A Commander Reflects

Rupert Smith

A Commander Reflects
To cite this article: Smith, Rupert, “A Commander Reflects”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 3, Winter 2012, pages 4-7.

22 years ago, almost to the day as I write this, I deployed with my HQ from Germany to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Granby, the British part of Operation Desert Storm. I had been the commander of 1st Armoured Division, known during the operation as I UK Div, for less than two months.

In this article I reflect on certain elements of command that I think might be of use to a commander in similar circumstances in the future. Now memory is a dangerous thing. We know now what happened, when we didn’t at the time; we forget what did not happen, when we thought it might; and success is drawn upon to justify all decisions. In contrast, command is an exercise in forethought practised in the event; to decide what you want to happen, how it is to happen, making it happen in the face of resistance, and to these ends to organise to fight and command the battles intended. So please read what follows in this light.

After some debate in HQ CENTCOM, the overall Joint and Combined HQ, it was decided in late December 1990 that my division was to be subordinated to VII US Corps of 3 US Army. The Corps already consisted of four divisions plus an armoured cavalry regiment. 1 UK Div was to guard the Corps east flank as it attacked north and northeast to destroy the Iraqi Republican Guard and liberate Kuwait. The attack was to occur after air superiority and considerable attrition of enemy armoured forces had been achieved.

Although elements of the division in Germany had and were to deploy, a sizable element of my command in Saudi Arabia was drawn from other formations in both Germany and the UK. In round terms 1 UK Div consisted of some 20,000 men, 7,000 vehicles and 72 aircraft; all of which deployed into theatre through Jubayl on the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia. They were not all assembled with their equipment until the end of January 1991 and even then stores and ammunition were still flowing into theatre. My force was not a conventional division; in terms of combat and service support it was similar to a WW2 corps. It consisted of:

Recce Group: An armoured recce regiment, an artillery target locating unit, and an EW unit.

Two Armoured Brigades: One infantry heavy (two Warrior battalions and one Challenger battalion); the other tank heavy (two Challenger and one Warrior battalions) and, later, three air portable infantry battalions.[i]

Three Artillery Groups: one close support group of three battalions of M109; one general support group of a M110 battalion and an MLRS battalion of 18 launchers; and one AD group. In round terms the artillery represented a 30-fold increase in firepower over that available to a WW2 armoured divisional commander.

Engineer Group: Three armoured engineer battalions and a general support regiment.

Aviation Group: 36 Gazelle and Lynx helicopters and 36 support helicopters.[ii]

Signal Group: providing communications from the port forward to, and within, the Division.

Medical Group: dressing stations at first line for all formations, and three field hospitals.

Two Logistic Groups: transport, maintenance, stores, a tank transporter unit, bulk fuel handling units, etc.; one to work from the port forward, and the other to support the Division.

Although subordinated to a corps in the 3 US Army I was responsible for my own supply, maintenance, and medical treatment, from the port to wherever the battle took us. The start point for the attack into Iraq was 400km from the port, and the more we advanced the worse my logistic problems, it being at least another 400km to the Euphrates.

Furthermore, there were no reserves, except of my own making; I had already all that was available. Thus as well as having to supply, maintain and administer my force wherever it was, I would have to fight in such a way that I could recover myself if I got into trouble.

The enemy had plenty of time to prepare their defence. They were deployed behind substantial obstacles along the Saudi / Iraqi border and in considerable depth in Iraq and Kuwait. The enemy forces in the depth of the defence were primarily the Iraq Republican Guard. The VII Corps plan involved breaching the obstacle with 1 US Inf Div, then advancing north with the other divisions to destroy the Iraq Republican Guard. I UK Div, having passed through the breach and conducted a forward passage of lines through 1 US Inf Div, was to guard the east and south flanks of VII Corp’s attack. I was to be reinforced by a US artillery group.

I had the following principles for command in battle: simplicity of design; thorough preparation; sudden execution; rapid relentless exploitation; seek to dictate events rather than to control; and allocate to the same commander authority for control of recce, fire and movement to achieve an object.

On the basis that over time small fights won quickly incur the least logistic penalty, my intention was to fight quick small battles concentrating all available firepower on each objective in turn to destroy or, if necessary and temporarily, delay the enemy. These small objectives were to be attacked serially at a high tempo by each brigade or battle group in turn. Thus if one got into trouble the other could come to its help, and the one not engaged would be the focus of logistic support.

Operations in Kuwait, 25-27 February 1991


I intended to go in deep on a narrow front so as to gain the earliest possible contact with enemy elements moving toward the Corps flank. Advantage was to be taken of long-range engagements and night where the division had technical superiority. Static enemy positions were to be bypassed, and if the enemy were then to counter attack or move, my groupings must be able to operate cut off from each other; they must be big enough in terms of firepower, logistic and medical support to stand isolation.

To this end I decided to fight three simultaneous battles. This is not new now, but for a division to do this (at least in the British Army) was new then. I called them the Depth, Contact and Rear battles.

  • The Depth Battle was to be commanded by my artillery commander. He was to delay, disrupt, divide and destroy the enemy so as to present easily digested bite sized targets for the Contact Battle. All the artillery less that allocated to support the Contact Battle, the Reconnaissance Group and the attack aviation were grouped to his command.
  • The Contact Battle was to be fought by the two armoured brigade commanders, who (reinforced with artillery, engineer support and with their own logistic and medical elements) would be committed in turn to destroy enemy groupings.
  • The Rear Battle was to be commanded by my Rear HQ whose objective was to secure communications, establish area surveillance (including Chemical and Biological), and if necessary convoy logistic and medical columns so as to ensure the maintenance of the Depth and Contact Battles. Grouped to this command were: the Engineer Group (less those allocated to the support of the Contact Battle), the AD Artillery Group; reserve AFVs, and the air portable infantry.

To support this scheme, I decided that logistics and maintenance would be conducted on a different principle than hitherto. Instead of the standard system of demand, I changed to a directed system. Each grouping was to be logistically independent for 2-3 days and I would point the supply pipe at whomever I thought needed supply first. Additionally, I created a small reserve of equipment – guns, AFVs, etc., all manned and carried on transporters – together with a maintenance company; this Armoured Delivery battle group was commanded by an experienced commanding officer and grouped with the Rear Battle. In sum, I was handling my AFVs rather as an air force handles its aircraft; seeking to maintain a percentage on the line at any one time.

To command I split my HQ into a Forward and a Rear. The Forward HQ was split again into an A and B, to allow for rapid movement in keeping up with the battle. To move between A and B HQs I had a small rover group with an armoured escort. Alternatively I flew with a formation of armed helicopters. I did not have a separate Tactical HQ. I think if you are fighting a battle and your HQ is too big to be tactical, make it smaller, don’t spawn another.

In the period leading up to the attack we conducted an intensive intelligence exercise to understand not just where the enemy were, but how they were organised. I anticipated they would move to attack the corps flank. In the melee of such an action I wanted to be sure of concentrating on the actual threat to the flank, rather than perhaps the nearest enemy grouping to me. As a priority I wanted to destroy their capacity to act as a coherent whole. This exercise was frustrating and difficult. The deception plan required VII Corps to remain hidden in the desert. We could not collect information ourselves; we were reliant on CENTCOM resources. We were a low priority. Nevertheless, by the time we attacked we had located a number of groupings and I had formed an idea as to their organisation, albeit a different idea to that of CENTCOM.

Any understanding of this battle must start with the recognition that we had absolute air superiority. We could not have done what we did in the way we did it if we had not had this advantage. This was particularly evident when the division was passing through the breach and conducting the forward passage of lines with 1 US Inf Div; a manoeuvre that started in daylight. That rolling international traffic jam would have been a death trap if attacked from the air.

It was during this early phase that the flexibility or organisational mobility of my arrangements proved themselves. The Corps Commander changed the plan! The two divisions were superimposed in the breach; he wanted 1 US Inf Div to join the attack on my northern flank as soon as possible instead of remaining to secure the breach. After a brief discussion we agreed that I would continue to advance once my Deep and Contact Battles were clear of the cleared lanes. There were eighteen of them; all but one lane (in case I needed to evacuate casualties) would be used by 1 US Inf Div until they were clear. The result was that we attacked without logistic support and the Rear Battle linked up about a day later.

The change of plan had another consequence: the flank I was to guard was now anchored on the breach through which the fuel for the thirsty M1 Abrams tanks must flow if the Corps attack was not to halt for want of fuel. The enemy formations defending the Iraq border that we would bypass were going to be closer to the breach than we were. In addition my northern boundary was changed to give space for 1 US Inf Div which meant I had less room and time to defeat an attack on the Corps flank. My limited surveillance capability had to be redeployed.

By dawn after the passage of lines the Deep Battle had reconnaissance units overlooking a group of enemy we called LEAD some 90km from the breach. Columns of armoured vehicles could be seen driving down from the north to join LEAD. We know now that we were seeing the counter attack force assembling before advancing towards the breach some 24 hours after the event. A strong wind was lifting the sand and it was not flying weather. The Deep Battle now covered an area of about 90×40 sq. kms. In the Contact Battle three enemy groupings had already been destroyed and a brigade was about to be committed to deal with another group. The Deep Battle moved an MLRS battalion into line with the leading battle group that was reorganising after a successful assault on a group called ZINC, and attacked LEAD. Subsequently, as the weather cleared, aviation and aircraft joined the attack and the enemy counterattack was defeated. During the next 24 hours the brigades destroyed a number of enemy groups in turn, and every artillery unit was in action in either the Deep Battle or supporting the Contact Battles. It was pleasing to see the plan come together.

The following day we were held by VII Corps for about 12 hours on Phase Line Smash, our ‘limit of exploitation’. My extended formations began to close up and then we were in pursuit and exploiting as fast as we could into Kuwait. I had abandoned the Deep Battle because I had run out of reconnaissance and was receiving no information from Corps HQ. I could not wait for the reconnaissance battalion to reform and get ahead. I regrouped, forming an advance guard of a brigade group with artillery and engineers followed by my HQ, an artillery group and the aviation regiment, with the other brigade group in the rear of the column. The Rear Battle was reinforced with the reconnaissance battalion, engineers and some artillery, and the AD group was tasked with surveillance. Because of the span of this command and the large number of bypassed enemy I put the commander of the divisional engineers in command of this force. I think I should have done this from the outset; allowing my Rear HQ to concentrate on the administrative and logistic support of the command including the mass of PW and making communication easier between me and the Rear Battle commander.

27-28 February 1991


When the ceasefire was called shortly after we had crossed the Kuwait-Basra road we had fired just over 1600 tank rounds, 8500 of artillery and 2000 rockets. We had 17 killed and 31 wounded, and had lost some vehicles but no tanks to enemy action and mines. We had taken some 7000 PW, amongst them five generals taken in their HQs. This showed that our interpretation of their organisation had been correct and the long hours spent analysing photos for tracks in the sand to see who was visiting who had paid off. Although in the early stages there had been some local resistance to our attacks the enemy proved to be a poor lot. Demoralized and disorganised by the prolonged air attack, stunned by sudden heavy artillery bombardments and centrally controlled, they were unable to react quickly enough or to any effect.

I moved my Forward HQ five times and my Rear HQ twice. At divisional level radio communications were difficult. The flat desert restricted VHF range and at the speed we advanced it took time to build the radio trunk communications, a problem made worse by the decision to cut the division in half at the breach, and we were reliant on the HF guard net until the trunk communications had been established. This did not inhibit command because the design for battle vested control with subordinate commanders; leaving the direction, choice of objectives and priorities to me, which limited my need for information from my own command.

GPS sets were available and proved to be a great boon. Initially the designated boundaries and control lines worked well. However, as the battle developed matters became more confused. The passage of information within CENTCOM was not as fast as we were moving. We lost two Warriors and their crews to a USAF attack. After about 36 hours we had a number of blue on blue engagements. Commanders were becoming so tired that although the orders were being broadcast over the net they were only registering the information concerning their own call sign. When the man is exhausted I don’t think it will be any different with a display on a screen; he will have tunnel vision. The men who became the most tired were those who commanded a vehicle as well as performing some other function; the rapid advance meant they never rested properly. I am not convinced of the need for deputy commanders in battle but if I were to do the operation again I would ensure there were alternate vehicle commanders.

I had an excellent staff and we practised together during the deployment. Their competence together with my practice of devolving decision to as low a level as practical allowed me to handle a span of command that stretched from the port and ranged from field hospitals to close reconnaissance of the enemy. Their ability to handle mass in manoeuvre was essential to take advantage of the open gravel desert. I wonder whether current formation staffs could handle the change of plan in the breach as calmly and quickly as they did.

I was pleased with my design for battle. In the event it gave me considerable flexibility in both manoeuvre and in the application of fire. Nevertheless, the limited ability to acquire information for myself and to avoid ‘catching up with my headlights’ was its weakness. Modern communications allow the sharing of information acquired by other assets but this is not necessarily of the detail or currency required for an attack. The more we want precision and speed of response the more it is necessary to group reconnaissance and strike together. In my opinion a commander should be his own best intelligence officer and he should be provided with the appropriate assets to be so.

As I wrote in my report I think we should be careful as to what lessons we draw from this experience, for we had air superiority and were stressed more by our own success and boldness than the enemy. This is particularly true of our medical and logistic arrangements.

For the future I recommend the value of: planning from first principles instead of following the form and practice of the past, often justified as doctrine; directed logistics; organising into small self-contained groupings; and lowering decision levels.


[i] The infantry battalions were primarily used for PW handling, escort and guarding – Ed.
[ii] RAF Puma and Chinook – Ed.