In mid-January every member of the WDs received notice that they were being called up for war. The possibility of that happening to us had been live for several months, as our expertise in nuclear, biological and chemical reconnaissance and decontamination had obvious relevance to any plan concerning Iraq. Still, the day we received our mobilisation papers was a solemn one.
It was the first time the Westminster Dragoons had been called up since 1939 and it was being done in haste. We were to amalgamate with our brothers and sisters in A (Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry) Sqn, under the command of their OC, Major Dominic Guinness. Augmented by 24 drivers from the Royal Logistical Corps, we became Y Sqn, Joint NBC Regiment.
Our preparations in England during February were frantic. By the start of March, we and our vehicles were in the wastelands of northern Kuwait. We trained hard, wearing our NBC protective suits and respirators in the desert heat, as the build-up to fight and talks to avert war went on.
The Joint NBC Regiment was an asset for the use of 1(UK) Division as a whole. Consequently, Y Sqn would be used to assist in nearly every aspect of the divisional plan.
The plan was this. British land forces would advance into Iraq on three axes at once (see map): to the east, the Royal Marines would proceed up the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway and into the Al Faw peninsula; in the centre, 7 Armoured Brigade would strike at Iraqi forces near Safwan and Az Zubayr before tackling Basra; while to the west, 16 Air Assault Brigade would rush to seize the Rumaila oilfields.
On 12 March, the squadron was split, with sections and individuals dispersed throughout the division. The main dispositions were:
2Lt Jake Phillips (W Sqn) kept two sections of his troop and was tasked with providing NBC decontamination cover to the divisional support group and SHQ
2Lt Conn MacEvilly (W Sqn) was sent with a section-plus to augment G Sqn JNBCR, who would protect 16 Air Assault Brigade during its move into Iraq
2Lt Mike Dalyell (A Sqn) went with a section-plus to Camp Viking, the jump-off point for elements of the Royal Marines, to provide decontamination capability there
Lt Simon Keyes (A Sqn) took two sections to D Sqn JNBCR, who would accompany 7 Armoured Brigade
The day of the ground assault came. As the coalition forces advanced, we passed trigger points at which it was expected that chemical or biological weapons would be used against us. It was daunting to know in advance each time that a threshold of that sort was about to be crossed, given what our job would have been if we had faced retaliation. But although we had many such moments, the direst news never came.
A couple of days after Baghdad fell, Y Sqn was gathered in from across the theatre and re-roled as infantry. Our mission was to assist in the peace support operations in the Basra region, enabling the Paras and Royal Irish to move further north. The majority were sent to the village of Muzaybilah, where Capt Nall and Lt Keyes each commanded a troop scaled to platoon strength; others went with D Sqn to Ad Dayr on the road south to Basra, while the remainder were sent with G Sqn to Al Qurnah, a town of 20,000 on the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates.
The WDs who stayed with G Sqn were placed, along with 20 regulars, under my command. Like the other cavalry platoons, we carried out a range of infantry peacekeeping tasks: day and night patrols (in vehicles and on foot), guarding key sites such as hospitals, school and public buildings, chasing and impounding stolen cars, confiscating weapons, travelling around obtaining information about humanitarian needs, and so on. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives, yet many of us have never worked harder. The reception we had, especially during foot patrols, was warm: day after day we were thanked and applauded.
Most of us returned to the UK at the end of May. Some volunteered to stay on. Re-acclimatising has less difficult than we had expected, in large part because we were so lucky that we did not have to face the worst but also because of our pride in what we had achieved.
In the articles that follow, nine dragoons describe aspects of the squadron’s story. They can be no more than snapshots: every member of Y Sqn has a dozen other tales to tell.
2Lt Phillips finally convinces SSgt Birch to join him in his favourite wartime hobby: pretending to be sitting outside a Chelsea pub, watching girls
2Lt MacEvilly in Al Qurnah, on the banks of the Shatt-Al-Arab. Or is it Marbella? pic: Maj A Phipps