881 Signal Squadron Deployment

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By CWO (Retd) Will Norton

The deployment of 881 Signal Squadron to Iran was an experience not easily forgotten by any serving members. After 8 years of war and over 1.25 million deaths, Iran & Iraq decided that they had enough and wanted the UN to broker a ceasefire along the 1200 kilometers of border that separate these two countries.

The Special Service Force Headquarters and Signal Squadron (SSF HQ & Sigs) based at CFB Petawawa along with Signals Personnel from across Canada were assigned to set up 88 Signal Regiment on both sides of the Buffer Zone separating Iran & Iraq. Very little notice was given to Squadron Members and after a week of Pre-deployment Training we were ready to deploy. Most of us flew out of CFB Trenton on USAF C5B Galaxys which were needed in order for us to be in position for the UN Ceasefire on 20 Aug 1988. After 13 hours which included a mid-air refueling over France, we landed at the USAF Base Incirlik in Turkey. It was very hot and humid during our short stay but we enjoyed our last taste of western civilization before embarking to the “Dark Side”. On 17 Aug 88 after allowing us to bring our personal weapons into Iran, we flew out of Incirlik in C-130 Hercules aircraft over SE Turkey and turned South into Iran within sight of Mt Ararat.

The situation in Bakhtaran was unknown so we were loaded to bear with rifles, 120 rounds of live ammo, helmets and flak jackets. We landed roughly on the pot-holed landing strip at the Bakhtaran airport and I initially noticed all of the holes in the main Terminal building from when the Iraq Air Force would come from across the border and strafe the Airport. All was quiet at the airport so we gladly removed our flak jackets in the +40 degree Celsius weather while proceeding to unload our vehicles and equipment in preparation for our road move to our new base camp. When we pulled out of the airport I was in the lead Squadron vehicle which was following an Iranian Army vehicle being commanded by a Revolutionary Guard. The local populace hadn’t seen any westerners for over 8 years so thousands of Iranians lined the streets waving and giving the peace sign. When a local cab driver was accidentally blocking our convoy, the Revolutionary Guard member proceeded to get out of his vehicle and point his loaded pistol at the head of the cab driver who quickly moved his vehicle so we could continue on our trip. We finally got to our new Headquarters which was located at the local University grounds which hadn’t seen any students since before the war. The buildings were in a very poor state of repair, so after some work on the plumbing we were able to take a well-deserved shower.

Over the next 2 weeks we unloaded vehicles and equipment from the C-130s that arrived daily from Incirlik. Finally after getting a sufficient fuel supply we were ready to deploy radio detachments along the Buffer Zone. Bakhtaran Sector was first, followed by Tehran, Dezful, Ahvaz and Saqqez sectors respectively.

Iran is a very mountainous country with very little vegetation, especially in the southwest which resembles the moon. After driving through steep mountain passes over rough roads and stopping for the occasional vehicle breakdown we arrived in our new locations. During all of these road moves we were escorted by the Iranian army who seemed to be always suspicious of our presence in their country. There were a total of 14 radio detachments assigned to the UN Teamsites located along the Iranian side of the border. These detachments were made up of 3-4 Radio Operators each with usually a Master-corporal (MCpl) in charge. Some were set-up in Iranian Army Bunkers while others used abandoned houses in deserted towns or villages. All Teamsites had HF Comms to their respective Sector HQs along with VHF 77 sets used initially for patrols conducted by the United Nations Military Observers (UNMOs). There is over 1200 kilometer of border between Iran and Iraq so it soon become apparent that the HF 515 set was better suited for patrol use due to their longer range. Many different kinds of communication systems were used to include Radio teletype/landline at Sector HQ level. Located at Bakhtaran was the IMRCT Detachment who were in contact with Long Range Communications Terminal (LRCT) in Iraq for Canadian-bound traffic. The INMARSAT detachment were located in Bakhtaran and Tehran for communications to UN HQ in New York. All detachments worked on a 24/7 basis handling a steady flow of traffic.

The many support personnel were kept busy maintaining radios, repairing vehicles, preparing meals or arranging stores for the next resupply run. Many in the south were experiencing daily temperatures of over 55 degree Celsius weather so a mid-day break of 2-3 hours was common to ensure no one got heat stroke. As the Admin Sgt for Ahvaz Sector my duties included driving my MLVW over 200 kilometers weekly to Dezful for pickup of Supplies and POL for our Sector. Prior to the Squadron’s deployment I was also chosen to take a “1 hr” haircutting course which made me responsible for ensuring that we had no “hippies” in any of our detachments. For $3 US you got a nice short haircut which was always welcome in the hot Iranian Desert. The arrival of fresh rations after 6 weeks on Individual Ration Packs (IRPs) for some Signal Troops was a welcome event. After gaining the trust of the Iranian Army some of the Signal Troops were able to move around and resupply their teamsites without an escort. All of the Radio Operators who worked at the teamsites lived under very spartan conditions. Time went very slow for these soldiers so some of the more adventurous volunteered for patrol duty or even eating food cooked by the Iranian Army’s “Flying Kitchen”. To help with morale they maintained a regular rotation of Radio Operators between teamsites and Sector HQs to help ensure everyone received a break from the front line duty.

It was quite obvious that the Iranian Army wanted our stay to be brief as 55 men were sent home on October 1st. Just afterwards the arrival of the UN Field service was a welcome sight in all Sectors. They proceeded to install Towers with antennas to enable the teamsites to use Motorolas to replace our equipment. As each location received their new equipment the Squadron radio detachments were re-deployed to Bakhtaran. The work routine once back in Bakhtaran was to tear down modular or load some tri-walls with communications equipment for eventual loading on C-130s enroute back to Canada.

By November 10th all Squadron personnel were in Bakhtaran preparing their vehicles for the road move to Bandar Khomeini which was situated on the Persian Gulf. After a two day road move which included a overnight stay at a roach infested hotel we loaded our vehicles on a Norwegian Freighter that would take them back to Canada. We then were treated by a bus ride by the Iranian Air Force which took us to a remote airfield where we were flown to Tehran via a Boeing 707. Upon arrival in Tehran we were bussed to the ex-Hilton Hotel was pretty good accommodations compared to the last 100 days. On 20 November 1988 after 2 days of Rest and Relaxation (R & R) in Tehran we boarded a Aeroflot jet supplied by the Soviet Government bound for Canada. There were many cheers coming from all Squadron members when the plane was off the ground and the stewardesses proceeded to serve us Black Caviar from the Caspian Sea. After a stopover in Moscow we arrived at Mirabel Airport, Montreal where we loaded buses for CFB Petawawa.

While on the way back many of us had thoughts about what we accomplished during the last 100 days of 881 Sig Squadron’s deployment to Iran. We had contributed to ending an 8 year war which had killed over a million people while maiming countless others. Our presence helped stabilize a very fragile part of the world while enabling millions of Iranians to get on with rebuilding their homes and future. Not bad for just over 3 months work, Not Bad at all.