Not every BA flight made it
out of Kuwait. Photo of tail of BA Flight 149 that was
captured at Kuwait Airport the day Iraq invaded, whilst
en route to Kuala Lumpur – and the aircraft subsequently
TRIP to Kuwait, Headquarters British Forces Middle East
(HQBFME) had the distinct feel of end of term about it.
Believe it or not, however, we were still finalising the
procurement of some of the Urgent Operational
Requirements (UORs) which hadn’t been delivered in time
for the war.
In particular, the artillery smoke rounds I had sourced
from South Africa – still a pariah state as most of the
international community was concerned – eventually
turned up – all 5,000 of them – but they were never
used. I dare say they’re still in some ammo store
somewhere ready to be used, or maybe they were fired
during the more recent military adventures in
Afghanistan and/or Iraq (again).
It had become clear that it wasn’t just the purchase of
the smoke rounds which had been unnecessary. Vast
amounts of kit had been sent out to Saudi Arabia but
never used, either because nobody knew where it was or
because it couldn’t be found. The main depot in theatre,
62 Ordnance Company, had expanded to cover many acres
and there were literally thousands of containers and
boxes there. Many of these were never even opened, much
less logged and distributed.
Some front-line units had become so frustrated by the
usual supply system, which had been overwhelmed by the
scale of the task, that they had resorted to sending
their own men back to the depot to find the bits and
pieces they so desperately needed. This further
exacerbated the problems, because now there were
additional bodies rooting through the opened boxes
looking for what they wanted.
If any lesson was going to be taken from the Gulf War it
had to be the pressing requirement for a comprehensive
stock monitoring and tracking system to enable the army
to keep tabs on what had been sent and where it was
stored. No doubt there’s some sort of barcode scheme
nowadays, but it got to the point where we were never
actually completely sure, for example, of how many tanks
we had in theatre.
We did have a little bit of fun on the social side,
however, as the permanent expatriate Brits in Riyadh
kindly did their level best to entertain as many of us
as possible. For our part, we were free to move around
Riyadh again and had the free time to do it. On one
memorable occasion, a few of us were invited down to the
Diplomatic Quarter to the residence of one of the
British military representatives for a cocktail party.
Also at this party was a smattering of nurses from 205
Field Hospital, a Territorial Army (TA) unit which
recruited in the Glasgow area.
This organisation had been mobilised and sent out to the
Gulf in January, and at least one of the flights
carrying its personnel had arrived at King Khaled
International airport in Riyadh in the middle of a SCUD
raid. This was indeed an unfortunate baptism of fire;
it’s bad enough arriving in a strange country in the
middle of the night, but to do so in the middle of a
missile raid and have to scramble into your NBC kit the
minute you hit the tarmac is doubly unfortunate.
It didn’t seem to have caused the nurses at the party
any permanent harm, though, and they were in fine
spirits. We spent a very pleasant evening in their
company, were careful with our alcohol intake, thanked
our host and left. Our erstwhile companions, on the
other hand, were not so abstemious and took full
advantage of the drink supplied, having been teetotal
since their arrival in country. An unfortunate and
embarrassing episode then ensued as they too took their
leave; whilst shaking hands with her hostess on saying
goodbye, one of the nurses let two cans of beer tumble
from where she had concealed them under her coat. We
were mortified at this violation of our hosts’
hospitality, but they never batted an eyelid.
Time came to thin out personnel in HQBFME.
Extraordinarily, we were informed that individuals would
not be told directly that they were surplus to
requirements, but that if their names did not appear on
the next day’s duty roster they could assume that was
the case. What a ham-handed way to deal with drawdown, I
thought, and it was very poor man management. I have to
admit, though, that despite the manner in which the
information was disseminated, I was more than delighted
when my name did not appear on the duty list. I could
On 10th March I got final confirmation that my services
were indeed no longer required and I started to make
preparations to leave. The procedure was actually quite
easy; the transport and movement gurus were in the same
building and I simply had to find the first flight with
space on it and book myself on as a passenger. That
done, all I had to do was wait, in my case for only four
days. I handed in my trusty NBC kit and posted my
temperate green and brown combat kit back to Germany,
thereby ensuring that I’d have no option but to swank
back in my desert kit. I reckoned that was the very
least I was entitled to after a three-month enforced
sojourn in the Middle East.
Notwithstanding that my name was firmly on the flight
manifest, bitter experience of past RAF transport
movements had taught generations of servicemen not to
expect anything to happen until it actually happens.
That final night in the Marriott one of my compatriots
opened a specially hoarded bottle of contraband whisky
in celebration, which was very generous as he himself
had a few weeks to go before he was repatriated.
Finally, after what seemed like an age of waiting, my
last day in Saudi Arabia arrived. I have to be honest
and say I felt not one iota of sadness or nostalgia at
the thought of leaving. I said my goodbyes in HQBFME
without too much fuss. Farewells in the Services are
never very emotional events because they are a normal
part of everyday life and therefore expected. With a
posting system that moved people around roughly every
two years you can’t afford the luxury of heart-wrenching
farewells. In any case, I would meet up with these
people again, so I just shook hands with everyone and
Typically, the flight left at 0220 hours local time –
the middle of the night again. Thus my little adventure
ended as it had begun, at possibly the most unedifying
time for any journey. I was also pretty sceptical that
the flight would leave on time, for the one the night
before had been five hours late. But to my pleasant
surprise there was no real problem. Take-off was only 40
minutes late, and the ‘plane was a civvy one – British
Airways doing their bit to take the boys and girls home.
The atmosphere on the flight was understandably jolly as
all passengers were just delighted at getting out. For
the first time in my experience on a military flight we
were handed a tin of beer and half a bottle of wine
each, which of course added to the festive air.
Obviously some wise individual had worked out that the
dangers of drunken mayhem on board flights out of Saudi
were infinitesimally small compared to the dangers of
soldiers denied any alcohol over many months hitting the
town centres of Europe and over-indulging.
Accordingly, it appeared that a pre-emptive strike had
been authorised, so to speak. It was probably a very
sensible move, for it took the edge off many ambitions
to drink the nearest bar dry on return to civilisation.
The immediate practical result, however, was to send
everybody on the flight to sleep within about 45 minutes
of take-off, and most remained that way until touchdown
in Germany at RAF Wildenrath some hours later.
I was delighted to find the CO’s staff car, plus driver,
waiting for me. I loaded all my gear into the boot of
the car as quickly as I could and we were off, with me
rather self-consciously wearing my 9mm pistol plus
ammunition on my belt. It was a long two-and-a-half-hour
drive and I felt a bit odd in my sand-coloured desert
combat uniform as we sped past the damp green fields of
the German farmland. But soon enough I was standing on
my own front doorstep and just pleased to be ‘home’ at
In retrospect, had it all been worth it? On balance I
thought not, and I still harboured doubts over the
morality of the whole escapade. I guess I’d have been
more content if I had seen anything that had warmed me
to the people and societies of that particular region,
but I had not. But we had done what we had been asked to
do, for better or for worse, and that was sufficient for
the time being.
To come in Part 30; back to normal.