War Stories

War Stories

Tabbing, Slotting and Humping Your Bergen

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 26, 2011

In 1991 after Saddam Hussein had invaded and occupied Kuwait, he started raining Scud missiles on his enemies. This was serious business, as the Scuds were being fired from truck-borne launchers that could “shoot and scoot”—hard to find and even harder to knock out.

Scud

A Scud missile on a mobile launcher. This was Bravo Two Zero's target.

Saddam’s most worrisome target was Israel. The Iraqi dictator was hoping to provoke a military response from the Jewish state, which he could then leverage into a wider war. His aim was to bring in other Arab nations on his side, thus furthering his own ambitions of becoming a second Gamal Abdel Nasser, i.e. the supreme and unifying champion of the Arab world.

The Coalition under President George H. W. Bush dispatched batteries of Patriot missiles to protect Israel’s cities. Still, allied commanders were justifiably apprehensive that the Israeli army could not sit on its hands forever, watching its citizens getting bombed and blown up. What could the Western powers do to knock out the Scuds?

They sent in Special Forces teams.

One such team was Bravo Two Zero. Eight British SAS commandoes under a highly-decorated sergeant named Andy McNab were dropped behind the Iraqi lines with orders to locate and knock out as many mobile Scuds as they could.

The operation went wrong from the get-go.

Here is Andy McNab from his page-turner recounting of that mission—Bravo Two Zero:

We’d been listening to vehicles bumbling up and down the MSR [Main Supply Route: the highway] all day. They posed no threat.

Around mid-afternoon, however, we heard a young voice shout from no more than 150 feet away. The child hollered and yelled again; then we heard the clatter of goats and the tinkle of a bell.

If you’ve read Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, you know what’s coming next. The same thing happened to him and his team of Navy SEALs.

The goats came closer … I felt my thumb creep towards the safety catch of my 203.

The bell tinkled right above us. I looked up just as the head of a goat appeared on the other side … Everyone was rock still. Only our eyes were moving.The top of a young human head bobbed into view … I saw the profile of a small brown face … I silently shouted at him not to look down.

He looked down.

Our eyes met and held. I’d never seen such a look of astonishment in a child’s eyes.

Now what? He was rooted to the spot. The options raced through my mind.

Do we top him? Too much noise. Anyway, what was the point? I wouldn’t want that on my conscience for the rest of my life.

The boy started to run.

McNab and his guys give chase but the youngster gets away. The team is screwed and they know it. They pack up in a hurry.

B20

The SAS team whose call sign was Bravo Two Zero

There was no need to say anything; everybody knew we’d have to take it as a compromise … There was about an hour and a half of daylight left. Our best weapon had been concealment, but the boy had disarmed us. Where we were, we couldn’t fight. It was such a closed environment that it would take just one or two HE [High Explosive] rounds to hose us down. The only option was to get out in the open and fight, or maybe get away. We were in the shit if we stayed where we were, and we were in the shit if we were out in the open because there was no cover. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire, but at least in the fire we had a slim chance.

A firefight with two Iraqi armored personnel carriers ensues. McNab refers to tabbing (hiking), slotting (killing) and packing their bergens (backpacks.) When one of the vehicles turns and flees, McNab takes off after it. Iraqi soldiers are leaping into the back of the APC …

They were running turning, giving it good bursts, but it was a splendid sight. I fancied a cabby myself with my 66, and discovered in the adrenaline rush that I’d left it in my Bergen. Wanker!

As I said, McNab is a Brit. (By the way, I have NO idea what that previous sentence means.)

I won’t reveal the rest of the tale, except to say that eight men went in and only five got out. A ripping yarn, told with style and muscle by Andy McNab. The Murphy’s Law takeaways from Bravo Two Zero’s mission are the expected two:

If something can go wrong, it will—and at the worst possible moment.

And no plan survives first contact with the enemy, even if that enemy is only an innocent, goat-herding boy.

One sidebar note re my own writing. Bravo Two Zero powerfully influenced the way I wrote The Afghan Campaign. McNab’s pervasive use of soldier’s slang rang so true and produced such an air of authenticity that when I sat down to try to reimagine, from an infantryman’s point of view, Alexander the Great’s campaign in Afghanistan in 330 B.C., I decided that I needed a grunt’s argot too. So I invented a slang lingo for my Macedonians. Most of it worked, but I did screw it up in a few places. Wanker!

Posted in War Stories

9 Responses to “Tabbing, Slotting and Humping Your Bergen”

  1. Tina
    September 26, 2011 at 5:07 am

    That was made into a movie!! Never read the book but the movie was really good!! The way they extracted themselves and how they worked together was truly heroic!! Like “A Bridge Too Far” the plan just just fell apart — that was on a much larger scale but still the same in many ways.

  2. September 26, 2011 at 7:29 am

    This line is worth the whole post: “And no plan survives first contact with the enemy, even if that enemy is only an innocent, goat-herding boy.” I’m going to save it. A great post in its entirety. You might be interested to know that in 1991 everyone – pundits, politicians, religious figures, etc. – predicted massive casualties in Israel as a result of the Scuds. The Lubavitcher Rebbe alone predicted that not one Israeli would die as the result of a direct hit. He was right – despite billions of dollars of damage. There’s an amazing picture of a person imprisoned to the neck, but alive. He was rescued.

  3. September 26, 2011 at 7:47 am

    The slang worked great and so did the nick names: Love Locks and Socrates Red Beard. It made it easy to imagine what this army and Alexander were like.

    “Bang the bone!” Steven, give us another book!

  4. September 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    I love McNab’s Bravo Two Zero and Immediate Action. I also don’t want to give too much away, but check out The One that Got Away by Chris Ryan too.

    McNab is a great storyteller and a treasure trove of boots-on-the-ground information. Reading Bravo Two Zero, I was amazed how those men maintained a sense of humor in some very dire situations. Overall, I was very influenced by his attitude and voice, those of a professional soldier. From Immediate Action:

    You don’t saunter out of a security forces station; you bomb-bust out–which means that you run like a f***ing idiot for about twenty-five meters to get out of the immediate vicinity, before regrouping.

  5. Wiz
    September 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    If you liked Bravo Two Zero, you might want to check out Lions of Kandahar (this story is amazing). After reading that you may ask yourself where do we find people like that? Try this site…
    http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2010/1110_moh/
    That site is better than any book you will read (sorry Steven)

    • September 26, 2011 at 5:10 pm

      Just ordered Lions of Kandahar, thank you for the suggestion.

  6. September 27, 2011 at 6:14 am

    Er, before you all get too excited about McNab and Ryan, you might want to read about what their former comrades think of their books.

    Also, watch the following documentary in which Michael Asher—a former SAS/Para soldier turned desert explorer who himself wrote a soldiering book a few years ago (“Shoot to Kill”)—retraces the Bravo Two Zero patrol on foot a few years later and pulls it apart piece by piece, including some of the taller, more Hollywood-like tales in the book which are pretty much physically impossible.

    The heroic death episodes in which before they fall they take down hundreds of Iraqis with a couple of grenades are also deconstructed with more realistic outcomes.

    Specifically, he takes apart the part of the book where they get seen in their LUP by the young shepherd boy that Steven has included above. He meets and interviews the actual boy.

    Asher discovers that there wasn’t any big firefight with storming F&M towards APCs and heavy machine guns. They dumped their bergens and legged it over the ridge after the dudes at the house fired a couple of shots over their heads.

    He also interviews the bloke who was RSM of 22 SAS at the time—who debriefed the survivors when they got back, including McNab and Ryan—who thinks it’s basically bollocks:

    http://matbe.net/nfbiCU

    As Asher concludes, it’s a shame they embellished their stories so much, because they were remarkable enough without tall tales.

  7. November 10, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Very interesting , thanks

  8. Spit and Polish
    July 25, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    Bravo Two Wankers.. These blokes were a walking taking Charlie Foxtrot and they embelished their kill nunber. This does not take away from their bravery which was great. They should have had better Comms with HF and SATCOM. Remember two is one and one is none when it comes to COMMS down range. The also should have used vhehicles such as Quads or LR 110’s with crew served weapons for defense.

    The well known problem is the SAS is now just another unit of the Parachute Regiment, where the used to have soldiers from across the British Army. The exclusive club of Paras has turned them into a bunch of headbangers. The SBS is a more professional organization and will likely remain so