The mission was straightforward – find, attack and destroy major Republican Guard elements, the heart of Saddam Hussein’s ground forces. Intense realistic training and rehearsal, accurate intelligence, and technical advances enabled the application of overwhelming force by an allied coalition corps.
Traversing through dense minefields and over obstacles with massed armor and firepower, the coalition forces executed complicated large-scale maneuvers against Iraq. The scope of this tank warfare had not been accomplished since World War II’s Africa campaign. These tricky maneuvers by VII Corps armor were against an entrenched enemy equipped with Soviet-built tanks. Coalition deception operations, an integral part of overall Desert Storm strategy, helped to keep enemy units in place and off balance about the intended direction of attack.
Brig. Gen. John S. Brown, then a lieutenant colonel and commanding officer of an M1A1 Abrams tank battalion, waited for the assault to begin. His 2nd Battalion, 66th Armor, part of the 3rd Brigade of the 2nd Armored Division in Germany, deployed to Saudi Arabia a few months earlier. Now the tank battalion was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division as part of a third brigade. The division was assigned to breach and punch a hole through Iraqi defenses directly opposite. The breaching operation was essential to move logistics over the shortest route into Iraq, even though it was obvious that other coalition armored divisions could outflank the worst of enemy defenses.
Massed firepower from the corps’ 669 artillery tubes initiated offensive action. The VII Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Frederick M. Franks, Jr., USA, a tank officer, numbered 142,000 soldiers and included 1,587 tanks and 1,502 Bradleys and armored personnel carriers. The opposing Iraqi commander later said that 90 percent of his artillery was ready to interfere with the attack across the deep minefield. However, in a 24-hour U.S. bombardment, he lost most of his artillery capability.
Blades mounted on the front of M1A1 tanks began plowing lanes to cut holes through the huge minefield. In each lane, approximately one kilometer apart, a full battalion combat team moved forward. “There were a hundred armored vehicles or more, all on line in each lane,” Gen. Brown observed. “As far as the eye could see, tanks moved through the lanes, each about a dozen kilometers long.” He added that all of this movement had previously been rehearsed in a rear area inside Saudi Arabia. A British Army unit moved through the minefield and immediately made enemy contact.
Gen. Franks wanted all of the divisions on line and Gen. Brown’s parent brigade pulled around the British 1st Armored Division in a short arc. This passage-of-lines maneuver was extremely complicated, especially in the presence of enemy forces. Friendly units had to first be cleared while continuing to fight. As the attack progressed, the general’s tank battalion took the lead position in a brigade wedge formation, to begin smashing the Republican Guards with overwhelming firepower.
Three coalition divisions on line moved toward their objective parallel with the western border of Kuwait. “The 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment did a superb job of making contact and shaping the battlefield. The armored units were moving rapidly, much faster than Iraqi commanders anticipated,” Gen. Brown said. The use of Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers enabled navigation while continually maintaining speed. In Gen. Brown’s battalion there was a GPS unit in each of the company commander’s tanks. In each company, a receiver was in at least two of the platoon leader’s tanks. “This was a secret weapon that made all the difference,” he said.
“No sooner had we moved out the minefield lanes than we came under fire. But the Iraqis expected an attack to come from the direction of Wadi Al-Batin running along the Kuwait border. Because of this, Iraqi armored units were dug in facing south southwest and we came in to their flank from due west,” the general explained. “With firing positions oriented the wrong way, they were not in a position to effectively fire at our armor. Gen. Brown’s battalion had 42 fully armed tanks in the attack, including a company in reserve.
“It was night and we were using thermal sights to reliably engage targets out to 2,000 meters, and some targets at 3,000 meters,” the general illustrated. “We were rolling up their flanks and they could not present more than a dozen tanks at a time. In some cases, Iraqi tanks could not rotate their turrets, which were blocked by the spoil atop revetments. This kept them from firing in other than a generally forward position. Some Iraqi tanks tried to pull out of their holes to maneuver, but it was hopeless. Others remained in their revetments and were passed in the dark because their was no infrared signature for sensors to detect.
Some enemy tanks pulled out of revetments after Gen. Brown’s tanks passed them by, presenting a significant danger from the rear. The Iraqi tanks got between the battalion’s main body and the reserve company, which was moving up. Tough close-in fighting resulted. In another nearby VII Corps battalion, an Iraqi tank emerged from a revetment just as a Bradley fighting vehicle approached. The Iraqi tank was too close to engage, so the Bradley driver rammed it while its gun turret was traversing. A sergeant leaped from the Bradley and dropped a grenade down the tank hatch, according to Gen. Brown.
The general marveled at the consistency of Army training that enabled armored units from Germany and a mechanized infantry division from Fort Riley, Kan., to execute “incredibly difficult fighting maneuvers. Sergeant tank commanders took it upon themselves to organize against Iraqi units moving in their rear. They maneuvered their Abrams to protect thin-skinned Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs). This was part of their training, to keep the APCs from exposure to direct fire weapons.” In this pitched battle, more than a hundred Iraqi tanks were destroyed without a single battalion loss.
The combat was “messy there for a little while, and Iraqi forces in this area proved to be very brave. The engagement was challenging; not at all like a Nintendo game, as some people seem to believe. Just before dawn, we ended up perched on top of an Iraqi dismounted infantry position,” Gen. Brown said. “At this location the Republican Guard had repositioned to face our flanking attack. However, in the dark they hadn’t got it quite right – infantry should have been forward of their tanks, but they were at the rear. We rolled through two layers of tanks and thought we had cleared Iraqi infantry.”
This article first appeared in Desert Shield/Desert Storm: 10th Anniversary.
The general’s battalion discovered itself in the midst of a great many Iraqi soldiers. Some of the enemy tried to crawl behind the M1A1s to engage them from the more vulnerable rear with Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). Gen. Brown’s tank and the adjacent tank of his operations officer were in position to bring their machine guns to bear. Thermal sights helped locate Iraqis crawling into firing positions. As this action unfolded, the reserve company arrived to add its firepower.
Unexpectedly, thermal sights on the Abrams, the general said, also proved capable of locating mines buried in the sand around Iraqi tank positions. The mines absorbed sufficient heat from the sun to produce a thermal image on Abrams tank displays. Infrared sensors helped M1A1 drivers maneuver while avoiding mines. During firefights, shells from Iraqi tank guns repeatedly struck Abrams tanks, but failed to penetrate the sloping armor on the front and sides.
The general noted that it was difficult to tell cause and effect. “However, as daylight broke, our tanks found themselves in a difficult situation among some 2,000 Iraqi soldiers all along the division line. The Iraqis quickly realized how much coalition armor they were facing. An Iraqi tank on the move some 3,000 meters away was fired on by one of the M1A1s, which blew it away – one round, one kill,” he said. The enemy quickly surrendered.
More than 1,000 Iraqis were killed on the battlefield in the brigade’s sector. An accurate count may never be known because some crews were trapped inside burned out tank hulks. The Abrams crews fired 600 rounds and destroyed 300 enemy tanks. Continuing the attack, Gen. Brown’s battalion fought a number of smaller skirmishes while moving north and east. His unit cut through the Republican Guard to reach the southern edge of VII Corps’ offensive, halfway into Kuwait. En route to another objective near Al Busayyah, the battalion moved into a blocking position along Highway 8 to halt Iraq’s escape from Kuwait.
Desert Storm provided “a wisp of the future in the value to sensors and intelligence systems,” said Gen. Brown. Throughout the ground war the Iraqis, on their own familiar territory, were surprised by speed, maneuver and accurate fire during nighttime engagements from directions they did not expect, he concluded.
This article was first published Desert Shield/Desert Storm: The 10th Anniversary of the Gulf War.