Bahrain, December 1990
Vaughan Smith sat in Bahrain for two months wondering how to bluff his way into the Gulf War. And while he waited, staying temporarily with a friend, whose bookshelves he explored, he searched for inspiration in books that charted the exploits of the prisoners-of-war who had escaped from German camps in the Second World War: tales of false identity papers; disguises; repeated ingenious attempts to get out of Colditz, including building a glider; the Wooden Horse and the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III.
The difference was that while the POWs in the Second World War were trying to break out, he wanted to break in to a country that was nominally a British ally, but where Britons are not welcome unless they work for oil or defence. His aim was simple but would be difficult to carry out. He decided that the most likely way to get himself to the Gulf War front line would be to pose as a British soldier. For too long Vaughan had been going around London by bus hawking pictures taken by his colleagues: it was his turn in the front line.
There was no device like a wooden horse to make the crossing along the 14-mile narrow causeway from the friendly island of Bahrain into one of the most closed and secretive police states in the world. Saudi Arabia is the watchful guardian of the holiest sites in Islam, for a millennium a secretive and empty place to all but believers. The Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton had to disguise himself as an itinerant healer in order to travel there, a hundred years before Vaughan’s attempts. After the sea, the next line of defence, the desert, is just as hazardous. Saudi Arabia would have remained unimportant to all but pilgrims were it not for the discovery of oil. Under that wilderness lies a quarter of the known oil reserves in the world. The regime’s particularly severe reading of the Koran motivates its security. Oil gives the Sheikhs the ability to pay for the best military defences that money can buy from the most sophisticated arms dealers in history – Britain, France and America. And now the sheikhs needed more than their own defences. Saddam Hussein had seized Kuwait, and Britain and America were spearheading the largest task force seen in the world since the Korean War in an attempt to push the Iraqis back.
Vaughan was broke. If this plan did not work he knew that he could not continue to run Frontline; he would have to get a ‘proper job’. Overdrawn on every account, and up to the limit on his last credit card replacing cameras that the customs offi cers had taken off him on arrival (in these paranoid times any westerner with a camera was suspect), Vaughan realised he was truly on his own, with no back-up in London, let alone in Bahrain. When his cameras were taken by customs, he phoned up a Kensington video shop who sent a package by courier, which did arrive intact this time. He was nominally there for a German ZDF TV crew in Bahrain. They had the right to first use of his pictures, but they gave him no help in replacing the cameras lost at customs. Even his one-way plane ticket to the Gulf (which ZDF paid for) was booked only after Rory used his influence. He suffered from the usual discrimination against freelancers: because the ZDF crew on the ground had not commissioned him, they saw him as competition.
In his desperation Vaughan began looking in sports-goods shops for giant flippers, thinking he would swim across the Gulf, until someone told him about underwater surveillance and mines – not to mention the barracudas. Meanwhile his German ‘colleagues’ had the lavish resources of a large network, even hiring a speedboat for themselves, which sat for day after day on the quay, clocking up bills, to evacuate the crew if Bahrain became unstable. That moment never came since Bahrain was a long way from the war, but the speedboat made them feel secure. As the ZDF crew sat in their five-star hotel, trying to justify their expenses, the presence of an English freelancer was an unnecessary distraction.
Vaughan lost a stone in weight while he waited for almost two months in Bahrain, since all he could afford to eat were the bread and nuts he bought in the market. He spent his nights in the bars that make Bahrain a popular resting place for Europeans in the Gulf, where you can have a drink without being flogged – a place to chill out. This was where he got the confidence to carry out his bold plan. An ex-SAS friend who had been with him at the beginning had pulled out already, considering the plan to be a non-starter. But during Vaughan’s two months in Bahrain’s bars he had blended
in among British soldiers on their way up and down from the front. He mingled with them easily. No one was in uniform. Like him they were in what he knew was called ‘scruff order’, normal civilian clothes. Being an ex-Grenadier Guards offi cer, he spoke their language and understood how they thought, and decided he would try to give the impression that he was still a serving soldier who was normally based in Germany, who had come to Bahrain because he ‘didn’t want to miss the party’. It was a motivation they would understand. The British Army had not been to war for eight years, so many of the soldiers who had joined up after the Falklands would never have seen a shot fi red in anger, and would find his enthusiasm entirely plausible. Besides, Vaughan had personal motivation too: he had been to a party in London a few weeks before, for a friend still serving in the Grenadier Guards who was heading for the Gulf, and Vaughan had promised that he would ‘see him in Baghdad’. He wanted to make good the promise.