France in the Gulf War

Daguet Division, Iraq, February 1991. © Y. Le Jamtel & M. Riehl/ECPAD

In November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought an end to 40 years of Cold War. But the global situation had not stabilised and interstate conflicts persisted, leading to the mobilisation of the international community. The French armed forces then saw a multitude of operational engagements, beginning with the First Gulf War, in 1991.

Corps 1

On 2 August 1990, in the aftermath of a protracted war against Iran, Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded the Emirate of Kuwait to challenge its exploration of the oilfields on the border.

From the outset of hostilities, the international community mobilised to come to the aid of Kuwait, in the context of three UN Security Council resolutions. France joined a military coalition comprised principally of the NATO member states and led by the United States, who alone provided 500 000 of the 900 000 troops mobilised. In keeping with NATO's operational practices, prolonged logistical build-up, training, certification and air preparation phases were planned for 17 January to 28 February 1991, before implementation of the United States' new ”AirLand Battle” concept, which consisted of reducing enemy forces using only air power and surgical strikes.

Although the units had been deployed for some months, the land attack itself, codenamed Operation Desert Storm, was not actually launched until 24 February, ending after a hundred hours of fighting, three days later. A major nuclear, biological and chemical threat, taken very seriously by the international community, hung over the coalition forces. For that reason, in addition to the standard protective clothing, all troops were equipped with NBC suits with panoramic visors and carbon-lined gloves and socks.

Comprised of over 10 000 troops, the French Daguet Division joined the air, naval and logistical elements engaged by France. Alongside one tank regiment and two light armoured regiments, the infantry component was essentially provided by the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment (RIMa), backed up by the 2nd RIMa, the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment and elements of the 1st Infantry Regiment and Reconnaissance and Deep Action Commandos (CRAP).

At the core of this land operation, the Daguet Division's mission was to provide reconnaissance and cover for the majority of the allied forces advancing to the west, along what became known as the ”Highway of Death”, between Kuwait City and Basra. Once the CRAP commandos had taken the base, at around 3.30 am on 24 February, General Janvier, who commanded the division, radioed through the order to advance at 5.30 am: ”Forward everyone, and good luck!” The French armed forces made rapid progress into the desert, advancing several dozen miles with little resistance from the Iraqis. Two armoured groups advanced towards the first centre of resistance, Objective Rochambeau, whose codename echoed the Franco-American military cooperation of the Second World War. The centre was stormed between 12 noon and 5 pm.

Meanwhile, the western group moved out along the western flank in order to cover the division's action to the north. The Iraqi command and logistics were paralysed. Iraqi troops surrendered in their thousands without putting up a fight, their sheer numbers causing a hindrance to the force. On the morning of 25 February, the elements of two groups met to the south of the second objective, As Salman, which they attacked the same evening. Under the pressure of international opinion, the offensive finally halted at the Iraqi border. Defeated, Saddam Hussein's forces withdrew from Kuwait, sabotaging oil wells as they went.

By the end of the operation, France had suffered no battle casualties, except for two CRAP commandos killed in an accident. So the coffins kept as a precaution at the Orléans-Bricy air base, where the bodies of any dead soldiers were to be sent, were happily not needed.

While the operation may have been a success for France, it nonetheless revealed issues of adaptation of its defence capability to the reality of this type of engagement. For instance, the situation on the ground meant that troop numbers in the Daguet Division had to be rapidly increased. To achieve this, all units of the French army were required to supply personnel, including volunteers who signed a contract of enlistment ”for the duration of the war”. The government then decided that conscription was no longer able to rise to the challenges of security and defence, and it was time to look at professionalising the armed forces, which went ahead in 1997, when a law was passed putting an end to military service.

Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Rascle - CFT / DIV FPE / B.FORM, Head of Section PILFORM

Corps 2

Personal account

Lieutenant-Colonel Jacques A.

(French army, Gulf War)

”In 1991, as captain of the 1st Squadron, 4th Dragoons Regiment, I took part in Operation Desert Storm with the Daguet Division. On leaving France, I was fully aware of my responsibility: to bring all my men back alive! As soon as we arrived, the omnipresence of gas masks put us in the picture. We realised that we were preparing for all-out armoured desert warfare.

We didn't yet know whether we were going to win the war, but the dragoons go into battle determined to fight to the last. During the offensive, we came under artillery fire. We heard shells going off. Our 105mm cannons also fired, running the risk of hitting chemical weapons. The AMX-30 tank crews acted as one to accomplish the mission successfully. When the ceasefire was announced, we were proud and relieved to see that no one was missing. That euphoria, that immense joy, that indescribable happiness will remain forever etched in our memories.”

Personal account

Squadron Leader Brigitte E.

(French air force, Gulf War)

”In 1991, I left for Riyadh without fear or apprehension. As detachment commander, I was responsible for three other nursing officers. I was highly committed to my work and felt wholly responsible for the patients being transported. My role consisted of evacuating wounded service personnel as quickly as possible to Riyadh. Some of them did not return alive from their missions. I carried out 105 hours of air missions, from 5 February to 26 March, throughout the region, linking up with the forward bases. Over there, you are cut off from the world and live to the rhythm of chemical alerts and Scud missile attacks.

More than 20 years on, I remember perfectly the first flight I made to Kuwait City after the country was liberated. Crossing the front line was very risky, with the oil wells ablaze. At midday, it was as dark as night. Only two of the four aircraft which flew over there were able to land, and mine was one of them. When I got off the plane, I was proud but also deeply distressed by the sight of this ravaged, devastated city.”

  • Division "Daguet", Irak, février 1991. © Y. Le Jamtel & M. Riehl/ECPAD