January 17th 1991 – First strikes of Gulf War cost RAF two Tornado aircraft

Tornado GR.1 Desert Storm

The Royal Air Force’s Panavia Tornado GR.1 was one of the most versatile combat aircraft available to the Coalition forces poised to remove Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army from Kuwait. A total force of sixty Tornado GR.1s participated in Operation: Granby, the British contribution to Desert Storm, flying from Tabuk and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia as well as Muharraq in Bahrain. The aircraft were instrumental in helping keep the Iraqi Air Force on the ground and flew most of its missions at very low level under the cover of darkness.

Naturally, with such a dangerous mission there would be casualties and two aircraft were lost on the first night when Iraqi defences were at their heaviest. ZD791/BG flown by Flight Lieutenants Peters and Nichol was shot down attacking Ruma airfield. Both crew were captured. The other aircraft was ZA392/EK flown by Wing Commander Elsdon and Flight Lieutenant Collier. Their aircraft was lost attacking Shaibah air base and both crew were killed.

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RAF Tornado Losses During Desert Storm

Tornado GR.1 Desert Storm

The Royal Air Force’s Panavia Tornado GR.1 was one of the most versatile combat aircraft available to the Coalition forces poised to remove Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army from Kuwait. A total force of sixty Tornado GR.1s participated in Operation: Granby, the British contribution to Desert Storm, flying from Tabuk and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia as well as Muharraq in Bahrain. The aircraft were instrumental in helping keep the Iraqi Air Force on the ground thanks to its JP233 munitions dispenser system and flew most of its missions at very low level under the cover of darkness.

Naturally, with such a dangerous mission there would be casualties and six Tornados would be lost in combat;

Date: 17th January 1991
Squadron: No.15 Squadron
Flight Lieutenant J. Peters
Navigator: Flight Lieutenant J. Nichol
The aircraft was part of a formation conducting an ultra-low level attack on Ruma airfield with 1,000lb General Purpose (GP) bombs. During the egress from the target the formation encountered dense anti-aircraft defences primarily in the form of Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) fire before the Tornado’s Sky Guardian Radar Warning Receivers (RWR) detected several Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) guidance radars zeroing in on their aircraft.

Flight Lieutenant Peters took evasive action in an attempt to throw off the Iraqi targeting radars but soon afterwards their aircraft was hit by a SAM. The aircraft remained airborne and under control for around three minutes as fire consumed the starboard wing by which time the crew realised their predicament and elected to abandon the aircraft. Both Peters and Nichol managed to escape their aircraft safely although both sustained some injuries from the violence of the ejection. Shortly after landing they were taken prisoner and notoriously paraded on Iraqi television.

Date: 17th January 1991
Squadron: No.15 Squadron
Wing Commander T. N. C. Elsdon
Flight Lieutenant R. M. Collier
: The aircraft was part of a four aircraft formation conducting a low level attack using the JP233 dispenser weapon against Shaibah airbase in Southern Iraq. Despite intense anti-aircraft fire encountered all the way to the target the four aircraft managed to reach their target and carry out a successful attack before turning on a northerly heading.

A short while later the formation then conducted a turn east before one of the aircraft in the formation saw a ball of fire rising up from the desert floor. The formation leader called out for the formation to check in but received no reply from Wing Commander Elsdon and Flight Lieutenant Collier’s aircraft. The aircraft failed to return to its base and it was therefore concluded that the fireball was their aircraft hitting the ground during a low level turn. Tragically, both Wing Commander Elsdon and Flight Lieutenant Collier were killed.

Date: 19th January 1991
Squadron: No.27 Squadron
Flight Lieutenant David Waddington
Flight Lieutenant Robbie Stewart
During a night attack against an airfield in South West Iraq with 1,000lb GP bombs the Tornado came under fire from defensive SAM batteries as the aircraft began a rapid climb from low level in the first stage of a loft-attack. Flight Lieutenant Waddington attempted to take evasive action but a SAM detonated ahead of the aircraft damaging the nose including the cockpit rendering Waddington unconscious.

Flight Lieutenant Stewart initiated the ejection at very high speeds resulting in both men sustaining injuries. After three days evading the Iraqis they were captured and detained as POWs until end of the conflict. In 2006 the now Squadron Leader Robbie Stewart MBE took to the skies in a Tornado for the last time in his military career. At the controls was non-other than Wing Commander Dave Waddington.

Some Russian sources claim that it was this aircraft that was shotdown by an Iraqi MiG-29. (see The MiG-29 Question below).

Date: 22nd January 1991
No.31 Squadron
Pilot: Squadron Leader G. K. S. Lennox
Squadron Leader K. P. Weeks
The aircraft was carrying out an attack on the Ar Rutbah air defence site at low level armed with 1,000lb GP bombs. The aircraft successfully bombed the radar site despite intense anti-aircraft fire enroute but approximately five seconds after weapon release another Tornado involved in the attack saw an explosion on a nearby hillside. As the Tornado flew over the site a series of fires were observed and wreckage was strewn across the landscape. It would not be until the formation returned to base minus Lennox and Week’s aircraft that it was confirmed that their aircraft had been the one that crashed. The exact cause of why the aircraft crashed has never been determined however the Iraqi Air Force later claimed that a MiG-29 “Fulcrum-B” brought down the aircraft with an R-60 (NATO codename AA-8 “Aphid”) air-to-air missile. (see The MiG-29 Question below).

Date: 24th January 1991
Squadron: No.17 Squadron
Flying Officer S. J. Burgess
Squadron Leader R. Ankerson
The aircraft was carrying out an early morning, medium level attack against an airfield in South West Iraq with 1,000lb GP bombs. As the weapons were released the aircraft was rocked by a large explosion from a proximity detonation of what the crew believed was a SAM that left the wings of the aircraft burning. The crew attempted to escape to the Saudi Arabian border but the aircraft was becoming increasingly uncontrollable until finally all control was lost forcing the crew to eject. Upon landing in the Iraqi desert they were captured and held as PoWs until the end of the war.

A post war investigation of the wreckage and the flight recorder from the aircraft discovered that in fact the most likely cause for the explosion that brought the aircraft down was that one of their 1,000lb bombs detonated prematurely as it fell from the aircraft. Shrapnel fragments found in the wreckage confirmed that the aircraft had indeed been damaged by its own bombs although why the weapon exploded so early remains a mystery.

Date: 14th February 1991
No.17 Squadron
Flight Lieutenant R. J. Clark
Flight Lieutenant S. M. Hicks
The aircraft was flying as part of a daylight, medium-level precision strike mission with Blackburn Buccaneers providing laser designation duties for the Tornado formation armed with Laser Guided Bombs (LGBs). The target was an airfield in central Iraq and less than two seconds before weapon release the formation’s Radar Warning Receivers (RWRs) detected Iraqi radars “painting” them. The aircraft dropped one of its two LGBs on to the target but then the Buccaneer crew reported SAM launches to the north of the formation’s position.

Realising the aircraft was under attack Flight Lieutenant Clark took evasive action and to increase the Tornado’s agility the remaining external stores were jettisoned. It would prove in vain however for a SAM exploded in close proximity to the aircraft which damaged the canopy and most of the cockpit instrumentation. A short while later a second SAM exploded near the aircraft spraying the wings and fuselage with shrapnel but Clark remained in limited control of the Tornado for a further two minutes although he was unable to contact his navigator in the rear seat.

When he finally lost all control of the aircraft he initiated the ejection and both he and his navigator were thrown from the Tornado before landing in the Iraqi desert. Clark was taken prisoner and it was only then he learned that his navigator, Flight Lieutenant Hicks, had been killed in the attack. Clark was held by the Iraqis until the end of the conflict.

The MiG-29 Question.

During and after the conflict a number of sources, mostly Iraqi and Russian, claimed that Tornado GR.1 ZA467 was shot down by an Iraqi MiG-29 “Fulcrum-B” flown by Iraqi pilot Captain Jameel Sayhood. The fact that exactly why Squadron Leaders Lennox and Weeks’ aircraft crashed has never been determined does add some weight to the claim however this claim has been dismissed by many western observers primarily on the basis that the Iraqis claim that the aircraft was shot down on the 19th when in fact the Tornado crashed on the 22nd. To further confuse matters some Russian sources claim that Sayhood shot down Tornado GR.1 ZA396/GE on the 19th flown by Flight Lieutenants Waddington and Stewart but the post-war RAF investigation confirmed this aircraft was lost due to SAM activity. Captain Sayhood himself would later be shot down in an engagement with the USAF.

The Iraqi Air Force is only credited with a single air-to-air kill during the entire conflict when on January 17th 1991 an Iraqi MiG-25 “Foxbat” piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Zuhair Dawood fired an R-40 missile at a US Navy F/A-18 Hornet. The US aircraft was hit and its pilot, Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher, was killed.

Non-Combat Losses.

Military fast-jet flying is inherently dangerous in itself and consequently there were three non-combat losses leading up to and during Operation: Granby.

  • On October 18th 1990 Tornado GR.1 ZA466/FH was on approach to Tabuk, Saudi Arabia when the undercarriage caught the barrier which had been raised by mistake. The aircraft slammed nose first in to the runway and caught fire but fortunately both crewmembers escaped unharmed.
  • On January 13th 1991, during a training flight Tornado GR.1 ZD718/BH struck the desert 140 miles west of Masirah, Oman after the pilot entered a steep turn at very low level. The aircraft lost height and crashed killing both crewmembers.
  • On January 20th 1991, Tornado GR.1 ZD893/AG took off from Tabuk, Saudi Arabia for a ground attack mission. Shortly after take-off the pilot reported severely restricted movement of the control column and after declaring an emergency, jettisoned the external stores and attempted to return to base. Despite two efforts to land the aircraft had become almost totally uncontrollable and both crew ejected from their aircraft.

Aircraft Gallery: Buccaneer in the Gulf ’91

The Blackburn Buccaneer’s swansong was its participation in combat operations during the 1991 Gulf War as part Operation: Granby. The first batch of six aircraft resplendent in desert camouflage and additional equipment including ECM pods departed from RAF Lossiemouth for the Middle East in the early hours of the 26th January 1991. The Buccaneers supported the Tornado force by providing a laser designation capability. It became common practice for each attack formation to comprise four Tornados and two Buccaneers; each Buccaneer carried a single laser designator pod and acted as backup to the other in the event of an equipment malfunction. The first combat mission took place on 2 February, operating at a medium altitude of roughly 18,000 feet, and successfully attacked the As Suwaira Road Bridge.

Operations continued on an almost daily basis but due to the limitations of the Pave Spike targetting pod all missions were flown in daylight hours. Approximately 20 road bridges were destroyed by Buccaneer-supported missions, restricting the Iraqi Army’s mobility and communications. As Coalition ground forces pressed into Iraq the Buccaneers supported the Tornados as they continued to attack airfields to keep the Iraqi air force on the ground. Missions included targeting bunkers, runways and any aircraft sighted. Following Buccaneers providing target acquisition for the Tornado’s laser-guided bombs, the Buccaneers would sometimes conduct dive-bombing runs upon remaining targets of opportunity in the vicinity (these weapons were carried in the Buccaneers internal weapons bay).

In one well known incident on the 21st February 1991, a pair of Buccaneers destroyed two Iraqi transport aircraft on the ground at Shayka Mazhar airfield. One was a Soviet built An-12 “Cub” while the second one was a captured Kuwaiti Lockheed L-100 Hercules (civilian version of the C-130 Hercules) pressed in to use by the Iraqis. The footage from the targeting pod was then presented to the World’s media during one of General Schwartskopf’s press conferences (see targeting image in gallery). The Buccaneers flew 218 missions during the Gulf War in which they designated targets for friendly aircraft as well as dropping 48 laser-guided and unguided bombs themselves.

Longest Tank Kill In History


One thing that is undeniably “British” is the love of a good underdog story and British military history is filled with examples of just that. The Harrier in the Falklands. The Swordfish bomber attack on Taranto harbour. The evacuation of Dunkirk. That’s to name but a few. In 1991 on the eve of the ground war to liberate Kuwait and destroy Iraq’s mighty army one of the underdogs was certainly the British Challenger tank.

221 Challenger tanks were eventually deployed to Saudia Arabia to liberate Kuwait and operated under the guise of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division supporting the US Army’s VII Corps. As the tanks deployed there were worried muffles in the Ministry of Defence and amongst military analysts about how well they would perform especially in the face of Iraqi armoured forces who were superior in number and had extensive tank vs tank combat experience following the Iran-Iraq War.

The reason for this is that the Challenger had developed quite an unenviable reputation at the start of the 1990s. In service it had displayed very poor reliability and this was the source of much frustration amongst crews and commanders. Even worse however was the stigma of having finished last in the prestigious Canadian Army Trophy tank competition held in West Germany in 1987 against tanks and crews from all over NATO. Despite the MoD highlighting several key factors for this poor performance the stigma remained and so when the Challenger deployed to the Gulf it had a lot to prove.


Prove itself it did. During the course of the 100 hour ground war the Challenger had completely reversed its reliability problems and achieved an enviable serviceability record; a testament to the hard work and dedication of the support crews who keep these vehicles going. In combat it was the superior of anything it came up against and by the end of the three day offensive Challengers accounted for some 200 Iraqi tanks destroyed or captured along with numerous armoured and ‘soft’ vehicles.

During the offensive one Challenger finally laid to rest the doubts anyone had over the capability of the type with a single shot. That shot was made over a staggering range of 5,100m (3 miles) with a Depleted Uranium (DU) round – the longest confirmed tank kill in history!

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Ian Stewart, said after the poor showing of the Challenger at the Canadian Army Trophy in 1987;

I do not believe that the performance of tanks in the artificial circumstances of a competition, such as the recent Canadian Army Trophy, is a proper indication of their capability in war.

Less than four years later he was proven right.

Aircraft Gallery: Tornado GR.1 Gulf War Nose Art

Tornado GR 1 'E' - 'G' take off

A total force of sixty Tornado GR.1s participated in Operation: Granby, the British contribution to the effort to liberate Kuwait from Iraq in 1991. Flying from Tabuk and Dhahran in Saudi Arabia as well as Muharraq in Bahrain the aircraft were instrumental in helping keep the Iraqi Air Force on the ground thanks to its JP233 munitions dispenser system. With their western Europe grey/green camouflage replaced by an overall ‘Desert Pink’ scheme the aircraft involved were soon adorned with a variety of colourful nose art; a tradition that harks back to the Lancasters and Halifax bombers of World War II.

Here are just a selection

Aircraft Gallery: Harrier GR.1

The Harrier GR.1 was the first operational version of the Harrier in British service. The first RAF squadron to be equipped with the Harrier GR.1 was No. 1 Squadron converting on to the radical new aircraft at RAF Wittering in April 1969. An early demonstration of the Harrier’s capabilities was the participation of two aircraft in the Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race in May 1969, flying between St Pancras railway station, London and downtown Manhattan with the use of aerial refuelling. The Harrier completed the journey in 6 hours 11 minutes.

Two Harrier squadrons were established in 1970 at the RAF’s air base in Wildenrath to be part of its air force in Germany; another squadron was formed there two years later. The Harrier GR.1 was a fundamental part of British forces’ plan to counter a Soviet armoured invasion. The GR.1 version was relatively short lived as it was soon replaced by the pointy nosed Harrier GR.3 which featured more advanced ground attack sensors and ECM equipment. The bulk of GR,1s were upgraded to GR.3 standard during the mid 1970s. By 1980 the GR,1 was gone from frontline service entirely.