Express & Star

Toby Neal: There is little glory at the sharp end of war

After the SAS gunned down three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar years ago, the satirical magazine Private Eye ran a memorable front cover.

The embassy storming was screened live on TV

It showed a group of SAS men. One trooper says to the other: “Why did you shoot him 16 times?”

“I ran out of bullets,” replies the other.

The IRA trio were terrorists on a mission of mass murder. No doubt the creed of the SAS is that if you are going to play big boy games, you have to accept big boy rules.

The SAS shot to prominence in 1980 when live on television they stormed the Iranian embassy in London where for six days terrorists had been holding 26 people captive. All the gunmen were shot dead including, according to the accounts of hostages, two whom they had persuaded to surrender and who had thrown weapons out of the window. The inquest jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.

So I wasn’t particularly surprised by the claims this week in a BBC Panorama investigation that in Afghanistan SAS death squads had repeatedly “executed” unarmed Afghan detainees.

The silhouette of a soldier

Nor do I think, as some seem to, that by raising the matter the BBC has been somehow unpatriotic or undermining the work of the military. Cold blooded murder, if that turns out to be what it was, isn’t what most people associate with being the work of the military.

In the late 1940s, during the Malayan emergency, accusations surfaced that British troops had rounded up unarmed men in a jungle village and shot them. A national newspaper was outraged at this slur against “our boys” and, confident that nobody could, it challenged anybody to come up with evidence.

But they did. And the people who came forward were soldiers.

This is the thing. Military people themselves are as shocked and disgusted as anybody.

There are two different sorts of stories that you get from the front line. The first is the official versions, of victories and glorious offensives, the stuff you get in the military histories. And the second is the accounts of ordinary soldiers, sailors, and airmen.

I was brought up on war stories. My parents were both in the Second World War, and unlike many spoke about their experiences freely. It was, after all, how they met in the first place. My father’s wingman was shot down, and was beheaded several days after the war in the Far East had ended. In no circumstances whatever would dad buy a Japanese car.

There are many veterans’ anecdotes with the power to shock modern sensibilities. One that particularly stuck with me was the account by a sailor who was hauling aboard a boy of about 16 from a sunken German U-boat. There was, he said, a policy that if the U-boat crew did not divulge the number of their submarine, no survivors would be taken. So he was ordered to let go of the boy and drop him back into the freezing waters to die. It haunted him for the rest of his life.

If you think war is glorious and chivalrous, you need to listen to the accounts of those at the sharp end.


Did you see the Wimbledon final? The tennis was ****ing amazing.

But for me the whole thing was almost ruined by a shocking and unacceptable event, that incident when a woman in the crowd called out something as Kyrgios was about to serve and upset him.

It was ****ing disgraceful. I mean, who the **** let her in? Members of the royal family were there, for ****s sake!

Kyrgios was within his rights to complain, but perhaps he should reflect that he was lucky that it was the first time a Wimbledon final has been held with an umpire and line judges who are ****ing deaf.


There are some who keep their motor in pristine condition, but my old jalopy is an extension of my pockets.

A periodic clearout led to the rear seats being put down and the car being loaded up for a trip to our local recycling centre. While there I sought advice from a yellow-jacketed recycling operative.

As I finished up, I noticed she was still looking in my boot. It occurred to me she might be thinking: “That car’s a tip.”