The Great Escape

The Great Escape

By Toby Harnden - March 11, 2013

The men of the Special Boat Service’s M Squadron were used to the unexpected, but as their brigadier detailed their mission, they looked at each other in silent disbelief. It was almost a decade ago and they were gathered in a “forward mounting base” in the Middle East, the location of which still cannot be disclosed.

For weeks the men had known they would be going to war with Iraq. While frantic discussions were taking place at the United Nations in New York, the SBS team had been training on the plains of Kenya in preparation for driving through a desert behind enemy lines.

Until the brigadier, who was the director of Britain’s special forces, spoke, they had assumed they would be crossing into Iraq from Turkey. The plan had changed, however. Turkey had denied American and British forces the option of establishing a northern front.

Instead the men — some grizzled special forces veterans, others fresh-faced arrivals from the Royal Marines — were to enter Iraq from Jordan in the west and travel more than 600 miles to the Tigris river less than 100 miles from the Turkish and Syrian borders.

It was not just the distance to their target that seemed daunting: it was also the scale of the task they would face when they reached it: the 60-strong squadron was to take the surrender of the 100,000 men of the Iraqi army’s 5th Corps.

Although the numbers were stacked against them, intelligence indicated that the Iraqis would be “demoralised” and unable to put up “any significant resistance”.

Not all the men were convinced. Grabbing a tea afterwards, Sergeant Steve Grayling exchanged a knowing glance with Andy “Scruff” McGruff. Both men had fought in the epic eight-day siege of the Qala-i-Janghi fortress in northern Afghanistan in 2001.

Then it had been a dozen allied special forces troops against 600 Muslim fighters. This time the odds would be even worse.

“Us lot taking the surrender of an entire Iraqi corps,” McGruff snorted. “They’re having a laugh.” Grayling responded: “Yeah, 60 against 100,000. Nice one.”

Their cynicism was well founded. The mission turned into the most desperate battle fought by British special forces trapped behind enemy lines since the second world war — and one that ended in a frantic “hot extraction”.

In the days that followed, Saddam Hussein’s propaganda machine broadcast footage of burnt-out vehicles along with captured Land Rovers, quad bikes, weapons and maps.

Headlines, meanwhile, in the British press accused the men of being cowards who had “run away from the Iraqis” and “panicked and fled”.

Bound by the secrecy that surrounds the SBS — and its sister group the Special Air Service (SAS ) — the men took the attacks in silence.

Until now. In a new book published this week, members of the brigade reveal what they say is the truth behind a mission nicknamed Operation No Return.

Grayling said: “I’ve been pissed off about this for 10 years, really. It’s time to put this right before the myth becomes the official history.”

Their account, pieced together by Damien Lewis, an author who has written widely on military matters, is more than a tale of bravery and daring against desperate odds. It also provides an object lesson in what can go wrong when intelligence is flawed and insufficient resources and too few troops are used in war — a lesson largely unlearnt in Iraq and Afghanistan.

M SQUADRON’S mission was to be the deepest penetration behind enemy lines since the SAS and the Long Range Desert Group had traversed the north African desert in 1942.

Those taking part were all too aware of a previous operation of similar audacity: the SAS’s Bravo Two Zero mission of the 1991 Gulf War.

That mission, the subject of several books including those by team members Andy McNab and Chris Ryan, went horribly wrong after their hiding place was compromised by a flock of goats. Eight SAS men had been forced to go on the run in Iraq: three died, four were captured and only one escaped.

Grayling — who had spent 18 years in the SBS — had a premonition that this operation, too, might be doomed and questioned the presumption that 100,000 Iraqi troops would surrender to so few Britons.

The mission was to begin with the men being flown into an airfield in the western Iraqi desert. From there they travelled east by Chinook helicopter to the Euphrates river deep inside Iraq.

In traditional British fashion, however, there was not enough kit to do the job. “Had the Yanks been running such an operation, they’d have mounted up a dozen Chinooks and swept in like a scene from Apocalypse Now,” noted Lewis. “But this being a wholly British gig, the plan had been crafted around the available assets.”

Once inside Iraq, M Squadron was to drive more than 620 miles in “thin-skinned” unarmoured Land Rovers. During the first four days the men moved northeast from the Euphrates to the point where they had expected to encounter the 5th Corps. It was eerily quiet.

“We’re almost at the bloody mission objective and we’ve yet to have a sniff of any action,” grumbled “Gunner”, commander of the squadron’s group of quad bikes, as night fell over the sunken lake bed where they were laid up.

Grayling shrugged and told him: “Beware of what you wish for, mate.”

Moments later they were hammered by a stream of tracer fire. Grayling’s uneasiness appeared to have been well founded — M Squadron had been lured into a trap.

Before long the SBS men were being pounded with tank and artillery shells. This was an attack by more than just Fedayeen guerrillas: the only unit in the vicinity with that kind of firepower was the 5th Corps — the very unit that was supposed to be surrendering.

Despite the briefings that Saddam’s Fedayeen and the Iraqi army operated independently, this bore all the hallmarks of a co-ordinated attack.

“Their entire mission had been predicated on a massive intelligence failing,” wrote Lewis. “And they’d been sent in here on little less than a lie.”

It was imperative that the SBS men got out of what was rapidly turning into a killing zone. Just under two miles away Gunner spotted a wadi that looked like the ideal spot to regroup and take shelter.

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Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This piece is reprinted with the permission of The Sunday Times

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