Gulf War

"They were getting a bloody good bombing. It was horrible."


The Gulf War came as a bit of a shock to 25-year-old Willie Reid. The diplomatic build-up had been some months in the running, and perhaps now, three decades on, the events appear to have been foreseen.

Still, back then, the young infantryman was sent home on Christmas leave at the end of 1990 with his commanding officer's express opinion that the Gulf War would not come to pass for him and his Royal Highland Fusilier colleagues.

This did not turn out to be the case.

On January 5, 1991, Willie was ordered back to base and tasked to find and bring hundreds of his fellow infantry mates back from leave. He was to deploy to the Middle East within weeks. This is Willie's Gulf War story.

John Major Troops Gulf War BFBS
John Major meets members of the British Army following the Gulf War

Willie and the rest of his battalion had been busy in the 12 months before the Gulf War. In the Spring of 1990, he had deployed to Belize and remained there for six months.

"We were used to the heat, but it was a tropical heat … much different to the dry heat of the Middle East," he said, 30 years on.

Back then, infantry battalions like Willie's in the Royal Highland Fusiliers used their own soldiers – fully trained infantry soldiers – as regimental clerks.

Pre-Adjutant Generals Corps, this was Willie's role at the time of the Gulf crisis.

Because of this, Willie took on a mammoth task of locating, making contact with, and pulling in from leave his regimental colleagues. Willie remembers:

"Back then, you didn't have mobile phones, there was no internet. You had to reach people any way you could. That often involved talking to local constabularies and having police officers knock on lads' doors."

Willie Reid with parents. Credit: Willie Reid
Willie had deployed to Northern Ireland twice by the time the Gulf War began in 1991. Credit: Willie Reid

It took some days, and many of those soldiers who were pulled back off leave were not impressed, understandably, but by the start of the second week of January, all the men were back at their base in Cambridgeshire preparing for war.

Describing the scenes, Willie said:

"There was a lot going on medically. We were inoculated against all sorts of things. The one that sticks in my mind was we were inoculated against Anthrax in case there was chemical warfare.

"That was all done around a boxing ring in one of the hangers in camp. You just went around each corner and let them have your left arm, right arm."

Willie added:

"We deployed over to Salisbury Plain for about five days and done a very quick dust off of the new year drink and get back into the soldier form. I had to get back up to Scotland because a relative had died. But we actually deployed out on January 28. And it was on a Kuwaiti Airways 747 – which the Royal Air Force were using because Kuwait Airport was closed."

Willie Reid and RHF Soldiers
Willie, centre, with fellow RHF soldiers. Credit: Willie Reid

He was certainly no stranger to dangerous situations. The 25-year-old had already served two Northern Ireland tours, the first of which he had deployed on before he had even turned 18. Willie said:

"I was kept in camp until my 18th birthday, but by then I had already served enough days in theatre to qualify for the campaign medal. So, I had earned my Northern Ireland medal before I was even old enough to fight.

"This was something different. It felt like we were going to war. As we knew the airstrikes were going in at that time. It was a worrying time. But it was something that was kept to yourself. Typical macho way of dealing with things. I do remember that the flight out was very quiet. It was a good five- or six-hour flight, so we slept when we could as well."

As is still the norm today, when the men landed in Saudi Arabia, they were met with an acclimatisation package designed to equip them for working in the desert's harsh conditions.

"There were no desert combats."

Willie remembered:

"We ended up in a camp I believe had been used by migrant workers. Whether that was in the oil side of things or whatever, I was not entirely sure. It was not dissimilar to a barracks, with two and three bedrooms in there.

"We were on the outskirts of Riyadh and there was lots of these community buildings shall we say, dotted around a large area. I remember again getting issued with equipment, because we went over with tropical combats, which at the time there were no desert combats. We did get them in about a week or so, but a lot of it was getting stores, getting acclimatised to the heat and light training, exercise, getting used to the heat."

The settling in process went on for a fortnight. During this time, the air bombardment element of the war was well underway, images that were televised globally, famously as a world-first via CNN. But for Willie, the external world looking in was out of his immediate mind. He said:

"Obviously, we watched the news about what was going on back home before deploying. But once we were deployed, I really can't think that we saw any news at all.

"So, anything coming in would be from BFBS Radio. It was our main source of what was going on."

Willie Reid in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Willie Reid
Willie Reid in Saudi Arabia. Credit: Willie Reid

At this point, his battalion's primary objective was to build a fit-for-purpose detainee facility for captured Iraqi prisoners of war to be held at once the ground war was underway. Willie and his colleagues got this done.

The camp, which the Scottish soldiers nicknamed Mary Hill Camp after a base back home, was finished around a week before the invasion got underway on February 24. Willie recalled:

"We were out doing that [building the pow camp], and about a week after we got the tents and marquees and everything up, we were then redeployed as the 7th Armoured Brigade reserve battalion. So, we joined onto the batch of 7 Armoured Brigade which must have been about February 19. We weren't on the front line at all, but we did follow 7 Armoured Brigade in the move forward.

"We were close to the Iraqi front lines, we could hear the planes going over each night, the bombing going on, and I think now I can say that it was horrible because that could have been us. The soldiers there are like us."

Willie was near enough to the Iraqi front line to appreciate the magnitude of the bombing campaign the enemy was being hit with. He describes what he witnessed as a "bloody-good bombardment" and admits that he even felt sympathy for his enemy. Willie said:

"There was a wee bit of sympathy for the Iraqi soldiers … not a great deal, but a little bit."

In 1991, a year on from the campaign, a UN report described the effect of the coalition bombing campaign as "near apocalyptic," and putting Iraq back in the "pre-industrial age."

Willie added: "There were planes going over every hour on the hour almost. You could hear them going over, and see the bombs exploding we were so close to the Iraqi/Kuwait border, the Saudi/ Iraq and Kuwait border."

Gulf War Oil Well Fires - Operation Desert Storm
As Willie moved north as part of 7 Armoured Brigade, Kuwait's oilfields had been set ablaze by the Iraqis.

The ground war was a fast-moving operation that really only lasted a handful of days. This section of the Gulf War is often referred to as the 100-hour war, but although the face-to-face combat was over relatively quickly, the evidence of what had been a deadly fight was plentiful for Willie and his RHF comrades to see.

Willie said: "As we moved north, they had set the oil fields alight, and there was just black smoke everywhere. I think once the ceasefire had been announced, we then moved up into Kuwait, and the buildings that had been destroyed, the oil fields, it was just a sad, sad sight to see and again, the Kuwaiti people – you could see the relief in their faces that there were coalition troops on their land.

"Relief that their liberty had been granted again having been taken away so quickly by the Iraqis.

"We then, almost immediately, returned to Mary Hill Camp."

Willie in the desert during the Gulf War. Credit: Willie Reid
Willie in the desert during the Gulf War. Credit: Willie Reid

Willie's work then shifted back to a prisoner of war focus. According to CBS News, during the conflict's ground war element, 69,000 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to British and American forces.

All of these persons needed appropriate handling, including medical attention and nourishment. Today, 30 years on, Willie remembers the distinct look in many of the POW's faces. It was the look of failure. He said:

"They were in a sorry state. They had poor discipline. But they were happy to be in our custody.

"They were a defeated army."

Willie added: "They had been malnourished, they ate almost every morsel of food that was given to them, but you could see a sense of relief from them that the bombardment they had been through each night was now over. There was almost like a sense of 'thank god we are in your custody now, and not lying in our trenches on the other side."

POWs in Kuwait.
Iraqi prisoners of war. Credit: Willie Reid

Willie left the Armed Forces in 1992 after yet another tour of Northern Ireland. He then embarked on a long career in the police service as a civilian custody officer. He emphasises that the Iraqi prisoners he dealt with during the Gulf War caused him little to worry about, the mirror opposite of many prisoners he dealt with in his later working life. Willie said:

"A typical police prisoner wants everything and will try to get everything they are entitled to and beyond. Whereas with them, the fact they were getting square meals a day and water and the rest of it was enough for them. So, a very different type of prisoner.

"They were very compliant."

Due to the conditions of the ceasefire announced by President George Bush Sr on February 28, 1991, the thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war in the custody of coalition forces were repatriated back to their homeland north of the border within just a couple of months. Willie and his colleagues found themselves operating the POW detention camp until the end of April. He said:

"As prisoner of war guard force, we were always destined to be the last to leave – while the other units were returning to the UK in advance of us. We left, and I think the only battalion that was left behind after us was the Kings Own Scottish Border Regiment.

"So, we did about two and a half months in the Gulf waiting to return after the war."

Willie Reid today. Credit: Willie Reid.
Willie Reid today. Credit: Willie Reid.

Having left the army in the early 1990s and then enjoying a 25-year career in Police Scotland, Willie now works as a coach driver in Edinburgh. It's a job that keeps him engaged with people, and perhaps allows him the time to consider not only the Gulf War 30 years on but also his three tours of Northern Ireland. Willie said:

"I am happy and content that it was a just war. And a just cause.

"It's 30 years which makes me feel old now. It is not something that comes up every year. I've been to a couple of reunions, it's nice to see a lot of people, maybe not so nice to see some others, but I try not to live my life as though I was still serving."

And what of the Christmas leave Willie lost at the start of January 1991, when it was abruptly cancelled? Did he ever get those days off back? Willie smiles at the thought:

"Erm, no. Not that I can remember …"

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