The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress

Was the Bravo Two Zero mission in Iraq a shambles? An ex-soldier says it was, but Whitehall is deter

The war in Afghanistan is not the only one that now pre-occupies the Special Air Service. Seven thousand miles away in New Zealand - at a cost of £7m to the British taxpayer - the SAS is engaged in an extraordinary series of courtroom battles. The aim is to stop an ex-SAS man talking or writing about a mission that is already the most publicised undercover military operation of all time. And despite repeated defeats in the New Zealand courts, the Ministry of Defence, which is financing the cases, shows no sign of giving up.

What the British government is so anxious to suppress is the true story of what happened during Bravo Two Zero, the mission behind Iraqi lines during the Gulf war. There have been two best-selling books on the subject; the more famous one, by the patrol leader Andy McNab (a pseudonym), has sold more than 1.5 million copies and made its author a millionaire. McNab portrays the mission as a heroic one. According to the ex-SAS man at the centre of the New Zealand court cases, this is almost the exact opposite of the truth. In his view, detailed in the courts, the operation, in which three SAS men were killed and four others captured, was a disaster. Important details in McNab's book, including the extent of torture by the Iraqis, were exaggerated, it was said in evidence. Worse, the ex-SAS man has damning criticisms of how officers treated their men both during and after the mission. Most remarkably, he has told the courts that the SAS commanding officer during the Gulf war considered court-martialling the survivors.

The British government's case rests on the unique legal position of SAS men. They have all signed lifetime confidentiality agreements that override many of their basic rights as UK citizens. In effect, the contract prevents them, even after they leave the SAS, from doing what army officers have done for centuries - making money from writing their memoirs. It also stops them ever revealing details of SAS blunders. If they are involved in an operation that ends up as a shambles, they can never make the truth known. Still less can they complain if, as allegedly happened during Bravo Two Zero, they are abandoned by their commanders and left to die when they get into difficulties.

Andy McNab's book refers to Mark the Kiwi, one of those captured and interrogated by the Iraqis. Assuming that this man would be a New Zealander, I set out to find him while working on a New Zealand television programme about the SAS in 1997. McNab, whom I had met in London, proved to be what television people call "good talent" (good at telling a story on screen), but he never fulfilled a promise to contact Mark the Kiwi on our behalf. On the contrary, what details he gave us seemed designed to put us off the scent.

I eventually tracked down "Mark", known as Mike Coburn (another pseudonym), through contacts in the New Zealand branch of the SAS, where he had served before going to Britain. I finally met him in the Empire Hotel in Auckland in early 1998, where he turned up with his wife, a Welsh aerobics instructor. By then, Coburn had left the SAS and joined what former regiment members call "the circuit" - the world of security and bodyguard work. He worked part of each month at an oil installation in north Africa.

While serving in the unit, he had been ordered to sign one of the new confidentiality agreements, introduced long after he had first signed up. He was not allowed to study a copy in advance and neither was he allowed to keep a copy after signature. Permission to show it to a lawyer was firmly denied. Coburn was told that if he refused to sign he would be "returned to unit" - meaning he would be transferred out of the SAS, losing his status and the special pay that went with it. The pay cut would be in the region of 40 per cent - at least £20,000 a year.

I later learnt from MoD sources that the confidentiality agreements had been the subject of wider concern in the British forces. Senior NCOs in the Special Boat Service, the Royal Marines' equivalent of the SAS, had been suspended for a period because they refused to sign the contracts, fearing that they were so widely and loosely drawn that they would jeopardise future employment prospects. The lieutenant-colonel in charge of the SBS then warned the MoD that the dispute could "damage or degrade operational capability".

Coburn signed the contract under protest. Soon afterwards, disgruntled by his treatment, he resigned from the regiment. He agreed to appear in our TV programme only on the understanding that he would discuss matters that were already in the public domain. He refused, for example, to discuss any of his service in Northern Ireland, declining even to confirm that he had worked there under cover. To this day, he has kept those secrets.

The British government, however, tried to stop the TV programme going to air. It hired a large legal team, including New Zealand's most expensive QC. It lost in the High Court. It lost in the Court of Appeal. It was refused leave to go to the Privy Council. The programme went ahead.

During the programme, stark differences emerged between Coburn's account of the Iraqi mission and McNab's. The two men were together when they came under fire, and Coburn was hit in the leg and arm. In McNab's account: "There was certainly no screaming and no noise coming from him. So as far as I was concerned he was dead as soon as they opened fire. Thankfully, he's not lying there dying because you know you tend to hear that, people will make sure you know that they're alive." In Coburn's account: "This huge wave of nausea went over me. I mean really intense . . . but there wasn't any pain and another round went off through my arm and then the pain sort of came along and I started screaming. I was screaming my head off." McNab kept going, leaving the New Zealander in the hands of the Iraqis. Later, McNab himself was captured.

Coburn told us that, in his view, McNab had exaggerated the torture he suffered. In his book Bravo Two Zero, McNab describes how his tooth was pulled out with pliers. By the time he was released, he says, he had nerve damage to both hands, a dislocated shoulder, hepatitis and kidney and liver damage. But Coburn said that when they were released together in Baghdad, he saw no evidence of torture and McNab made no reference to it. McNab's teeth, he insisted, were still intact. When we put this to McNab, he said: "Well, that's very, very strange . . . the fact is that they were smashed in the back and that's why I'm still getting them sorted out two weeks ago."

Coburn went on to accuse the SAS command - including the officer who, in his new role as director of UK Special Forces, has tried to stop the book being published - of abandoning the men. Coburn said: "You have a thing called a guardnet which means you can communicate directly with your squadron, and that's a fixed frequency. We managed to get through to say that we were in the shit and we needed help. Unfortunately it was ignored." The SAS command, it later emerged, had decided that a rescue mission was too dangerous. Coburn would have accepted that decision if he and his fellow soldiers had not been told in advance that help would be sent if they got into trouble. "If they tell you that beforehand, then you can get that mindset in your head, and then you make your own contingencies for that, but that was certainly never made clear to us before we went out. "

Later, Coburn told a New Zealand court that it was part of the SAS ethos that, no matter how much difficulty a patrol got into, the regiment would always take urgent steps to get it out, regardless of where it was. In the case of Bravo Two Zero, however, it seems that the need to send more men and aircraft in search of Iraqi Scud missiles was deemed more important than the plight of the patrol.

Coburn laid the blame for the deaths of his three comrades squarely at the door of the SAS regimental hierarchy. Moreover, he said in court that, in the post-mission debriefing in Hereford, the commanding officer admitted that aspects of the regimental support system had not functioned well, and in some cases not at all. "Shocking among his revelations to us was the statement that he had decided not to court-martial the surviving members of the patrol. The reference to court martial was a shock. It seemed incredible after all we had been through. There was no justification for even mentioning it and it came completely out of the blue . . ." (To this day, Coburn has no idea why a court martial should have been mentioned.)

Coburn also told the court about equipment failures during the mission. The risks involved in special forces work was something soldiers prepared for, he said, but incompetence, including the regimental command's failure to acknowledge its own faults, was something he did not expect. "Being told we were expendable after the fact only served to compound the betrayal of trust."

The MoD's failure to prevent the programme going out might have put a lesser organisation off. Not Whitehall. Although Coburn's story had been made public, the British government now went after his book. Representatives of the English publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, were called into Whitehall. They had to agree not to publish and had to sign a confidentiality contract so that they couldn't even tell the Coburns what had happened in the meeting. Reed, the New Zealand publisher, was contacted by an English official, with the same result. Moreover, the British government's New Zealand lawyers demanded that any money owed to Coburn for his work on the book be paid to them. When the Coburns hired an English lawyer, he too was called to an MoD meeting and put under a confidentiality contract. He still cannot talk to his clients.

In April 1999, the Coburns packed up and left Britain, moving to New Zealand with their three daughters. They hired a local lawyer, Warren Templeton, to fight their case on legal aid. Last year, it was back in court, at the High Court in Auckland, with two British lawyers (or possibly spooks, it was never clear which) in attendance, sitting behind four local lawyers hired by the MoD.

The case proceeded amid extraordinary secrecy - extraordinary for a New Zealand court, anyway. The British flew in a string of witnesses - known as Soldier A, Soldier B, XY, ST, Staff Assistant and WO Projects - who sat behind large screens to protect their identities. The witnesses could not be photographed, televised (even using image pixellating) or recorded (even using voice-scrambling technology) for fear, the government said, that they might be identified and they or their families become targets for "sophisticated terrorist attacks".

The government's case was that it was hardly surprising, given the sensitive nature of SAS activities, that "the ethos within UKSF units was of complete and lifelong confidentiality . . . indeed, in the words of one person, who it is anticipated will give evidence in this case, those serving were bound by 'a code of silence'." Publications by SAS insiders were a much greater threat to the operations of the special forces, and their capacity to undertake operations, than those written by "outsiders", the government claimed, adding that "the great majority of members of the UKSF adhere to and wish others to adhere to the code of silence". It added: "The shadow of doubt that the person serving beside one in an operational or covert context may one day aspire to join the list of bestsellers does nothing to inspire trust and confidence."

But another theory for the attempted ban was put forward by one of the government's own witnesses, who said the contracts had been introduced partly to help the SAS "retain market share" after the end of the cold war. Soldier ST, a former warrant officer, told Justice Salmon that the regiment was concerned about competition from the Paratroops and the Royal Marines. The soldier agreed with Coburn's lawyer, Warren Templeton, that enforcing the contract was intended to "safeguard employability", see off competition from other units within Britain and "protect your market base". Justice Salmon asked: "You are really saying that secrecy protects your position in the market?" Soldier ST replied: "That is a good way of summing it up." He also agreed with Templeton that the SAS was "trying to develop its future role now that the cold war has dispersed".

Soldier ST, who was responsible for assessing damage to the regiment from various publications, agreed that much of what was in Coburn's manuscript was already in the public domain.

The trial verdict was another major defeat for the MoD and the regiment. Justice Salmon agreed that a few minor passages in the book, which contained confidential information apparently about MoD equipment, would have to be amended. But he said it was unlawful for the ministry to order Coburn, in effect, to give up his civil rights. "The Ministry of Defence has used its power to issue orders for the improper purpose of restricting the defendant's right to freedom of speech and expression." When he signed the contract, the judge said, Coburn had been under economic pressure which was "illegitimate and so constituted duress". It was not at all the same thing as ordering a soldier to "take that hill". It damaged a man's private law rights. Costs were awarded to Coburn's side.

This was the British government's third defeat in the New Zealand courts. But the MoD promptly appealed. A further three-day hearing has been held in the Court of Appeal in Wellington and a decision is expected soon. But even if it loses again, and legal scholars are betting it will, the government has said it will appeal again - presumably to the law lords in the Privy Council in London. By that stage, the MoD's bill is likely to top £10m.

One of the ironies of the battle is that, while everything Coburn wants to publish has already been made public one way or another, he knows secrets that the British government has reason to dread ever being revealed.

He worked on a tour of what is known as "special duties" in Northern Ireland on operations against the IRA. SAS men were sometimes transferred into the still-secret 14 Intelligence Company, whose operations are shrouded in mystery. A former IRA man once told me that 14 Company was feared by the Provisional IRA. Coburn will say only: "My time in Northern Ireland was really very, very enjoyable, very, very good work, all under operational conditions and it's something I'm quite proud of."

Stephen Davis is editor of the New Zealand Herald. He can be contacted at

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The SAS story they want to suppress