Hello, everybody, welcome to Dance Knows History Hit, this podcast is first broadcast on the 28th of February 20 21, which means it's 30 years on from the day President George Bush senior declared a ceasefire, halted ground operations in what's become known as the first Gulf War in 1990 after only 100 hours of the ground campaign over the previous few days. Thirty years ago, an overwhelmingly powerful US led coalition force, including Britain and other allies, stormed across the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait, driving Saddam Hussein's troops back.
Leaving much quicker than everybody expected to the liberation of Kuwait. I'm very glad on this podcast to talk to one of the senior British officers who was in command at that time, General Sir Rupert Smith. General Rupert Smith joined the Army in the early 1960s, he served in first place in Africa, Arabia, the Caribbean, Northern Ireland, Europe and Malaysia. He was decorated for gallantry in Northern Ireland. And then in October 1990, he was promoted to major general.
He assumed command of the 1st Armored Division, which at that time was in the process of being moved to Saudi Arabia to take part in the Gulf War. Rupert, therefore, found himself in charge of the largest British armoured force deployed in action since the Second World War. He's the perfect guy for me to talk to on this hugely important anniversary, particularly because his career didn't stop there. He served with distinction in Bosnia and wrote a book called The Utility of Force that remains essential reading in Military Circles about how war is changing.
Huge honor to talk to Rupert Smith on this anniversary. If you want to go and watch documentaries about history, as well as listen to podcast about history, please go and check out our new History Channel history hit TV subscriber channel with some of the world's best documentaries on their new material being added all the time. It is head over to History TV and subscribe. Don't forget we got a live tour starting in the autumn history at Dotcom slashed all you can love it.
In the meantime, everyone here is General Sir Rupert Smith.
So, Rupert, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. Hello. It's the 20th of February, 30 years on from the cease fire. Where were you 30 years ago right now?
I was on the road that links Kuwait to Basra at about the time the cease fire was called the infamous road along which Iraqi troops were retreating and became clogged with destruction.
Yes, I was there. I was in it or on it. And my course was the one that I had sent forward in. The lead was right up behind seven brigades and a seven brigade cut the road. My headquarters went down and I wouldn't join them as the commander of an armored division.
Did you feel very lucky when your tenure as commander of the British 1st Armored Division overlap with that division being used in combat, the largest armored unit to go into battle since the Second World War? I'm not sure.
I felt I was lucky in the sense that I understand that word. It was largely a chance, wasn't it? I've been in command of this division for all of ten days before I'd been told to take the headquarters to the Gulf. It was very rewarding. It's very stimulating to be given such responsibilities. But I didn't feel it was luck. But the timing was extraordinary.
As you say, it was 10 days you've been in command. Is it a very different feeling to know that you're going to potentially take that unit into combat than overseeing it in Germany during peacetime?
I don't see it as a matter of feelings. It's, of course, different. You're doing what you've been training for as opposed to training for doing what you're about to do. That makes it different. But inside you, as it were, inside your head, is not that much different from having trained to go to Northern Ireland and then going to northern.
Now, speaking of, you served there as a subaltern. I think it was. I mean, your career is a very good example of somebody having to do an extraordinary range of different military activities, domestic peacekeeping, counter-insurgency, peacekeeping, the Balkans conflict resolution, and then big armored warfare in the deserts of the Middle East. That presumably was also quite a rewarding aspect of a career in the Army.
I thoroughly enjoyed my 40 years covering all those sorts of events, but I'm not alone in that or my comrades as a whole. Army was doing these things in this way. And during Operation Granby, Northern Ireland is still going on. There's 20000 soldiers in Northern Ireland and a bit more than that in Saudi Arabia. The Army was able to handle those things. I was just one of them. One of the things that are important, the constants when you're doing all these different activities in different theatres, different geography, different people, what are the foundational skills that you need to develop to be a good soldier?
You need to have a degree of endurance and those sorts of qualities, of course.
But I think the question you're asking is how do you manage this range of activities? And in that sense, I think you have to understand that your business is moving the appropriate far path as fast as you can to where it is going to achieve the effect you want to achieve. Now, there's lots of variables there, and in each case, you have to think of them differently and from scratch.
Talking of moving firepower fast, the first Gulf War now famous for speed of the advanced 100 hours war. The minute you move to the Gulf and started planning, did you think that you would enjoy such a technological, tactical operational edge over the enemy or were you preparing for a different kind of war?
We did have a technical edge, but in the ground forces, it wasn't as much as the air forces. The battle we planned in my division's case was to take one of those advantages that we had the capacity to conduct warfare at a longer range than the Iraqis could manage. We could fight at a range of roughly fifteen hundred yards when they needed to get that much closer. We also had sighting systems that allowed us to see in a bad light and up to a point in driving sand.
So again, that gave us an advantage which we could exploit. And lastly, I had a lot of firepower. If you compare, I'm not sure it's a particularly good comparison. But if you compared a 1945 armored division to the division in the Gulf, then I had something in the order of. 30 times the weight of high explosive to my predecessor and I could throw it a great deal further than he could. And the reason I say it's not a very good example is that you don't cite the formation in the same way because you have this advantage in firepower.
Let's explore the example, because we lots of history fans listening to this podcast and the battle of El Alamein, the infantry were required to go in front of armor, clearing paths through minefields, skirmishing, potentially with enemy infantry. And then then the armor would move along these cleared pathways to try and engage the enemy armor that would be held down on the horizon in quite a similar landscape. How is it different? In 1991, we didn't need to proceed with infantry in the way you've described, largely because the infantry would now in fighting vehicles of their own.
So you could move the country at the same speed and in the same protection as your armor, and that, of course, makes a difference. Secondly, the capacity to deal with mines was all Under Armour as well. There wasn't the need to have rows of infantrymen with bayonets prodding the sand, looking for mines. So the big obstacle we had to go through, which was dealt with by the first United States Infantry Division, that was all done within vehicles and people by airpower a lot during the Gulf War, the air campaign against targets within Iraq.
But how important was airpower in a tactical sense for you on the battlefield?
Well, firstly, the air battle had amongst its objectives the reduction of the enemy forces deployed before us was to materially reduce the capacity of the Iraqi army in the field.
Secondly, there were fighter ground attack a Tannen's in our support and there was a whole system of how you called them in and so on and so forth. But the primary use of airpower didn't start from my point of view, until about 36 hours after we were attacked because the weather was appalling. You couldn't bring them into it, confident that they could see the target, not you.
To your plan. There wasn't an essential component to your advance. A modern armored division can advance under their own steam, as it were.
I had a regiment of helicopters and missiles. That's airpower. I've got my own power and use them.
When you were planning this ambitious sweep through the desert to the west of Kuwait. What were the challenges? Did you think the main challenges would be logistical operating in that environment? Or was there a great concern about the famous Republican Guard divisions? For example, what kept you up at night?
The answer to all three end of your question is nothing. I was busy enough to be tired enough to sleep perfectly well. There were considerable supply, maintenance, logistical difficulties that were going to have to be overcome and not only the out load and so forth. This is something that is peculiar to being the lone allied division in the United States Army Corps. My logistic train ran all the way back to the port at Jubayl, which was on managing both.
And the more I succeeded, the longer the elastic band got behind me and more stretched the. In contrast, when a United States division succeeded, his rear boundary moved up and the corps and behind that United States Army filled the space and looked after the logistics and so on, so forth. So as I succeeded, my logistical problem became increasingly difficult. And that, of course, we understood and we had the vehicles and commanders and so forth to be able to handle that.
But that was something that I had to concern myself with in some detail. On top of that, there were all the casualty evacuation and so forth. That was a national responsibility. That isn't to say that the Americans wouldn't have helped us. My fellow divisional commanders and the corps commander were quite clear. We'd all help each other. But in the end, the responsibility was national. So the whole business of making sure you got field dressings and so forth stretched from the port all the way forward.
And that was only going to get worse if we were winning. The second factor that was on the tactical side and just as problematic is that the divisional mission was to guard the southern flank of the U.S. call a US attack. Now, I have no idea what the enemy, the Iraqis were going to do by way of maneuver when this attack came in. So I couldn't decide on what to attack. Once I was through the breach and the Corps was conducting its attack, I had to be searching for the bit of the Iraqi army that was going to interfere with seven U.S..
And you no doubt you have seen a map of the objectives we attacked. They all have names of metals, copper, brass. Those were not specific geographical positions, those were groups of enemy that we had identified, we didn't necessarily know who they were and the first one that was going to start moving towards the Cole was going to be the thing I attacked. No, in fact, in the end, they all stayed where they were and we attacked them separately, but that wasn't what I planned and what was planned and all the collection of information and so forth was to find the phrase I used was out of the rugby field.
I had to find the man with the ball and go for him. Whilst thinking about your logistics, whilst thinking about the overall plan, the enemy, you also presumably have to think a lot about the men under your command sitting in the desert. Is it difficult to sometimes maintain your link with those men under your command, or should you be operating at that high level and leaving that job to the more junior officers?
You should be operating as a divisional commander at the level of a divisional commander? That's no question. But that doesn't stop you seeing what's going on and so forth. And it was my practice to spend most of my day out of my headquarters visiting units. What I wanted to do was talk to the commanders and understand them and what they thought they were doing and vice versa. But, of course, you saw all the soldiers and so forth at the same time.
And I would have my lunch in a different cookhouse every time so that as people got to know you and recognise you and so forth, you'd start to have conversations over the meal with sergeant this and all that and so forth, all of whom had a story to tell you about, the spare part that they couldn't get or whatever it was. And my staff were required to answer that soldier's question within 24 hours, even if it was to tell him there was never going to be a spare part coming.
There had to be a sense that if you told me something, you'd get a response.
I often wonder when you go into battle, how happy were you with the level of training that you'd been able to undertake with the preparation of those units at peacetime training left those units battle ready on the whole?
Yes, we said we were never going to go east of serious sometime in the early 70s. So there were a whole range of things that need to to be relearnt, that were environmentally dependent, if you like. That sort of training had to take place, which didn't take long, but you had to do it. A lot of our equipment needed to be adjusted, extra filters and so forth, or you recognize the inadequacy of the piece of equipment and used it accordingly.
That sort of training had to be conducted. It wasn't difficult. It just took a bit of time. The majority of the training was entirely appropriate to what we were about to do. It was just doing it all together at the same time and en masse, as it were. That was new to all of us. And it was to the greatest credit of the stars in my headquarters in particular, that they could handle this mice and keep it safe, keep it moving, the fuel coming and so on and so forth.
And it's not simple when you're doing this in a fight, where's the best place for you? And where were you once to start going to be fired once you advanced into Iraq?
I commanded from I think I'm correct in saying five different positions.
During that time, my headquarters was split into two, a rare that dealt with all the maintenance, portering administration, logistics and so forth.
And then my main, which dealt with the battle, the intelligence, the information, the firepower, the movement and so forth, that main was split again into an Alpha and Bravo and only six staff officers. I think I'm right in saying one of which is me had to move between those two parts of the main headquarters. I'll call them Alpha and Bravo for convenience. So Alpha is on the ground. Bravo is moving up behind one or other of the brigades as they advance.
And when I want it to stop, I want to go forward to command from that place. They were told to go down, set up, and then I would fly or on the first night drive to join them. And we did that five times, as I recall.
You're listening to news history. It's the 30th anniversary of the end of the first Gulf War. I'm talking to General Sir Rupert Smith all about it. More coming up after this. I'm very happy this episode, Denseness Snow's history is brought to you by Hello Fresh with Hello Fresh, you get fresh, obviously pre measured ingredients and mouthwatering seasonal recipes delivered right to your door. This is what we've all been waiting for, folks. My kids are about to turn into a piece of pasta.
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Don't miss this out people this is special offer get involved. Hello Fresh America's number one meal kit. And presumably another big difference from your forebears in North Africa in the Second World War is the ability to communicate and know where everybody else is.
All the time was revolutionized. We are not there then GPS largely been forced out of the maritime leisure industry. Gypsys, think back. I know your father sailed. You might have had handheld GPS in his boat in 1990. They were like a large housebreak. Well, that's what we had. Every man didn't have them. Anyone who was laying mines or involved in firing artillery had them. And then there were enough to go round so that most units down to companies had a GPS.
So I was confident people knew where they were going, but I didn't know where they were myself. The communications were another thing. Our communications in particular were primarily to the old fashioned VHF net radio, which provided there's lots of bits of high ground, you can cover quite a large area with the high ground was missing. And so we had a very limited range of some of those VHF radios unless you stopped and put a big M.. So, for example, on the night we attack, the weather is so bad I can't fly forward from whichever one it was alpha to brothy.
So I have to drive it was a four hour drive, and every hour we stop, we put up a twenty seven foot mast and I could then talk to my chief of staff and find out what the hell was going on. And then we collapsed the mast. And my ability to hear what was going on was probably about five miles. That was the radio limitation. Then we had a trunk communication system, which was excellent, but it to be maximized for north West German plane.
And it was an area system. We were now stretched from the port to wherever we were and we had to turn the radio signals, had to turn the area system into a linear system so that we could communicate. And of course, every time you attack, you went out from underneath your communications and it had to be built up behind you similarly to the logistic problems. And by the second day, we're fortunately we had the radios. We were back on the high frequency radios and fairly senior sergeants were having to remember their Morse because we hadn't been teaching the younger soldiers Morse for about five years by that time on that first night when you're going ahead and erecting that mast.
Were you pleased with the reports that you were hearing? Yes, we were making progress. I was trying to get up behind some the has been told to stop this attack towards an objective gold copper, if I remember correctly.
And was the speed of an advance quicker than you had hoped for or was it was about what you assumed was about what once we'd had lots of time to practice and collect the data as to how long it took to do some of these things with all these vehicles in the sand. We had those calculations. We carefully worked the march. Planning assumptions were the same across the force and the headquarters.
You were out to the west of the Kuwaiti border. You went all the way on the far western flank. But what were the state of the Iraqi defenses opposite you?
That I didn't attack those. We went through the breach. The United States Infantry Division, mine, they were extensive defenses.
Linear trench works in some depth similar to what one imagines the First World War trench systems were with a B anti-tank obstacle in front.
They had these groups behind the evident line of defense, which I called copper. And those and these look like tactical reserves capable of reacting to any attack on those positions. And that's why I said that the objective names are collections of enemy rather than places. And the reason copper got attacked was because it was the nearest one to seven course attack as it advanced.
When you did engage the enemy, how intense was that fighting or had there well, to resist been thoroughly broken down by air assault and other methods. We'd already begun to see evidence of evaporating morale with the number of prisoners and so forth that the 1st Infantry Division had taken. If I remember rightly, the attacks we carried out in the first 36 hours or so, they didn't just roll over. They defended themselves. They did what they could. But this enormous weight of artillery fire, not all of it, but a lot of it was coming in on them as the armored brigades went into the attack.
And as I say, the substantial amount of firepower that was available to me, a very large portion of it was being fired into the enemy groups as they were attacked. So you had an ability to destroy the enemy at a great distance. Yes. And that isn't to say that on a number of objectives, the infantry were dismantling and clearing them up. And there were one or two cases of warrior vehicles disgorging their infantry and positions being cleared. And these fights never lasted very long, which was part of my design, because basically you can win a fight.
The less casualties there are and the less resources that you've consumed and therefore, over time you move faster and faster.
Were you heartened by the thankfully small number of. Is that your division sustained and dare I say, were you even surprised by that? It was against the figures that could have been we had very few. But as I say, I deliberately plan to fight lots of little battles very fast, which reduces casualties.
So I was extremely pleased we had so few casualties yet the 55 tanks, were you pleased with the way your vehicles performed against those Soviet tanks that you must have spent so much time training and thinking about before the war, during your time in the army previous to that?
Yes, I remember that I was a generation older in comparison to what we would have faced in Germany if a challenger hit one of the 55 and then it was knocked out and quite often had the turret knocked off it. But what's the issue?
You realized that this war could be over really within a matter of hours. There's a world on all the maps called the body Albertine, this site can tell you, is more significant on the map than it is on the ground. But we were closed up and crossing that wardi when it was clear to me that we were no longer in the attack. We were now in pursuit. And this meant that you didn't deploy in quite the same way. So fantastic.
And other reasons. I bought the division into a column as opposed to attacking with the brigade side by side. And once you're in pursuit, you're moving ahead faster and faster and are prepared to take risks as a result.
We talk about brigades of armor and moving them into column. How many main battle tanks did you have approximately under your command at that time?
About 170. I may be a bit high. That included the reserve vehicles and of course, there weren't any more. Earlier on, you asked me a question about the logistics and finding the right target to attack and so forth. Another factor was that everything that was available was already there with me. If I cocked it up, there was no replacement. And so one had to fight the division in such a way that you could pull yourself out of the hole before you got stuck in it.
This also meant that I had to understand my armored vehicles not as something that could be replaced, but a finite fleet that I had to keep on the road, which is rather like the Navy have to consider it ships. I had to consider the armored vehicles, the guns and everything. I had very few replacement.
How does that compare to today's British army in terms of its armored component? I couldn't tell you how many tanks the British army got, but it's surely less than I had.
Did you feel the history weighing on you at that moment when you go into column to pursue the enemy, that you could be the last British general in history to command that size of an armored unit in battle? Were you aware of that?
No, I don't think that sort of thing occurred to me at all.
This is too busy with the job in hand. And what was your feeling upon the cessation of hostilities? I was actually knackered trying to think what next to do in that it was a cease fire. We didn't know it was all over. We knew it was a cease fire. So my first concern was to get ourselves arranged so that we could carry on a fight if one occurred. Secondly, there was clearly casualties and things to be sorted out and someone had to get on with that.
And my next sort of feeling was getting the rest of the division who were behind me up as quick as we could. I said those are the things I was concentrating at the time. It was an extraordinary atmosphere because all the oil wells had been set alight. The picture in my mind, and this was before the film was made, was that it was like going into Mordor with this black smoke everywhere, the oily soot that came from it, coating everything.
It was a very grim scene.
There was no optimism in the 1990s the way the UN came together to reject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. There was optimism, despite terrible events in Rwanda and indeed the events in the Balkans that you were also part of. But there was a sense in which we might be moving towards a world where we'd enjoy a great peace dividend following the Cold War. This was perhaps naive, but there would be less conflict. And you've written so thoughtfully about the enduring nature of conflict in our society.
Looking back 30 years ago, did you think that the 21st century would be as turbulent as it has been? Has it been a surprise to you?
I think I would say that I would have shared the view that we have a new dawn, if you like, at the end of the Cold War, and that we, the United Nations, have done something in liberating Kuwait. But then increasingly over that decade, you could see that the assumptions on which the world order had been based in 1945 were the assumptions on which all these institutions had grown up, but they'd grown up in the Cold War. And what we've seen to do in 1990 is to suppose that the assumptions of 1945 were still safe, were still valid, and we then went on, started to behave as though the Cold War hadn't happened, the economies hadn't changed and so on and so on, so forth.
And then slowly, the assumptions on which the United Nations and the world order construct began to break down. And nobody tried to reestablish the assumptions, perhaps because they couldn't. They're not there to be reestablished. And we're probably continuing to live through this. What I would call a revolution, a slow one like the industrial revolution of printing press and so on at the moment.
And is that revolution in reference to the rise of China, always talking about technology? Are they all of a piece? You talk about the Gulf in 1990, and it was always remarkable to me how the reference point of people reporting on it at the time or subsequently in commenting upon it, was always referenced to either trench warfare in the Somme or the Battle of Britain or Alamein. That was the reference points so that they could do the broadcast quickly and so forth.
They'd be understood. And yet it was a completely false picture. And I think that is largely continued. And the digital age is actually only made it more discordant because people can I see or think they are seeing what's actually going on and are trying to understand it in terms that have long past. Take Syria. I've yet to hear any broadcaster explain what is actually happening in Syria, they can do all the this is awful. This is a burning building.
This person's been gassed. But what is actually happening other than that, that very granular level is never covid because there's no capacity, I suspect, to be able to appeal in the three minute slot to a memory or a picture to explain. That you're talking to 1000 people in this because what is a key thing to understand about the nature of the world today or conflicts that you want to tell people about, what should we know? I call what we're living through at the moment as wars amongst the people, not only literally it takes place amongst the people of Syria being an example, but it also takes place within a theater.
The man who called the theater of operations was very prescient. It has now become a drama asserted that is played out amongst the people.
And the level of the fighting can be as low as what you saw on Capitol Hill in Washington a few weeks ago or as high as a armored division in the Yemen. But essentially, the understanding of what's happening and what one's trying to get across in using force in this way is to make your point in the drama. And if you can make your point in the drama, you win the fight. And it is also the nature of warfare. It's altered the way you run it.
And most of our institutions to go back to an answer to an earlier question are all built on the past and ministries of defense's foreign offices, et cetera, et cetera, and their responsibilities. And authorities were all constructed to handle a different form of war. And until we understand this institutional problem, we will fail in our wars amongst the people. So your successors have to be logisticians like you are. They have to be tacticians. They have to know about the technology.
They have to know about the men and the women. But now they also have to be drama producers. Yes. And command of these types of war is like being a producer of some gladiatorial contest in a Roman ampitheater. Only there's another producer with another set of gladiators and a different script trying to perform at the same time. And all around you in the ampitheater, the stands are stacked with a very partial audience who are paying attention by looking down the drinking straw of the Coca-Cola tin, which is my reference to television.
And the drinking straws point to where it's noisiest in the pitch and in the pitch mixed up with you and all the gladiators are the idiots who couldn't find the car park. The ticket touts an ice cream, sellers and so forth. And you've got to act, tell and write the most convincing script in the eyes of those people looking through their in stores. If you can do that, you win. You have to win the little fights. But if you take something like Afghanistan, I suspect the allies in Afghanistan have never lost a fight, but they haven't won the war.
Well, that sounds completely exhausting.
I'm going for a lie down. General Sir Robert Smith, thank you very much indeed for coming on television.
What your book is called The Utility of Force. And it's on sale now going give everybody. I read it when it first came out back in the day fresh out of university. I couldn't believe my luck. Thank you very much indeed for coming on this podcast.
Thank you for helping. School on is part in the history of our country. Oh, my God. And. Hope you enjoy the podcast just before you go a bit of a favor to ask. I totally understand. If you want to become a subscriber or pay me any cash, money makes sense. But if you could just do me a favor, it's for free. Go to iTunes or a podcast. If you give it a five star rating and give it an absolutely glowing review, perjure yourself, give it a glowing review.
I really appreciate that. Tough. Well, the law of the jungle out there and I need all the support I can get, so that will boost it up the charts. It's so tiresome. But if you could, I'd be very, very grateful. Thank you.
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