In January 1991, a British Special Air Service (SAS) team was helicoptered into Iraq by Chinook helicopter. In just a few days, U.S. and coalition forces would launch Operation Desert Storm’s air war to devastate Saddam Hussein’s army as it occupied Kuwait.
Eight men from the SAS detachment, code-named Bravo Two Zero, were to insert into Iraq and set up an observation post to monitor Iraq’s main supply route into Kuwait. The men of Bravo Two Zero proceeded on foot 1.2 miles from their landing zone.
Right away, things began to go wrong. To escape capture, torture and an uncertain fate, one of the British special operators would have to walk out of there toward Syria – 190 miles away.
The first thing that went wrong for the SAS was their communications. While their home base was receiving their transmissions, nothing was coming back from the British headquarters. The men pressed on.
But they never made it to the would-be observation post. On the way, the team was discovered by a shepherd and, believing they had been seen, the team ditched much of their gear and hightailed it out of the area.
As they moved, they began to hear the telltale rumble of treads on the ground. Believing they were encountering an Iraqi tank, the SAS prepared for an ambush. Only it wasn’t a tank, it was an Iraqi construction bulldozer – and the driver was as shocked as the SAS was.
When the driver left, the British knew the jig was up but the next time they encountered heavy vehicles, it was no construction crew. Iraqi armored vehicles had caught up to them and were in such close pursuit that the British soldiers had to fire at their pursuers to slow them down.
Iraq troops soon joined the APCs in their pursuit of the British as they humped it back to their original entry point, hoping a helicopter would soon find them. But the helicopter never came. By Jan. 24th, 1991, the group was on its way to the emergency exfiltration route… north to Syria.
Since the British were looking for the soldiers to be headed south toward Saudi Arabia, the SAS were never going to be seen by coalition aircraft unless it was by accident. Even after the group got split up during a dark night, they pressed onward and northward.
Along the way, the men tried to hijack a vehicle but Iraqi Army checkpoints hampered their progress and the walk continued. Eventually, two of the men would die of exposure in the Iraqi desert. Another was shot and killed by Iraqi civilians. Five were captured, interrogated and tortured before being released to the International Red Cross. One of the men. Colin Armstrong, kept walking.
He walked through Iraq until he reached the Syrian border, where Syria – then a coalition ally – took him into custody and released him to the United Kingdom. After his long trek through the dry desert, he had lost 36 pounds and suffered radiation poisoning after drinking contaminated water. He was awarded the Military Medal for his escape.
Armstrong would later chronicle his desert journey under the pen name Chris Ryan, along with a number of other books. The story of Bravo Two Zero was later made into a TV movie starring Sean Bean (who survives).