An extract from the diary of Capt Tim Purbrick (17/21 Lancers)
27th February 1991
After a hasty wash, shave and breakfast, I was ordered to Squadron HQ just a few metres away across the desert. What was planned next? We couldn’t be too far from the Iraqi/Kuwait border. Were we going to push into Kuwait or were we going to swing north into the teeth of the Republican Guard Force on our way to Basra or even Baghdad? The Iraq/Kuwait border was marked by what had come to appear to us as the almost mystical feature of the Wadi al Batin.
The Wadi had caught our imagination from when we had first heard of it before the ground war had started. This physical feature marked the border between Iraq and Kuwait and trailed south of the border into Saudi – the tri-border point. We sat around Toby who had already been to Battlegroup Headquarters to receive his orders.
New maps were issued to add to the tennis court of mapping folded up on my knees. I had already torn off the parts of the map that we had already passed and thrust them into one of the bins on the side of the tank. There was no going back. Our new limit of exploitation, Toby announced, was the River Euphrates. As far as we knew there was no River Euphrates in Kuwait. Well noticed, boys. It’s in Iraq, past Basra, the main city in southeastern Iraq. This wasn’t just going to be ‘Free Kuwait’, as the stickers given to us had announced, this was going to be ‘Smash Iraq’.
O Group points, 0730hrs, southeastern Iraq just west of the Kuwait border. We will move north then east into Kuwait and onto objective VARSITY where we’ll get a replen. We will then clear north up the Wadi Al-Batin through the 6th Inf Div and take on the Hammurabi and Medina Divs of the RGFC.
The Line of Exploitation is the River Euphrates. The US are continuing to attack. 7 Bde’s task is VARSITY. QRIH – A Sqn lead, D Sqn left with Recce Tp on the inter-Div boundary to our north, B Sqn right. There are T-72s out there. Not a lot between here and VARSITY. A Coy of T-72s was hit last night. Ready to move at 0730hrs (now!). Much more difficult today – fighting. D Sqn Order of March: Three-Zero lead, Four Zero left, One Zero right, Two Zero on the centerline.
We returned to our Troops with the new orders, issued the maps and mounted up. The advance eastwards began again. The orders also said that all Iraqi equipment encountered was to be destroyed. We came across a T-55. ‘Take it out.’ ‘Loaded’. Bang. Miss. Miss!? From 200 metres? What the f**k was going on? 42 smacked it straight away sending the tank’s turret bowling across the desert. How could you bloody miss from 200 metres? I learnt later that a bit of kit called the Link Temp Comp Bar had not been switched on. This obscure piece of kit on the right side of the gunner’s crew position did something obscure but crucial and its lack of functionality had thrown off our shot.
It’s now G+3 and we’re moving eastwards. Everything has gone out of the window. We’re moving now into Kuwait, across the Wadi al-Batin, swinging north through the Hammurabi and Medina Divisions then through the northwest border of Kuwait and up, maybe as far as the Euphrates River in Iraq. There are T-72s out there. And we are heading right now towards a Company of T-72s that got hit last night by MLRS and M109 which woke us up in the middle of the night with a phenomenal amount of missiles and bangs quite near to us. Finally, Four Two has come back to us so the Troop is complete. We’re now motoring out of Iraq, into Kuwait and then back into Iraq.
Not long after we came across the famous Wadi al-Batin. It was more like a steep ridge as we approached from the Iraqi side with a drive-able slope down its eastern flank. We slipped over the edge, ran down the slope and the liberation of Kuwait by Coalition Ground Forces had begun. The invaders had become liberators. It was our third country in as many days.
It’s now ten o’clock in the morning and we have just crossed the border from Iraq into Kuwait. So far we have only encountered small pockets of the enemy and we have taken out a static T-55 which was abandoned. Two abandoned T-55s. Apart from that, we have now crossed the border down through the Wadi Al-Batin into Kuwait itself. As we go eastwards there are still small pockets of the enemy on the ground, flinging down their weapons and surrendering. We’re waiting for some tanks to come down from the northeast.
We continued eastwards into Kuwait. The desert resumed its flat and gently undulating aspect, relative to the cliff edge that had been the Wadi al-Batin. There were no Iraqi positions so it was merely a matter of driving east while covering our arcs to ensure we weren’t surprised. For the first time on our northern flank, we saw US Forces. Ahead of ourselves on our left flank and to our north. Abrams M1A1 Main Battle Tanks. The QRIH BG was running on the inter-divisional boundary so it was not surprising to see them. What was surprising was that they were firing across that boundary into our Divisional area. I passed a warning to Squadron HQ and we hung back while the US tankers cleared their target and moved off.
In between, us and the Americans were our own Recce Troop. Capt Al Murdoch’s Recce Section was on our left flank, marking the boundary for us. It was a proper use of Recce Troop, to give the armoured Squadrons warning of any enemy approaching our flanks. The irony was that the height of the Challenger and the quality of its optics meant that it could see further and with better quality than the Scorpion recce cars could. While Recce Troop was great fun in the complex terrain of West Germany, sitting in an aluminium box on top of a petrol tank in the flat terrain of the desert with crappy optics and a toy gun was not my idea of fun. I was a lot happier in my Challenger. We could see Al’s section on our flanks, dipping up and down over the landscape. A call came across the Battlegroup radio net. Al had spotted an Iraqi position. White flags were flying and he was going to take their surrender. It must have been only a few hundred metres to our north. The Squadron slowed in response, just in case Al needed any assistance.
A new, immediate, call came over the Battlegroup net moments later. Casevac requested. Al’s Section had been hit. Treachery on the battlefield? Abuse of the white flag? Two men down. Helicopter requested now. Battlegroup HQ got on with the task of mustering the medical support. It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was the Americans who had hit them. Al’s Section had come under fire from a pair of US M1A1 tanks. One recce car had taken a main armament shot through the glacis plate, killing the vehicle and injuring one soldier.
As the others had rushed to help, the US APCs had hosed them down with machine gunfire. Al’s men took cover behind a sand dune and surrendered to the US troops using the same white flags that the, now melted into the desert, Iraqis had used to surrender to them a few minutes earlier. We were ordered to stay firm. Adding our tanks to a trigger happy situation would have been a recipe for disaster. ‘Oh, Gee, sorry pal. That’s happened a couple of times already this morning’ the Americans casually told Al, tossing some field dressings down from their vehicle before hurrying on to catch up with their own unit. It was blue on blue. Friendly fire. But no fire is friendly and this was unfriendly fire. A chopper came in and casevac’d the injured. At least the Field Hospital would be happy. There had been so few casualties that they must have been bored to tears.
It’s now half-past eleven in the morning and it looks like we have had our first casualty because of a blue on blue. American M1A1 came and engaged Victor Two One and Two Two who were trying to take some EPWs and the American tanks came down from the north, fired the main armament at Two One and co-axe’d Two Two. The operator of Two One has got severe head injuries and the operator of Two Two has got an arm injury. The emergency helicopter is coming in and let’s hope we get it all sorted out. But it’s typical, unbelievable that the first casualty that we have to take is a blue on blue casualty.
As we were about to move off another radio call came through on the Battlegroup net. ‘We’re under fire. Machine gun fire.’ It was Capt Piers Hankinson in one of the Battlegroup HQ’s command vehicles. And he was calling for help. Battlegroup Headquarters comprised two Challengers, the CO’s tank and his guard tank and a number of Sultans, the Command variant of the Scorpion series. Unless the tanks were with them they only had 7.62mm GPMGs to protect themselves. It was likely that the CO was right up the chuff of the leading Squadron with his wingman and it sounded like Zero, as Battlegroup HQ was known on the radio net, needed help now.
Toby came up on the Battlegroup net. ‘Hello Zero, this is Delta Zero Alpha, support is on its way. Out’. Toby then flicked to the Squadron net. ‘Delta Four Zero, go help them out.’ My Troop had been pinged to dash across the battlefield to Zero’s position and deal with the enemy attacking them. We swung out of the line. In a hurried exchange, I got Zero’s position, plugged the coordinates into my Trimble sat-nav control panel and issued Quick Battle Orders (QBOs) to the Troop about the task. We swung our turrets around to face the enemy threat we were approaching and our vehicles accelerated out of the Squadron formation and across the desert towards Battlegroup HQ.
We had got no more than 200 metres when a second message came through on the Battlegroup net to say that the situation was now under control and support was no longer required. Bang went our hero moment. We were released back to the Squadron and took up our position on the left flank again.
As we rolled eastwards through the desert of western Kuwait a thick smog descended across the battlefield. Dusk fell into the smog. We turned to face north in a counter-penetration line.
We have tallied up the numbers for the number of tanks we have got. We have killed fourteen T-55s, seven APCs and – how many artillery pieces was it – about three artillery pieces.
We’re on our way now to a sort of counter pen line where we expect to be for the rest of the day, about thirty Ks into Kuwait and after that, we expect to head northeast through Kuwait back into southern Iraq again.
We were facing the threat of a Republican Guard Force attack sweeping down from southern Iraq and into western Kuwait. We parked up 30-50 metres between the wagons in a line facing northeast. It was admin time.
It’s now twenty to nine on Wednesday 27th February and we’ve crossed the border into Kuwait for the first time. We had that blue on blue with Al Murdoch and the American M1A1. They took out his wagon. His operator has got severe head injuries and was choppered out along with the operator for Two Two has got a bullet in the femur and shell splinters in the arm. But, apparently, they’ll be OK. They were choppered out.
Now we’re in a defensive line facing northeast where we can see lots of American M1A1s and Bradleys about six Ks to our north. All facing the same way. All, I guess, from 1 Armoured Cavalry Regiment, the Division to our north. And they were also the guys who shot up Al Murdoch’s people. So we’ll just sit here. We have had no move until eighteen hundred tonight (sic). So we’ll wait here and see what happens.
But, as we thought we would catch up with all the essential maintenance, food and sleep, our tank’s generator went u/s. An unserviceable generator is not the end of the world but it would mean that we could not use the tank without the main engine running and the usual start-up procedure was to run the genny up before using it to turn over the main engine. It was a pain in the arse quite frankly. We got on the phone and spoke to Tiffy.
Amazingly he had a spare genny on the back of his vehicle and he would be delighted to fit it into our tank if we would be so kind as to present ourselves at his location. We could mosey on down to his temporary garage and get ourselves fixed. Hurrah!
We reversed out of the line and drove carefully east along through the smog behind the line of the Squadron’s tanks and then slightly behind the line to where Tiffy was set up next to the other Squadron HQ vehicles. We parked up next to his shop and slung the gun over the side so that the mechanics could get to our engine bay and then we shut down.
If anything happened like enemy action or an order to move while we were being fixed we would be sunk. Our tank would be in the garage and we would, like Urby, be left behind, or worse, if the attack was in-coming, we would be shot to bits. Luckily Pete had the BV going already and we were able to get a hot meal. Then it was a matter of jumping off the tank and mooching around while the REME team got on with the genny exchange.
There was nothing more than we tank soldiers could do. In the old days of the Chieftan tank, much of that tank could be fixed with farmer’s binder twine as it was such a simple vehicle. Its engine bay was huge and you could get to where the problem was. Challenger was a whole new ball game. The engine bay was full to the brim with a complex, computer-controlled Rolls Royce engine and, apart from the basics, like checking levels, any kind of issue in the back decks was ‘report to REME’ for a fix. On exercise, in West Germany, my tank had had an engine fire. All my operator, Cpl Robb, could do was crack a couple of fire extinguishers, lift the engine louvres and toss in the fizzing extinguishers before letting the back decks crash back into place. It killed the fire but the tank was a Challenger Mark I hulk.
We chatted to other crews who had also come along to Tiffy’s location for some or other maintenance issues. It was pretty much the first time during the advance that we had the opportunity to share stories with each other and talk about what might be happening next. Soldiers love rumour-control and rumours were running riot that night as to our next move. We still had the maps for the Euphrates and if we went north from our current position, through the northern border of Kuwait and on, passing to the west of Basra, we would hit the Euphrates. But it was just guesswork.