Gulf war     -     1990 to 1991

A coalition of 35 nations, led by the United States (US), participated in the Gulf War against Iraq from 2 August 1990 to 28 February 1991. The conflict is sometimes called the 'Persian Gulf War' or 'Gulf War 1'.


The war occurred in 2 parts. US President George Bush ordered the organisation of Operation Desert Shield on 7 August 1990 in response to Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait on 2 August. From then until 17 January 1991, this phase included coalition operations during the buildup of troops in and around Saudi Arabia. The Gulf War Air Campaign, codenamed Operation Desert Storm, went from 17 January to 28 February 1991 and is sometimes called the '1991 Bombing of Iraq'. It included ground operations that began on 24 February when coalition troops crossed into Kuwait.


Over 1,800 Australian Defence Force personnel served in the Gulf War. The Australian naval contribution comprised 3 frigates, a guided-missile destroyer, 2 supply ships and a team of Naval Clearance Divers. The Australian Army and the Royal Australia Air Force (RAAF) made smaller contributions.


Some 100,000 Iraqis and fewer than 200 coalition personnel died in the conflict. There were no Australian casualties.



About the conflict

Iraq invaded its oil-rich southern neighbour, Kuwait, on 2 August 1990. The United Nations (UN) Security Council imposed comprehensive economic sanctions 4 days later. It called on member states to ban all trade with Iraq and Kuwait. The Australian Government was quick to condemn the invasion and had imposed sanctions shortly before the UN's call.


On 10 August, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that Australia would help to enforce the embargo. Three naval vessels would join a US-led multinational force being assembled in the Persian Gulf to create a maritime blockade.


The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) selected for deployment:


  • the frigates HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Darwin, each with 2 helicopters
  • the supply ship HMAS Success, with one helicopter
  • two 10-person surgical teams to serve aboard the US hospital ship USNS Comfort

Elements of the Australian Army's 16th Air Defence Regiment served with HMAS Success, which had no air defence capability of its own.



Gulf War, 1990–91

On 2 August 1990 Iraq invaded its rival oil-exporting neighbour Kuwait. The invasion was widely condemned, and four days later the United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously approved a trade embargo against Iraq. A blockade of Iraq’s access to the sea followed within weeks, as the United States assembled a large multinational task force in the Persian Gulf, while another was formed in Saudi Arabia.


By the end of 1990 the coalition force numbered some 40,000 troops from 30 countries, although the United States remained the dominant partner in the coalition. In November 1990 the UN Security Council set 15 January 1991 as the deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq failed to comply, and on 17 January full-scale war erupted when coalition forces began an air bombardment of Iraqi targets. Within four days, coalition forces destroyed the Iraqi invading forces and drove the remnants out of Kuwait, although the Iraqis retained significant military strength intact in Iraq. The air bombardment continued without respite until the war ended 43 days later.


On 24 February 1991, after more than a month of air attacks, the coalition’s ground forces moved against Iraqi positions in Kuwait and in Iraq itself. The magnitude and decisiveness of these strikes destroyed what was left of Iraq’s capacity to resist. After two days of air strikes, Baghdad radio announced that Iraq’s armed forces had been ordered to withdraw from Kuwait to the positions they had occupied before August 1990. Two days after this order, the coalition ceased hostilities and declared victory. Coalition losses amounted to 166 killed, many by “friendly fire”. At least 100,000 Iraqis had been killed.


Australia was one of the first nations to join the coalition force. Australian forces were deployed under the auspices of the UN. Three Australian warships conducted blockade operations in the Persian Gulf. Australia also provided a supply vessel, four medical teams and a mine clearance diving team that joined a protective screen, under US operational control, around aircraft-carrier battle groups in the Gulf.


The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) provided vessels for the multinational naval force, which formed an interception force in the Persian Gulf to enforce the UN sanctions. The RAN presence included two frigates and the replenishment ship HMAS Success, which, having no air defences of its own, relied on the army’s 16th Air Defence Regiment. In January 1991 the replenishment tanker HMAS Westralia left Fremantle, Western Australia, to relieve Success. Four warships, HMAS Sydney (IV), HMAS Adelaide, HMAS Brisbane, and HMAS Darwin, also served tours of duty in the Persian Gulf. During the operational phase of their deployment, they formed part of the anti-aircraft screen for the carrier battle groups of the US Navy. An RAN clearance diving team was also despatched for explosive ordnance and demolition tasks.


In addition to naval units, Australian personnel took part on attachment to various British and American ground formations. A small group of RAAF photo-interpreters was based in Saudi Arabia, together with a detachment from the Defence Intelligence Organisation.





Gulf of Oman: HMAS Darwin (04) is replenished by HMAS Success (304)


Four medical teams were also despatched at the request of the United States. Although the ships and their crews were in danger from mines and possible air attack, Australia’s war was relatively uneventful and there were no casualties.


At the conclusion of hostilities, 75 Australian personnel were sent to northern Iraq to assist in the provision of humanitarian aid to Kurds living in the UN-declared exclusion zone, while ships of the RAN remained on station, at the  request of the United States, to enforce UN sanctions. Several Australian naval officers commanded the multinational interception force. Australia later provided weapons inspectors in Iraq to monitor the discovery and disposal of prohibited nuclear, chemical and biological “weapons of mass destruction”.




Iraqi withdrawal

The Iraqis faced an overwhelming multinational force, which quickly reduced their capacity to resist. Baghdad radio made an announcement on 26 February 1991. Iraq's armed forces had been ordered to withdraw from Kuwait to the positions that they held before August 1990. The Coalition declared victory on 28 February 1991.


As they withdrew from Kuwait, Iraqi troops set fire to hundreds of oil wells, creating one of the war's most enduring images.



Aftermath of the Gulf War

Australia's involvement in the region continued after the war.


In March 1991, a team of RAN clearance divers deployed alongside British and US forces to begin clearing unexploded ordnance and booby traps from coastal installations, the harbour and the waters around Kuwait. This dangerous task took more than 3 months before the divers returned to Australia.


After the fighting ended, 75 Australian defence personnel in a tri-service contingent centred around 4 medical teams deployed to an exclusion zone in northern Iraq. The Australians joined an international effort to provide humanitarian aid to the local Kurdish population.


Australia also contributed to the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom), This international mission monitored and verified Iraq's compliance with UN directives to destroy its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capability.


The maritime blockade remained in force because Iraq was considered not to have complied with the terms set out by the UN Security Council at the end of the war. The RAN continued to contribute to the MIF in the form of a single ship, under Operation Damask, although there were periods when no Australian vessels were involved. The last Damask deployment occurred in mid-2001.


Today, in the aftermath of the long commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan begun in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, Gulf War 1 appears a relatively minor affair as far as Australia was concerned, but it marked the beginning of a decades' long involvement in and around Iraq.



© 2022 All Rights Reserved.   All logos and colours of the Vietnam Veterans MC are copyright and registered as a trademark.

Reproduction or copying without permission is strictly forbidden