Battle on the Basra Road

By Kevin Hymel

When CPT Ken Pope led his troop of M1A1 Abrams tanks and M3A2 Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicles over a ridge west of the Basra Road on 27 February 1991, he was surprised to find over a dozen Iraqi tanks, armored personnel carriers, and assorted wheeled vehicles with supporting infantry strung out less than 1,000 meters to his front. But the Iraqis were even more surprised. Pope recalled that several Iraqis “were standing outside their vehicles” and added that “it looked like they had stopped for a quick maintenance halt.”

It was the fourth day of the U.S. Army’s ground attack against Iraq, and Pope was about to begin his last battle of the Persian Gulf War. The war resulted from Saddam Hussein’s sudden invasion of its Arab neighbor Kuwait on 2 August 1990. In response to Saddam’s blatant act of aggression, President George Bush ordered U.S. troops, aircraft, and warships to Saudi Arabia to thwart a possible invasion of that country by Iraqi forces. Five days after the invasion, the first U.S. soldiers, a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, flew out of Charleston AFB, SC, bound for Saudi Arabia. In time, the entire XVIII Airborne Corps, consisting of four divisions and other units, would be in Saudi Arabia, ready to defend that nation from attack. By October, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the U.S. Central Command and all Allied forces in Saudi Arabia, had enough troops to maintain a solid defense of Saudi Arabia. Schwarzkopf, however, soon realized that he needed more forces if the Allied coalition decided to drive the Iraqis from Kuwait. By 15 October, Schwarzkopf and his staff began formulating plans for a two corps attack. Less than a month later, President Bush announced the deployment of the U.S. Army’s VII Corps to Saudi Arabia.

By the time Desert Shield became Desert Storm, the U.S. Army had seven divisions, two armored cavalry regiments, and hundreds of other combat and support units in Saudi Arabia. In addition to the Army forces sent to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. Navy deployed six carrier battle groups with several hundred aircraft. The U.S. Air Force sent over 1,000 fighter, bomber, tanker, and transport aircraft. In all, Schwarzkopf commanded fifteen divisions, including the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions and several Allied coalition divisions. The powerful VII Corps was comprised of several heavy armor units, including the 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions, 1st Cavalry Division, 1st Infantry Division (the famed “Big Red One”), 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and the British 1st Armored Division. VII Corps’ objective, once the ground war commenced, was to drive north 100 miles into Iraq and then wheel right and drive east, cutting off the Basra Road, the main route leading north from Kuwait City to Basra, Iraq, and the most likely escape route for fleeing Iraqi armor. The XVIII Airborne Corps, on the left flank of VII Corps, would also drive north, pivot east farther north of VII Corps, and destroy what was left of the Iraqi ground forces.

As the buildup of forces for Desert Shield steadily increased, MG Thomas G. Rhame prepared his 1st Infantry Division for war at Fort Riley, KS. During training, Rhame quickly realized that his cavalry squadrons were understrength and would be unable to effectively deal with Iraqi armored and mechanized forces. As a result, Rhame ordered that more armor be added to his cavalry squadrons. LTC Robert Wilson’s 1/4 Cavalry, of which CPT Pope’s Alpha Troop was a part, received M1A1 tanks while in Kansas and M3A2 Bradleys after the unit arrived in Saudi Arabia. Pope remembered the situation well: “We had formed the troop from scratch at Fort Riley six weeks prior. We were still putting personnel into the vehicles as we began the ground war.” Alpha Troop was one of four that made up 1/4 Cavalry. Pope commanded two platoons of six Bradleys each and one platoon of two Bradleys and three M1A1s. The U.S. Army’s doctrine for combat, better known as Air-Land Battle, called for speed and firepower coordinated with artillery and close air support. The weaponry of Pope’s Alpha Troop, along with most of the U.S. Army’s forces in Saudi Arabia, reflected this doctrine.

The M1 Abrams main battle tank and M2/3 Bradley fighting vehicles were the pride of the U.S. armored forces. First introduced to the Army in 1980, the Abrams received numerous upgrades to its weapons, armor, and electronics to ensure its superiority over Soviet armor. The A1 model included a 120mm smoothbore cannon, which replaced the original 105mm main gun, and additional armor added to the front. Another addition to the M1A1 was a new overpressure system that constantly blew air out of hatches and other openings in the tank to prevent contaminants from entering. This overpressure system was considered extremely important for the forces deployed to Saudi Arabia, since they faced an enemy that had employed chemical weapons in its war against Iran and against rebellious Kurds within its own borders. The Abrams had a crew of four: three men, the tank commander, gunner, and loader, in the turret, and one, the driver, in a compartment in the front of the tank.

The M2/3 Bradley was a companion to the Abrams. The M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) was a troop carrying version and was developed to replace the Vietnam War-era M113 APCs, which were considered too slow and too poorly armed and armored to accompany tanks directly into battle. The M3 Cavalry Fighting Vehicle (CFV) used the same chassis as the M2, but was designed as a scout/cavalry vehicle. Both carried a crew of three (commander, driver, gunner), but instead of carrying six dismounts like the M2, the M3 carried two scouts in the rear compartment, whose jobs were, explained Pope, “to dismount the Bradley in any action, check trenches or obstacles, and provide local security for the vehicles.” Both the M2 and M3 were armed with a twin tube TOW missile launcher, 25mm Bushmaster cannon that fired armor piercing and high explosive rounds, and a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun. In addition, the Bradley was also equipped with night vision sights that gave the Bradley a distinct advantage over similar Iraqi vehicles. It was this mixed force of Bradleys and M1A1s that Pope eventually commanded in training and battle through three countries in the Middle East.

On 17 January 1991, as the Allied air forces began their attacks on Iraq and enemy forces entrenched in Kuwait, Pope intensified his troop’s training. When the Allies launched the ground campaign on 24 February, he led his men through the Saddam line, Iraq’s initial defense line comprised of trenches, minefields, and other obstacles. Once they had breached the line, the vehicles of Alpha Troop raced north. For the next three days, Pope’s men advanced rapidly, destroying Iraqi armor, capturing hundreds of prisoners, and crossing various mission phase lines with names such as Dixie, New Jersey, and Milford. On the fourth day of the ground war, MG Rhame radioed the VII Corps commander, LTG Fred Franks, and announced, “We’re facing a broken army. Contact is light.” Franks asked Rhame for his recommendation and Rhame replied, “I’d like to press east to objective Denver and cut the Basra-Kuwait City Highway.” Franks quickly approved Rhame’s request to press the attack. The mission went to CPT Pope and his troop.

The units of the Big Red One were so strung out that Pope and his men would not receive artillery preparation, only advanced warning from helicopters scouting from above. From his Bradley, Pope surveyed the positions of his troops. To his front were the six Bradleys of 1st Platoon. In the center was Pope, followed by the six Bradleys of 2nd Platoon. To the right were two Bradleys and three M1A1s of 3rd Platoon. At approximately 1630, Alpha Troop crested a ridge a spotted Iraqi armor. The lead Iraqi vehicle, a Soviet made BMP IFV, attempted to flee, but a Bradley, commanded by SSG Gerald Broennimann, opened fire and knocked it out of action. “I didn’t have to give the command to fire,” said Pope. The Americans opened up instinctively in an effort to eliminate the Iraqis before they could respond. Within seconds, the air was streaked with tracer rounds as Bradleys and M1s concentrated their fire on the Iraqis. After the first Iraqi vehicle exploded, Pope’s gunner attempted to engage an Iraqi T-55 tank with a TOW missile. As Pope observed the tank, he caught the flash of a TOW fired by another Bradley in the corner of his commander’s sight. The missile struck the Iraqi tank, destroying it. The Iraqis appeared to have been taken by surprise, and according to Pope, “there were three Iraqis standing on the tank. I think they heard the missile connect because they all turned and looked in our direction.” The entire action was over within forty minutes. Dozens of Iraqi tanks and other vehicles were destroyed. Fiery explosions erupted as the ammunition within the wrecked enemy vehicles cooked off. The Iraqi defeat was total. Miraculously, Alpha Troop had suffered no casualties.

There was, however, little time to enjoy the victory. The original mission called for Alpha Troop to block enemy forces from advancing from the north. Pope’s small force now straddled the Iraqi line of retreat and had to prevent the Iraqis from retreating from the south. Pope immediately redeployed his units. He ordered 3rd Platoon to continue to block any Iraqi threat from the south and established a perimeter around the highway with 1st and 2nd Platoons. He also ordered 1st and 2nd Platoons to each deploy two Bradleys north to protect Alpha Troop from any Iraqis advancing south to support the general retreat. As the unit redeployed, Iraqi prisoners flooded the troop. By 1830, Alpha Troop had collected over 450 prisoners. Back at the 4th Cavalry headquarters, LTC Wilson realized the danger to Alpha Troop, which was sticking out ahead of the rest of the 1st Infantry Division and virtually isolated from support. In order to reinforce Alpha’s position, Wilson ordered CPT Mike Bills’ Bravo Troop to deploy to the western side of the Basra Road while Alpha force secured the eastern side. Pope received orders to secure the highway and block the Iraqi escape route. Bravo Troop soon arrived, and the two units quickly established a strong defensive perimeter to answer threats from any direction.

As darkness fell over the battlefield, Pope continued to inspect and improve the perimeter. He ordered his men not to go walking around outside it, and to be careful when moving within it. According to Pope, “everything to the sides, and for that matter inside the perimeter, had mines, cluster submunitions, or any kind of unexploded ordnance.” Pope knew what these hidden dangers could do. During the course of the ground war, almost all of his tanks and Bradleys had hit mines and other unexploded ordnance. On one occasion, a tank even picked up an antitank mine and rolled it over its rear sprocket, where it exploded. Throughout the night, as the sounds of war rumbled over the desert landscape, the two troops continued watch to collect prisoners. The lull in the fighting allowed Pope the time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of his Iraqi foes. He had clashed with Soviet-supplied T-55 and T-72 tanks in a couple of engagements, and to him “the vehicles looked impressive, but did not match up to our equipment in any way.” His professional assessment of the crews was even worse. With proper training, he thought the Iraqis could have done much better. But matched against well-trained and better equipped Americans, “they never really had a chance.” At 0400 the next morning, Pope completed his rounds and went to his troop command post to try to catch an hour of sleep. Instead of sleep, he received some surprising news. Pope’s executive officer announced that a cease-fire was to go into effect at 0800. Pope felt more relieved than victorious. None of his men had been killed or wounded, and they had shown professionalism equal to the most difficult situations they had faced. “That was my greatest reward,” Pope conceded. He immediately got on the troop radio net and announced the good news. He then told his men how proud he was of them and how much he appreciated their efforts.

The war, as it turned out, was not quite over yet. The cease-fire was in effect, but LTC Wilson, the 1/4 Cavalry commander, received orders to secure Safwan Airfield. GEN Schwarzkopf had decided to hold a formal cease-fire ceremony with the Iraqi generals. Schwarzkopf chose Safwan because he wanted a spot deep in Iraq so there would be no question as to who were the victors and who were the vanquished. There was only one problem: Safwan was still held by the Iraqis. Because of a miscommunication, GEN Schwarzkopf assumed that the airfield had been taken by American forces. As result, the 1st Infantry Division scrambled to secure Safwan with orders to avoid casualties. All troops of the squadron were alerted to move out at 0615 and head north. Above them, OH-58 Kiowa Warrior scout and AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters acted as guides. The lead units of the 1/4 Cavalry reached the airfield about an hour later. They were surprised when what they saw on maps as an uncompleted highway turned out to be the Safwan airfield. At first, the area seemed to be deserted, but overhead, helicopter crews reported the dug in tanks of an entire Iraqi brigade. Pope received the order not to fire unless fired upon and to continue forward. Without firing a shot, Alpha Troop occupied the airfield under the guns of the defending Iraqis. The enemy forces Pope found turned out to be a group of demoralized, starving, and ragged Iraqis. The Americans broke out their Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) and shared them with the Iraqi defenders. Soon after they started eating, an Iraqi colonel marched up, furious that his men accepted American food and demanding that the Americans depart. Pope informed him that it was the Iraqis who would have to leave the area. He exchanged maps with the colonel and the Iraqi retreated back to his own lines to inform his superiors. All around the perimeter, the same type of exchange was going on with different troops and LTC Wilson himself. After a short period of time the Iraqi colonel returned to Pope’s position and told him the Iraqis were not going to leave.

As the tension increased, a flight of AH-64 Apache attack helicopters flew over. Pope reiterated the order, shouting over the thumping of the copters’ blades that the Americans would attack if the Iraqis did not move. The Iraqi colonel went back to tell his superiors. The negotiations were not moving fast enough for MG Rhame. He ordered his 2nd Brigade, under COL Tony Moreno, to Safwan. Once there, Moreno conferred with two Iraqi generals and a civilian official. He was waiting for an Iraqi answer when Rhame radioed him with orders that were direct and to the point. He told Moreno, “Tell the Iraqis to move or die.” When Moreno met the Iraqis for a second time, he cut off their reading of a prepared statement. Spitting a wad of blood at their feet (he had recently cut his lip) he said, “If you don’t leave by 1600 hours, we will kill you.” That ended the negotiations. The Iraqis pulled out. Within hours, CH-47 Chinook helicopters began ferrying in tents and tables. GEN Schwarzkopf arrived soon after to sign the official Iraqi surrender. CPT Pope had survived four days of one of the shortest but most intense and lopsided wars of the twentieth century. He had helped the U.S. Army win the war by successfully performing a vital mission that cut off the enemy deep in its own territory. When that was completed, he and his men assisted with the bloodless capture of Safwan for the armistice negotiations. He had also achieved something rare to any soldier in war: he led his men into combat and brought them all home alive.

For more information on the U.S. Army in Operation Desert Shield/Storm, read: Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War; BG Robert H. Scales, USA, Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War; Stephen A. Bourque, “Incident at Safwan,” in Armor (January-February 1999); Alex Vernon, The Eyes of Orion: Five Tank Lieutenants in the Persian Gulf War; and COL Harry G. Summers, USA-Ret., On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War.