SAS in war of words over Gulf film

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Defence Correspondent

The SAS broke its traditional silence in the face of publicity yesterday to issue an official condemnation of a London Weekend Television dramatisation of Chris Ryan's book The One that Got Away, about an SAS patrol behind Iraqi lines in the Gulf war.

The Ministry of Defence has finally realised that a policy of refusing to comment on Special Forces' operations can be self-defeating, although a senior officer said yesterday that it "doesn't mean the SAS will be giving regular press conferences". An MoD source said the programme had aroused wrath "on a scale I have never before encountered in the military. People who normally keep their identity secret have come out of the woodwork".

LWT yesterday said it "stands behind the film as a major contribution to the debate about deployment and tactics of the British armed forces during the Gulf war". But a member of the SAS patrol claimed that LWT had deliberately set out to tarnish the service's reputation.

David Lyon, Colonel Commandant of the SAS, said in letters to two national broadsheet newspapers yesterday that the portrayal of the deaths of SAS soldiers who were members of the patrol, Bravo Two-Zero, provided "wholly unnecessary additional grief to the wives, children, parents and other relatives of those SAS soldiers who died or were killed by Iraqi forces".

The film showed what another member of the patrol, who uses the pseudonym Andy McNab, described as "grossly inaccurate depictions of three dead men, in particular Sgt Vince Phillips". McNab, a sergeant, commanded the eight-man Bravo Two-Zero patrol, which became the subject and title of his first book. Of the eight men, three were killed, four were captured and one, Ryan, got away.

Until now, the SAS and the MoD have refused to comment on any stories involving "Special Forces" - the Army's Special Air Service,the Royal Marines' Special Boat Service and the RAF Special Forces' squadrons. But on this occasion high-ranking officers in the MoD decided to break the long-standing embargo on any public comment, which had permitted unchecked and unfounded allegations to be made with impunity.

The SAS has become big publishing business since General Sir Peter de la Billiere, an SAS officer who commanded British forces in the Arabian peninsula during the Gulf war, described SAS operations in his account of the war. Other members of the elite service felt that if a general could write about operations, so could they.

McNab's second book, Immediate Action, is at present top of the hardback best-seller list, where it has been for 16 weeks. Ryan's The One That Got Away is No 3 and a book called The Nemesis File, claiming to be written by an ex-SAS man is No 10. Bravo Two-Zero, which has sold 1.6 million copies, is also No 4 in the paperback best-seller list, where it has been for 62 weeks.

McNab told the Independent yesterday: "People in the regiment were incensed about it [the programme] . . . LWT have missed a golden opportunity to make not only good entertainment but also a documentary to show what really went on".