In this extract from his book Bloodied But Not Beaten, published by David Ling, veteran journalist Rod Vaughan tells of an investigation which exposed one of the last great secrets of the 1990–91 Gulf War.
From the moment I arrived to interview Henry and Daphne Halkyard I sensed that it was going to be an extremely painful ordeal for them.
The retired English couple, who had lived in New Zealand for thirty years, were still troubled by the memories of being held captive in Iraq seven years previously. Reliving that traumatic time was not something they wanted to do but they were still searching for the truth about their incarceration and hoped that I could help them.
They were quintessentially old-school English, polite to a fault and not prone to any overt displays of emotion or affection, although I sensed a very deep bond between the two of them.
As the camera rolled, they told their story calmly and deliberately with occasional flashes of anger and frustration and I was left wondering how two people could be so stoical after enduring such an awful experience.
Their nightmare began as they were returning to New Zealand after a trip to England to help Daphne’s elderly mother move into a rest home. As they boarded British Airways flight BA149 at London’s Heathrow airport they had no idea they were about to be caught up in one of the last great secrets of the 1990–91 Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
For reasons that have never been properly explained, their jumbo jet was allowed to fly into Kuwait hours after the Iraqi invasion, putting their lives and those of more than three hundred and fifty other passengers and crew on the line. In Kuwait they were taken hostage, with the Halkyards and many others later being moved to Iraq, where they were used as human shields by Saddam Hussein.
It was an extremely harrowing experience that left many of them physically and emotionally shattered and wondering how they ever came to be in such a perilous situation. The questions continued to haunt them for years afterwards and, with producer Stephen Davis, I determined to unravel the mystery.
Our investigation for TVNZ’s Assignment programme would take us around the world as we set about unearthing the disturbing secret of BA149.
Our story began at Heathrow Airport, the world’s fourth busiest. It’s bedlam there at the best of times, as it was on 1 August 1990 when the 385 passengers and crew of BA149 converged on Terminal 4.
The flight’s ultimate destination was Kuala Lumpur with intermediate stops at Kuwait and Madras.
Chief Purser on the first leg to Kuwait was Clive Earthy, an affable Englishman who was only too keen to share his memories with us when we visited him at his Hampshire home.
He remembered driving to the airport that day and hearing a news bulletin that filled him with a sense of foreboding. It stated that Iraqi forces were actually massing on the border, some reports indicating that they were actually over the border. When he heard this he felt somewhat perturbed.
Henry and Daphne Halkyard had similar misgivings when they checked in. They had sensed trouble brewing in the Gulf and were alarmed to discover they would be passing through Kuwait.
Henry recalled: ‘I wasn’t particularly happy. I’ve never liked the Middle East since my days in the army when I was there: I always considered it to be a time bomb, and it was rather a shock to me that we were going there at all.’
Did you express any of those concerns to British Airways staff on the ground at Heathrow or to any of the cabin crew?
Henry: ‘I think we expressed it to everybody, felt very strongly right from the first misgivings at Heathrow.’
The Halkyard’s concerns were shared by a number of the British, French, American and Indian passengers on the flight.The aircraft was due to leave at four o’clock that afternoon, but a fault was detected in its auxiliary power unit, a small engine in the tail, which provides air conditioning.
This delayed the departure by two hours giving chief purser Clive Earthy, a chance to confer with the plane’s captain, Richard Brunyate, about the wisdom of landing in Kuwait.
Clive: ‘So the two of us got together on this and he said “I’m not overly happy about this Clive, are you?” And I said no but you’re the captain and if the reassurance is sufficient, bearing in mind the safety of the flight, let’s review it. Now this is one hour approximately before boarding.’
So you agreed to take that flight somewhat reluctantly?
Clive: ‘Yes, somewhat reluctantly because when you’ve got the news media telling you one thing and your company telling you something different . . . but then again you’re there to work and to take on a company like British Airways and refuse to fly an aeroplane and inconvenience the 400 people is quite a big step.’
Around six o’clock that evening BA149 prepared to depart for Kuwait. As the doors were about to close nine or ten clean-cut young men hurriedly boarded the plane.
The late arrivals took seats at the rear of the aircraft where they were noticed by Dr Paul Merlet, a French anaesthetist. He was already nervous about going to Kuwait and the appearance of the group only added to his fears.
The young men were not the only ones on board to arouse the curiosity of other passengers. In the first-class cabin was a high-ranking member of the Kuwait royal family and his bodyguard.
The first sector of BA149 from London to Kuwait was scheduled to take just over six hours, a run the crew had done many times before without trouble. This time, however, they weren’t taking any chances, as Clive Earthy recounted to us.
Clive: ‘I kept in touch with Captain Brunyate upstairs and indeed he phoned me down several times into the cabin to say “It’s looking good Clive, looking good, Heathrow are saying that there’s no reports, no new reports, or anything to indicate there’s any problem in Kuwait, so our destination is Kuwait.”’
During the flight BA149 passed another British Airways plane that had just left Kuwait. It reported no problems.
But by the time the plane touched down in Kuwait the situation had changed dramatically. Iraqi troops and tanks were now storming the outskirts of Kuwait City, having invaded the country three hours previously.
Why the plane was given landing clearance by the control tower amazed people on the ground, including Alistair Lane, a New Zealander living there.
Alistair: ‘The air traffic controllers in Kuwait knew — in my own mind they would have known that the invasion had happened. There was a lot of fighting up north at that time. At four o’clock in the morning it was two hours into the invasion . . . there were troops . . . they were fighting. Jarrah, which is the north city of Kuwait at that stage would have been almost overrun . . . there would certainly have been fighting in Jarrah, the people in Kuwait City would have known about it, and the troops would have been mobilised. There’s no way that the air traffic controllers in Kuwait did not know that the invasion had started.’
Less than one hour after BA149 landed the airport came under attack from Iraqi jet fighters, the attack occurring just as the airliner was preparing to depart on the second leg of its journey to Madras.
With bombs going off around them the passengers and crew hastily evacuated the aircraft and took cover in the terminal building. Daphne Halkyard said it was a scene of utter confusion. ‘We didn’t really know what the loud noises were, but there we were in the middle of an airport with a refuelled aeroplane — it was not a nice place to be.’
By now the Iraqis were firmly in control of Kuwait and the fate of everyone on BA149 was in their hands, except the group of young men who’d boarded the plane at the last moment in London.
They had mysteriously vanished within minutes of the jet landing.
Who they were and what they were about only became apparent much later on.
For the moment the occupants of BA149 were trapped in a war zone, the situation deteriorating rapidly, as Alistair Lane recalled to us.
‘The grim reality of it all set in on the Saturday, which is two days after the invasion when at that point the roads were literally covered with tanks and troops — you couldn’t move without, you know, stepping on something. And on that day the first of the hostages that we knew was taken, and that was a German colleague of ours who worked in the company. He got pulled out of his car and taken off to a hotel initially, and then a few days later was taken to Iraq as a human shield.’
The dire situation prompted the captain of BA149, Richard Brunyate, and several crew members to go into hiding, fearful of what could happen to them if they fell into the hands of the Iraqi invaders.
With the help of friendly Kuwaitis they disguised themselves as Arabs and hid in deserted apartment blocks, existing on scraps of food. They evaded capture for more than four months before being repatriated back to Britain.
However, the passengers and remaining crew members of BA149 were not so fortunate, kept under armed guard in various hotels and left to ponder their fate, their mood fluctuating between optimism and despair. After four days of being kept in limbo their nerves were on a knife’s edge, especially when those holding British, American, Canadian, French, German and Italian passports were ordered to surrender their passports and board some waiting buses.
This included the Halkyards who, for the sake of convenience, were travelling on their British passports instead of their New Zealand ones. As they clambered aboard the buses, clutching their meagre possessions, there was a mood of optimism when it seemed they were headed for the airport and perhaps freedom, but the mood was short-lived.
The vehicles bypassed the airport and took them to Basra in southern Iraq, where they boarded a train for Baghdad and the start of their terrifying ordeal as human shields at a nuclear enrichment plant just north of the city. Here they were kept captive in a rat-infested tin shed, surrounded by a three-metre-high fence.
Living conditions at Tarmyah where the Halkyards were held were squalid and food was scarce.
Henry continued: ‘The septic tank at the enrichment plant was right outside the shower door, the shower window sort of thing at the end of the building, and it had no top on it, and it was pretty black and overflowing, so the aroma came in from outside. That wasn’t the best, and it used to overflow into a sort of black soggy mess around which one tried to walk.’
The Halkyards spent almost two months in such conditions not knowing what to expect next.
Daphne: ‘Chronic fear became a way of life with us. Every day there was something upon which we would focus — it varied. We were afraid of being bombed by the western allies. We were afraid of illness, obviously. We were afraid of being lynched. We were afraid of the breakdown of some of our fellow hostages. Obviously there was no freedom of speech — we were afraid of letting something slip that could have jeopardised members of our little group. We were watching our backs the whole time, but there was nothing we could do, nothing we could
You felt your life was on the line?
Daphne: ‘Throughout our incarceration, yes. We lived a day at a time, but we had no illusions whatsoever as far as our situation were concerned.’
Iraq presented a much different picture to the rest of the world. It broadcast pictures of the Halkyards and other hostages being treated as honoured guests of the Iraqi government. It was a charade that deceived few people, least of all the Halkyard’s daughter, Rowan, back home in New Zealand.
She held grave fears for the safety of her parents.
Rowan: ‘The whole thing was traumatic, the news varied from day to day. One day we would be told that the hostages would be having their food rations cut, which was absolutely terrifying. The next thing you know there was talk of a third world war. We knew — well we had a sketchy idea about — not where they were but the situation in which they were being held, and we knew that their situation was grave to say the least, so it was frightening, terribly frightening.’
Did you ever think you’d never see them again?
Rowan: ‘To myself, towards the end of the time that they were there, I had accepted to a very large degree that they wouldn’t be coming home.’
You thought they were a lost cause?
Rowan: ‘Definitely, yeah. The chances were very high that we would not see them again.’
Other human shields, like the chief purser of BA149, Clive Earthy, were in a similar predicament. He told us he was in no doubt that lives hung in the balance should the west invade Iraq.
Clive: ‘Our guards and the Iraqi commanders around the docks were very, very unhappy about this, and one afternoon six Iraqi soldiers came into the garden of the bungalow where we were and they dug a massive great hole, approximately three feet deep by about eight foot square.
I wandered outside, only on to the veranda — we weren’t allowed any further — but I was chatting to a particularly young Iraqi soldier and I said, “What the hell’s that hole for?” And he said, “Oh it’s a latrine Mr Clive.” “Well,” I said, “a latrine? But we’ve got toilets in this bungalow that flush.” “Ah no, not a latrine, it is for rubbish, to burn the rubbish.”
“But,” I said, “the rubbish? You’re piling it over there against the wall and burning it down every evening. Come on, tell the truth.” He said, “Well actually it’s for you guys. The first sign of any invasion at all, and my commander has said that we have to shoot you.”’
Also fearing for her life was New Zealander Gaela Tolley, who was living in Kuwait.
Her husband was out of the country on business when the invasion occurred. Left to fend for herself and her three young children she managed to escape captivity by sheltering with Kuwaiti resistance fighters, but not before a life- threatening encounter with Iraqi soldiers who arrived unannounced at her apartment.
She recalls: ‘They had their faces covered and they had guns, and they wandered into my place and I can tell you — I mean you don’t let people like that into your place anyway, but especially when they come like that.
So I got on my hands and knees and crawled out the front door and got away with the boys, but they went upstairs and they went to the next apartment and they tied up our friend and raped her for about three hours, and her husband had been tied up in the bathroom. So I mean it was pretty serious.’
Gaela escaped across the desert disguised as the wife of a diplomat.
It was about this time Daphne Halkyard was given the chance of freedom when Iraq released a number of women and children who had been held hostage. She was confronted with a terrible dilemma.
Every woman had a very difficult decision to make. I knew that my family, my children — our children — would look after each other, Henry would have been on his own. I decided that it was right for me to stay, but I often had misgivings because if both of us were to have been killed, well, then we would have left our children bereft. But no, I based my decision on what I believed to be right.’
An incredibly tough decision nonetheless.
Did it cause you much soul searching?
Daphne: ‘Yes, it did. I thought I had made the right decision but — and yes, we all made our decisions on varying grounds — it was very, very hard.’
Henry, how did you feel about that, the fact that Daphne could have gone but elected to stay with you?
Henry: ‘I felt very humble. I shall always be indebted to her for staying with me.’
By now the West was exerting extreme pressure on Iraq to release people who were being used as human shields, people like the Halkyards. Their situation was desperate and there were grave fears that they would become casualties of the bloody conflict.
Just when it seemed that their fate was sealed former British Prime Minister Ted Heath went to Baghdad and successfully negotiated their release.
The Halkyards could not believe their good fortune. Almost three months after leaving London on BA149 they finally arrived home in Warkworth, relieved to be safe and secure with their family and friends.
They tried to put those terrible memories behind them, but found it impossible to bury the past. They were still haunted by a fundamental question. Why was BA149 allowed to fly into a war zone and put the lives of so many people at risk?
Like the other passengers who became human shields they still didn’t have an answer.
Daphne: ‘The silence has amazed us. We feel that we were entitled to some sort of explanation of the events that left us for 84 days at the mercy of the Iraqi people. We have made all inquiries that we could, but there seems to have been a conspiracy of silence.’
How do you feel Henry?
Henry: ‘Oh, I’ve been spitting tacks since August the second 1990. I feel it’s most unjust and because there is this cloak of silence, every inquiry has been held behind closed doors. I am deeply suspicious.’
Also deeply suspicious was British politician John Prescott, who, at the time of the Gulf War, was the Opposition Transport Spokesman in Britain. He suspected that BA149 was used to insert an SAS team into Iraq.
If he was right the team could have been put together at the last moment, hence the two-hour delay in the flight departing London at 6.15pm.
As the jumbo jet sped towards Kuwait the crew got hourly updates on the situation there from British Airways in London.They were reassured all was well, but it was not.
Three hours before they landed American intelligence reported that Iraqhad invaded Kuwait and conveyed the news to its allies in Britain and Europe, including the Kuwaiti ambassador in London. But for reasons that are not clear no warning was issued to the crew of BA149, which touched down in Kuwait at 1.15am on 2 August, and immediately found itself in the middle of a war zone.
All of which raises two crucial questions. Was news of the invasion deliberately withheld from the crew, and if so, by whom and why? Or was there a genuine communications breakdown, perhaps the result of human error, and if so who was to blame?
Our Assignment investigation found little evidence to support the ‘cock-up’ theory but much to suggest that the British government, with or without British Airways’ knowledge, withheld crucial information, because it wanted BA149 to land in Kuwait.
But why? Perhaps to offload the group of ten young men who some think were members of the SAS.
Clive Earthy tried to find out the answer from the person who checked-in the passengers at Heathrow.
Clive: ‘A flying colleague told me that his wife was actually working for British Airways at the ticket office, the check-in at Terminal 4 at Heathrow, and indeed had checked in Flight 149 passengers, and that she recalled a group of men turning up quite late after everybody had been sent down to the departure gate to board the flight, and she also mentioned to him that she had the impression that they were military.’
What gave her that impression?
Clive: ‘I believe it was something to do with the ticketing codes on the tickets.’
What did those codes indicate, what did they say?
Clive: ‘Well, to her presumably that they were a military account. However, when I subsequently tried to contact the lady — and indeed I did do just that — she denied all knowledge of the whole affair.’
Does she still work for British Airways?
Clive: ‘No she doesn’t. According to her husband she now works for the MoD.’
The Ministry of Defence?
Clive: ‘The Ministry of Defence, yes indeed.’
Texas lawyer Bill Neumann, who pursued a compensation claim for American passengers, also tried to establish the identity of the mystery men on the flight.
You tried to obtain a list of passengers?
Bill: ‘Yes we did.’
And you didn’t get one?
Bill: ‘That’s correct.’
Bill: ‘They basically said they didn’t have one as I recall.’
Did that surprise you?
Bill: ‘Yes it did. Yes very much so.’
What does that suggest to you?
Bill: ‘Well I think that probably gives some fuel or support for the notion that perhaps there was someone on board that they didn’t want people to know about.’
Would it surprise you that an SAS contingent may have been on that plane?
Bill: ‘It would not surprise me, no.’
As part of the compensation claim Bill Neumann also took depositions from British Airways ground staff stationed in Kuwait at the time.They revealed that a senior staff member and the family of another left Kuwait in a hurry, a few hours before BA149 landed.
Bill: ‘It surprised me that Amanda Ball, who was second in command, left that very evening a few hours before, and that the station manager sent his family away that very evening also on the last flight out before 149 arrived.’
So are you saying that a senior staff member and the family of a senior staff member fled just before the invasion occurred.
Bill: ‘They wouldn’t characterise it as fled, but one could assume that they were doing that under the circumstances, I believe.’
So clearly the alarm bells were ringing among the British Airways team in Kuwait yet no one saw fit to alert the crew of BA149 to the danger they were flying into. There was still plenty of time to divert them elsewhere but they were allowed to proceed to their destination as if nothing was wrong.
As we delved deeper into the circumstances of BA149’s untimely arrival in Kuwait we struck a wall of silence wherever we went.
The UK Ministry of Defence refused to make any comment whatsoever and British Airways also declined to be interviewed, after earlier agreeing to appear on the programme.
However, the airline later provided us with a statement, which said:
"While British Airways has every sympathy for those taken hostage, what happened to them was the result of an act of war by Iraq. British Airways had no prior notice that Iraq would invade Kuwait. British Airways cannot be held responsible for this act of war as courts in England, Scotland and the United States have agreed.
It is preposterous to suggest that British Airways would deliberately endanger its passengers, employees or aircraft in any way. We have never been aware that there were military personnel on board and Prime Minister John Major confirmed this.
Our captain and senior cabin crew have stated that no passengers joined the flight during its delay at Heathrow."
It was a carefully constructed statement that absolved British Airways from any culpability, but in one key respect it still didn’t tally with what people were telling us: some passengers clearly recalled a group of military-looking young men boarding the aircraft at the last moment and this was corroborated by the British Airways check-in agent, who spoke of a similar group turning up late for the flight.
To get to the bottom of the matter we headed to the English cathedral town of Hereford where the Special Air Service is based and met with several former members of the elite regiment, people with impeccable credentials, people whose identity we couldn’t reveal.
The meeting had been arranged through an intermediary who had assisted me with previous investigations I had conducted in the UK.
The men he introduced us to said there was, indeed, a top secret team on BA149, but it wasn’t entirely from the SAS. It also comprised members of the SIS otherwise known as MI6, Britain’s external intelligence service. The team’s mission was to activate an underground intelligence network in Kuwait as the invasion got underway.
Our sources revealed it was not the first time a British Airways flight had been used to ferry secret agents in and out of trouble. They claimed that in the days before the Shah of Iran was overthrown by the Ayatollahs a flight was diverted to Tehran to uplift a team of agents whose lives were in danger.
We had no reason to doubt the integrity of the people who gave us this information, as not only had some of them held high office in the SAS, they also claimed to have spoken with members of the team who were on BA149.
So, if our informants were correct a cynical decision had been made at the highest levels to use BA149 as a Trojan horse in order to infiltrate a joint SAS/MI6 team into Kuwait, and to hell with the safety of everyone else on board.
Such a scenario would explain why Henry and Daphne Halkyard and everyone else on the flight had struck a brick wall trying to uncover the secret of BA149, because had they been able to prove this, it would have resulted in massive compensation for all concerned.
Instead, the Halkyards and all the New Zealand and British passengers on board that fateful flight have received next to nothing, unlike some other nationalities on the plane who were compensated for the traumatic time they spent as human shields in Iraq.'
Daphne: ‘Yes, it still haunts one, it’s there every day. You get flashbacks and these moments of absolute terror and you wake up in the night sometimes thinking you’re still there.’
But in the event you’ve received absolutely nothing?
Daphne: ‘We haven’t received anything at all. We feel that we are justified to some compensation for what has happened, and yes, in the whole experience the thing that we feel most resentful about is the treatment we’ve received from British Airways.’
How would you describe that?
Henry: ‘We haven’t received anything, we haven’t received any letter or communication even earlier on to say we’re awfully sorry this happened to you, I hope you’re all right and all the rest of it, nothing.’
So what you’re saying is you feel you’ve just been left totally high and dry?
Today Henry and Daphne are no longer together.
The man she refused to abandon in Iraq died suddenly some years ago, leaving her to face the gremlins of the past alone.
Writing poetry has helped her come to terms with the dark days they shared in Iraq, not knowing from one day till the next whether they would be dead or alive.
THE FACE OF EVIL
I took a trip to hell and back. It’s not a lonely place;
It’s full of mindless people, and one man’s smiling face.
I saw the face of evil — its presence everywhere.
It smiles at you benignly, without a worldly care.
I heard the voice of peril — it speaks of peace and love.
The words are full of slogans and visions from above.
I watched the hand of danger caress a small child’s head.
I saw the hand extended as if to bless the dead
The parts all came together to form a single man,
Aspiring to greatness in a doomed and wasted land.
I took a trip to hell and back. I wasn’t there by choice;
But I can’t forget the hand, the face, the sound of Saddam’s voice.