Operation Granby: The 1st Gulf War.

Operation Granby. Ended 28th February 1991

On 20th August 1990 forces of the Iraqi Army entered and occupied the Gulf State of Kuwait. The action was widely condemned, and major powers worked via the United Nations to reach a peaceful resolution to the occupation. As diplomats attempted to use peaceful methods to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait an international coalition of nations, under a UN mandate, was formed. The coalition engaged in a joint defensive operation, codenamed Desert Shield, to prevent any further advances or threats from the Iraqi forces to other neighbouring states.

On 15th January 1991, it became clear that diplomacy and sanctions had run their course and would not result in an Iraqi withdrawal. At this point, Operation Desert Shield was replaced by a coalition wide campaign codenamed Desert Storm. Its objective was to liberate and secure Kuwait.

Operation Granby was the specific campaign undertaken by armed forces from Great Britain in the campaign, now known as The First Gulf War.

Casualties of the First Gulf War

392 coalition service personnel died, including 47 British servicemen.

It’s estimated that between 20,000 to 35,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed and around 100,000 civilians lost their lives as a result of the short war.

The British Objectives

The first phase of Operation Granby was, from the outside looking in, mainly air-based. It was the phase in which the RAF and its coalition partners were to gain total control of the skies and disrupt Iraqi communications. This involved a cherry-picked Squadron of Tornado pilots. The vast majority of whom had excelled in Cold War rehearsals but not actually seen any combat against an enemy as potent as the Iraqi Military. Air Commodore Alistair Byford (Retired) was one of those pilots selected for combat missions. It was towards the beginning of his career, so he was not involved in strategic decisions. His thoughts and memories of Operation Granby can be found here.

Byford outlines the role of the RAF in the war:


Phase One. Low-Level flying, high-risk strategy: Eliminate the risk posed by the Iraqi Air Force, then the 5th largest air force in the world.

Phase Two: Medium Level flying, medium level risk: the unguided bombing of military targets. Satellite imagery was not available at the time of sorties being flown.

Phase Three: Precision bombing. This may come as a surprise but the means to achieve this were NOT in place at the outset of the Gulf War. They were introduced during the phase of the war that was dominated by airstrikes. It involved guidance bombs being dropped that were followed up, in daylight raids only, by Tornado strikes. The first of these precision attacks was on a bridge over the River Euphrates, with Byford as the pilot. It took place on 2nd February 1991. The precision bombing was potentially extremely high risk for the pilots as it again involved daylight raids at well-defended targets.

Expectations for the air campaign were for victory but at a high cost. Estimates were based on an air campaign that could result in up to 50% casualties (Source: Byford).

Writing after his retirement and with the benefit of having gained a great deal of understanding of the strategic elements of warfare, Byford noted this of the weaknesses of the day:

“I believe the fundamental issue was our collective failure — as a force, and at every level — to comply with Clausewitz’s famous dictum that the most important duty of a commander is to understand the kind of war he is fighting.[14] Almost every issue we experienced, I contend, may ultimately be traced back to a failure to engage intellectually with the operation prior to the conflict, and instead, fall back too readily on our assumption of what kind of war it would be and apply the tactical template we were most comfortable and familiar with. This is an enduring problem which we need to challenge properly every time we commit to operations”.

But Operation Granby was also the spark for a new way of thinking about the way in which the RAF would wage war in the future.

“Gulf War was the progenitor of the next two decades of operations and the current ‘Western way of air warfare’, based around the principle of minimum force and the delivery of low-collateral and highly precise effects in discretionary wars of choice”.

This change would be quite noticeable if you were to analyse the bombing patterns from the First Gulf War and compare them to a similar analysis from the Second Gulf War. Precision had become the byword and ‘collateral damage’ had become something that the RAF and its partners in joint operations had to factor into its thinking, planning and wider strategic approach.

RAF Losses

8 Air Crew were lost during Operation Granby. 5 in operations, 3 in preparation. 8 RAF Tornados were lost during the campaign out of a total of 55 coalition planes lost. This may seem a low number but remember that the number of Tornados were small. The initial deployment was of 18 with 27 aircrew and 350 ground crew when the objective had been to contain Iraq and prevent further advances.

One of the best-remembered incidents of the Gulf War related to the treatment of RAF Pilot John Peters and his navigator John Nichol. They flew one of the early low level flights into Iraq. Their Tornado was hit by a surface to air missile and the pair were forced to eject. Both were captured by Iraqi forces. The two men were then subjected to torture and the Iraqi authorities put interviews of the men onto television. John Peters is now an RAF Ambassador and is telling his story on the RAF website over the coming days.

The Royal Navy

The Royal Navy had a pivotal role in the joint operations. Westland Lynx Helicopters of the Royal Navy were tasked with the destruction of the Iraqi Navy. It accomplished this virtually unassisted. The Royal Navy also undertook the coalitions mine hunting in the Gulf. In clearing the Gulf of mines, the RN Minehunters enabled US Battleships Missouri and Wisconsin to sail into Kuwaiti waters from where they could launch a supporting naval bombardment. Royal Naval vessels also engaged in intercepting Silkworm Missiles fired from Iraq. This included HMS Gloucester destroying a missile aimed at USS Missouri. The Gulf itself was also kept safe by the RN being deployed to enforce the air and sea embargo. If a vessel failed to turn around, RN Commandos boarded. No vessel is believed to have got through the blockade.

Naval strikes

Countering Iraqi Naval capabilities was also of importance. The Iraqi Navy had taken some islands. They had laid mines and cleared others, making it possible for them to engage in naval sorties. On 24th January, a Lynx from HMS Cardiff spotted three Iraqi vessels operating from the occupied Kuwaiti Island of Qaruh, they engaged and sank two of the Minesweepers. The same day, Royal Navy, and US Navy units captured the island, killing three Iraqis, and capturing 51, in the operation which liberated the first Kuwaiti territory.

An example of how the Iraqi’s intended to use these clear areas is an incident that took place on 31st January 1991. 17 Iraqi landing craft, working their way down the coast of Kuwait at night, were discovered by Allied Forces. RAF Jaguars pinpointed the flotilla off Mina Saud, and Allied forces destroyed four of the assault craft and damaged another twelve.

Naval operations are not confined to the sea though. Ground attack Lynx and Gazelle of the AAC and twelve Sea Kings of the Royal Navy were made into two 6 helicopter squadrons, 845 and 848.  An additional squadron, 846, was available for a medivac to a Royal Auxiliary Fleet Hospital Ship.

British Army

The core of the fighting capability of the British Army during Operation Granby were two armoured brigades. The 1st Divisions 7th and 4th Armoured Brigades, equipped with Challenger 1 main battle tanks and Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles were transported to the region to act as the spearhead of the British part of the operations against Iraq. They were supported by combat helicopters, artillery systems, combat engineers and logistical support from across the whole of the British Army.

Army Deployment

The Army faced several problems in planning and executing Operation Granby. Firstly, the armed forces were not particularly used to the environment. Second, there was only the capability to send one full strength division to the Gulf. Lieutenant-General Sir Peter de la Billiere described it as having been ‘cannibalised’ from other divisions to make it a relatively small but highly effective force: remember that at this time the main priority of British Armed Forces was securing the borders of West Germany and as such needed to maintain deployment there. Third is the potential of facing chemical or biological weapons. Not necessarily the type that became a political hot potato in the second gulf war but rather the battlefield type: which the Iraqi army most definitely did have and had used in the past.  Fourth, there is the issue of logistics. Not only was the Armoured Division required to deploy from, mainly, Germany but once in Riyadh, the deployment to the front was the equivalent of a drive from London to Berlin. In other words, just to get to the starting point was a huge task.

The Armoured Division

Militarily this fighting force was ideal for mobile warfare. The initial plan however placed the British Armoured Divisions in a sector that inhibited the free movement of armoured vehicles. They were allocated the sectors where oilfields and pipelines were most highly concentrated. This type of terrain is better suited to other forces so the British pressed for Operation Granby to place the Armoured Division where it was to be most effective: in the heart of the ‘charge of the heavy brigade’. This is what was eventually agreed and led to a role that was more effective in terms of destroying Iraqi forces whilst also lowering the risks to the army by placing them in a situation for which they were best equipped.

The Armoured Brigades of the British Army were therefore eventually tasked with encircling the Iraqi army as part of a coalition assault. The advance would come from the west, then turn from the north onto the Iraqi force. This meant that the British force would need to fight its way through the support lines, reserves and into the heart of the Iraqi Republican Guard.

“From the launch of Operation Desert Sabre, the ground phase of the war, on 24 February 1991, the British force would advance 180 miles in 66 hours, destroy the equivalent of three Iraqi armoured divisions, and capture over 7,000 prisoners. In one instance, a tank of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards destroyed an Iraqi tank at a range of 3 miles, a distance record still unbeaten today”. UK Army.

The two British Armoured Brigades were to take part in the largest post World War Two Tank Battle: The Battle of Norfolk. Alongside Tanks from 6 US Armoured Divisions. The British Armoured Brigade destroyed at least 300 tanks, captured over 7000 Iraqi soldiers, decimated artillery it faced and took out command posts, captured generals and inflicted heavy IFV losses on the Iraqi force. The action included British tanks recording the two longest tank on tank kills in history.

For these rapid armoured advances, the Army had follow up forces of infantry to secure areas along with medical personnel, logistic support, arrangements for prisoners of war and rest areas for those rotated out of front line action.

The long-range kill and armoured charge are described by Lt Colonel Tim Purbrick:

“A couple of memories from the Gulf War have, perhaps, stuck out more than others over the last 25 years, probably because they are single events that I have been asked about over the years.

First, Gus’s 4,700m first round FIN kill. It was a supreme technical achievement for man and machine. 4,700m, a shade under 3 miles, is more than three times the 1,200m battle range of the Challenger. The shot is written up in books, sometimes incorrectly, with one book saying it was a Depleted Uranium (DU) round, it wasn’t, it was a normal service FIN round while another book said it was at longer range, it wasn’t, it was 4,700m. I believe that it is the longest range direct fire kinetic round kill ever achieved by a tank on the battlefield.

Second, the sheer exhilaration of leading the Squadron during the Charge of the Heavy Brigade on that last morning of the war. I believe that it is the longest and fastest cavalry charge in history”. Lt Colonel Tim Purbrick, The Royal Lancers speaking on the 25th Anniversary. (For history buffs, he is also the man who pushed for the army to have a ‘monuments men’ capability at all times).

Operation Granby
Operation Granby

The advance was rapid and victory was completed faster than anticipated. One reason was the lack of morale and leadership in the Iraqi force. This had not been anticipated.

“We had a damn good plan and some first class fighting forces, well equipped, well trained and well prepared for this particular battle. Secondly, Hussein had exactly the opposite, although we didn’t know it at the time. He’d got a demoralised force. They hadn’t benefited at all from eight years war, rather the reverse, they wanted to go home. They had poor equipment. They were badly led. They were directed from the center and not by commanders on the spot. And therefore unable to adjust when they found the attack coming from their right flank instead of a frontal assault which they’d been used to when they’d been fighting the Iranians. And they were taken completely by surprise.

So you had a demoralised army, taken by surprise by an extremely competent, well-trained coalition force that just swept through them”.

Lieutenant-General Sir Peter de la Billiere talking of the enemy. And that it was unexpected is explained by this comment from him:

“First of all, of course, intelligence is one thing. Information is another. Information is turned into intelligence. And we had so much information that we didn’t really have the capability of turning it into intelligence. And, so a lot of the intelligence was missing. That’s the first thing.

And the second thing is that intelligence has to be given to those who need it, and that means, particularly when the land war was about to start, the forward commanders. And I’m afraid the intelligence system was such that it served the senior headquarters very well, but it didn’t provide for people like Rupert Smith, my divisional commander, the proper level of intelligence that he needed to plan and conduct his battle effectively. And that was a shortcoming”.

“I was amazed by the scope and scale of the information gathering. I was disappointed at the ability of the system to turn it into intelligence”. [Note: coalition intelligence was done centrally, not by UK operations]

The Role of Special Forces

The use of Special Forces in the First Gulf War was something that had to be pushed for. It was allowed on the basis that any SAS/SBS who went missing behind enemy lines would not be sought out by US forces at the expense of the overall plan.

 “He said, ‘Don’t expect me to come and rescue you if they get it wrong’. And I was able to assure him, our special forces won’t get it wrong”. Lieutenant General Sir Peter de la Billiere

The SAS, therefore, went into action as the Air Phase of the war was underway. The initial strategy was one of harassing the enemy, disrupting their preparations, making them think that the push would come in different areas.

“The mission was to divert the Iraqi. Two, twofold really. To divert the Iraqi forces away from the main area of battle, so that there would be less facing the troops that were going to be taking on the main assault”. Lieutenant General Sir Peter de la Billiere

As the war progressed, the role of Special Forces changed. The Iraqi’s began to make use of Scud Missiles against targets in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The political damage that could be done by the continuation of these strikes was potentially huge: it could spark Israeli retaliation which, it was feared, could weaken Arab support for coalition activities. So the SAS was switched to hunting and destroying the Iraqi capability to fire these missiles. Airpower from across the coalition was also diverted to this objective: up to 75% of flights were for this purpose at one stage.

The SAS are well trained in operating in this type of environment, it is the type of terrain in which they were first formed. 110 armoured landrovers went behind enemy lines. Typically moving in groups of 8 they identified Scud launch sites and called in airstrikes. They also engaged in destroying some themselves. Other actions included attacking Iraqi supply lines. This included lining up the massed firepower of the SAS onto routes that supplies were expected to be using and attacking them as they passed at night. The most famous of the SAS patrols was Bravo Two Zero which resulted in the capture and torture of some SAS and the near-miraculous march to Syria (200 miles) of one of the SAS.

The SAS actions in the First Gulf War are outlined in more detail on this website. It includes links to footage of airstrikes called in and a summary of Bravo Two Zero.

Long-Term Impact on troops

In addition to fatalities and injuries sustained in battle, there have been many service personnel who have suffered long term illness following deployment. Sometimes termed ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ this has had a long term impact on those affected. Others who served continue to suffer from combat-related PTSD as well as those who had physical injuries resultant from combat.

Additional Links

Logistics. This includes the chartering of civilian transport facilities. pdf file here

British Army page on the 30th Anniversary of Operation Granby.

Royal Navy Mentions in Despatches. Supplement to the London Gazette.



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