But we weren't going to get Saddam Hussein. He's not going to sit there like a bewildered rabbit and be picked up. He'd have slipped out of the back door. He'd have gone up into the hills and run a guerilla movement or become a government in exile. He'd have become a hero in the Arab world. And be quite clear, there's a lot of Arabs who support Saddam Hussein.
Interview with Lieutenant General Sir Peter de la Billiere, Senior British Commander
Q: With the benefit of hindsight, how formidable an army were the Iraqis?
Billiere: Well, the short answer to that is that they should have been very formidable, if you consider the situation that existed at the time. First of all, you were faced with the fourth largest army in the world, the fifth largest air force in the world. They'd been fighting for eight years, and must have had an enormous amount of battle experience, and they were used to operating in that terrain, which of course, to our western European forces, was alien.
I don't think we ever thought we weren't going to win. But, we were going to win at a price. And the question was how big was that price going to be in terms of lives. And how were we going to minimise that price, keep the live, loss of life down to a minimum.
And of course, he'd had already used chemical weapons. And so there was a lot of concern that we were going to suffer heavy casualties. I never actually went along with the estimates that were quoted back in the United Kingdom, but I certainly thought casualties were going to be in the region of, shall we say, a thousand to fifteen hundred British dead, which was a lot. And, to be perfectly honest, from my point of view, I didn't think that we should be losing a lot of British lives in that war. That was my private feelings at the time.
And I was bloody well going to make sure that every step should be taken to minimise the loss of life of Coalition forces. And in my case, British forces in particular. Fortunately, Norman Schwarzkopf had the same view. He'd had a very bitter experience in Vietnam where a lot of American lives were lost, and he all his generals were not going to have an unnecessary loss of life.
So we thought we were faced with really formidable forces, and that is why we built up such enormous forces in response and we were not prepared to commit them until we got them all in position, and that we got all that we needed to make sure that we had a sledge hammer to crack a nut. And there's no apologies for that.
Q: You know about casualties....you've had friends killed......
Billiere: When I was a second lieutenant, I went out to Korea. And I saw casualties in substantial numbers. I saw a third of my own platoon killed or injured - more than that actually. And I saw that casualties could be avoided with good leadership, good management and careful planning. I've felt ever since then, there could never be any excuse for any commander squandering the lives of other people, however justified the cause.
Q: What do you say to those who say--'These military chaps, they're just flaming up the strength of the Iraqis, because they want to make what they subsequently did look good'--?
Billiere: Good luck to you. All I would say is that we had more forces than we needed to do the job, and that was not a mistake, it was a judgment in the right direction and, of course, we had more forces than we needed, we had less casualties than we would other wise have had.
Q: Were you concerned that the Americans ultimately weren't going to fight?
Billiere: No, not at all. I mean I saw Norman Schwarzkopf every day of the week, at least once a day for an hour and possibly more. And we were always working in harmony because we were regularly talking, communicating with each other and I understood his problems. He understood my problems.
I think it was a considerable concern in my mind and in his that there wouldn't be the political resolve to go ahead and see through the political threats that we were putting across in the United Nations.
And, of course, you can't go on hyping up a force to attack something and then never do it. Because in the end you'll have lost the will to fight. And you'll have probably lost the political backing that is necessary if you are going to fight an effective war.
So, once the ball is rolling towards recovering Kuwait by force, one was very concerned that we'd be called off at a point where it would have unbalanced us shall we say.
Rather like a car. You get into top gear and suddenly you say, hey, hang on, we want you to stop. You slam on the brakes or you go into reverse. And then to get going again is an even bigger job than it was to get going in the first place.
Q: You were one of the people who probably saw more of Norman Schwarzkopf than almost anyone else. Recall any conversations where Norman Schwarzkopf spoke about the pressures he was under?
Billiere: He didn't have to speak about them, you could see it. We would be having a major conference and this dreaded red telephone, I think it was red, would go, and on the line would be Washington.
And everything stopped. The war stopped. Everything stopped while Norman Schwarzkopf had to answer some question that very often was a triviality about the latest press report, or why some bit was reported differently between his headquarters Washington's analysts.
And that level of interference, I believe, was a very difficult thing to manage. And Norman handled it brilliantly because of his intellect. But I believe with a lesser man it would have put pressure on him which might well have affected his ability to control and plan and direct his own forces.
A commander on the ground should be looking forwards, not backwards. And I think Norman had to spend far too much time looking backwards.
Q: How formidable a force was it that was assembled?
Billiere: It was an extremely formidable force. I mean it was the largest concentration of aircraft ever collected together for combat in one operation. And indeed the largest numbers of aircraft ever used in combat.
We had something in the region of 750-800,000 people involved out there, of which about 535 ,000 were American and 45,000 British. We were the second largest contributor after the Americans, apart from the Saudis, of course, whose country we were in.
It was indeed a formidable force. And certainly it was going to win that war. I mean, there was never any doubt about that. And this was an objective that Norman had set himself. Of course, the problems it raised was the logistics of getting all this deployed.
Do you know -- when the British Forces arrived out in Saudi Arabia, in order to get into their war positions, they had to motor the distance between the Channel ports and Berlin? The whole of the advance across Europe, before they were in position, to get themselves into position to fight.
The actual airlift the British used out there was greater than the entire British contribution to the Berlin airlift. Monumental logistic thing. A hundred and, about 146 ships taken up from trade to move the British forces out there. And the Americans of course, proportionately that much larger. And what's move they had to be used twice, move twice the distance.
Q: The British assembled a formidable land force. But it took a lot of effort. Were you surprised that the four divisions in Germany melted down to one division in the Gulf?
Billiere: I think everybody was really surprised. I think a lot of people had been saying that we were under-resourced in Germany and that the equipment wasn't properly maintained. But I don't think that anybody really thought that it was going to boil down to the fact that all we could really put in the field with effective armor that was going to be capable of fighting and sustaining the logistic demands--that it would come down to one division.
Mind you, having said that, that one division, was very well equipped and was absolutely first class. And you know, if, the rest of BAOR had been equipped and maintained to that level we would have had a very, very effective fighting force in Germany.
Q: What had to be done in order to equip that one division to the level it was equipped?
Billiere: They had to cannibalize all the armor from the other divisions. A lot of the personnel from other divisions. A lot of the other military equipment you know, gunners and so on, from other divisions from within the corps and effectively Germany would have been unable to hold the line if the Russians had attacked. Because what we didn't know, was that the Russians were in an even worse state than us, and could never really have launched an effective attack. But here again, you know, it's all very well being wise after the event, and at the time the judgement and the intelligence was that they might attack. And they could attack. But we had to take that risk.
Q: So if the Russians had attacked these four divisions, would they have been up to it?
Billiere: I think because the Russians weren't up to what we thought they were up to, they'd have certainly have given a very good account of themselves and in actual fact I think the Russians would have failed first. And I mean, we've only got to see that with the way their armor and their equipment behaved in the Gulf War when pitted against ours. It was all very second rate.
Q: To what extent were you worried-- Mrs, Thatcher was, very worried about the serviceability of the Challenger--she was terrified that a British division would get bogged down somewhere with all the engines broken down.
Billiere: Oh, it was a major concern. And indeed John Chapel, the then CGS, had been sent for by Margaret Thatcher to give an assurance that the equipment would work. And he gave her that assurance, up to certain percentage level. I think it was about 80% or something, which is a reasonable percentage to expect. And my job was to see that it did work and to ask for the resources.
And I have to say, that I received the most superb support from the Ministry of Defence, from the Army side of the Ministry of Defence. Anything I wanted to make sure those tanks worked, I was given and we had a red star delivery system which Paddy Hine set up so that when tank equipment, tank engines were required out, they got priority on the aircraft, even greater priority than mail and it's very seldom in, I'm glad to say, in British service history, that mail is down graded in priority. But that gives you an idea of the importance that was attached to seeing that those, the equipment for those tanks was available on demand.
And of course, the other thing--and this isn't known you know, generally. Vickers themselves sent out a lot of civilian crews who operated in the front-line areas, helping our REME people carry out advance repairs so that the tanks didn't have to be back loaded and the engines didn't have to be back loaded.
Q: An enormous determination?
Billiere: Oh yes, and great commitment by Vickers. You know this is something that we've never actually acknowledged since the war, what British industry did to see that their equipment was going to work in the field, on the day. And they were prepared to put themselves right up in the battle zone to see that it did work and give expert advice and help.
Q: What's the lesson for the British Army of the Gulf War? In terms of preparing?
Billiere: Two things. First of all, it's no use having ill-equipped badly maintained divisions, brigades, whatever it may be. If you've got a brigade, we've got to be able to afford to look after it and maintain it and equip it properly. Just the same as if you've got a car, and if you've got a big car, an expensive car and you can't maintain it, then you might as well go for a smaller one. But make sure you can look after it well.
And the second thing, and I think this is even more important actually, your equipment is only as good as the people who are operating it. And if we ever lower the standard and quality of manpower in the British services, then it doesn't matter how much money we spend on equipment, it will never be used to its best effect and above all else we must maintain the quality of man power that we attract into the Services and then keep them there.
Q: But you were giving your analogy of a car--?
Billiere: Yes, absolutely that. We got to know a very expensive shop window with nothing to back it up, I'm afraid, in the back office.
Q: Did you think that the Iraqis were going to use chemical weapons?
Billiere: Let's just look at the facts as they were. The Iraqis had chemical weapons. We knew that. They had biological weapons. We knew that. They had used them. We knew that. And they were going to be fighting what Sadam Hussein had called "the mother of all battles". So we would have been very neglectful to have assumed that he wasn't going to use chemical weapons with all this evidence to support it.
And so, I certainly thought he would probably use chemical weapons, if the conditions were right. We did not however think that chemical weapons would in terms of inflicting casualties, be an overwhelming, contributor towards the Iraqi cause, because the use of chemical weapons is highly sophisticated.
It's very limited. It depends on weather. It depends upon where your own troops are. It depends upon getting the kit, getting the weapon systems into the right area and having a delivery system. It isn't just a question of firing off a few other shells with chemicals on board. A lot more complicated than that.
So we knew we'd have problems, but I think we all expected that he would use them somewhere along the line.
Q: If he had used chemical weapons in a devastating way, what retaliation would the coalition have made?
Billiere: Well, I think we'd have certainly stepped up the bombing into Iraq in a much more ruthless way. But what was threatened, inter-government, I don't know. All I would say is that there was a nuclear capability available and Saddam Hussein must have taken that into account when he decided whether or not it was going to be worth using chemical weapons.
And bearing in mind the limited effect chemical weapons would have had against troops that were properly protected, and ours were properly protected, I think he must have come to the conclusion that the gains were far too small for the risks he'd have to take.
Q: Were you ever involved in any discussions of possible use of nuclear weapons?
Billiere: No. That was not really necessary, I think it was political thing. Clearly, the capability was there and one saw that that was available and ready to go. But, no, I didn't discuss the use of nuclear weapons. There was no need to.
Q: You report relentless pressure to move the British division away from the Marines. What were you saying to Norman Schwarzkopf?
Billiere: Well, you see we'd committed ourselves. When the small forces that were required to deter further aggression were deployed, we were put with the American Marines and we were delighted to be put with them. They are fine forces. And it was a great privilege to work with them and we learnt a lot from them.
But when the aim changed, from one of defence to one of use of force to evict the Iraqis from Kuwait and we increased our contribution very substantially by sending out a whole armed division instead of a brigade, which to us was an enormous contribution, then it was very important to see that first of all, and this is really what my job was, to see first of all it was used where it was going to be most effective.
And secondly that it played a role of sufficient importance to back up the sacrifice and contribution that the British nation had made. And it was my assessment that to then have continued working with the Marines, would not have met these objectives.
And so, I wanted it moved to an area where it could be used effectively and where it was going to make a major contribution. And that meant going with Fred Franks' Corps and in the main thrust.
Q: Were you worried also that the British Army would take disproportionate casualties by being with the Marines?
Billiere: I was not prepared to commit the British Army to a role for which it was not ideally suited and where it might also take additional casualties because it wasn't properly suited. And it was not properly suited to that role on the east coast where the distances were far too short for it to deploy properly. Where its mobility was going to be impaired by the pipelines and interference of that nature. And where we were working with a force that had never been stationed in Europe.
Now Fred Franks' Corps answered all those questions at a stroke. And so it would have been quite wrong for me to run the risk of additional casualties working with the Marines, when we could have a role that we weren't suited to, when we could switch to the Central Corps and do the role that we were suited to. And what casualties we had there would have been, shall we say, our fault. I mean, they would have been part of us fighting a battle for which we were trained and equipped.
Q: But, to sum up --to be part of the main attack-- you were concerned that the Marines were going to take enormous casualties, and that the British Army ...
Billiere: The advice that my advisers gave me...their assessment was that there would be excessive casualties on the east coast. Because it was a frontal attack and it was going to be across, straight into the Iraqi main defensive positions. And to have gone ahead committing a British division that wasn't even suited to that type of warfare, to that, and to take unnecessarily heavy casualties. If I'd agreed to that, I wouldn't have been doing my job and I think I should have been removed from command. My job was to see that the British forces were employed on tasks for which they were equipped and trained and where they were going to be most effective contributors towards the whole of that war.
And, it was therefore an important part of my job so far as the British division was concerned, to see that it was deployed in the right place.
Now Norman, as you know, was actually not at all keen on this. And I can see exactly why he wasn't. I mean, if he moved us from that flank, he'd got to put additional American forces in there. He'd got to take them away from another American division and break it up in order to send them across to the Marines.
And furthermore, the whole of the British division instead of being in position, which they virtually were during the work up phase, had got to be moved across the whole of the front. So there were a lot of good arguments from his point of view, as to why they shouldn't be moved.
And I think, you know, this says a lot for Norman's character. One of his great strengths is that he was a diplomat, as well as a soldier and why he was so successful in holding that coalition together, is that when he saw that another nation had an over-riding need to do something that didn't meet his military priorities of the moment, he was prepared to give way to that nation in order to keep them on side. And he did it not just with the British, with a lot of other nations as well.
And the move of our division, although he stood out against it, and tried to avoid it happening, and we had to put a lot of pressure on him, in the end he gracefully agreed that it should happen.
And I think that says a lot for the man that he can get this balance right between diplomacy that is necessary to keep a coalition force together, on the one hand, and develop a military fighting capability with that coalition despite having to let diplomacy give way at times to military correctness.
Q: Do you have a twinge of regret that the British army wasn't able in the end, to drive up the road with the Marines and be in Kuwait City?
Billiere: None whatsoever. It was an absolutely right decision. I would take it today. I've never had a single thought about it being correct from the moment I decided that was what was going to happen.
Q: What effect did Norman Schwarzkopf's temper tantrum's have?
Billiere: Well, obviously Norman's temper did curtail people's enthusiasm to go forward with ideas and suggestions or even to question decisions that were impending. The military don't question a decision that's been taken, you question it before it's been taken, that is a perfectly reasonable thing.
And people were reluctant to do that with him and, I think he lost a lot of very valuable commentary as a result of that. But, on the other side of the equation, he was a man of the most immense professional capability and judgement and he had a tremendous intellect and so he could actually in many ways cope with things himself. And where a lesser man might have needed this e comment from other people he could actually make things work without it. So, perhaps there was a degree of intellectual arrogance there, if you like, but it did balance itself out in many ways.
Q: Could you sum up his contribution-strengths, weaknesses?
Billiere: Oh, his contribution was unique and immense. I mean he ran the whole operation and it stood or fell on his management of it.
And nobody, whoever you are, can side issue that. His weaknesses, I think, were his temper whatever way he cares to explain it, it did subdue his staff. He didn't get the best out of them as a result of it. And I think that really was his major shortcoming. But it was more than made up for really by three things.
First of all, he was an exceptionally fine soldier. He knew his job inside out and therefore all the military people working with him had no trouble at all, in accepting his decisions and his judgment, in military matters.
Secondly, he understood the Arab world. He'd been brought up there in his young days when his father was in Iran. And he knew that you don't do things in Arabia the American way if you want to get 'em done. And he was able to adjust his pace of doing things and the way in which he did things, to meet the Arab style, which was very important. You must remember we were guests out there.
And thirdly was his diplomacy. He was a great diplomat when dealing with other nations. And because of this diplomacy, he was able to keep the coalition together. For example, there was the move of the British division, which he didn't want at all.
There was the occasion when the Syrians were extremely unhappy with the role they'd been given, right at the last minute. And he changed it. It didn't make any military sense, but politically it was extremely important. If he hadn't made the adjustment it could well have been that the Syrians would have fallen out altogether.
Q: Tell the story of how you and Andy Massey persuaded Norman Schwarzkopf that the British Special Forces had a role to play?
Billiere: Well, for personal and historic reasons, which are none of my business, Norman had reservations about the value of special forces. And he did not want to find that his own forces were diverted to rescuing failed special forces missions. Very understandable. I had to convince him that British Special Forces would make an important contribution towards the war. And he ultimately agreed that he would listen to a formal presentation and then, from that, he would decide whether or not he was prepared to agree to British Special Forces being deployed.
Q: And a briefing took place. Talk us through the briefing, who was there, what did they say.
Billiere: Well, Paddy Hine, myself and Andy Massey who was heading up our own special forces in theatre, got together and really put together the case for our special forces, which was nothing to do with Scuds, incidentally, at that stage.
It was everything to do with diverting Iraqi forces away from the main front into an area that they did not want to be involved in the battle. And we put this presentation together. Polished it up in good staff college fashion. And off we went, and Andy did the presentation brilliantly well. And, Norman was persuaded.
I can't remember exactly what he said. But the effect of what he said was, 'OK, I agree, you can go ahead with that mission. But,' and he made one condition, I always remember this. He said, 'Don't expect me to come and rescue you if they get it wrong'. And I was able to assure him, our special forces won't get it wrong.
Q: What were you saying to Norman Schwarzkopf they could achieve? What was the mission at that stage?
Billiere: The mission was to divert the Iraqi. Two, twofold really. To divert the Iraqi forces away from the main area of battle, so that there would be less facing the troops that were going to be taking on the main assault.
Q: No Scud hunting at the time? Scud hunting wasn't the mission?
Billiere: No, Scud hunting was no part of the mission in the early stages. They're infinitely flexible, special forces, and , if the task changes they can adjust to it. Provided you're asking them to do a task which is within their capabilities. And I suppose I was as good a person as anybody to judge that, having spent most of my life with them.
But their role was to draw Saddam Hussein's forces away from the main front so that he would have to deal with what would appear to be a major threat in western Iraq. And secondly to keep under surveillance the main Baghdad-Amman road and just see what traffic was moving up and down it. And if it was military traffic to take it out.
Q: When did you learn that the air war was going to start? How did that happen?
Billiere: Well, the Prime Minister, John Major, came out, and we all knew and I knew, but it was kept extremely secret. Very, very close indeed, and I'm not sure too many people knew exactly when it was going to start, in that it was tied in with the authority from the United Nations for the operation to go ahead. And quite rightly it was kept on a very tight net. And nobody really needed to know too much about it. Everybody was getting ready for it, and the exact date wouldn't have made any difference really to their degree of readiness.
John Major came out and he visited us about ten days before the war started. And he'd clearly got a date in mind and he took me on one side, actually, personally, just on my own, away from all my staff, and he said 'Look, Peter, I think this date's beginning to look like 20, 21 February'. And that was the first I knew of it. I then kept that to myself because it was, there was no need to pass it on. Once you pass these things on they leak.
Q: The night the air war started, what's your most vivid memory, that night?
Billiere: Well, it's like all these things. All the decisions had been made, forces had been deployed and from the point of view of senior commander, there was nothing more to do until things started to go wrong. And I knew it was going to start moving at midnight. The important thing to me was to get a night's sleep, so I was fresh to deal with the problems next day. Not sit up sort of watching television or watching the news. And so I went to bed.
And I can remember these American aircraft taking off in Riyadh and roaring over the headquarters. Oh, an immense sense of power, unending power as these heavy, powerful aircraft roared overhead. And it was both impressive and awesome, and exciting.
Q: And was there a degree of fear about casualties mixed in?
Billiere: Oh yes, I mean we didn't know how many were going to come back next day. Who was going to come? Had we made a mistake? Had we misjudged the Iraqis? And the effectiveness of the Iraqis capability to respond. Had we got the right priority of targets to attack? Because, we went initially to eliminate his capability of launching aircraft against us and to emasculate his air defence system. And did he know we were coming?
I mean there were a thousand one questions we didn't know the answer to. And, of course, it was perhaps one of the great moments of the whole war, for me, when we saw that so vast a majority of our aircraft returning.
Q: That story of the first night, the Tornado pilots and people. Can you tell me the story of what happened from your perspective?
Billiere: Yes. I was deeply concerned that we were losing proportionately far more than anybody else and the first thing I did was to say why? And it was actually fairly obvious why, when you talked to the air crew. When you analysed the flight reports. When you talked to my extremely able and experienced deputy commander, and really responsible for running the air war, British part of the air war.
And that was, we were flying low level. And whatever reasons may have been given after the war, the reason those aircraft crashed was because they were flying low level. For one reason or another. It may have been they flew into the ground, it may have been they were hit by flak. Maybe they were avoiding flak. But they were flying low level.
And so, one said, well is this necessary? Is this a sensible thing to do? And the answer was, no it isn't necessary, it's not a sensible thing to do. And I don't want to go on doing it.
Q: Were you saying this to Bill Wratten? Were you saying to Paddy Hine?
Billiere: Yes, I said it to Bill Wratten. And Paddy Hine came out and visited within 24 hours. And we sat round a table and discussed the matter. I mean, we all agreed that it was not an acceptable way to continue with the war. And that the RAF had got to go medium level and if that meant a deterioration in the accuracy of their bombing, well so be it. The first thing was to stop this loss of aircraft and loss of life.
Q: Do you think that the missions itself, the original JBG233 missions were well conceived? Were they against the right targets? These airfields were huge.
Billiere: We were locked into JBG233. It was all we had. Apart from iron bombs dating back to the last world war, pattern bombing. And for a very good reason. That was the philosophy for fighting in Europe and that was where the British taxpayer had been spending their money in defence to fight the European war. And this system had been developed for Europe.
It wasn't right for the Gulf War and it was very quickly apparent that it wasn't right and it should in my view have been dropped at an earlier stage than it was dropped. But it didn't mean to say that the system was wrong for Europe, for which it had been developed.
Q: But in the Gulf should it ever have been deployed at all?
Billiere: Yes. Because it wasn't until we'd used it in its early stages. And remember that the RAF had spent 15 years developing this system, training their pilots. Developing tactics. It would have been equally crazy to have changed that overnight without trying it out. And we did try it out and it didn't work because the runways were made differently to the way they were made in Europe. And, because actually the Americans had so decimated the Iraqi air defence capability, that it wasn't necessary to put the runways out of action.
Q: Why did it take so long to take the decision to go up to medium altitude and what did you think about it?
Billiere: The reason why it took so long to change the tactics, is because first of all it was a decision of substantial magnitude. It was going to impact on the whole of the RAF's strategy as developed for Europe and put it into question. And as a result of that there was a great reluctance in the MoD for it to change. And we weren't allowed to change it.
The commanders on the spot were forbidden to change it. And indeed, I saw a letter from a senior Air Force officer in the Ministry of Defence saying in effect, that if we changed it, then my air commander wasn't doing his job. I've never seen such a disgraceful letter in my life.
My air commander was an extremely fine commander, Bill Wratten. He was deeply concerned about his men's lives and yet he was put in a position really, of whatever decision he took it was going to be wrong. If he went on conducting these operations the way he was, then his job was threatened. If he didn't go on with it, then people's lives were being lost. And it was only when Paddy came out and we sat round a table, it was decided Paddy would go back to the Ministry of Defence and sort the thing out of this.
Well, I mean it was obvious they weren't going to hit things with a degree of accuracy. You see, just let me give you an example of the way things change in defence. And this is a very general statement and I'm sure some technician will pull it to pieces in detail. But in the last war, you required 50 aircraft, 140 odd air crew to do the same destructive pinpoint damage that now requires 1 aircraft with 1 precision guided bomb.
We hadn't got precision guided bombs at that stage. We'd got old World War II high level techniques for the reasons that we hadn't developed that particular side of air war. For very good reasons. It wasn't required in Europe, in our judgement.
And so it was inevitable that when we went up to a high altitude we were going to start missing things. And we were back into pattern bombing - dropping a lot of bombs and hoping that one of them would hit, rather than sending one bomb in knowing it would hit. And it wasn't until we got a rather out-dated precision system that required another type of aircraft to help us deliver precision bombs, and those other aircraft were sent out. And then we were back in business, again.
Q: Were you surprised that the key to resurrecting the RAF campaign was a 30 year old plane?
Billiere: Yes, I was actually. I found it personally difficult to see that this sort of aircraft which after all was at the end of its life, and I think one would therefore expect it to have a lot of mechanical failures. I found it difficult to believe, that this was really the right way to go ahead. But again, this was for the airmen to decide and I happily accepted their advice and from what Bill Wratten and Paddy Hine had told me, and we had those aircraft out there. And of course, they were right. And they were a great success.
Q: And so we have a new aircraft that can't do what the old aircraft could do stunningly well.....
Billiere: Well we come back to this business of development and how much you as a taxpayer are prepared to invest in defence. And it's so expensive now, you are forced to specialise for the theatre in which your operations are going to take place. And our operations were taking place in Europe. Low level. OK. So medium level and other defence options were dropped. And rightly so. We couldn't afford them.
So, I wasn't surprised that we hadn't got this capability, and I could understand why we hadn't got it. In fact, though, it had been under development and the manufacturer's released in the end the equipment that was necessary for precision delivery of weapons. And before the end of the war, we got it in service and that was a remarkable achievement again by industry.
And I do think that the British defence industry deserves a particular credit here for the way in which they supported this war. I told you how they supported the army at warfare, and now here is another example of how they were supporting air warfare.
Q: Summing up this area, what do you think the lesson is for the RAF?
Billiere: Well, I think first of all, that the tactics of conducting an operation are the prerogative of the commander and should not be directed from the Ministry of Defence, which is what happened in the early days of the air war. Strategy and the diplomacy of the war, that comes from the MoD, but not the tactics. And I think, that the interference in the Ministry of Defence with the air war in the early stages was unwarranted and should not happen. I hope that lesson has been learnt.
I think that the other thing, and perhaps not so much for the RAF, but for the British taxpayer, you know, how much are you prepared to spend on defence and unless you are prepared to spend a disproportionate amount of the national income on defence, you have got to accept specialised weapon systems designed for the war as perceived at a given moment in time.
And that means that if the war is not of that design, then the weapon systems are probably not going to be right for the job on the day. I don't think there is anything that can be done about that. I think that in the high tech weapon systems we've got now, you have to specialise, you can't afford to have something for everything that may never happen. And therefore you're going to take a punt on it.
Q: Do the RAF face greater dangers because we can't spend enough on equipment?
Billiere: No, I don't think so. I think, you're paid to face risks in the Services and if you don't like it then you shouldn't be there in the first place. But I do think that the commander on the spot though, has got to be the person responsible for looking after lives and taking the necessary decisions on the day. And that should have been my responsibility, and in this particular incident, I didn't have it.
Q: When the guys went up to medium altitudes, the higher altitudes, was any remark made to you by either Norman Schwarzkopf or Chuck Horner?
Billiere: No, they were clearly relieved. Chuck Horner did certainly speak to me and he said that he couldn't see the justification for this low level delivery and he thought it was the cause of some of the casualties that the RAF suffered. And I would agree with him.
Q: While the air war was going on, the SAS were in action. When did their role change? How did that come about?
Billiere: Well, Special Forces have to be infinitely flexible. And I deployed them for the role that I'd described. And when they got in there, of course, the Scud war against Israel began in earnest, and it was quite clear that unless this was contained, we were going to see Israel coming into the war with all the political dangers and effects that that was likely to bring with it.
And so it was critical to stop this. And Norman actually diverted something in the region of 75% of his entire air power to stopping the Scuds flying at his Israel. But you can't beat a pair of eyes on the ground. We know that from using special forces in Europe.
So I changed the role of the Special Forces after they crossed the border and I told them that their mission was to get the Scuds out of the battle.
Q: Do you recall any conversations with Norman Swarzkopf? Did he come to you and say, 'Hey, can your guys do anything?' Did you go to him and say we're going to do this?
Billiere: Well, I saw Norman once or twice a day for quite a long time. So you didn't sort of go and make a representation. You discussed events as they were evolving. Having got the SAS behind the lines on one mission, it became quite clear to me that they could play a critically important role in killing Scuds that were shooting against Israel and I therefore decided that I would change their mission. I went to Norman and I said I would like to change their mission. I said this is what I'd like them to do. And he said, you go ahead Peter. If you can do that, then you're doing me a great favour.
And so I issued the instructions to Andy Massey to change the role of patrols to getting those Scuds out of the war. The Scuds that were firing on Israel.
Q: When a lot of them were missing, you came under pressure. Maybe something was going wrong. Was there a critical juncture when you remember thinking maybe this isn't going right?
Billiere: Well, let's go back to where we put the SAS in. I'd promised Schwarzkopf that if the SAS went in they wouldn't need rescuing. Now if the SAS suddenly did start to need rescuing, then what I'd said to Norman Swarzkopf, was inaccurate and I'd got to do something about it.
So obviously when people started to go missing, which happens in war, I mean, let's be quite clear about that, I was concerned to know that the SAS had got it under control. And Andy Massey assured me they had got it under control.
And the second thing is, and I make no apologies, really, for coming back to this, every man out there, whether he was SAS, whether he was sailor, whether he was an airman mattered to me and I didn't like to see people going missing and not knowing what was happening to them. And so when people went missing, I wanted to know what was happening.
Q: And why were they going missing? Did you suggest a change of tactics?
Billiere: No, I didn't suggest anything at all. I told them they'd got to make sure that they'd got their operations in order, which they did.
Actually, there was a bad moment when a lot went missing. But SAS often go missing for 2 or 3 days and then turn up. And that's what most of them did do. But during that 2 or 3 days, you know, you do worry about them. You can't help it if you're a human being. And, quite a lot of them, actually, had gone off the air,. They weren't in radio communication. And until they turned up we didn't know what had happened to them. And so one wanted to know how things were progressing and whether there was any signs of them being picked up. And in fact most of them were picked up.
Q: On the eve of the land war, what's your memory of the mood on the eve of the land war? Were you very worried about casualties still?
Billiere: No, no. I mean, we'd done months of preparation and work and we reckoned we'd got a bloody good plan. We'd been given lots of resources by our various governments. And we were quite confident that it was going to go well.
Obviously there was this ever present concern to minimise casualties, not that there would be no casualties. You don't fight a war, I'm afraid, and not have casualties. Although, I must say that war was the nearest thing to it.
Q: But, what was the nightmare scenario?
Billiere: I think the great concern at the beginning of the land war was how effectively his troops were going to fight. I was quite confident that we were going to get through the minefields, and through the wire and all that. I thought we might lose some equipment and men in doing that. But there again, you don't fight a war without having casualties.
But, how hard and how effectively was he going to fight? Because upon that, depended the duration of the war. And from the duration of the war would depend the number of casualties there were going to be. And I'm glad to say that our plan was absolutely first class and we just went through them like a knife through butter.
I know, there were a lot of reasons for this. But very substantially it was Norman Schwarzkopf's strategic plan. Overall plan for the theatre that led to the success.
Q: And after all this worry...W hy was it so easy? Why, did everyone get it so wrong?
Billiere: There were several reasons for that. First of all, we had a damn good plan and some first class fighting forces, well equipped, well trained and well prepared for this particular battle.
Secondly, Hussein had exactly the opposite, although we didn't know it at the time. He'd got a demoralised force. They hadn't benefited at all from eight years war, rather the reverse, they wanted to go home. They had poor equipment. They were badly led. They were directed from the center and not by commanders on the spot. And therefore unable to adjust when they found the attack coming from their right flank instead of a frontal assault which they'd been used to when they'd been fighting the Iranians. And they were taken completely by surprise.
So you had a demoralised army, taken by surprise by an extremely competent, well-trained coalition force that just swept through them.
Q: The intelligence operation out there ... effective in may ways, but did you feel frustrations with it?
Billiere: Oh, there were shortcomings in intelligence. I suspect that every commander who's ever been in any war, anywhere, will criticise his intelligence. And I don't have too much difficulty in raising some criticisms. I think though, they may be of a different nature to what many people would expect.
First of all, of course, intelligence is one thing. Information is another. Information is turned into intelligence. And we had so much information that we didn't really have the capability of turning it into intelligence. And, so a lot of the intelligence was missing. That's the first thing.
And the second thing is that intelligence has to be given to those who need it, and that means, particularly when the land war was about to start, the forward commanders. And I'm afraid the intelligence system was such that it served the senior headquarters very well, but it didn't provide for people like Rupert Smith, my divisional commander, the proper level of intelligence that he needed to plan and conduct his battle effectively. And that was a shortcoming.
Q: Did you feel strongly that they had a lack of intelligence?
Billiere: Yes, the information was there but it hadn't been turned into intelligence for Rupert Smith and his brigade commanders. And, there was a flaw in the system. And I think that needs addressing for future operations. And they certainly demanded, and didn't get, much more detailed intelligence than the system was able to give them.
Q: As a British soldier were you astonished by the scope and scale of American intelligence gathering?
Billiere: I was amazed by the scope and scale of the information gathering. I was disappointed at the ability of the system to turn it into intelligence.
Q: For Norman Schwarzkopf the Republican Guard was the great target...the prize....
Billiere: The Republican Guard were a prime target. They were kept in reserve. The poorer were put in the front line. The Republican Guard were going to come in and counter attack. And it was certainly a major objective during the build-up to the land battle to destroy as many of the Republican Guard as possible. Because then you'd have destroyed their, the Iraqi capability to counter attack.
Q: As the land war reached its conclusion, there was this tragic incident, with nine British soldier being killed. How did you hear about it?
Billiere: Well, I received it over my normal command net, and I'm afraid, and this sounds rather callous, but every war I've been in, there have been instance where our own troops have been killed by our own forces. And so I wasn't totally surprised that this had happened, when you consider the complexity of the operations.
I was deeply concerned that it wouldn't become an emotional crusade that would sidetrack people from the main purpose of the war, which was to defeat the Iraqis and get 'em out of Kuwait. Which if we delayed doing, would have caused yet more casualties.
And so when I arrived in the war room that morning, knowing that it was one of those things of war, I went to Norman and I said, look Norman, I'm very sad about this and I know you are. And he said yes I am, I'm deeply hurt about it. And I said we've got to get on with this war. And I said I'll have all the facts collected together so if we need it. But I want to make it quite clear this is not going to stand between the British and the Americans in terms of the effective prosecution of the war. And he said, well thanks Peter. I quite understand that. And he said I would have taken the same view. And we got on with the day's work.
Q: What happened? As far as you know, what went wrong?
Billiere: Well. I don't know the details. There's been an exhaustive enquiry. I haven't actually read the whole of that enquiry. I've read the summary of it. And, and, I think, you got a difference of opinion between the Americans and the British as to what happened. What I don't think there is any difference of opinion over, is the fact that an American missile destroyed a British piece of equipment.
But then the Americans were our allies and I'd far rather have had the Americans along to fight that war, than not to have them along and carried all the consequences of having a depleted air power to support our land battle. We'd have lost a lot more people.
And so, you could argue that these servicemen who gave up their lives paid that ultimate price and in doing so, saved the lives of other people because we had the American support along. And of course, we went on having American support along right to the end of the war.
Q: When it comes to friendly fire...what needs to be done for the future? The lessons of that incident?
Billiere: We've been learning lessons about how to deal with, blue on blue I call it, fire, ever since war began and I expect we'll go on learning lessons ever into the future.
And of course, at the end of the day, you come down to this business of costs again. You could equip every single British piece of equipment and American piece of equipment with an IFF, identification friend and foe, means of an aircraft identifying, electronically, whether that is a friendly or hostile piece of equipment. That would have cost many hundreds of millions, if not billions of pounds. Are the tax payer prepared to pay it? The answer is they weren't prepared to pay it. And if they aren't, then are you going to have that in preference to perhaps having a really effective piece of artillery to support you. Which if you didn't have, you'd lose more.
The ending of the war. How did you first become aware that there were discussion going on that hostilities should be ceased?
Billiere: Well, it was quite clear, that as we swept towards the coast, that the war wasn't going to go on much longer unless we were going to change the whole mission of the war and start invading Iraq on a grand scale. So it wasn't a question of being surprised that the end of the war arrived when it did. It was really a question of assessing whether the moment that it did arrive, was the right moment. Or whether it should have been ended earlier or later.
Q: Was it ended at the right moment?
Billiere: In my view, on the information that I'd got, I think it was ended at about the right time. There is a long argument to support this. And I think give or take two or three hours, it was the right moment.
And I don't believe that extending the war far deeper into Iraq was an option at all. I think we'd have been illegal to do that. The United Nations remit had never authorised it to do it. And the Arab community would not have gone along with it. It would have been a Western invasion of Iraq. What would we have done when we got there? Saddam Hussein would certainly have nipped out sideways out of the back door, and he'd have been a hero up in the hills manning guerillas or a leader in exile.
Q: But, the Republican Guard have always been such a target.......?
Billiere: I'm not sure that's correct actually. The strategy of destroying Iraqi forces was much wider than destroying the Republican Guard. The Iraqi forces that were deployed against Kuwait, were to be destroyed to the extent that they only had sufficient left to defend their borders and not to use them aggressively against other nations. And that, in my view, has been achieved. It's been achieved because of the substantial destruction of Iraqi forces in the field and it's been achieved because sanctions have denied them the means to either have the money to train their present forces, or to repair and
Q: What do you have to say about the level of destruction that was achieved?
Billiere: Well, I'm not certain of the exact figures of what was destroyed. But I believe that we met our mission, which was to destroy sufficient of the Iraqi forces to deny them the opportunity of having a force capable of invading a third country, whilst leaving him enough forces to be able to defend his borders. Desperately important that. It was no use creating a vacuum in Iraq, because somebody else is going to move in and fill it and then you're going to have another major problem on your hands.
Q: What do you say to those people, who say they didn't finish the job--five years later, Saddam Hussein is still there.
Billiere: Well, I don't think we would have got him. We could have gone up to Baghdad and I could have had my tanks in Baghdad or Rupert Smith's tanks, in Baghdad within 24 hours. But we weren't going to get Saddam Hussein. He's not going to sit there like a bewildered rabbit and be picked up. He'd have slipped out of the back door. He'd have gone up into the hills and run a guerilla movement or become a government in exile. He'd have become a hero in the Arab world. And be quite clear that there's a lot of Arabs who support Saddam Hussein.
And I think the situation we'd have been landed with would have been a Western problem in the middle of Arabia - of trying to run a country which we had no business in and running. And which we didn't have the capability to run effectively, either.
And therefore we completed the mission given to us by the United Nations and I think that's as far as we should have gone. It's politicians who make these decision, not the military.
Q: Mrs. Thatcher still believes that the coalition forces should have gone up to Baghdad and overthrown Saddam, toppled him and finished him. What do you think?
Billiere: Well, that was perfectly feasible so far as she's gone, but what happens next though? Who's going to fill the vacuum when Saddam Hussein's gone? There's no credible government in exile and how are we going to get out of Baghdad when we've got in it. Look at the problems we've got in getting out of Yugoslavia now, we're locked in there. And, it's very easy to deploy the military on an operation. It's far, far more difficult to extract them from it.
Q: What did the war achieve? You're someone who knows a great deal about the Middle East--was it worth it? ?
Billiere: Oh, it was certainly worth it. I mean if Saddam Hussein had been allowed to run rampant over the Middle East, quite apart from the fact that we had lost major source of world oil supplies, he would have trampled over the freedom of a lot of countries, that are friends of ours and had been friends for many years.
He would have threatened countries beyond the borders of the Middle East, once he'd established his position in the Middle East. And he would have been an encouragement to all those little tin-pot dictators who want to have a go at the next door neighbour to try and enhance their own personal prestige and power. And it is personal, it's not national he's after, he's after looking after Saddam Hussein. Not after the Iraqi nation.
Q: Was it necessary to have a coalition?
Billiere: It was essential to have a coalition. Otherwise it was going to be one major Western country imposing its will over less military effective Arab and Islamic countries and that would have been totally unacceptable. It would changed the whole balance of power in the world. And, the Americans would never have done it.
It's very, very important to take that away with us. It could never have been an American operation, it wouldn't have worked. It would have worked, they put lots of forces there, but they would have had to invade Saudi Arabia to do so effectively. They would have had to um, stand up against all their allies. And, war is only an extension of politics. They had to bring the coalition along, or get out.
And I think if I can just say one point about this. The whole of this interview,you have never once mentioned the Arab forces. Now, the Arab forces, in this war, were absolutely critical to its success. Without them and without having them along, then we would not have been welcome. If we had won a military battle, we'd have lost a political peace, and I think that is the great success of Norman Swarzkopf, that he brought the whole of this coalition together and it fought as an entity. It wasn't just the American forces. It was Arab forces, Islamic forces, British forces, French forces, Italian. Thirty-one different countries.
So we had to have a coalition. We had to have as many forces as possible, gathered together to challenge this invasion of a minor country by Saddam Hussein. And of course, the threat that it posed to a substantial part of world oil supplies. And don't under rate that. It's all very well for people to say, well you only went in because of the oil. Alright, oil played an important role. But if you'd lost it, I can tell you everybody who's listening to this program now, would be paying five times the price he is paying for his oil and he might not have been very happy about that.
Q: What did the British specifically contribute?
Billiere: First of all a major and first class, outstanding fighting force of 45,000 people - navy, army, air force. And backed up by our own industry.
Secondly, we played a major role, visible role, supporting our friends in the Gulf. And they are our friends. We've lived in the Gulf. We've grown up with a lot of these countries. And we live and work with them now. And I think that is important in terms of maintaining one's position and integrity in the world, and a degree of cohesion and common sense in the world.
And I think we also contributed towards the cohesion of the coalition. I believe that you could say the British forces were perhaps the cement that held the coalition together.
Q: What do you think the lessons are for the British armed forces as a whole?
Billiere: Well, first of all, you've got to maintain the top edge of technology, if you want to be an influential world power. And if you want to be able to play a role in defeating aggression wherever it comes, against whoever it comes. Because there's going to be an increasing level of sophistication as wealthy but minor countries build up their weapons systems.
Secondly, and I cannot repeat this too often, that technology is useless, unless we have high quality people to man it. And high quality is more important than numbers. And if there is one message to come out of that war, is, for goodness sake don't let the quality of British servicemen drop below what was achieved by the average quality during the Gulf War.
Q: When you heard the war hostilities had finished, what did you feel, as a person?
Billiere: A great sense of relief that it had been won with so few casualties.
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