Musings of a Real Tank Commander – Part 27 Baghdad retreat, battlefield booty and boredom

Musings of a Real Tank Commander – Part 27 Baghdad retreat, battlefield booty and boredom

by Stuart Crawford
article from Wednesday 24, February, 2021

FOR ME AT LEAST, the first Gulf War stopped at 0800 hours local time on 28th February 1991. The Iraqis had now collapsed completely and were streaming back north to Baghdad, and it had got to the point where continuing to attack them, in my estimation, was no longer morally justifiable. This opinion was shared to a greater or lesser degree by most of my colleagues. Enough was enough.

We only now began to get a true feel for the scale of the Iraqi defeat – and it was enormous. We were told that they had lost 3,008 tanks; 1,856 armoured personnel carriers; and 2,140 artillery pieces, mainly abandoned in their retreat. The Americans were planning to blow up most of the abandoned Iraqi equipment, except for some remnants that were to be kept for “exploitation” or display purposes – the latter a euphemism for war booty.  JHQ sent out a demand for captured enemy equipment which made us all hoot with laughter, including as it did 100 T72 tanks, 100 BMP infantry fighting vehicles, and so on, which was just total cuckoo-land. I think in the end we recovered only three T72s, and even they were stolen from the Americans, if I remember correctly. 

The battlefields were awash with weaponry, and every unit was determined to get at least one tank, plus a slack handful of other assorted lorries, small arms, and other trophies, back home to Germany or the UK to display on the regimental square or in their regimental museums. Fairly strict guidelines about all of this were issued almost immediately, but it wasn’t too long after the end of hostilities that some idiot Army Air Corps officer flew back from the Gulf into RAF Brize Norton and presented HM Customs & Excise with two AK47 assault rifles which he wanted to import. 

That piece of crass stupidity effectively queered the pitch for everyone else. I was quite keen that 4RTR should have something or other to commemorate all the officers and men who served with other units in the Gulf, and I went to some lengths to secure a couple of ex-Iraqi rifles when I got back to Germany. I even got as far as getting display cabinets made for them, but then I lost track of them when I was next posted. To this day I don’t know what became of them.

All efforts were very quickly directed (by us) towards getting out of the region as soon as was humanly possible. We had all had more than enough of the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular, and were desperate to get home. Optimism soared as we began to calculate just how soon we might be able to leave Saudi Arabia. Some said as soon as within six weeks, assuming the first of 7 Armd Bde could move in about ten days time, working on the ancient army principle of “first in, first out”. There was a definite sense of fin-de-siecle, and it seemed all we had to do was exchange prisoners-of-war quickly, extract all our stuff, and we were offski. Brilliant. We couldn’t wait.

There was another side, a darker and less happy one. The Division reported that it was finding living on the battlefield a very harrowing experience. They found themselves amongst long columns of burnt out enemy vehicles, full of Iraqi dead, and the enemy prisoners they had taken were stuck out in the middle of the desert with little shelter. The realisation had also begun to dawn that the ratio of reported casualties did not really paint the picture of a hard fought campaign. The Coalition had suffered “only” 200 or so dead, whereas figures of up to 100,000 were being quoted for the Iraqis. 

I had an interesting conversation with one of our press briefers, a man for whom hitherto I had had little time, on the morality of continuing to attack a defeated enemy. I always remembered a veteran CO of the Falklands War, who had subsequently taught me at Staff College, describing how he had ordered his men to stop firing on retreating Argentinians after one of the battles around Port Stanley because, as he had put it, it was no longer morally sustainable. 

I had been mightily impressed by this. Ten years later the same dilemma was taxing a number of people, and this briefer was of the opinion that the last twenty-four hours of our current war had been quite unnecessary. I agreed. It was rather like one of the old colonial wars I thought, where charging spear and shield-waving natives had been mown down by modern rifle fire. As Hillaire Belloc famously wrote:

“Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.”

The conflict had turned out to be a bit too one-sided for my peace of mind. 

Within twenty-four hours of the cessation of hostilities I had one of my all too rare days off. When we had first arrived in Riyadh there had been far too much to do to afford such a luxury, and we had worked all day every day. Within a month or so, however, it had become clear that we were going to become stale and fed up very quickly if we continued in this vein, so every so often we got a break. 

The problem was, though, that there wasn’t that much for us to do outside working. Generally speaking nobody else was off at the same time, so there was little opportunity to go off in company to play sport, explore, go shopping, or whatever. Riyadh wasn’t exactly conducive to R&R, being a bit of an urban wasteland of motorways on concrete stilts and unfriendly high rise office blocks in the American idiom. Reminiscent of central Birmingham, perhaps, minus women and bars and with the heating turned fully on. 

I tended, therefore, to stay in the Marriott, catching up on my sleep, writing interminable letters home, and reading the many books sent to me by friends, family, and well wishers. There was an outdoor swimming pool and the weather was usually good enough to sit outside and do a little sunbathing. The pool was always swarming with RAF personnel, who I have to say provided some of the most egregious examples of scruffy servicemen in uniform that I have ever seen, anywhere. I was constantly amazed that their officers never did anything about it. Perhaps they didn’t care.

The hotel itself was depressing. It wasn’t that it was uncomfortable, because it was as good as any hotel of that type I’ve stayed in, but it had no soul. There was nowhere to go outside your room, and on venturing out regardless there was only ever a gaggle of Saudi and Kuwaiti men drinking endless cups of coffee in all male family groups. The corridors and foyers were full of noisy, chattering Kuwaiti refugee children at all hours of the day and night; they didn’t have anywhere to go either until they could go back home. 

Worst of all was the television. I still have bad dreams about Saudi television, with its (to our eyes) hopelessly amateur Saudi programmes and a staple diet of overwhelmingly mediocre, and heavily censored, programmes imported from the USA. These were interrupted several times a day by the call to prayer, and nothing wrong with that, except if you were watching a film it would keep running during prayer time behind the schedule and therefore you always rejoined it having lost about five minutes of the plot! Saudi TV would undoubtedly have driven me to drink had any been available.

After my day off I returned to work with the day shift, a welcome relief after seven weeks of constant nightshift. There was now very little for me to do. “All out in 42 days!” became the cry, but for the moment we all sat around waiting for something to happen. I moved back to my equipment-oriented job as a host of related matters now came to hand. Not least of these was the urgent need to find out how our and the Iraqis’ equipment had actually worked for real.

A number of data collection organisations then moved into theatre to glean the relevant information. Rather uncharitably, perhaps, we saw them as overly keen to get in on the act and play desert warriors before it was all over. This was one of the great paradoxes of the time; the Gulf was full of people like me whose only thought was to get out as quickly as was humanly possible, whilst elsewhere there were scores of people who were quite desperate to get involved. 

I remember a Johnny-Come-Lately in my own Regiment telling me how lucky he thought I was to have been there all through the war, and me thinking how daft he was. I would have swapped with him any time to be honest.

To come in Part 28; into Kuwait, or what was left of it.

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© Stuart Crawford 2021 

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