks and armored personnel carriers in ten minutes at a range of 1.2 miles.
By the late morning of 25 February, Joint Forces Command-North had made enough progress to allow the VII Corps and Marine Central Command on the flanks to resume their advance. That afternoon and night in the 1st Infantry Division sector, the Americans expanded their mine breach and captured two enemy brigade command posts and the 26th Infantry Division command post with a brigadier general and complete staff. Behind them, the British 1st Armoured Division made good progress through the mine breach and prepared to turn right and attack the Iraqi 52d Armored Division.
Approaching Al Busayyah in early afternoon, the 1st Armored Division directed close air support and attack helicopter sorties on an Iraqi brigade position, destroying artillery pieces, several vehicles, and taking nearly three hundred prisoners. That night, the 2d ACR and 3d Armored Division oriented east and encountered isolated enemy units under conditions of high winds and heavy rains.
With the coalition advance well under way all along the line, a U. S. Navy amphibious force made its final effort to convince the Iraqis that CENTCOM would launch a major amphibious assault into Kuwait. Beginning late on 24 February and continuing over the following two days, the Navy landed the 7,500-man 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Al Mish’ab, Saudi Arabia, about twenty-eight miles south of the border with Kuwait. Once ashore, the 5th became the reserve for Joint Forces Command-East. Later investigation showed that the presence of the amphibious force in Persian Gulf waters before the ground war had forced the Iraqi command to hold in Kuwait as many as four divisions to meet an amphibious assault that never materialized.
At daybreak on 25 February, Iraqi units made their first counterattack in the Marine sector, hitting the 2d Marine Division right and center. While Marine regiments fought off an effort that they named the Reveille Counterattack, troops of the Tiger Brigade raced north on the left. In the morning, the brigade cleared one bunker complex and destroyed seven artillery pieces and several armored personnel carriers. After a midday halt, the brigade cleared another bunker complex and captured the Iraqi 116th Brigade commander among a total of eleven hundred prisoners of war for the day. In the center of the corps sector, the marines overran an agricultural production facility, called the Ice Cube Tray because of its appearance to aerial observers.
By the end of operations on 25 February, General Schwarzkopf for the second straight day had reports of significant gains in all sectors. But enemy forces could still inflict damage and in surprising ways and places. The Iraqis continued their puzzling policy of setting oil fires-well over two hundred now blazed out of control-as well as their strategy of punishing Saudi Arabia and provoking Israel by Scud attacks. They launched four Scuds, one of which, as mentioned earlier, slammed into a building filled with sleeping American troops in Dhahran and caused the highest one-day casualty total for American forces in a war of surprisingly low losses to date.
Day Three: 26 February 1991
On 26 February, the XVIII Airborne Corps units turned their attack northeast and entered the Euphrates River valley. With the French and the 101st and 82d Airborne Divisions protecting the west and north flanks, the 24th Infantry Division spearheaded Luck’s attack into the valley. The first obstacle was the weather. An out-of-season shamal (extreme windstorm) in the objective area kicked up thick clouds of swirling dust that promised to give thermal-imaging equipment a rigorous field test throughout the day.
After refueling in the morning, all three brigades of the 24th Division moved out at 1400 toward the Iraqi airfields at Jabbah and Tallil. The 1st Brigade went north, then east about forty miles to take a battle position in the northeast corner of the corps sector; the 2d Brigade moved thirty-five miles north to a position along the eastern corps boundary and then continued its advance another twenty-five miles until it was only fifteen miles south of Jahbah; and the 197th Brigade went northeast about sixty miles to a position just south of Tallil. Meanwhile, the 3d ACR screened to the east on the division’s south flank.
During these attacks, the 24th encountered its heaviest resistance of the war. The Iraqi 47th and 49th Infantry Divisions, the Nebuchadnezzar Division of the Republican Guard, and the 26th Commando Brigade took heavy fire but stood and fought. The 1st Brigade took direct tank and artillery fire for four hours. For the first time in the advance, the terrain gave the enemy a clear advantage. McCaffrey’s troops found Iraqi artillery and automatic weapons dug into rocky escarpments reminiscent of the Japanese positions in coral outcroppings on Pacific islands that an earlier generation of 24th Infantry Division soldiers had faced. But Iraqi troops were not as tenacious in defense as the Japanese had been, and the 24th had much better weapons than its predecessor. American artillery crews located enemy batteries with their Firefinder radars and returned between three and six rounds for every round of incoming. With that advantage, American gunners destroyed six full Iraqi artillery battalions.
In the dust storm and darkness, American technological advantages became clearer still. Thermal-imaging systems in tanks, Bradleys, and attack helicopters worked so well that crews could spot and hit Iraqi tanks at up to four thousand meters (two-and-a-half miles) before the Iraqis even saw them. American tank crews were at first surprised at their one-sided success then exulted in the curious result of their accurate fire: the “pop-top” phenomenon. Because Soviet-made tank turrets were held in place by gravity, a killing hit blew the turret completely off. As the battle wore on, the desert floor became littered with pop-tops. A combination of superior weaponry and technique-precise Abrams tank and Apache helicopter gunnery, 25-mm. automatic cannon fire from the Bradleys, overwhelming artillery and rocket direct-support and counterbattery fire, and air superiority-took the 24th Division through enemy armor and artillery units in those “valley battles” and brought Iraqi troops out of their bunkers and vehicles in droves with hands raised in surrender. After a hard but victorious day and night of fighting, the 2d Brigade took its objectives by 2000 on the twenty-sixth. The other two brigades accomplished their missions by dawn.
In the VII Corps’ sector on 26 February, the 1st Armored Division fired heavy artillery and rocket preparatory fires into Al Busayyah shortly after dawn and by noon had advanced through a sandstorm to overrun the small town. In the process, General Griffith’s troops completed the destruction of the Iraqi 26th Infantry Division and, once in the objective area, discovered they had taken the enemy VII Corps headquarters and a corps logistical base as well. More than one hundred tons of munitions were captured and large numbers of tanks and other vehicles destroyed. The 1st Armored Division pressed on, turning northeast and hitting the Tawakalna Division of the Republican Guard. Late that night, Griffith mounted a night assault on the elite enemy unit and, in fighting that continued the next day, killed thirty to thirty-five tanks and ten to fifteen other vehicles.
In the 3d Armored Division sector, General Funk’s men attacked to the east of Al Busayyah. Through the evening, the division fought its toughest battles in defeating elements of the Tawakalna Division. The VII Corps reached the wheeling point in its advance and began to pivot to the east. From here, General Franks’ divisions began the main assault on Republican Guard strongholds. Meanwhile, the 1st Infantry Division was ordered north from its position inside the mine-belt breach. As the attack east began, the VII Corps presented in the northern part of its sector a front of three divisions and one regiment: the 1st Armored Division on the left (north) and the 3d Armored Division, the 2d ACR, and the 1st Infantry Division on the right (south). Farther south, the British 1st Armoured Division, with over seven thousand vehicles, cleared the mine breach at 0200 and deployed to advance on a separate axis toward its objective and on to the corps boundary. From ARCENT headquarters came word that the VII Corps would soon be even stronger. At 0930, the ARCENT commander, Lt. Gen. John J. Yeosock, released the 1st Cavalry Division from its theater reserve role and gave it to the VII Corps. Now the Corps had an additional, large, and heavily armored exploitation force to pursue the Iraqis wherever they turned.
In the early afternoon, the 2d ACR advanced east of Objective Collins in the middle of the shamal. The regiment, screening in front of 1st Infantry Division, had just arrived from the mine belt along the Saudi border that it had breached during the first day of the ground war. The cavalrymen had only a general idea of the enemy’s position. The Iraqis had long expected the American attack to come from the south and east and were now frantically turning hundreds of tanks, towed artillery pieces, and other vehicles to meet the onslaught from the west. On the Iraqi side, unit locations were changing almost by the minute. As the cavalry troopers neared the 69 Easting, a north-south map line, one of the cavalry troops received fire from a building. The soldiers returned fire and continued east. More enemy fire came in during the next two hours and was immediately returned. Just after 1600, the cavalrymen found T-72 tanks in prepared positions at 73 Easting. The regiment used its thermal-imaging equipment to deadly advantage, killing every tank that appeared in its sights. But this was a different kind of battle than Americans had fought so far. The destruction of the first tanks did not signal the surrender of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers. The tanks kept coming and fighting.
The reason for the unusually determined enemy fire and large number of tanks soon became clear. The cavalrymen had found two Iraqi divisions willing to put up a hard fight: the 12th Armored Division and the Tawakalna Division. Col. Leonard D. Holder Jr.’s regiment found a seam between the two divisions and for a time became the only American unit obviously outnumbered and outgunned during the ground campaign. But, as the 24th Division had found in its valley battles, thermal-imaging equipment cut through the dust storm to give gunners a long-range view of enemy vehicles and grant the fatal first-shot advantage. For four hours, Holder’s men killed tanks and armored personnel carriers while attack helicopters knocked out artillery batteries. When the battle of 73 Easting ended at 1715, the 2d ACR had destroyed at least twenty-nine tanks and twenty-four armored personnel carriers, as well as numerous other vehicles and bunkers, and had taken thirteen hundred prisoners. That night, the 1st Infantry Division passed through Holder’s cavalrymen and continued the attack east.
Farther to the south, the British 1st Armoured Division attacked eastward through the 48th Infantry and 52d Armored Divisions and remnants of other Iraqi units trying to withdraw north. This attack marked the start of nearly two days of continuous combat for the British, some of the toughest fighting of the war. In the largest of this series of running battles, the British destroyed forty tanks and captured an Iraqi division commander.
To the east, the Marine advance resumed on the twenty-sixth with the two Marine divisions diverging from their parallel course of the first two days. The 2d Marine Division and the Army’s Tiger Brigade, the 1st Brigade of the 2d Armored Division, continued driving directly north while the 1st Marine Division turned northeast toward Kuwait International Airport. The army tankers headed toward Mutla Ridge, an extended fold in the ground about twenty-five feet high. The location next to the juncture of two multilane highways in the town of Al Jahrah, a suburb of Kuwait City, rather than the elevation, had caught General Boomer’s attention weeks earlier. By occupying the ridge, the brigade could seal a major crossroads and slam the door on Iraqi columns escaping north to Baghdad.
The brigade advanced at 1200 with the 3d Battalion, 67th Armor, in the lead. Approaching Mutla Ridge, the Americans found a minefield and waited for the plows to cut a safety lane. On the move again, the brigade began to find enemy bunker complexes and dug-in armored units. Enemy tanks, almost all of the T-55 type, were destroyed wherever encountered, and most bunkers yielded still more prisoners. During a three-hour running battle in the early evening, Tiger tankers cleared the Mutla police post and surrounding area. Moving up and over Mutla Ridge, the 67th’s tanks found and destroyed numerous antiaircraft artillery positions. Perimeter consolidation at the end of the day’s advance was complicated and delayed by the need to process an even larger number of prisoners of war than the day before: sixteen hundred.
The Tiger Brigade now controlled the highest point for hundreds of miles in any direction. When the troops looked down on the highways from Mutla Ridge, they saw the largest target an armored brigade had probably ever seen: hundreds of shattered enemy vehicles of all types. The previous night, Air Force and Navy aircraft had begun destroying all vehicles spotted fleeing from Kuwait. Now the brigade added its firepower to the continuous air strikes. On the “Highway of Death,” they could see hundreds of burning and exploding vehicles, including civilian automobiles, buses, and trucks. Hundreds more raced west out of Kuwait City to unknowingly join the deadly traffic jam. Here and there, knots of drivers, Iraqi soldiers, and refugees fled into the desert because of the inferno of bombs, rockets, and tank fire. These lucky ones managed to escape and join the ranks of the growing army of prisoners.
At the close of coalition operations on 26 February, a total of twenty-four Iraqi divisions had been defeated. In all sectors, the volume of prisoners continued to grow and clog roads and logistical areas. Iraqi soldiers surrendered faster than the Central Command could count them, but military police units estimated that the total now exceeded thirty thousand.
The day ended with at least one other major logistical problem. The 24th Division had moved so fast in two days that fuel trucks had difficulty keeping up. After taking positions on the night of the twenty-sixth, the lead tanks had on average less than one hundred gallons of fuel on board. Brigade commanders had the fuel, but lead elements were not sure where to rendezvous in the desert. The problem was solved by the kind of unplanned actions on which victories often turn. A small number of junior officers took the initiative to lead tanker-truck convoys across the desert at night with only a vague idea of where either brigade fuel supplies or needy assault units were located. By approaching whatever vehicles came into view and asking for unit identity, those leaders managed to refuel most of the division’s vehicles by midnight.