BOOK REVIEW / Damn good fight with the sneaky-beakies: Storm Command - General Sir Peter de la Billiere: HarperCollins, pounds 18

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' 'INSTANTLY took a dislike to the Iraqis,' I reported to Bridget that evening. 'They were intelligent but shifty, and I decided there and then that I trusted them even less than before. My abiding impression is of dislike, distrust and a sense of evil that exists in Saddam Hussein and members of his regime.' '

So Britain's Middle East commander 'reported' to his wife after encountering the Iraqi generals who came to surrender at Safwan on 3 March 1991.

The Gulf war is already slipping from memory. Events and impressions that we thought would stay with us for ever are blurred, uncertain, confused. By putting them down on paper, General Sir Peter de la Billiere is doing an essential service.

But his long-awaited personal account is more than that. It is readable and revealing - remarkably so, in places. It is a crucial part of the historical record of the war, and also a valuable insight into the mind of a senior military officer and adventurer. Many of the sights and impressions he records struck others as well - but sometimes his reaction is intriguingly different. And a comprehensive general account of the conflict is enlivened and deepened by amusing, sometimes touching, anecdotes.

The most important historical revelations concern the conduct of 'sneaky-beaky' special forces operations inside Iraq, and whether or not Saddam Hussein himself was an Allied target. Having served in the British Special Air Service for much of his 39-year military career, as well as being the British commander, Sir Peter was in a unique position to know about these operations. The decisive effect of British and, later, US special forces on the Iraqi Scud offensive - which, in turn, helped keep Israel out of the war and the coalition together - is well known. But the detail is more gripping than fiction; the graphic account of an SAS corporal's harrowing 200-mile escape through western Iraq, for instance - a tale almost too incredible for a thriller.

General Norman Schwarzkopf was initially sceptical about the value of 'special forces'. Sir Peter persuaded him differently. Military historians have until now tended to deride the importance of such cloak-and-dagger operations as peripheral to the massed, mechanised tedium of recent wars. But the role of special forces seems, if anything, to be on the increase.

Sir Peter says the Allies would have killed Saddam Hussein, 'had it been possible, but he was crafty and well protected and also had the luck of the devil'. On two occasions Saddam was believed to be at a military target that had been selected for attack: one was a vehicle convoy hit by US aircraft; the other a mobile caravan headquarters that he used from time to time. On both occasions, he was either not there, or escaped.

The non-military reader may be bemused by the directness and straightness of the style. It may even provoke the odd smile. Sir Peter 'reports' to his wife; colleagues are praised for being 'well turned out'; an SAS patrol 'would not have given in without a damn good fight. . .'

But his impressions of the theatre of war will strike many chords. The colossal size of the facilities, the immense dual carriageways of Riyadh, the space-age buildings 'given an exotic oriental look by arched doorways and windows and fretted screens'. The author hates living in hotels, and takes a spartan view of 'five-star luxury'. But for many - including some servicemen, as he has the humour to admit - staying in five-star hotels for the first time in their lives was a new and pleasant experience. And on returning to England, he enthuses about the sight of green fields and the 'soft, moist air of home'. It was indeed very different from the hard, dry sweep of the desert. Some even found the gloom and green of England soggy and oppressive after the Arabian light. But after 39 years of the Army, the General remains a man with very individual likes and dislikes, and these are reflected throughout this important and enjoyable book.