The SAS man who wouldn't stay quiet
Britain's government has spent five years trying to gag Mike Coburn. His account of an SAS mission that went wrong is more about truth than heroics, reports Nick Ryan.
Bravo Two Zero. For many people those three words conjure up the image of the soldier hero: the special-forces trooper - the kind of cool-minded killer who could go anywhere and seemingly do just about anything. It was the call sign for a British Special Air Service (SAS) patrol during a mission in the 1991 Gulf War that was "compromised" behind enemy lines. Three of the eight-man team were killed, and four captured and tortured, while trying to destroy Scud missile launchers in north-west Iraq. One managed to escape by foot across the desert into Syria.
For Andy McNab, the patrol's leader, and Chris Ryan, the soldier who escaped - both names are pseudonyms - the military blunders led, ultimately, to remarkable financial success. Bravo Two Zero, McNab's lionised account of the mission, which was published in 1993, sold millions of copies and launched a slew of copycats. Ryan followed with his story, entitled The One That Got Away.
Vetted and approved by Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD), the books have become an almost sacred part of British military and public myth. Even now posters on the London Underground proclaim the virtues of McNab's latest novel, while Ryan has been busy fronting a BBC television series and promoting an exercise guide.
For some, though, the memories of that time refuse to die. For the family of the late Sergeant Vince Phillips in particular, who have had to live with his vilification, particularly in Ryan's book, for "compromising" the patrol by failing to kill a young goatherd and for seeming to "give up" after they were split and the men tired. Others, too, have been haunted by such memories: those who have so far kept silent.
"Did you like the bit about us blowing up all those tanks?" The words are friendly enough, but the eyes are flat, the irony and sarcasm clear in the New Zealander's voice. He is joking about previous Bravo Two Zero accounts as we sit in an almost unbearably hot London apartment. "I've just got in from Asia," says the former SAS trooper, who uses the pen name Mike Coburn, by way of explaining the heat, as he offers a glass of wine and settles barefoot on the sofa.
Like many former SAS men Coburn is now a security consultant. He seems no Rambo. About average height, stocky, with dark hair and open features, he served first in his native New Zealand SAS - "I took to it like a duck to water" - before treading an "unofficial" path to join the mother regiment in England. He was seeking some real action, and Bravo Two Zero was his first operational mission. Aside from a clear intelligence, there is little that would distinguish him from the man in the street. Yet if you believe the British government he is a dangerous person indeed. "Oh, if bin Laden wasn't around I'd be enemy number one," he says. "I've no doubt about it. The way they've gone after me over the years is amazing."
Coburn's crime has been to write a powerful account of what he says happened during Bravo Two Zero. Soldier Five, his book, is ostensibly a straightforward, albeit absorbing tale of one man's ordeal during a mission that went badly wrong.
From the outset, however, it's clear that Coburn's version of events (written with another patrol member, an Australian known simply as Mal) is different from previous accounts: he is captured, shot and tortured, but there is none of the heroics of killing the enemy that feature in McNab and Ryan's work.
His is a more sombre, seemingly truthful story, which also differs markedly over the role and fate of the late Vince Phillips. "His brother had a nervous breakdown and his father died a broken man as a result of what happened to Vince," Coburn says. "People were quite happy to lay the blame with somebody they knew couldn't answer."
Coburn is withering about the leadership and intelligence failures that led the team to be dumped on a main supply route, almost on top of their target, where they were soon spotted. With no vehicles, they then discovered that none of their communications equipment was working. Not only that, they had also been given the wrong escape route and were then left as expendable once the higher-ups knew something was wrong.
Forced to retreat on foot, they became split up and were killed or captured as they made for the Syrian border. Attempts at rescue were fatally delayed. Shades of Blackadder Goes Forth ensue when the surviving members are told that their commanding officer has graciously decided not to have them court-martialled. Such a chain of failures, not to mention the abandonment of all the usual back-up procedures, is unprecedented, argues Coburn, and is one of his main motivations for writing the book.
"I think the final catalyst was when I was speaking to a former SAS officer who'd overheard a conversation between two commanding officers. They were discussing the call for the patrol to be extracted and classed that as premature. That decision, basically, cost the lives of three men."
But aren't you supposed to be expendable? Isn't that the law of the special forces? "There's always an element that you may have to sort out yourself in the end," he replies, "but for people to turn back at headquarters and say they're not even going to try anyway, well that's just not acceptable in any way, shape or form. If you're going to put people in harm's way, you've got a duty to do your utmost to get them back. And if you're not, you've got to tell them."
Noting with irony that many of the officers involved in the Bravo Two Zero chain received commendations and promotions, Coburn comments: "I also wanted to address the vilification of Vince Phillips. He's basically been held up as a scapegoat of why things failed, which is totally inaccurate. I felt I should do that, because no one else lifted a finger to do it."
He pauses for a moment, but the passion is clear: "I said to the regiment then, when we watched Ryan's film [of The One That Got Away\], why don't you stop this dead, why don't you put out a publication about what happened, and you can kill all this rubbish off? But when the CO [commanding officer\] approached the MoD they did the usual ostrich thing."
These comments should bring Coburn into direct conflict with McNab and Ryan. He says he is uninterested in a catfight, however - "they've already had a slanging match" - although he later calls the film of Ryan's book outrageous and the Bravo Two Zero equivalent shocking.
In fact his main battles have been with the British government. Crammed into the final chapter of Soldier Five, they seem worthy of a tome themselves. The MoD has spent five years and about £7 million (€10 million) of British taxpayers' money trying to have Soldier Five banned. The case was a cause célèbre in New Zealand.
The MoD claims that Coburn has breached a confidentiality contract he signed, along with all other SAS members, in 1996. He answers that they were in effect ordered to sign - and how can material already in the public domain now be considered confidential? (Even before McNab and Ryan published their accounts, Gen Sir Peter de la Billière, the British Gulf War commander, wrote about the operation in his autobiography.)
When Coburn completed the manuscript, in 1998, he offered it to the MoD for vetting. It told him he couldn't publish. In contrast, as documents disclosed in the ensuing court battles showed, the MoD wanted to help McNab with his work and also recognised serious weaknesses in Ryan's book. These battles have seen Coburn taken to the highest courts in both New Zealand and Britain.
Although he eventually won the right to publish after a hearing in front of the privy council in London (long after his original publishers deserted him), last Thursday the MoD returned to court in order to seize Coburn's profits from publication of the book. The MoD won the right to enforce contractual rights to profits from the book, which Coburn says he planned to share with the families of the deceased and remaining patrol members.
"They [the government\] acted like a bunch of Nazis, and they have done so through the whole process. I find it laughable they're now struggling to find reasons for their action in Iraq," he says, "and Tony Blair writes speeches about freedom.
"I've been treated worse than the Iraqis treated me in prison. And that's quite a frightening indictment of the government and the way they act, their arrogance." His voice shakes with quiet rage. "Once the Iraqis had finished with \ me, they left me."
It's with a sense of relief that he's seen Soldier Five in the book shops. "There were all these different emotions going on. There was relief, a sense of achievement. And there was also a sense of sadness, actually. Because it should never have come to this."
He believes he was regarded as a test case by the MoD, in an attempt to dissuade other SAS veterans from writing tell-all memoirs.
"Emotionally, financially, it's been a very difficult five years, no doubt about it," says Coburn. "Perhaps weaker \ relationships wouldn't have survived. It's very stressful. Of course, in theory this will be the last ever book by an SAS insider that will come out. Because no guy since 1996 who signed that contract can write a book unless the MoD allows them to do it."
As I get ready to leave, he fixes me with that direct gaze and adds: "You know, this is another thing: Bravo Two Zero is a piece of insignificant military history. The controversy that surrounds it is well out of proportion to the deed. I was involved in a lot more operations that were more significant and more rewarding. As I said before, I find it remarkable that it actually came to this."
Soldier Five: The Real Truth About The Bravo Two Zero Mission is published by Mainstream Publishing, £17.99 in UK
Nick Ryan is creative producer of the new BBC drama England Expects