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How one SAS patrol launched a fusillade of 'kill-and-tell' books, then a fierce war of words

By Steve Boggan

The latest skirmish in a war of words threatening to tear apart the most feared fighting unit in the world - the SAS - was decided on the other side of the world early yesterday while Britain was sleeping.

The latest skirmish in a war of words threatening to tear apart the most feared fighting unit in the world - the SAS - was decided on the other side of the world early yesterday while Britain was sleeping.

A former member of the élite regiment was celebrating a court victory that will allow him to publish his account of one of the murkiest episodes in the SAS's history.

Already, four books have described the doomed mission of Bravo Two Zero, the call-sign of a unit dropped behind Iraqi lines in the Gulf War. Of the eight men who helicoptered into Iraq in January 1991, three died, four were captured and tortured, and one made an eight-day march to freedom in Syria.

Now, because of the court ruling in Auckland, New Zealand, a fifth book will be published. It will be the third members' account of a patrol that has spawned a publishing phenomenon.

So, what's wrong with that? The Ministry of Defence and the purists in the SAS say, plenty. Because Soldier 5 by Mike Coburn will accuse officers of leaving their men to die and label the authors of two of the other books as liars.

His account will be published in New Zealand. A ban will remain in force in the UK but internet dissemination is inevitable. The book joins a long list of so-called kill-and-tell books revealing secret operations and methods of the SAS.

There are now more than 100 about the regiment, 57 of them published in the two years following the phenomenal success of Andy McNab's Bravo Two Zero. That has sold more than 1.5m copies in 16 languages and has made McNab, a psuedonym, a millionaire. They continue to be published - as fact or fiction - at an astonishing rate, in an attempt to feed the public's apparently insatiable appetite for tales of SAS exploits.

Since the regiment sprang to the public eye, ending the Iranian embassy siege in April 1980, its methods, members and equipment have taken on an almost mythical status.

As a result, its profile is undoubtedly too high for the liking of its military masters. The MoD spent hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to persuade New Zealand's High Court to ban Soldier 5 because it would put future military operations at risk.

But its principal tactic was much simpler; the MoD lawyers said Coburn - another pseudonym - was the first of these authors to have signed a confidentiality clause while serving in the regiment. That, they said, removed his right to divulge details of the mission.

Coburn's lawyers scoffed at both arguments. Books by former SAS members that have already given details of the mission include General Sir Peter de la Billiere's Storm Command, McNab's Bravo Two Zero, Chris Ryan's The One That Got Away and Peter Ratcliffe's Eye of the Storm.

They argued - and Justice Peter Salmon agreed - Coburn had been under orders to sign the confidentiality agreement, and that amounted to duress.

The events at the heart of the row came days before the allied bombardment of Baghdad and Iraqi forces in Kuwait began. The Bravo Two Zero patrol was dropped by helicopter deep inside Iraq. Its mission was to destroy Scud missiles and undergound command and control cabling.

But it all went horribly wrong. McNab and Ryan say reconnaisance was flawed, they were dropped in the wrong place with Iraqi forces all around, and they had been given the wrong frequency codes when they tried to call for help. They also accused potential rescuers of looking for them in the wrong place.

Two men, Steven Lane and Bob Consiglio, were killed in firefights with Iraqis that should not have been there. A third, Sgt Vince Phillips, died of exposure in the desert winter. Ryan walked 200 miles for seven days and eight nights with little food or water and escaped into Syria.

McNab, Coburn, a Zimbabwean named as Mal, and a fourth member of the patrol, Dinger Bell, were captured. (They were handed over to the Red Cross at the end of the war.)

Many of the facts are agreed among the authors. But, crucially, there are also claims, counter-claims, accusations of lying and attempts to shift blame that have torn the protagonists apart and brought shame to the regiment.

In his account, for example, McNab claims "intelligence sources" told him they estimated the patrol had killed or wounded 250 Iraqis. During his capture, he tells of having his teeth pulled out and of being burned with a red-hot spoon by torturers.

This week, the Zimbabwean, Mal, giving evidence in Auckland for Coburn, said: "McNab describes various incidents of mistreatment whilst held prisoner in the same prison that I was held ... These incidents such as teeth extraction and burning with a heated spoon did not happen. It is inconceivable that any such incidents could have occurred without them being discussed or being physically obvious."

In his comments on the patrol in Eye of the Storm, Regimental Sergeant-Major Peter Ratcliffe, former senior warrant officer of the SAS, casts further doubt on McNab's claims and blames him for the failure of the mission.

McNab's orders in the event of problems, he said, were to head south to the safety of Saudi Arabia. Yet McNab took his team north-west towards Syria, with the River Euphrates in the way.

"It does not take an Einstein to work out that more people, settlements, industry, farms roads and military installations will be found along a major river," he writes. "To head for one in hostile territory is a recipe for disaster."

Ratcliffe was present at the debriefings of both Ryan and McNab at Stirling Lines in Hereford. He said McNab mentioned firefights, but nothing on the scale of the epic battles in his book. Accepted military theory, he said, estimates it would take 1,250 men to take out 250 enemy. "I consider it unlikely that 250 of the enemy were killed and wounded by Bravo Two Zero," he says.

In The One That Got Away, Ryan tells of killing two Iraqis on his way to safety, but Ratcliffe (his real name) says: "In his debriefing [which was videotaped] Ryan made no mention of encountering any enemy troops during his epic trek to freedom.

"Yet in his book there are several accounts of contacts, and even a description of an incident when he was forced to kill an Iraqi sentry with a knife. If these incidents happened, then I personally find it difficult to believe that they could have slipped his mind during the debriefing." No one knows exactly what Coburn's book will say, but in court he said he was told after the war that officers had considered the men "expendable". That will embarrass the MoD, although it is difficult to escape Ratcliffe's assertion that the men were not rescued because McNab had taken them in the wrong direction. Coburn is expected to round on Ryan, who criticised Sgt Phillips' commitment and ability, thereby tearing the group further apart. Coburn, who was shot twice, was a close friend of Phillips and says he wants to restore his reputation. The New Zealand ruling may cancel out the SAS confidentiality clauses, introduced in 1997, clearing the way for a new raft of kill-and-tell thrillers.

The MoD says it is considering an appeal, but dragging a secrecy case through the courts of a former colony smacks of the ill-fated attempts to ban the former MI5 officer Peter Wright's book, Spycatcher, in Australia.

In the final analysis, there must be a certain sadness that five men who survived such horrors now appear to loathe and mistrust one another so much, questioning each other's veracity and casting doubt on respective accounts. Further evidence, perhaps, that in war the first casualty is truth.

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