Gulf War

First Gulf War: What was it like as a Tornado navigator?

More than 53,000 personnel from across the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force took part in Operation GRANBY.

The operation was in response to the then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait on 2 August 1990.

Op GRANBY was underway by 17 January 1991, following a UN mandate.

Thirty years on, Forces News spoke to two Tornado navigators who recalled their memories of the First Gulf War.

It was the first time the Tornado was used by the RAF for combat missions.

Former Tornado navigator Mal Craghill said: "Whilst we were airborne there was a message put out over the emergency frequency for all RAF Germany aircraft to return to their bases and that was the first inkling that things were changing."

Similarly, Martin Wintermeyer, who was also a Tornado navigator during the war, said he remembers being "recalled at high speed" to the base and immediately realising "something was going on in the Middle East".

Both Martin and Mal were deployed from Cold War air bases in Germany to fly bombing raids over Iraq.

Mal said it was "completely 180 degrees out" from what he had expected when he joined a Cold War-era Air Force.

"When Kuwait kicked off, it was a big shock to everybody."

Tornado Aircraft during the First Gulf War DATE UNKNOWN used on 150121 CREDIT Getty Images.jpg
The Tornado was used by the RAF for combat missions for the first time in 1991 (Picture: Getty Images).

Martin recalls having "a mixture of feelings" ranging from excitement to fear, worry and anxiety.

"At the time the Iraqi Air Force [and] the Iraqi Army was a really powerful beast and we were going to go against this really great adversary," he said.

"The projected losses were quite high so we were thinking 'this could be it'."

The first week of their deployment was what he called "a terrifying time".

"From the first night, every night we seemed to lose a Tornado," he said, sharing concern for the families following the conflict at home.

The low-level sorties were something that stuck with Mal.

"Up to that point, everything has been as if you're operating in peacetime – all the aircraft have got lights on, you can see hundreds of other aircraft in the sky.

"Then, suddenly, it all starts going dark – lights go off, radios are as silent as possible.

"You know all these other aircraft are there, but you can't see them anymore and that's when it really comes home to you: This is different," Mal said.

Martin added it was a "very technically difficult way of operating".

"You have to let the bombs go, turn upside down, pull away from target… so lots and lots of manoeuvring upside down at night in the desert, which is quite difficult."

He also remarked the difficulty of operating a manoeuvre like that "with radar" as it was "really disorientating" with the lights flashing and bells going off as the aircraft "went beyond their limits."

Speaking to Forces News, Mal shared what happened on a "glorious clear night", when they were "cruising along at 20,000 feet running towards the target, watching missing launchers going off around the place".

At one point they started getting warnings on their radar warning receiver of a surface-to-air missile known as SAM 2.

Mal Craghill and Martin Wintermeyer, Tornado navigators during Gulf War DATE UNKNOWN used on 150121 CREDIT Martin Wintermeyer.jpg
Mal Craghill and Martin Wintermeyer were Tornado navigators during the Gulf War (Picture: Martin Wintermeyer).

"It goes through target acquisition, then you get an alarm and it goes to target track and then the unthinkable happens and you get a different alarm and it switches to missile guidance on the display.

"At exactly that moment a massive flash on the ground happened at our two o'clock as the missile launched."

He explained that it was a "completely different" experience because they became aware that the missile was being fired at them and they had "a lock" on them.

"Luckily we were close enough to weapons release that we could just finish the attack, we were only a couple of seconds away, and then do what we needed to do to defend against the missile, which is a sharp brake, me using the defensive equipment to decoy the missile.

"It still got pretty close to us. We felt the blast when the missile detonated, but there was no damage to our aircraft, happily."

After a six-week air campaign to destroy strategic targets, on Sunday 24 February 1991 the coalition ground forces were given the green light to advance.

The fighting was over in less than 100 hours.

Famously, cruise missiles were used for the first time in warfare. They were fired from warships in the Gulf Sea and footage was broadcast around the world.

Iraqi soldiers began surrendering rapidly, with about 80,000 prisoners of war taken.

A temporary ceasefire was agreed on 28 February, with a formal ceasefire signed on 11 April.

"It was defining for lots of the crews because you join the military in the thought that you might actually have to go and do this but, generally, none of us thought we would do because this was the Cold War, the Cold War had been going for 40 years, and there was no chance of us getting involved," Martin said.

He added: "I think to do it so early on in your career was good because it gave you that experience and then as you went through you had that experience of having been in a war zone to draw upon.

"You weren't talking about stuff they did in the Falklands, you were talking about stuff you did yourself."

Cover image: Martin Wintermeyer and Mal Crahghill pictured in their aircraft (Picture: Mal Craghill).

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