A wag once defined military headquarters as "the last to know and the first to be blamed". And in "Sending My Laundry Forwards", Stuart Crawford offers a rare and illuminatingly honest insight into the often dysfunctional reality of a major command centre in war.
In his case, the experience involved being catapulted from a relatively cosy posting as an officer of a tank regiment in Germany into the chaos of a theatre nerve-centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with ultimate responsibility for the fate and wellbeing of 43,000 British service personnel in advance of the 1991 Gulf War.
It had been an inauspicious start as he returned from honeymoon to discover that his unit, the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, had not been selected as part of what was to become the 1st British Armoured Division within an American-led coalition. Initial relief at not being part of the UK's military contribution to an expedition to an obscure war in the desert was, however, rapidly diluted as his Regiment's tanks were stripped of engines, gearboxes and even gun-barrels to provide spares for the units committed to the operation.
This was followed rapidly by demands for 4RTR manpower to make up the numbers in regiments short of wartime fighting complement and officers for various administrative tasks, as well as "battle casualty replacements" for those likely to die or be wounded in the fothcoming conflict.
He himself was assigned to the Headquarters of British Forces in the Middle East and found himself hurled unceremoniously into muddle and confusion in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where no one seemed to know what was happening or even how many tanks had arrived in-country.
His observations from that point on will make uncomfortable reading for the British military hierarchy.
The headquarters which was supposed to oversee the entire operation "was disjointed and lacked clear direction." Fighting units were scattered across the desert and equipment and supplies were piling up at ports such as Al Jubail without any system for sorting out what was where at any given time. Individual commands made incessant demands for "urgent operational requirements" (UORs) such as up-armouring kits to improve their tanks' survival in combat. But by the end of the conflict, many of these very UORs were still lying packed in shipping containers spread across acres of sand next to the harbours at which they had arrived weeks or even months previously.
Some units had become so frustrated that they sent back teams of regimental looters to search the containers for the kit they wanted, adding to the supply-chain chaos.
At the headquarters complex itself, it took time to organise shifts of officers drafted in from various units and assign them tasks and responsibilities. In the meantime, much of their "intelligence" was being gleaned from CNN broadcasts. It was a process not aided by the fact that communication with forward units and the subsidiary Divisional headquarters out in the sand hundreds of miles to the north was patchy and unsatisfactory throughout much of the campaign. Nor was the constant, petty demand from rear headquarters back at High Wycombe for up-to-date briefings on incidents as trivial as the discovery of a single rocket-propelled grenade launcher on a beach calculated to help bring order from extreme disorder.
Most of the tens of thousands of soldiers and airmen in theatre lacked desert camouflage uniforms until very late in the day. I can testify that it was seldom possible to find two British soldiers dressed exactly alike in the desert encampments at the "sharp end". Some had desert boots, while others were still wearing their black leather DMS issue footwear. Jackets and trousers were an eclectic mix of British Army of the Rhine and Middle Eastern apparel.
Among the revelations in Stuart Crawford's book is the fact that, when Iraqi Scud missiles began to rain down on Riyadh and other cities, the decision to have all 43,000 UK personnel start taking the controversial NAPs tablets which were supposed to lessen he effect of nerve gas on those exposed to it, was taken by a lowly Captain. He just happened to be in HQ with the job of NBC- nuclear, chemical and biological warfare - officer when the first warheads arrived.
The experimental Naps tablets were later cited as a contributory factor in Gulf War Syndrome, though no definite link has so far been established.
He also takes a swipe at the senior officers who took full advantage of the Saudis' offer of top-of-the-range civilian vehicles for transport and the four-wheel-drive envy-fest which followed, with some individuals upgrading cars simply to reflect their perceived rank and status.
As the Coalition air forces gained complete air superiority over the battlefield, the flow of intelligence from reconnaissance flights, satellites and electronic monitoring of radio frequencies should have produced a crystal-clear picture of events and crucial tactical information for the allied units spearheading the ground war. Instead, it produced such a cascade of intelligence that it proved impossible to filter all of it to levels useful to the men in the lead tanks and fighting vehicles. The system was simply swamped and overwhelmed. It was information overload.
Very early in the final phase of the war, everyone in the Headquarters realised that it had been a very one-sided event. Crawford describes it succinctly as the equivalent of Dervishes versus colonial machine-guns. He also defines the Iraqi military as "a Third World army dressed up in First World equipment" and speculates that the Americans, at least, must have been aware of this glaring disparity in capabilities.
In conjunction with the growing awareness of a battlefield mismatch was the growing distaste for the continued harrying of a defeated and outclassed enemy from the air, culminating in the slaughter on the much-publicised "Higway of Death" out of Kuwait as Iraqi units tried to flee using military vehicles and commandeered civilian cars and buses to make their escape.
They were bombed and strafed mercilessly by waves of Coalition jets, leaving miles of road strewn with bodies, burning wreckage and abandoned equipment. Among military officers of all ranks, enthusiasm for the war waned rapidly after that. Killing for killing's sake is not part of the British military ethos.
But, among the most uncomfortable conclusions of the book for those in command of the UK's forces, is Crawford's assessment that the British division performed poorly in comparison to its American counterparts.
While the US units saw opportunity and seized chances, the British formations trained for set-piece battle against the Soviets in Germany acted in a "plodding" manner more reminiscent of Montgomery's Second World War belt-and-braces technique of having all assets in place and supplies backed up before committing men and machines forward.
They won, but they won against vastly inferior opposition and they performed at command level as if they had been "drained of dash and initiative".
It was, in essence, an American victory and, in the author's words "everybody else just tagged along."
Somewhat disillusioned, Crawford returned to Germany to discover his Regiment was to be disbanded under "Options for Change", the government of the day's euphemism for military cost-cutting. The Regiment spent months retrieving the spares looted from them pre-Gulf and rebuilding their Chieftain tanks only to have to hand them over for scrap.
The other depressing side-effect of the cuts was that most of the officers who had gained invaluable combat experience in the deserts of Arabia subsequently resigned their commissions within a year of the guns falling silent, removing their knowledge permanently from Britain's order-of-battle.
Disturbing insights apart, the book is written with a self-deprecating humour and lightness of touch in parts. It is also, by the standards of day, slightly non-PC and none the worse for that.
At one point, the author relates how Saudi women clad in shapeless, all-encompassing black chadors were jokingly referred to as "Guinness bottles". I have heard worse. One US Marines officer used to describe them as "Stealth Women" on the basis that everyone knew they had been there, but no one knew exactly what they looked like.
"Sending My Laundry Forwards" is a refreshing, entertaining and honest personal account of a staff officer's war, warts and all. It will upset some, but is essentially a thoroughly good read which will resonate with veterans of the conflict in question.
Formerly Defence Correspondent, The (Glasgow) Herald, and Gulf Veteran
by Ian Bruce
I will not try to match Ian Bruce's excellent review of Stuart Crawford's book: "Sending my Laundry Forward" except to say this. As one would expect of Stuart, it is well written, amusing (particularly for those of us who served in 4RTR (Scotland's Own)) and at times subversive. Some might conclude that the army missed a huge opportunity to learn all the lessons it could from the experiences it had during GW1. Others might go further and opine that a dreadful hubris set in in the afterglow of success, hubris that was only exposed in GW2, when the US 'rescued' the UK's failing effort in Basra and that was at least part of the catalyst for the Afghanistan adventure. But I digress... Stuart's book is very good indeed and at £16.99 is good value. Officer Cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst should read and so too should those officers who attending staff courses.
by Archie D Lightfoot
I will not try to match Ian Bruce's excellent review of Stuart Crawford's book: "Sending my Laundry Forward" except to say this. As one would expect of Stuart, it is well written, amusing (particularly for those of us who served in 4RTR (Scotland's Own)) and at times subversive. Some might conclude that the army missed a huge opportunity to learn all the lessons it could from the experiences it had during GW1. Others might go further and opine that a dreadful hubris set in in the afterglow of success, hubris that was only exposed in GW2, when the US 'rescued' the UK's failing effort in Basra and that was at least part of the catalyst for the Afghanistan adventure. But I digress... Stuart's book is very good indeed and at £16.99 is good value. Officer Cadets at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst should read it and so too should those officers who are about to attend staff courses.
by Archie Lightfoot
I read this book with great interest. It was funny and entertaining and Stuart has given the reader his experiences in Gulf War 1 in a the Headquarters based in Ryadh. Well written and well done!
by James H Quin
It was a pleasure to read and I know that a lot of my former colleagues from the 4th Royal Tank Regiment will like it too. Stuart has written a good honest account of his time in Riyadh. His book has brought back many memories of what went on both at the front and at the rear.
by James Quin
Sending My Laundry Forward: A Staff Officer's Account of the First Gulf War is based upon author Stuart Crawford's diary, which he wrote for the duration of the conflict. While his unit as a whole was not sent to the Gulf they did make up the numbers in other regiments, and for various admin tasks.
Stuart Crawford was assigned as a staff officer based in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and while his time in the Gulf was not spent in the thick of combat in the front line his account is no less interesting for this.
Instead of an account of modern-day combat, you instead get a glimpse of a side of a British military campaign that some might not be happy to let you see. It is clear from this account that there was a large element of making things up as they went along, of improvising and figuring out things on the hoof.
The supply situation in particular makes for interesting reading, as the tank regiments remaining in Germany are stripped of every serviceable part and engine, leaving them with tanks which were nothing more than empty hulks. Copious amounts of supplies are ordered but never reach their destination, and units send men on scavenging missions which further confuse the supply situation. Crawford makes clear in his book that one of the lessons which had to be learned from the first Gulf War was to take a leaf from private businesses and sort out some kind of inventory system.
The situation at headquarters appears confused and disorganised, taking time to get into any kind of routine, but it remains clear that communication between the front line troops and headquarters is patchy at best. Once air superiority is gained the flow of information becomes a deluge, often leading to an overload of information of little use to those who need it.
Being written from a staff perspective actually makes this a more refreshing read than some modern-day combat memoirs – this gives a different viewpoint from that which you would normally expect to read and it is all the more enjoyable for that. Having said that it would be unfair to say that this was a story of a cushy position well out of danger – with regular missile attacks this was in no way a danger-free position, and you do get a sense of concern for the well-being of himself and his colleagues. Despite this it is clear that the end result of the war was never in doubt, and you can feel the sense of distaste as the killing continues beyond the point where it might have been necessary.
I must admit to not having read many books on the first Gulf War – Bravo Two Zero being possibly the only other memoir I have read, but Sending My Laundry Forward joins the engaging Gulf War One by Hugh McManners on my Desert Storm reading list, and it has made me determined to seek out others like it. Truthful, humorous and enlightening; I recommend you seek out a copy.
by Scottish Military Research Group
Nicholson's 'Behind the Lines' was probably required reading for aspiring staff officers who wanted to understand staff work in the Great War. 'Sending My Laundry Forward' ought to be read by today's would be staff officers. It is a perceptive, good humoured and intelligent resume of the improvisation which has historically been the norm for the UK military at the start of its wars.
Politicians, generals, allies, the arms trade and and other regiments attract appropriate criticism.
The frequency with which Stuart met people whom he knew characterises the intimate size of the then UK forces - soon to be even smaller.
The book is required reading for civilians who believe that the military is exclusively composed of gung-ho warriors. It makes it clear that people far from their families, unhappy at the separation, wishing they were home, worried about their regiment's future, and afraid of death by biological or chemical weapons, can draw on their training, professionalism, and humour to complete the job to which politicians have sent them.
An easily read book for a short war, blending its military history with a staff officer's humanity
by Colin Campbell
Stuart Crawford was born and brought up in Scotland. After Cambridge University he attended the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst to fulfil his boyhood ambition to be a soldier. He was duly commissioned into the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, which recruited in Scotland, and enjoyed a 20 year military career.
Stuart was always interested in writing, and contributed articles to many military journals and magazines, and was editor of the British Army Staff College, Camberley's in house magazine Owl Pie when a student there. He has continued to contribute articles to the media in the UK and beyond and is a well known commentator on military matters. Most recently his thoughts on how an independent Scotland might organise its armed forces, A' The Blue Bonnets: Defending An Independent Scotland, co-authored with Richard Marsh, was published by the Royal United Services Institute, London, in October 2012 (see http://www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/Scottish_Defence_Forces_Oct_2012.pdf )
Stuart Crawford is married with three teenage children and lives in East Lothian and Somerset.