Home from hell: ANDY McNAB's life hung on whims of Iraqi tormentors

Home from hell: Right to the wire, ANDY McNAB’s life hung on the whims of his Iraqi tormentors. But as the final part of our gripping anniversary series tells, he made it back to freedom… leaving 250 dead or wounded enemy in his unit’s wake

In the concluding part of our compelling series from Andy McNab’s Gulf War memoir Bravo Two Zero, the remains of his SAS unit are cruelly taunted by their guards — and learn the fate of their missing comrades…

Handcuffed and blindfolded, I was driven out of Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. It was gorgeous weather. I could hear the birds singing. But as so often during my captivity in Iraq, I was full of dread.

‘Do you know where you’re going now, Andy?’ the driver asked as we set off. ‘We’re taking you to the British Embassy. You will now be going home to your family.’

They started laughing to themselves. ‘No, we are only joking, Andy,’ they mocked. ‘You’ll be going home one day, but not for a long time yet. Now we’re going to somewhere else in Baghdad. You’ll enjoy this. Very good place.’

When we arrived at what they announced was a military prison, people reached in through the window, slapping me on the head and pulling my moustache. All very neighbourly stuff compared with the terrible treatment I’d already been through.

It was a relief too to see that the guards were in military uniform, not the sinister suits worn by the secret police who’d tortured me in Abu Grahib.

And things got even better when I was taken to a cell and there was Dinger. We had a big hug and a shake of hands. Then Stan came stumbling in, supported on either side by guards. In his hands he carried a tray of rice.

The SAS members who formed the Bravo Two Zero operation during the Gulf War in 1991. Under the command of Andy McNab, three of the men were killed, four captured and one escaped

SAS legend Andy McNab appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in the dark last week

We looked at one another in disbelief, then started gobbing off, bringing each other up to date. ‘Vince is dead,’ Stan said. ‘Exposure. I got split from Chris, I don’t know what happened to him. What about the other three?’

I said that Mark was dead, and probably also Legs and Bob — despite the Iraqis telling me they were alive and in hospital.

The door opened and a major came in, introducing himself as the prison governor.

‘I was not responsible for what happened in the last place you were in,’ he said in better English than mine.

He seemed genuine, though I couldn’t help noticing that the guards behind him looked every bit as brutish as the thugs we were used to. They were very young, with things to prove to us and to each other. I didn’t doubt that when the cat was away, the guards would play.

Clearly we weren’t out of the woods yet, so once the major had gone, the three of us decided how we would conduct ourselves. We would remain the grey man, never allowing ourselves to show a reaction or become over-confident.

We would show respect to the guards and try to get some sort of fraternal thing going, based on us all being soldiers together, which might bring us medicine, food and little goodies.

It worked. The next morning, a guard came and dished out three small plastic bowls, into which he tipped a small ration of rice. We were issued with mugs and given a brew of cold black tea from a battered old teapot. I thought it was Christmas.

When I asked for water, they left us with a pitcher and a cup. We said we were suffering from diarrhoea and a bucket turned up. They were small victories, but encouraging signs. That night, lying on the floor in the pitch dark and for the first time feeling relatively safe, I dared to think about home.

From the start we had realised we were not the only ones in this prison block. We’d heard mumbling through the wall and guessed there were other prisoners next door. We knocked out a simple identification code on the wall — a tap, tapetty, tap tap which only a Westerner would recognise. We got a tap-tap back.

We established the bloke next door was called David and was an American. There was another called Russell, but that’s all we knew about him.

We’d been ordered by the governor not to make any noise, on pain of punishment, but last thing one night, with the guards out of earshot, I stood at the cell door and called out, ‘David! How long have you been here?’

A reply came. ‘A few days.’ He was a transport driver who had strayed over the border and been shot. Then Russell joined in, telling us he was a U.S. pilot who’d been shot down over Kuwait. He’d only been in the prison for a couple of days.

One morning, the guards came and took me away. I was blindfolded and cuffed and a blanket put over my head. An officer led me out of the prison, dragging me along the street and deliberately walking me into a lamp post. My nose poured with blood. He thought it was brilliant.

He guided me into a building, then into a room, where I was told to sit down and cross my legs, facing the wall. I assumed the worst. A minute later the blanket and blindfold were ripped off and I was staring at a video camera.

The prison governor was there — and furious when he saw the state of my nose. I was taken next door to a sink and told to wash off the blood. I was given a comb and a mirror to tidy up my hair.

Andy McNab has shared the shocking ordeal he suffered while being held prisoner in Iraq, as soldiers beat and interrogated him 

It was the first time I’d seen my face since the mission began. I looked like Ben Gunn after somebody had taken a shovel to his face. I had a dirty, scruffy beard, my skin was flaky and my mouth scabby.

I couldn’t believe they were going to use me in a video. I cleaned myself up a bit to make them happy, but not too much. I didn’t want to look too healthy for my public.

I thought hard about how to give a hint to those watching back home that I was doing this against my will. I decided to keep my right index finger straight and constantly bring it up to stroke my left eye. Anyone who knew me would see how out of character that was and get the message.

Back in prison we made it a habit to talk to the guards about their families. ‘How many children do you have? Do you miss them? Do you see them?’

The men of Bravo Two Zero 

  • Sgt Andy McNab
  • Sgt Vince Phillips
  • Corp Chris Ryan
  • Lance-Corp ‘Dinger’ Pring
  • Trooper Bob Consiglio
  • Trooper ‘Legs’ Lane
  • Trooper Stan MacGowan
  • Trooper Mark ‘Kiwi’ Coburn

Some of these names are pseudonyms

I built a relationship with one named Jeral, who told me he was the drummer in a local group called Queen. He was longing to go to London to play. ‘Will you show me London?’ he begged.

‘Yeah, sure,’ I shrugged, ‘once the war is over we can be friends.’

‘Andy, I love you.’ He stared longingly into my eyes. ‘I love you. Do you love me?’

‘Yes, I love you too, Jeral.’

The moment he left I got a fearsome slagging from the other two. ‘Give me a year’s money and I won’t tell the rest of the squadron,’ said Stan.

Jeral was a nuisance but we did get extra bread and little titbits of information from him. Other guards, though, continued to mistreat us.

One time they had blocked the toilets in their quarters. They marched me down there and made me pull it out with my hands. Afterwards, they made me lick my fingers clean. They thought this one was a cracker.

Another time, Stan was filling a bucket with water from a barrel and a massive electric shock threw him against the wall. We heard his screams and their hoots of hysterical laughter. They’d wired up the barrel to the mains.

We’d also get a good kicking if a friend or family member of the guards was hit in the Allied bombing of Baghdad, which was now relentless. The three of us made a pact that if they went for us as a result, we weren’t going to stand for it.

One night the city took a lot of casualties and afterwards we heard Russell and David being badly beaten up. Then two guards charged into our cell, carrying batons.

We stood up and something in our eyes must have told them we were prepared to fight. They stopped in their tracks and stared at us. We stared them down and they edged out, standing in the doorway, shouting and pretending to cock their weapons, but they backed off. We couldn’t believe it.

From then on, we became a sideshow. The guards would bring in friends and local dignitaries, and stamp about and show their authority. One big fat b*****d cocked his pistol, aimed it at Dinger and pulled the trigger. The hammer came down on an empty chamber. The guards loved it.

There seemed no end to our imprisonment but then the prison governor took to coming round for informal chats. ‘You know, you have been well treated here,’ he insisted. It was our best clue yet that the war was nearly over.

Early one morning we were woken by shouting and the noise of keys clanking.

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

Our cell door burst open and a guard stood there with a clipboard in his hand. ‘Stan. Dinger. You are now going home.’

No Andy. It was one of the worst moments of my life. My fears had been confirmed. They were going to keep back hostages. For how long was anyone’s guess. Dinger and Stan shook my hand before leaving. ‘Don’t worry,’ they said.

Don’t worry? I was flapping fit to take off. Left alone in the cell, I felt severely sorry for myself. After weeks of comradeship, the sudden loneliness was almost a physical pain.

In the afternoon the governor came in with his entourage. ‘Yes, it is true,’ he said. ‘Your two friends have gone home. They will be home with their families very soon. Maybe you will be going soon.’

He gave me two oranges, which I ate as soon as he had gone, peel and all. I began to feel better. Two days later, I was driven away from the prison in a bus with lots of other prisoners. We arrived at a building some 40 minutes away and were arranged in a long line, handcuffed and blindfolded. I leaned forward and my nose brushed against a brick wall.

A flurry of commands brought me bolt upright. I heard the metallic echo of weapons being cocked. Well, there you go, I said to myself. We’re going to get topped. I took a deep breath and waited for it.

Nothing happened. Instead, they marched us one by one into tiny cells. There were three blankets in mine, a luxury, and a little window. A breakfast of egg, jam and bread, and hot, black tea followed. It was rather encouraging.

An hour later, the guards ushered me into a room there there was a chair, table, mirror, water and a razor. A ‘barber’ started to shave me, so clumsily that he ripped small chunks out of my face and blood trickled down my chin. ‘Can I do it myself?’ I asked. ‘No, he replied. ‘You are a dangerous man.’

Back in my cell, two soldiers told me to strip and put on a yellow uniform they provided. Then I heard the words I’d been longing for: ‘McNab, you’ll be going home today.’

The cells were opened one at a time. A soldier checked our names, removed the blindfolds, and we came out and got in line. Somebody came up to me and grabbed my hand enthusiastically.

‘My name’s John Nichol,’ he beamed. ‘Fifteen Squadron. Tornados.’ He was an RAF navigator who’d been shot down over Iraq. I shook his hand.

We were blindfolded yet again and marched off in a big crocodile. We boarded a bus and after half an hour were told we could take our blindfolds off.

The others were saying ‘hi’ to each other but I kept myself to myself. It could still be the world’s biggest bluff.

We pulled up at a hotel, which was teeming with soldiers and camera crews. I saw a fleet of Red Cross vehicles and began to feel slightly more at ease.

I was keen to find out about Dinger and Stan. ‘Have there been prisoners released before us?’ I asked a Red Cross worker. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘They got out via Jordan.’ She checked a list for me and found their names.

But there were no other names on her list that I recognised. So all along we had been the only three. All the stuff the Iraqis interrogation had given us about wounded signals operators in hospital was a load of b****cks to try and make us talk.

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

A long wait now began, during which the main man of the Red Cross appeared and told me ‘There’s somebody who wants to see you.’

As he escorted me downstairs he warned me that there was still a danger of the Iraqis holding some of us back as hostages. We went into the main foyer and I spotted two sinister-looking Arabs sitting by the reception desk. ‘Secret police,’ he whispered.

He then showed me into a room where five people lay on stretchers. Looking along the line, I saw Mark, a missing member of my team whom I’d last seen when we were on the run and in a desperate firefight with the Iraqis.

I wanted to hug him and say ‘Great to see you,’ but the words wouldn’t come out. I shook his hand instead.

His body looked wasted and he bore the bruises and scars of severe beatings. He told me he’d been shot in the foot and lost so much blood he thought he was going to die. He received no medical attention and was handcuffed naked to a bed all the time he was in prison, basically left to rot.

The hours now dragged by in that Baghdad hotel and still we weren’t away. The aircraft we were due to leave on was held up in Saudi by bad weather. Even now it could all go belly up. A tense night lay ahead with the Red Cross so anxious that the Iraqi secret police might snatch back some or all of the prisoners that they stood watch beside us.

The next morning I woke up early. An official appeared and announced with a grin that it was time to go home. We went in coaches to the airport where we sat through two more hours of petty administration.

Then the call finally came for us to be put on the aircraft. The Swissair crew greeted us like VIPs and straight away the coffee came out — with cream. It was nectar. As the aircraft lifted from the runway we roared like a football crowd.

I looked at Mark and grinned. We really were going home. It was over.

five of us from Bravo Two Zero made it back. Chris, Dinger, Stan, Mark and me. The Iraqis found the body of Vince and delivered it to the Red Cross, who had him brought back to the UK. The bodies of Bob and ‘Legs’ Lane were on the same flight home.

I mourn them still.

As for me, I got off lightly. I’m not emotionally affected by what happened, as my stress-test score showed. I certainly don’t have nightmares.

We in the SAS are big boys and we know the rules we play by. We’ve all been close to death before. You don’t want it to happen, of course, but you accept it. Occupational hazard.

Once back at Hereford, we were able to establish what went wrong with the mission. Our radio had malfunctioned, preventing us from calling for help, but it turned out the frequencies we were given were for southern Iraq, not northern Iraq, where we were. It was human error that you have to hope will never happen again.

Then there was the presence of many more Iraqi troops than expected. We had been dropped into one large military holding area where two armoured divisions were positioned. As if that wasn’t bad enough, every man, woman and child had been told to be on the look-out for us. Children were given the day off school to join in the hunt.

All the same, we gave a good account of ourselves: intelligence sources established that we left 250 Iraqi troops dead and wounded in our wake.

The rights and wrongs of the war have never been a worry to me. I was a soldier, that’s what I was paid for. It was very exciting, I got high doing it.

But when I think of the thugs who interrogated me in the brutal way they did, I know that if I met any of them in the street tomorrow and thought I could get away with it, I’d slot them.

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.

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