Copyright © 2012 Paul McDonald
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Wing Commander Paul McDonald served in Kuwait as the senior RAF adviser to the Kuwait Air Force from February 1998 to February 2002.

Although I had met a number of RAF pilots who had served in Kuwait, I didn’t know a great deal about the country before Iraq’s invasion in 1991 brought this corner of the Gulf of Arabia into sharp focus. With the subsequent questions asked about the legality of Gulf War II over ten years later, it is easy to forget the cruelty, the brutality and the sheer barbarism of Saddam Hussein, the man responsible for the invasion of Kuwait, Gulf War I and for so much more.

While the invasion was a shock to many in the West, tension had been building up between the two countries for some time. The issue was mainly oil and the shared Rumailah oilfield. Saddam Hussein accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil from the shared oilfield and then deliberately forcing down the oil price. A Kuwaiti delegation had been negotiating with Iraq and Kuwait’s Crown Prince, who was also the Prime Minister, was due to attend further talks in Bagdad on 4 August 1990.

Kuwait’s Armed Forces had been on high alert but, as the negotiations entered a crucial stage, they had been stood down to avoid antagonising the Iraqis. Senior officers in Kuwait’s 35 Brigade, the Brigade nearest the border with Iraq, were convinced that Iraq would invade and argued strongly that they be allowed to deploy. They were ordered to do nothing. Against orders, the main armoured battalion was put on alert. When again ordered to stand-down, it did so, but very slowly.  

The Kuwait Air Force, KAF, had three airbases. Mohammed Al-Mubarak was the transport base adjoining the KAF HQ and was part of the complex which housed Kuwait International Airport. Ali Al-Salem, the home to the KAF’s French-built air defence Mirage IIIs and helicopters was about an hour’s drive west; it was also within an hour’s drive of Iraq. The other base was Ahmed Al-Jaber an hour’s drive to the south and it was here that the KAF’s British-built Hawk fast-jet trainers and American-built A6 Skyhawks fighter bombers were based. These bases were only fully manned when on alert and most personnel lived in Kuwait City. So the KAF airbases, particularly the Mirage base in the west, were very vulnerable to surprise attack.

In the early hours of 2 August, with Kuwaiti’s Armed Forces stood down and two days before Kuwait’s Crown Prince was due in Baghdad for talks, Saddam made his move.   

Many people in the West thought that the Kuwaitis did not put up much of a fight. Given their size, and the nature of the attack, there was no way that Kuwait could hold out for long but fight they certainly did and many brave Kuwaitis continued to fight from within during a cruel occupation. It is worth recording that after their country’s occupation, the remnants if the KAF flew 2662 missions from Saudi Arabia between September 1990 and the day of Kuwait’s liberation. I was to learn much during our four years in Kuwait and would meet many who were directly involved in liberating their country.  

Iraqi attacked on two main routes, one from north down the main road from Basrah and over the Mutla Ridge, the only high ground in Kuwait, while the other attack swung in from the north-west where the Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi borders met. The road across Mutla Ridge was to be the scene of carnage during the Iraqi’s chaotic retreat the following spring. Within two years of our return from Kuwait in 2002, our daughter Hannah, by then an RAF air traffic controller, would drive down the same road from Basrah while she was serving on her first tour in Iraq after Gulf War II.

The routes converged on the small town of Jahra, east of the Mutla Ridge and west of Kuwait City. Ali Al-Salem was soon cut-off. The besieged Kuwaitis fought hard. Their Mirage fighters shot down a number of Iraqi helicopters while the Skyhawks from Ahmed Al-Jaber also had great success. The KAF Air Defence Brigade also took its toll.

Given their losses of helicopters, the Iraqi Air Force soon turned their attention to the airbases and the main runways were bombed and put out of action. Most Mirages were airborne when Al-Salem was put out of action and they were ordered to Al-Jaber only to find that its runways too were unusable. With insufficient fuel to reach Saudi Arabia they landed on a security road; it was a mere four and a half metres wide. But these landings meant that the KAF could still fight. Shortly before Ali Al-Salem was captured, all their serviceable helicopters made their escape to Saudi Arabia but not without loss.   

Kuwait’s 35 Armoured Brigade fought hard and with success as the Iraqis neared Jahra. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Iraqi Republican Guard Divisions which spearheaded the invasion paid a heavy price. The Brigade only broke off and headed to Saudi Arabia when ammunition was low and it was about to be cut off.

 In the city, large numbers of Iraqi Special Forces had been landed by sea with the aim of capturing the royal family but the Emir was able to make his escape. However, his younger brother, the highly popular and globally respected Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, was shot and killed at the Emir's Palace. Sheikh Fahad was the President of the Olympic Council of Asia and a member of the International Olympic Committee.   

Many Kuwaiti servicemen only became aware of the invasion when Kuwait City was bombed. Some who tried to make it to Ali Al-Salem were captured en route. Those based at Ahmed Al-Jaber had a better chance.

I became close friends with one KAF Skyhawk pilot. Ahmed had trained as a pilot in the USA and he had also spent a year at the RAF Staff College at Bracknell where he and his family had lived in married quarters. At the time of his invasion he was a major and worked for the KAF Deputy Commander. Shortly before the HQ was overrun, Ahmed was ordered to try to make it to Al-Jaber and then on to Saudi Arabia. This order for Ahmed, and for many others, must have been very hard to follow as it meant leaving his family to a very uncertain fate. Ahmed subsequently described that frantic journey, at high speed, from the KAF HQ. He recalled driving along the 7th Ring Road and being passed by columns of Iraqi armour and troops heading in the opposite direction on their way into the city. As he turned left off the Ring Road to head south, he was waved down at an Iraqi roadblock but he ignored it and drove quickly on. He successfully reached Al-Jaber and made his escape to Saudi Arabia in the back seat of the very last Hawk to get out of Kuwait.

I met a number of Kuwaiti pilots who did things that I wouldn’t have dreamt of doing. One was another Skyhawk pilot, a quiet and unassuming man by the name of Majed. I heard from others what he did and, when I eventually met him he was a colonel. In 1991 he was a major and had left home normally to go to work at Ahmed Al-Jaber to find that his country was at war. He was ordered to conduct a fighter reconnaissance sortie against any Iraqi forces. Such missions were normally conducted by pairs of aircraft, to provide mutual support, but he was surprised to learn that he would be on his own.

In normal circumstances such a mission when the enemy had control of the air would be unheard of; it would very likely be a one-way trip. But the circumstances were far from normal that day in Kuwait. He was then ordered to take off from the narrow road which the Mirages had proven to be adequate, just. But Majed’s aircraft was heavily laden with fuel and carried a full bomb load. He got airborne successfully to attack a column of Iraqi armour already in Kuwait with Iraqi Mig 23 fighters on combat air patrol visible high above.   

Our lone Skyhawk pilot didn’t have any difficulty finding the Iraqis. Unbelievably he completed separate dive-bombing attacks dropping a single bomb each time. He did this to make every bomb count rather than risk straddling the target. The ‘norm’ is to drop all the bombs during a single attack and then exit ‘stage left’ as quickly and as low as you possibly could. After each attack Majed headed off into the desert to get away from the Iraqi anti-aircraft fire before climbing back up to find another target. To continually re-attack in this manner was an open invitation to be shot down and he was well aware of the Iraqi fighters high above. On his last attack he was hit by anti-aircraft fire but was able to get his damaged aircraft back to Al-Jaber where he once again landed on the road. He was refuelled and then flew on to Saudi Arabia.  

There was little publicity about what the Iraqis did in Kuwait but there was very fierce resistance throughout the occupation. The Iraqis were merciless in their treatment of the people they caught. The most horrid torture imaginable was carried out with the victims being finally shot, or worse, outside their family home. Very little was ever said about how the Iraqis treated women but rape was widespread with thousands of victims; this left a long term legacy. Publicity about this was much muted.

Some Kuwaiti friends of ours told us about their experiences. One, a KAF junior officer, stayed behind working in the resistance until his position became untenable. He made his escape over the roof at the back of his house as Iraqi soldiers entered through the front to search for him. A few days later his wife and four children made their escape across the desert in the family car, a saloon not a 4x4. She was so ‘matter of fact’ in telling her story and felt that the biggest challenge was not hurtling across the desert through Iraqi lines but having to learn how to cope without her maid when she got to Saudi!  

Colonel Bruce Duncan, Commander of the British Liaison Team in Kuwait in 1990, wrote an excellent account of life in Kuwait under Iraqi occupation. It was called Cruelty and Compassion: An Englishman in Kuwait and it was published in the Army Quarterly and Defence Journal in April 1991. There were 66 members of his Team and 150 dependants in Kuwait at the time of the invasion and within two days more than half of his Team were picked up from the main families’ complex. Their homes were broken into and looted and the women were harassed and molested.

He described the regular and conscript Iraqi soldiers (not the Republican Guard) as a wretched lot who were poorly led and ill equipped. He heard the story of a 17-year old Iraqi conscript who had pleaded with the Iraqi recruiters that he couldn’t enlist as his father and elder brothers had been killed in the war with Iran. He was now responsible for looking after his mother and four sisters. The following day his remaining family were lined up and executed. He was then required to enlist.    

During the occupation, Colonel Duncan and his family moved into a vacant house in Mishref, the district that Jackie and I would live in. He described the manner in which his family were looked after by local Kuwaitis as an object lesson in all that is best in Islam. As far as the Kuwaitis were concerned, the British families were guests who had been outrageously treated by people of their Faith and a local committee kept Colonel Duncan’s family supplied. Many Kuwaitis risked their lives to keep British families supplied with food.  

He also described some of the activities of the Kuwaiti resistance. A number of young Kuwaitis died in their cars having attacked Iraqi armoured personnel carriers and ammunition trucks. The Resistance also shot down an Iraqi military transport aircraft forcing the Iraqis to stop using the International Airport. The Iraqi response to these attacks was brutal. A number of Kuwaiti youths were seized at random and shot in front of their families. Two young boys, not even in their teens, were shot in front of their pleading parents in Mishref for distributing pro Kuwaiti leaflets. Many Kuwaiti Palestinians also courageously refused to collaborate with the Iraqis. By mid-October only a dozen members of the Team, plus Colonel Duncan’s two sons, remained in hiding in Kuwait. The other captured Servicemen had been sent to strategic sites in Iraq as human shields.   

Sadly Bruce Duncan’s family’s experience ended in tragedy. During an evacuation brokered between the British Embassy and the Iraqi authorities, and while being transported by the Iraqis, his teenage sons were involved in a horrific accident. His elder son died while his younger son survived though badly injured. For Colonel Duncan, his and his family’s traumatic experience was over by late October but for the Kuwaitis and those foreigners still in Kuwait, liberation was still four months away.  

Copyright © 2012 Paul McDonald
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