Gulf War

What It Was Like To Be A Tank Troop Leader In The First Gulf War

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick was a 27-year-old Captain in the 17th/21st Royal Lancers when he was deployed to the Gulf.

In early 1991, a coalition of 39 nations launched an invasion over the Saudi Arabia border into Kuwait and Iraq against the Kuwaiti-occupying forces of Saddam Hussein.

The conflict became known as the Gulf War, and the UK played a significant role in fighting it and the persuading of other nations, notably the United States, to act with force. 

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick was a British tank troop leader in the desert.

Speaking to Forces News at The Tank Museum at Bovington, he recalled his memories of Operation Granby – the UK's military contribution during the First Gulf War.

Arriving in the desert

Lt Col Purbrick was a 27-year-old Captain in the 17th/21st Royal Lancers when he was deployed to the Gulf.

He recalls his arrival in the desert – flying in the cockpit of a jet, down the Nile river and seeing the Egyptian pyramids and Cairo, before landing in the intense Saudi Arabian heat.

Lt Col Purbrick and his fellow troops were given a large hangar to serve as their temporary home.

Their tanks then had to be driven from ships out to the desert in transporters and they began to live in the desert off the vehicles.

"We spent the first few weeks just sorting ourselves out, bombing up with low amounts of ammunition, and practising how we'd move in the desert," he remembers.

Describing the sandy landscape he said: "We trained as cavalry soldiers to operate on the north German plain – a very complex countryside, against a very peer enemy.

"Here in the desert, is almost perfect tank country – flat, open, undulating in places, against an enemy who we weren't quite sure what they were going to be like."

Lt Col Purbrick said their training was "ramped up" to make sure they were "at the highest possible state we could be".

WATCH: British Army veteran who commanded 7th Armoured Infantry Brigade in 1991 remembers war in the desert.

Into enemy territory

On 25 February 1991, Capt Purbrick's team led the British charge from Saudi Arabia into Iraq.

A hunting horn from the commanding officer told them it was time to move, passing through the front line of US troops and out into enemy territory.

Before long, they came across a camel herder who was moving his animals.

Lt Col Purbrick told Forces News: "We stopped to allow the camel herder to push his camels across our front so we didn't mess his life up, and then we carried on."

He recalled seeing an Apache helicopter wheeling over a position, so thought there must be something of interest there. It was the first time they came across an enemy armoured vehicle and there were questions of "do we open up? Shall we? Do we have permission to do this?"

Lt Col Purbrick said it was a case of: "We're at war guys. Just get on with it!"

The longest tank kill of the war

They spotted enemy tanks and "started taking them out".

The targets were some distance away. One, Lt Col Purbrick said, was some distance from them and they "couldn't rightfully see what it was".

A range readout told them it was two-and-a-half miles away, or 4,700m.

After a discussion with his gunner, he decided to take it out, prompting a "massive explosion".

Lt Col Purbrick said: "All I could see around the base of that explosion were little matchstick men running for their lives away from that target.

"It was a supreme technical achievement between the individual who fired that shot and the equipment that we were using," he added.

"At that time, I had no thought of the death and destruction that was all likely that we caused by firing that round, but we were at war."

British troops move through the desert on Operation Granby in the First Gulf War (Picture: MOD).

Iraq's withdrawal

On the radio, the troops heard that the Iraqis were "essentially withdrawing".

That night, they got their first sleep in 48 hours before crossing the border from Iraq into Kuwait.

As they moved into Kuwait, they were right on the border with a US division to the north.

Several minutes later, an American tank troop had taken out a British recce vehicle, injured two people "quite badly" which required a helicopter evacuation, which was "a bit of a shock".

"The only casualties that we were suffering in this war appeared to be coming from our own side, from blue on blue. There's no such thing as friendly fire because all fire is unfriendly."

Final day

On the final morning, orders came to move 40km in about an hour, to the Basra road running between Kuwait City and the Iraqi city of Basra, to meet the UN deadline that was set for the end the war.

Lt Col Purbrick said: "I looked to the left, to the right, and nothing but tanks in a great, great big line.

"We led this charge of the heavy brigade which must be the fastest and longest cavalry charge in history, and we arrived at the Basra road just on the hour.

"We'd survived and, more importantly, we'd achieved the objective – we had liberated Kuwait and that was the end of our war," he added.

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.