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Blowing the SAS' cover up

They were the lucky ones. The five survivors of an SAS patrol-gone-wrong became living legends, their tale of daring do and heroism etched forever in military and public myth. But as one soldier fights to get his story published, were we told the whole truth? Mike Coburn tells Nick Ryan why the British government wants to keep him quiet.

Bravo Two Zero. Few can fail to recognise those three simple words. If the Gulf War brought with it images of moustachioed dictators and weapons of mass destruction, it also etched into our minds a new form of soldier-hero: the Special Forces trooper. This was the kind of cool-minded killer who could go anywhere and seemingly do just about anything.

Lionised in Andy McNab’s 1993 account of a Special Air Service (SAS) mission “compromised” behind enemy lines, Bravo Two Zero told the story of four soldiers captured and tortured whilst trying to destroy Scud missiles during the Gulf War. Another of the team, Chris Ryan, managed to escape by foot across the desert into Syria. Three others died.

For patrol leader McNab and for Ryan (both pseudonyms) the military cockups proved a remarkable financial success. Lucrative publishing and TV careers followed. Bravo Two Zero sold millions of copies and launched a whole slew of copycats. Vetted and approved by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), these 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, whilst former colleague Ryan has been busy fronting his own BBC TV 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 The One That Got Away) for ‘compromising’ the patrol. It was alleged in previous accounts that he had failed to kill a young goatherd and that he seemed 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, the smile behind them innocent. But the eyes are flat, the irony and sarcasm running clear in the New Zealander’s voice. He is joking about previous Bravo Two Zero accounts. The apartment around us is hot – almost unbearably so (“I’ve just got in from Asia,” he says, by way of explanation) – as the figure before me offers up a glass of wine and settles barefoot on the sofa.

For a legend, Mike Coburn seems normal, and real, enough. 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. Seeking some real action, Bravo Two Zero was his first operational mission. Like many ex-SAS now a security consultant, Coburn seems no Rambo: 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, searching my face for reaction. “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 actually happened during Bravo Two Zero. Ostensibly his book Soldier Five is a straightforward, albeit absorbing tale of one man’s ordeal during a mission that went badly wrong. However, from the outset it’s clear that Coburn’s version of events (written in conjunction with another patrol member, an Australian known simply as ‘Mal’) is different to previous accounts: he is captured, shot and tortured but there is none of the conspicuous mass death-dealing of McNab’s or Ryan’s work. His is a more sombre, truthful story, which also differs markedly over the role and fate of the late Vince Phillips. There is noticeably no incident with a goatherd at all. “His brother had a nervous breakdown and his father died a broken man as a result of what happened to Vince,” Coburn says sadly. “People were quite happy to lay the blame with somebody they knew couldn’t answer.”

Ultimately, though, Coburn is withering about the leadership and intelligence failures that led the team to be dumped almost on top of their target, without any vehicles, only to discover none of their communications equipment was working. Not only that, they were given the wrong escape route and then left as ‘expendable’ once the higher-ups knew something was wrong. Forced to ‘tab’ on foot, they became split up and were killed or captured as they made for the Syrian border. Attempts at rescue were fatally delayed. Disbelief ensues when the surviving members are told that their Commanding Officer has graciously decided not to have them court-martialled. Such a chain of failures, and the abandonment of all the usual backup procedures, is unique argues Coburn, and 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 the-then commanding officer in the Gulf and the overall commander of Special Forces. 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.” Coburn’s voice has dropped by now to a murmur: cold, with the anger apparent.

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 tells me: “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 approached the MoD they did the usual ostrich thing. And as my lawyer said, that’s an insult to ostriches!”

These comments should bring Cobun into direct conflict with McNab and Ryan. However, he says he is not interested in a cat-fight – “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 around £7 million of British taxpayer’s money trying to have Soldier Five banned. The case was a cause celebre in his native 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? The Ministry has refused all offers to work with him in vetting the manuscript, which was first completed in 1998. Not only that, but as documents disclosed in court show, the MoD wanted to help McNab with his work and also recognised serious weaknesses in Ryan’s book. “For God’s sake!” curses Coburn. “It was an outrageous stand for them to take!”

These battles have seen Coburn dragged through the highest courts in the land in both New Zealand and Britain. Though he won the eventual right to publish after a hearing in front of the Privvy Council in London (long after his original publishers deserted him), this Thursday the MoD returns to court in order to seize any profits from his work – money he was hoping 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 venomously, “and Tony Blair writes speeches about freedom. Everything he did to justify his actions in Iraq, he did the exact opposite with me. 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 [torturing] me, they left me. There you go.”

It’s with mixed feelings that he’s now seen Soldier Five in the bookshops. “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.”

“Of course, in theory this will be the last ever book by an SAS insider that will come out,” he continues. “Because no guy since 1996 who signed that contract can write a book, unless the MoD allows them to do it.”

The struggle has taken its toll. “Emotionally, financially, it’s been a very difficult five years, no doubt about it,” Coburn admits, looking reflective for just a moment. “Perhaps weaker relationships wouldn’t have survived. It’s very stressful.”

Although he says matter-of-factly that “it was just a job, you just moved on”, I ask if he thinks he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of Bravo Two Zero. He sucks in his breath before answering: “Looking back on it now, yes, I think I did. I know some of the other guys still do. But you suppressed it. Some guys dealt with it better than others.” And that’s all he will say, clearly not about to open up to a total stranger.

Sensing that my welcome is up, I get ready to leave. But as I do so, with Coburn leaning close and reaching to shake my hand, he fixes me once me with that direct gaze. “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, Mainstream Publishing, ISBN 1 84018 866 9, £17.99 www.mainstreampublishing.com

This story first appeared in The Scotsman and The Irish Times© 2004

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