The Mother of all Battles
by Terry Walker
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Within a few days, following the allied initiation of retaliation, we were now getting into the routine of what was happening. The air raid sirens would sound with a deafening and ear piercing tone and it was on with your chemical suits, now a lot quicker then before, for an undetermined period of time that might be only 2 hours but knowing it could be as many as 6,8,or even 24, who would know, it was all second nature and accepted. The CSM would make his obligatory rounds and go around the camp area, checking that the NBC Sentries were ok and that the equipment was working properly.
Our main role, away from the re-supply and organisation of equipment, was that of camp security. Manned posts were there to ensure security from human intruders; from the chemical and biological viewpoint our primary warning systems were reliant on technology. Technology that, through many years of training, we were assured that these were the best pieces of equipment available and second to none.
To detect Nerve Agents we had deployed the NAIAD. It was upon these pieces of monitoring equipment that we were to rely upon to save our lives or suffering in the event of an attack involving Nerve Agents. In the event of a chemical attack we were also at the mercy of a small hand held chemical agent monitor (CAM) that was held by the NBC sentries. For most of the time these monitors sat, like mute colleagues, in the corner of the guard posts, mostly in a bid to forget that they were there in a hope that they would not be needed.
This however was not to be the case. These monitors were to install more fear in an individual then all the air raid sirens and Scud missiles in the Middle East. When the sirens went off it meant that the radar had detected Scuds being launched from Iraq, and there was little time to change into your chemical suits, take cover, and wait. If the monitors went off, it would mean that you had, maybe a second, possibly two if the wind was blowing away from you. Within that time, respirators would have to be hastily donned, the noddy suit had to go on and, as if that was not enough to do inside one or two seconds, the rest of the unit had to be alerted.
My first real fears were to be realised when for the first time in my life I was to experience the screaming of the NAIADs for real. It was not the noise that was so scary as what that noise meant.
Six of us were required to go to the docks, to collect a shipment of vehicles. At 1830 we piled into the back of the Land Rover, and made our way, light-heartedly to the docks, not a great distance only 4 miles or so, but far enough away to cheer us up. To add to the cheerfulness of everyone we had survived the past 3 or 4 hours without the air raid sirens going off, and this instilled a sense of relaxation though there was still an element of alertness amongst us.
On arrival we were told that the ship would not be in until 0130hrs, and this left little to do other than to sit around or get some sleep. I took the opportunity to clean my personal weapon, a 9mm Sterling sub-machine gun (SMG) which was a driver's personal weapon, not that it was dirty but this was my assurance that should I have to use it I could rely on its condition not to let me down. It was a nice evening and, with the smell of the sea being blown in on the breeze, it provided an element of escapism as I walked around the docks after cleaning my weapon.
I walked around with one of the lads, Phil Sweeney, a sergeant in the stores platoon who became a good friend. He was one of those sergeants who could take a good joke and didn't mind having the piss taken out of him. I used to call him 'Monkey Hanger', because he was from Hartlepool.
To our amazement we found an American burger bar in the middle of the dock area, a bonus indeed. At about 0115hrs the ship finally docked. We knew that we would have to wait half an hour before we could board her and set about the task of removing the vehicles. There were other units there to collect their own vehicles in addition to ours, 12 Air Defence Regiment, who I had served with back in the 80's. As we stood around, sharing cigarettes and joking with the others, the main topic of conversation was the disbelief that the previous night's attack had come unheralded and without the hint of an air raid. It was not as if we were at war and bore more resemblance to a group of individuals meeting on the local cricket pitch to talk away the evening with idle banter and stories.
Finally boarding the ship I started the task in hand and readily attacked the supporting straps securing one of our vehicles on the top deck. Time passed quickly though, ensured that by the time the vehicle was free I was starting to feel knackered. Thankfully sitting behind the steering wheel I manoeuvred the vehicle onto solid ground, pulling into the parking area I sat still for 5 minutes to settle myself down. Looking at my watch it was 0220hrs and realised that it had taken me little over half an hour to free the vehicle.
I stuck my head out of the vehicle cab to get some fresh air, and all of a sudden, and without warning, the silence was broken with two huge explosions. The alarms all around the area started to whistle, to scream and then the air raid sirens started. There was near panic all around as everyone suddenly realised that we were now the target for Scud missiles. There was no time to worry about the lack of air raid sirens prior to the airburst; this was to come later, as were the denials that the air raid sirens had not provided the early warning. Saddam had scored a point against our technology.
The troops were running around in different directions while trying to pull on their noddy suits at the same time. Some, permanently stationed at the docks were heading towards their own air raid shelters, while those not familiar with the area were just running around looking for somewhere, anywhere of safety.
I knew that my vehicle would provide little in way of protection, neither from an inbound Scud with my vehicle registration written on it nor from any resulting shrapnel discharged from a nearby ground strike. I leapt from the vehicle dragging my noddy suit with me, "Shit, fucking shit!" I cursed; normal vocabulary seemed to have avoided me as I started to run for cover, tripping over my own equipment in the process.
Above all the chaos there was one sound that was more penetrating than any other and, momentarily, took my mind away from the actual air raid as I realised that it was the sound of all the chemical alarms going off around the area. I had heard the sound in training before, however, that sound would, I knew, now remind me of the terror I felt coursing my body on that night.
There were several hundred soldiers at the port on that occasion, several hundred individuals in a confined area all seeking desperately a life saving solution that depended totally on each individual to get his suit and respirator on and get under cover. To view, as an outsider, must have given the impression of total chaos, however, each man knew what had to be done.
To add to the panic there was just one more addition to the scenario to increase the fear and panic that was already being felt. The few seconds that it took the troops to get their respirators on allowed them to smell a sharp acrid odour, and once in the safety of their respirators they then started to see a cloud of yellowish mist floating around the area. We had been gassed without warning.
So swift was the attack and the deployment of the gas that many of the troops did not manage to get their mask on in a quick enough time. Of those that did, some failed to achieve a good seal around their faces. I was one of those idiots and suffered the consequences. My failure to get a good seal ensured that the substance that was floating around us in the light breeze from the sea was able to get to me through the sides of my gas mask rather than to get trapped in the filter through which I would have breathed had I got the seal. Like others I started to choke, to cough and splutter, to believe that this would be my last night in the Gulf, or, for that matter, my last night anywhere in the world.
Thankfully and with well-practised drills I managed to expel the bad air from inside my mask while actually inhaling a minimal amount. I remained under cover for a long time that night, alone and in the dark. And to this day I don't like being on my own in a dark place. The thoughts that passed through my mind at that time were many and varied; confusion and fear prevailed, as I feared the worse due to the earlier incident regarding my respirator.
After about 2 or 3 hours the chemical recce petrol found me. A soldier who was walking around with a hand held CAM, he brought with him the news that I feared most, the confirmation that a chemical agent had hit us. The all-clear signal was give some time later, though for the life of me, I really did not want to leave the safety of my shelter, I did not want to join the others, I just wanted everything to be ok.
Finally leaving my little area of safety I just stood and watched as others emerged like ants, where they immediately started the decontamination drills. For me, I had either forgotten or did not feel any incentive to decontaminate myself, after all the chemical was inside me, and how would I decontaminate that. Some, who had been a little slow in getting their suits on, were now running to the water tanks to wash their skin that, by now having sat on their skin for the past couple of hours, had caused the affected areas to become red and inflamed.
To add insult to injury explanations regarding the attack were denied totally by the commanders in the field. Whether they had received instructions to deny any rumours of a chemical attack or had formulated the story of disbelief while sitting in their bunkers throughout the attack, I doubt we shall ever know.
The MoD and DoD denied the attack on the night of 19/20 Jan 1991.
The MoD and DoD said that the two explosions were caused by a 'sonic boom' of a jet fighter passing overhead, diesel and exhaust fumes, and aviation fuel set the NAIADs off?
Units from all over the port reported chemical alarms going off in their locations.
NBC Sentries reported to their unit command post that an explosion had been seen followed almost immediately by a yellow mist covering the port area, and these reports were also quashed. Rad Ops were told to keep shut about it, and what was not reported could not cause any harm.