AOAV: all our reportsCivilian Casualties from British MilitaryCivilian deaths from British military action

Civilian Casualties from British Military: The First Gulf War

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the First Gulf War.

When did this conflict occur?

2nd August, 1990^ – 28th February, 1991*

^ – Though the opening of the First Gulf War is associated with the start of Operation Desert Shield, which saw a multinational coalition of 35 states begin amassing troops and equipment in Saudi Arabia, offensive efforts under Operation Desert Storm only began on the 17th of January, 1991. [1]

* – The British Ministry of Defence continued to award the General Service Medal with a ‘Gulf 1’ clasp for servicemembers who had spent a minimum of 30 days in the Gulf theatre of operations until the 7th of March, 1991. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

Tensions between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Kuwait had escalated in the summer of 1990, as Iraqi leaders adopted an increasingly belligerent stance against its neighbour, viewed by nationalists as an integral portion of Iraq that had only succeeded in achieving independence due to British interference. Following allegations of Kuwaiti slant drilling directed against Iraqi oil fields, Iraqi troops spearheaded by four divisions of the Republican Guard as well as a fifth composed of heliborne commandos launched an incursion into Kuwait on the 2nd of August, 1990, captured the capital of Kuwait City within 14 hours. [3] The international response was immediate: the UN Security Council passed UNSC Resolution 661 four days later, imposing a ban on all trade with Iraq, while US President George H W Bush began organising a 35-state military coalition. [4] Operation Desert Shield ensued, as the coalition assembled a combined air, ground, and maritime force centred in Saudi Arabia. By January 15th, 1991, the deadline for the complete withdrawal of Iraqi forces from Kuwait under UN Security Council Resolution 678 had passed, and Operation Desert Shield transitioned into the two-phase Operation Desert Storm. [5] An aerial interdiction campaign lasting from January 17th to February 24th succeeded in achieving air superiority, with international aircraft soon shifting to targeting Iraqi infrastructure, troop concentrations, and key leadership figures. A manoeuvre warfare effort followed and, in 100 hours, Iraqi ground forces were overwhelmed by the combined firepower and rapidity of the coalition advance. [6] On February 28th, 1991, Saddam Hussein accepted a ceasefire marking the end of the First Gulf War.

What role did British military forces play?

The British military contribution to the First Gulf War was known as Operation Granby and saw the single largest deployment of UK troops to an overseas theatre since the Second World War. On the ground, British forces centred on the 1st Armoured Division and included  the 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades equipped with the Challenger 1 Main Battle Tank. [7] In addition to this contingent suited for large-scale conventional engagements, British special operations forces drawn from the Special Air Service and Special Boat Service were tasked with conducting reconnaissance against Iraqi Scud ballistic missile platforms as well as diversionary raids along the Kuwaiti Coast; in one widely televised instance, elements of the Special Boat Service liberated the British Embassy in Kuwait in a daytime assault which saw SBS operators rappel onto the embassy roof from hovering helicopters. [8] Aircraft from the Royal Air Force also formed a key component of the coalition campaign, with RAF Tornados penetrating Iraqi territory in the initial hours of Operation Desert Storm to target Iraqi airfields containing aircraft, personnel, and early warning arrays. Approximately one week after the start of the international air effort against Iraq, coalition ground-attack aircraft shifted to striking infrastructure vital to the sustainment of Iraqi forces in Kuwait: these included oil refineries, industrial sites, and bridges necessary for the transportation of troops and equipment. [9] Combat operations conducted by the British military formally ended on the 28th of February, and, the following month, British Commander-in-Chief of Operation Granby Peter de la Billière, a veteran of 22 SAS and former Director of the SAS Group, stepped down. 

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes, over the course of the Iraq War, there were 130 confirmed killings of civilians by British military forces. In contrast to these 130 civilian deaths, 45 British military personnel died in the conflict, with 24 of these deaths being due to hostile action. [10]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

Precise figures of Iraqi civilian casualties during the First Gulf War remain uncertain, but current estimates place the number of noncombatant fatalities at 3664. [11] The exact proportion of these deaths which stem from British military action is similarly unknown; a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Action on Armed Violence found that no such data could be identified in the Ministry of Defence’s Archives. [12] This is almost certainly complicated by the combined nature of international military effort during the First Gulf War, which saw elements drawn from 35 separate armed forces operating under a single, unified chain of command.

Despite this, there is at least one confirmed instance of Iraqi civilian deaths stemming from unilateral British action during the First Gulf War.

  • 13th February, 1991: Royal Air Force Tornados on a bombing raid targeting a bridge in the Iraqi city of Fallujah encountered technical malfunctions when attempting to release their laser-guided munitions. Three of the bombs failed to lock onto the designated target, with one striking a crowded marketplace and killing an estimated 130 Iraqi civilians. [13]


[1] Beagle, T. W. “Operation Desert Storm,” in Effects-Based Targeting: Another Empty Promise? (Alabama: Air University Press, 2001): 51. 

[2] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021,

[3] Operation Desert Shield, US Army Center of Military History, 2022,

[4] The Gulf War, 1991, Department of State Office of the Historian, 2017,

[5] Beale, Jonathan, “Operation Desert Storm: Last of its kind”, BBC News, 2016,

[6] Freedman, Lawrence, and Efraim Karsh, “How Kuwait Was Won: Strategy in the Gulf War,” International Security 16, no. 2 (1991): 5.

[7] Gulf War, National Army Museum, 2017,

[8] Parker, John. SBS: The Inside Story of the Special Boat Service (London: Headline, 1997): 290. 

[9] Ritchie, Sebastian. : Command and Control: THE ROYAL AIR FORCE IN OPERATION GRANBY, THE FIRST GULF WAR, 1990-1991 (Oxfordshire: Air Historical Branch, 2004): 31.

[10] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence.

[11] “Appendix 2: Iraqi Combatant and Noncombatant Fatalities in the 1991 Gulf War,” in Connetta, Carl, “The Wages of War: Iraqi Combatant and Noncombatant Fatalities in the 2003 Conflict,” Project on Defense Alternatives, 2003,

[12] See primary source.

[13] NEEDLESS DEATHS IN THE GULF WAR: Civilian Casualties During the Air Campaign and Violations of the Laws of War (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1991): 100