The Royal Navy and the Gulf

The Gulf Region is important to Britain for a number of reasons: the area is a major source of the world's oil supplies, the United Kingdom has important trade links with many Gulf States, there is a large ex patriot community and any conflict is likely to have a significant impact on countries of Europe or NATO. It is thereofre unsurprising that the senior service has played a large military role in the Gulf since the Second World War.

On July 14th 1958 a military coup led by General Kassem brought the reign of King Fasil of Iraq to an end. The Light Fleet Carrier H.M.S Albion was ordered to Malta to offload reinforcements to support the British Army and King Hussein of Jordan. She left Portsmouth on 22nd July taking with her 42 Commando of the Royal marines and the 19th Infantry Brigade of the British Army together with 500 vehicles. Three years later the Royal Navy was back when fears of an invasion of Kuwait led to the deployment of Albion's sister ship H.M.S Bulwark together with 6,000 marines from 42 Commando. The Marines were landed by Whirlwind helicopters and the threat of invasion was lifted. Twenty years later, during the Iran - Iraq war , Operation Armilla was launched in order to protect British shipping interests in the Gulf Region and provide a British presence in the area. After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991 it has taken on the added task of enforcing United Nations sanctions on Iraq

Persian Gulf War- Operation Granby

Build Up

Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 at a time when the Armilla patrol consisted of H.M Ships Jupiter, York and Battleaxe supported by R.F.A Orangeleaf. This force was later augmented with Type 42 Destroyer H.M.S Gloucester. The ships had the task of enforcing the UN blockade and by April 1991 the Royal Navy alone had carried 3,171 challenges and 36 boardings. Meanwhile in Autumn 1990 Ark Royal was put on thirty days notice to sail, although the government were keen to stress they had no immediate planes to send a carrier to the Gulf. Instead Ark Royal was deployed to the Mediterranean to head 'Task Group 323.2' although her departure from Portsmouth on the 10th of January was delayed by high winds and a force nine gale. The Task Group comprised of H.M. Ships Sheffield, Olmeda, Regent and later Exeter and Manchester and was designed to support US forces and allied communication lines in Mediterranean, provide a credible force to reassure to Egypt, Turkey and other anxious states should the conflict spill over and also to keep a watch on the activities of Libya. On August 13th the minesweepers Cattistock, Hurworth, Atherstone left Rosyth and a mother ship, Herald, left Plymouth. Tanker Olna left Devonport on August 16th followed a few days later by stores ship Fort Grange deploying with 2 Sea King helicopters from 846 Squadron and 20 hospital beds. The Forward Repair Ship R.F.A Diligence was diverted from the Falklands to the Gulf to provide battle damage repair should the need arise while R.F.A Argus sailed from Devonport having been converted into a Primary Casualty Reception Vessel (PCRV) complete with an 100 bed air conditioned hospital built in one of her hangers together with 20 doctors and forty nurses. Unlike designated hospital ships she was able to enter the war zone in relative safety as she was armed. She carried with her 4 Sea King Mk 4 Helicopters from 846 Naval Air Squadron for the evacuation of casualties.

A UN deadline for withdrawal was set for 15th January 1991. In the meantime forces continued to build up- York, Battleaxe and Jupiter were relived by Gloucester, Brazen, London and Cardiff and Commodore Christopher Craig succeeded Commodore Paul Haddocks as commander of the UK task force. H.M.S Manchester was called forward from Task Group 323.2, which had been supporting US forces in the Mediterranean, and was replaced in that group by the Leander Class Frigate Charybdis. With war looking like an ever more likely eventuality the task force prepared itself for combat . For instance the flagship H.M.S London spent the day before the deadline undertaking air defence exercises in conjunction with RAF Jaguar aircraft while RFA Argus underwent practices in preperation for any possible chemical weapon attack. By the time of the deadline the United States Navy had six aircraft carriers in place and an air attack began the next day.

Action

Six Lynx helicopters (armed with Sea Skua Air to Sea Missiles) .were sent from 829 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) to the Gulf on four Royal Navy frigates. In total the Lynx helicopter was responsible for 15 Iraqi ship kills, at least five of which were made by a single helicopter, Lynx 335 of H.M.S Cardiff. The various confrontations are detailed below:

Six Sea King Mk4 helicopters from 845 Naval Air Squadron and six from 848 Squadron (which had been reformed and recommissioned that December) were deployed independently of the fleet. They were transported to the Gulf on the Atlantic Conveyer and provided support for the 1st Armoured Division

With the exception of threat posed by some 2,500 mines resistance to the allied fleet was fairly limited. Although at one point H.M.S Brazen came under fire off Kuwait, the only attempted airbourne attack on the fleet, which came on January 24th , was prevented by allied jets based in Saudi Arabia. However, perhaps one of the most dramatic events of the war involving the Royal Navy was the attempted Iraqi attack on the American battleship Missouri on the 25th February 1991. The 57,256 ton battleship and her sister Wisconsin had launched tomahawk missiles against Baghdad and fired their 16 inch guns in anger against shore positions. In revenge two Chinese manufactured anti-ship Silkworm missiles were fired from an Iraqi shore position. The first landed in the water without effect while the British air defence destroyer, H.M.S Gloucester, fired two of her Sea Dart missiles at the second one, destroying it in the sky with only seconds to spare. This earned Gloucester a high reputation and the nick-name "Fighting G". Later in the war Gloucester assisted the mine clearence effort by sinking drifting mines of Kuwait with her gunfire.

The mining of the United States Iwo Jima Class LPH U.S.S Tripoli* and the Ticonderoga Class AGEIS Cruiser U.S.S Princeton, both on February 18th 1991, highlighted the need for mine countermeasure support in the Gulf. With an allied fleet that included eight American aircraft carriers the risk was too great. In addition to the mines laid recently by Iraq there were mines left over from the Iraq-Iran War that had ended only a few years before. Eight Royal Navy minesweepers were deployed to the gulf and together they disposed of over 1000 mines. Hurworth swept nine mines while Bicester, a veteran of the Falklands Campaign, swept enough to gain the distinction of clearing more mines than any minesweeper since the Second World War. Atherstone, Hurworth, Ledbury, Cattistock and Dulverton sailed with US Battleships Missouri and Wisconsin and LPH Tripoli as mine countermeasure escorts and soon after the cease-fire Cattistock was the first RN ship to enter Kuwait, sweeping the way for U.S Command Ship LaSalle. Brocklesby, Brecon and Bicester arrived after the war ended, but still had the important task of sweeping unfound mines. *the irony was that the Tripoli was acting as a command ship for the mine disposal operations.

The Royal Fleet Auxiliary played an important part in the war too, supporting not just the Royal Navy but also the foreign warships of the allied fleet. RFA Diligence helped repair the American warships damaged by mines while casualties from the Tripoli were treated onboard R.F.A Argus. Supply ship Olna was on hand for most of the conflict carrying the 21st Air Defence Battery and two Sea King Helicopters. Arriving in August 1990 she departed breifly in December for a maintenance period in Singapore (during which time her helicopters operated from the Dutch ship HNLMS Zuiderkruis) but returned to the Gulf in January. During the conflict she operated furthur North than any other replenishment ship as the Americans were reluctant to send their warships any nearer to Iraq after the minings of Tripoli and Princeton.. Sistership Olmeda sailed as part of Task Group 232.2, supporting allied ships operating in med while . Sir Galahad, Sir Percivale, Sir Bedivere and Sir Tristram transported heavy equipment- Sir Bedivere carried twelve tanks for example. R.F.A Resource carried supplies and equipment belonging to the 7th Armor brigade and upon arrival served in a traditional fleet replenishment role. Sir Galahad also carried two units of Royal Navy Divers to assist in mine clearance operations.

In May 1991 Opossum followed a while later by sister submarine Otus returned to H.M.S Dolphin from the Gulf in traditional Far East Camouflage colours (black and duck egg blue). Both vessels were flying the Jolly Roger, a symbol of a successful war patrol . It is probable that they had been involved in SAS and SBS reconnaissance operations possibly in preparation for the eventuality of an amphibious assault - the Iraqis feared an amphibious assault and accordingly deployed six divisions.

Cardiff returned home to Portsmouth on 14th March 1991 having been relived by H.M.S Exeter. Brazen, London and Gloucester also left in March replaced by Brave, Brilliant and Manchester. At the end of April Bicester, Brocklesby, and Brecon replaced Cattistock, Atherstone and Hurworth while Herald was replaced by sistership Hecla. Hurworth arrived home 25th April 1991 and after a public outcry over lack of recognition the crews of Royal Navy minesweepers received the General Service Medal with a Gulf Clasp while Hurworth's commanding officer received the DSO.

Above: The Batch 2 Type 22 Frigate H.M.S London was the flagship of the British fleet in the Gulf. Thanks to the webmasters of Britian's Small Wars for providing this picture (see their Gulf section for more on the particpation of Britain's armed forces in Desert Storm.)

Above: A Royal Navy Hunt Class mine countermeasures vessel operating with the Allied fleet in the Gulf.Thanks to the webmasters of Britian's Small Wars for providing this picture (see their Gulf section for more on the particpation of Britain's armed forces in Desert Storm.)

Post War Gulf Operations

Almost immediately after the Gulf War ended Royal Navy Sea King helicopters were deployed to participate in the Kurdistan Relief effort and since the war the navy has continued to contribute to the Armilla Patrol and has helped enforce the no-fly zones and trade embargo

In October 1997 Iraq prevented United Nations Weapon Inspectors from carrying out their task provoking a tense situation that was eventually diffused by Russian mediation. When disruption occurred again in January 1998 the aircraft carrier Invincible (Commanded by James-Burnell-Nugent) sailed to the Gulf from the Mediterranean. She was escorted by the frigate Coventry and destroyer Nottingham with the auxiliary Fort Victoria. In addition to Fleet Air Arm FA2 Sea Harriers from 800 squadron Invincible operated RAF Harrier GR7s. Although the primary purpose of her presence was to add weight to the diplomatic negotiations Invincible worked alongside the American carriers in enforcing the no fly zones. Most of the force was provided by the Americans with the USS Nimitz (later replaced by George Washington) and USS Independence along with their powerful battlegroups. Furthermore H.M. Ships Bridport, Inverness, Sandown, Herald and R.F.A Diligence were in region as part of a prescheduled MCMV exercise It is also believed that the nuclear submarine H.M.S Spartan was in region during the tensions. Despite a last minute solution being reached by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Invincible was relived in March 1998 by sistership Illustrious, escorted by the frigate Somerset and supply ship Fort George.

When Iraq refused to cooperate again, this time in October 1998 the UN started to withdraw its personnel. Operation Desert Fox began on 15th December and after three nights of air strikes ended on the 18th. During the brief conflict the Royal Navy Type 22 Frigate H.M.S Boxer provided air defence for the United States carrier Enterprise in the form of radar surveillance and anti missile cover. H.M.S Cumberland was also on station along with the tanker Brambleleaf. This was Boxer's last deployment before decommissioning. Two days later it was announced that H.M.S Invincible would deploy to the Gulf. She departed Portsmouth on the 9th January, escorted by Type 42 Destroyer H.M.S Newcastle and the supply ship Fort Austin. Re supplying at Cyprus on the way the three ships arrived in the Gulf at the end of January and joined H.M Ships Boxer and Cumberland which together with the tanker Brambleleaf, were already on station. Armed Forces minister Doug Henderson stated:

"The Prime Minister made it clear at the end of Operation Desert Fox that, although specific military action had been brought to a successful conclusion, we were not for one moment going to relax our watch on Saddam. HMS INVINCIBLE sails on Saturday to add weight to the substantial capability already deployed in the Gulf. This is the clearest possible signal that our efforts to find a way forward on the diplomatic front remain firmly underpinned by a readiness to use military force again, if need be, to keep him contained. I am confident that the ship's company will meet the task ahead of them with all the professionalism and excellence for which our armed forces are renowned."

This was the third time in two and a half years that Invincible was in Gulf. She remained on station until being ordered to Yugoslavia to participate in Operation Allied Force.

H.M.S Cumberland

Above: The Type 22 Batch 3 Frigate HMS Cumberland (F85) executes a sharp turn to port in the Arabian Gulf with American nuclear powered aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) in the background. The picture was taken on November 17 1998 when both ships were patrolling the Gulf in support of Operation Southern Watch. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Shawn Eklund).

H.M.S Illustrious

Above: The United States Carrier John C. Stennis (CVN-74) pictured on April 9, 1998 steaming alongside HMS Illustrious (R06) while operating in the Arabian Gulf with the British and the Dutch in support of Operation Southern Watch. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Robert Baker).

H.M.S Invincible

Above: Crew members aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) watch from the ship's hangar bay as the British Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Invincible (R05) comes alongside as the two ships operate in the Persian Gulf on March 5, 1998. Both carriers are deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Southern Watch. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kevin Graves, U.S. Navy).

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© Written and researched by Jeremy Olver. First uploaded April 1999. Disclaimer.