|Battle of 73 Easting|
|Part of the Persian Gulf War|
Wrecked Bradley IFV burns after being hit by Iraqi 125 millimeter tank fire.
| United States
|H.R. McMaster||Salah Aboud Mahmoud|
|Casualties and losses|
Fire: 12 Killed, 2+ wounded
Friendly Fire: 57 wounded
|600 killed and wounded|
The Battle of 73 Easting was a decisive tank battle fought on 26 February 1991, during the Gulf War, between British-American armoured forces and those of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The battle took place about 50 miles (80 km) east of, and several hours after the Battle of Al Busayyah. It was named for a UTM north-south coordinate line (an "Easting", measured in kilometers and readable on GPS receivers) in the featureless desert that was used as a phase line to measure progress of the offensive.
The main U.S. unit in the battle was the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (2nd ACR), mainly a reconnaissance element of VII Corps. The corps's vanguard also included the American 3rd Armored Division (3rd AD) and 1st Infantry Division (1st ID), and the British 1st Armoured Division (1 AD).
On the night of 23/24 February, in accordance with General Norman Schwarzkopf's plan for the ground assault called Operation Desert Sabre, VII Corps raced east from Saudi Arabia into Iraq in a maneuver later nicknamed the "Hail Mary." The Corps had two goals: to cut off Iraqi retreat from Kuwait, and to destroy five Republican Guard divisions near the Iraq-Kuwait border that might attack the Arab and Marine units moving into Kuwait to the south. Initial Iraqi resistance was light and ineffective and the 2nd ACR did not see much fighting until 25 February.
The 2nd ACR was to advance east, locate and engage the enemy at a distance, then allow the heavy mechanized units of the 1st ID to pass through to finish destroying the Iraqis. The 2nd ACR's limit of advance was to be 70 Easting, while the 1st ID would push on to objectives further east.
They faced Iraq's heavily armored Tawakalna Division, which occupied well-constructed defensive emplacements. They had also prepared alternate positions which enabled them to reorient to the west to face VII Corps’s attack. Despite extensive aerial and artillery bombardment by U.S. forces, most elements of the Tawakalna Division remained effective.
The battle was conducted in very bad weather. The day began with heavy ground fog, which later lifted amid winds gusting to 42 knots (78 km/h). Heavy rain, and later, blowing sand often reduced visibility to less than 100 meters. The ceiling was generally too low for Army aviation or Air Force close air support aircraft to fly during the opening rounds of the battle.
At 13:00, one of 2nd ACR's cavalry units, G- (“Ghost”) Troop, destroyed several Iraqi armored personnel carriers and, about 15:30, three enemy tanks.
By 16:10, further south near the east-west UTM coordinate line 00 Northing, 2nd ACR's E- (“Eagle”) Troop received fire from an Iraqi dismounted outpost, a dug-in Iraqi ZSU-23-4 and several occupied buildings in an Iraqi village. The American scouts returned fire with their tanks and Bradleys, silenced the Iraqi guns, took prisoners, and continued east. They advanced three more kilometers east to the 70 Easting line. More enemy fire came in and was immediately returned.
Reaching 70 Easting at 16:22, the lead cavalry troops of 2nd "Cougar" Squadron knocked out a screen of eight Iraqi T-72 tanks. Three kilometers beyond, T-72s could be seen in prepared positions at 73 Easting. This was the Iraqi Brigade Assembly Area.
Fearing the loss of surprise, E-Troop's commander, Captain H.R. McMaster, decided not to wait for heavier units to come forward and engage the Iraqis. McMaster ordered E-Troop to advance and engage the Iraqi tanks in a hasty attack.
Armored battles in the open desert are generally decided very quickly; 73 Easting was no exception. The 2nd ACR surprised the enemy and penetrated the Iraqi positions so quickly that they were unable to recover. Superior American night vision equipment turned the poor weather into a U.S. advantage.
E-Troop attacked forward and destroyed the Iraqi tanks at 73 Easting at close range. Unlike previous engagements, the destruction of the first Iraqi tanks did not result in the wholesale surrender of Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqis stood their ground while their tanks and armored personnel carriers of the Tawakalna Division attempted to maneuver and fight. E-Troop destroyed more than 20 tanks and other armored vehicles, a number of trucks and bunkers, and took a large number of prisoners with no losses to themselves. In 20 minutes, E-Troop had advanced in constant heavy contact with Iraqi armor from 67 Easting to 74 Easting.
Other 2nd ACR Troops, I- (“Iron”), K- (“Killer”), and G- (“Ghost”), joined the fighting at 73 Easting. By 16:40, G-Troop had assumed a fixed position on a ridge overlooking a wadi at and parallel to the 73 Easting phase line, north of E-Troop's battle and securing the left flank of VII Corps. During the fight, the Republican Guards' Tawakalna Division's 18th Brigade had gotten tangled up with their own 12th Armored Division, and both enemy units were trying to retreat through the same narrow piece of terrain, a shallow valley between two ridgelines, leading straight into G-Troop. At 18:30, the first of several waves of Iraqi T-72 and T-55 tanks advanced into the wadi in a bid to escape, directly into G-Troop. The fighting was fierce, as wave after wave of tanks and infantry charged G-Troop. The other troops and tank companies were fighting largely against dug-in soldiers and stationary tanks, not the armored charges faced by G-Troop that night. The fighting was so intense that, more than once, only the calling in of artillery and helicopter gunships saved G-Troop. At one point one Military Intelligence (MI) Platoon from the 2nd ACR's Command and Control Squadron was forced to stop its intelligence support of the battle and return fire on Iraqi soldiers that had exited a burning BMP and charged the MI platoon's position while their uniforms were on fire. This indicated the determination of units of the Republican Guard. During the six-hour battle, the G-Troop fire support team called in 720 howitzer and MLRS rounds. By 21:00, G-Troop was desperately short on ammunition and a tank company, “Hawk,” was sent in to relieve them. G-Troop lost one M3 Bradley to Iraqi IFV fire and one soldier, Sergeant Nels A. Moller, the gunner of the Bradley, was killed. The Bradley's TOW launcher was inoperative, and the crew was forced to engage the enemy with only the 25mm Bushmaster Cannon. At some point, the vehicle became exposed to the enemy (AKA "skylined") and the cannon jammed. While the crew was working on the guns in an attempt to re-engage the enemy, it was hit by 73 mm cannon fire from an Iraqi BMP-1. Moller was killed instantly and the remainder of the crew evacuated the damaged vehicle.
By 22:30, the battle at 2nd ACR's front, at 74 Easting, was ending with most of the engaged Iraqi elements burning or destroyed as the 1st Infantry Division began its forward passage of lines. The 1st Infantry Division passed through the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment's line in total darkness and continued to advance on Objective Norfolk, an area encompassing the intersection of the IPSA Pipeline Road, several desert trails, and a large Iraqi supply depot. Now, instead of three armored cavalry squadrons, the Iraqi 18th and 37th Armored Brigades faced six heavy battalions of American tanks and infantry fighting vehicles and another six battalions of 155 mm field artillery. Again, the Iraqis did not run or surrender, but manned their vehicles and weapons to face the advancing Americans. In the ensuing battle, many American units advanced past Iraqi tanks and crews, who were in shelters or had not yet turned on their engines and so did not appear to be threats in the American crew's thermal sights. Some confusion resulted, with enemy tanks and anti-tank infantry crews operating in the rear of the American lead units, and several friendly fire incidents occurred. The brigade commander, Colonel David Weisman, decided to pull the battalions back, consolidate, and use his artillery to destroy the aggressive Iraqi infantry.
The Iraqis had halted the 1st Infantry Division's initial push into their sector only temporarily. By 00:30, 27 February, the two attacking brigades of the 1st Infantry Division were positioned along the 75 Easting, 2,000 meters east of 73 Easting. In what has since been dubbed the Battle of Norfolk, they crossed the remaining ten kilometers to their objective, Objective Norfolk, over the next three hours. By dawn, the 1st ID had taken Objective Norfolk and the fight shifted away from the 73 Easting area to 1st Armored Division's attack to the north, started at 20:00 on 26 February, and the 3rd Armored Division attack just to the south of the 1st Division.
After midnight, the British 1st Armoured Division’s 2nd Brigade engaged a brigade of the Iraqi Adnan Infantry Division —a light infantry Republican Guard unit— which was moving into its sector. Farther east, two brigades of the Iraqi Medina Division were trying to set up a defense line around what had been designated Phase Line Lime. The 3rd Brigade, 1st Armored Division engaged the Tawakalna Division, while the rest of 1st Armored Division continued after the Adnan Infantry Division in conjunction with continuous artillery and helicopter attacks. There was some ground contact, but most of the destruction was visited upon the Adnan ID by artillery and Apaches. Objective Bonn, containing the Medinah division and a major Republican Guard logistics base, was attacked by helicopter and air force strikes. Pilots reported large massings of enemy forces there: Medina was reinforced by elements of the 17th, 12th, 10th and 52nd Armored Divisions, which had been retreating north. The Medina Division retained about three quarters of its tanks and was attempting to maneuver against 1st Armoured Division. The British responded decisively with MLRS fire, cannon artillery, and air strikes. This was the start of nearly two days of continuous combat for the British, some of the toughest fighting of the war. In the largest of this series of running battles, the British destroyed 40 enemy tanks and captured an Iraqi division commander.
12 American soldiers were killed in the battle, and an additional 57 were wounded by friendly fire. 600 Iraqis were killed or wounded, and large numbers of Iraqi tanks were destroyed or captured.
The 2nd ACR, which advanced between the Iraqi 12th Armored Division and the Tawakalna Division, was the only American ground unit to find itself decisively outnumbered and out-gunned. Nonetheless, the 2nd ACR's three squadrons, along with the 1st Infantry Division's two leading brigades, destroyed two Iraqi brigades (18th Mechanized Brigade and 37th Armored Brigade) of the Tawakalna Division. The 2nd ACR alone destroyed about 85 tanks, 40 personnel carriers and more than 30 wheeled vehicles, along with several anti-aircraft artillery systems during the battle. The equivalent of an Iraqi brigade was destroyed at 73 Easting; it was the first ground defeat of the Republican Guard. Within 24 hours, most of the other Iraqi brigades were gone.
Though a decisive tactical victory for American arms, the Battle of 73 Easting did not secure victory. Instead of exploiting a successful attack—an attack with almost no U.S. losses—the generals and colonels in command ordered Cougar Squadron to halt, to break contact with the enemy, and withdraw behind a limit of advance.
Cougar Squadron did not withdraw. It stayed and fought. But contact broken, the Republican Guard's main body escaped. An account of this event and its importance to the war in Iraq is described in detail in Warrior's Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting, published by Naval Institute Press (ISBN 1591145058). The book is by 2nd "Cougar" Squadron's operations officer, Major Douglas Macgregor, the man who actually trained the squadron, issued the orders and led the squadron into battle from his tank until the fighting ended along the 73 Easting on 27 February 1991.