In 1991, Canada joined an international military coalition to confront Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. Canada contributed warships and fighter aircraft to the successful campaign to liberate Kuwait. It was the first time Canada sent women to war in combat roles, and it was the first time in decades that Canadian air and naval forces supported each other in a war zone. More than 5,100 Canadian military personnel served in the war, with a peak of about 2,700 in the region at one time. No members of the Canadian armed forces died during the conflict.
Invasion of Kuwait
The Persian Gulf War erupted after Iraqi military forces invaded the tiny but rich nation of Kuwait on the night of 1–2 August 1990. Despite its size, Kuwait is one of the world’s largest oil producers and exporters. In 1990, Iraq was heavily in debt due to its involvement in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–88. Iraq had financed the war by borrowing heavily from its neighbours, including Kuwait. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein demanded they forgive the debt, Kuwait and the other Gulf states refused. A long-standing territorial dispute between the two countries, as well as the lure of Kuwait’s large oil reserves, also contributed to Hussein’s decision to invade the country.
United States President George H.W. Bush, backed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, quickly began to assemble a multinational coalition of 35 nations to demand an Iraqi withdrawal and prevent a further military thrust into Saudi Arabia. Backed by United Nations Security Council Resolutions, Operation Desert Shield soon was launched to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation.
The UN resolutions authorized an embargo of Iraq, as well as a naval blockade in the Persian Gulf to enforce the embargo, and “all necessary means” to ensure Iraqi compliance if its forces were not withdrawn from Kuwait by 15 January 1991.
When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein failed to respond to this mounting pressure, the US-led coalition launched Operation Desert Storm. It began with a massive aerial bombing of Iraq on 17 January 1991, followed by a campaign with troops, tanks and other ground forces beginning on 24 February.
Canada's Role: Operation Friction
At the time, Canada held a seat on the Security Council, the UN's most powerful decision-making body. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney supported a UN-mandated coalition to oppose Iraq's aggression. Most expected Canada to take a leadership role in a peacekeeping mission to the region, after Iraqi forces had been removed from Kuwait. Instead, Mulroney ordered a naval task group to join the embargo forces in the Persian Gulf. The destroyers HMCS Athabaskan and HMCS Terra Nova, and the supply ship HMCS Protecteur, with five CH-124 Sea King helicopters on board, sailed from Halifax on 24 August and began operations in the Gulf on 1 October.
The Canadian warships carried out more than a quarter of the total coalition inspections of cargo ships and other vessels suspected of trying to run the blockade. They were assisted by an air task group of 24 CF-18 Hornet fighter aircraft, which began flying combat air patrols on 14 October. Most were from 439 Squadron in Canadian Forces Base Baden-Soellingen, Germany. The air task groupbecame known as the “Desert Cats” after the device on the 439 Squadron badge.
For the first time since the unification of the Canadian Forces in 1968, naval and air units directly supported each other in a war zone. A joint Canadian headquarters was opened in Manamah, Bahrain, on 6 November, to provide oversight and co-ordination. It was commanded by Commodore Kenneth J. Summers. The Canadian Forces code name for these collective efforts was Operation Friction.
Canadian roles changed with the launching of Operation Desert Storm in mid-January. The naval task group commander, Captain Duncan “Dusty” Miller, was tasked with protecting and scheduling the coalition's navy replenishment (refuelling) force in the southern Gulf and Arabian Sea. And as the coalition had established air superiority by then, the Desert Cats switched to offensive operations—first with sweep and escort missions into Iraq and later actual bombing missions. The Desert Cats' one confirmed “kill” was an attack by Major Dave Kendall and Captain Steve Hill on an Iraqi fast patrol boat on 30 January.
The Scud missile attacks came almost every night. That was more of an irritant than a fear, as we had to run to the closest concrete shelter each time. A concrete shelter would not give much protection from a direct hit, as a Scud missile was about the size of a Greyhound bus. Things changed very quickly the last three days of the war as Canadian CF-18s were loaded with bombs for real for the first time. We wrote messages on their green metal casings in chalk such as, "Good-bye, Saddam" or "Happy New Year." (From an interview with Daniel Wilson, Royal Canadian Air Force. Listen to the full interview at The Memory Project.)
No Canadian ground forces participated in the invasion of Iraq, largely because the army was preoccupied with the Oka Crisis. However, 1 Canadian Field Hospital from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa (530 personnel) began arriving at al-Qusaymah in northern Saudi Arabia on 24 January. The hospital was attached to a British army unit and cared for coalition and Iraqi wounded. Members of the Royal Canadian Regiment and Le Royal 22e Régiment also provided security at the Canadian facilities in Doha, Qatar.
On 28 February 1991, about 100 hours after the Operation Desert Storm ground invasion began, President Bush declared that Kuwait had been liberated and ordered an immediate ceasefire. An armistice was negotiated on 3 March.
After the ceasefire, Canadian forces helped re-establish the Canadian diplomatic mission in Kuwait City. They also helped dispose of land mines and other unexploded bombs from the Kuwait oilfields, which had been heavily mined by Iraq forces. And they helped fly humanitarian aid and security to Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq. Canadian civilians also played an important role, helping to put out oil fires set by retreating Iraqi forces. In total, over 600 oil wells had been set on fire in an effort to slow the allied advance and destroy Kuwait’s oil infrastructure. The Calgary-based company Safety Boss capped many of the oil wells, finally putting out the last fire in November 1991.
From May 1991 to August 2001, Canadian forces also participated in the United Nations Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission (UNIKOM), while the Navy contributed a warship on an irregular basis to the continuing UN embargo against Iraq.
Women in Combat
The Gulf War was the first conflict in which female members of the Canadian Armed Forces served in combat roles. When the supply ship HMCS Protecteur deployed to the Gulf, it had a mixed-gender crew. Although women had served on Canadian naval ships for several years, this was the first time they had done so in a combat zone. The Canadian Armed Forces had opened all military occupations to women in 1989, except submarines (which were opened to women in 2001). The Protecteur’s female crewmembers drew a lot of media attention, including a feature article by Sally Armstrong in the January 1991 edition of Homemaker’s Magazine. Women also served in the air task group, at headquarters and with 1 Canadian Field Hospital during the war.
More than 5,100 Canadian military personnel served in the 1990–91 Persian Gulf War, with a peak of some 2,700 in the region at one time. Along with the first deployment of a joint headquarters, this also was the first time that women in the Canadian Forces were sent to a war zone in combat roles.