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Michael Asher

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Michael Asher
The Real Bravo Two Zero
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Rated as one of the world's top desert explorers, Michael Asher has covered almost twenty thousand miles on foot and with camels. A graduate of Leeds University, he has served in the Parachute Regiment and in 23 SAS Regiment (V). The most fascinating experience of his life, though, was the three years he spent living with a traditional Bedouin tribe in the Sudan, as one of them. A fluent Arabic speaker, he has won two awards for desert exploration, from the Royal Geographical and Royal Scottish Geographical Societies, and in 1987 he and his wife, Mariantonietta Peru, became the first people ever to cross the Sahara desert from west to east by camel and on foot � a distance of 4,500 miles in nine months. He is also the author of Shoot to Kill. Visit his website at www. lost-oasis. org. THE REAL BRAVO TWO ZERO The Truth Behind Bravo Two Zero MICHAEL ASHER CASSELL Cassell an imprint of Orion Books Ltd, Orion House, 5 Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9EA An Hachette UK company Copyright � Michael Asher 2002 First published in Great Britain by Cassell 2002 This edition published 2003 11 13 15 17 19 20 18 16 14 12 The right of Michael Asher to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and. Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc The Orion Publishing Group's policy is to use papers that are natural, renewable and recyclable products and made from wood grown in sustainable forests. The logging and manufacturing processes are expected to conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin. www.orionbooks.co.uk For Richard Belfield, Fulcrum TV's visionary Producer who thought of it, and had the courage and faith to see it through: MAGNA EST VERITAS ET PRAEVALEBIT CONTENTS List of illustrations ix Acknowledgements xi The Real Bravo Two Zero 1 Notes 249 Abbreviations 251 Index 253 LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS Michael Asher on the trail of Bravo Two Zero. Jon Lane The LUP (Lying-up position) where the Bravo Two Zero patrol was compromised. Owen Scurfield Abbas bin Fadhil. Owen Scurfield Abbas's family. Owen Scurfield Michael and Nigel Morris with their military escort. Owen Scurfield The bulldozer from which Abbas bin Fadhil spotted the, patrol. Channel 4 The taxi hijacked by Andy McNab. Jon Lane Hayil, Mohammed, Abbas, Michael and Adil (the shepherd-boy whom McNab and Ryan say compromised Bravo Two Zero). Owen Scurfield The pump-house where the dying Legs Lane was cap-tured. Jon Lane Michael with one of the Minimi 5.56mm machine-guns captured by the Iraqis from Bravo Two Zero. Owen Scurfield The field where Mike Coburn was captured by the Iraqis. Channel 4 Vince Phillips's binoculars. Channel 4 Where Andy McNab was captured. Channel 4 Michael, Ahmad the policeman and Subhi the lawyer, on the spot where Bob Consiglio was shot and killed by armed civilians. Jon Lane Michael and Mohammed stand by Vince's cairn. Jon Lane ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS I would like to thank the following: Jeff, Steve and Veronica Phillips and their families. Major Peter Ratcliffe DCM. Abbas bin Fadhil, Hayil bin Fadhil and all those Iraqis who contributed to the film. Charles Furneaux of Channel 4. The management and staff at Fulcrum TV: Christopher Hird, Beth Holgate, Martin Long, Annie Moore, Donna Blackburn, and everyone else who worked on the film. The film crew in Iraq, including Gavin Searle (Director), Jon Lane and Owen Scurfield (camera crew) and Nigel Morris (Associate Producer). Ian Drury, Publishing Director at Orion Books. Anthony Goff and Georgia Glover of David Higham Associates, my agents. A special thanks to my wife, Mariantonietta, an Arabic translator, for her deep translation of Adnan Badawi's article, which revealed interesting new insights. Lastly, my children, Burton and Jade. INTRODUCTION IN THE GREAT BRITISH tradition it was a glorious fail�ure. Almost everything that could go wrong did. On 22 January 1991 � five days into the ground phase of the Gulf War � a patrol of 22 SAS was inserted deep behind enemy lines in the desert of Iraq. The eight-strong team had been tasked to help find the Scud missiles whose deployment against Israel by Saddam Hussein was jeop�ardizing the fragile Coalition. The story of what happened has become the stuff of legend. Compromised on the second day, unable to contact their base or use their emergency beacons, the patrol was attacked and split up. Following a farrago of mistakes, failures and sheer bad luck, three of the team died and four were cap�tured. Only one managed to escape, in a near-suicidal trek to the Syrian border. Bravo Two Zero, called the most decorated British patrol since the Boer War, has already found a place beside the likes of Lawrence of Arabia in modern mili�tary folklore. The most written-about, reported-on and debated incident in the history of Special Operations, it owes its fame mainly to the books published by two of its members, Bravo Two Zero, by the patrol commander, who writes under the alias 'Andy McNab' and The One That Got Away by the escapee, alias 'Chris Ryan'. These books have enjoyed phenomenal success; both became massive bestsellers with combined sales in excess of three million. McNab's book, presented as 'The true story of an SAS patrol behind enemy lines in Iraq', was hailed by James Adams of the Sunday Times as 'the best account yet of the SAS in action', while Soldier Magazine declared that Ryan's book must 'rank with the great escape stories of modern military history'. Both books have been turned into TV dramatizations and translated into many languages, ensuring that the fame of Bravo Two Zero has reached tens of millions of people world�wide. Ryan and McNab, who both went on to become writers of bestselling fiction, are probably the only major national British military heroes to have emerged in modern times. The saga of the Bravo Two Zero patrol has become a modern Charge of the Light Brigade and the blame for its failure has been placed in various quar�ters. McNab names the SAS hierarchy and intelligence sector, evoking the Bridge Too Far blunder at Arnhem by saying that the patrol was dropped in an area where `there were more than 3,000 Iraqi troops . . . effectively two armoured brigades that shouldn't have been there, that intelligence hadn't picked up'.1 He also says that the patrol was put into the field without reference to the fundamentals of military practice � what he calls the Seven Ps: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. He says the patrol had no accurate maps, aerial photos or satellite images, were not given the cor- rect radio frequencies, were not instructed to take cold-weather clothing or sleeping-bags, were not informed that the ground would be rocky rather than sandy, or even that the weather would be remarkably cold. A third member of the patrol, who writes as 'Mike Coburn', but is referred to in the other books as 'Mark', has said recently that the RAF dropped them in the wrong place, and that the 'Head Shed' betrayed them by failing to send out an immediate rescue mission, but the blame for what went wrong is not laid solely on the Regimental hierarchy. One of the patrol members in par�ticular � the dead Sergeant Vince Phillips � is vilified, particularly by Ryan, as the Jonas behind many of the unit's misfortunes. According to Ryan, Phillips, the 2i/c (second-in-command) of the patrol, was incompetent, unprofessional and even cowardly. Writing that Phillips was nervous and twitchy before the operation, he says that the sergeant resented having to be there, and was anxious just to serve out the rest of his time in the army in peace. Ryan also writes that on the ground Phillips was negative and indecisive, accuses him of falling asleep on stag (sentry duty), and blames him squarely for compro-mising the patrol. Though McNab is by far the less scathing of the two, he hints that Phillips was responsible for the patrol splitting by failing to pass on a message, which, he writes, did not penetrate the sergeant's `numbed brain'. Although I was impressed by both books on first read�ing, I was left with a nagging feeling that something was wrong. If the Head Shed was truly as inept as both authors made out, and if their own colleague, Vince Phillips, was really incompetent, then the Regiment's very excellence was being brought into question. Like most who have served in the SAS family, I firmly believe that the Regiment is the finest fighting unit in the world. The best day of my life was the day I was pre�sented with the buff-coloured beret of the SAS. I had just completed selection for 23 SAS, one of the Regiment's two territorial units, and was immensely proud of what I had achieved. I still am. Like selection for 22 SAS, the regular unit, TA selection involves months of back-break�ing legwork and culminates in a gruelling fortnight in the Brecon Beacons, with an overall attrition rate of ninety per cent. For me the toil was infinitely worthwhile, because I believe that the SAS beret symbolizes some�thing rather rare in our society It cannot be bought, inherited, or acquired by privilege. It has to be earned. I have served as a regular soldier in the Parachute Regiment and in the police Special Patrol Group anti-ter�rorist squad, but the sense of pride I felt that day on being initiated into the SAS remains unique. Three years after passing selection for 23 SAS, I left Britain to become a volunteer teacher in a remote region of the Sudan. There I learned to speak Arabic and to han�dle a camel, and became so engrossed in Arab culture that I eventually gave up teaching to live with a traditional Bedouin tribe. These people, the Kababish, hardly belonged to the twentieth century at all. Owning no mod-ern technology, no cars, TVs or radios, most could not read or write, and had not travelled in a motor vehicle, and many had never been in a city. Oblivious to politics in their own country, and often unaware even of the name of their own president, they lived an itinerant life unchanged for generations, moving their camels and goats from place to place in search of pasture and water. They lived in black tents and carried their entire world on their camels' backs, their rifles always in their hands, ready to repel raiders. The most interesting aspect of their culture was the fact that people were never judged by what they owned. The most respected man was not the richest, but the one most endowed with the quality of 'human-ness' � a combina-tion of. courage, endurance, hospitality, generosity and loyalty. Among the Bedouin, a man's word is his bond, and lying is considered the ultimate disgrace. The three years I spent living with the Bedouin were not only the most fascinating years of my life, but they also gave me a deep affection and respect for these desert nomads that I have never lost. I also learned a great deal from them that I was able to put to good use later. In 1986-7, with my wife Mariantonietta, I made the first ever west�east crossing of the Sahara Desert by camel and on foot � a distance of 4,500 miles � in nine months I lived among the 'Fuzzy Wuzzies' � the Beja tribes of the eastern Sudan � and crossed the Great Sand Sea of Egypt by camel with a Bedouin companion. In twenty years I have covered almost twenty thousand miles across the world's deserts without the use of the internal combustion engine, and have lived and travelled with many nomadic peoples. It was the Regiment that prepared me for that, and I believe my life would have been very different without the les�sons in determination, adaptability and resilience I learned with the SAS. Since the Regiment's excellence is a crucial baseline in my own life, I was particularly unwilling to believe that Vince Phillips � a senior NCO (non-commissioned officer) in that unit � could have been as inadequate as he has been portrayed. Phillips was the most experienced soldier in the patrol. With twenty years' service under his belt, he had put in time with both the Parachute Brigade and the Commando Brigade before being accepted for the SAS. A champion army marathoner, he was also known for his outstanding physical fitness, and with nine years in the Regiment behind him, was more seasoned even than patrol commander McNab, let alone the relative newcomer Ryan. If Vince Phillips did not know his job, then the jury has to be out on the selection process that lies at the heart of the Regiment's philosophy � a process that had been an important milestone for me. There was another thing that bothered me about the portrayal of Phillips. Even in the event that what Ryan had written was correct, it is not in the Regiment's- trad�ition to publicly slander a fallen comrade who has no means of answering back. After all, Vince did not 'beat the clock', as they say in the Regiment � he made the supreme sacrifice for Queen and country, leaving a wid�owed wife and two fatherless daughters. While both Ryan and McNab have made millions from their books, Vince has become notorious as 'the man who blew Bravo Two Zero', and his body lies �forgotten in the Regimental graveyard, without even a posthumous medal to redeem`it. My quest to find out about Vince took me to the deserts of Iraq, where I was able to follow in the footsteps of the Bravo Two Zero patrol, the first Western writer to be allowed in that area since the Gulf War. Not only was I able to view the ground on which the action had taken place, but I was also able to interview at least ten eye-witnesses. Many of these were simple Bedouin or, Fellahin, with no axe to grind or reason not to tell the truth. What I discovered astonished me. It presented a very different picture from the stories told in McNab's and Ryan's books � indeed, it differed in almost every sig-nificant detail. If what I found out was correct, then Vince had not compromised the patrol, had not been responsible for the split, and had not behaved in the cow-ardly way Ryan describes. My research revealed, moreover, that the blame for what went wrong could not be laid at the door of the Regimental command � responsibility for much of the Bravo Two Zero debacle lay squarely with the decorated `hero' of the patrol, 'Andy McNab' himself. CHAPTER one IN APRIL 2001, JUST OVER ten years since Jeff Phillips was told that his brother Vince had died in Iraq, I visited him at his home in Swindon. Jeff was a stocky, quiet, unas�suming man, his features recognizably from the same mould as those of the elder brother whose portrait stared down at me from the
wall of the small sitting-room. The portrait confirmed McNab's description of Vince as a man who was every inch what a member of the public would expect an SAS man to look like: coarse, curly hair and sideboards and a curling moustache � McNab calls him 'a big old boy, immensely strong', who 'walked every�where � even up hills � as if he had a barrel of beer under each arm'.2 Jeff's home had become a sort of shrine to Vince and as well as the portrait, there were photos, an impressive array of books and videos on Special Forces subjects, albums of newspaper cuttings and memorabilia, SAS shields, a shamagh, and even a ceramic plate with the winged-dagger crest. Jeff showed me Vince's SAS beret and stable-belt, bought and presented to him by a comrade of Vince's in the traditional 'dead man's auction'. Jeff, himself a former platoon sergeant in the infantry, introduced me to his younger brother Steve and their mother Veronica, and as we talked it soon became clear that Vince had been a hero to the Phillips family: his serv-ice in the Regiment was a source of great pride. 'He was very fit,' Jeff said. 'He used to run marathons, and he.often went out walking in the Beacons. He was always well pre-pared too, and used to warn us not to go up into the mountains without the proper kit. That's why we found it hard to believe when they told us he'd died of hypother�mia. Dee (Vince's wife) had an official letter from the Commanding Officer of 22 SAS saying he thought he'd died of hypothermia on the night of 25/26 January 1991, and the inquest came to the same conclusion. But in fact we still don't know for sure what happened to him Ryan maintains he just wandered off, so he never knew even if he was dead or alive, and in fact no one in the family ever saw him before he was buried. I took a pair of Vince's trainers down to Hereford before the funeral to put in the coffin, because Vince loved his marathons, but the MOD wouldn't let me in. They took the trainers, but wouldn't let me see his body. Dee was offered a chance to see him, but turned it down at the last moment � we don't know why. We have no idea what's in the coffin, or even if it's Vince at all. He might have been taken alive by the Iraqis, used as a human shield and blown to pieces for all we know' Worse than the mystery of what happened to Vince, Jeff told me, was the calumny that had been heaped upon his memory, particularly by Ryan. 'My father died of cancer quite recently,' he said, 'and I put his death down to his worries about Vince. He never got over what Ryan said about him. It used to make him livid, and he was always writing letters to complain about the way he'd been portrayed. After the TV version of The One That Got Away came out, people used to come up to him at work and say, "Your son was the one who got Bravo Two Zero in the shit." You can imagine how that made him feel �to have your son, my brother, remembered all over the world as a bungler and a coward. It really affected Dad badly, and in fact when he died the doctor told us, "There goes another victim of the Gulf War."' Ryan's main charge against Vince was that he was responsible for compromising the patrol when he moved and was spotted by a boy herding goats near their hiding place. Ryan says that Vince later admitted he had seen the boy, and concludes that in this case the boy must have seen Vince. 'I don't believe Vince was as nervous as Ryan said,' Jeff told me. Nor do I believe he compromised the patrol. He was far too professional for that.' One of the worst blows to Vince's memory, though, came from a classified SAS report that had been leaked to the Mail on Sunday, concluding that Vince had been 'dif�ficult to work with' and 'lacked the will to survive'. Alleging that 'his heart was simply not in the task', the report also accused him of falling asleep on watch and of `compromising the operation by getting up and moving about when the others were hiding from a goatherd'. It was evident that the stain on Vince's honour had caused great pain and anguish to the Phillips family, so I wanted to find out for myself what really happened. MONTHS EARLIER, WHEN RICHARD Belfield of Fulcrum TV and Charles Furneaux of Channel 4 had suggested that I should go to Iraq with a film-crew to investigate what really happened, I'd been hesitant. For a start, there was still a war on in the country; with UN sanctions in place and US and British aircraft flying bombing sorties in the south, I didn't believe that the Iraqis would give me the time of day. Secondly, I still felt a sense of loyalty to the Regiment, and didn't want to be seen as engaged on some kind of debunking exercise against the SAS. Not long before my meeting with the Phillips family, however, the first of my reservations was demolished when Baghdad suddenly granted permission to film after almost nine months of waiting. My encounter with Jeff, Steve and Veronica now convinced me that I had a gen�uine mission. My way had been opened, too, by other cracks that had recently begun to appear in the Bravo Two Zero story. The previous December, in Auckland, New Zealand, Mike Coburn had fought and won a court case against UK Special Forces for the right to publish a third book about the mission, entitled Soldier Five. In his Statement of Defence, Coburn said that he wanted to set the record straight with regard to Vince Phillips, who, he declared, had been unfairly denigrated by Ryan in The One That Got Away, and made the scapegoat for much that went wrong. Elsewhere, Coburn wrote that Ryan had 'betrayed the ethos of the SAS, namely: honesty, integrity and loyalty, and deified the names of those who died and are unable to defend themselves'. Under oath, Coburn and a fourth colleague, Mal, known in the story as 'Stan', stated that both Ryan and McNab had distorted the facts in their books. During the same court case, the former Chief of UK Special Forces, who had been CO of 22 SAS during the Gulf War, condemned McNab's book as 'untruthful' and referred to Ryan's 'selling out' of Vince as 'disgusting', despite the apparent revelations of the leaked report. The most damning evidence of all, though, came from Peter Ratcliffe, former Regimental Sergeant Major of 22 SAS during the Gulf War who won the DCM for bravery and leadership while heading an SAS unit behind enemy lines. In his book Eye of the Storm, Ratcliffe wrote that neither McNab's nor Ryan's written accounts of the Bravo Two Zero mission tallied with the official debrief�ings they had given in the UK after the war. He likened both books to 'cheap war fiction' and stated for the record that in his opinion both Ryan and McNab had betrayed the proud traditions of the Regiment. He declared that though these authors hid behind pseudonyms, members of 22 SAS knew who they were and regarded them with `contempt or ridicule or both'. These new revelations not only suggested that the jury was out on both Ryan and McNab, but also that there were other mysteries attached to the Bravo Two Zero story. When I turned back to the books for a more detailed reading, I began to notice things I had missed first time around. In fact, apart from the basic out�line of the story, they might in some places have been descriptions of different events. They did not even agree on what task the patrol had been set. While McNab stated that they had been sent to 'locate and destroy Scud missiles and landlines', ranging along a 250-kilometre stretch of road, Ryan maintained that their job was to mount a covert operation watching traffic movement. Many of the discrepancies were mutually exclusive � it didn't take a genius to realize that both accounts could not be correct. 'The public has been misled into believing they know the truth about Bravo Two Zero,' said Grant Illingworth, Coburn's lawyer in the Auckland trial, 'when the truth has been obscured and distorted.' Clearly there were many unresolved questions about Bravo Two Zero, quite apart from the reputation of Vince Phillips, and I realized that my particular combination of experience �as an Arabic speaker, a desert explorer, and an ex-mem�ber of 23 SAS � well qualified me to investigate these discrepancies. Having seen the distress Ryan's account had caused the Phillips family, and in the light of the new evidence from Coburn, Ratcliffe and others, I promised Jeff, Steve and Veronica that I would visit Iraq, follow in the footsteps of the Bravo Two Zero patrol, and find out for myself what had happened. Above all, I would try to discover exactly how and where Vince had died.

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