Re-published today as the opening article of our ‘Farewell Tornado’ coverage and exactly as it originally appeared on GAR on 07/02/2011, this is the first of two features on RAF Tornado operations during Gulf War 1.
A little over 20 years ago, on the 17th January 1991, coalition forces commenced the air war which marked the start of the campaign to wrestle Kuwait from Iraq’s hands following the invasion of August 1990. In the first of a series of features marking the anniversary, Gareth Stringer talks to some of those involved with the Royal Air Force’s deployment of Tornado GR.1s to look back at its operations during Desert Storm. Images as credited.
“Exhilaration really, says Jerry Witts DSO, that’s the main thing I remember when I think back.”
As the man who commanded the RAF’s Tornado GR.1/1A detachment at Dhahran Air Force Base in Saudi Arabia, Jerry is just one of many who attended a recent reunion to commemorate the anniversary – an event which I was most privileged to attend.
First though, a quick look back at the history. When Iraqi troops, under the orders of their leader Saddam Hussein of course, invaded Kuwait on the 2nd August 1990 their actions were met with international condemnation. The UN Security Council immediately imposed sanctions on Iraq and President George Bush Sr ordered the deployment of American forces to Saudi Arabia while urging other countries to send their own armed forces to the region. A huge array of nations joined the coalition, 34 in total, with the biggest majority from the United States while Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Egypt were leading contributors to Operation Desert Shield.
After months of build up, further sanctions and UN Resolutions, and a final deadline ignored by Iraq, Operation Desert Storm, the conflict to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait, began at midnight on 17th January 1991 and initially was conducted almost exclusively from the air. This was followed by a ground assault which commenced on the 23rd February and delivered an apparently devastating victory for the coalition forces, which liberated Kuwait and also advanced into Iraqi territory. The coalition ceased their advance, and declared a cease-fire just 100 hours after the ground campaign started.
The United Kingdom deployed the largest contingent of any European nation that participated in Desert Storm. Operation Granby named (albeit for no particular reason) after the Marquis of Granby, was the UK code-name for the initial deployment and British Army regiments, Royal Air Force squadrons and Royal Navy vessels were all mobilised in the Gulf with almost 2,500 armoured vehicles and 43,000 troops taking part.
Within just a week of the first UN resolution being passed the government announced the deployment of a squadron each of Tornado F.3 and Jaguar GR.1A aircraft while Tristars shipped in ground support and administrative personnel. VC.10 and Tristar tankers refuelled those aircraft making the long journey east. The Tornado F.3s (GAR feature on the F.3 in GW1) were quickly tasked to fly combat air patrols alongside USAF and Saudi aircraft and three Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft were deployed to Oman. The Tornado GR.1s were joined by a small number of GR.1As to add a tactical reconnaissance capability and a further GR.1 squadron was deployed before hostilities commenced, adding up to a total of some 50 Tornados and 12 Jaguars deployed.
Support, logistics and transport were supplied by a detachment of Hercules, Tristar and VC.10s plus an HS125, while an additional five C-130 Hercules were based in the United Arab Emirates for special operations. Extra tankers, this time Victor K.2s, then began arriving at Bahrain with half a dozen in place by the 16th January. Shortly after Desert Storm began, a dozen Buccaneer S.2Bs (GAR feature on the Buccaneer in GW1) equipped with Pave Spike laser-designators and two Tornados with TIALD pods also arrived in theatre.
Helicopters took part from all three services and included Sea Kings and Puma HC.1s which were transported on USAF C-5 Galaxy aircraft along with three Chinooks. Additional Chinooks were utilised for special operations duties, delivering British and American Special Forces teams into Iraq and Kuwait, and it was a Chinook that delivered the SBS team which retook the British Embassy in Kuwait City. Royal Navy Lynx helicopters armed with Sea Skua missiles claimed a number of small vessel kills during the conflict while its Army counterparts the Lynx AH.7 and Gazelle AH.1 claimed a reputable number of kills against enemy armoured vehicles.
It is probably fair to say that it was the Tornado GR.1 which attracted most attention, with the aircraft flying some of the most dangerous missions during the opening days of the conflict, tasked with destroying heavily defended Iraqi targets, often airfields, from low level and utilising the huge Hunting JP233 weapons system.
After early losses for the GR.1, albeit none directly related to the JP233 attacks, coupled with the realisation that the Iraqi Air Force posed no threat, the Tornados continued their attack missions at medium level and later with the assistance of Buccaneers, which laser designated targets. As we’ll see, these weren’t the only firsts they were forced to contend with.
“It was a huge privilege to command the detachment,” says Jerry Witts, “when the crisis started I was in Canada with my squadron and we saw American aircraft transiting through and the crews were wearing desert kit and we wondered what was going on!
“It all happened so quickly after that, really we didn’t have time to think too deeply about it all.”
But Jerry and his crews were soon on a steep learning curve.
“Our job at that time was sitting in Germany training to fight a Cold War which quite frankly was never going to happen; the Berlin Wall was already down by this time. When we saw Trabants driving past RAF Bruggen we knew we weren’t going to be fighting the Russians any time soon.
“We had never bombed from medium level, we’d never done co-operative laser designation, we’d never flown close formation sorties at night and we’d never even done air to air refuelling – so we had a lot to learn!”
So, we know that the people had to adapt hugely to the operations they were expected to carry out, but what about the aircraft itself?
“From an engineering perspective it was all new,” Les Hendry tells me. Les was 31 Sqn’s SEngO (Senior Engineering Officer) at RAF Bruggen and took control of the move to Dhahran.
“We got back from Canada, via a holiday in the Caribbean for me, and the first thing was to get the aircraft and aircrew up to readiness. It took about five weeks to get the aircraft modified and get the aircrew trained up in AAR and then we discovered in early December that 31 Sqn was going to be the lead squadron for an additional GR.1 detachment to Dhahran. I was due to retire from the Air Force but clearly I wasn’t going to let the squadron go to war without me so I extended my service.”
Les jetted off to Saudi for a recce and met with the Tornado F.3 squadron which was already in theatre. It took some horse-trading to actually work out where the aircraft would be situated and how it would all work once they’d arrived……
“We’d never even operated from a line before and our operations were entirely geared towards operating from dispersed HAS (Hardened Aircraft Shelter) sites. The F.3 detachment didn’t realise how much equipment we needed and some of their plans for locating us would have been totally unworkable, but when our gear finally arrived, all 31 Hercules loads of it, I was able to say ‘there you go – that’s why we need so much space’!”
This equipment included the means by which the JP233 was loaded on to the GR.1 which I was amazed to learn, was by hovercraft!
“Dhahran was a very open airfield and some of our kit, including the hovercraft, was designed to work on a lovely flat concrete surface – a HAS in other words. This meant that we did have a few difficulties but of course we only used them for the first two nights.”
Nearly 400 ground crew deployed to Dhahran and Les very much feels that everyone went out there quite prepared to do their jobs and get on with it.
“There were a few moments when you discovered that the colour of adrenalin is brown! The first Patriot launch for example, in response to an incoming Iraqi Scud missile, was a huge shock; they made an incredible noise and 27 Scuds were fired towards Dhahran during the course of the conflict.
“Launching the crews off on that first night was certainly interesting as well. By the time we’d loaded aircraft with JP233 and some with 1000lb bombs as a second option we just had to sit and wait as we hadn’t actually received a tasking. We basically loaded them up like that off our own backs. Eventually a signal was received and Jerry wanted it to be kept low key so, knowing the aircraft were all ready, we left it for a couple of hours and didn’t tell anyone.”
Closer to launch the armourers, for the first time ever I hasten to add, made the JP233s live and Les chuckles as he recalls the Flight Sergeant double checking the settings, him double checking the settings and then the aircrew double checking the settings!
“Jerry said goodbye and told me he’d see me in four hours.
“Waiting for them to come back was hard work. We’d already lost one jet during the work-up and we had one jet abort and return early on that first night, but I don’t think I was under any illusions about the danger they were going in to so I just tried to keep busy. Pacing basically!”
That first night is one that no one will ever forget of course. This was the first conflict which was essentially played out live on television and, as the Tomahawk cruise missiles and F-117s attacked targets in and around Baghdad, millions watching were able to see events unfold in front of their very eyes.
“I thought the jet was fabulous,” says Jerry. “When we looked at the operating data manual for the performance curves ahead of that sortie on the first night we found we were pretty well off the graph. Given the higher desert temperatures etc we were above the maximum all-up-weight with those extra large tanks and two JP233s – all we could do was hope it would be okay and it was. The weights were cosmic but fortunately it was a long runway!
“It was scary, but it was mostly fear of failing, that was the main thing. Having come so far you didn’t want to let anyone down, you really wanted to make it all happen.
“When we got airborne and headed towards the target the number of aircraft joining the flow around us was incredible, lights everywhere, hundreds of them. It was like a scene from Battlestar Gallactica and at least we knew that we weren’t alone! There were loads of formations behind tankers and such like – the scale of it was immense.”
Once the Tornados had tanked, in extremely bumpy conditions incidentally, they were, in Jerry’s words “alone” and headed down to low level and on in to Iraq. If they were in any doubt as to what might occur those doubts were soon expelled when the RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) came to life with indications of MiG-29s and SAM (Surface to Air Missile) sites in their vicinity.
“It wasn’t interesting any more – it was scary! Some of them were mis-idents but still, scary stuff. You could see explosions in the distance and there was Triple-A (Anti Aircraft Artillery) around but generally we had a reasonably quiet run in to the target which was an airfield in the Eastern part of Iraq and the actual attack went brilliantly.”
This despite the fact that it would be the crew’s very first experience of dropping the JP233 – ever.
“We had no idea what it was going to be like really, we’d only had one trip with a dummy unit which was to get us used to flying the aircraft with it loaded. We were in TFR (Terrain Following Radar) mode when it came off over the target and well, it was like driving a car over a train track or something like that and when the empty canisters came off there was an almighty thump and the TFR went in to a safety loop pull-up, it completely destabilised the jet and the system commanded a 4 or 5G climb – the last thing we needed over an Iraqi airfield!”
Jerry was forced to bypass the system to try and get the aircraft down to low level, the pull-up leaving them in a very vulnerable position. “Eventually I stopped hyperventilating and, as someone said later, we bravely ran away as quickly as we could!”
That wasn’t the end of it though for the inertial navigation system on Jerry’s jet was playing up, leaving him and his navigator a little lost as they headed back into Saudi airspace, unable to locate either the three other GR.1s from their formation, or indeed their tanker.
“We didn’t think we were actually too far away from them so one of the guys made a very sensible suggestion and, having climbed up to high level, fired an infra red decoy which essentially went off like a massive firework.
“We saw it and, pretty low on fuel by this time, headed towards them as quickly as possible. I think we were doing about a 1000mph when we plugged in to the tanker!” The rest of that first sortie was uneventful and the jets made their way back to Dhahran and landed at dawn.
“Jerry had the biggest grin on his face,” says Les, “not because he’d gone and bombed something I don’t think, but because he was back.”
“Getting back was obviously a brilliant feeling,” confirms Jerry. “We couldn’t believe what we’d done and although no one from our base had been lost that night we were quickly aware that others had so no one was in doubt as to how serious it all was.”
Jerry remains unsure whether the tactics would have changed regardless of the losses that occurred but does maintain that the GR.1s would have continued at low level should that have been required. The main factor was the fact that the Iraqi Air Force wasn’t deemed to be a threat and that quite simply there was little point continuing at low level when it really wasn’t necessary.
“There was quite a cathartic ‘howgozit’ meeting held by the RAF air commander with all the GR.1 detachment commanders and some tactical boffins who had come out from the UK to suggest some different ways of doing things. They clearly had never been shot at themselves and fortunately we were allowed to continue as we saw fit. That was a memorable meeting I can tell you!”
So, at this point, the GR.1s began moving up to medium level and TIALD pods were used for the first time even though there were only two of them in existence – christened Sharon and Tracy! The two TIALD (Thermal Imaging Airborne Laser Designator) pods were sent to the GR.1s at Tabuk and then the Buccaneer entered the fray, based at Muhharraq and carrying the Pave Spike designator pod. Both would be able to work alongside Tornados carrying Paveway LGBs (laser guided bombs).
“Remember, there was no internet and we couldn’t brief face to face although we weren’t actually based too far away from the others. Essentially we had to make it up as we went along and anything secret that needed to come over was sent in a locked metal box on a HS.125 or via a secure fax machine!”
Eventually standard operating procedures were developed and, while Jerry admits that it did take a few attempts to get things right, his own previous experience of flying the Buccaneer in the laser designation role undoubtedly helped and what followed was the systematic deconstruction of Iraqi targets via LGB and at medium level.
“The rule book to some extent went out the window,” admits Les. “I remember one night we had an eight-ship launching with no spares and one jet called up to say that their chaff and flare dispenser wasn’t working which was a no-taxi issue. The crew kept one engine running, all the electrics were live and we got them to put their hands on their heads and changed it there and then. I would probably have been court-martialled if anything had gone wrong but you just had to get on with it.
“Most of all I think of the camaraderie, it was superb. We had a small gathering 10 years ago but I spoke to Jerry and told him that we should have a proper get together for the 20th and here we are. It was the first time Tornado went to war, the first time we operated from a line and the largest Tornado deployment ever.”
“When I reflect on what we did, I can see that it was a huge privilege to actually be given the chance to do what we had spent so many years training for,” says Jerry. “War isn’t a good thing and let’s face it when you start bombing then you know that something has failed fairly spectacularly, but it seemed like such a clean cut case and we were very well supported in everything that we were asked to do.
“We certainly never lost our sense of humour when we were out there and my one abiding memory is that all day every day, on the television in the background was Blackadder Goes Forth! Some of the aircraft were named along those lines and that kind of humour was very helpful. We laughed and we cried but most of all I remember laughing.”
Gareth Stringer would once again like to thank Jerry Witts and Les Hendry for generously giving so much of their time at such an important event and for permission to re-post this feature in 2019 to help us say ‘Farewell Tornado’.
Part 2 is coming soon.