The Blagger's Guide To: Bravo Two Zero

How a military failure became a marketing triumph

"Within hours of Iraqi troops and armour rolling across the border with Kuwait at 02.00 local time on 2 August 1990, the Regiment was preparing itself for desert operations. As members of the Counter Terrorist team based in Hereford, my gang and I were unfortunately not involved. We watched jealously as the first batch of blokes drew their desert kit and departed …." So begins Andy McNab's Bravo Two Zero, which is republished this month to mark the 20th anniversary of the best-selling war story.

The new version contains additional material, with an account of a return to Iraq, 10 years on, to find the memorial to the fallen members of the patrol, and an update on what has happened to everyone since. It also includes a Q&A, in which McNab shares the benefit of his experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (he is "one of the fortunate guys" who hasn't suffered from it), the Army, and the most essential piece of kit (a spare water bottle to wee in, and a piece of gaffer tape wrapped around it "to make sure I never got my water bottles mixed up".)

Bravo Two Zero was the first book to tell the story of a modern SAS mission. In January 1991, eight British soldiers – each carrying 95kg (210lbs) of equipment – marched 20km across the Iraq desert to infiltrate behind enemy lines, sever underground communication links between Baghdad and north-west Iraq, and destroy mobile Scud missile launchers. When the mission went wrong, three members of the patrol died, four were captured and one escaped. Bravo Two Zero was written by the leader of the operation under the pseudonym "Andy McNab".

When it was published in November 1993, it knocked Margaret Thatcher's The Downing Street Years off the top of the bestsellers chart. (Charles Moore's Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography is now out, but the paperback Bravo Two Zero cannot repeat the trick since Moore's book is at No 2 in the hardback chart.) "Every taxi driver seemed to be reading it," remarks McNab now. It is still the biggest-selling war book of all time.

"Andy McNab" was left in a carrier bag outside a London hospital as a baby. He was adopted, rebelled, and ended up in a juvenile detention centre, where he decided to join the Army. It was not until he arrived at a training base that he discovered he was functionally illiterate – his literacy levels were less than would be expected of an 11-year-old. He credits the Army with teaching him to read and changing his life, and he now works with literacy charities to help other adults to read.

McNab is involved in this year's Six Book Challenge, an initiative organised by The Reading Agency to encourage unconfident readers to finish six books. McNab, an ambassador for the Challenge, visited Portland Young Offender Institution in Dorset on Friday to distribute 500 copies of his Quick Reads title Today Everything Changes, about his own literacy journey. "It is all about giving these lads confidence," he says. "Confidence that they can walk into a library, bank or post office, confidence that they can fill in forms and ultimately, confidence to take control of their lives and not re-offend. It's not about mollycoddling criminals, but changing things for them so that we all benefit when they come out."

Bravo Two Zero is published by Corgi, £7.99. See The Reading Agency's website at readingagency.org.uk

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