Air Force Museum of Alberta

The First Gulf War

Personnel from Air Command and Canadian Forces Europe deployed during the first week of October 1990 as part of the United States led United Nations operation against Iraq. Resolution 678 made this a chapter seven war fighting venture.

The Desert Cats

Within hours of arriving in the gulf CF-18s were patrolling the skies off the coast of Kuwait protecting coalition ships enforcing the embargo.

The Desert Cats were formed by a joining of 439 Tiger Squadron and 416 Lynx Squadron. During the war, the cats with their 26 CF-18s shared the Doha airport with the Qatar Emiri air force of 24 Mirages and Alpha jets, 8 French Mirage fighters and 24 American F-16s. There were also daily Canadian transport and refuelling aircraft flying into and from Doha. It was a busy place.

As tension mounted in November and December a great deal of work went into making bomb shelters for protection from air attack or ballistic missile attack–concerns about chemical and biological weapons were real and warranted.

The groundcrew kept the jets in great shape - there were always 25 F-18s ready to fly. An incredible accomplishment and one of which we were all extremely proud.

When the war started, the desert cats flew combat air patrols. The majority of the missions were flown over the gulf, to protect the navy ships from attack by Iraqi aircraft or fast patrol boats. It was about 500 kilometres from the base in Doha to the combat air patrol patterns over the gulf off Kuwait city.

One week into the war the cats started flying sweep escort missions. They would fly in the lead of large packages of fighter bombers hitting targets in Iraq. The role was to attack Iraqi fighters that came up to attack.

As the coalition forces prepared for the ground attack, the cats were assigned another new role-participate in the aerial bombardment of the Iraqi army. They took off two fuel tanks and reduced the number of missiles carried in order to upload 8,500 pound bombs. In just four days of the ground war the cats dropped over 100 tons of bombs.

Flexibility, well trained crews and a desire to maintain the high standards the RCAF had demonstrated through the years were some of the key ingredients that led to this victory – namely mission accomplished with no fatalities.

Desert Cats Book

The Canadian Fighter Squadron in the Gulf War

Soon after the Gulf War ended in 1991, a definitive account of the Canadian CF-18 Squadron that took part in the conflict was published. It was edited by Capt. David N. Deere and contains a collection of memoirs and photos taken during the conflict.

Desert Cats: Foreward

A strong northerly wind is blowing dirty oily clouds over Qatar and the first real rainstorm we Canadians have seen in half a year in the Persian Gulf has left an unfamiliar dampness in the air. It is a sombre day as we sit in Doha, waiting for the word to go home to Germany and Canada, yet one ripe for reflection on what has been one of the great adventures of Canadian aviation.

The real Desert Cat adventure began in November of 1990 when I was advised by Col. Phil Engstad, Commander CATGME, that I was to vacate my position in the Qatari Air Operations Centre and return immediately to Baden-Soellingen. The mission was to form one squadron from our own 439 Tigers and the equally proud Lynxes of 416.

November and the first weeks of December were a blur of activity as we assembled forces in Baden from the Air Division and Fighter Group. The name of Desert Cats came to us and was to stick as the level of activity increased daily. Finally. on December 19, all of the Cats were in Doha and the very earnest task of working the two units into one began.

The squadron was totally integrated in every facet of the ground and air operation. Tigers and Lynxes were to be seen working side by side preparing for a war which was clearly going to happen. Then, in the early morning hours of 16 January 1991, the skies over Kuwait literally exploded. Were the Cats ready? Everything we had done told me that we were one ready. operational squadron now com­posed of some 26 aircraft and 300 personnel.

The first weeks of the war indeed confirmed my thoughts. Our defensive counter air missions in the northern Persian Gulf were being conducted flawlessly and were totally integrated with the USN air umbrella over the Allied shipping in the Gulf. The next challenge then appeared on the horizon. We were tasked with the sweep/escort mission which would see us flying deep into Iraq and over the Kuwaiti Theatre of Operations.

Now holding two distinct missions, the Desert Cats continued their dynamic performance, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Sleep was hard to come by, air raid warnings with the dashes to the bunkers were common and the never ending scream of allied aircraft launching from Doha shattered what little quiet remained in this desert emirate.

The air war was going incredibly well by this time and the prospect of a land offensive now became the centre of our attention. The final challenge was hurled at us just before the first coalition tanks rolled into Iraq. The Desert Cats would re-equip to the fighter-bomber role and assist in the destruction of the Iraqi army. The challenge was met and on the first day of the land offensive, the Cats were there with bombs on target. Throughout the land campaign, the Squadron held the combat air patrol mission over the northern Persian Guff while surging to a remarkable daily sortie rate of twenty bombing missions.

I know that for each and every one of the Desert Cats this four month foray to the Middle East will be an unforgettable experience. We had the unique opportunity to live and work in a war theatre and learn what we all knew to be true: It is the people around us who ultimately make the difference between success and failure, between life and death.

It is my sincerest hope that all of you who served in Qatar will find in these pages some of the pride and sweat which you so liberally applied to all your missions. To those who fought or viewed the war from elsewhere I hope that this book gives you a better feel for what we accomplished and how we lived and fought.

Our greatest victory, of course, was accomplishing all tasks with no casualties. For that I thank God and each and every one of the people in Doha who made it possible.

Commanding Officer Desert Cats, Don Matthews
5 March 1991

Note: the following link opens a digital copy of the Desert Cats book, courtesy of the UofC Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections

Desert Cats: The Canadian fighter squadron in the Gulf War 

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