Australians involved in the Gulf War 1990 to 1991
A coalition of 35 nations, led by the United States (US), participated in the Gulf War against Iraq from 2 August 1990 to 28 February 1991. The conflict is sometimes called the 'Persian Gulf War' or 'Gulf War 1'.
The war occurred in 2 parts. US President George Bush ordered the organisation of Operation Desert Shield on 7 August 1990 in response to Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait on 2 August. From then until 17 January 1991, this phase included coalition operations during the buildup of troops in and around Saudi Arabia. The Gulf War Air Campaign, codenamed Operation Desert Storm, went from 17 January to 28 February 1991 and is sometimes called the '1991 Bombing of Iraq'. It included ground operations that began on 24 February when coalition troops crossed into Kuwait.
Over 1800 Australian Defence Force personnel served in the Gulf War. The Australian naval contribution comprised 3 frigates, a guided-missile destroyer, 2 supply ships and a team of Naval Clearance Divers. The Australian Army and the Royal Australia Air Force (RAAF) made smaller contributions.
Some 100,000 Iraqis and fewer than 200 coalition personnel died in the conflict. There were no Australian casualties.
About the conflict
Iraq invaded its oil-rich southern neighbour, Kuwait, on 2 August 1990. The United Nations (UN) Security Council imposed comprehensive economic sanctions 4 days later. It called on member states to ban all trade with Iraq and Kuwait. The Australian Government was quick to condemn the invasion and had imposed sanctions shortly before the UN's call.
On 10 August, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that Australia would help to enforce the embargo. Three naval vessels would join a US-led multinational force being assembled in the Persian Gulf to create a maritime blockade.
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) selected for deployment:
- the frigates HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Darwin, each with 2 helicopters
- the supply ship HMAS Success, with one helicopter
- two 10-person surgical teams to serve aboard the US hospital ship USNS Comfort
Elements of the Australian Army's 16th Air Defence Regiment served with HMAS Success, which had no air defence capability of its own.
Australia's was a limited commitment but the Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Gration, said later on:
It was a force that could make a real and realistic contribution.
Duties of sailors who served
Less than 1 month after leaving Australia, the RAN frigates joined the Maritime Interception Force (MIF). The MIF was a 17-nation naval force engaged in intercepting merchant ships believed to be sailing to or from Iraq.
The main tasks for Australian sailors were:
- issuing warnings
- interrogating the crews of ships they intercepted
- boarding intercepted vessels, later in the war, by boat or fast-roping from helicopters
HMAS Success made regular voyages to replenish the Australian and other coalition vessels. The supply ship carried some 8000t of supplies during the war. When its deployment ended, HMAS Success was replaced by HMAS Westralia.
HMAS Westralia reached the Middle East on Australia Day 1991. The 7 female members of Westralia's crew became the first women in the RAN to deploy overseas on frontline service.
Although facing overwhelming international opposition, including the vast military might of the US, Iraq's leadership remained unyielding. In September, the Iraqis announced that:
The attempts of those who wish to restore the situation before August 2, are impractical and futile.
In mid-September, Iraqi troops opened the border between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and some 6000 Kuwaitis took the chance to escape. In Australia, the press carried the story of a businessman who joined the fleeing throng. He described the situation in Kuwait as:
intolerable, with Iraqi troops ransacking houses and shooting young men suspected of being Kuwaiti resistance fighters.
In October, when HMAS Adelaide fired warning shots across the bow of an Iraqi cargo ship, the ship's captain declared them to be:
the first shots in anger by an Australian warship using its main gun armament since the Vietnam War.
New naval deployments
HMA Ships Adelaide and Darwin remained in the region until early December 1990. The 2 ships were replaced by:
- guided-missile frigate HMAS Sydney
- guided-missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane
The Australian ships became part of a multinational fleet of some 90 warships and more than 100 logistic, amphibious and smaller craft. It was the largest concentration of warships since the end of World War II. An Australian officer who served on USS Blue Ridge recalled:
it was just huge … an amazing collection of ships and firepower … impressive to look at … amazingly complex to coordinate.
Build-up of ground forces
Meanwhile, the build-up of international forces in the region continued.
On 29 November, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 678. This set 15 January 1991 as the deadline for Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait. It also authorised member states to use 'all necessary means' to remove them.
Across the border in Saudi Arabia, a multinational task force hundreds of thousands strong was preparing to enforce the resolution. The task force was dominated by the US but comprised personnel from 30 countries.
Operation Desert Storm
Neither the international naval blockade nor the massive concentration of coalition troops led Iraq to back down. On 17 January 1991, coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm, with airstrikes against Iraq.
With the beginning of operations, HMAS Ships Sydney and Brisbane ceased their interception role. Both ships joined the anti-aircraft screen to protect Battle Force Zulu, which included up to 3 US Navy aircraft carriers. Until the war ended, they performed:
- anti-aircraft screening (main task)
- search and rescue
- aircraft control
- escort duty
Ground invasion of Iraq
On 24 February 1991, after more than 1 month of aerial operations, coalition forces crossed the Saudi border into Kuwait and Iraq. A handful of Australian service personnel on attachment to British or US forces took part. Few other Australians were involved in the ground war and no Australian formation took part.
A small group of RAAF photo-interpreters were based in Saudi Arabia, along with a detachment from the Defence Intelligence Organisation. The Australian Defence Force also deployed 4 medical teams.
In the waters off Kuwait, an Australian surgeon on USNS Comfort recalled that ‘everybody was a bit tense’ when the shooting started. However, the war proved relatively uneventful for the medical teams on board the fully equipped floating hospital. Comfort never came under fire and received only one combat casualty. Instead, a steady stream of victims of accidents or illness occupied the medical personnel.
Although the ships were in danger from mines and their crews faced the possibility of attack from the air, there were no Australian casualties in the Gulf War.
The Iraqis faced an overwhelming multinational force, which quickly reduced their capacity to resist. Baghdad radio made an announcement on 26 February 1991. Iraq's armed forces had been ordered to withdraw from Kuwait to the positions that they held before August 1990. The Coalition declared victory on 28 February 1991.
As they withdrew from Kuwait, Iraqi troops set fire to hundreds of oil wells, creating one of the war's most enduring images. An Australian operating theatre assistant remembered the scene each night:
just flames in the distance … and that’s all we could see.
By day, the skies over the region were blackened by thick smoke.
Casualties and controversy
Some 100,000 Iraqis had been killed in the conflict. Coalition losses of fewer than 200 were extremely light by comparison. This indicates the significant imbalance in the military capabilities of the opposing sides.
Although the Coalition won an overwhelming victory, there was controversy about the US decision to allow Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to retain power. Some believed the fighting should have continued until coalition forces seized Baghdad, although this would have far exceeded the terms of the UN resolution demanding Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait.
Aftermath of the Gulf War
Australia's involvement in the region continued after the war.
In March 1991, a team of RAN clearance divers deployed alongside British and US forces to begin clearing unexploded ordnance and booby traps from coastal installations, the harbour and the waters around Kuwait. This dangerous task took more than 3 months before the divers returned to Australia.
After the fighting ended, 75 Australian defence personnel in a tri-service contingent centred around 4 medical teams deployed to an exclusion zone in northern Iraq. The Australians joined an international effort to provide humanitarian aid to the local Kurdish population.
Australia also contributed to the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom), This international mission monitored and verified Iraq's compliance with UN directives to destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capability.
The maritime blockade remained in force because Iraq was considered not to have complied with the terms set out by the UN Security Council at the end of the war. The RAN continued to contribute to the MIF in the form of a single ship, under Operation Damask, although there were periods when no Australian vessels were involved. The last Damask deployment occurred in mid-2001.
Today, in the aftermath of the long commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan begun in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, Gulf War 1 appears a relatively minor affair as far as Australia was concerned, but it marked the beginning of a decades' long involvement in and around Iraq.
- 1990 Kuwaitis Pour into Saudi, The Canberra Times, 17 September, p1. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122311396
- 1990 Saddam tells the Summiteers: Forget it, The Canberra Times, 10 September, p1. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122309941
- Australians At War Film Archive Oral History Interviews – Kathleen Videon, John Teh, Tony Flint, Peter Gration. http://australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/
- David Horner, The Gulf Commitment: The Australian Defence Force’s first war, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1992
- David Horner, Australia and the New World Order: from peacekeeping to peace enforcement: 1988, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2011
- Peter Londey, Other People’s Wars, a history of Australian peacekeeping, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2004
- Ian McConnochie, RAN Clearance Diving Operations in the Gulf War – 1991. https://www.navyhistory.org.au/ran-clearance-diving-operations-in-the-gulf-war-1991/
- Royal Australian Navy Sea Power Centre, Ships’ Histories. https://www.navy.gov.au/history
- 1991 A Comforting Welcome for a Hospital Ship, Washington Post, 16 April. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1991/04/16/a-comforting-welcome-for-a-hospital-ship/64ab7be7-c27d-4e16-926a-0f267e5ac3aa/