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An unanswered SOS from the SAS

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

3 April 2004

12:00 AM

Soldier Five Mike Coburn

Mainstream, pp.316, 17.99

The epic survival story of the SAS patrol known as Bravo Two Zero during the first Gulf war until now, has largely overshadowed a darker story of incompetence and worse on the part of some of those who sent eight brave men into the desert on foot, on a Scud-hunt that was doomed from the start. In 1991, soldiers of the regiment’s B Squadron had been here before. A quixotic proposal to land a raiding party on an Argentine airfield a decade earlier, during the South Atlantic war, prompted a refusal on the part of some of the key players to perform.

In cases such as these, a political imperative when things are not going well — the need to buoy up public morale, as in the ill-fated St Nazaire raid of 1942 — overrides military sense. Some military formations, such as the French Foreign Legion and the Parachute Regiment, do embrace a sacrificial tradition, whether at Dien Bien Phu or Arnhem. The SAS, however, nourishes the illusion that ‘I do not die for my country, but I do help the enemy to die for his’.

This difference explains why Kiwi Coburn’s account is a story of lost innocence. Lying shackled in a malodorous cell, his ankle mangled by a bullet, he wanted to know why the fail-safe mechanisms for rescue had all failed.

When an SAS patrol is in the shit and calls for assistance, someone comes, that is part of the ethos behind the regiment’s operations. If you are intent on sending people hundreds of kilometres behind enemy lines, you have to offer some kind of backup … Had we got it so badly wrong that we were beyond help? And if so, why?

In his efforts to answer those questions, after his release from Iraqi captivity, he encountered a new and equally implacable enemy: the censorship machine of the Ministry of Defence, its lawyers and the increasingly bureaucratic nature of the SAS itself. Writers such as myself, still receiving threatening letters from the Ministry if we ignore the party line about Special Forces, have reason to be grateful to Coburn.

He fought a legal battle of more than four years, to prove that his account does not endanger national security. He went to the Privy Council to challenge an unequal civil contract imposed as part of the censorship mechanism to halt disclosures that are embarrassing rather than revelatory. He lost his case, on a majority verdict. Real breaches of secrecy, of course, should be covered by the Official Secrets Act 1989. The civil law fudge adopted instead is a testament to the loss of public confidence in the way the OSA is applied. (In my own case, five years ago, a formal finding by military experts that I had caused no damage to security in publishing my account of the Irish Troubles did not deter the MoD — knowing the facts — from pursuing me as if a crime had happened.)

Soldier Five, in challenging the MoD’s claim to any financial benefit that might accrue from the book (which the author wishes to donate, in some measure, to the next-of-kin of his three dead comrades), is an event which could have a real impact on future works which the new, politicised SAS and its bosses in the MoD would wish to control.

Whatever Pyrrhic victory Whitehall might believe it scored before the Privy Council, however, does not diminish the moral weight and potency of Coburn’s story. Why, given overwhelming Allied air power, were no searches made over the agreed escape route? After it was compromised, the patrol marched north, towards Syria on the instructions, Coburn reveals, of the squadron commander. The regiment’s higher command apparently believed that the escape route lay south, towards Saudi Arabia.

‘What happened to the lost comms procedure?’ one survivor asked at the debrief. ‘Why wasn’t a new [radio] set brought in to us?’ The commanding officer’s answer was that he wasn’t willing to risk losing helicopters ‘until the situation clarified’.

Coburn pressed on. Why was no rescue party sent to the agreed emergency rendezvous? The colonel replied, ‘At that stage of the war Scuds were being launched at Israel practically on a nightly basis. I would have sacrificed a squadron of men for a Scud. Stopping them was the priority. End of story.’

Coburn reflected:

If the SAS hierarchy were prepared to sacrifice scores of men for the sake of a Scud, then our call for help was insignificant … and cast the patrol in an entirely different light … The fault was not our own, nor had it ever been. Our fate had been sealed by those in charge, from the comfort of a secure location.

He is, perhaps, still unaware that the Caesars in charge of this decision were sitting in Whitehall as well as Rear HQ.

Tony Geraghty’s books include Who Dares Wins and The Irish War.

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