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Desert Storm (8) - the Halt on the Road to Baghdad

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30 years ago, the Coalition had eventually launched its ground offensive to expel Saddam from Kuwait, having used the many months of planning-time well.  The huge and (in its better units) capable Iraqi army was well dug-in, and as ever, had devised some genuinely innovative defensive tactics.  Particularly creative and noteworthy was the digging of a system of forward trenches fed directly by Kuwaiti oil wells: at the opening of a valve, the trenches could be flooded with crude oil and set on fire, creating a genuine obstacle as well as a tremendous smokescreen, that staple of tactics since WW2.

But notwithstanding the solid core of battle-hardened units, stiffened by the highly committed Republican Guard, much of their army was bulked out by raw, ill-trained conscripts of low morale.  The whole force had been degraded by weeks of exceptionally vigorous air attack.  And everything out in the open was fully reconnoitred in detail, with nowhere to hide.  The Coalition had a plan for everything they saw in front of them.  In “the biggest tank battle since Kursk”, wherever the front line Iraqi units were not swiftly and remorselessly crushed (in some cases, literally) by the well-planned ground offensive, they typically showed a willingness to fight only for an hour or so, then surrender.  The number of willing prisoners, and speed of overall enemy collapse, surprised the already confident Coalition forces, who nonetheless had the leadership and logistical wherewithal to capitalise on it and steam ahead.  You can can easily find plenty of fulsome further reading material online.

It’s pretty well known that massacres happen during rout, when an army turns its back and flees.  This is exactly what occurred at the end.  The Iraqi rabble that evacuated its newly-annexed Kuwaiti territory and fled north to Basra was caught in the open and, for a few hours, mercilessly strafed.  The result was predictable carnage and I’m choosing not to rehash some of the truly gruesome “Highway of Death” photos that adorned newspaper front pages the next day.  (Wiki doesn’t, either.)

We’ve discussed before the vulnerability to air attack of vehicle columns, not least in the context of equally famous photos of what the Israelis periodically used to inflict, particularly on the Syrians who must be particularly bad at convoy discipline.  To be fair, it’s not easy at the best of times and in the desert, pretty damned impossible.  The only thing to do is break the convoy into packets of 5-6 vehicles, which ain’t gonna happen in a rout.  The Germans in WW2 were the acknowledged masters of vehicular discipline in conditions of zero air cover, particularly in Italy: but (a) Italy isn’t quite such hopeless terrain for the job, and (b) which other army has ever had the discipline of the Germans?  (I was once leading a packet that was part of a gigantic RAF convoy on exercise in Germany, supposedly being conducted under wartime “tactical” conditions, and the whole thing was an hilarious farce – subject of a story for another day.)

A day later, President Bush (Snr) called a halt to the Coalition advance into Iraq, a long way short of Baghdad.  Some say the carnage played a part in his decision.  There was much hoo-hah about this:  why didn’t he allow Schwarzkopf to finish the job?  Or at least spend another 24 hours degrading Saddam’s military capabilities still further?   (Given that politically this hoo-hah may be said to have led to Bush Jnr’s crazy essay at Gulf War 2 the following decade, it’s a fair question, and an interesting, multi-dimensional strategic counterfactual to mull over.)  

But Schwarzkopf, true soldier-of-a-democracy that he was, obeyed the political instruction to halt without demur.  All credit – massive credit – to both men, I always say.  For months, Bush had stayed out of real-time military meddling, which many another president wouldn’t have been able to resist.  (Hitler never could.)  But Bush was always on the ball: and at the end, he was crisply decisive.  The military respected the ultimate political authority.  That’s the way the bargain should work in a democracy at war.

We’ll look at what hapened next in another episode.  



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