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An Overview of 3rd Armored Division
Operations in the Gulf War

By SSG Gail Thueson
148th Public Affairs Detachment, 3AD PAO
From The Spearhead Magazine - Spring, 1991


The Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-91 began when Saddam Hussein directed the Army of Iraq to invade its tiny neighbor Kuwait on August 2 of 1990. The event, a brutal and massive sneak attack, was soon to directly affect the soldiers of the Third Armored Division at their garrisons in far away Germany.

This new threat, not in the forested hills of central Europe, but in the deserts of the Middle East, would be unlike anything the unit had ever faced before. It would eventually develop into the kind of battle that armor crews generally only dream of, and when it was over would provide new variants of modem warfare for historians and strategists to ponder and study. A short but intense battle, it gave soldiers of the Spearhead Division a chance to help crush the Iraqi Army like a paper cup and toss it into the waste basket of history.


The Spearhead saga began on November 8, 1990, as major elements of the division were wrapping up fall training at Hohenfels. Having spent over 150 days in the field in 1990, combat skills among the division's soldiers were honed to a razor's edge. For most of those soldiers, the word came not in formal orders, but from the White House. It came as President Bush announced to the nation that the Third Armored Division would be among those units called up and deployed to participate in the defense of Saudi Arabia. This phase of the crisis was code-named Operation Desert Shield, which upon combat became Desert Storm.

While not being caught completely off guard, division planners scurried to arrange the shipment of 18,000 soldiers and their gear to the Middle East. Component commanders, with orders in hand, could begin to do officially what they had been doing behind the scenes for months, getting their troops ready for combat roles in a desert environment.

A barrage of details assailed each soldier as he or she worked each day getting ready for the challenge ahead, and each night helping dependents plan for the unknown period of separation ahead. Getting affairs in order became the order of the day, both professionally and personally.

Advance parties for the various units that make up the division were dispatched to the Arabian Gulf in early December. As they departed, long streams of vehicles were beginning to wind their way via rail and convoy towards the ports of Europe. Duffel bags and rucksacks, the personal luggage of the soldier, formed veritable mountains at the departure terminal of the Rhein-Main Airport.

With gear packed and vehicles loaded aboard ships, troops said tearful good-byes. Soldiers soon to be baptized by fire on the battlefield, and whose bravery would never be questioned, were seen shedding tears as they bid their families fond farewell.

In Country

One hardship behind them, Third Armored flew to a new assignment and new challenges. For most, this adventure would begin with stopovers at places with strange-sounding names; King Abdul Aziz Port in Dammam, the "MEM Hotel" in Khobar, and the infamous "Cement City." These were stopover points, a place to wait for gear and equipment to arrive. When it finally did, soldiers and equipment went out to the deserts of northern Saudi Arabia via the MAR Dodge "take your life in your hands" highway.

At the end of the road awaited a vast and barren desert. It was, at first, an affront to the senses and as alien as the surface of some far-off planet. Featureless and desolate, it inspired an initial fear in most. How does one navigate with no reference points, no landmarks? Could anything live out here, without water and shade? These and a thousand other questions assailed the soldier in this new area of operations. Training and familiarization would provide the answers.

Within days, operating from what was loosely called "Camp Henry," that training would breed a new confidence in old skills. Moving through the desert with food and water, using a compass, shooting azimuths and reading maps, troops were soon confident again and ready for action. As part of VII Corps, they were ready to tackle Saddam's dragon. As the U.S. Army's premier heavy armor division, they were not only cutting new tracks in the desert sand, but new tracks in history.

United Nations Resolution 678 had condemned Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and called for the withdrawal of all troops and influence by Jan. 15,1991. Saddam Hussein, Iraq's despotic leader, thumbed his nose at the world and let the deadline pass. A coalition of more than 35 nations that opposed him were left with no choice but to force him out.

The War Begins

On January 17, barely two days after the deadline, hostilities began with the aerial bombardment of Iraq and occupied positions in Kuwait by U.S. and Coalition air forces. The whole operation became with the advent of hostilities Operation Desert Storm.

From the start, it was apparent that the Joint Forces Coalition would rule the skies over the theater of operations. Iraq's response, due to its ineffectual air force, was to launch Soviet-manufactured SCUD-A missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iraq hoped thereby to draw the Israelis into the fray and force a rift in the partly Arab coalition. Although some of the missiles got through, the attempt to force a rift was ultimately to fail.

Third Armored soldiers saw the war start from locations scattered throughout Saudi Arabia. Those already in the desert training continued getting ready for battle as scuds zoomed overhead on their way to targets in Dhahran and Riyadh. Bunkers got deeper and training intensified. Equipment, some still aboard ships in Dhahran Harbor, was sent to the front lines as fast as it could be unloaded and sent forward.

As the air war dragged on and the prospect of a ground war neared, Mac. Gen. Paul A. Funk, commander of the Third Armored Division, began looking for the right tool to train his troops for the final push north. He found it in two exercises: Hummex I and Hummex II.

Hummex I, which took its name from the lowly HMMWV (the vehicle that replaced the jeep), was an especially effective exercise that helped adapt the division's extensive European training to the desert environment. It gave commanders the knowledge, and troops the experience, they would need to defeat the Iraqis in battle.

The first exercise stressed mass movement and maneuver, and it gave commanders a chance to see where their troops would be in battle in relation to other units on the ground. It primarily used the HMMWV, the smallest and lightest vehicle in the U.S. inventory, thus sparing the heavy armored weapons systems, the MIAI and the Bradley fighting vehicle, undue war and tear. It gave planners a chance to try their newly adapted tactics in real live desert situations, without losing soldiers lives in combat to test them. It also gave troops an opportunity to gain confidence in their new environment by "hands on" training.

The second exercise, Hummed II, went one step further. Taking weaknesses uncovered in the first exercise out of the scenario, it afforded one more opportunity to learn by training; something that really pays off in lives saved during combat. This second effort used some of the tracked vehicles, although not all of the Division's heavy assets, and the lessons learned were most rewarding.

At this juncture, with all the Coalition ground forces lined up south of Kuwait, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Coalition Commander-in-Chief, pulled a card out of his sleeve that made the short, life-saving four-day war possible. Up to this point, Saddam and his military forces had been led to believe that that main thrust of the ground war would come through Kuwait. Indeed, all the troops seemed poised for the thrust.

But on February 16, the troops began to move. A press blackout and the Iraqi lack of eyes in the sky effectively hid the movement of more than half the troops westward, where they took up new positions south of Iraq's nearly undefended southern border. What the press was heralding instead was the imminent landing of numerous Marines in an amphibious attack on the shores of eastern Kuwait. The landings would never happen, but the undetected shift of troops was to pay wonderful dividends.

Waiting for a frontal assault, the Iraqis were stunned and surprised on February 24 and 25 when they discovered Allied troops of the VII and XVIII Corps pulling an end-run up the western Kuwaiti border and slamming the rear door shut on Iraqi forces trying to escape Kuwait.

The Third Armored Division, who aptly code-named their part in the assault "Operation Desert Spear," were to play a vital part in the battle. From their new and secret location at Log Base Echo some 75 miles west of the Iraq-Kuwait-Saudi border, they would hurl themselves across minor Iraqi defenses on the afternoon of the 24th with enough momentum to carry them through several divisions of defenders, including three divisions of the Republican Guard.

This juggernaut was launched from Forward Assembly Area butts, a narrow series of positions not much more than 10 miles wide and 35 miles deep where the Third Armored troops had waited out the last few days of the air war; waited with apprehension for the curtain to go up on a stage where they would perform their well-rehearsed ballet of battle.

To their west, on the left flank, crouched an equally eager First Armored Division and to the east, on the right flank, were elements of the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment. When the moment was finally ripe on February 24, the command came down to attack.

In essence, the war had already commenced on the ground. All along the front, scouts had been conducting probing operations to seek out enemy weak points and exploit them. Scouts from 4th Bn., 8th Cav. of Second Brigade had in fact crossed the berm on the afternoon of the 23rd just after 1500 hours. Less than two hours later, they had penetrated several miles into Iraq and managed to capture over 200 prisoners.

Winning Tactics

When an armored division enters battle, one of the favored formations is the wedge. This formation, which is comprised of one brigade out front with two more following closely behind, one on each side and slightly to the rear, looks on paper like a spearhead. It is exactly the type of formation that earned the division its fame in WWII, because it was the Third Armored Division that spearheaded so many drives against the enemy.

The corridor through which the division was to attack was too narrow for this formation, and so another was employed. It involved the use of two brigades abreast, with the third in reserve. Although not its first choice. Third Armored used the formation to plow through the opposition and flatten a surprised and shaky foe.

When word to cross the berm and attack finally arrived on the afternoon of February 24, the Spearhead Division wasted no time. Within half an hour, lead elements of 1st and 2nd Brigade were across and had moved to contact in the attack. Since the defenders of Iraq were caught off guard, resistance was light. The first day of battle was marked by the advance of the division some 18 miles into Iraq, and the taking of over 200 prisoners.

By day two, the word was out that this was no feint resistance began to stiffen. Early that morning, at 0300 hours, elements of 4/7 Cavalry took over 50 prisoners. But by first light, battle logs were to note that enemy reinforcement had been spotted moving south and west, to meet the attackers. The new day would bring first battle to most of the division's soldiers.

At 1115 hours, with all elements across the berm, a frag order came down making it official. ". .. attack abreast, with 2nd Brigade in the north and 1st in the south, 3rd in reserve." Elements of Combat Aviation Brigade, which supported the operation throughout, were given the task of screening the southern boundary along the attack route, since this is where the bulk of the enemy was expected to be.

The day was marked by hard pushing to penetrate as deeply and as fast as possible. Objective Collins, an area just south of Basra, where the western Kuwaiti border turns east towards the gulf, had been designated at the outset as the first goal to be reached. As Iraq responded to the invasion of its own territory, what had started as skirmishes rapidly escalated into full-scale engagements and later, battles.

In their rush to gain as much territory as possible, it was sometimes necessary to bypass areas. This happened late in the afternoon when 3rd Brigade, following in reserve, swept a town bypassed by First and Second Brigades. The sweep turned up 270 startled enemy prisoners. By the time the sun set on day two, the division's thrust had pushed another 53 miles into Iraq and put it just outside Objective Collins, a feat that came much sooner than anyone had anticipated. Day two's activities had seen impressive numbers of enemy soldiers and vehicles destroyed and the capture of almost 250 additional prisoners.

The 26th dawned clear and windy. By early morning, the two leading brigades were rapidly closing on Objective Collins, and the enemy was changing. As the Spearhead Division drew nearer its objective, they found themselves facing a much tougher foe, the first units of the highly-touted Republican Guard. These troops showed much less inclination to turn and run when the fighting got tough. As the day wore on, tanks of these two opposing armies rushed each other like medieval jousters, main guns spewing fire and death. There was more than enough action for everyone.

Nor did darkness bring a halt to the death dance. By 1840 hours,First Brigade was able to call in the destruction of 23 tanks during the day, including a number of T-72s, the Iraqi "big gun." Shortly thereafter, as the weather worsened and a windstorm commenced, Combat Aviation Brigade Apaches reported their tally for the day; 14 AMP'S, two trucks and some artillery. But the evening also brought sorrow. At 1927 hours, 4th Bn., 32nd Armored reported the loss of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to tank fire. The division's first combat loss included two killed, three wounded.

This third day of battle raged on into the windswept and stormy night. As visibility dimmed, not only from the darkness but also from blowing sand, American technology proved its worth. The thermal sighting systems on board the M1A1 tanks and Bradleys kept picking up targets, giving the edge to Spearheaders. By 2400 hours, the division, bloodied but undaunted, could say with pride it had pinned the ears back on a stout enemy.

The third day of battle merged without pause into the fourth. Somewhere in the darkness, the calendar changed but enemies in combat were too busy to note their passing. Second Brigade, which had borne a good deal of the action, was to report an additional death and another wounded soldier soon before dawn.

During the night, Third Brigade, who had been mopping up behind and still finding plenty of action, passed through the Second Brigade lines and allowed the Second to drop into the rear. The steamrolling of the Republican Guard continued. Prisoners taken were able to confirm intelligence reports. The Spearheaders were sweeping the vaunted Tawakalna Division, the Iraqi 52nd Armored Division and elements of the 17th and the 10th Armored Divisions.

It was on this, the fourth day, that the division hit Objective Collins, and in order to pursue a faltering enemy executed a brilliant maneuver. Wheeling as one to the right, the division turned east and carried the fight into Kuwait. Exacting a heavy toll, Third Armored thundered into Kuwait, finding and surprising an enemy as it did so.

Defensive positions dug by the Iraqis faced south, and in some cases, the division came upon them from the rear. With no way to turn their turrets from within their positions, the tanks of the once-proud Iraqi Army fell victim to their own arrogance. Close coordination between advancing elements enabled the Division to exact a heavy toll.

The united fingers of Air Force close air support, artillery, combat aviation, infantry and armor closed into a fist that clobbered all who dared stand against it, and delivered a combined punch that sent the Iraqis quickly to their knees. Although fighting continued throughout the day and into the evening, by nightfall intelligence reports indicated that Iraq' s 10th Armored Division had been destroyed, and what little remained of the 17th was withdrawing. The Tawakalna and 52nd had suffered similar fates. Just before midnight, the order came down that would conclude the fighting; "Attack to complete the destruction of the 17th/52nd Divisions in sector."

From then on, it was a mop-up exercise. All Coalition objectives, to include those handed to the Third Armored Division, had been reached, and thanks to superb training, they were met more painlessly than had ever been expected. At 0634 on the 28th, one of the last orders to be given during the land war was issued to Third Bn., 8th Cavalry. It said simply to attack to the east and knock out anything hostile before 0800, when the cease-fire was to begin. On that note, the ground war ended.

In just 100 hours. Third Armored had steamrolled over some of the world's best desert fighters equipped with good equipment. While the air war was successful in shattering morale, the Third Armored had, in four short days destroyed more tanks, armored vehicles and equipment than had the air war in nearly 40. It was a victory in every sense of the word, and something to which the mighty Third Armored Division can look to with pride.

Third Armored Division soldiers take war seriously. With actions that display exemplary leadership and superbly trained precision, they can enter a shiny new and well-earned page to history.


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