“Chris Ryan” is not his real name. Now he’s 50 years old, the author of several books, a television star, and a personal bodyguard somewhere in the U.S.A. 30 years ago, he was a proud member of the 22nd Special Air Service, on a secret mission in the Iraqi desert, and he was all alone. Separated from the rest of his squad, he ran for his life for seven days, setting a unique escape-and-evasion record that still stands today.
Bravo Two Zero was the code name for a squad of eight SAS commandos dropped off by helicopter to the northwest of Baghdad, about 200 miles behind enemy lines. The date was January 22, 1991. Their job was to set up an observation post, called a lay-up place, where they could spy on a major highway. The team hoped that a mobile scud launcher would roll by. If it did, they were to report its location and call in an airstrike. They were also supposed to sabotage a fiber-optic communications line running along the highway.
Things went bad almost immediately. The team’s radios did not work. There was very little cover. The landscape was generally “flat as a billiard table” with few hiding places, and the rocky ground was too hard to dig into with their entrenching tools. The team had to walk for miles in the dark to their objective, carrying 200 pounds of gear each. After finally reaching their position at night, the team hid in a wadi, a dry creek bed, just a short distance from the highway. The next afternoon, a boy herding sheep passed close to the wadi. Believing he had discovered the patrol’s position, they prepared to move out. Almost immediately they heard the sounds of a tank approaching, and popped up to destroy it with LAW rockets. It turned out to be a man with a bulldozer, who clearly saw them and ran away. The team knew they had to escape before enemy troops arrived.
What happened next is controversial. According to three of the surviving patrol members, an Iraqi Army unit stationed at a nearby anti-aircraft position attacked them. Patrol leader Andy McNab’s book about the mission describes a huge firefight, with the SAS team destroying armored personnel carriers and mowing down scores of Iraqi troops. This may have been an exaggeration. As good as the SAS are, it is doubtful that eight commandos on open ground with no cover could prevail against hundreds of mechanized infantrymen without taking any casualties. Regardless, a firefight of some size did occur. Chris Ryan recalls shooting about 70 rounds of his ammo as the team broke contact from the enemy, leaving their heavy packs behind to run faster.
The standard escape and evasion plan was to travel south toward the border with Saudi Arabia, but team leader McNab decided to head northeast for the Syrian border instead. This decision had fateful consequences. Search and rescue helicopters bravely flying behind enemy lines in search of the team had no chance of finding them. The weather was cold and raining. In the dark, the team became separated when McNab tried to call for help using the radios. Not realizing five of the team members had stopped to make the radio call, Chris Ryan, Mal MacGown, and Vince Phillips continued traveling on. The two parts of the squad could not relocate each other. Of the five men in McNab’s group, two would be killed and three captured by the enemy.
Ryan’s group continued to head north, and the weather worsened. Cold rain became freezing rain, then snow. Having left their heavy packs behind during the firefight, the men had no protection from the extreme cold. The night of January 25, Vince Phillips died of hypothermia, freezing to death in a ditch. The next day, approaching the end of his strength, MacGown approached an old goat herder and asked for help locating a vehicle. After a brief shootout, he was quickly captured by Iraqi troops. Chris Ryan was all alone.
Moving at night and hiding each day, Ryan continued to work his way north using the stars as his guide. When he heard dogs barking or saw the lights of vehicles or buildings, he would avoid them by making his path into a box shape. First counting his steps as he went due west, he would stop a safe distance away at a round number he could remember, such as a thousand steps. Turning north again, he would walk for a few miles, then turn east and count to a thousand steps again. He had no food. He drank water out of creeks and streams when he could, but even paid a price for this. The water from one creek burned down his throat and made him retch, leaving him more thirsty than he was before. The British military later discovered he had gulped down radioactive waste from an Iraqi nuclear material processing facility upstream.
Near the Syrian border, Chris Ryan began to hallucinate. His body had begun consuming its own muscles to stay alive, and he was badly dehydrated. He saw his daughter in front of him showing him the way and he stumbled forward, trying to hold her hand. In his book, he claims to have destroyed a troop carrier with a LAW rocket and engaged in another firefight with Iraqi troops in the desert. Subsequent investigations have found no evidence that this actually happened. Ryan may have hallucinated this or made it up for his book. On the other hand, somewhere in the endless desert of northern Iraq there may still be a burned out vehicle surrounded by skeletons. Exhausted and out of ammunition, Ryan was eventually discovered while crawling a short distance from a tall fence he had barely managed to climb. It was the Syrian border fence. He had successfully escaped Iraq, seven days and eight nights after the team had left the wadi. He had lost a potentially fatal 36 pounds in a single week. His toenails had fallen off of their badly damaged toes. His body had consumed so much of itself that his teeth were loose because his gums had receded.
Chris Ryan’s successful escape and evasion from the Iraqi military stands as an SAS record. His 200+ mile trek through the desert with no supplies surpasses the previous record by over 100 miles distance. He received England’s Military Medal for the feat. Unable to heal up enough to return to active service, he finished out his career as an instructor, leaving the military three years later. Although some of the claims made by him and his surviving squad mates about firefights with the enemy are hard to believe, there is no doubt about the distance Ryan covered on foot in the desert, or the time he took to do it. The only member of Bravo Two Zero to survive capture or death, he was the one that got away.