February 26, This day during the Gulf War

February 26, 1991 – The Battle of 73 Easting was a decisive tank battle fought on 26 February 1991, during the Gulf War, between American-British armored forces and those of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The battle took place 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 battle was described by the Military Channel as “the last great tank battle of the 20th century.” The main U.S. unit in the battle was the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment (2nd ACR), a 4,500 man reconnaissance and security element assigned to VII Corps. It consisted of three ground squadrons (1st, 2nd and 3rd), an aviation (attack helicopter) squadron (4th), and a support squadron. The 2ACR combat team numbered around 10,000 soldiers. Each ground squadron was made up of three cavalry troops, a tank company, a self-propelled howitzer battery, and a headquarters troop. Each troop comprised 120 soldiers, 12 M3 Bradley fighting vehicles and nine M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks. The corps’ main body consisted of the American 3rd Armored Division (3rd AD) and 1st Infantry Division (1st ID) and 1st Armored Division (1st AD), and the British 1st Armoured Division (1 AD). The job of 2ACR was to advance east, led by scouts in Bradleys with tanks covering them from the rear, and to locate the enemy at a distance. They covered the advance of the 3rd Armored Division until late on February 25 and then covered the movement of 1st Infantry Division as it moved north from its initial objectives. The Regiment’s mission was to strip away enemy security forces, clear the way of significant defenses and locate the Republican Guard’s defensive positions so they could be engaged by the full weight of the armored forces. 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 scattered and the 2nd ACR fought only minor engagements until 25 February. The primary battle was conducted by 2ACR’s three squadrons of about 400 soldiers, along with the 1st Infantry Division’s two leading brigades, who attacked and destroyed the Iraqi 18th Mechanized Brigade and 37th Armored Brigade of the Tawakalna Division, each consisting of between 2,500 to 3,000 personnel. Second ACR began the 26th of February on the VII Corps Objective SMASH still oriented to the northeast. In the early morning hours, Lt Colonel Scott Marcy’s Third Squadron fought companies of the Iraqi 50th Armored Brigade, which had moved into the Regiment’s southern area to confirm reports that allied units were in the vicinity. At 0522 the Regiment received Corps Frag Plan Seven, which adjusted its zone and objective and directed all Corps units to move east to attack units of the Republican Guard. The order adjusted the boundary between 2ACR and the 1st UK Armoured Division to the south and the early movements of the day involved re-orienting the Regiment’s squadrons and coordinating with 1st UK Armored Division along the new boundary, the 80 Northing. The aviation squadron led by Lt Colonel Don Olson established a screen along the 50 Easting by 7 a.m. and by 8 a.m. the armored cavalry squadrons had moved into their new zones. Third Squadron, operating in the center, destroyed a T-72 tank before 8 a.m., establishing the first ground contact with the Iraqi Republican Guard’s Tawakalna Division. All three squadrons were in contact with security forces by 9 a.m. but a violent sandstorm blew into the area and movement to the Regiment’s limit of advance, the 60 Easting, took until 11 a.m. Air cavalry operations ceased just after 9 a.m. and would not resume until afternoon. Lt Colonel Tony Isaac’s First Squadron meanwhile encountered scattered enemy positions in the south and by noon had reported destroying twenty-three T-55 tanks, twenty-five armored personnel carriers, six artillery pieces and numerous trucks. Lt Colonel Mike Kobbe’s Second Squadron troops all reported resistance from small Tawakalna Division security outposts while Third Squadron destroyed similar outposts in the Regimental center. Lt Gen Franks visited the Regiment’s main command post just before 1 p.m. There, the Regimental executive officer, Lt Colonel Roger Jones and the S2, Major Steve Campbell, briefed him on the situation and informed him that sensors were reporting movement of tracked vehicles to the north out of the Regiment’s zone. By 3:00 p.m. Third Armored Division had reached the 50 Easting and begun to move abreast of the Regiment to the north. First Infantry Division’s movement to join the fight was taking longer than expected, however. Lt General Franks therefore directed the Second Armored Cavalry to continue its attack as far as the 70 Easting and to make contact with the Republican Guard’s main defenses and prevent their movement. At the same time, he ordered the Regiment to avoid becoming decisively engaged (meaning to refrain from committing all its maneuver forces and thereby losing freedom of action). Colonel Holder issued a Fragmentary Order at 3:20 to comply with the Corps Commander’s directive and by 3:45 Second Squadron’s E and G Troops were in contact with well-organized defenses of the Tawakalna Division. At the same time the Third and First squadrons in the center and south moved to clear their zones, encountering T-72s in Third Squadron’s north and T-62 and T-55 tanks of the Iraqi 12th Armored Division further south. Fourth Squadron’s air scouts rejoined the operation as the weather cleared around 3 p.m. Air scouts identified enemy defenses to the front of Second and Third Squadrons and attack helicopters struck several of the security outposts. 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. The Battle of 73 Easting refers narrowly to the violent armored combat action that took place in the final hours of 2nd ACR’s covering force operation in the zone of Second Squadron and in the northern third of the Third Squadron zone. In the battle, four of the 2nd ACR’s armored cavalry troops, Troops E, G, and I with Troop K contributing to I Troop’s fight (totaling about 36 M1A1 tanks), defeated two enemy brigades, the Tawakalna Division’s 18th Brigade and, later in the day, the 9th Armored Brigade. The defending Iraqi forces, elements of Tawakalna’s 18th Mechanized Brigade and the 12th Armored Division’s 9th Armored Brigade, had arrived in their positions on the evening of 24 February and had oriented to the west to protect the main supply route, the IPSA pipeline Road, just to their rear. The Iraqi resistance that 2ACR met on the previous day had been from the 50th Armored Brigade whose mission had been to cover the preparation of that defense. The Battle was part of the larger operation and, as it went on, the Third and First Squadron troops in the southern part of the zone continued to fight through the security area of the Republican Guard and fix enemy units of the 12th Armored Division. First Squadron, the Regiment’s southernmost squadron cleared its zone of remnants of the 50th Armored Brigade before making contact with the 37th Brigade of the 12th Iraqi Armored Division, fighting to the south of the Tawakalna Division. Scout and attack helicopters of Fourth Squadron and 2-1 Aviation Battalion (AH 64 Apache) supported the fight as weather allowed. The Regiment moved from the 60 Easting with eight of its nine cavalry troops generally abreast of each other. (Lt Colonel Kobbe had pulled his Troop F out of the Second Squadron’s leading echelon when his zone narrowed.) The operation escalated into a full-out battle as E Troop (call sign “Eagle”) maneuvered to the 70 Easting around 3:45 p.m. Heavy combat then spread to the south as I Troop of the Third Squadron closed the gap between the two squadrons and joined the fight. G Troop’s attack to the north of Captain HR McMaster’s E Troop made contact with defending units farther east and combat there became intense around 4:45 p.m. Fighting continued into darkness as the Iraqi division commander reinforced the 18th Brigade with his 9th Armored Brigade in the G Troop zone. At 4:10 p.m. Eagle Troop received fire from an Iraqi infantry position in a cluster of buildings at UTM PU 6801. The troop returned fire with its Abramses and Bradleys, silenced the Iraqi guns, took prisoners, and continued east with the two tank platoons leading. The 12 M1A1 tanks of Eagle Troop destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and 30 trucks in 23 minutes with no American losses. At about 4:20 Eagle crested a low rise and surprised an Iraqi tank company set up in a reverse slope defense on the 70 Easting. Captain McMaster, leading the attack, immediately engaged that position, destroying the first of the eight enemy tanks to his front. His two tank platoons finished the rest. Three kilometers to the east McMaster could see T-72s in prepared positions. Continuing his attack past the 70 limit of advance, he fought his way through an infantry defensive position and on to high ground along the 74 Easting. There he encountered and destroyed another enemy tank unit of eighteen T-72s. In that action the Iraqis stood their ground and attempted to maneuver against the troop. This was the first determined defense the Regiment had encountered in its three days of operations. Still, the Iraqi troops had been surprised because of the inclement weather and were quickly destroyed by the better trained and better equipped American troops. After defeating that force, McMaster sent a scout platoon of two Bradleys north to regain contact with Troop G. In doing that the scout platoon encountered another Iraqi tank position of thirteen T-72s which they destroyed with TOW missiles. Other 2nd ACR Troops I (call sign “Iron”), K (“Killer”), and G (“Ghost”) joined the fight minutes later. Iron Troop of Third Squadron had halted around the 67 Easting to control the limit of advance with its tank cannons. As the troop moved north to secure its northern boundary around 4:45, it came under fire from the same group of buildings E Troop had fought through an hour earlier. Captain Dan Miller, commanding I Troop, silenced the resistance with return fire then attacked to the 70 Easting. There, he confronted T-72s in defensive positions south of those E Troop had just obliterated. With initial support from Captain Mac Haszard’s K Troop, Miller’s tanks destroyed sixteen enemy tanks on that position and then attacked through it. Just beyond the defenses I Troop observed another formation of enemy tanks moving in its direction and attacked it with tank and TOW fires. During that engagement, TOW missile fire from a K Troop Bradley struck and destroyed an I Troop Bradley wounding all three crewmen. Before returning to positions along the 70 Easting, I Troop located the defending battalion’s command post and destroyed its command bunker and security forces. By 4:40, Captain Joe Sartiano’s G Troop had gained a position on a ridge overlooking a wadi at and parallel to the 73 Easting, north of E Troop. As the Regiment’s northernmost unit, G Troop secured an open flank until the 3rd Armored Division’s cavalry squadron arrived to occupy its own positions along the 70 Easting. Sartiano’s men engaged Iraqi 18th Brigade tanks in defensive positions initially. Very quickly, however, G Troop found itself facing counterattacks by tank units of both the Tawakalna Division and the Iraqi 12th Armored Division. Additionally other Iraqi units attempted to retreat to the north along the wadi and that led them directly into G Troop’s position. By 6:30, the first of several waves of Iraqi T-72 and T-55 tanks advanced into the wadi. Fierce fighting ensued as wave after wave of tanks and infantry charged the troop. Combat became so intense at times that only massed artillery and mortar fires, attack helicopters and Air Force close air support prevented the enemy from closing with G Troop. At one point a Military Intelligence (MI) Platoon from the 2nd ACR’s 502nd MI Company had to suspend its signal intelligence operation and return the fire of Iraqi soldiers who exited a burning BMP-1 and continued to attack. During the six-hour battle, the G Troop fire support team called in 720 howitzer and MLRS rounds while using its own mortars continually to turn back attackers at close range. By 9 p.m., G Troop had expended all its TOW missiles and was becoming desperately short on 25mm and 120mm cannon ammunition. To remedy the emergency, Lt Colonel Kobbe sent his tank company, Captain Bruce Tyler’s Company H (“Hawk”), to relieve the troop. By then, G Troop had destroyed “at least two companies of Iraqi armor. Hundreds of Iraqi infantrymen and their lightly armored transporters lay scattered on the wadi floor. 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 25mm Bushmaster Cannon had jammed. While the crew was attempting to get the cannon back in action, an Iraqi BMP-1 hit the vehicle’s turret with 73 mm cannon fire. Moller died instantly and the remainder of the crew evacuated the damaged vehicle.Artillery fire and air strikes played a large role in the battle, especially in the far north. Colonel Gary Bourne’s 210th FA Brigade in direct support of 2nd ACR fired missions out to the 78 Easting. Close air support missions struck targets in greater depth preventing some Iraqi units from closing with G Troop or escaping the battle area. Attack helicopters flew in support of air scouts at key intervals during the day and the 2-1 Aviation Battalion’s Apache helicopters, led by Lt Colonel Jon Ward, destroyed two batteries of enemy artillery and struck march units along the IPSA Pipeline Road at 4:30 p.m. just as the battle began in earnest. In total, the Regimental Fire Support Officer reported employing 1,382 rounds of 155mm howitzer ammunition (high explosive, dual-purpose improved munitions and rocket assisted HE projectiles) and 147 MLRS rockets on February 26. The 210th FA Brigade Commander estimated that his two FA battalions and single MLRS battery destroyed 17 tanks, seven APCs, six artillery pieces and around 70 other vehicles. The number of vehicles damaged by artillery was greater. The number of enemy infantry casualties caused by indirect fire proved impossible to determine but almost certainly exceeded the thirty infantrymen claimed.Sporadic fire continued throughout the night but no major fights occurred after 10 p.m. The Regiment used artillery fire and some close air support between the end of active fighting and the arrival of the 1st Infantry Division at the line of contact. Based on the intelligence gained during the battle, Colonel Holder advised the Corps Commander that the 1st Infantry Division should pass through the southern units of the Regiment. Committing the Division in that area would keep it clear of the chaotic post-battle conditions to the north and, more importantly, would steer the main attack around now known positions of the Republican Guard divisions. Lt General Franks accepted that recommendation and, beginning around 2 a.m. two brigades of the 1st Infantry Division passed through the Regiment’s positions along the 70 Easting. When the Division had completed passage of all its combat units around 6 a.m. the Second Cavalry Regiment became part of VII Corps’ reserve.  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.

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