- Maxwell, Eugene
- RAN operations, Post WWII
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Mina Ash Shu’Aybah
The threat of mines and booby-trapped wharves provided our first task, along with US and UK diving teams. Though a cease-fire had been announced, Iraqi pockets of resistance ensured we each kept an M16 and a 9mm pistol close at hand.
Upon reaching the port entrance at 0300, we were scrutinised by the Saudi Arabian soldiers who held the port, and finally pulled into a large, empty warehouse where we laid out stretchers and sleeping bags to catch a few hours sleep on the floor before the work started at dawn.
The morning revealed a windy, rainy day, with a low grey oil haze reducing the sun’s appearance to that of a failing light bulb. For the next seven days, we worked at rendering the port safe. Crawling across a muddy seabed, in zero visibility, in a cold 14 m of water using our hands as our primary sensors is nothing new to us. However, the possibility of a live mine or, worse, a weighted corpse, appearing out of the inky blackness was enough to set the heart thumping on numerous occasions during a dive.
On one particularly black day, due to the oil fire haze our team area was lit by generators and our diving floats were marked by cyalume chemical lights – this was at eight in the morning! Oil contamination became our next threat, coating personnel and equipment alike. Hours were spent de-oiling equipment using liquid soap, degreaser and steam cleaning in order to keep the gear operational. When our work in Kuwait was over, the lifespan of some of our equipment was also over. Not all our work was confined to the water. We also cleared wharves, buildings and ships, examining them for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices, or booby traps to the uninitiated) and caches of explosives and small arms.
The port itself was dotted with sandbag bunkers, from the entrances of which spilled small arms ammunition, RPG rounds, grenades, blankets, webbing, clothing, boots, shaving kits, and other evidence of a hasty departure. Iraqi sabotage was evident in the buckled cranes and distorted pipelines seeping oil to fuel the greedy flames that burned night and day. Every port vehicle had been damaged in some way, and all were stripped of wheels and tyres – apparently these were taken back to Iraq, where they were expensive to buy. Explosions and sporadic gunfire from the surrounding countryside was a daily occurrence; we never left the CDT3 team area alone, and always heavily armed. Fortunately, the CDT’s small arms training and the advantage of having a nucleus of ex-SAS counter-terrorist trained divers in the team ensured that our weapons skills were kept up to scratch.
Mines, our bread and butter and our ticket to the Middle East, became a reality in Kuwait. While none were encountered within the port, the beaches to the north and south were littered with contact mines that the Gulf waters had washed ashore. Some were beaten and battered from rocky encounters; others were covered in oil; some were perfect; all were deadly. Each day a small party would locate and render safe a number of these mines, while the majority of the team continued with the diving task. During a period of five days, the team spent 56 hours in the water, and cleared 450,000 square metres of harbour seabed.
Finding a mine was the easy part. Getting to it could be a real ordeal. If you were lucky, it might be on rocks, but usually it would be on the beach, entangled in lines of razor wire and barbed wire. With the additional ever-present threat of land mines, a team member would begin the arduous and trying job of probing a path to the mine. Twenty minutes at a time was the most a man would stay at this task; after that the concentration could wane and mistakes could be made. After successfully negotiating a path through the soft sand, the cutting of the barbed or razor wire would come next – a bitch of a job. If there is one thing the Iraqis did properly, it was the laying of razor wire; quite a few men wear scars to vouch for that! After the probing and the wire, defusing the mine itself seemed a snap – but of course it wasn’t, although it is a relatively easy job for those trained to it. Removing arming switches or fusing devices was done remotely in case some bright spark had decided to add an anti-removal device.