LONDON -- British Tornado bombers from bases in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain flew some of the first attack sorties of the gulf war last night, blasting their targets with high-explosive bombs.
The 45 Royal Air Force planes, based 30 minutes' flying time from targets in Iraq and Kuwait, were accompanied by Victor and VC-10 airliner tankers to enable them to refuel in the air and extend their 400-mile limit.
Reports from Bahrain said that all the Tornadoes from the base returned safely 3 hours, 20 minutes after they left. The pilots were seen on television hugging each other and shaking hands as ground crews worked to rearm the planes and get them ready for new missions.
One pilot said: "Hi Mum, we're back."
The Tornadoes were armed with huge JP-233 "cratering" devices, each containing 30 cratering bombs for the destruction of airfield runways. They also each contained 215 delayed-action bombs and anti-personnel mines to prevent repair work.
The Tornado's formidable arsenal can also include ALARM anti-radar missiles designed to take out radar installations. The plane can also be used to attack supply depots and bridges.
Able to fly at night and in any weather using terrain-following radar, they are among the most effective low-level attack planes in the world. British television, aware that the Tornadoes would play a crucial role in the initial strike, repeatedly had showed them on practice runs, hugging the desert sand and flying through tight gullies to avoid radar detection.
The Ministry of Defense in London confirmed that British forces took part in the initial attacks, but it released no details.
Britain has almost 40,000 land, sea and air troops in the gulf region, the second-largest Western force, and the British government has been the most stalwart supporter of the Bush administration's hard-line policy.
President Bush talked by telephone to Prime Minister John Major before the multinational force launched its attack in the early hours of the morning here. Mr. Major was expected to address the nation at breakfast time, and the government was expected to give a report on British involvement in the fighting to the House of Commons later in the day.
Michael Mates of the House of Commons defense committee called reports of the safe return of all of the first wave of allied attack planes "incredible."
He told Independent Television News, "We can't get through the night without losing any aircraft, but if the first have all got back, that is incredible.
"It could mean, if it is as successful as some reports suggest, we won't have to launch a ground attack."
President Bush's statement to the nation won quick praise here. Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats and a former paratroop officer, said, "It was simple, clear and restrained, and I think particularly those of us who have been concerned about the possibility of overreaction of the United States will have been reassured by the restraint of it. I think it was a dignified and powerful statement."
David Howell, Tory chairman of the House of Commons committee on foreign affairs, said, "I think sanctions were doing marginal damage, but they were not going to get this man out of Kuwait. . . . He was always going to stick right there."
He said he hoped the international reaction would prove "the world will not tolerate this type of aggression and bullying in the new world order we are going to build."