The British War in Iraq 2003 Part I

Alliances are compromises in self-interest. Some alliances are less self-interested than others. The Anglo-American alliance is one of the least. The United States and the United Kingdom have been allies since 1941 and, with understandable ups and downs, have been good friends ever since. It is a unique friendship. In 1941 Britain, battered by Hitler’s and Hirohito’s attacks as it was, still thought of itself as a great world power. Sixty years later, with America the only superpower, that illusion has withered. The British now realistically regard themselves as a power of the second rank. Nevertheless they take, with reason, great pride in the competence of their armed forces. The Royal Navy, the army, the Royal Air Force, greatly diminished in size though they are since they struggled to victory in the Second World War, remain military instruments of exceptional quality. They have retained the ability to motivate the young men and women they recruit to the highest level of achievement, with results that are admired by the nation and its friends and feared by its foes. Wherever they are deployed, and for whatever purpose, British forces succeed in their mission. In none of the dozens of small wars they have fought since 1945 have they been defeated. To many of the countries in which they have operated they have brought the benefits of restored peace and security.

The United States military has come to appreciate the qualities of the British forces with growing enthusiasm ever since the termination of the Cold War in 1989. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, which inaugurated the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client Warsaw Pact states, America was able to count on many allies in the Western world. As the Soviet threat fell away, most of its Cold War allies proved fair-weather friends. Self-interest reasserted its influence. The financial costs of sustaining forces of comparable quality to those of the United States seemed a burden better shed. It became more alluring to pursue policies that diverged from those that had assured collective security before the spectre of Communism. In 1990, when the United States called for a coalition to oppose Saddam Hussein’s illegal annexation of Kuwait, most of its Cold War allies, and some newfound Middle Eastern friends, responded. When in the crisis of 2002–03, America again appealed for support against Saddam, the ranks suddenly thinned. At the roll-call before hostilities commenced, only three countries came up to the mark: Australia, Britain and Poland, though it made a token contribution. The Australians, with skeletal armed resources, could only offer special operations troops and some ships and air support. The British, however, responded as they had done in 1990. They offered, besides sizeable naval and air components, a whole division of ground troops. They had done the same in 1990 but then that British contribution was matched by France and Syria, outmatched by Egypt and dwarfed by the Americans, who provided no less than eight divisions. In 2003 Britain’s division amounted to almost a third of the coalition force deployed and was appreciated by the Americans as much for the military contribution it represented as for the moral commitment its presence displayed.

The division had the same title as in 1990–91, the 1st (UK) Armoured Division, but was an unorthodox formation, the result of its having been hastily improvised from units in Britain and Germany. Its core was 7 Armoured Brigade, the ‘Desert Rats’, which had fought in the First Gulf War, but the rest of the division was not made up of other armoured and mechanized brigades, as would have been normal, but of two elements of Britain’s rapid reaction forces, 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade. The air assault brigade consisted of 1st and 3rd Battalions the Parachute Regiment and the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment; its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Collins, would become famous by making an inspiring eve-of-battle speech to his troops which President George W. Bush had displayed on a wall in the Oval Office at the White House. The air assault brigade’s artillery was provided by 7 Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, and armoured reconnaissance by the Household Cavalry Regiment. The commando brigade comprised only two of its normal three units, 40 and 42 Royal Marine Commando; 45 Commando was not deployed. A Commando is equivalent in size to an infantry battalion but on lighter scales of equipment and without tracked transport. The Commando brigade had, however, brought its organic gunner unit, 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery.

The 1st (UK) Armoured Division also had attached to it for Operation Iraqi Freedom (Operation Telic to the British, who avoid descriptive codenames) parts of 20 Armoured Brigade and a number of individual units, allotted as required. Whilst the Desert Rats officially comprised the 1st Battalion Black Watch, the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the last two tank regiments, also at the division’s disposal were the Queen’s Dragoon Guards and the Queen’s Royal Lancers, also armour, and four infantry battalions, 1st Light Infantry, 1st Black Watch, 1st Irish Guards and 1st Duke of Wellington’s Regiment; the latter was brigaded with the Commandos for the assault on the Fao peninsula. Additional batteries of Royal Artillery provided fire support and the Royal Engineers the essential combat engineering skills. Signals, transport and maintenance were provided by the Royal Corps of Signals, Royal Logistic Corps and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

American army regiments, formerly transient organizations, have in recent years deliberately sought to create permanent identities for themselves, the high command having recognized that tradition is an important factor in fostering regimental morale. It seems to work. The parachute regiments in the 500 series, for example, take enormous pride in their histories, which began in Normandy, and they remain among the most effective and self-confident in the US infantry. The US Marine Corps has preserved its long-established regiments as a matter of policy, with highly beneficial effects on Corps morale. In both cases the Americans have been influenced by British example. British regiments glory in their antiquity: the oldest, the Royal Scots, dates from the early seventeenth century and is older than many of the key institutions of British public life, such as the Bank of England and, indeed, the reigning House of Windsor. By some mysterious chemistry, antiquity does not condemn regiments to senility, but seems to work as an elixir of youth. The long histories of the more senior seem to challenge fresh generations of soldiers to match the standards of courage set by their predecessors in battles long ago and challenge younger regiments to emulate them. Thus to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards the regiment’s capture of an eagle standard from the enemy at Waterloo is a triumph which demands repetition; while the Irish Guards, a comparatively young regiment founded only in 1900, is constantly in competition with the Grenadiers, the personal guard established by Charles II at his restoration to the throne in 1660.

When the British go to war, therefore, commanders do not waste nervous energy in concern over their soldiers’ morale. They know that, given efficient subordinates and services of supply, they will fight with spirit and effect. The regimental system ensures that. High morale and self-confidence describe the mood of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division as it deployed for the second time in little over a decade to the head of the Gulf in 2003. The Gulf is one of the British army’s historic campaigning areas. It had fought and won an eventually victorious, if difficult, campaign there in the First World War. It had put down a pro-Nazi rising in Iraq in 1941. It had fought again victoriously in 1991, beside its American comrades-in-arms, in whom it had confidence. It expected that the new campaign would have the same outcome.

General Franks allotted the British a special and separate task from that of his American formations. He correctly recognized that the American divisions, with their unmatched capacity to cover ground and to resupply themselves while doing so, were the best suited to make the long-distance strike up the central valley to Baghdad. He equally recognized that the British, with their long experience of pacification operations and their historic connections with the Gulf region, would be better suited to tackling the problem of taking and holding Basra. Iraq’s second city had never fully acceded to the Ba’athist system. Its Shi’a population resented control by the Sunni of the central region. On the other hand, through its commercial association with the British, which went back as far as the days of the East India Company, it was used to their presence as traders and, indirectly, to their political and naval influence over the Gulf waters at their doorstep. General Franks’s calculation that the British were the best qualified of the contingents at his disposal to deploy to the Shatt el-Arab and Basra was therefore well judged.

The attack in the south was nevertheless to begin as a joint American-British operation. The decision was taken in December 2002, while the attack on Iraq was in the planning stage, to assign a US Marine Corps formation, 15 Marine Expeditionary Unit (15 MEU), to 3 Commando Brigade. Essentially a strong infantry battalion, with attached helicopter squadrons, 15 MEU combined with the commanders to land on the Fao peninsula and seize the oil facilities, while other elements of the force, reinforced by US Navy SEAL units, landed on the oil platforms twenty-five miles offshore, the points where oil pumped from the land was transferred to tankers. At the outset 40 Commando succeeded in securing two key oil installations near the town of al Fao. When its position was judged precarious, it was reinforced by 42 Commando, flown in by USMC helicopters. The operation was supported by fire from batteries of the Royal Artillery and ships offshore, the frigates Marlborough and Chatham; another Royal Navy frigate and one from the Royal Australian Navy were also involved. After securing the wellhead facilities, 3 Commando Brigade and 15 MEU proceeded up the Fao peninsula, to take Umm Qasr and Zubayr. Coalition casualties incurred in the whole operation were light, while at least thirty Iraqis were killed and 230 made prisoner.

The American Marines commented in an after-action account on the excellence of the co-operation arranged with the British. The two corps have a long association, train together frequently and cross-post personnel to each other as a matter of course. For once it is not a cliché of alliance-speak to say that they enjoy each other’s company. It is easy for them to do so, for they are similar in ethos and even in appearance; ceremonially, in dark-blue uniforms and white-topped caps, they are almost indistinguishable and in recent years the Royal Marines have adopted a semi-formal dress, greenish in hue, which closely resembles its USMC equivalent. Their rank structure, based on the primacy of long-serving senior sergeants, is similar and so is the training, with this difference: all Royal Marines have to complete the gruelling commando course, which commands high prestige in USMC eyes. The commando green beret, gained also by US Marines who successfully survive the course, is highly prized and is eagerly sought in barter for USMC kit when the two corps operate together.

The commander of the 15 MEU reported after the joint operation that co-operation had gone well from the start, when it had passed through the berm, the military sand bank on the Iraqi border, via gaps blown in it by the commando squadron of Royal Engineers, a joint task they had rehearsed together. The USMC reconnaissance unit was supported in the preliminary stage by fire called down from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery. Once inside Iraq, 15 MEU was opposed by the 45th Brigade of the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division but it soon melted away as its conscript soldiers deserted the ranks. Their place was taken by fighters in civilian clothes who waved white flags but continued to deliver sniper fire without surrendering. The marines pressed on though, to seize Umm Qasr and then, after ninety-six hours of combat with the enemy, to take the Iraqi naval base of Zubayr where they were relieved by British commandos. They then departed the battle zone by helicopter to join 1st Marine Expeditionary Force fighting on the road to Baghdad.

The British marines, in their own report, paid generous tribute to the assistance received from their American comrades. The Americans provided helicopter transport, which the British lacked, as well as a great deal of electronic reconnaissance and surveillance, which the British also lacked the equipment to acquire. The information ‘philosophy’ of the two corps is, moreover, strikingly different. The British operate a traditional ‘top-down’ network, by which superiors inform subordinates of what is judged necessary. The Americans operate a ‘flat’ system, through a commonly available website to which all who have clearance have access. As the two corps are likely to co-operate more rather than less in the future a switch to the American system seems eventually essential. It will, however, need expensive re-equipment, a programme from which the Ministry of Defence will shrink, since it has only just completed a costly programme of radio purchase; it will also be important, as the Americans themselves recognize, to avoid increasing reliance on a system that threatens information overload. The British, in American eyes, work with too little information, the Americans, in the British view, with too much. No mastermind has yet suggested an effective compromise.

With the completion of the operation to secure the Fao peninsula, and the departure of 15 MEU to join the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, taking with it G Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, which continued to provide it with fire support as far north as Nasiriyah, the thrust of the campaign in the south changed focus. Important results had been achieved. The Fao peninsula, the mouth of the Shatt el-Arab and the platforms and terminals at the head of the Gulf were essential to the export and distribution of oil from Iraq’s southern fields. They had also been highly vulnerable to sabotage by Saddam’s officials. In the event, only a handful had been set alight, while the essential pumping and separation plants had been captured undamaged. The Fao operation had been an outright success. The task following was to repeat it in Basra, which had a population of one million people.

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