A view of the barrel of the 120mm gun on an M-1A1 Abrams main battle tank at the new location of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment during Operation Desert Storm.

A view of the barrel of the 120mm gun on an M-1A1 Abrams main battle tank at the new location of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment during Operation Desert Storm. (Courtesy National Archives)

Saddam Hussein had boasted the coming ground war between the U.S.-led coalition in Saudi Arabia and his Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait would be the “Mother of All Battles.”

Instead, American forces rolled over the Iraqis, needing a mere 100 hours from the start of their ground assault on Feb. 24, 1991 until a cease-fire ended the fighting on Feb. 28. It was an abrupt end to a showdown that had escalated over the previous six months, reflecting the superiority of American technology, training and planning.

Yet, from the perspective of 25 year later, although a clear success, the campaign was still a war, with all its trappings—death, injury, stress and the fog of battle. The speed of operations was intense.

“It was very, very hard for them,” said Tom Carhart, who wrote about the 1st Armored Division’s role in the war. “It was only a couple of days, but they didn’t get much sleep.”

Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s assault plan depended on two main actions, a Marine-led invasion of Iraq-occupied Kuwait from the south and an attack to the rear by Army tankers—the famed “left hook” that would cut off Iraqi retreat and confront elite Republican Guard forces. French and American paratroopers would secure the far western flank and establish forward operating bases early in the assault. Saudi and Egyptian forces would join the invading forces from the south.

Schwarzkopf’s plan faced significant challenges: Iraq, which at the time boasted the world’s fourth largest army, had deployed an estimated 650,000 troops with about one million in reserve.

Iraq’s ranks were filled with battle-hardened veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, which had ended less than four years before. The U.S. military had not faced such a major enemy force since the Vietnam War.

Iraqi forces were thickest on the Kuwait border across from the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, where they were prepared to defend the roads to Kuwait city. Two defensive belts, laced with minefields, were meant to slow progress and trap Americans in a kill zone.

To the west, the logistical challenges of supporting hundreds of gas-guzzling Army M1 Abrams tanks as they raced through the desert was daunting. The capabilities of the Republican Guards were unknown and their Soviet-made T-72 tanks were intimidating.

The coalition had reason for optimism. Their 30-day air campaign had chipped away at Iraqi ground forces and crippled Iraq’s air force, making reconnaissance all but impossible. Earlier scrapes, including a repulsed Iraqi raid into the Saudi coastal town of Khafji, left coalition forces confident. Iraq’s military, built along Soviet models, seemed inflexible and incapable of adapting quickly to a surprise.

When the coalition ground assault launched at 4 a.m. on Feb 24, the Iraqis believed they knew what was coming — a head-on assault toward Kuwait City. The 1st and 2nd Marines came directly at the barriers, drawing Iraqi artillery and fixing their forces in Kuwait. Meanwhile, paratroopers to the far west launched their flanking movements. Army tankers would enter that evening.

Success was almost immediate. The tankers faced no resistance, proof that military planners had succeeded in tricking the Iraqis.

Meanwhile, Marine engineers breached both barriers by the afternoon of the first day, a success Schwarzkopf would marvel at days later in a press conference.

“It was a classic, absolutely classic, military breaching of a very, very tough minefield-barbed-wire-fire-trenches-type barrier,” he said.

Iraqi forces largely melted away as the coalition raced toward Kuwait City. More than 21 divisions were destroyed or rendered ineffective by the end of the second day of fighting and more than 20,000 Iraqi soldiers had surrendered.

Hussein ordered his troops to withdraw from Kuwait on Feb. 25, bringing the second part of the coalition battle plan into play — the left hook. Ground units including the Army’s 1st Armored Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1st Infantry Division had sped across the southern Iraqi desert in their M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, hooking eastward to meet retreating Iraqi forces.

It was a technique honed to perfection in the hills of southeastern Germany. In the months leading up to the ground war, tankers practiced moving in huge formations, destroying everything in their path.

“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,” said now retired Gen. Montgomery Meigs.

By the time they reached the desert, the tankers were ready.

“Our role in that in the task force level and the brigade level was that we were going flat out as fast as the tank could move, which I don’t think we had experienced,” recalled retired Army Lt. Col. Doug Woolley, a platoon leader in the 1st Armored Division at the time.

When tankers finally met the enemy in force on Day 3, the battles turned lopsided. The 2nd ACR destroyed two Republican Guard divisions at the Battle of 73 Easting on Feb. 26. The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division needed 40 minutes to crush a dug-in brigade at the Battle of Medina Ridge on Feb. 27.

Equipped with thermal-imaging systems and a wider firing range, the American tankers easily outgunned their enemy.

“We overwhelmed them from the get-go,” said Carhart. “And it was primarily the technological weapons systems mounted on the M-1 tanks. They were so technologically superior that it wasn’t even a fight, really.”

The biggest danger to the coalition turned out to be its own troops—the Americans suffered more non-hostile deaths than those from battle. Several friendly fire incidents proved deadly, while accidents and vehicle crashes claimed other lives.

When the Americans called a cease-fire at 8 a.m. on Feb. 28, the results were clear—Kuwait had been liberated, Iraqi forces crushed and American lives preserved. Of the nearly 600,000 active-duty troops deployed for Desert Storm, only 148 were killed in battle.

For Larry Porter, a former platoon sergeant for the 1st Armored Division, just his platoon’s survival made the deployment a success in his eyes.

“My primary mission was to make sure none of my men died,” he said. “My secondary mission was to make sure none of them got injured. And I’m very happy to report I was successful.” Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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