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  • Apr 16, 2014
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Hammerbeck's fortunes of war

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 January, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 January, 1993, 12:00am

IT was a blustery January morning in Hongkong. Weak sunlight filtered into his Prince of Wales Building office and the calm was irregularly disturbed by the clatter of helicopters over HMS Tamar. But Brigadier Christopher Hammerbeck's thoughts were miles, and years, away in the Saudi desert.


''I remember the apprehension, the feelings I had as I clambered into my tank at 7 o'clock in pissing rain and filthy blackness to go off into the unknown to do something which no British armoured commander had done since the Second World War.'' Brigadier Hammerbeck was reliving the day two years ago when the 6,000-strong 4th Armoured Brigade under his command launched an attack to protect the eastern flank of the main US armoured advance into Iraq - the Desert Sabre at the cutting edge of the Gulf War ground offensive.


He may now be a peace time commander, Chief of Staff responsible for the British Forces in Hongkong, but Brigadier Hammerbeck's memories of his role in the Gulf are fresh in his mind, his conclusions and analysis of the campaign lent added importance by this week's renewal of hostilities.


And, crucially, the Brigadier's feelings on the campaign and its effectiveness remain unchanged, despite Wednesday's developments.


''I am quite clear in my own mind that the war stopped at exactly the right time,'' declared the soldier whose exploits saw him honoured with the Order of the Bath.


''The Security Council resolution was quite clear: we were to eject the Iraqis from Kuwait using all available means. We had done that. For us to have gone north to Basra . . . we would then have placed ourselves in the same moral situation the Iraqis had placed themselves in when on August 2nd, (1990) they invaded Kuwait.


''We would have lost the coalition . . . and finally, at the end of the day, we had destroyed the Iraqi army. There was nothing left of it. At the same time there were uprisings of the Shi'ites and the Kurds and Saddam Hussein hadn't been seen for two weeks . . . everything was collapsing in Baghdad so a reasonable decision was taken to end the war.


''In retrospect, I still am comfortable with what happened. The man (Saddam Hussein) is a chancer and I think he is going to chance his arm once too often.'' Despite the shifting nature of the Gulf crisis, Brigadier Hammerbeck believes the conflict two years ago has provided the world with lessons that can be applied both to the current situation and to all future military scenarios.


Those lessons, he says, can be analysed on two levels: on a broad framework of political strategy and also within the specific context of any given military operation.


First, he cites the need for sophisticated, high-intensity coalition warfare.


''I think it came as a surprise to a lot of people and I think it reflects a view I have about perhaps the way the media look at the military in general. They don't understand that for 30 years now we have been selling very capable weapon systems to whatare effectively Third World countries.


''Now the reality of that is that the old days when you loaded a few paras aboard a Charlie 130, a Hercules aeroplane, and sent them off with fixed bayonets out to the Middle East, Africa, wherever it may be, and the very arrival of this aeroplane loadedwith paras in red berets was guaranteed to strike fear into the very core of their heart, that's gone.


''So whatever happens, we're into a more high intensity operation of some sort or another. Set against that background, the first lesson is that because of this need for high-intensity operation there is not one country that can crack it on its own.


''There is a need to have coalition warfare. Whether you are a superpower like the Americans, you need coalition partners to legitimise what you are doing, or whether you are a minor coalition partner . . . you need a major coalition partner to make possible what you think politically, militarily you need to do.


''I think what everybody now understands is that whatever we do in the future there will always be a coalition.'' Second, Brigadier Hammerbeck believes the Gulf War demonstrated both the power and the impotence of air power.


''The air power was totally devastating - you have all seen the movies, the highly capable weapon systems,'' he said.


''We all thought it might win the war but at the end of the day it didn't. We were all hoping it would because none of us wanted to go to Iraq and into Kuwait, but at the end of the day a little man with a little bayonet on the end of his rifle was the chap who had to get out and take the surrender or enforce what actually happened.


''It (air power) was immensely powerful and played an incredible part in the whole thing and facilitated a war with virtually no casualties, but out of that does come this curious conundrum - the fact that you need balanced forces between air, navy and ground and, within the ground forces, bearing in mind what I said about high intensity operations, a need for a balanced capability: armour, infantry and helicopters all operating together.'' Brigadier Hammerbeck arrived at these conclusions after the dust and sand had settled on a 96-hour operation that saw his emotions swing from a fear of the unknown, of possible chemical warfare, to euphoria at initial tank battle successes and dejection at the Brigade's casualties, at the destruction of the once-proud Iraqi army and at the evidence of the rape of Kuwait.


Having assembled a brigade of disparate units in just six weeks, he was faced with the task of joining Major General Rupert Smith and Brigadier Patrick Cordingley in leading British ground forces into battle for the first time since the Falklands War.


''I worried about casualties,'' he said.


''We had Britain's only army. There was nothing else that could have come and taken over from us in a short time frame. We were a one-shot weapon and if we didn't aim it correctly and didn't fire it correctly it would have missed the target and flatteneditself against the wall. And so we always had this the whole time in the back of our mind.


''I don't think people give the credit to the guys who fought this. There is a tremendous temptation for people to think it was all very easy and that they all came rushing out the trenches and surrendered.'' But they didn't. After the Brigade's first 60-kilometre advance under the cover of wet, oil smoke-filled night there came two major engagements, one a massive tank battle involving close to 60 tanks.


There was a terrifying encounter with an Iraqi guided weapon launcher - the one piece of enemy hardware that computer modelling predicted could cause a heavy rate of attrition - and then a slowing-down process through fatigue as mistakes crept into the operation.


Adding to the difficulty was the curious paradox thrown up by the sophistication of modern intelligence.


''We had total transparency yet at the same time total opaqueness,'' said Brigadier Hammerbeck. He knew where every individual tank was in the desert but did not know whose it was, whether or not it had been destroyed or what its intent was.


''Also the Iraqis were very clever,'' he continued. ''They dug pits, they used radar reflectors, they moved equipment and men. They were very sophisticated in terms of their counter measures.


''One could never ever be certain about what was actually going on. I think people became swamped because there was so much information.'' As tension simmered on in the Gulf again this week, Brigadier Hammerbeck said he had drawn one last conclusion from his own experiences in the desert.


''I think if anything the Gulf has taught me that if at all possible things should be settled politically,'' he declared.


''We were fortunate in the Gulf. We were on a military billiard table where we could cheerfully get on with our war without hurting anybody else. We fired millions of rounds into the desert and on the whole nobody was harmed other than the opposite side.'' But, he said, the same cannot apply to situations like that in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


''You are setting the Yugoslavian situation in the context of a civilised, developed European country,'' he said.


''At the end of the day there isn't a military solution between the Bosnians, the Croats and the Serbs. There isn't a military solution which the British and the other allies out there can impose.


''But there is a growing role (for the army) in humanitarian terms in the world, in places like Somalia.


''At the end of the day people need to eat and there is food available and people shouldn't be allowed to get into such a situation of total anarchy where they are dying while the world looks on.''

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