Gulf War: Everything You Need To Know About The Conflict 30 Years On

The First Gulf War was fought from 1990 to 1991 and saw the largest ever deployment of the British Armed Forces since the Second World War. 

Saddam Hussein caused international outrage when he invaded the tiny oil-rich Gulf state of Kuwait on 2 August 1990.

It was feared that if Saudi Arabia was next, the Iraqi dictator would control more than half the world's oil.

The response was rapid and a colossal American-led alliance deployed to the region.

Which countries were involved?

Thirty-nine nations formed the coalition, supplying 670,000 troops.

Although it was the US and Britain who contributed the most regarding resources, including 470,000 US military personnel and more than 53,000 from the UK.

Around 34,000 of the UK deployment of personnel were from the British Army according to UK Government figures.

The first Royal Air Force aircraft arrived in Saudi Arabia on 10 August to begin Operation GRANBY (the codename of the British operation), which took its name from John Manners, Marquess of Granby, a famous British Army officer and popular commander in the Seven Years' War.

The United States, who also sent aircraft to the region, codenamed their deployment 'Operation Desert Storm'.

US Soldiers Deploying Gulf War Volk Field Air Base 010190 CREDIT US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
US soldiers deploying to the Gulf from Volk Field Air Base (Picture: US Department of Defense).

The force grew over the following months, with RAF aircraft including Torondos, Jaguars and Hercules transport planes situated in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of UK soldiers were arriving in the Gulf each day.

By October 1990, 7th Armoured Brigade had left Germany for Saudi Arabia to establish their presence in the region.

A second British Army of the Rhine brigade joined them, with Challenger tanks specially adapted for the desert dust, and extensive training being carried out.

The United Nations had ruled that if Iraq failed to withdraw from Kuwait by 15 January 1991, necessary means could be carried to secure its liberation.

On 16 January 1991, the United States confirmed its coalition was officially joining the war.

How long did the Gulf War last?

After a six-week air campaign destroying strategic targets, it was on Sunday 24 February 1991 that 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.

Gulf War Operation Desert Storm Infantry CREDIT MOD
Infantry soldiers during the Gulf War (Picture: MOD).

Iraqi soldier began surrendering rapidly, with around 80,000 prisoners of war.

The retreat of Iraq's forces from Kuwait came as oil well fires were started – it took eight months to put the fires out following the liberation.

During the final hours of the conflict, a convoy of fleeing Iraqi troops heading for Basra were bombed by US aircraft – a route now known as the 'Highway of Death'.

Some estimates suggest thousands of people were killed.

British personnel were among those tasked with cleared the road, enabling the liberation of Kuwait to take place.

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

How many British military personnel fought in the Gulf War?

To support Op GRANBY, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) transported to the Gulf, by air, 46,000 personnel and 46,000 tonnes of freight; and, by sea, 14,700 vehicles, 87,000 tonnes of ammunition and loose freight and 7,000 containers.

To achieve this, and to carry men and material back from the Gulf, the MOD used nearly all its Air Transport Force aircraft, and ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, and chartered aircraft for 490 flights and ships for 245 voyages at a total transport cost of £269m.

In total, more than 53,000 personnel from the UK were involved in the First Gulf War.

In total, there were an estimated one million allied military personnel 'on the ground' from 30 of the 39 countries involved.

What medals were the troops issued?

British Armed Forces members who took part in Op GRANBY received a campaign medal if they met the qualifying criteria.

There are also medals with two types of clasp ('2 Aug 1990' clasp and '16 Jan to 28 Feb 1991' clasp) available for personnel who meet the respective criteria.

Front and back of Gulf War medal with 16 January to 28 February 1991 clasp
The Gulf Medal with the 16 January to 28 February 1991 clasp (Picture: MOD).

The colours of the medal ribbon represent the desert landscape found in the Gulf and the colours of the three British armed services.

British troops were also presented with a Kuwaiti Liberation Medal and the Saudi Liberation of Kuwait Medal. However, they were prevented from wearing these for political and policy reasons.

Most veterans who have now left the Armed Forces do now wear these alongside the medals they were issued by the UK Government.

How many UK military personnel were killed or injured?

Forty-seven British personnel were killed during Op GRANBY and many more were injured during the hostilities there.

Allied total losses were estimated to be 250 personnel killed as a direct result of enemy action.

Estimates of the Iraqi death toll vary sharply – according to the Imperial War Museum, between 20,000 and 35,000 Iraqi soldiers died, with the number of civilians killed ranging from thousands to hundreds of thousands.

Gulf War Operation Desert Storm Challenger 1 main battle tanks
Challenger 1 battle tanks, fitted with additional fuel drums, during Operation Desert Storm (Picture: MOD).

What is Gulf War Syndrome?

Gulf War Syndrome is an umbrella term given to the many undiagnosed illnesses and symptoms affecting military personnel who fought during the 1990-91 war in the Gulf.

Thirty years on, thousands of veterans who deployed to the Gulf region still say they are suffering from mystery illnesses and conditions, ranging from strange body rashes, fatigue, and reports of conditions in their children.

There are many theories and widespread beliefs as to the cause of these conditions, including anthrax and plague vaccinations troops received before deploying, exposure to depleted uranium contained within tank shells, and even the inhalation of pollution from the burning oil wells in the desert, but none of these have been proven.

How are British veterans who fought in the Gulf War remembered?

In 2016 a Gulf War memorial was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire, 25 years after the conflict ended, honouring those who died in the war.

The memorial cost £70,000 and £35,000 was paid for by the Kuwaiti government.

The inscription engraved onto the memorial reads: "In memory of the 47 fallen comrades, and to all those who fought in Operation Granby (1990-91) The Liberation of Kuwait, those who have subsequently passed away and also those that continued to fight their own battles, long after the guns fell silent. Lest we Forget."

Listen to the story of the First Gulf War, told by those who were there. Decision-makers, military commanders, soldiers, sailors and air personnel reflect on their roles in the conflict, 30 years on.

'GRANBY: The Storm in the Desert' is available from Friday 15 January, wherever you get your podcasts and on bfbs.com/podcasts.

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