Two British Troops Survive Iraqi Ambush, Trek to Syria

Two British special forces commandos escaped capture by Iraqi forces by trekking up to 100 miles through enemy territory and desert to the Syrian border.

One of the most stirring escape stories yet to emerge from the Iraq war ended with the two men being taken into custody by the Syrians, and the Prime Minister sending a personal envoy to Damascus to win their release. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence refuse to comment on an episode that had begun with the disastrous ambush of a secret British mission behind enemy lines, but details divulged to The Times suggest it was another case of triumph over adversity. Major Charles Heyman, Editor of Jane’s World Armies, said: “There’s no doubt whatsover this is the sort of high standard of evasion of the enemy on the ground we’ve come to expect of our special forces. It’s still pretty remarkable.”

Military sources said that on about April 2, in the second week of the war, a squadron of between 30 and 40 Special Boat Service (search) commandos were dropped by helicopter into northern Iraq to carry out reconnaissance and sabotage operations around Mosul. They split up into patrols, driving Land Rovers.

One of the patrols of about 10 SBS commandos spotted a suspected Iraqi reconnaissance patrol, but did not open fire because of doubts over whether it was an Iraqi Army unit or Kurdish soldiers. That SBS patrol ran into an Iraqi ambush and came under heavy fire. The commandos were forced to abandon their vehicles and head off across rough terrain into the hills. All survived the ambush. An emergency call summoned a Chinook helicopter to rescue them, but two were missing.

Al-Jazeera television subsequently showed pictures of jubilant Iraqis jumping on one of the British Land Rovers. Baghdad (search) claimed that 10 soldiers from the SAS had been killed. The MoD made a brief statement in which it confirmed that British soldiers had had to be “extracted” from northern Iraq, but made no mention of the two missing commandos.

The two SBS men set off for the Syrian border (search), seeking what a military source called a “safe haven”. They would have had desert clothing and hoods, as well as night-vision goggles. Their survival kit would have included a personal global positioning system the size of a mobile telephone, a map and other basics.

They would have travelled by night and hidden by day. Initially, at least, they would have been crossing country infested by Iraqi troops guarding oilfields. Later they would have crossed sparsely-populated desert. Once in Syria, they were almost certainly picked up by border guards.

On April 14 - the day the war effectively ended with the fall of Tikrit - Tony Blair sent Mike O’Brien, a Foreign Office minister, to Damascus to exploit Mr. Blair’s cordial relations with President Assad, of Syria, to win the commandos’ release. They flew home without publicity.

The commandos’ story bears a strong resemblance to the escape of Chris Ryan, the SAS trooper in the ill-fated Bravo Two Zero patrol during the 1991 Gulf War.

In that instance the eight-man SAS patrol ran into Iraqi troops while hunting Scud missiles in Iraq. One was killed in the subsequent firefight, four were captured and the other three tried to escape. Two died of hypothermia but Ryan managed to reach Syria.