Al Faw and the Operation to Open the Iraqi Port of Umm Qasr
The areas around Umm Qasr and the Al Faw peninsula in Iraq were subject to a range of amphibious and mine clearance activities in 2003, it was a vital component of Operation TELIC
The areas around Umm Qasr and the Al Faw peninsula in Iraq were subject to a range of amphibious and mine clearance activities in 2003, it was a vital component of Operation TELIC.
Before the conflict, the port of Umm Qasr was responsible for two-thirds of the United Nations Food for Oil programme imports into Iraq, but as a port, it had seen better days. Much of the infrastructure was neglected, many of the approach channels had silted due to lack of dredging and wrecks littered the general area.
It was functional though, and so formed part of the operation, considered to be vital in maintaining the flow of basic commodities like food and medicine following the initial combat phases. The port itself was divided into North, Middle and South with 22 berths and a range of cargo handling and storage facilities.
Some berths were dedicated to bulk materials like grain and so would have been difficult to use for other general cargo.
The deepest draft was 12.5m but most berths were between 2m and 7m at low water. High levels of silting required continual dredging to maintain working depths.
In order to dock at Umm Qasr, a vessel would need to navigate the 41 miles of the Khor Abdullah waterway which in the approach channels had a depth of between 7 and 10 metres at Celestial Low Water (CLW).
Before coalition forces could use the port, this waterway would need to be cleared of enemy forces and suspected mines.
Assault Al Faw
On the night of the 19th of May US SEALS and Polish GROM, forces secured the offshore oil terminals and the onshore manifolds on the Al Faw peninsula.
The MoD publication, ‘Operating in Iraq – Lessons for the Future’ records the assault on Al Faw as;
The high mine and anti-ship missile threats around the Iraqi coast meant that the initial assault onto the Al Faw peninsula was reliant on helicopter support. The plan was to insert 40 Commando (Cdo) first using RN and RAF helicopters to seize the oil infrastructure at the base of the Al Faw peninsula. In order to protect 40 Cdo’s northern flank, 42 Cdo was to be inserted a short time later using US Marine Corps helicopters. The build-up of combat power, in particular light armour and logistics, was to be achieved by US heavy-lift hovercraft because the very shallow beach gradients did not allow the use of conventional landing craft. The assault by 40 Cdo in conjunction with US forces, went according to plan, but the early crash of the US CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter carrying the headquarters of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force caused the second helicopter insertion to be aborted in the appalling and deteriorating visibility. It was hastily re-planned and executed six hours later using RAF Chinook and Puma helicopters. In view of extensive mining of the beach area, it was decided not to risk the hovercraft. Consequently, the light armour supporting 3 Cdo Brigade had to be inserted by a landing craft ferry north of Umm Qasr, some 24 hours later than planned.
Supporting the assault forces was 148 Battery Royal Artillery who were involved with three distinct activities; the initial assault, countering an Iraqi counter-attack against 40 CDO and Op JAMES, an attack on Basra.
From 148 Battery RA commander’s notes;
As the Battery Commander I was responsible for the coordination, integration and delivery of offensive support, or combined fires, from air, aviation (helicopters), artillery, naval gunfire and mortars. There was an awful lot of it, especially for the initial operation on the Al Faw Peninsula, which one particularly articulate Royal Marine company commander described as a battery commander’s wet dream. As well as a variety of platforms providing fire, including my own eight 105 mm Light Guns, I also had the Battery’s Tac Group throughout the operation: my own three OP parties, a fire support team from 148 Bty, four fire control teams from the USMC 1 Air and Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) and two Tactical Air Control Parties (Forward Air Control) (TACP(FAC)). We coordinated these with the mortar fire controllers (mfcs) from 40 Cdo to optimise the combined effect of all available weapons systems.
The first phase was to secure the oil facilities against sabotage.
Defending the area was a Naval Coastal Defence battalion reinforced with artillery and anti-aircraft guns.
The plan for Offensive Support was as follows. Any aircraft from Op Southern Watch – the air overflights of south-east Iraq sanctioned after the 1991 Gulf War – that was illuminated by enemy radar would result in these high priority air defence and C2 targets on the Peninsula being hit in return. At H-24 hours 105 mm Light Guns and 155 mm AS90 from 3 RHA would occupy firing positions on Bubiyan Island which is just within the Kuwait border where they would prepare for a 90-minute fireplan to support landings by 42 Cdo to our flank after we had landed. Surveillance of the Peninsula and objective would increase at H-5 hours using US and UK assets. At H-20 minutes Iraqi communications frequencies would be jammed. Between H-17 and H-7 specific targets would be engaged by Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) or GPS guide bombs. A10s and C130 Spectre gunships from the Special Operations Flight would then be on station from H-7 to cover the HLSs and remain on station to provide close support to the contact battle once the SEALs and ourselves had landed. Finally, once the first assault elements from 40 Cdo had landed the guns on Bubiyan Island would commence their 90-minute fire plan to prepare the 42 Cdo Area of Operations for their landings to our flanks.
The Royal Marines airborne assault would come from two locations; A, B and C Company from Tactical Assembly Viking in Kuwait, and D Company, from HMS Ocean
Throughout the night and into the morning the assault continued and by morning USMC and RM artillery, naval gunfire support from RN and RAN vessels and helicopters launched TOW missiles from the CHF’s Lynx’s enabled the main force to achieve their objective.
As we consolidated on our objective, the Scorpions (light armoured vehicles) of C Sqn Queens Dragoon Guards pushed north to set up a recce screen just south of Basra. The Commando then began to clear north up the west bank of the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran. As we approached Basra the enemy launched an armoured counterattack against us, relying on heavy armour to throw our lightly equipped Commandos off the Peninsula. A, B and D Coys and 8 Bty were spread across a wide frontage in company positions. At last light on 26 Mar intelligence began to detect increased signals traffic from the enemy, then the recce screen from the QDG picked up the lead armoured vehicles moving towards them. We began to call for all available air support and US and UK aircraft heading north started to be diverted to assist us. As aircraft began stacking over our battle area, the FACs with the QDG began calling in strike after strike against the tanks. At the same time, we began hitting them with heavy artillery from the AS90 guns with 7 Armd Bde to our west and both 7 and 8 Btys on the Peninsula itself. The situation along the forward line own troops got quite tense as some of the tanks got to within 800 metres of the lightly armed recce vehicles and there was a spectacular hit by an F18 with two 500-pound bombs on a pipeline behind which two T55s were hull down. As we slowed the enemy armoured column down, inflicting heavy casualties in the process, we were allocated a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards with 7 Armd Bde. They conducted a night assault river crossing by an M3 pontoon bridge into our area and worked their way up the west side to a line of departure on the flank of the remaining enemy. With our air and artillery supporting them, coordinated by HQ 40 Cdo, they launched their attack which destroyed fourteen T55s, sixteen other AFVs and five enemy positions in what was described later as the biggest British tank battle since the Second World War, which, it must be added, was coordinated by a Commando brigade and a Commando group HQ.
Naval Gunfire Support consisted of 17 fire missions and expended 155 4.5″ and 5″ rounds.
The assault on Al Faw is often characterised as an amphibious RM only affair but this was very far from the truth, combined arms and combined nations forces achieved the objective of securing the oil installations at Al Faw and allowed the port and its approaching waterways to be used without fear of being attacked from the peninsula.
Caught Red Handed
With the initial assault completed, follow on operations were conducted to secure the area as a precursor to opening the port.
Providing maritime security in the area during this initial phase were two US Navy Cyclone Class patrol boats
and USS Chinook
and two US Coast Guard cutters, USGC Aquidneck
During the build-up to operations, a number of Iraqi tugs in the area were noted as being suspicious. Coalition forces were mindful of the threat of mining.
On the night of 20th March 2003, one of the tugs was observed by USS Chinook making preparations to move and so after consultation with personnel onboard HMAS Kanimbla was instructed to remain at anchor.
It was not possible to conduct a detailed search during the night and so the vessels and crews were held until morning. In the morning, a number of Australian forces boarded to investigate, what they found was nothing short of incredible.
The tug Jumariya had a barge with carefully concealed mine storage and launching facilities
The Al Raya had disguised mines and a specially constructed stern flap for covert launching.
The Jumariya barge was carrying 20 Manta and 48 LUGM mines ready to launch and on the deck of the Al Raya, 18 LUGM mines with cut oil drums as covers. The LUGM is a conventional buoyant contact mine with the familiar Hertz horns and 200kg explosive filler. The Italian made (Now Rheinmetall) Manta mines were much more dangerous as they are both acoustic and magnetically triggered with a 140kg warhead.
The combined UK/US/AUS force eventually made them all safe and removed their crews for detention. Soon after, the task of clearing the port and approach lanes commenced.
Clearing the Port
The composite force for port clearance consisted of three teams, one each from Australia, the UK and the USA. They drove into the port on the 24th of March, with security provided by USMC and Polish forces.
Australian Clearance Diving Team 3 (AUSCDT 3) was the only coalition unit with established harbour clearance SOP’s so they were initially tasked with clearing the berths and associated facilities at Umm Qasr to enable berthing of vessels, although RN Clearance Divers would also do a huge element of clearance activity. The Australian force also noted that US Navy MCM forces arrived without ammunition or explosives so had to be sustained by the Australian force. The US Navy team did not have any NBC equipment either.
The port was a difficult environment, strong tidal currents and extremely poor visibility being the two main problems and because of the extremely cluttered sea bottom environment, conventional detection using sonar was almost impossible.
It often came down to touch.
To provide some sense of the problem of demining a busy port as opposed to a pristine beach this quote from an Australian Army spokesman, Lt Col Pup Elliot;
If they find a can of soft drink on the bottom, they have to deal with that, look at it and make an inspection and at times they’ll find stuff that they may not be able to identify
One of the first finds was a sunken PB40 minelayer with four LUGM mines still aboard. The US dive team set to work removing as much of the vessel as possible to allow the mines to be pulled clear and disposed of on land. Because of the time pressure and potential for booby traps any suspicious contact was usually just exploded in situ, just in case.
The team were also involved in clearing the port buildings and disposing of all manner of munitions and on one occasion destroyed a cache of 25 mines found outside the town.
Port clearance at Umm Qasr also saw the operational debut of the REMUS 100 autonomous underwater system, brought with them by the US Navy team.
The combined team used the REMUS 100 to conduct 10 missions, surveying 2.5 million square metres and identifying 97 contacts using onboard sensors, thus enabling the clearance divers to concentrate on other more difficult contacts.
The Remote Environmental Monitoring Units (REMUS) was developed by the US Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in the early nineties and subsequently manufactured and further developed by Hydroid Inc., now Kongsberg. REMUS 100 is a compact device, weighing 39kg and 1.6m long but it can operate for 14 hours before needing to be recovered to be ‘re-charged
Clearing the Approaches to Umm Qasr
In parallel with port clearance activities, the Royal Navy led the approach channel mine clearance operation in conjunction with US Navy and US Coast Guard assets.
It was a considerable volume of difficult water to clear.
Safe lanes were cleared by a multi-vessel group as per the diagram below.
Leading the column were a pair of SWIMS unmanned clearance boats being controlled by operators on HMS Brocklesby. USS Dextrous acted in the role of Command MCMV, gathering data from the others and plotting likely seabed contacts for interrogation by the other MCM vessels.
The cleared channel was then gradually widened.
HMS Roebuck also provided invaluable survey capabilities and was in fact, the first Royal Navy vessel to dock at Umm Qasr.
Commenting on the task, HMS Roebuck’s commander said;
The last charts to be made in the area were over 40 years ago, so our biggest problem was to find out how accurate they were. The first few weeks work were very slow indeed because we tow our sonar behind us, so we don’t want to be the first to find a wrecked ship
Clearing the waterways involved a range of UN and USN forces, everything from the rapidly introduced SWIMS system and One-Shot Mine Disposal System to the hugely impressive CH-53 Sea Dragons, even the famous US Navy dolphins played a part.
The Shallow Water Influence Minesweeping System (SWIMS) was designed to operate in the shallow waters in the south of Iraq and was obtained as an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR)
SWIMS consists of a towed magnetic and acoustic source, a tow/power delivery cable, a power conditioning and control subsystem, and an external or palletised power supply. Its small size and reduced weight require minimum handling equipment, and it is deployable from a helicopter or surface craft by two personnel. 12 QinetiQ modified remote controlled Combat Support Boats (CSB) were also used to tow Australian Defence Industries (ADI) Mini Dyad System (MDS) and Pipe Noise Makers (PNMs) ahead of the RN mine hunters as part of the SWIMS payload. It is worth noting that the system demonstrator was available within 3 weeks of order placement, a truly remarkable feat.
Australian Defence Industries are now Thales Australia and this system has evolved into a comprehensive package called the Australian Minesweeping System (AMS).
SWIMS comprised two main components, the towing boat and payload.
The towing boat was a rapidly modified Combat Support Boat, in service with the Royal Engineers and Royal Logistic Corps. Modifications included telemetry and remote control equipment and additional power generation and power distribution equipment.
The SWIMS payload consisted of multiple towed bodies in an array that was designed to simulate the acoustic and magnetic signature of a ship, and would thus, fool the mine into detonating, possibly destroying the unmanned system rather than a real ship.
In addition to floats and connecting equipment, the payload array consisted of two towed bodies, a Pipe Noise Maker and Mini Dyad.
Pipe Noise Makers are simple and robust systems that do pretty much as the name suggests, make noise.
Mini Dyads sound small, but at 7.7m long and weighing in at 1.6 tonnes, they are not. They are simply a steel tubes containing multiple steel and ferrite disc magnets with multiple Mini Dyads arranged to simulate different magnetic signatures
The MoD selected the ADI system because it was the only one available that did not need additional power and could operate in shallow waters. The system was ordered in late December 2002 and delivered in late January, they were hired for 12 months and the acoustic generators were purchased outright. One complete array comprised 2 Mini Dyads and 2 Pipe Noise Makers.
The US Navy Mk 105 minesweeping sled is towed by a Sea Dragon MH53 helicopter and these were used, although with mixed results.
The Royal Navy also used the Seafox one-shot disposal system and over this initial period 450 contacts were detected and investigated, 15 of which were mines.
Although 12 tonnes of supplies reached Umm Qasr by truck, overland from Kuwait, the bulk of humanitarian supplies were planned to be through the port and the delay in clearing the port and its approaches was contributing to rising tensions in the city. The Polish logistic support vessel Kontradmirał Xawery Czernicki escorted RFA Sir Galahad for much of the initial journey and then as she approached the Khor Abdullah formed up into a convoy with a number of other vessels for the final journey to Umm Qasr on the 27th of March 2003.
RFA Sandown led the convoy, arriving on the 28th March 2003, Berth 5, with 232.3 tonnes of humanitarian supplies, gifted by Kuwait.
As soon as she arrived, stores were offloaded.
RFA Sir Galahad was followed by RFA Sir Percivale a few days later.
However, ten days after the first port visit Lloyds were still refusing to insure civilian vessels, or at least at a rate that was affordable. This lack of insurance meant larger vessels carrying the thousands of tonnes of humanitarian supplies needed by the people of Basra remained on ships in the Gulf until much later.
The Spanish vessel The Galicia berthed after Sir Percivale and the channels were widened until larger ships could dock.
17 Port and Maritime Regiment RLC under the command of Lt Col Paul Ash was responsible for bringing Umm Qasr back into service. Most of the damage had been caused by neglect and under-investment rather than military action by the Coalition, spare parts for machinery were unavailable and most of the Iraqi civilian workers had been dispersed. The waterways had little or no safe passage markers and the surrounding utility infrastructure was in poor condition.
By early May much of the immediately repairable damage had been repaired and in conjunction with a number of civilian contractors, shipping traffic increased.
The 2,000-tonne displacement US Coast Guard Juniper Class Buoy Tender Walnut installed 34 navigation buoys, the existing ones being either damaged or dangerously out of position. 25 of the existing buoys were also removed. Interestingly, the USCGC Walnut history page indicates that they knew of the deployment on 14th November 2002 which contrasts with the notice available to UK forces.
USS Grapple carried out a great deal of wreck salvage
On Friday 2nd of May 2003, a United Nations World Food Programme ship docked at Umm Qasr and offloaded 14,000 tonnes of bagged rice, contrasting starkly with the couple of hundred tonnes landed by the RFA vessels and the Galicia.
Longer-term rehabilitation would include all wreck removal, a more permanent dredging capability, crane repairs, installation or repairs of aids to navigation, storage, parking and utility services.
The port of Umm Qasr was handed back to the Iraqis in May 2003 after which the slow process of full rehabilitation continued.
Even the trains were brought back into service by British Army specialist teams and local workers.
The final dredged depth of 12.5m was achieved in 2010.
Opening and rehabilitating Umm Qasr was a significant feat that involved collaboration between US Navy, British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy, Polish Navy and US Coast Guard. The follow-on operation to expand the port and complete all salvage tasks would also have been impossible.
This all occurred against a backdrop of operations ‘elsewhere’ and so the whole effort was relatively un-newsworthy, but it was a perfect example of joint working that combined, survey, mine clearance, the deployment of a linkspan and a broad range of salvage and electrical and mechanical engineering capabilities.
A perfect example, hardly anyone knows about!
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|09/09/2020||Various minor updates|