The One That Got Away

The heroic, real-life personal account of Chris Ryan's most famous mission, The One That Got Away, is now reworked for a new generation. Some authors just write about it. Chris Ryan has been there, done it - and here is the gripping real-life tale . . .


During the Gulf War in 1991, Chris Ryan became separated from the other members of the SAS patrol, Bravo Two Zero. Alone, he beat off an Iraqi attack and set out for Syria. Over the next seven days he walked almost 200 miles, his life constantly in danger.

Of the eight SAS members involved in this famous mission, only one escaped capture. This is his story . . .

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1. Over the Border

Wednesday 30 January: Escape – Day Seven

Moving silently, I worked my way up to a road. Under it I found a culvert, and I thought I’d crawl into it for a look at my map. But as I came to the end of the tunnel, I heard a kind of growling. Thinking there must be some animal under the road, I tiptoed forward and peered into the pitch darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. Suddenly I worked out what the noise was: it was some local, snoring. I felt slightly annoyed that an Arab had already nicked the hiding place I wanted. He was probably a soldier, and supposed to be on lookout duty. Lucky for me, then, that he’d decided to have a kip. Creeping back out, I climbed up on the side of the road and crossed over.

  As I did that, I heard a shout from down by the houses where I’d heard people talking. I didn’t think the yell had anything to do with me, but I ran across the road, made about fifty metres into the rocks and dropped down.

A man came running up the road, which was raised about two metres above the ground. He stopped right opposite me and stood staring in my direction. Evidently he couldn’t see anything, and he ran back. A moment later, a blacked-out land-cruiser roared past, its engine screaming in second gear, straight up the road to the junction with the main supply route, and disappeared.

  For nearly half an hour I lay still, letting things settle. I felt drained of strength, but I couldn’t stay where I was, so I began to work my way round the rocks. On my left was a run of chain-link fencing, quite high. So that side of the complex was protected, anyway.

  Coming to a corner of the barrier, I went up onto the main supply route and crossed over. As I did so, I looked to my left and saw three guys manning a vehicle control point. Dodging back up a wadi, I peeped over the side and saw a line of anti-aircraft positions facing towards the Syrian border.

  I pulled back again, stuck. The ground there was almost flat. I couldn’t go forward, and I couldn’t go back. Dawn was approaching. My only possible hiding place was another of the culverts under the road. I found three tunnels, each about the diameter of a forty-five gallon drum and maybe ten metres long. The first looked clean, and I thought that in daylight anybody looking in one end would see straight through it. The second seemed to be full of dead bushes and rubbish, so I crawled in and lay down.

  In the confined space, I realized how badly I was stinking. But my surroundings were no better: there was a powerful stench of decomposing rubbish and excrement.

  I was desperate for a drink. But when I went to compress the plastic clip that held the buckle on my webbing pouch, I found that my fingers were so sore and clumsy that I could scarcely manage the simple task. Gasping with pain, I used all my strength to force the clips together.

Then came a horrendous disappointment.

Bringing out one bottle at last, I opened it and raised it to my lips – but the first mouthful made me gasp and choke.

Poison!

The water tasted like acid. I spat it straight out, but the inside of my mouth had gone dry, and I was left with a burning sensation all over my tongue and gums. I whipped out my compass-mirror, pointed the torch-beam into my mouth and looked round it. Everything seemed all right, so I took another sip, but it was just the same. I remembered that when Stan had collapsed during the first night on the run I’d put rehydration powder into my bottles, to bring him round, and I wondered if the remains of it had somehow gone off.

  I tried the second bottle. It was exactly the same. I couldn’t make out what had gone wrong. Whatever the problem, the water was undrinkable, and I emptied the bottles out.

  Now I’m done for, I thought.

I was in a really bad state.

It was eight days since I’d had a hot meal, two days and a night since I’d had a drink.

My tongue was completely dry; it felt like a piece of old leather stuck in the back of my throat.

My teeth had all come loose; if I closed my mouth and sucked hard, I could taste blood coming from my shrunken gums.

I knew my feet were in bits, but I didn’t dare take my boots off, because I feared I’d never get them on again.

As for my hands – I could see and smell them all too well. The thin leather of my gloves had cracked and split, from being repeatedly soaked and dried out again, so that my fingers hadn’t had much protection. I’d lost most of the feeling in the tips, and I seemed to have got dirt pushed deep under my nails, so infection had set in. Whenever I squeezed a nail, pus came out, and this stench was repulsive.

  I wondered what internal damage I might be suffering, and could only hope that no permanent harm would be done. With the complete lack of food, I’d had no bowel movement since going on the run, and I couldn’t remember when I’d last wanted to pee.

I yearned for food, of course, but more for drink – and when I did think about food, it was sweet, slushy things that I craved. If ever I found myself back among ration packs, I would rip into the pears in syrup, ice cream and chocolate sauce.

  I felt very frightened. First and most obvious was the danger of being captured – the fear of torture, and of giving away secrets that might betray other guys from the Regiment. Almost worse, though, was the fact that I could see and feel my body going down so fast. If I didn’t reach the border soon, I would be too weak to carry on.

  Twisting round in the cramped space of the drain, I got out my map and tried for the hundredth time to work out where I was. It was now the morning of Wednesday 30 January. What options were left to me? Already light was coming up, and whatever happened, I was stuck in the culvert for that day. When dark fell again, I could try to sneak back down to the river, cross over and go along the other side – but it seemed a far-fetched hope. In any case, I was terrified of going anywhere near the river. Every time I’d tried it, something had gone wrong. One more attempt, and I might easily be captured. How long could I hold out? I just couldn’t tell what my body was still capable of.

  First, I somehow had to get through eleven hours of daylight – eleven hours, when every waking minute was agony. At least I was out of the wind, and less cold, so that I could drop off to sleep.

I started dreaming, usually about the squadron. I was with the rest of the guys. They were all around me, talking and laughing, getting ready to go. We didn’t seem to be in any particular place, but their presence was completely real. Then suddenly, maybe ten minutes later, I’d wake up, shuddering violently, hoping against hope that my mates were still there, and fully expecting that they would be. Then I’d open my eyes and realize that I was alone in the culvert with no one to talk to. It was a horrible letdown.

  I wasn’t worried by the occasional rumble of a car going past above me, but soon I began to hear other movement: scurrying, scuffling noises, as if troops were running around. I thought, Here we go. The next thing is going to be somebody at either end of this culvert, and I’ll be caught like a rat in a drainpipe.

  From the scrabbling, it sounded as though soldiers’ boots were moving everywhere. I reckoned that the bodies of the men I’d killed had been discovered, the alarm had gone up, and a search party was closing in on me.

  Most of the noise was coming from the end towards which my feet were pointing. I tried to turn my 203 in that direction, but the drain was too narrow and I couldn’t bring the weapon to bear. Now was the moment I needed a pistol, or better still a silenced one.

  The scrabbling noise came closer.

  I tensed myself, certain that a man would stick his head into the end of the pipe at any second. If he did, my only option would be to try to scuttle out the other end . . .

But what did the intruder turn out to be? A goat! A herd was being driven up the side of the road. I watched their legs move steadily past. The scrabble of their feet on rocks, echoing through the tunnel, sounded like a whole company of soldiers on the move. Again I was terrified that they might have a dog with them; if they did, it would surely get my scent.

  Tortured by thirst and by noises close at hand, I somehow stuck out the day. That was the lowest point of my whole escape. I’d lost so much weight that lying down became ever more agonizing. However I lay, my bones seemed to be sticking out, with no padding to cover them, and every five or six minutes I’d be in such discomfort that I’d have to turn over. Spine, hips, ribs, knees, elbows, shoulders – everything hurt, and I was developing sores all over. I kept telling myself, You’ve got to clear that border tonight, whatever happens. But first I somehow had to escape from the trap in which I’d landed myself – and if the night turned out clear again, I didn’t see how I was going to avoid the vehicle control point.

  Eventually darkness fell. When I poked my head out of the end of the culvert, my morale took a lift again. Until then the nights had been clear, but this one was black as pitch, with the sky full of storm clouds that looked so threatening I even thought it might rain. The very idea of moisture was exciting. If rain did come, and I turned up my face, at least my parched mouth would get some refreshment. Maybe I could even collect water by spreading out my map case.

 

Wednesday 30 January: Escape – Night Seven

I crept outside. The night was so dark that when I looked in the direction of the vehicle control point, I couldn’t make it out. Moving closer, I found that the guards were still standing there, so I eased away until I could no longer see them, and when I was halfway between them and the anti-aircraft positions, I started walking at full speed.

  Thank God for the darkness. Behind me nobody moved, and I got clean away. I’d been going for nearly two hours, parallel with a road, when all of a sudden a blinding flash split the darkness. Convinced I’d walked into ambush lights, I flung myself down. But then from behind me came a heavy explosion, and I realized that an air raid was hitting the installation I’d just left. The same thing happened twice more: a flash, and a few seconds later a really big, deep boom. I kept thinking, If this hadn’t been a dark night, that’s where I’d still be. What effect the bombs were having I couldn’t tell, but the explosions sounded colossal, and I thanked my lucky stars that I’d been able to move on.

  Occasionally, far away to my left, I saw anti-aircraft fire going up into the sky, and I guessed it must be coming from the airfields we’d been told about at the beginning of our mission: H1 and H2. They were too far away for me to hear any noise, but I saw arches of tracer fire. At least it meant that the bases were under coalition attack. I knew that ‘A’ and ‘D’ Squadrons were operating in that area, and I hoped it was they who were hammering the Iraqis.

  I knew from the map that the Iraqi town of Krabilah should be coming up on my right. Krabilah lay on the border, and there was a Syrian town beyond the frontier. The thought of it kept me going, but only just. By now my feet were so bad that whenever I sat down for a rest they went from numb to excruciating. Upright, I couldn’t feel them much; sitting, I thought they were going to burst. Several times I sat there thinking, I can’t take much more of this. Then the pain would ease off, and I had a few minutes of bliss, with nothing hurting.

  The worst bit came whenever I stood up again, and the pain just exploded. Starting off, I couldn’t help gasping with the sheer agony. I had to shuffle my boots along the ground, and I kept thinking, If anyone sees me doddering along like this, I’ll look a right idiot. It wasn’t till I’d taken about ten paces that my feet seemed to go numb again, and I could walk out. Occasionally I’d hit a sharp stone or rock – and boy, was that sore.

  Never in my life had I been so exhausted. Often on selection and afterwards, I thought I had pushed myself to my limit – but this was something else. All I wanted to do was stop and rest, but I knew that if I did I would never reach the border before my body gave out.

  Towards the end I was stopping and resting on my feet. Because they were so agonizing if I sat down, I took to reading my map standing up – which was not a good idea, as my torch was up in the air instead of close to the ground. I’d walk until I was really knackered, then prop myself against something so that I kept the pressure on my feet.

  I was so far gone that when I reached some houses I was on the point of giving in. If only I were in England! I thought. There’d be milk bottles standing on the doorstep, and a milk-float coming past in the morning. How many bottles of milk could I have drunk straight down?

  I watched the houses for a while. They were only small places, but I’d find water in them, for sure, and food. Suddenly I decided I’d had enough. I’ll go in, I thought, and if I have to, I’ll do the people in there. I’ll get something to drink and take their vehicle.

  I slid along one side of the nearest house, and found a window in the wall. It had iron bars down it, with a hessian curtain inside. Music was being played inside the room, and a candle or oil-lamp was flickering. I went past the window and reached the front of the building. Outside the door stood a car. Now! I thought. Just let the keys be in it!

As I came round the corner I looked down, and there was a dog, lying outside the door. The moment I saw it, it saw me and went berserk, barking frantically. Back I scuttled, along the side of the house, and away off into the wadis. The dog came out, and more dogs from the other buildings joined it. They followed me for about a hundred metres, barking like lunatics, then stopped.

  Up in the wadis, I came to a railway line, scrabbled through a culvert under it, and was back in the desert. With a jolt I realized that this must be the same railway that Stan and I had crossed all those nights earlier. If only we’d tabbed straight along it, we’d have been out of Iraq days ago.

  Spurred on by my latest fright, I kept walking, walking, walking. According to my calculations, I should have been passing Krabilah on my right, but there was no sign of the town. What I didn’t realize was that every house had been blacked out because of the war, and that I had already gone clean by the place in the dark.

  I reached a refuse heap, where loads of burnt-out old cans had been dumped in the desert, and sat down among them to do yet another map study. I couldn’t work things out. Where was the town? Above all, where was the Syrian border?

  I started walking again, and as I came over a rise I saw three small buildings to my front. With the naked eye I could just make them out: three square bulks, blacked out. But when I looked through the night-sight, I saw chinks of light escaping between the tops of the walls and the roofs. As I sat watching, one person came out, walked round behind, reappeared and went back indoors. I was so desperate for water that I went straight towards the houses. Again I was prepared to take out one of the inhabitants if need be. I was only fifty metres away when I checked through the night-sight again and realized that the buildings were not houses at all, but sandbagged sangars with wriggly tin roofs. They formed some sort of command post, and were undoubtedly full of soldiers. Pulling slowly back, I went round the side and, sure enough, came on a battery of four anti-aircraft positions.

  If I’d walked up and opened one of the doors, I’d almost certainly have been captured. Once more the fright got my adrenalin going and revived me.

  On I stumbled for another hour. My dehydration was making me choke and gag. My throat seemed to have gone solid, and when I scraped my tongue, white fur came off it. I felt myself growing weaker by the minute. My 203 was so heavy it felt like it was made of lead. My legs had lost their spring and grown stiff and clumsy. My ability to think clearly had dwindled away.

  At last I came to a point from which I could see the lights of a town, far out on the horizon. Something seemed to be wrong. Surely that couldn’t be Krabilah, such a long distance off? My heart sank: was the border still so far away? Or was the glow I could see that of Abu Kamal, the first town inside Syria? If so, where was Krabilah? According to the map, Krabilah had a communications tower, but Abu Kamal didn’t. The far-off town did have a bright red light flashing, as if from a tower – and that made me all the more certain that the place in the distance was Krabilah.

  My morale plummeted once more. Like my body, my mind was losing its grip. What I could make out was some kind of straight black line, running all the way across my front. Off to my left I could see a mound with a big command post on it, sprouting masts. Closer to me were a few buildings, blacked out, but not looking like a town.

  I sat down some 500 metres short of the black line and studied the set-up through the night-sight. Things didn’t add up. With Krabilah so far ahead, this could hardly be the border. Yet it looked like one. I wondered whether it was some barrier which the Iraqis had built because of the war, to keep people back from the border itself.

  Whatever this line ahead of me might be, all I wanted to do was get across it. I forced myself to hold back, though, to sit down and observe it. This is where you’re going to stumble if you don’t watch out, I told myself. This is where you’ll fall down. Take your time.

  There I sat, shivering, watching, waiting. A vehicle came out of the command post and drove down along the line. Directly opposite my vantage-point two men emerged from an observation post, walked up to the car, spoke to the driver, jumped in, and drove off to the right. It looked as if the Iraqis were putting out roving observers to keep an eye on the border. I couldn’t tell whether this was routine, or whether they suspected that enemy soldiers were in the area. After a few minutes I decided that the coast was clear, and I had to move.

  At long last I came down to the black line. Creeping cautiously towards it, I found it was a barrier of barbed wire: three coils in the bottom row, two on top of them, and one on top of that. I had no pliers to cut with, so I tried to squeeze my way through the coils. It was impossible. Barbs hooked into my clothes and skin and held me fast. I unhooked myself with difficulty, and decided that the only way to go was over the top.

  Luckily the builders had made the mistake, every twenty-five metres, of putting in three posts close to each other and linking them together with barbed wire. Obviously the idea was to brace the barrier, but the posts created a kind of bridge across the middle of the coils. I took off my webbing and threw it over, then went up and over myself. I cut myself in a few places, but it was nothing serious.

  I couldn’t believe I was clear of Iraq. The barrier seemed so insignificant that I thought it must only be marking some false or inner border, and that I would come to the true frontier some distance further on. The real thing, I thought, would be a big anti-tank berm, constructed so that vehicles could not drive across. Maybe this was why I had no feeling of elation. I felt nothing except utter exhaustion.

  With my webbing back in place, I set off yet again on the same bearing. Never in my life, before or since, have I pushed myself so hard. I think I was brain-dead that night, walking in neutral, moving automatically, stumbling grimly onwards.

  In the end I could go no further. I simply had to sit down and rest. I took my weapon off my shoulder, and just as I was lifting the night-sight from where it hung round my neck, I seemed to click my head, and felt what I can only describe as a huge electric shock. I heard a noise like a ferocious short-circuit – krrrrrrrrk – and when I looked down at my hands, there was a big white flash.

  The next thing I knew I was sitting in the same place, but I couldn’t tell if I had been asleep, or unconscious, or what. Time had passed, but I didn’t know what had happened to me.

  I got my kit back on and stood up. This time my feet were real torture, and I was barely able to totter forwards until they went numb again.

  It was still dark. The night seemed very long.

  Nothing for it but to keep going.

  Was I in Syria or Iraq?

  Couldn’t tell . . .

  Better steer clear of the odd house then, because each one had a dog.

  What would I do when it got light?

  Didn’t know . . .

  Couldn’t think . . .

  Should be in Syria . . .

  I woke up a bit when I found I was crossing vehicle tracks. Then after a while I thought I heard something behind me. As I turned to look, the same thing happened: a big crack of static in the head and a blinding flash. This time I woke up on the ground, face-down.

  On my feet again, I checked my weapon to make sure I hadn’t pushed the muzzle into the ground as I fell, and went forward once more. Now I was walking towards a red light, which never seemed to get any brighter.

  Things were becoming blurred now.

  I was in and out of wadis, staggering on.

  Then I was on a flat area with more tracks.

  Then I came to the wall of one wadi and had another attack: a big crack in my head, the same krrrrrk of static, a flash . . .

  The next thing I knew, I came round to find my nose blocked and aching. I couldn’t tell how long I’d been unconscious, but dawn had broken, so I presumed that an hour had gone by, at least. In my compass-mirror I saw that blood had run down my cheeks and neck, matting in the stubble. Somehow I’d fallen flat on my face.

  I propped myself against the rock wall. If ever I had come close to dying, it was then. I seemed to have nothing left. My strength had gone, and with it the will to move. I lay back with my head resting against the rock, feeling almost drunk.

  Now that daylight had come, I knew I ought to lie up. But no – I couldn’t last another day without water. For minutes I sat there in a heap. Then I got out my precious flask and drank the last little sip of whisky. It tasted horrible, like fire. I was so dehydrated that it burned all the way down into my stomach, and left me gasping and desperate. I wished I’d never drunk it.

  Then suddenly, to my indescribable relief, out of the wadi wall came Paul, a member of the Bravo One Zero unit. He was dressed in green DPM, not desert gear, and he stopped about seven metres away from me.

  ‘Come on, Chris,’ he said, ‘hurry up. The squadron’s waiting for you.’

  It seemed perfectly normal that the squadron should be there. Painfully I levered myself to my feet with the 203 and shuffled down the wadi, expecting to see the rest of the guys lined up, sorting themselves out, ready for the off.

  Of course, when I came round the corner, there was nobody in sight.

  To this day I swear I saw Paul walk out in front of me. I even heard the sound of his boots as he came towards me over the gravel in the wadi bed, and for a few moments I thought my nightmare was over. I thought help and salvation had come.

  Far from it. It was just a hallucination. My mind was playing tricks on me. I was still on my own. It was another crippling blow to my morale. I sat down, trying to get myself together.

It was early morning on Thursday 31 January.

I’d been on the run for seven days and nights.

It was ten days since my last proper meal.

Six days since I’d finished my biscuits.

Three since I’d had any water.

My body wasn’t going to last another day . . .

  In a futile gesture I pulled out my TACBE, switched it on and let it bleep away. Then I looked up and realized that about a kilometre away there was a barn or house – a combination of both, standing out on a rise in the middle of scruffy fields in which rocks poked up out of the bare grey earth.

  As I stood watching, a man came out of the house and walked away with a herd of goats. The people living in that barn must have water. I decided that I had to get some, whatever the cost. If I was in Syria, the people might be friendly. If I was still in Iraq, I was going to have to threaten to kill them, get a drink, and carry on.

  I’d made up my mind: I was going in there, and I’d kill everybody if need be.

 

 

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