'We were just on tenterhooks'
When Dr Jerry Nockles stands on the bridge of HMAS Brisbane at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the memories come flooding back.
A signalman on board Brisbane, he witnessed the start of Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Gulf War.
“The January 15 deadline passed, and it was extremely tense,” he said.
“We were just on tenterhooks, and then we went to air threat warning red, and the displays just lit up like a Christmas tree.
“That was all of the tomahawk missiles heading in to Baghdad and that famous footage on CNN of the Baghdad skyline lighting up as that air strike commenced …
“I would have been 22, maybe 23, and I was in the operations room. It was extremely busy, and the amount of messages, or signal traffic, was overwhelming.”
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded Iraq’s oil-rich neighbour Kuwait in August 1990. The attack was widely condemned, and the UN Security Council unanimously approved a trade embargo against Saddam’s regime. Over the following months, a US-led coalition of more than 40,000 troops from 30 different countries gathered in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf to enforce UN sanctions against Iraq.
After Saddam ignored the deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, coalition forces launched Operation Desert Storm with a series of devastating air strikes on Iraqi military targets in Kuwait and Baghdad. Ground forces moved against Iraqi positions in Kuwait on 24 February, despite widespread fears Saddam might order the use of chemical weapons. Two days later, Iraqi forces began to withdraw across the border, setting fire to oil wells and dumping millions of barrels of crude oil into the Persian Gulf. Iraqi forces were expelled from Kuwait within 100 hours of the ground assault, and a ceasefire was declared on 28 February 1991.
Jerry was one of 1,800 Australian Defence Force personnel who served during the war. He had joined the Royal Australian Navy at 17, and was an able seaman on board the Perth-class guided missile destroyer HMAS Brisbane during Operation Damask, the Royal Australian Navy’s contribution to the war against Iraq.
“I was in the navy for 24 years, 12 of those at sea, and of the eight warships I served in, Brisbane stands out,” he said.
“It was the formative time of my life, and it is a massive part of creating who I am today.
“I was born and bred in Bathurst, NSW, and I was one of five children. My brother Rod and I had an interest in all things military, as I guess young boys do, and we both decided from a fairly young age that we would join the navy …
“Our father had also been in the military and our grandfather had died in the Battle of Britain. The generation before served in the British army … and of my father’s uncles, three served …
“It was life changing. It really was. It just gave me a wonderful sense of purpose and gave me skills and values that have served me well to this day.”
Jerry was posted to HMAS Brisbane in late 1990, knowing that he would be heading to the Persian Gulf before Christmas.
“It was a very emotional time,” Jerry said. “We were heading up to the Persian Gulf, and we didn’t know how this was going to unfold. It was only a few years after the Berlin Wall had come down … and they were forging this new world order, so it felt very right that the world … would not stand by and let strong countries bully or invade or threaten weaker countries …
“We also knew that Saddam was a bad, bad man. We’d seen that in the Iran–Iraq War – the use of chemical weapons, the dreadful tactics, and the appalling loss of life – so we knew he was a tough, tough guy and that he was prepared to do the most extreme things. He didn’t play by the same rules that Australia and the United States and Great Britain played by when it came to conflict, so we were very worried about chemical weapons …
“We got to January 15, and up until that point, we’d had training filters in our gas masks. They said, ‘Okay, you’ve all got your actual, real, combat filters – put those in your gas mask now.’ It was only a little thing, but it was a significant event in retrospect … and that was an indication that this was all about to kick off…”
He remembers when two Iraqi aircraft were detected heading towards them.
“That was probably the scariest moment for me. We were effectively under an air attack, but the combat air patrol dispatched them before they got to missile release range of us.”
Mines were another constant threat.
“After the coalition gained air superiority, the biggest threat to us was mines, and that was a big problem,” he said. “Saddam had mined large areas of the northern gulf, but the biggest threat to us was from these free-floating mines, or mines that weren’t tethered …
“During the day you had a lot of eyes out looking for mines, and there was a person right up in the eyes of the ship, at the very front end of the ship in the bow, looking out for mines.
“At night it became very problematic, but we had this new electronic surveillance system which allowed us to scan the water in front of us for mines.”
One day a mine was discovered just off the track Brisbane had been transiting the night before.
“We could have easily struck that mine and it would have been horrendous,” he said.
“It was a real problem, and that threat existed even after the cessation of hostilities. The mines were still there. No one told the mines that the war was over…
“We would escort oilers up to replenish ships up in the northern gulf, and we were constantly on the lookout.”
As Iraqi troops withdrew from Kuwait, they set fire to hundreds of oil wells and dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, creating one of the war's most enduring images as the skies over the region blackened with thick smoke.
“It was an environmental disaster, and an economic disaster,” he said. “The Gulf became very, very smoky and we saw these large globules of oil floating around the Gulf. It was almost an apocalyptic sort of an environment…with the smoke, the smell of burning oil, the oil in the water, and these massive, sandstorms that blow in for days on end, and just cover everything in this fine, sandy dust.”
Brisbane and Sydney returned to Australia in April 1991 and received Meritorious Unit Citations for their service in the Gulf.
“We led Sydney into the Brisbane River and there was a big crowd on the wharf,” Jerry said. “The Prime Minister was there, and it was just one of the warmest welcome homes I’ve ever experienced.
“There was a real sense that they understood what the Navy and what the defence force had done in the name of Australia and in the name of free people … rejecting the notion that powerful countries can just threaten and invade weaker countries …. That was a real vindication, and it was just a wonderful feeling to be appreciated in that way and to really get that sense that people understood what we had just done and what we had been a part of and why it was important.
“It was so, so good to be home; it was such a wonderful, wonderful feeling to be back home in Australia again, and to be amongst friends and family.”
Today, the Brisbane bridge is on display at the Australian Memorial in Canberra. For Jerry, it’s particularly special.
“She was a beautiful, beautiful ship,” he said.
“She’d served in Vietnam, and then again in the Gulf, so she’s very, very special. She’s known as the ‘Steel Cat’ and she’s loved by anyone who served in her.
“It’s so special to go to the Memorial and stand there, and just be immediately transported back to that time of serving in that ship with that wonderful crew.”
For Jerry, it’s important that the Memorial tells the stories of modern conflicts and peacekeeping operations.
“It’s critical that Australians have as deep and as accurate an understanding of our military history as possible, and that Australians understand the service and sacrifice of the men and women of our armed forces who have served, fought, suffered and died in the name of Australian values and Australian interests,” he said.
“It’s important that Australians understand war in as accurate and as comprehensive a manner as possible and it’s important that children growing up understand what war is, and how horrendous war can be, and how some people serve and sacrifice to ensure that they can enjoy the life and the freedoms and that opportunities that being an Australian provides and that it does come at a cost."
To him, the Memorial is particularly special.
“It’s always a place of great reflection for me,” he said. “To go to the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, and to the Roll of Honour, and to see the thousands of names, and the poppies that are placed there in Remembrance, it’s always a very moving experience, and one of great reflection and gratitude.
“It’s important that the Memorial continues to carve out a space for these ongoing modern conflicts. It’s just as important to tell those stories as it is to tell the stories of Gallipoli and the Western Front and North Africa and New Guinea, and Korea and Vietnam. Ongoing modern conflicts and peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations are all part of our military history, and they are all part of our story, and that is so important for Australians to know and understand.”
Jerry was serving on board HMAS Adelaide, alongside Lautoka, when the 1987 Fijian coup took place and served in HMAS Warramunga during Operation Relex, following the Tampa affair. He completed his doctorate in international relations, examining the relationship between the United States and Iraq between 1988 Iran/Iraq War and the invasion to remove Saddam from power in March 2003. He went on to work for UNICEF, and now works for World Vision Australia.
“It’s a continuation of that desire to serve, that desire that started with those two young lads in Bathurst,” he said. “Serving your community, and your fellow Australians, and indeed the world, is important and the navy gave me a vehicle to do that. It instilled in me that great sense of service and of dedication and of sacrifice.
“It really did have a big impact on my life, and not just in terms of piquing my interest in international relations, but also in thinking about that situation with Saddam. It was after that, that I learnt just how difficult life had been under Saddam and what a tyrant he was.
“It really reinforced my belief in democracy, and I kind of fell in love with democracy again … I felt very, very proud of the very small role that I played in defending that.
“It’s still to this day something that I believe in with my whole heart, and it’s something that I had been prepared to die for…
“It was something that I very much believed in, and that was very much part of that sense I had as we left; that we were doing something, very, very right, that it was the right thing to do.”
The Australian War Memorial’s Development Project will be sharing the stories of a new generation of Australian men and women who have served our nation in recent conflicts, and on peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. To share your story email: email@example.com
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