By Steve Hubrecht
On Nov. 11, Canadians across the country will honour and remember veterans who served their country, particularly those who have fallen in war or those who have suffered because of war. In most Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada, the majority of people reflect quite a lot on the First and Second World War, and rightly so, as these globe-spanning conflicts enmeshed the lives of countless Canadians. But plenty of Canadian veterans have served in other wars too — the Korean War, in Afghanistan, and also in many more armed conflicts. Remembrance Day is for these veterans too.
This year, astute Invermere residents will have noticed a new local face among those adorning the banners of local veterans that line Invermere’s main street each year in the lead-up to Remembrance Day. The face is that of Donald Redhead. It’s the first year his family has put up a banner in his honour, and the war Donald served in — the First Gulf War — is also not one that had, until now, been featured in the annual Invermere Banner Project.
Donald was born in England, but moved with his parents to Invermere when he was just two years old and grew up here in Columbia Valley, before graduating from David Thompson Secondary School (DTSS) in 1988. A few months later, he told parents that Invermere was ‘boring’ and as dual Canadian-British citizen looking for some more excitement, he moved to England to live with his aunt and enlisted in the British Army’s elite Grenadier Guards regiment. The Grenadier Guards were established more than 350 years ago, in 1656, and have seen action in many significant wars throughout the past three and half centuries, including the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the Anglo-Egyptian War, the Mahdist War and both the First and Second World War. But the Grenadier Guards are perhaps most well known around the world for being part of the Queen’s Guard, the infantrymen who stand outside Buckingham Palace in brilliant scarlet red or dark navy uniforms, wearing one-and-half foot high black bearskin hats, and famously stand stock still at attention, not even so much as batting an eye.
The Grenadier Guard’s long history was one Donald was acquainted with as a kid, since it was the same regiment his dad Bryan was in from 1951 to 1956 (during which time Bryan served in the Suez Crisis). “He must have been influenced a bit by that, but I certainly didn’t try to influence him,” Bryan told the Pioneer.
Training for the Guards is not for the faint of heart: less than half of those who sign up actually manage to get through the boot camp stage. Later on, there was special desert training, which owing to lack of desert conditions in the United Kingdom, was conducted in the sand hills near Suffield, Alberta. “I can see why they use that area, it’s really dry, just like a desert. And hot. A bit of a horrible climate, really,” said Donald’s mom Olga. “It was funny in a way, because he signed up for the military over in England to go see the world beyond Invermere, and then the British military shipped him back to Alberta for training.” Donald completed the training, having no idea at the time that he would later be posted to a genuine desert conflict. He began his service and ended up going all over Europe one winter as part of the Guards’ military alpine team.
Nearly two years into his time with the Guards, in October 1990, Donald was one of 100 Grenadier soldiers selected to be attached to the Staffordshire Regiment, stationed at the time in Saudi Arabia. The regiment was nicknamed the Desert Rats, after the British Army’s legendary 7th Armoured Division, which had initially acquired the Desert Rats moniker in the Second World War during campaigns across the Sahara (throughout North Africa, in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia). “It was quite an honour that they (the Staffordshire Regiment) were allowed to be called Desert Rats,” said Olga.
The Staffordshire Regiment Desert Rats and other coalition soldiers were posted to Saudi Arabia in the wake of Iraq’s invasion and annexation of neighbouring Kuwait in August 1990. Military and political tensions built through the rest of 1990, as the United Nations Security Council issued a resolution calling for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait by a deadline of Jan. 15, 1991. For Donald, it was a time of waiting in the sands, constantly on alert, as a surprise Iraqi offensive into Saudi Arabia by air or land, or even a chemical gas attack, was a genuine possibility.
“It must have been terrible for the nerves, to just sit there in the desert, waiting for a war to perhaps start,” said Bryan. Olga added that Donald and his colleagues had to keep their gas masks and gas suits immediately on hand at all times, even when showering or going to the toilet, just in case. Indeed the British gas masks and suits had such a reputation for quality (and similar American suits the opposite reputation) that American soldiers were known to approach their British counterparts offering to buy their suits.
“They spent most of the time living under their armoured personnel carrier,” said Bryan, adding the Desert Rats would stretch out their sleeping mats there “because it was cooler. It was the only place there was any shade at all.”
Obviously, Donald had to keep his specific whereabouts confidential, and the tense atmosphere in the lead up to the First Gulf War did not make things easy for Bryan, Olga and Donald’s siblings at home in Invermere. “I didn’t like it,” said Bryan. “The trouble was, I never knew what he was doing until I saw it the next day on the news,” added Olga. Both tried to avoid watching too much coverage of the conflict on television.
There was plenty of support and morale-boosting efforts for Donald from Invermere. Students from J.A. Laird Elementary School wrote and mailed letters to him, the nurses at the Invermere hospital (where Olga worked) put together a care package for him, and Royal Canadian Legion Branch 71 Windermere District sent a letter of support. And come December, Olga and Bryan mailed a parcel with an honest-to-goodness real Christmas tree. It was a sapling, and the couple posted it in a plastic tube, stuffed with moss at both ends to keep the tree moist. “It was only a foot long. Don put it up in the desert, and they sprinkled white foot powder around it as ‘snow’. He said it was the only Christmas tree any of the troops had,” recalled Olga. In reply, Donald sent back a homemade Christmas card, drolly pointing out that he had to make it himself because there are no Christmas cards for sale in Saudi Arabia.
In addition to these supportive reminders of home, and the camaraderie, there was the endless landscape of the desert, with horizons of nothing but sand and rock stretching beneath a ceaseless blue sky. Bryan said Donald was quite intrigued by this environment.
International anxiety grew in the new year as the Jan. 15 deadline loomed. The deadline came and went: Iraq did not withdraw. On Jan. 16, the First Gulf War began. For the Redheads in Invermere, that meant more waiting and watching: in a phone call on the morning of Jan. 15 Donald had told them he and his fellow soldiers were headed to the Saudi-Kuwait border to see if ground troops would become involved in the conflict. But much of the first month of the war was an aerial battle, with coalition bombing campaigns into occupied Kuwait and Iraq, and Iraqi forces countering by launching Scud missiles into Israel and Saudi Arabia.
On Feb. 24, coalition ground forces entered Kuwait. The conflict was swift and decisive. By Feb. 26, Iraqi forces were retreating from Kuwait, setting some 700 oil wells on fire as they left, filling the skies of the small country with enormous billowing clouds of ominous jet black smoke, and creating burning ‘oil lakes’ and ‘fire trenches’ in places were oil from the wells flooded low-lying areas (efforts after the war to put out the fires eventually took the better part of a year). On the night of Feb. 26 to 27, a long convoy of Iraqi troops retreating back to the Iraqi city of Basra on the main Kuwait-Iraq highway was bombed so extensively by American airforce and navy pilots that it became known as the Highway of Death (or as the Road to Basra). On Feb. 28, 100 hours after the ground campaign started, with coalition forces continuing to pursue retreating Iraqis into Iraq, American President George H.W. Bush (the first Bush president) declared a ceasefire.
“So (for Donald) it was six months of waiting and then three days of war,” said Bryan. “But those 100 hours were quite intense.”
Donald was among the infantryman in support vehicles, supporting coalition tanks, and from this vantage, he watched coalition tanks take out Iraqi tanks, said Bryan, adding Donald was among the British troops involved in the cleanup of the Road to Basra. “That would have been difficult work, it would have meant helping bury a lot of dead,” noted Bryan. “Everybody thinks, ‘oh, the war was just three days.’ They don’t know much about the cleanup and what that entailed.”
The Road to Basra attracted some controversy, with some commentators saying the American pilots used disproportionate force on Iraqis who were retreating and who were trapped in a bottleneck traffic jam. Other commentators and American military officials defended the attack, saying it was legitimate military action. Images of the devastation on the Road to Basra, with thousand of burned-out, crumpled vehicles and hundreds or thousands of charred corpses (estimates of fatalities vary) circulated widely in newspapers and on television the day after the bombing, and some analysts argue these images played a role in prompting President Bush to cease hostilities the following day.
With the war over, Donald returned to the United Kingdom, and after years of waiting for the chance, he finally got his opportunity to wear the iconic Grenadier Guards uniform with bearskin hat while guarding the Queen. He had originally been scheduled to do so starting in December 1990, but the Gulf War pushed that back, and Donald ended up serving an extra six months with Guards on top of the originally planned three years, even staying on an additional four days right at the end of his service specifically to partake in an official Queen’s Review.
In all, Donald spent five months on public duties at Windsor Castle, and life in London was a clear high point in his time in the military. “He really lived it up there, he spent all his money,” said Olga, with a wry chuckle. Of course, Olga and Bryan, proud as any parents would be, made a trip to England to see their son on duty. Olga did her best to play the stereotypical annoying mom and break Donald’s concentration will he was standing at rapt attention outside Buckingham Palace, and after her persistent efforts, he obliged by slyly and ever so subtly lifting a finger or two up by the edge of his coat in acknowledgement, all while keeping his gaze solidly straight ahead and not otherwise moving a muscle.
“Boy, if I’d reported that, he would’ve gotten in a good deal of trouble,” said Olga, smiling at the memory.
When Donald’s military service ended, and he returned to Invermere. “We knew he was coming back, but didn’t know precisely when. He didn’t tell anyone. There was just a knock at the door one night, and we got up out of bed, and there he was at the door,” said Olga, adding the son who had once thought the Columbia Valley boring was now as happy as could be to be back in the mountains, with plenty of lakes for fishing nearby.
Life moved on for Donald, as he tried his hand at other post-military occupations, and his career with the Grenadier Guards wasn’t something he talked much about without prompting. “If you ask him, he’ll answer your question, but with a short answer. He won’t tell you anything more than what you ask,” said Bryan. “I did ask him once if he was glad he enlisted, and he said ‘yes, but I don’t want to do it again’.”
Donald, now 51, has been working as a nurse at Foothills Hospital in Calgary for more than a dozen years, a niche his parents say he is quite happy in, and his service with the Grenadier Guards has become a thing of the past. In the past, yes, but not forgotten: a banner hanging near the north end of Pothole Park reminds passersby that one of Invermere’s sons once volunteered and saw service in faraway desert sands; and that Invermere honours its own Desert Rat.