Operation Granby: The UK’s role in liberating Kuwait

The UK committed the largest number of forces of any European coalition member

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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When Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded his oil-rich neighbor Kuwait in 1990, the UK was one of the key players in the U.S.-led coalition to liberate the small Gulf state.

In Aug. 1990, Saddam sent 100,000 troops and 700 tanks into Kuwait. Although the heavily outnumbered Kuwaiti forces fought fiercely, they were overrun after just two days.

The invasion was strongly condemned by the West. Even the Soviet Union, Iraq’s chief weapons supplier, suspended arms shipments.

Days later, Washington and London, fearing that Iraq would next invade Saudi Arabia, sent warplanes to the kingdom.

This was to be among the earliest actions of a 15-member military coalition - the largest such since World War II - to liberate Kuwait.

The United States was the largest coalition member by far, deploying around 540,000 troops, but the UK committed the largest number of forces of any European coalition member, putting together 53,000 soldiers.

The overall campaign was known as Operation Desert Shield, but the UK had its own name for its part: Operation Granby.

The name was taken from the title of a British noble who served as a commander in the Seven Years’ War, the large-scale European 18th-century conflict.

On Jan. 17, 1991, five and a half months after the invasion of Kuwait, the coalition began to put in motion their master plan.

This was to consist of two steps: First, Saddam’s forces would be softened up by aerial bombings, then a lightning-fast ground operation would begin.

At first, Saddam’s response was fierce. He ordered the launching of Scud missiles on Israel and Saudi Arabia, then the blowing up of Kuwaiti oil wells, and the dumping of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf.

British commanders and coalition partners believed that Iraq’s air force had to be completely destroyed in order to gain total air supremacy.

As part of this plan, for the first few days British Tornado jets attacked Iraqi airbases using the UK’s JP233 runway-denial weapon.

The technology worked by a combat plane flying low over an enemy runway, scattering dozens of small explosives designed to tear up the surface. Small landmines were dropped simultaneously in order to slow down repair efforts.

In less than a week, the UK’s air force alone had flown over 2,000 sorties, many targeting Iraqi infrastructure including bridges and oil refineries. Iraq’s air force, made up of around 700 combat jets, was effectively knocked out.

On Feb. 22, Washington issued an ultimatum to Iraq. Saddam’s forces had 24 hours to withdraw from Kuwait to avoid a ground war.

Baghdad did not comply, and two days later coalition forces began operations to liberate Kuwait.

In the small hours of Feb. 24, Britain’s elite SAS forces entered Kuwait. They hold the distinction of being the first coalition soldiers to enter Iraqi-held territory.

On Feb. 25, with coalition forces pouring into Kuwait, Britain made what is often noted as its most significant contribution to the conflict.

The British 1st Armored Division, consisting of 180 cutting-edge Challenger main battle tanks and 260 armored infantry vehicles, outflanked Iraqi forces.

While Iraq relied on aging Soviet and Chinese tanks, Britain’s Challengers were able to both move and fire their gun at the same time, giving them a decisive edge.

In the battle that took place over two days, 300 Iraqi tanks were destroyed. Throughout the whole campaign, not a single Challenger tank was lost.

Britain’s navy - historically considered its greatest military force - also played a key role. Its naval Lynx helicopters were responsible for destroying almost all of Saddam’s navy. British patrol boats also helped enforce an embargo around Iraqi coastal waters.

Outnumbered and outgunned, Iraq’s army was heading back to safety in Iraq. However, the coalition had intended to destroy its military capabilities, preventing Saddam from retaking Kuwait, so according to plan the coalition continued to chase enemy units deep into Iraqi territory.

On Feb. 28, offensive operations were suyspended, and with the threat of coalition forces storming toward Baghdad, Iraq had little choice but to agree to a ceasefire.

Throughout the whole campaign, 47 British military personnel were killed.

Roger Owen, a British-born historian and academic at Harvard University, said the nature of the conflict at that time - long after the sun set on Britain’s empire - was unusual. “In the post-colonial world, this wasn’t what you were supposed to do anymore.”

The war, taking place on entirely foreign lands, also highlighted at the time the importance and vast logistical effort of fighting far away from home, something coalition forces would learn years later in the second Gulf War.

“The war showed how extremely complicated it is, as the Americans find, actually getting forces somewhere, occupying, then holding for a bit,” said Owen.

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