The Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-91 began when Saddam Hussein
directed the Army of Iraq to invade its tiny neighbor Kuwait
on August 2 of 1990. The event, a brutal and massive sneak attack,
was soon to directly affect the soldiers of the Third Armored
Division at their garrisons in far away Germany.
This new threat, not in the forested hills of central Europe,
but in the deserts of the Middle East, would be unlike anything
the unit had ever faced before. It would eventually develop into
the kind of battle that armor crews generally only dream of,
and when it was over would provide new variants of modem warfare
for historians and strategists to ponder and study. A short but
intense battle, it gave soldiers of the Spearhead Division a
chance to help crush the Iraqi Army like a paper cup and toss
it into the waste basket of history.
The Spearhead saga began on November 8, 1990, as major elements
of the division were wrapping up fall training at Hohenfels.
Having spent over 150 days in the field in 1990, combat skills
among the division's soldiers were honed to a razor's edge. For
most of those soldiers, the word came not in formal orders, but
from the White House. It came as President Bush announced to
the nation that the Third Armored Division would be among those
units called up and deployed to participate in the defense of
Saudi Arabia. This phase of the crisis was code-named Operation
Desert Shield, which upon combat became Desert Storm.
While not being caught completely off guard, division planners
scurried to arrange the shipment of 18,000 soldiers and their
gear to the Middle East. Component commanders, with orders in
hand, could begin to do officially what they had been doing behind
the scenes for months, getting their troops ready for combat
roles in a desert environment.
A barrage of details assailed each soldier as he or she worked
each day getting ready for the challenge ahead, and each night
helping dependents plan for the unknown period of separation
ahead. Getting affairs in order became the order of the day,
both professionally and personally.
Advance parties for the various units that make up the division
were dispatched to the Arabian Gulf in early December. As they
departed, long streams of vehicles were beginning to wind their
way via rail and convoy towards the ports of Europe. Duffel bags
and rucksacks, the personal luggage of the soldier, formed veritable
mountains at the departure terminal of the Rhein-Main Airport.
With gear packed and vehicles loaded aboard ships, troops
said tearful good-byes. Soldiers soon to be baptized by fire
on the battlefield, and whose bravery would never be questioned,
were seen shedding tears as they bid their families fond farewell.
One hardship behind them, Third Armored flew to a new assignment
and new challenges. For most, this adventure would begin with
stopovers at places with strange-sounding names; King Abdul Aziz
Port in Dammam, the "MEM Hotel" in Khobar, and the
infamous "Cement City." These were stopover points,
a place to wait for gear and equipment to arrive. When it finally
did, soldiers and equipment went out to the deserts of northern
Saudi Arabia via the MAR Dodge "take your life in your hands"
At the end of the road awaited a vast and barren desert. It
was, at first, an affront to the senses and as alien as the surface
of some far-off planet. Featureless and desolate, it inspired
an initial fear in most. How does one navigate with no reference
points, no landmarks? Could anything live out here, without water
and shade? These and a thousand other questions assailed the
soldier in this new area of operations. Training and familiarization
would provide the answers.
Within days, operating from what was loosely called "Camp
Henry," that training would breed a new confidence in old
skills. Moving through the desert with food and water, using
a compass, shooting azimuths and reading maps, troops were soon
confident again and ready for action. As part of VII Corps, they
were ready to tackle Saddam's dragon. As the U.S. Army's premier
heavy armor division, they were not only cutting new tracks in
the desert sand, but new tracks in history.
United Nations Resolution 678 had condemned Iraq's invasion
of Kuwait and called for the withdrawal of all troops and influence
by Jan. 15,1991. Saddam Hussein, Iraq's despotic leader, thumbed
his nose at the world and let the deadline pass. A coalition
of more than 35 nations that opposed him were left with no choice
but to force him out.
The War Begins
On January 17, barely two days after the deadline, hostilities
began with the aerial bombardment of Iraq and occupied positions
in Kuwait by U.S. and Coalition air forces. The whole operation
became with the advent of hostilities Operation Desert Storm.
From the start, it was apparent that the Joint Forces Coalition
would rule the skies over the theater of operations. Iraq's response,
due to its ineffectual air force, was to launch Soviet-manufactured
SCUD-A missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iraq hoped
thereby to draw the Israelis into the fray and force a rift in
the partly Arab coalition. Although some of the missiles got
through, the attempt to force a rift was ultimately to fail.
Third Armored soldiers saw the war start from locations scattered
throughout Saudi Arabia. Those already in the desert training
continued getting ready for battle as scuds zoomed overhead on
their way to targets in Dhahran and Riyadh. Bunkers got deeper
and training intensified. Equipment, some still aboard ships
in Dhahran Harbor, was sent to the front lines as fast as it
could be unloaded and sent forward.
As the air war dragged on and the prospect of a ground war
neared, Mac. Gen. Paul A. Funk, commander of the Third Armored
Division, began looking for the right tool to train his troops
for the final push north. He found it in two exercises: Hummex
I and Hummex II.
Hummex I, which took its name from the lowly HMMWV (the vehicle
that replaced the jeep), was an especially effective exercise
that helped adapt the division's extensive European training
to the desert environment. It gave commanders the knowledge,
and troops the experience, they would need to defeat the Iraqis
The first exercise stressed mass movement and maneuver, and
it gave commanders a chance to see where their troops would be
in battle in relation to other units on the ground. It primarily
used the HMMWV, the smallest and lightest vehicle in the U.S.
inventory, thus sparing the heavy armored weapons systems, the
MIAI and the Bradley fighting vehicle, undue war and tear. It
gave planners a chance to try their newly adapted tactics in
real live desert situations, without losing soldiers lives in
combat to test them. It also gave troops an opportunity to gain
confidence in their new environment by "hands on" training.
The second exercise, Hummed II, went one step further. Taking
weaknesses uncovered in the first exercise out of the scenario,
it afforded one more opportunity to learn by training; something
that really pays off in lives saved during combat. This second
effort used some of the tracked vehicles, although not all of
the Division's heavy assets, and the lessons learned were most
At this juncture, with all the Coalition ground forces lined
up south of Kuwait, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Coalition Commander-in-Chief,
pulled a card out of his sleeve that made the short, life-saving
four-day war possible. Up to this point, Saddam and his military
forces had been led to believe that that main thrust of the ground
war would come through Kuwait. Indeed, all the troops seemed
poised for the thrust.
But on February 16, the troops began to move. A press blackout
and the Iraqi lack of eyes in the sky effectively hid the movement
of more than half the troops westward, where they took up new
positions south of Iraq's nearly undefended southern border.
What the press was heralding instead was the imminent landing
of numerous Marines in an amphibious attack on the shores of
eastern Kuwait. The landings would never happen, but the undetected
shift of troops was to pay wonderful dividends.
Waiting for a frontal assault, the Iraqis were stunned and
surprised on February 24 and 25 when they discovered Allied troops
of the VII and XVIII Corps pulling an end-run up the western
Kuwaiti border and slamming the rear door shut on Iraqi forces
trying to escape Kuwait.
The Third Armored Division, who aptly code-named their part
in the assault "Operation Desert Spear," were to play
a vital part in the battle. From their new and secret location
at Log Base Echo some 75 miles west of the Iraq-Kuwait-Saudi
border, they would hurl themselves across minor Iraqi defenses
on the afternoon of the 24th with enough momentum to carry them
through several divisions of defenders, including three divisions
of the Republican Guard.
This juggernaut was launched from Forward Assembly Area butts,
a narrow series of positions not much more than 10 miles wide
and 35 miles deep where the Third Armored troops had waited out
the last few days of the air war; waited with apprehension for
the curtain to go up on a stage where they would perform their
well-rehearsed ballet of battle.
To their west, on the left flank, crouched an equally eager
First Armored Division and to the east, on the right flank, were
elements of the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment. When the moment
was finally ripe on February 24, the command came down to attack.
In essence, the war had already commenced on the ground. All
along the front, scouts had been conducting probing operations
to seek out enemy weak points and exploit them. Scouts from 4th
Bn., 8th Cav. of Second Brigade had in fact crossed the berm
on the afternoon of the 23rd just after 1500 hours. Less than
two hours later, they had penetrated several miles into Iraq
and managed to capture over 200 prisoners.
When an armored division enters battle, one of the favored
formations is the wedge. This formation, which is comprised of
one brigade out front with two more following closely behind,
one on each side and slightly to the rear, looks on paper like
a spearhead. It is exactly the type of formation that earned
the division its fame in WWII, because it was the Third Armored
Division that spearheaded so many drives against the enemy.
The corridor through which the division was to attack was
too narrow for this formation, and so another was employed. It
involved the use of two brigades abreast, with the third in reserve.
Although not its first choice. Third Armored used the formation
to plow through the opposition and flatten a surprised and shaky
When word to cross the berm and attack finally arrived on
the afternoon of February 24, the Spearhead Division wasted no
time. Within half an hour, lead elements of 1st and 2nd Brigade
were across and had moved to contact in the attack. Since the
defenders of Iraq were caught off guard, resistance was light.
The first day of battle was marked by the advance of the division
some 18 miles into Iraq, and the taking of over 200 prisoners.
By day two, the word was out that this was no feint resistance
began to stiffen. Early that morning, at 0300 hours, elements
of 4/7 Cavalry took over 50 prisoners. But by first light, battle
logs were to note that enemy reinforcement had been spotted moving
south and west, to meet the attackers. The new day would bring
first battle to most of the division's soldiers.
At 1115 hours, with all elements across the berm, a frag order
came down making it official. ". .. attack abreast, with
2nd Brigade in the north and 1st in the south, 3rd in reserve."
Elements of Combat Aviation Brigade, which supported the operation
throughout, were given the task of screening the southern boundary
along the attack route, since this is where the bulk of the enemy
was expected to be.
The day was marked by hard pushing to penetrate as deeply
and as fast as possible. Objective Collins, an area just south
of Basra, where the western Kuwaiti border turns east towards
the gulf, had been designated at the outset as the first goal
to be reached. As Iraq responded to the invasion of its own territory,
what had started as skirmishes rapidly escalated into full-scale
engagements and later, battles.
In their rush to gain as much territory as possible, it was
sometimes necessary to bypass areas. This happened late in the
afternoon when 3rd Brigade, following in reserve, swept a town
bypassed by First and Second Brigades. The sweep turned up 270
startled enemy prisoners. By the time the sun set on day two,
the division's thrust had pushed another 53 miles into Iraq and
put it just outside Objective Collins, a feat that came much
sooner than anyone had anticipated. Day two's activities had
seen impressive numbers of enemy soldiers and vehicles destroyed
and the capture of almost 250 additional prisoners.
The 26th dawned clear and windy. By early morning, the two
leading brigades were rapidly closing on Objective Collins, and
the enemy was changing. As the Spearhead Division drew nearer
its objective, they found themselves facing a much tougher foe,
the first units of the highly-touted Republican Guard. These
troops showed much less inclination to turn and run when the
fighting got tough. As the day wore on, tanks of these two opposing
armies rushed each other like medieval jousters, main guns spewing
fire and death. There was more than enough action for everyone.
Nor did darkness bring a halt to the death dance. By 1840
hours,First Brigade was able to call in the destruction of 23
tanks during the day, including a number of T-72s, the Iraqi
"big gun." Shortly thereafter, as the weather worsened
and a windstorm commenced, Combat Aviation Brigade Apaches reported
their tally for the day; 14 AMP'S, two trucks and some artillery.
But the evening also brought sorrow. At 1927 hours, 4th Bn.,
32nd Armored reported the loss of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle
to tank fire. The division's first combat loss included two killed,
This third day of battle raged on into the windswept and stormy
night. As visibility dimmed, not only from the darkness but also
from blowing sand, American technology proved its worth. The
thermal sighting systems on board the M1A1 tanks and Bradleys
kept picking up targets, giving the edge to Spearheaders. By
2400 hours, the division, bloodied but undaunted, could say with
pride it had pinned the ears back on a stout enemy.
The third day of battle merged without pause into the fourth.
Somewhere in the darkness, the calendar changed but enemies in
combat were too busy to note their passing. Second Brigade, which
had borne a good deal of the action, was to report an additional
death and another wounded soldier soon before dawn.
During the night, Third Brigade, who had been mopping up behind
and still finding plenty of action, passed through the Second
Brigade lines and allowed the Second to drop into the rear. The
steamrolling of the Republican Guard continued. Prisoners taken
were able to confirm intelligence reports. The Spearheaders were
sweeping the vaunted Tawakalna Division, the Iraqi 52nd Armored
Division and elements of the 17th and the 10th Armored Divisions.
It was on this, the fourth day, that the division hit Objective
Collins, and in order to pursue a faltering enemy executed a
brilliant maneuver. Wheeling as one to the right, the division
turned east and carried the fight into Kuwait. Exacting a heavy
toll, Third Armored thundered into Kuwait, finding and surprising
an enemy as it did so.
Defensive positions dug by the Iraqis faced south, and in
some cases, the division came upon them from the rear. With no
way to turn their turrets from within their positions, the tanks
of the once-proud Iraqi Army fell victim to their own arrogance.
Close coordination between advancing elements enabled the Division
to exact a heavy toll.
The united fingers of Air Force close air support, artillery,
combat aviation, infantry and armor closed into a fist that clobbered
all who dared stand against it, and delivered a combined punch
that sent the Iraqis quickly to their knees. Although fighting
continued throughout the day and into the evening, by nightfall
intelligence reports indicated that Iraq' s 10th Armored Division
had been destroyed, and what little remained of the 17th was
withdrawing. The Tawakalna and 52nd had suffered similar fates.
Just before midnight, the order came down that would conclude
the fighting; "Attack to complete the destruction of the
17th/52nd Divisions in sector."
From then on, it was a mop-up exercise. All Coalition objectives,
to include those handed to the Third Armored Division, had been
reached, and thanks to superb training, they were met more painlessly
than had ever been expected. At 0634 on the 28th, one of the
last orders to be given during the land war was issued to Third
Bn., 8th Cavalry. It said simply to attack to the east and knock
out anything hostile before 0800, when the cease-fire was to
begin. On that note, the ground war ended.
In just 100 hours. Third Armored had steamrolled over some
of the world's best desert fighters equipped with good equipment.
While the air war was successful in shattering morale, the Third
Armored had, in four short days destroyed more tanks, armored
vehicles and equipment than had the air war in nearly 40. It
was a victory in every sense of the word, and something to which
the mighty Third Armored Division can look to with pride.
Third Armored Division soldiers take war seriously. With actions
that display exemplary leadership and superbly trained precision,
they can enter a shiny new and well-earned page to history.