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‘Death Star’ formation crushed Iraqi forces

By Steven Beardsley

Stars and Stripes


Gulf War: 25th year anniversary


Trained for a Cold War fight in the forested hills of Germany, American tankers needed a new plan before deploying to the Middle East in 1991.

They called it the Death Star, a brigade-sized tank formation that stretched as far as the eye could see. It would go on to roll through the Iraqi desert and devastate everything in its path, most notably an Iraqi Republican Guard force during the Battle of Medina Ridge.

Now retired and reflecting on their accomplishments during Operation Desert Storm, the men behind the Death Star — the commanders and tankers of 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division — credit its successes to their Cold War training in Germany and the Army’s ability to reinvent itself on the fly.

“This Army that came out of the European experience was really a damn fine organization,” said retired Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, the brigade’s former commander.

The Berlin wall had fallen and the Soviet bloc was crumbling in late 1990, yet American soldiers were still patrolling the West German border and training for possible invasion. Tankers of the 2nd Brigade, based in Erlangen, prepared for an invasion from Czechoslovakia, its four battalions responsible for holding off the enemy until reinforcements from the U.S. could arrive.

“We were primarily a defensive force in Europe, a delaying force,” said retired Lt. Gen. Steve Whitcomb, who commanded the brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 70th Armor Regiment.

Their tactics were unique to their mission, emphasizing maneuver in small units, fire-and-cover and knowledge of the landscape. That strategy wouldn’t work in the desert, said Meigs, where 1st Armored Division would be on the attack, with 2nd Brigade at its core.

“We had to have a different way of maneuver,” he said.

He drafted a new plan, massing brigade tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles into a phalanx with a six-mile wide front and a depth of about eight miles. The formation—about 135 tanks and Bradleys —could move across the desert with speed and either concentrate its firepower or split into task groups.

The new scheme would take some adjustments. Battalions had to move in sync while keeping their distance, a challenge when turning. They would move quickly on the ground and then stop at the same time for refueling.

Commanders mapped out the formation with terrain tables. They had tankers practice moving together by foot, a battalion commander coordinating with a bullhorn. Once they arrived in Saudi Arabia, brigade leaders rounded up the unit’s Humvees to practice on wheels—a fuel-saving alternative to tanks.

"This Army that came out of the European experience was really a damn fine organization."

- Montgomery C. Meigs, U.S. Army (Ret.)

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The concept still felt odd to some tankers. Former platoon sergeant Larry Porter said the formation reminded him of the old battles of attrition fought centuries ago by standing armies.

“I thought, ‘This is so archaic, we’re sitting ducks,’” he said. “There’s nothing to hide behind and we’re not using cover and over-watch techniques.”

But it was a winner in simulations held in Germany that fall. With open terrain and no Iraqi air force to worry about, the formation beat everything that trainers could throw at them.

“The way we were operating, we could mass forces so quickly there was nothing on the other side of the game board that could defeat us,” Meigs said. “That’s where the nickname came from—you touch the Death Star and you’re gone.”

Whitcomb handed out throwing stars engraved with commanders’ call signs.

“Certainly our expectations were that whoever we were going to meet we were going to roll over them,” he said.

The Death Star would live up to its promise. Positioned in the center of a 1st Armored Division wedge aimed at defeating Iraqi forces leaving Kuwait, it was never threatened. Its biggest obstacle came against a dug-in Republican Guard armor unit at Medina Ridge, a battle in which more than 100 Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed—and no American losses to the enemy. Many tankers compared it to a gunnery, the intense tank firing exercises held regularly in Germany.

Brigade tankers were well-trained and knew it, Whitman said. He recalled a moment in the war’s early hours when the formation came to a Bedouin encampment and split to go around it, a flood of American armor in the middle of the desert.

“I just remember thinking, I hope one of those guys has a cell phone and tells Saddam what’s coming,” he said.

beardsley.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @sjbeardsley[Back to top]

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Gulf War: 25th year anniversary

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