In Their Own Words #9: Eleven Stories For Veterans DayMajor General Patrick Cordingley, DSO, British Army (ret), commanded the 7th Armored Brigade ("The Desert Rats") during the Gulf War of 1990-91, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. In 1996, he published In The Eye Of The Storm, his account of commanding the lead brigade of Great Britain's most significant armored deployment since WW II.
Can you run an armored brigade from the turret of a tank instead of headquarters? Well, if you want to attack instead of retreat, maneuver instead of hide, and keep a watchful eye on green troops, then yes, it's just the thing.
I was in a Challenger command tank as we crossed the minefields into Iraq at about 15h00 on February 25, 1991. Although we were the 7th Armored Brigade, the famous Desert Rats of WW II North Africa, the desert was probably the last place I had expected to find myself confronting an enemy. And I hadn't expected to be moving forward -- in a tank, no less.
Before 1990, the British Army was designed, trained, and deployed to fight against the Warsaw Pact for the defense of Western Europe. Almost everything that we did with our training, especially those of us who were placed in Western Germany, was practice for GDP, the General Defense Plan. Our exercises, whether they be command-post exercises or field exercises with troops, basically were all rehearsals for how we would pull back from the inter-German border to the next defensive line as the Warsaw Pact rolled in and attacked us. Our brigades were thus designed, as was our equipment, for just such a battle in Europe.
The brigade headquarters -- arguably the last major tactical headquarters under those circumstances before divisional headquarters, which I would describe as an operational headquarters -- had a number of command vehicles that used to set up back to back allowing the commander a penthouse in the middle. If there wasn't a threat from the air, the commander and his advisors could assemble to discuss what was going on. As a commander, I would then retire into my own command vehicle, which was a tracked FV-432, to make my plan. My chief of staff would write with his staff the various control measures that were required to put that plan into being, and the orders would be given out. Then the battle would rage, and at the appropriate moment, when the Warsaw Pact were pressing too hard or they were pressing somewhere else too hard and endangering our position, we would withdraw to the next defensive line. This was all very carefully pre-planned, and it was essentially the same with our American counterparts in NATO, with minor variations in procedure. The brigade headquarters was split into three particular groups. Main headquarters would be mirrored by a step-up headquarters (or step-back, in this instance) with duplicate staff. All that would be needed to move to the next headquarters were the three principal commanders: myself, my chief of staff, and the deputy chief of staff. Then there was a third element that we used to call tac headquarters, which was a very small group where the commander could rove in his armored command vehicle with his senior gunner and senior engineer in order to look at a particular problem.
All along, we assumed our communications would be jammed. We had secure VHF nets both forward to the troops and back to divisional headquarters. We had insecure VHF forward and back, and then we had a HF backup. There was also the artillery net, which was a VHF net with a HF backup. We had clear procedures stating that if you were jammed, you would change frequencies on the quarter hour to find a free one, and then again. (No frequency hopping in those days.) So there were a number of possibilities. We never thought that we would be out of communication on every single net. Also, the GDP plan was moderately inflexible in many respects, and we all knew where the next defensive line was going to be. So a unit could safely make the assumption that it was all right to pull back to the next defensive line if all communications were lost. And there were always helicopters and dispatch riders and other old-fashioned ways of getting a message through.
If you look at the British tank, it was not actually designed to fight in a fast-flowing movement, a fight of maneuver. The Americans were in very much the same condition. That's how we were. So off we go to Saudi Arabia. Early on, during the buildup phase, I was an independent brigade commander, so you could argue that I moved in a personal position from being trained as a tactical commander to actually being an operational commander, despite the fact we were taken under the wing of the US 1st Marine Division. What also became clear, working with the Marines, was that we were perfect partners, because we had equipment that they didn't have, and they had equipment that we didn't have. We had Challenger 1 tanks, which were considerably better than the M-60 tanks of the Marine Corps, and we had greatly superior armored engineer equipment. We were perfectly placed to penetrate the minefields, and we made the assumption with the Marines that we were going to Kuwait, not into Iraq. The minefields between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were reported to be very heavy, and we understood that the British were to be used to go through the minefields and, indeed, that our tanks would be used to exploit the breach. In a funny sort of way, despite the fact that we were working within the 1st Marine Division, we were actually rather independent, because we probably were going to be the brigade that was going to push through first.
It also became clear that having the enormous baggage of command and communications vehicles would hold one back in a fast-flowing war of maneuver. This point became even stronger three months after the 7th Armored Brigade arrived, when the 4th Armored Brigade came out, and we were organized under the British 1st Armored Division, whose headquarters took much of the logistics responsibilities off my hands. The division, in turn, was joined to the US VII Corps. Whatever else was going to happen, even if we went into Kuwait, but certainly if we went into Iraq, it would be a war of maneuver. We would have to go long distances very quickly, and there was no way that we could have the luxury at brigade level of setting up command vehicles in the way we had prepared to do it in Western Europe. Could I actually command a battle from the tac headquarters? I immediately said no, that's not possible, because the FV-432 was not a particularly fast vehicle, and it didn't have much armor. This left only two possible command vehicles available to me in the brigade structure. One was a Challenger tank, and the second was the Warrior armored personnel carrier (APC), which had a decent amount of protection, and I could even put 4-5 people in the back with some maps, etc., without any problem. I actually reckoned during the exercises of the working-up phase that in many ways it was better to divorce yourself from the vast amount of information that was coming in, rather than having a lot of people talking to you at the same time. Because I was a Royal Armored Corps officer anyway, I opted to go for the tank.
Now, in a command tank we had three radio sets: a VHF insecure, a VHF secure, and a HF set. What that meant was that one could communicate forward on one VHF and backwards on the other or on the HF link. Nevertheless, from a brigade commander's point of view, this is limiting yourself enormously: You need a SCRA [Single Channel Radio Access] terminal to speak on the PTARMIGAN network. This is our mobile-trunk telephone-packet-switching equipment that works on UHF links and provides commanders on the ground with secure digital voice, telegraph, facsimile, and data communications. So along with this tank, I needed a dedicated communications vehicle with a SCRA terminal and also to have spare capacity to talk on any of the nets that I was unable to talk on from my tank, and that my staff could monitor. You could argue that this was a cop-out for not going into the Warrior, but I couldn't have gotten all the radio sets into the APC anyway. Now, the other thing I needed with me was my artillery officer, which was absolutely essential, and he had his Warrior with its own sets for the artillery nets. This makes us three vehicles. Under other circumstances I would have had an engineer with me in yet another vehicle, but I knew enough about the minefields we faced that I didn't require the advice, and the actual mine-clearing duties were to be taken over by the US 1st Infantry Division.
Once through the minefield, the plan was for the Desert Rats to go a hundred-plus kilometers to put in an attack on a particular enemy brigade position that we knew was there. In the actual event, we bumped an unexpected position that had to be dealt with first. One of the problems of the Gulf War was that there was a lack of detailed information at the tactical level. The information existed, but there was a dissemination problem. We had these wonderful downlinks - most of them American - from satellites, AWACS, and J-STARS all pumping the information into Riyadh. Although we obviously asked for information about certain areas and grid squares, the problem was that there was such a large amount of information in Riyadh, it was almost impossible to work out who wanted what and then disseminate it. When we went across the line of departure, we only had sketchy information about the brigade that we were going to have to attack. We were through the minefield going due north, and then we turned almost due east. Just south of the main axis of advance there was an Iraqi communications site that was protected by a company of infantry and about a dozen T-62 tanks. We hit those by mistake, meaning we didn't know they were there. We would have hit them in any event, but had we known, we might have been more cautious about it.
The night was pitch black, made particularly difficult because it was heavily overcast and raining. Curiously, we didn't have any of the artillery's guns unmasked and ready to fire. The battalion commander who made the unexpected contact with the enemy asked for some artillery, and I said, "Are you sure you need it? The Iraqis probably don't know you're there, because they don't have thermal sights and you do. Wouldn't it be better to just pick them off and see what happens?" And that's exactly what we did. We put the attack in at about 22h00. The thermal sights enabled our tanks to engage targets at a range of up to three kilometers, where naked-eye visibility was less than 50 meters. Once the T-62s started burning, there was quite a bit more light, and our infantry could get out and into the enemy slit trenches. We then put up artillery illumination (some of the guns were unmasked by then) so we could see what the hell was going on, and we had all these prisoners milling around. That became a feature of the next three days -- huge numbers of prisoners. The action had an important effect on our troops. The attack we put in was what we would call a quick attack, and the drill used was exactly the drill that we'd used in training -- and it worked. That was good for morale.
But I was in my tank throughout this, because I knew what our objective was, and anything else that cropped up meant that something needed to be done quite quickly by local unit commanders involved. When we bumped this unexpected position, I was perfectly happy in my tank to be able to talk to the battalion commander about what it was that he was doing, let him get on with it, and tell him that, if he needed any particular resources, I was there and could get them. There was no problem there, because my own staff in the main headquarters, which was static and being stepped-up by the other headquarters, was monitoring that net. The only difference between what we were doing and the traditional way was that I was very much closer in case I should be needed and also very much more mobile, because I had the same equipment and could keep up with the advance. I was in that state for 16 hours before I rendezvoused back again with my own headquarters.
While we fought the first battle, we were faced with the problem of getting my back vehicles out of the minefield bridgehead. The whole of the US VII Corps was waiting to get through behind me. The aftermath of a battle is never easy, no matter how quickly you do them. We had some soldiers wounded ourselves and a large number of prisoners to deal with. Sorting the thing out occupied a couple of hours. This became quite a nasty pause, with the whole of my brigade stopped and the divisional commander urging us on. You could have argued that the rest of us could have pressed on while the engaged battalion did its work, but none of us had ever done this before. We were all new to it. From my point of view, it would have been good to wrap up that one situation, get everybody back together again, and then say: "Right, now we're going to put in this next attack as planned." Of course, what the divisional commander said when I told him my intention to delay the time of the scheduled attack was, "Well, that's rather disappointing." I then understood that we were going to have to bypass the enemy position and leave the one battalion behind to clean things up.
I now had to take on an Iraqi brigade position with only two-thirds of my own brigade, which required me to make a revised plan in the middle of the night. I did this with my artillery commander, because basically what we needed was more artillery to make up for the shortfall in tanks and troops, and he was able to do that. Once that plan was set up and underway, I had no particular function to play. I didn't need to be with my forward troops as the battle was going on, so I went back to my brigade headquarters, which was about 15 kilometers behind at that point, in order to get together with my staff and plan out the next steps after the fight, which I thought should take through the night of February 26. The next two days were characterized by fast maneuvering. We destroyed some 300 tanks and APCs, and we took some 8,000 Iraqi prisoners.
There was a significant difference between the way we operated in Germany, where it was all static stuff, to being completely mobile in a war of maneuver. It became clear, which it hadn't been on the safer side of the line of departure, that a brigade commander really could work from a tank. I could tell my staff: "This is what the mission is, and this is what I want to happen. You put that plan together, along with the control measures. I'm back in my tank now and going to go forward again." I'm balanced, should we have a problem. I can go and see what it is and if necessary, I can come back to headquarters to set revised plans into motion.
There were three critical things that helped us dominate our part of the battlefield in the Gulf War. First, we had communications that worked. The desert attenuates the VHF signal, cutting it down to about two-thirds of its range. So we had to be careful to rebroadcast where necessary. But we weren't messed around by the enemy in terms of comm jamming. He had the ability to do it, but he didn't. I'm sure that by the time we put the main attack in he had lost interest in trying to jam us. The second crucial thing was the thermal sight. Even in daylight we were using thermal sights for gunnery, because we could see the target so much better than you could with a normal day sight. Psychologically, we had rather hoped to put our first attack in during daylight. If you haven't done something before, it is quite comforting to look out and see where people are all around you. With a thermal sight you can't do that; you can just see forward. But, as it turned out, all the advantages were with us at night. The enemy didn't have thermal sights, and we could outgun him by miles. The third battle winner was GPS. We went to Saudi Arabia without any GPS receivers at all, which is crazy when you think about it. But at the time, the only people in Great Britain who were using GPS were yachtsmen. We literally bought every commercial GPS set we could find. Communications that worked and thermal sights -- combined with knowing where we were, which hitherto in the British Army we'd never done -- gave us a huge advantage.