Gulf Conflict 1991 || 30 years ago, on 17 January 1991 - two days after the deadline set in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 678 - the Gulf War Coalition launched a campaign which began the offensive codenamed Operation Desert Storm.
Major Ken Coombes was 32 when he deployed to the Gulf as the Admin NCO and it was the first of three Middle East missions during his NZ Army service.
“The 1991 deployment was the first operation I had been on and I felt a lot of pride deploying to an active service mission. Overall it was a fantastic experience, which was at times daunting when considering the location, environment, threat, regular Scud missile attacks and the tasks at hand,” Major Coombes said.
Major Coombes’ role involved working closely with United States Navy personnel who were assisting the Construction Battalion in building the 6th Fleet 500-bed tented hospital prior to the US medical teams arriving.
“I had to learn how the US Navy managed their administrative and payroll systems. There were a few challenges in the role such as the relationship with the local Bank Manager in the Awali branch of the Bank of Bahrain and working through the language barrier and a significantly different banking system to how we did it in New Zealand,” he said.
“The limited communication back to New Zealand for business and the technology available to do our work made things hard at times.
“But the most difficult part of the operation was separation from close family and friends for what was initially an undetermined length of time and communications were unreliable and very limited.”
Major Coombes said the deployment had a significant impact on his life. It prompted an interest in learning how other allied nations work within the same field as well as a desire to travel and explore the world with his wife and to seek out new places and experiences.
“Perhaps one of the other areas that this deployment shaped my future was the exposure to what the medical team was doing.
“They were a very professional and capable group who made a significant and positive impact for many casualties and patients during the time the 6th Fleet Hospital was open (4500 patients in 45 days).
“This prompted me to volunteer as an Ambulance Officer with St John – a role I have continued with for nearly 17 years.”
Warrant Officer Mark Harwood was the flight sergeant in charge of the maintenance team for the Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130s during the New Zealand Defence Force’s deployment to the Gulf.
On the 20 December 1990 two C-130s and 48 personnel departed Whenuapai for Riyadh in Saudi Arabia on Operation FRESCO as an Air Transport support force to assist Operation GRANBY – the United Kingdom’s air transport contribution to the operation.
“Arriving at King Khalid International Airport on the 23 December 1990, we set up a make-shift flight line in one of the partially finished terminals and commenced our first mission on the 27th.
“We paused for a very unique Christmas celebration with the NZ Ambassador at a desolate desert valley on the outskirts of Riyadh.
“I remember pondering on what the next few weeks would bring before we headed back to New Zealand for a slightly delayed Christmas with our families and friends – how wrong I would be. It was however, the experience of a lifetime and one of the highlights of my career,” Warrant Officer Harwood said.
For W/O Harwood a stand out of the deployment was what the NZDF team managed to achieve with what was possibly the smallest contingent involved with the coalition forces.
“We completed over 560 sorties, carried over 6,000 passengers and some 5.3 million pounds (2,400 tonnes) of freight.
“Although the ‘team of teams’ delivered this herculean effort, I would like to think that it was the resilient and determined attitude of the maintenance team that kept those two green Hercs in the air for nearly four months.
“Often the specific trades became less obvious when a task needed a united effort. We all learnt a lot about each other’s roles and specialisations and with that came a newfound respect for each other – a real sense of comradery and trust.
“My role as the manager of the maintenance team was relatively easy, as individual motivation and commitment was a gifted bonus. At times it was a challenge to make the team have a well-earned break,” Warrant Officer Harwood said.
However, the deployment was not without its challenges. All of the flying was carried out during daylight hours meaning all the maintenance had to be completed at night.
“Determined to get two serviceable aircraft ready before the aircrew arrived each morning, meant many long and arduous nights by the maintenance team, putting in over 5,000 man-hours in the first six weeks of the deployment.
“Temperatures were in the high 30s during the day and then into negative figures overnight. Then there were the nightly interruptions of Scud missile warnings and attacks that added another level of disruption and anxiety. Everyone got very polished at getting in and out of their NBC (Nuclear, biological, chemical) suits and gas masks. We even managed the odd sleep fully suited.”
Major David Foote was 21 years old when he deployed to the Gulf as part of the New Zealand Defence Force contingent in 1991.
His was a medic with the Field Surgical Team, 1st NZ Army Medical Team attached to United States Navy Fleet Hospital 6(22), Awali, Bahrain.
The Nuclear, Biological and Chemical training and threat has stuck in his mind.
“The very first thing we heard as we landed in Bahrain was gas gas gas,” Major Foote recalled.
“Coming from New Zealand a highlight was seeing the sheer scale of the forces build up. It was such a large military campaign with a lot of modern amazing equipment and weaponry on such a massive scale.”
No deployment is without its challenges and this one was no different in that respect.
Major Foote said being a relatively junior practitioner and junior soldier (he was a lance corporal at the time) while being part of a small contingent in a large hospital was difficult at times.
“Overall being part of this deployment did help my career in the NZ Army. This experience set me on my pathway to continue to develop as a health professional firstly as a Medic and then on to become a Nursing Officer further down the track,” he said.
Flight Sergeant Mike Cotton was 19 years old when he deployed to the Gulf as part of the Royal Air Force’s 9 Squadron RAF (Tornado bombers) ground crew.
His most vivid memory was seeing a Scud missile strike a United States accommodation at night, which resulted in a significant loss of lives.
“I heard a US Patriot missile launch about 500m from me to intercept an incoming Iraqi Scud missile.
“There was a huge explosion in the sky and I saw glowing debris fall to the ground. There was a large explosion as the largest piece of debris landed.
“We had a large hospital adjacent to the airfield and many of the casualties were taken there. I remember seeing rows of ambulances heading to the hospital,” Flight Sergeant Cotton said.
“We lost an aircraft a few days before the deadline issued to Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. Unfortunately the crew died.
“During the conflict another of our aircraft was quite badly damaged by Iraqi anti-aircraft fire, the crew were very lucky to get the aircraft home. The aircraft was full of holes.”
The work tempo was very high, with aircraft flying almost around the clock.
“We worked 14-hour days for three months with only one day off. Our sleep was disrupted frequently by Scud missile attacks,” he said.
“Deploying on this mission has without a doubt shaped me as a person. Currently not many servicemen will experience a war during their career. War is what we train for in the military so I am proud to have done what we are paid to do.
“In recent times I have experienced PTSD related to my service in the Gulf and was part of the New Zealand Defence Force Invictus team that was supposed to go to The Hague earlier this year.”
Tom Tuke was a 23-year-old flying officer captaining a C-130 Hercules when he deployed as part of 40 Squadron to the Gulf War. 40 Squadron originally deployed with three crews but this increased to four later on due to the high tempo of flying.
Now a Squadron Leader, he says the first thing that springs to mind about the Gulf was flying into Kuwait Airport just after the coalition forces took back Kuwait from the Iraqis.
“Iraqi troops had set fire to all the oil wells and there was a thick black smoke all around Kuwait City and the airport, extending for a huge area and to altitude.
“Descending into this murk, flying up Kuwait Harbour and then over to the airport whilst the flames from these wells were hundreds of feet high was some sight,” he said.
A highlight of the deployment was operating as a close-knit deployment and crew with international coalition forces.
“The NZDF hadn’t been involved in anything like this for a long time, so for the Kiwis to be there with other international forces, flying, operating in a conflict environment, putting into practice all that we’d trained for, doing the job and being proud of what we achieved was great.
“We operated into a large variety of airfields and desert strips. Combine these with a range of environmental conditions and it made flying interesting and challenging.
“There was also the various loads and personnel we carried which were always changing and throwing up new issues. But as a detachment and more specifically a crew we worked well to find solutions,” Squadron Leader Tuke said.
The dynamic environment and the scale of the forces involved meant 40 Squadron had to continually change plans, adapt and look for solutions.
“This adaptability has carried through for me both personally and in my work. Even now as a Boeing 757 captain I’m sure this trait and experience is well used, whether or not I realise it at the time,” he said.
Operating as a close-knit group of individuals in that environment and in a conflict situation cemented life-long friendships, he said.
“Although at the time we may not have fully comprehended this, but as a group we experienced a significant wartime event. And all these experiences we shared from Scud missile attacks to flying and even the social events shaped us both as individuals and a group.”
Wing Commander Paul Cockerton was 18 years old when he deployed to Saudi Arabia with the Royal Air Force (RAF).
“I’ve been told that I was the youngest member of the RAF to deploy to the primary theatre of operations. I was a senior aircraftman rank at the time,” he said.
Wing Commander Cockerton worked as an airframe mechanic and was part of a composite flight servicing team on 16 Squadron RAF, which operated the Tornado GR1 aircraft. His role included fault rectification and flight servicings, including countermeasures replenishment and weapons loading.
When thinking about his deployment to the Gulf, Wing Commander Cockerton said the first thing that came to mind was the sense of adventure.
“As a very young airman this was my first deployment and my first overseas trip in the RAF. I had only been on 16 Squadron for a matter of months so I had done lots of training but was inexperienced.
“Traveling to Saudi Arabia was amazing, experiencing the cultural differences and meeting the people was all part of the adventure.
“In the early part of the air campaign, we launched aircraft through the night and then had to sit patiently for hours until they were due to return.
“We would stand outside waiting to see the landing lights in the distance and counting the number of aircraft returning. When they were all accounted for, that was the highlight every night.
“The crews would take time to talk to us upon their return, showing us where they had been and what they had done – this camaraderie not only kept the ground crew informed of what we were achieving, but created a sense of one team.”
The deployment was not without its challenges, both on the job and personally. Keeping in touch with home was particularly hard as everything was done by letter and there was only one state-controlled phone in the local town, which they could use at Christmas to phone their families.
“I found that my father and brother had different ways of coping with me being in the war zone, one would be glued to the TV and radio, where the other ignored it completely.
“Another challenge was the long working hours. From our arrival in November 1990 until we departed in late March 1991, we worked seven days a week on 12 hour shifts.
“We had a ‘day off’ on Christmas and New Year’s Days plus one other planned ‘day off’ and one sick day in all that time. Fatigue was obvious and many of us took to doing our flight servicings twice just so we were sure that we hadn’t missed anything.
“A final noteworthy challenge was losing aircraft and crew. The low-level profiles being flown by the Tornado GR1 meant that they took losses, which was hard. We had no time to dwell or be counselled, we simply carried on,” he said.
Deploying on such a significant operation so early in his service career has undoubtedly shaped Wing Commander Cockerton’s thinking and attitude.
“I do think it has shaped my work ethic, my sense of service before self and of being a small part of a high-performing team.”