The rules: Riding for the SAS

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Enduro riding over rocky savannah and scrub requires stamina, bravery and skill. Dodging bullets from guerrilla soldiers takes some cajolies too.

Luckily, most of us have never had to do both at once. But most of are not Bravo Two Zero author Andy McNab. In fact none of us is. Except Andy McNab.

And it was he who, while touring the country promoting his new book Red Notice - the story of a biker and SAS soldier who finds himself on a Eurostar train besieged by terrorists - made time to tell MCN ‘The Rules’ of riding for the SAS.

McNab is a keen biker too. As a civvy he rides a BMW R1200GS Adventure. In the SAS he’s acted as a bike-mounted reconnaissance scout in numerous ‘advance to contact’ missions behind enemy lines. 

With no helmet or body armour, the scouts ride ahead of the group on trail bikes to check for potential traps or ambushes, inevitably making contact with the enemy along the way – hence the name.

When that happens, they have to turn around and get back to the others.  With bullets flying, falling off is not an option. The prize for a quick time is their life.

If you ever inadvertently ride into the midst of a hostile guerrilla fighting force, in south London for example, you’ll be glad of reading McNab’s Rules. 

We used bikes a lot in the Middle East and Africa in the late Eighties. The terrain was scrub and savannah. It’s undulating ground that might rise two or three metres, with lots of shale. It’s just like a bit of enduro really. It’s a lot better than sand dunes. That would be a nightmare. 

We’d use the bikes for scouts. You’ve got the main group, vehicles, Land Rovers, whatever they may be, and you’ve got two scouts who have to clear a route.

It’s called ‘advance to contact’. You’re advancing expecting to make contact with the enemy. ‘Contact’ means a fire fight.

Suppose the group needs to advance across a wadi, or a valley. That means you’re on high ground and you have to move down. It’s always dodgy because, once in the wadi, you can get trapped. It’s a bad area to move in.

So the main group will stay on high ground and act as a Fire Support Group, or FSG, while the bikes go down to have a look around. As the bikes are moving the FSG has its weapons up and ready, making sure they can get fire wherever needed.

The sorts of weapons they’ve got have a range of a kilometre plus, so they can cover the whole wadi. If there’s a drama their heavy machine guns will start to hose down the area so the scouts can get back.

As a scout, you’ll check there isn’t an ambush waiting for the group. You’ll soon know because hopefully the enemy will start opening up when they hear you.

If they’re smart, they won’t, because they’ll know that you’re just reconnaissance and more are on the way. But nine out of 10 times they’ll start opening up straight away because they’re scared.

Lead scouts do exactly the same thing in the jungle but on foot. They might only be 15 metres ahead of the group. You’re using the bike to open up more territory, perhaps 300 metres ahead.

You’re looking for man-made hazards too. The enemy may have blocked the route through the wadi by blowing up the sides with high explosives, bringing debris and rock crashing down.

If it’s 400 metres into the wadi, it won’t be visible from high ground. And if they’ve done it right, you won’t see it at all until you get to it.

It would slow the group down and that’s the moment you’d get zapped. So the scouts go in first to make sure the group can move through. Once they know it’s clear, they’ll stay where they are and radio the group saying “Yep, come on down.”

There are two scouts and they must cover as much distance and do as much reconnaissance as possible. To do that, one will stay where he is while the other one goes ahead until he’s just beyond view of the first.

That’s what known as the tactical bound. It could be 10 or 15 metres depending on the terrain. Then he stops and the first one takes his turn to go ahead, and so on.

At a certain point you might hit a natural limit, like a river. That’s your limit of exploration. As soon as you’re there, you radio the main group to come forward. Once they’ve arrived, the bikes can rattle over the river.

If you’re carrying all that gear it’s an extra 40lbs on a small bike. And you’ve got to keep you ears uncovered at all times, to hear what’s going on. Your best weapon is speed and the heavier you are, the slower you’re going to be. The more gear you’ve got on, the more encumbered you are.

Your job is to get out there and do reconnaissance, not plod along. So people don’t bother with helmets and body armour. Use elbow and knee pads if you want. You will fall off though. 

You’ll always be dropping the bike and getting cut, certainly in brush. Take the pain, quite frankly. If you’re in contact you’re not going to feel anything anyway until later on.

A lot of the lads wear gloves and keep skin covered because otherwise you start to peel in the sun. Something to protect your face from getting scratched by shrub is a good idea.

You’re going slowly, not revving the engine, because you’re trying to keep the noise down as much as possible. But at the same time you’re trying to move through the brush. Progress will be in fits and starts.

In tight brush it’s obviously going to be slower. Crossing open ground you’ll open up a bit. Whoever is static will switch off his engine, because he needs to use his ears and listen to what’s going on.

He doesn’t want to make any more noise than necessary.

The scouts have two-way communication, with radios strapped to the bike and in some cases linked to the battery. You put them on what’s called permanent chat setting, so you don’t have to press the button.

As you’re riding ahead, you just waffle constantly to the other scout. Then he always knows what’s going on. 

Because it’s shrubland, it offers cover and you’re trying to use it. If you get to a rise in the ground you might stop, lie the bike down and crawl up to have a look over the other side before progressing. If there’s a depression in the ground, you can use it to disappear. 

Choose a route that takes advantage of cover. You’re not just going in a straight line. The cover in shrubland also means that, when you come across the enemy, they will only be on average five-to-eight metres away.

Nine out of 10 times you will make contact because they hear you coming. You know it’s going to happen. What you’re trying to do is clear the ground of a rebel army – certainly that’s what it usually was in Africa – so you’re going to meet them.

You’re trying to find them. If you’ve established they’re not in one place, you say, “Right, they must be over there,” and head in that direction. It’s a fighting patrol and that’s what you do.

But as a scout your job is not to fight because there are only two of you and you will lose. When there’s a contact, you just turn around and go back. You don’t start engaging. It’s not as if you’ve got a weapon ready because you’re busy riding.

You have a pistol in a thigh holster but that’s just really for when you’re in the s**t. You’ve just got to spin it round and get back.

As you’re getting away, get on the radio and say “Contact” to the main group. Then they know you’re coming back. It’s the only time you say contact on the radio.

You need to know where you are, so you can tell the group. And you need to get back as soon as possible. There are no big tactics here. You just turn around, keep your head down and go for it.

Prey that you won’t drop it. Use more speed and less haste. Because it you start flapping and drop the thing, you’re not going to pick it up. It’s not like the films. You’d just have to keep going on foot, running, but that obviously slows you down.

Sometimes I naturally want to put my feet down and paddle. It’s not always the best advice because there can be lots of rocks.

In contact it’s really useful to be a good rider but you can’t always have the best out there. You can’t have the same lead scouts all the time because it’s exhausting.

There’s so much concentration required. So what you get is a mixture of good, medium and sometimes bad riders. But the best way to improve is to spend time as a scout.

You can only do so much training. You’ll learn more actually doing it. And the fact is, you’ve got to do it. 

We had three casualties on bikes during the South African-Angolan conflict. We were in savannah near the Botswana border, on locally bought Yamaha 200s. At one stage, we entered heavier bush and virtually bumped into rebels.

There was no coordination in their fire. It was chaos. You could have been hit by accident just as much as on purpose.

We had to get out but instead of turning around and going back the way we’d come in, we went sideways and ran into more of them.

We should have gone the way we knew but we thought we’d get a bit of confusion going. We cocked it up.  We got split up. 

Because they’d had no radio contact from us, the main group started to race forward and we met halfway. The other scout had been shot in the foot but he hadn’t noticed until then because of the adrenalin. He’d lost huge amounts of blood without realising it.

Later he got the piss taken out of him. Getting shot in the foot is nearly as bad as in the arse. It’s not very heroic.

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Steve Farrell

By Steve Farrell