How the Marines ripped through the Iraqis in Operation Desert Storm

When Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait, the Marines were one of the first units to respond. By Feb. 23, 1991, I Marine Expeditionary Force was controlling two reinforced Marine Divisions poised to strike Iraqi forces in Kuwait.

Facing the Marines were two massive minefields and some ten Iraqi divisions.

In the lead up to the invasion, the Marines worked furiously to find gaps in the minefield that they could strike through. They also frequently clashed with Iraqi forces when conducting artillery raids and during the pre-emptive Battle of Khafji.

M60A, tank, Patton Tank, Desert Storm

Marines from Company D, 2nd Tank Battalion, drive their M-60A1 main battle tank over a sand berm on Hill 231 while rehearsing their role as part of Task Force Breach Alpha during Operation Desert Storm. (Dept. of Defense photo)

That battle convinced the Marines that maybe the task ahead was not as formidable as they might have assumed. The Marines realized the Iraqis lacked aggression and coordination, and if hit hard they would back down.

But before that could happen they still had to find a way through the minefields. The commanders of the two Marine divisions had their own ideas of how that would happen.

The 1st Marine Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Mike Myatt, was divided into four task forces – Ripper, Papa Bear, Taro, and Grizzly. Two task forces would clear lanes through the minefields before allowing the other two to pass through to spearhead the attack.

The 2nd Marine Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. William Keys, had a different plan. Keys ordered the Division to breach the minefields before storming across Kuwait to meet the Iraqis.

An Iraqi T-55 main battle tank burns after an attack by the 1st United Kingdom Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm. (Creative Commons photo)

Before the ground war even started, the Marines of Task Forces Taro and Grizzly were infiltrating into Kuwait and through the minefield in order to take up blocking positions when the invasions started.

Then, on Feb. 24, 1991 at 0430 local time, the invasion officially began. The 1st Marine Division’s two task forces, Ripper and Papa Bear, began their assaults through the gaps provided by Taro and Grizzly.

On their flank, the 2nd Marine Division, augmented by the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Division’s 1st Brigade, began breaching operations at the minefield. Mine-clearing line charges and plow-equipped tanks blasted a path through the mines.

As the Marines cleared the minefields, they prepared to engage Iraqi forces. However, instead of an immediate fight, they were confronted with waves of surrendering Iraqi soldiers.

Unable to handle the large numbers of POWs, and with objectives to meet, they simply pointed the Iraqis towards the rear and drove on.

On the first day, the Marines only encountered light resistance and captured all of their objectives.

Oil well fires rage outside Kuwait City in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. The wells were set on fire by Iraqi forces before they were ousted from the region by coalition force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. David McLeod)

However, the next day, Feb. 25, the Iraqis launched counterattacks in force against the Marine positions.

Using the burning Burqan oil fields as concealment, the Iraqis were able to infiltrate very close to the Marines before launching their attacks.

The sudden appearance of an Iraqi brigade to the Marine’s flank caused quite a stir. The 1st Tank Battalion of TF Papa Bear bore the brunt of the Iraqi advance. The Marine commander reported, “T-62s everywhere, scattering like cockroaches from the Burqan oil field.”

As the Marine’s M60 Patton tanks engaged the Iraqis, daring Marine aviators came in low under the smoke to blast Iraqi tanks with Hellfire missiles. In three and a half hours of hard fighting, the Marines drove off the Iraqis while destroying 75 armored vehicles.

On TF Papa Bear’s other flank, another Iraqi force was massing to attack the 1st Marine Division’s forward command post. A platoon of infantry and another of LAV-25s commanded by Cpt. Eddie Ray were all that guarded the CP.

When artillery rounds began raining down around the Marines Ray raced forward to assess the situation. What he found was a numerically superior Iraqi force of tanks and armored personnel carriers approaching their position.

Ray’s small force immediately began engaging the Iraqi’s as they made a move for the CP. Seeing the attack developing, Brig. Gen. Draude, the assistant division commander, quipped, “If I die today, my wife is going to kill me.”

Another officer quickly called for reinforcements from TF Ripper and I MEF headquarters. He was told everyone was in a fight and there was no available air support.

Tank_in_Desert_Storm-M1-Abrams

M1 Abrams during Desert Storm. (Photo: US Department of Defense)

He responded by simply holding the radio headset in the air for a few seconds before vehemently stating, “We are in a REAL fight at division forward!”

I MEF sent two Cobra gunships to support the beleaguered Marines. With the gunships on station, Ray made a bold move — he counterattacked. Despite overwhelming odds, Ray’s small force hammered the Iraqis and drove them from the vicinity, destroying 50 vehicles and capturing 250 prisoners.

Ray was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.

In the 2nd Marine Division’s sector, the Iraqis were fighting just as tenaciously. B Company, 4th Tank Battalion — a reserve unit and the only Marines armed with the new M1 Abrams — awoke on the morning of Feb. 25 to see a massive Iraqi armored column moving in front of their position.

In what became known as the Reveille Engagement, the men of B Company, despite being outnumbered 3-to-1, maneuvered on line and engaged the Iraqis. In just 90 seconds, the Marine tankers wiped out the entire Iraqi force of 35 tanks and APCs.

After defeating the Iraqi counterattacks, the Marines continued their drive north the next day. They took the vital Al Jaber airfield and made it to the outskirts of Kuwait City and the international airport.

While the 2nd Marine Division cut off the Iraqi’s retreat, the 1st Marine Division attacked and secured the airport with support from two battleships firing from the gulf.

The 100-hour ground war cost the Marines five killed and 48 wounded. In that time they fought over 100 miles through occupied territory, crushed seven Iraqi divisions, destroyed over 1,600 tanks and armored vehicles, and took over 22,000 prisoners.

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