Revelations: Hoy, Biggles time we were out of here

The time: 1991 The place: Iraq The man: John Nichol, RAF navigator
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Once we start to descend into Iraq and head towards the target, there's that initial shock where you think, "Shit, I'm about to attack a foreign country", and then all the training takes over. I know my pilot in the front will do his job unquestioningly and he knows that I will do mine.

But when we got to the target our attack went dreadfully wrong. The bombs didn't come off the aircraft, and that was almost certainly because of a mistake I made in the heat of the moment.

So we go through that breast-beating thing - we even thought about going round and attacking the target again, which is, militarily, suicide. Your initial reaction is, "My God, what's everyone going to say to me?"

We couldn't re-attack, so we started to head back towards the Saudi border, and we're flying along about 600mph about 30ft above the desert, and we're hit by a surface-to-air missile. So we were flying at 30ft, looking up at the bright blue sky thinking, "Shit, we really fucked up there", and suddenly there's a massive explosion, the aircraft flips over and kind of skids along the desert. And I'm still looking up, but the desert's there now. We were within a nanosecond of hitting the ground, but John, my pilot, managed to get control and we staggered off. We'd taken a missile up the right engine, the back of the aircraft was on fire, a lot of warning systems were going off, the fly-by-wire system had been disabled - it was totally knackered.

For the first instant when the missile hits it's just total fear, total and utter panic. But about five seconds later your training kicks in. We started to limp towards the border, trailing fuel and flames behind us. In peacetime, if your aircraft catches fire you eject, because it can explode; you're flying on 6 tons of fuel. But in wartime you don't want to do that - this is a hand-held missile system that shot us down, a range of about a mile, so the person who shot us knew we were in desperate trouble. We were trying to limp back to the border, desperately putting out radio calls saying "help, help, help". Our thought was "Let's get to the Saudi border, eject, we'll be picked up by helicopters and back home for tea and medals."

But you've got a rear-view mirror in a Tornado, and I looked, and the back of the Tornado wasn't there any more. It was just a ball of flame; we were flying what looked like a comet. So I said, "Hoy, Biggles, time we were out of here." So we ejected. You're only in the parachute for about four seconds and then you hit the desert at 20mph. You've gone from your cold, clinical, air-conditioned cockpit to being a very small, very pink, very frightened body in the middle of a bloody big desert.

I ran over to John; we got ourselves together and ran off. There were some special forces in the area, about 15 miles away. But it was 9 o'clock in the morning, it was bloody daylight, nobody was going to pick up us until nightfall. But there's two huge parachutes billowing in the wind, there's a burning Tornado with a huge pyre of smoke, so they knew where we were. We were on the run for about three hours.

We were hiding in a dip in the sand; I was trying to hide behind a cactus plant. They came over the rise, a shout went up and they began shooting at us. There was a bit of pantomime: we tried to give ourselves up and every time we stood up they started to shoot. We thought about trying to shoot it out, knowing we would be killed, but thank God, we didn't. And then they caught us and kicked the shit out of us. They took us back to the airfield our mates had just dropped tons of explosives on, paraded us around, lots of shooting, screaming crowds ranting and raving, and then we were dragged off to Baghdad.

I can't really go into it, because it's just too difficult. But for the next three days we were beaten, burnt, tortured.

You adapt to the situation; your needs change. Six hours previously, all I'd wanted was a cooked breakfast in the Sheraton; all I wanted them to do at that point was stop stubbing out a cigarette on me. It just goes down to that, but you don't lose hope. There are times when you think, "I am going to die now" - one of them puts a gun to your head and says, "I'm going to kill you" - and that's quite a calming experience because there is nothing you can do about it.

We were in a building bombed by Allied Stealth bombers. It's not a computer war; it's terrifying; it's bombs going off, it's walls coming down, it's limbs flying around, it's people dying, people screaming. We were dragged out of the rubble.

But the real fear comes from the unknown. On a couple of occasions they stuffed tissue paper down the back of my neck and set it on fire. It's the fear; you're more scared of being scared than of the physical torture itself. You are their little plaything; your whole world exists in a 7ft by 7ft concrete cell. You live minute by minute.

Forty-nine days into the experience an Iraqi came into my cell and said, "OK, the war's over, you are free to go", and that was it. We walked down a long line, got sprayed with cheap perfume, put on a bus, that's it. Off we went, back home, big curry, couple of beers and back to work.

I still think about what is happening there. All the people who burnt me and beat me - we were trying to kill them and their country and they were trying to stop us. I think, "Who's in that cell now? Who's waiting for the footsteps down the corridor and the cell door to be thrown open?"

The writer is co-author with John Peters of `Tornado Down' and `Team Tornado'. His first novel, `Point of Impact', is published this month by Hodder & Stoughton, price pounds 16.99.

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