Australian engineer served in Gulf War

Name: Anthony McWatters
Date: 1991
Unit: 1st British Armoured Division
Location: Kuwait, Iraq

In 1989-90, Lieutenant Anthony McWatters of the Australian Army was on a training post with the British Army in Germany when he went on active service on operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the 1991 Gulf War

As a member of the 4th Armoured Brigade of the 1st British Armoured Division, he served in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait during the ground war that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Anthony McWatters is currently serving as an Army major in Australian Defence Headquarters in Canberra.

Lt McWatters kept extensive notes during his tour of duty in the Gulf. The original version of the following article was written for a professional military audience immediately after his intense and rewarding military experience, so is positive about the experience of war. It does not address the implications of the incredible destruction and trauma unleashed on the enemy or the human costs paid by allied servicemen and their families - costs, he believes, which will continue to be paid for many years to come.

I was offered an appointment as second in command of an Armoured Workshop Forward Repair Group (FRG) recently warned for deployment as part of Operation Granby. I took up the post on 1 December 1990 with only three weeks to go before scheduled return to Australia from a 14-month aeronautical engineering training posting with the British Army in UK and Germany. My wife Elizabeth and our two young children, Emily and Thomas, quickly adapted to the situation and decided to remain in Germany until my return from the Middle East. They were settled into the British Army community there and we knew they would be looked after by the extensive family support organisations that were quickly set up by the Army. The community spirit and comradeship was strong as the whole of the British Army of the Rhine was working very hard at getting the best possible force to the Gulf.

The 11 Armoured Workshop REME was based at Soest in the Federal Republic of Germany in the north west of the country. The unit was detached from the 3rd (UK) Armoured Division and placed under command of 1st (UK) Armoured Division for Operation Granby. Main Repair Group (MRG) 11 with two other MRGs was to be tasked and employed as a Divisional asset. FRG 6 was placed under command of 4th Armoured Brigade as an independent sub unit and grouped with the Brigade Admin Area (BAA) units. The role was to provide second line repair and recovery support to the Brigade as directed by the Brigade SO2 EME (BEME). The priority was the Challenger tanks and Warrior Infantry Fighting Vehicles of the Brigade's battle groups that were to be formed for operations predominantly from the following units:

  • 14th/20th Regiment The Kings Hussars - (Challenger Tank Regiment)
  • 1st Battalion The Royal Scots Regiment - (Warrior Armoured Infantry Battalion)
  • 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (Warrior Armoured Infantry Battalion)
The FRG main body flew from Hanover on a chartered Tristar airliner into Dahran, Saudi Arabia, on 6 January 1991. A 100 km bus trip in old double deckers with singing Arab drivers, put us in the AlJubail port area (Force Maintenance Area) at about 0200 hrs the next morning.

Administration and registration in theatre with field records office took an hour or so and then it was off to Black Adder Camp, a tented staging camp on the outskirts. Acclimatisation, training, administration and meeting the equipment at the docks, were now the priorities.

Setting up liaison with headquarters and units, as well as getting to know the personalities at Divisional and Brigade HQs (especially BEME and his staff of three artificers and two clerks/operators), was important. The 4th Armoured Brigade was already exercising in the desert so the pressure was on to get FRG 6 out to support the training.

The scale of the military build up was staggering. Every type of military hardware imaginable was being moved through the port area. Some entrepreneurial members of the unit soon had us supplied with some of the niceties of the American supply system through the 'swap' program. The famous US 'camp cot' stretchers were well sought after. An Australian Army slouch hat was worth nearly anything you wanted!

On 13 January, the FRG deployed 100 km north to Devil Dog Dragoon Range and training area to begin supporting the battle groups firing, battle runs and brigade exercise - of course it rained heavily that day!

The next two weeks were spent at a hectic pace in the training area. Being near to the coast, there were many areas of soft sabkah (low crusty salt pans) and the recovery crews were kept extremely busy extricating vehicles from severe bog situations. Power packs, engines, major assembly and electronic and optical equipment failures kept Forward Repair Teams (FRT) and optronics section heavily tasked around the clock.

When the allied air offensive started on 17 January, it was initially a case of NBC (Nuclear, biological and chemical) suits on/NBC suits off! Chemical agent warning and reporting procedures were sorted out after the initial first nerves and the training and tasking continued. The Iraqi Scud-B missiles were aimed at AlJubail, Dahran and Rhyad over 100km to the south and so had little effect on our day to day activities in 4th Armoured Brigade.

On 26 January, 4th Armoured Brigade moved north to Divisional concentration area Keyes about 60 km south of the Saudi/Kuwait border and east of the Wadi AlBatin. A new phase of training and preparations was conducted from Keyes. Two Divisional exercises/rehearsals were conducted and plans for the final ground offensive against the Iraqi forces were developed.

Tactical exercises without troops and command post exercises at Divisional level formed part of this planning and training. Activities in and from Keyes also served as part of an extensive deception plan; although at the time we knew nothing of that.

On 14 February, the Division began a rehearsal and movement exercise advancing some 120km to arrive, three days later, in concentration area Ray to the west of Keyes and some 60 km to the south of the Saudi/Iraq border to the west of the Wadi AlBatin. Things were getting much slicker now.

The serious problems of mass confusion encountered in the earlier exercises, particularly in the obstacle breach phases, were being ironed out. Everyone was a lot more confident. In FRG 6, FRT and recovery crew commanders were now proficient in independent desert navigation and operating with the battle groups of the Brigade. Personalities throughout the organisation had learnt to work as a team. Final training and preparations were conducted in Ray and battle procedure carried out. Of course this didn't mean too much of a break for any REME soldier as the equipment had to be in the best possible condition for the coming operation.

G Day was 24 February 1991. The 1st US Infantry Division crossed into Iraq with air and artillery support from the British. Lanes were cleared through the Iraqi defences and an area secured to the north of the minefield/obstacle areas.

The concept for the British operation was a move through the breach lanes, passage of lines through the US positions, move into brigade FUPs and then attack objectives in Iraq and Kuwait as allocated. A reconstitution phase was planned and prepared for after the initial battles with subsequent operations as required. REME workload in the reconstitution was expected to be high.

A lot of work was done and resources allocated at corps and divisional level to anticipate and be ready for the reorganisation and regeneration that would be rapidly required before subsequent combat operations. Little used words from our RAEME doctrine like reclamation, salvage, battlefield clearance and equipment denial/destruction became the everyday reality for many of the REME members of 1 (UK) Armoured Division as they prepared for the ground war.

Immediately prior to crossing the breach into Iraq, FRG 6 detached some elements (FRT and recovery ARRVs) to battle groups for the first phase and some further ARRVs were detached to provide brigaded recovery support to the breach operation. The FRG moved as a brigade unit as directed by BEME.

Equipment casualties were recovered forward to designated Equipment Collection Point (ECP) grid references where inspection and repair (if appropriate) was effected. The initial successes of 4 Brigade and its rapid advance into Iraq from objective to objective meant a constant change in situation for the FRG.

The longest period in an ECP was approximately six hours so tasks such as power pack or final drive replacement had to be quick. Some resupply of major assemblies and power packs to FRG 6 was conducted by Royal Air Force Chinook and Royal Navy Sea King helicopters. Support helicopters proved their worth to the land forces in many ways during the conflict.

After the first objectives were achieved, detached elements returned to the FRG. Movement during the advance was from ECP to ECP independent of the BAA; at times well forward of BAA and others well behind. This independent movement across the battlefield was not carried out without problems and inadvertent involvement in combat actions.

Communications with Brigade HQ were not always reliable and information on routes and by-passed enemy positions was unclear. Huge groups of prisoners guarded by one or two men with small arms (and sometimes unguarded) on occasion decided 'why not go back to our trenches and weapons'. Small arms and support weapon fire was common well behind the fighting echelons and FRG 6 was involved in some incidents.

Crews of disabled British tanks and AFVs being towed behind ARRVs were extremely keen to get into the battle again and on more than one occasion, fired at targets of opportunity while under tow! Mines and unexploded bomblets were a constant hazard especially at night or during sandstorms or rain (both of which were prevalent). Severe damage was caused to many B vehicles and pieces of track blown off A vehicles when they struck some of these hazards. FRG members were involved in POW handling and administering first aid to the wounded.

The clear priority from the Brigade perspective was to ensure FRG 6 was keeping up with the battle groups and recovering equipment casualties forward. ECPs tended to be on or near recently cleared enemy positions, which added another dimension to the adventure. The men took every available opportunity to explore and gather souvenirs. This practice was dangerous and many soldiers were lucky, and shocked, at what they found.

The advance turned eastward towards Kuwait. Intelligence and situation reports were occasional but everyone knew that things were going far better than anyone had anticipated. On 27 February the advance halted for a few hours before the final advance into Kuwait was ordered.

This became a rapid charge towards Kuwait City. FRG 6 moved ahead of the BAA establishing ECPs and sweeping the route for equipment casualties about the axis of advance. Late on the night of 28 February, orders regarding the cease-fire were received. FRG 6 moved into the BAA about 30 km to the north west of Kuwait City. That night and the next day the entire British Division moved through to establish itself to the north and west of the city.

That evening most grabbed their first real sleep for four days and were thankful things had gone so well. FRG 6 had sustained no personnel casualties and the most intensive and exciting period in just about everyone's life had finished. The carnage and destruction dealt to the Iraqis was sobering.

In our brigade two Warrior AFVs from 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers had been hit by friendly air attack resulting in nine fatalities. There were many other fatalities, wounds and close calls in British and all coalition force formations but they were small in number compared to the destruction dealt to the enemy.

FRG 6 had established 16 ECPs since arriving in Saudi Arabia and had completed in the vicinity of 130 power pack/engine replacements, 60 major assembly replacements and 54 logged recovery tasks. Now they were in Kuwait and there was more to follow!

POST OPERATIONS - BATTLEFIELD CLEARANCE

4th Armoured Brigade was now adopting a defensive posture awaiting further developments. Priority was given to getting brigade equipment back up to pre-operational condition. Casualty were initially slow. It seemed that everyone was so happy about the success of the operation that they ignored the state of their equipment for a while. Slowly FRT workload increased again. As the days went by the possibility of a permanent cease-fire became reality and preparations for redeployment to Germany were begun.

An expedition back to Iraq and western Kuwait was arranged to clear the battlefield of useable military hardware. Brigades were responsible for their own areas and recovered equipment was eventually pooled under Divisional control. Battlefield clearance is a hazardous and disturbing undertaking and one which, for practical reasons, is not often practiced well during peacetime training exercises.

For the next three weeks the men of FRG 6 (and most other REME units in the division) had a constant job towing, dragging, repairing and driving enemy equipment. All varieties of serviceable Soviet, Chinese and European hardware including tanks, APCs, artillery pieces and air defence weapons, B vehicles and plant equipment were collected. Small arms and support weapons collected by individuals during and after the conflict had to be surrendered.

Teams of Royal Engineers and REME were formed to ensure that all equipment was safe prior to recovery. Booby traps were encountered in some areas and the sights and smells of the desert battlefield will remain vivid in the memories of the soldiers who participated, for the rest of their lives.

Enemy Equipment Collection Points (EECP) were established and grew into massive 'boneyards'. Only undamaged equipment was recovered. The majority had been destroyed during the war and no doubt still litters the desert. The novelty of playing with such an assortment of equipment quickly wore off and many a recovery mechanic was observed tearing his hair out when a T55 tank crashed into the back of his ARRV because rigid towing bars would not fit and chains were the only method of towing.

Serviceable captured vehicles were commissioned in many cases to supplement requirements in the post operation phase. BEME 4 Brigade acquired an air-conditioned Mercedes armoured command vehicle as his personal 'run-around' and Commander 4 Brigade posted two T55 tanks outside his headquarters as 'guards'. The intent was that all captured equipment would be recovered to Saudi Arabia but its eventual plight is unknown. Some units managed to ship 'war booty' trophies back to Germany or UK, but no doubt the majority is still in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

After surviving the Gulf War, Lt McWatters was involved in a serious road accident in which four people, including himself, were admitted to a Norwegian Field Medical Hospital, one Land Rover and an 8-ton fuel truck were destroyed and two other trucks damaged.

"Probably the biggest single killer throughout the war period, as usual, was road accidents," he wrote later. "We were lucky to get away with it. I am ever grateful to the British and US Army fire and crash rescue experts who kept me breathing and extricated me alive from the wreckage of my Land Rover by adept and rapid winching, prying and cutting with some very handy crash rescue equipment."

The 11th Armoured Workshop REME was redeployed to Germany three months after it arrived in the Kuwait theatre of operations.

"I am grateful to the officers and soldiers I served with for their hard work, loyal support and friendship; especially Captain Mark Munday, Warrant Officer Mick Fishwick MBE, the men of FRG 6, and officers and men of MRG 11. I owe the opportunity of active service with the British Army to the efforts and risks taken by many in the Australian and British Defence organisations and governments. Major Alistair Macpherson, the Officer Commanding 11 Armoured Workshop REME, welcomed me into his unit and gave me a job on operations that would have been the envy of any junior army officer. Colonel Colin Brewer (Army Adviser Australian Defence Staff in London), Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Figures (Commander Maintenance 3rd British Armoured Division), Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fogden (Commanding Officer 3 Regiment Army Air Corps), and their respective staffs, supported me and fought for my privilege. My family was steadfast in its support of me and very proud of all the Australian contributions to the Gulf War 1991.

Forward repair and recovery of armoured vehicles was a high priority for the allied coalition force commanders as they planned and conducted manoeuvre warfare in the desert. 11 Armoured Workshop was an important part of a much larger team effort that worked exceptionally well due to the hard work and competence of many people. Three members of FRG 6 were recommended for operational honours and awards. Warrant Officer Class II (Artificer Quartermaster Sergeant) Mick Fishwick was appointed as a Member of the British Empire for his tireless efforts and leadership during Operation Granby. We were so fortunate to have had Mick in FRG 6 and all of its members will always be proud of his service and fine example."

The material for this article was supplied by Major Anthony McWatters of the Australian Capital Territory


Last updated: 4 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Australian engineer served in Gulf War, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 3 December 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/australian-engineer-served-gulf-war
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