Far behind enemy lines, frozen and surrounded, SAS soldiers were in a desperate race for survival

Bravo Two Zero is Andy McNab’s nerve-shredding account of one of the SAS’s most ill-fated — but heroic — missions, undertaken 30 years ago during the Gulf War. To mark the anniversary, we are printing gripping extracts from the worldwide bestseller. On Saturday, McNab described how his patrol lost contact with HQ and got into a firefight. Today, he tells how he and his flagging unit fled Iraqi troops by running into the desert, desperately trying to reach Syria — and safety . 

Our mission to destroy communication lines deep inside Iraq had failed when, shortly after being landed by helicopter in the desert, the enemy discovered Bravo Two Zero, the SAS patrol I commanded. We were now desperately trying to escape on foot to the border with Syria, 130 km away, travelling by night and resting up by day.

We’d got away by the skin of our teeth after a fierce firefight in which we had killed scores of enemy soldiers. But some of our eight-man team had been injured and gaps began appearing in our line of march as some fell behind.

Two British soldiers in Nuclear Biological and Chemical equipment, pose with their SA80 rifles during a training exercise in Saudi Arabia before the start of operations in Kuwait

Royal Engineers of the 1st Armoured Division taking cover as live mines explode during a training exercise

Royal Engineers of the 1st Armoured Division taking cover as live mines explode during a training exercise

Vince was limping and slowing everyone down. ‘I hurt my leg in that contact,’ he told me. ‘I don’t think it’s fractured but it’s swollen.’ Stan was also in a bad way. He’d lost pints of sweat and was suffering from dehydration.

We had to press on but at the pace of these two injured men.

The weather had become diabolical. A freezing wind was driving into our faces and piercing our flimsy desert camouflage, biting into every inch of exposed skin. I kept my arms tight against my sides to preserve warmth. My head was down, my shoulders shrugged. My hands were frozen numb.

We heard aircraft coming overhead, probably U.S. jets heading for a raid on Baghdad, and I stopped and tried to make contact using our distress beacons.

‘Hello any call sign, this is Bravo Two Zero. We are a ground call sign and we’re in the s***. We have a fix for you. Over.’ If they did nothing else other than inform somebody of our position, we’d be laughing.

There was an ominous silence, then I heard the wonderful sound of an American voice. ‘Say again, Bravo Two Zero. Your signal’s very weak.’

And then nothing. He was gone and out of range. Our patrol radio had already let us down, leaving us out of contact with our base command in Saudi Arabia. Now another glimmer of rescue was gone, too.

I turned to tell the others what had happened, only to find they weren’t all there.

When we stopped in the dark, somehow the message can’t have got through to Chris and the injured Stan and Vince and they must have kept going. I was furious with myself for losing them. Keeping the patrol together was vital. How the hell had I allowed it to happen?

We’d just have to keep on the same bearing and hope they’d stop at some stage and wait for us. There was a good chance that we’d meet up.

After all, we were making good progress. In the past 12 hours, in total darkness and atrocious weather conditions, we had travelled 85 km, the length of two marathons.

My legs were aching but it was worse when we stopped and laid up during the daylight hours. That’s when the cramp started.

To make matters worse, it then started to rain. Within minutes the rain had turned to sleet and then to snow. We couldn’t believe it. We were in the middle of the desert.

The five of us remaining — me, Legs, Bob, Mark and Dinger — cuddled up. Not a single therm of body heat could be wasted now.

Lying in the snow, lashed by a wicked wind, we were physically exhausted. All the potential was here for a major drama. I’d seen people die in conditions like this.

My speech was slurring and I was feeling very light-headed — the first stages of hypothermia. What a way to go, I thought, to die of exposure rather than killed in action.

Mark was in deep trouble. All he had on was his smock, shirt and jumper, and those were soaking wet. He was desperate to get moving to keep warm but did we dare to do so in daylight and risk being seen?

Two hours later, we were all going the same way as him. If we stayed static we’d be dead by the evening. ‘Let’s go,’ I said, though my smock had frozen solid and my scarf was stiff as a board around my face. If the weather didn’t improve soon, we we’re going to die.

Stealth was irrelevant now. All we wanted to do was save our lives, so the next time we stopped we lit up a hexy block of solid fuel and got a brew on. It’s an outrageous big no-no, making brews at night, but better to take the chance and live to fight another day.

If we weren’t compromised, we could start to recover our fighting fitness. If we were compromised, we might get away with it. Or perhaps not. Either way, there was every chance of dying.

We pressed on towards Syria but we were now on higher ground and it was even colder up here. Icy rain was now driving horizontally into our faces. ‘We’ve got to get off the high ground because I’m suffering severely here,’ Mark said. He might not make it.

We headed down, tabbing as fast as we could and just before first light found a depression in the ground to hide in. It was a dip no more than 3ft deep. We got in and cuddled up.

The next day — the fourth of our mission — the weather improved and, with the sun shining as we lay up, we all began to recover our strength, including Mark. I reckoned another 12 hours of all-out tabbing and we’d be in Syria. I was confident we would be able to do it in one last big effort.

And then we heard a familiar noise getting closer. Ding ding, baa baaa. Ten goats were gawping at us. A few seconds later an old goatherd turned up. He looked at us and didn’t miss a beat. No surprise, no fright, no nothing.

I smiled at him, as one does. Totally nonchalantly, as if it was an everyday occurrence to find five foreigners huddling in a dip in the ground in the middle of nowhere, he squatted down beside us.

We shook his hand and within seconds we were all best mates. He happily shared his milk, dates and a bit of old bread with us.

But a decision had to be made. Did we kill him? Tie him up and keep him until we moved out?

Or just let him go and do his own thing? It was about 1600 hours now and it would soon be last light. Even if he raised the alarm, by the time there was any reaction it would be dark and we’d be legging it towards the border.

We might as well let him go. It was the SAS we were in, not the SS.

Five minutes later he was giving his goodbyes and off he shuffled with his goats, not a care in the world. Then we moved off, too, heading for the highway that went direct to the Syrian border. I had a new plan. Rather than walk, we’d hijack a vehicle and take our chances on the road.

In a dip by the side of the road, Bob and I sat watching and waiting. Some military trucks went by, then we saw car lights come over the crest and drive towards us.

We stood up, Bob playing the cripple, leaning on my shoulder and waving for help. The vehicle slowed down to a halt and we approached it.

We’d been hoping for a Land Cruiser but what we’d flagged down was a 1950s New York yellow cab. Chrome bumpers, white-wall tyres, the lot. The driver panicked and stalled the engine. He and the two passengers in the back sat staring open-mouthed at the muzzles of our machine guns.

‘I’ll drive,’ I said. ‘I saw Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver.’ We bundled out the driver and passengers and off we lurched, heading west, Legs in the front, the other three crammed into the back. This was make or break time. We’d either get there tonight or we’d be dead.

There were numerous military convoys and lots of civilian cars on the road but everything was going well and our mood was quietly confident. At least it was warm. The car fugged up and our clothes started to dry.

Then disaster! We rounded a corner and got into a slowly moving jam. We were blocked in and an Iraqi squaddie with a rifle was coming down the queue, casually chatting to drivers. We were about to be compromised.

He tapped on our window, and Legs lifted the barrel of his rocket launcher and fired. There was an explosion of shattered glass, the car doors flew open and we were out and running before the body had even hit the ground.

For the next few days, it carried on. Hour after hour, day after day, beating after beating, taking my turn while Digger and Stan lay curled up, cold and in pain, waiting for the terrifying noise of the door being kicked open, the worst sound I had ever heard. Pictured: Two soldiers look at blazing oil fields set of fire during the first Persian Gulf War

On foot we headed west for the Syrian border, now just 13km away. It was just a race now, a matter of the hares keeping in front of the hounds (Two soldiers look at blazing oil fields set of fire during the first Persian Gulf War.)

We ran and ran into the desert, making the best of the confusion we’d created behind us. To my right, I heard Dinger laughing and before long we’d all joined in. It was sheer bloody relief. None of us could believe we’d got out of it.

On foot we headed west for the Syrian border, now just 13km away. It was just a race now, a matter of the hares keeping in front of the hounds.

Then we were spotted. Three or four vehicles came screaming along and blokes jumped out firing. We were down to a few mags each by now, and there was bound to be lots more drama before the night was over. All we could do was run.

There was no cover. They kept on firing and we kept on running, the rounds zinging past us as we passed through clusters of houses, expecting at any moment to be slotted.

From a crest we saw the lights of two built-up areas that straddled the border. ‘We’re nearly there,’ Bob shouted. But at that very moment, an Iraqi anti-aircraft battery opened fire on us.

With fire coming at us from all directions, we just kept going, heads down.

There were now 10 km to go and we would have to fight for every metre. And there was the River Euphrates to cross — somehow!

Suddenly all hell was let loose, muzzle flashes everywhere, shouting and firing all over the place as we legged it in the dark.

It split us into two groups, me and Mark together in bushes on the bank of the Euphrates and the other three God knows where.

My hands were freezing cold. The grass and leaves were brittle with frost. The river was shrouded with mist. We spotted a four-man Iraqi patrol coming along the bank, and we dropped them, then belly-crawled away.

Around us, orders were being barked and Iraqi squaddies running around confused. My clothing was drenched. How we were ever going to get out of it I had no idea. In situations like this you just have to keep on going and see what happens.

I was pushing through a hedge when a squaddie challenged me. Mark stitched him with his machine gun and his body disintegrated in front of my eyes.

Then we just ran. We crossed the main road, dodging between the trucks of a military convoy and emptying our magazines into one of them on the way.

Not long after, as we were climbing out of a depression that had been used as a rubbish dump for rotting garbage, rifles opened up on us from really close range.

As I ran, I saw Mark go down. When I realised he wasn’t with me, I knew he was dead. At least it had been quick.

I was on my own now but I had a feeling that I was out of trouble. All I had in front of me was a quick tab to the border. Just 4 km to go. In normal circumstances I could run that in less than 20 minutes, even with my equipment on.

But physically I was wrecked. There were deep pressure-cuts on my hands, knees and elbows, and painful bruising on my legs.

I was covered in mud and I was still very cold. I stopped in a field

to get some scoff down my neck. It felt good.

I drank some water and forced myself to calm down and take stock. But daylight was approaching and I had no idea what to expect at the border.

Would there be a fence? Would it be heavily defended or not defended at all? I needed to be careful and take my time. We’d tabbed close to 200 km but I mustn’t screw up on the home straight, so near but also so bloody far.

The question was, should I go for it now or should I stay and rest up? Did I hide, or go for the border and try to get over before first light?

I came upon a drainage ditch and moved along it until I came to a makeshift bridge. There was a culvert underneath and I crawled in, the prospect of resting my limbs far out-weighing the discomfort of lying in cold mud.

I pulled out my last sachet of food — steak and onions — and ripped it open. I ate with my fingers and stuck my tongue into the recesses for the last of the cold, slimy gunge.

As dark turned to light, I heard trucks in the distance and isolated bits of hollering and shouting, but nothing near enough to cause alarm. It was almost peaceful and, as I lay there, I thought about Jilly, my partner, and Kate, my daughter.

I’d done the best I could to look after them financially. I’d left behind my last letters for them. They knew I loved them, and I knew they loved me. If I didn’t make it, they’d be told I was dead and that would be that.

But I wanted so much not to get caught. Not now. Not after so much. I’d been there for hours when there was a deafening rattle as a group of vehicles thundered across the bridge above me. They stopped. Then men were bellowing at the tops of their voices and bullets thudded into the mud around me.

The muzzle of a rifle came down. Then a bloke’s face. He shouted and the next thing I saw was a mass of boots jumping down at either end of the culvert. Two blokes grabbed my legs and heaved me out.

I came out on my back and saw Syria in the distance, so tantalisingly close I could almost have reached out and touched it.

It was as if I’d run a marathon in Olympic time and been disqualified a stride from the tape. A feeling of disbelief swept over me. How could this be happening to me?

They gave me a couple of kicks and motioned me to my feet. I stood up straight, hands up in the air, staring straight ahead. No smile of appeasement, no grim scowl of defiance, no hint of eye contact. My training took over. Be a grey man, we were always instructed.

It would be my mantra from here on.

The Iraqi soldiers who’d found me were in an unbelievable frenzy, hollering and firing their guns in the air. One brandished a knife in front of me and did the old throat-cutting motion. I thought, it’s going to be one of them days.

Another gestured to me to get down on my knees. This was it, I thought. Time to die.

Extracted from Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab, published by Corgi at £8.99. © Andy McNab 1993. To order a copy for £7.91 (offer valid to March 20, 2021; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. The movie of Andy McNab’s novel SAS: Red Notice is out now on Sky Cinema. 

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