The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 7 No 5 - June 1988


by Professor I B Copley (late Captain RAMC)

One had to consult a map of the Middle East to ascertain that Kuwait was a small state on the western side of the head of the Persian Gulf positioned like a wedge pointed at the border between Iraq and Iran. A military description was more specific: 'If Aden is the end of the world, then Kuwait is a thousand miles further up!'

Such a description summarized the inhospitable climate at the time of our visit - midsummer in the northern hemisphere. Temperatures ranged between 49°C and 55°C occasionally reaching 60°C in the shade, falling to a bearable 40°C at night. It is said to be the second hottest place on earth after the central Gobi desert. A dry, dusty, northerly wind, the Shimal, caused sandstorms with winds of up to 120 km/h and kept humidity down to 16%. However, when the wind (the Qos) became southerly, blowing up the Persian Gulf it reduced temperatures to around 40°C, but the humidity rose to an unbearable 96%. Rainfall was very scanty, occurring in winter. We were told there had been very little for the past 10 years. Apparently on the rare occasion that it did rain the desert bloomed for about two weeks. Whilst digging slit trenches, we noticed that the sand was moist about a metre below the surface. As could be expected, vegetation was scanty with a few tufts of 'camel' grass and travelling tumbleweed.

There were date palms and gardens at the oasis of Jahra which was one of the few natural sources of water (inclined to be brackish). Previously water had been imported by dhow. In the town of Kuwait were wells of sweet water as well as a modern desalination plant. Water was taken by bowser and pumped up to header tanks or used to water daily the hundreds of planted trees. Hydroponics was practised on a small experimental scale. Large underground water reserves had recently been found in the north and water was being piped to the city. The country was very healthy at the time, mainly because it was too hot and dry for flies to breed, which accounted for the absence of associated diseases. Latrine arrangements by the desert locals consisted of a cat-scratch method, but faeces were desiccated within a few minutes. For the troops, the only problem was heat and adaptation to it.

In contradistinction to most Arab countries, there were no beggars and few hawkers. Kuwait has used much of its wealth to provide a welfare state.

Kuwait (from Arabic Kut: a fort) meaning 'little fort', was first occupied by three nomadic tribes of Northern Central Arabia about 1716. They became pearlers and fishermen. The Bay of Kuwait forms an excellent anchorage opposite the mouth of the Shat al Arab so that Kuwait gradually became a boat-building centre, albeit importing the wood from India. The boat-builders themselves originated from Bahrain Island some 250 km further south on the Persian Gulf. In 1776 Basra was captured by the Persians so that much of its business and population transferred to Kuwait. Thus, in 1792, the East India Company made it the southern end of their desert mail route; Britain competing with the earlier Portuguese and later Dutch influence. The Kuwaitis themselves were menaced by the war-like Wahabbis on land and their shipping by Persian Gulf pirates, notably Rahmet ibn Jabir of Kuwait who was renowned for his personal ferocity, insanitary habits and for attacking his own people's shipping. He died in 1818 in an encounter with an expedition sent against him by the Sheikhs of Bahrain. During the battle at sea, he saw that his cause was lost and, with his own hand, blew up his ship and perished.

During the 19th century, Britain was occupied keeping Turkey, Germany and Russia out of the area. A proposed railway from Aleppo connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean was never built. In 1899, Sheikh Mubarak seized the throne from his weakling pro-Turkish brother and turned to Britain for protection. A treaty was signed by which Britain recognized Kuwait's independence. Consequently, British naval interference was required in 1901 and in 1902 by land as well as sea. Once more it was under naval blockade in 1918 when it was suspected that supplies were reaching the Turks in Damascus by this route.

A political agent was appointed in 1903 whose main task was to keep Germany and Russia out, and this led to the recognition of the Sheikhdom in a treaty between Britain and Turkey in 1913, when an expeditionary force was sent just before the outbreak of World War I. As Kuwait used the red flag of Turkey, a British patrol boat fired by mistake on the boat of one of the Sheikh's emissaries, so thereafter a red flag with 'Kuwait' written on in white Arabic letters was used. This was changed again (December 1961), to a red, white, black and yellow flag.

Following squabbles in 1915 and 1920 and the blockade of 1918, Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia placed an embargo on trade between his kingdom and Kuwait which was not lifted until 1940. In 1920, differences over the boundary with Saudi Arabia led to the defeat of a Kuwaiti force on Saudi territory. Later the same year, however, the Kuwaitis defeated an invading force of Saudi Arabians before the pink fort of the oasis of Jahra. The year 1920 became the Sennat al Jahra, and is regarded by Kuwaitis as the beginning of their modern independence and nationhood. Final boundaries with Saudi Arabia were drawn and recognized with British help in 1922. This included a neutral zone to the south. Subsequent British activity in the area was devoted to keeping out American influence (not very successfully) mainly with regard to oil exploration and exploitation.

Oil was found in the south in 1936, but production did not start until 1946 at Burgan, a site of natural bitumen. By 1961, Kuwait was the fourth largest oil producer in the world. Kuwait joined the Arab League as a full member on 20 June 1961 as a result of the aggressive stance of Iraq. This followed the official termination of the Protectorate by abrogation of the 1899 treaty with Britain, whereby Kuwait became a sovereign independent state. In actuality, this was merely a new treaty agreed with the Consul-General, John Richmond, continuing British protection whilst Kuwait conducted her own foreign policy. Five days later, on 24 June 1961, the tranquility was rudely interrupted when General Abdul Karrim Kassem of Iraq threatened to annex the state. The Amir of Kuwait, his Highness Prince Sheikh Sir Abdullah al Salim al Sabah, invoked British aid. On 27 June, the Amir declared a state of emergency in Kuwait.

First map

Threat of invasion was allayed when on Sunday 3 June, British troops started to pour into Kuwait by sea and air, first from ships already in the Persian Gulf (HMS Bulwark with 42 Commando RM), and then from nearby stations such as Bahrain and Aden, later from East Africa. Ultimately, forces stationed in Rhodesia and Cyprus were mobilized. Troops in Britain were then flown out to reinforce these depleted areas. At the time this was condemned by Russia at the United Nations as 'Britain's provocative role in the Middle East'. The operation can be regarded as one of several associated with Britain's withdrawal from east of Suez and can be classified as a rearguard operation, part of the post-war imperial withdrawal due to the prohibitive cost; political, economic and military, of commitments in the Caribbean, Africa, Middle East and Far East. Whether our forces in Kuwait could have repulsed an Iraqi attack remains purely conjectural, however, since no fighting was to take place. Faced by this show of strength and international condemnation, the Iraqis decided not to invade. British Forces were subsequently withdrawn and replaced by forces of the United Arab Republic, a process that was completed by 19 October 1961.

It is of interest from an intelligence point of view, that 24 Infantry Brigade, stationed in Kenya, held an exercise within three months of these events using terrain similar to Kuwait (a little cooler and a little more vegetation) in which the defence of a similar ridge to the one in Kuwait (the al Mutla ridge) was incorporated. 24 Infantry Brigade ('fire brigade') was permanently on standby as an air portable group to fly anywhere in Africa or the Middle East at forty-eight hours' notice. This included my own unit, 24 Field Ambulance, stationed at Nairobi. We were alerted just prior to the weekend of 3 July. There was no secret about where we were likely to go and appropriate preparations were being made. I shall never forget the whole unit being drawn up on the parade ground for a pep-talk by the Commanding Officer, who was dressed in spotty, starched khaki drill, yellow cravat, and yellow suede 'chukka' boots. (I had recently been on the carpet to be told that I was not back-row chorus, and to wear my hat straight, not at an angle!) The main object of the talk was to advise on the heat problems anticipated. I distinctly remember him saying that as a medical unit, there would be no heat casualties allowed. We only had one, and he was subsequently awarded the OBE for his efforts!

Kenya-based troops were regarded as being 'semi-acclimatized' to heat. Within a few hours, they would be subjected to the full rigour of a Kuwaiti summer.

Officially, without discipline, heat casualties could have been as high as 50%; with good discipline, only 10%. In fact, our heat casualties turned out to be less than 1%. This could be ascribed not only to good water discipline, but also to the fact that deployment was fairly static. Maximum activity took place during the initial deployment and digging-in when there was no protection from the sun. Thereafter, it was largely a case of sitting and making the best of uncomfortable surroundings. The 10% casualty figure arrived at was based on studies done on 3 Parachute Regt in Singapore in temperatures of 35-40°C, marching 25 km daily.

Rules laid down for prevention of heat problems were as follows:
Water: Sedentary requirements: 5 litre/24 hrs to be taken half-hourly whilst awake plus 1/2 litre extra for every hour of physical activity. This meant forced drinking as the unacclimatized thirst mechanism is inefficient in the first three weeks. Powdered orange juice was provided to encourage drinking and supplemented potassium.

Salt: The body initially secretes sweat with high salt concentrations before conservation mechanisms are developed by skin and kidneys. The high salt loss is responsible for the delayed thirst. At the time, one was not aware of water loss as sweat was evaporated immediately (a person coming from inside a tent could start shivering on exposure to the hot dry wind) and one merely saw salt streaks on the skin.

The evaporation effect was put to good use by hanging porous 'chatties', (unglazed water pots), in the tents to provide cool water. Salt tablets were prescribed, two dissolved in each half litre, never to be swallowed whole. However, to the cast-iron stomach of the British Tommy, two tablets neat on an empty stomach was no problem. They could then be divided into two groups: those who had eaten recently manufactured, uncoated tablets who tended to get diarrhoea and heat exhaustion, and those who got the prodromal heat exhaustion - cramps and malaise due to lack of salt as the old sugar-coated tablets passed through undissolved as could be seen on X-ray of the abdomen of a soldier with unusually severe cramps. An alternative was to add table salt (when available), a teaspoonful to a pint of water, which is not unpalatable when the body is short of salt.

Other advice given was to take normal meals and rest periods, gradual exposure of the skin to sun, and gradual increase of workload with the use of shade wherever possible. The most important (and ignored) tip was the avoidance of alcohol since alcohol causes excessive secretion of water and electrolytes. Later on, via NAAFI, troops were allowed two cans of beer each in the evening. Our own near fatal heat casualty suffered from an excess of alcohol, in the form of whisky. This, together with exposure to the wind over many miles in an open Landrover, brought on severe dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and an arrhythmia resembling a heart attack necessitating evacuation for further investigation.

Heat exhaustion cases were treated with intravenous solutions to break the vicious cycle especially when accompanied by diarrhoea.

Meanwhile, deployment of troops and equipment continued. The navy was represented by the aircraft carrier HMS Bulwark (22 000 tons) with two frigates, supply ship, HMS Moon, and landing ship HMS Striker. These ships could not be seen easily from the shore owing to dust storms and were responsible for landing 600 men of 42 Commando Royal Marines, 150 men of the Dragoon Guards and 14 Centurion tanks, whilst the carrier provided an air cover of Sea Vixens. The Air Force, Middle East Command, Aden, under Air Marshal Sir Charles Elsworthy, using Blackburn Beverleys and Bristol Brittannias, brought in from Bahrain two companies of 1 Bn Coldstream Guards, 1 Parachute Battery formed from 33 Parachute Light Regt, one Coy 11th Hussars (with Ferret armoured scout cars), and 2 Bn Parachute Regt. The Royal Air Force also provided 12 Hunter jet fighters of 208 Squadron from Aden. Later, some Canberra bombers and Vampire fighter 'planes were sent from Rhodesia. From Kenya, staging at Aden, came 1 Bn Inniskilling Fusiliers and 1 Bn King's Regt (Liverpool and Manchester Regts) and supporting elements including 24 Field Ambulance in which B Section was under my command. Thus, within 48-72 hours, there were 5 000 British troops in position, 4 000 of the recently formed Kuwaiti Army and 1 000 from the Saudi Arabian Army. Added to these an estimated 10 000 Badawan volunteers came across the desert wastes on camels or packed on the back of rickety lorries armed to the teeth with obsolete weaponry and spoiling for a fight. Perhaps between the Korean War and the Falkland Campaign so large and rapid a deployment of troops has not been seen. Six more vessels were steaming for the Suez Canal from the Mediterranean Fleet, passing through the Canal on 5 July. These included, the aircraft carrier HMS Centaur with three destroyers, one tank-landing craft and one fleet tanker.

I arrived with my section late in the evening of Tuesday, 5 July, to find that my medical panniers had gone astray in Aden. Although it was already dark when we arrived, the first impression was of the hot, dry, air searing one's lungs. We were accommodated overnight in a school on the Jahra road in the Shuwaikh district. On the radio, we heard the report of Russia's condemnation. A few evenings later, during an open-air film-show to the troops, we saw Russia's first sputnik passing overhead.

A joint British-Kuwaiti command had been set up: Britain's C-in-C, Middle East, Air Marshal Sir Charles Elsworthy, and Kuwait's Brigadier Sheikh Muburak Abdullah Jaber al Sabah; second-in-command was Brigadier D Horsfield, OC 24 Bde.

By 6 July, United Nations pressure was building up to have Britain withdraw her forces, supported, naturally, by Russia. However, Iraqi armour was reported moving south towards the Kuwaiti border. On 8 July, Russia vetoed a resolution in the Security Council for Kuwait independence to be supervised by the United Nations. On 11 July, the United Arab Republic requested British troops to be replaced by Arab troops. This led to the Arab solution which involved:

1. Withdrawal of British troops.
2. Recognition of Kuwait's independence.
3. Kuwait to be admitted to the Arab League.
4. Safeguards for Kuwait's independence.

Whilst the political manoeuvring was going on, a few thousand troops were literally being roasted. The Badawan tribesmen referred to them as 'lizards', since they were concealed in the ground.

The day following my arrival, B Section was to be deployed on the left flank of the main defensive positions of the al Mutla ridge in support of the King's Regt. We drove northwards along the tar Basra road as far as the oasis of Jahra and there turned left past the police post following MP traffic signs along the sandy desert tracks until we reached the King's Regt, dug in on the reverse slope of a sandy hill. There was nobody about, nobody was expecting us, and nobody seemed to care whether we were there or not. No expected helipad was visible either.

A few hundred metres away, at the bottom of the slope, I espied the blue and white mess tent of 42 Commando, Royal Marines, near a helipad. An ideal position for a medical post I thought. We soon had our two (commandeered) Kuwaiti lorries unloaded and they, with our tentage, were soon camouflaged and ready for inspection. The Commandos were very friendly, ran out a field telephone, and laid on a meal for all twenty of us. I was very pleased with everything, but when my OC came to inspect us, he was quite angry. We were to move everything next door to the King's Regt. The position he marked out was immediately downwind of their positions. As soon as our OC had stamped off in his yellow chukka boots, I moved 100 metres to the right into the fresh air. We never got a telephone nor saw a helipad there.

As it turned out, our adjusted new position was just as well. One day, with a strong wind blowing, a King's rifleman flicked a cigarette out of the door of his tent which landed on the brown hessian camouflage. Within seconds, the hessian burst into flames which, before the troops could even escape with their weapons, had engulfed the whole tent. The flames leapt to the next tent and several more in turn. In the first downwind position, we should have been next. Soon ammunition hanging in pouches from the tent poles was exploding and bullets were flying in every direction. This was the moment we had chosen to be securing our own camouflage which had come adrift in the wind. Two members of our section were on top of the lorries watching the fun. Everyone was shouting from the slit trenches for them to come down. In the haste to comply, one of them got his boot fast in the netting and spent the next few minutes watching the fireworks upside-down. The final touch of humour came when it was found that the only damage was several rounds in the radiator of their OC's vehicle. This was the first and last time I was ever to be 'under fire'. For the same reason, no medals were struck for the campaign.

Later on, I unwittingly ran the risk of being 'shot at' again. Having left Nairobi in a hurry I, as mess treasurer, had paid all our outstanding bills, but insufficient members' dues had come in before we left. Our bank account had thus gone into the 'red' and frantic signals were reaching our OC from HQ in Nairobi. The OC summoned me to do some explaining and driving back from this uncomfortable interview in my Landrover, my mind being somewhat preoccupied, I did not take much notice of some blue lights flashing in the distance. Approaching the bend in the road, I could see two police cars abreast, one keeping to the wrong side of the road (which I thought was a daft thing to do in the dusk). Other cars in a cavalcade turned up behind the flashing lights, but it was too late to stop and the police car got out of the way at the last minute. Little did I know that this was the Amir of Kuwait I was forcing off the road who was out for his usual evening drive. The local custom was to drive off the road, get out and 'salaam' as His Excellency passed by. Later, I heard there had been some half-hearted attempts to trace the Landrover and its driver. Orders went out about the correct thing to do in those circumstances.

After some four weeks in the desert, we were withdrawn to the same school in the Shuwaik district to serve the medical post at the nearby Technical College where many troops were being billeted. During one of my exploratory wanderings (petrol was cheaper than water), I came across a swimming pool on the University campus. I asked an Austrian trainer there if it would be permissible to have a swim. The answer was a very definite 'No', neither myself nor anybody else might swim. (As a matter of policy, I saw to it that anyone who could swim well came to B Section so that we could always raise a water-polo team at any one time. The Unit was orientated towards golf and rugby, soccer to some extent, but swimming was ignored. Our Section normally played in the Nairobi water-polo league.) I had my seven-member team very much in mind when I enquired if they had a water-polo team. This time the answer was in the affirmative, so I asked how one could arrange a match. This depended on the Minister of Education, Sheikh Abdullah Jaber al Sabah, whom I eventually tracked down. A date and time was arranged at my audience with the minister. My request for a few practise sessions was turned down.

The big day came and we stiffly got to work only to lose eleven goals to one. The only way to have another cooling swim was to arrange a return match a few days later, and we lost again 22-2. Only then did we learn that their players, and their quarterly substitutes, formed their olympic team! We passed the message on to the Parachute Regt who challenged and wiped the floor with them, though the Kuwaitis complained they had never experienced such rough play. Meanwhile, others had been arranging a football match to be held in the floodlit university stadium at night (a cool 45°C). We were lent some togs and by half time were in the lead. We lost in the second half when our exhausted team was faced with a completely new Kuwaiti squad.

In any case, it was a welcome break in our routine. Later, all the respective teams were invited to the Minister's summer palace for tea. A fleet of cars came to fetch us. We were introduced to drinking traditional Arab tea sitting around his spacious reception room. We then had refreshments from a huge table groaning with food and an English tea service placed round the edge, enough for the sixty odd players, waited on by servants armed to the teeth who would also eat from this table, followed by the females and female servants of the household.

The Sheikh loved to be photographed, and a session was held on his partly finished yacht jetty outside. We were then invited to see his winter palace. We were amazed not to find the cars waiting for us, we simply crossed over to the next building. The dining room was a hideous mixture of formica and chrome, but the 'ballroom' was truly magnificent being lined by mirrors and small chandeliers, whilst in the bay at the far end of the room was a large round table heaped with flowers beneath a seven-ton chandelier said to have come from the Reichstag after World War II.

Other water-polo matches were arranged with the various clubs; European, Asian or Arab in the oil refinery compounds. The pool water had to be cooled by continuous fine sprays over the surface.

The highlight of my visit to Kuwait was an invitation to the mud-walled house of a very intelligent and cultivated Sheikh of most striking appearance. Three officers from our unit were invited to meet him in the reception room of this house in the old town where we drank tea and watched TV prior to proceeding on to the flat roof for a sumptuous meal. We were seated cross-legged on cushions and waited on by fierce-looking, armed servants. Our senior officer sat on the Sheikh's right-hand side, and to our delight was presented with the sheep's eye which he swallowed manfully. At the end of the meal, he returned the compliment by requesting permission to take home his peach stone to plant in his garden at home as a memento of the occasion.

One evening I was called to the medical post as a patient had been brought in comatose. One touch of his burning, dry skin indicated heat stroke (failure of the heat centre in the brain which controls sweating). I placed a thermometer in his armpit out of interest as the mercury was off the end of the scale. We wrapped him in wet sheets and drove in an open Landrover the few miles to the nearest government hospital with a heat centre. Within half an hour of cold sprays and fanning, his temperature had fallen to 38°C from over 40°C. Cooling was stopped yet his temperature sank to 35°C. He remained comatose, and died eight hours later. His brain had literally been poached.

Soon afterwards we almost had another fatality when a warrant officer accepted a lift on the back of a commandeered 'coal' lorry. Whatever was normally carried had given the metal sides a high polish. In the middle of the day, this became a solar furnace for the unfortunate man. At the destination an hour later, he was unconscious. Fortunately he was close to the oil company's hospital at Ahmadi where he recovered consciousness the next day.

Our next heat problems occurred when the Qos blew from the south, bringing temperatures down, but humidity up to unbearable levels. Prickly heat broke out amongst the troops and all manner of other skin ailments. At this time, B Section was 'out of the line' and fortunate to be at a rest camp by the sea at Mina al Ahmadi where one could try to cool off in the sea (over 34°C) and take a chance with the cruising sharks reported by our helicopter pilots.

Casualties, even from this new type of heat were relatively light, mainly prickly heat, which also affected the author. The most serious injury was a fractured femur necessitating open reduction in the theatre. There were two gunshot wounds of the lower limb. A soldier had accidentally shot his friend in the back of the leg. In a fit of remorse (or camaraderie), he shot himself through the booted foot the next day and landed up in the next bed to his friend, being looked after by charming Armenian, Egyptian, Indian and Lebanese nurses, sans yasmak.

We were now all eager for radio broadcasts or to read oil company news sheets for progress reports on our replacement by elements of the United Arab League. The first of these troops arrived whilst I was detached to a medical post at Rawdatain beside the Basra road (a very important road for the troops since all the cool-drink machines had to be brought in from Iraq, our enemy, along this road). My first glimpse of the arriving troops was during a routine visit to the 11th Hussars based on the northern border astride the Basra road. At this point, a kind of sawn-off oil rig provided a convenient watchtower to overlook the first few miles of Iraqi territory aided by powerful binoculars. When I managed to have a look, there wasn't a soul to be seen anywhere.

Soon we were hearing dates of departure for different units, then our own sections. During the waiting period, I wandered into the Suk (market) and found in the street of goldsmiths a shopkeeper who sold irregular gulf pearls mounted on bangles and necklaces. I spent an interesting morning in the back of his shop watching him assay second hand gold in bars or old jewellery. He rubbed the specimen on a green stone, then added fluid from three different bottles. He was quite surprised when I guessed the sample in question to be twenty-two carat which happened to coincide with his assay.

Kuwait was virtually duty-free. There was a buying spree for cheap electrical goods, cameras, etc. Apart from some jewellery, I invested in an 8 mm cine projector - still giving good service. To avoid duty back in Kenya, I had the projector packed in a field kitchen tin, hoping things would not go astray again. The jewellery boxes I posted home arrived empty.

We finally left Kuwait via Aden, just as the weather of late summer was becoming pleasant, on the last day of September.

From a medical point of view, we had learned much about the physiology of heat (which was to stand me in good stead in the surgery fellowship examinations ten years later). The guidelines issued to the troops and repeated emphasis of these rules had paid off, particularly the buddy system.

Since our departure from Kuwait, the Amirate has managed to continue its independent nationhood and prosperity, and may it continue so to do, although British influence and facilities are so much diminished in that turbulent region. Major peace-keeping operations, now in other hands, will hopefully be as successful.

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