Britons died in Gulf war 'due to MoD interference'

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

Four British airmen and up to four Tornado aircraft may have been lost unnecessarily at the beginning of the Gulf war because of "disgraceful interference" by a senior officer at the Ministry of Defence, the former commander of the British forces says in a forthcoming documentary.

The senior officer is believed to be Marshal of the RAF Sir David Craig, then Chief of Defence Staff. The claim is made by General Sir Peter de la Billiere, now retired, in a BBC1 documentary series, The Gulf War, which begins on 9 January and marks the fifth anniversary of the 1991 conflict. During the war Sir Peter oversaw the operations of British troops, sailors and airmen.

In the film, he says that the loss of some of the Tornados could have been averted if the RAF had switched from low to high-level bombing sooner. It is understood Sir Peter and the RAF commander in Saudi Arabia, Air Vice Marshal Bill Wratten, recommended the switch and that the joint commander of the operation, based in Britain, Air Chief Marshal Sir Patrick Hine, agreed with them. But a "senior officer" in the MoD, who could only have been the Chief of Defence Staff, demurred.

"It was a decision of substantial magnitude," Sir Peter says. "It was going to impact on the whole of the RAF's strategy as developed for Europe and put it into question . . . indeed, I saw a letter from a senior Air Force officer in the MoD [believed to be Sir David] saying in effect that if we changed it, [i.e. switching from low- to high-level bombing] then my air commander wasn't doing his job. I've never seen such a disgraceful letter in my life."

Interviewed for the series, the United States air commander in the Gulf, Lt-Gen "Chuck" Horner, said: "I don't think there's any doubt about it. The Tornado losses were in part due to the low-altitude tactics." Lt-Gen Horner suggests that he was relieved when the British changed their tactics, but said he could not force them to.

The RAF had 45 Tornado GR1 jet bombers in the Gulf when the war began on 16-17 January 1991. In exercises simulating a war against the Soviet bloc, the RAF had developed tactics of low-level bombing - down to 50 feet during daylight - to avoid radar when attacking heavily defended targets.

The RAF used the same tactics at the start of the Gulf war. Apart from the very first night, the Americans flew at medium (15,000 to 20,000 feet) and high level. The RAF changed its tactics when it became apparent that the Iraqi airfields were so vast it was impossible to close them down, and after the Americans had destroyed all the Iraqi radars which would direct missiles at higher flying aircraft.

On the sixth day, concern at the high level of RAF losses - it had flown 4 per cent of the missions and lost 25 per cent of the aircraft, including four Tornados shot down - became public, but by that time the RAF had switched to higher-level attacks. Sir Peter claims the switch could have been made earlier. "They wouldn't change because it would impact on the RAF's future strategy for Europe . . . to suggest the low-level attack technique should go on is a load of absolute rubbish, though one particular senior officer in the MoD was suggesting this.

"I violently disagreed with him and I feel extremely resentful about the authoritarian way he tried to impose his view over that of the commanders,"Sir Peter says.

The MoD has refused to comment until it had seen the programme.