Baghdad ablaze - the awe from the air

BRITISH Tornado air crews who paved the way for the massive aerial bombardment of Baghdad returned safely to base late last night and spoke of the "awesome" sight of the city erupting in flames as they delivered their missiles and turned for home.

From Stewart Payne at Ali Al Salem airbase, Northern Kuwait

BRITISH Tornado air crews who paved the way for the massive aerial bombardment of Baghdad returned safely to base late last night and spoke of the "awesome" sight of the city erupting in flames as they delivered their missiles and turned for home.

"Baghdad was ablaze. There were explosions going off every few seconds'', said Wing Commander Derek Watson, who led his IX(B) Squadron into the face of enemy fire.

"We had anti-aircraft fire to one side and multiple rocket launchers were used against us, putting up about eight to 10 missiles. We could see them but they were never a threat.''


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His Tornado GR4 precision bombers fired their Air Launched Anti Radiation Missiles (ALARM) to take out Baghdad's integrated air defence systems to open the way for bombers to target Saddam Hussein and his High Command.

"Hopefully we provided the protection we were contracted to do. We got our missiles off on time. We did the job. It was a remarkable sight to see them drop away from our aircraft and fire off towards their targets. I was full of admiration. They were brilliant.''

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"We will have to wait for a detailed damage analysis, but they were heading the right way when we turned to go. We set off with a full payload of ALARMS and we saw them all go.''

Baghdad was already under a huge missile attack when the Tornados arrived to target the radar systems. Once the RAF fast jets had done their job, much more was to follow.

"When we got up we had to fly through a wall of Coalition aircraft waiting to go in behind us. We found our way through. It was in some ways the most dangerous part. There was so much up there. I have never seen anything like it,'' said Wing Cdr Watson, 39.

"Once we were over Iraq it thinned out and we had the place to ourselves for a while. When we approached Baghdad it was a red glow on the horizon. The missiles were already doing their work.''

"But the Iraqis were still firing back. It is not over yet. I felt nervous when I set off but now I have been there, done it and seen it, I don't think I will feel the same next time. And there will be a next time. The job is not finished but I think it is only a matter of days.''

All of IX(B) Squadron returned safely, as did the Tornados of 617 Squadron (The Dam Busters), which were flying a separate and unspecified mission.

Wing Cdr Watson and his formation were in the air for two and half hours. As his aircraft taxied to a halt he gave the thumbs up to his waiting ground crew and then turned and shook the hand of his navigator, Squadron Leader James Linter.

Sq Ldr Linter said: "They talked about the attack on Baghdad being shocking and awesome, and that is what it was. I would not have wanted to be on the receiving end.''

Tornados of II, (note: 2) 13 and 31 squadrons are also based at Ali Al Salem, flying as a combined air combat wing, and all are expected to conduct bombing missions over Iraq during the next few days.

Despite the swift advance into Iraq by armed forces on the ground, Saddam Hussein's troops were still able to get missiles into the air last night, one causing a full scale chemical alert at the Ali Al Salem base late last night. All personnel, including the recently returned Tornado crews, had to dive for cover in bunkers.

It later emerged that an Al Samoud missile had fallen safely in the surrounding desert. Earlier in the day Patriot missiles were used down several other Iraqi missiles aimed towards the base, plumes of smoke clearly visible in the sky overhead.

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