British Challenger tank at high speed © IWM (GLF 444)

The Gulf War

The Gulf War, fought from 1990 to 1991, saw the largest use of British troops in a single deployment since the Second World War.

Known by many names, Persian Gulf War, First Gulf War, First Iraq War and Kuwait War, the war was sparked by the actions of Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq.

Gulf War Illness

Shortly after the end of the Gulf War in 1990-91, veterans of the conflict began to report similar health issues when they returned home.
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British Army Lynx helicopter lifts off from desert base during Gulf War
© IWM (GLF 837)

The invasion

On 2 August 1990, on the orders of Hussein, Iraqi forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait.
© IWM (GLF 837)

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There were many deep rooted and historical tensions in the region and disagreements that led to the invasion. Iraq never recognised Kuwait's independence following its detachment as an Ottoman province of Iraq by the British after the First World War, and accused Kuwait - a small oil producing country - of over producing oil and driving down prices, which Iraq said caused the loss of billions in revenue.

British troops practise firing their SA-80 weapons
© IWM (GLF 859)

Wide condemnation

The invasion was immediately condemned by coalition forces including America, Britain and the Soviet Union, and the West feared Iraq’s next move would be to invade Saudi Arabia and take control of the region's oil supply. With tensions and fear bubbling US President George Bush ordered troops to protect Saudi Arabia, and a total of 430,000 US troops and 53,457 British troops were deployed to prepare for defensive action.
© IWM (GLF 859)

A coalition show of force

In total a US-led coalition force of almost one million service personnel from 32 countries were prepared in case diplomacy failed.
Door gunner in a Royal Navy HC.4 Sea King helicopter
© IWM (GLF 485)

Sanctions and deadlines

After wide condemnation the United Nations imposed trade sanctions and demanded Iraq withdraw from Kuwait, giving them a deadline of 15 January 1991 for Iraqi Forces to leave. But the demand was ignored.
© IWM (GLF 485)

British airmen taken hostage

A coalition air war - known as Operation Desert Storm - began on 17 January 1991 against military, economic and communications targets in Iraq and Kuwait to force Iraqi troops to withdraw. During the attack coalition aircrews flew over 100,000 missions. 

During the initial airstrikes British Tornado Pilot John Peters and his navigator John Nichol were shot down. The airmen were taken hostage, interrogated and tortured by the Iraqi secret police and then paraded on Iraqi TV, beaten and bruised.

After a month of unrelenting series of airstrikes, land operations - known as Operation Granby by UK troops - started on 24 February. Just a few days after the ground assault launched Kuwait City was liberated on 26 February.

British Challenger tank at high speed © IWM (GLF 444)
© IWM (GLF444)

A final act of destruction

As the Iraqi Army retreated, and as a final act of destruction to slow down the advances of coalition forces, the Iraqi Army set fire to over 500 oil wells, causing huge plumes of smoke and years of environmental damage.
© IWM (GLF444)

During the conflict 392 coalition service personnel died, including 47 British servicemen.

It's estimated that between 20,000 to 35,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed and around 100,000 civilians lost their lives as a result of the short war.

The end of the war

With the Iraqi forces retreating President Bush declared a cease-fire, and on 28 February 1991 he announced that Kuwait had been liberated. A few days later on 3 March 1991 Iraq agreed to accept all of the UN resolutions, and a cease-fire agreement was finally signed on 6 April 1991.

Prime Minister John Major meets troops
Prime Minister John Major meets troops © IWM (GLF 405)
British soldiers in Nuclear Biological and Chemical equipment during a training exercise © IWM (GLF 400)

The agreement

The agreement required Iraq to end its programmes for weapons-of-mass-destruction (including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons), recognise Kuwait’s sovereignty as an independent nation and return all Kuwaiti property. But over the next decade Saddam Hussein continued to defy UN resolutions and arms inspections, leading the US government led by George W. Bush (son of the former president), along with the British, to invade Iraq in 2003. Image credit: © IWM (GLF 400)

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