The tough at the top

Share this article

LIEUTENANT Colonel Tim Collins was in full flow. In front of him, standing nervously to attention, was an American major who had foolishly dared to mess with one of the hardest men in the British Army and Collins - nicknamed ‘Nails’ by his men - was handing out a "good bollocking".

It was one small incident during the war on Saddam, one of a countless number of flare-ups between men coping with the intensely pressurised cauldron of battle, and should by now be forgotten.

But the major, 37-year-old Re Biastre, didn’t forget. Last week, apparently motivated by spite, the reservist who works as a school counsellor and part-time police officer in New York, made a series of allegations against his wartime tormentor that now threaten to ruin the image and derail the career of perhaps the British Army’s best-known soldier.

Until last week Collins, the commander of the Royal Irish Regiment, was regarded as having had a spectacularly good war. He was an international hero, and with his trademark sunglasses and cigar, was instantly recognisable to millions.

The stirring speech he delivered to his troops on the eve of battle hung on the wall of George W Bush’s Oval Office, and the same speech had so moved the Prince of Wales that he had written a personal note to the soldier. Collins was clearly a man to watch.

This weekend he is being watched closely, but for all the wrong reasons. Biastre’s allegations that Collins mistreated Iraqis in the country’s southern region have led to an investigation by the Royal Military Police.

There do seem to be at least grains of truth in some of the accusations against Collins. The former Gurkha and member of the Special Air Service, even before last week’s furore erupted, had admitted shooting out the tyres of a looter who ignored his orders to stop stealing, and firing into the floor to help an official of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party "remember" where he had hidden his weapons.

How Biastre came into contact with the Ba’athist in question, Ayoub Younnis Nasser - a man who some in his village claim terrorised them for 15 years - is at this stage unknown, but the Iraqi also claims Collins pistol-whipped him and put him and his son through a mock execution.

An officer whose fanclub also includes former House of Commons speaker Lady Boothroyd - who swooned: "He really is quite a man, a proper man" - now faces an uncertain future, and could even be drummed out of the army in disgrace, although military insiders believe this is unlikely. Perhaps more likely is that the affair will put an end to what was expected to be rapid progress through the ranks.

Yet while Collins’ abrupt approach to interrogating prisoners may be controversial for some outside military circles, army officers are taught to manhandle captives and make them fear for their safety in order to scare them into telling what they know.

In fact, Northern Ireland-born Collins felt sufficiently confident he had done nothing wrong in dealing with the Ba’ath party official to speak about the incident publicly before the US major reported him to the British authorities.

Collins said in an interview that a number of Ba’athists were "paid a visit" because they had been threatening Iraqis who co-operated with the British troops. "One man found that a shot through his kitchen floor somehow helped him remember where his weapon was hidden," he said.

What may be of more concern to the top brass will be that a lieutenant colonel was involved in such a hands-on way. Commanding officers are supposed to be dealing with the big picture, not collecting weapons.

The second cloud on the horizon for Collins is allegations of bullying within the Royal Irish Regiment, which have resurfaced in the wake of the allegations by Biastre and the Ba’ath party official.

An 18-year-old ranger, Paul Cochrane, who had complained to Collins he was being bullied, shot himself while speaking to his father on the phone in July 2001. The Ministry of Defence has confirmed it is looking at the "wider military environment" within the regiment, following an inquiry which found issues that required further investigations.

Collins may not have been close enough to prevent the bullying, but as commanding officer may be forced to take ultimate responsibility if it is shown he failed to address what is claimed was a widespread culture of intimidation.

The 43-year-old could hardly have a better service record. As well as having been a Gurkha and member of the SAS, he served in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Germany, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar.

Shortly after the Iraq conflict he was promoted to full Colonel and left the Royal Irish. There has been talk of a new job as a liaison to the US military at the Pentagon.

How he is viewed by American military chiefs given the allegations against him remains to be seen. There is always a tendency among soldiers in any army to stand by their own.

However one US Army major, Stan Coerr, broke ranks to say he had the "highest regard" for Collins after they worked together for three months. "I would serve with him anywhere, any time, under any conditions, and every man on my team feels the same way," he said.

And there is no lack of support for Collins within the British Army. While all agree he is tough and prone to losing his temper, there is almost universal respect for his abilities as a soldier.

A source close to the army said: "My instinct is that these allegations stem from vindictiveness on the part of this American and jealousy.

"Someone like Collins is taking very difficult decisions in fraught circumstances. But he has not actually physically killed or hit anybody as far as I can see. He’s scared people, but in that situation that’s what you do.

"His only mistake was to be a bit tough on this bloody American and Americans aren’t used to being made to take cold showers for not doing up the top two buttons on their jacket."

Witnesses said Collins became angry when he saw Biastre throwing fruit and sweets at Iraqi civilians and ordering them around. He told him to stop. "You do your job and I’ll do mine," was the reported reply that triggered Collins’ rage.

He was further infuriated when an instruction to come to attention was greeted with a sloppy response and a "yeah, fine". Collins ordered Biastre’s arrest for insubordination.

The source said: "I suppose that’s going slightly over the top. Normally when you are talking to a guy one rank below it’s first names.

"But if you are the CO and say ‘No you’re not doing this right’ and then the American comes back ‘Sir, you do your job and I’ll do mine’ and you’ve had a bad day, that’s when the extra pip comes in.

"There may have been a slight breach of military etiquette by Collins and that might have led to a disproportionate and vindictive response by the said American major.

"But anybody who can slap the Americans back into line gets a medal in my book."

The source said he felt Collins would find the bullying allegations more problematic: "Kicking the odd Iraqi: who cares; shouting at an American: well done; but young boys getting bullied and you’re ultimately responsible for the battalion? That’s more serious."

Former Scots Guards captain Ben Wallace, who was mentioned in dispatches for bravery during a brush with a terrorist unit in Northern Ireland, said soldiers are trained to disorientate and scare prisoners during "battlefield interrogations".

"Short, sharp interrogation where the prisoner is manhandled fairly roughly to give them an idea of the seriousness is absolutely the norm," said Wallace, who was a Tory MSP until this month’s elections.

"It’s taught to soldiers that’s how it’s done. You might pretend to pour petrol over them, when it’s actually water.

"The longer someone is in custody the harder it is to get information because they can adjust.

"You are much more likely to get information out of anybody in the first few hours than afterwards. Pushing him, making him feel disorientated and slightly frightened is normal.

"It’s perfectly normal that a platoon commander or corporal is doing that.

"But what’s not normal is a Lieutenant Colonel doing that. If there’s anything askew, it’s that.

"However I would certainly defend that type of quick questioning. I would defend the right of soldiers to interrogate at the point of capture, swiftly and sharply because that’s when you get the most information.

"That is not a war crime.

"Where there’s still a threat to our forces, you need to know information quickly. If that man had been given a cup of tea, would he really have told about his weapons under the floor?"

Within the army there is a general opinion that some officers make good field commanders, but may not have the strategic sense to progress higher up the ranks or the political nous to become a top general.

Collins’ presence at a relatively low-level operation to question a Ba’ath party official and recover some hidden weapons may mark him out as someone who has risen as high as he is able to go or, perhaps more pertinently, as high as he wants to go.

Leaving behind the thrill of the frontline, asking other men to take on dangerous missions while you sit in safety at headquarters, is something many find difficult to do.

Wallace, who left the Scots Guards after he was wounded in a gun battle, said: "What’s a Lieutenant Colonel doing getting involved at that level?

"That may ring alarm bells that this man hasn’t moved from tactics to strategy.

"At Sandhurst they said if you’re a commanding officer and you’ve fired your gun, you’re in trouble. You should be commanding people."

Collins, who despite his reputation also has a sensitive side, sending pressed flowers to his mother, crying over any deaths among his men and reportedly being devoted to his wife and five children, has strenuously denied acting in any way like a war criminal.

"I have no idea how they came about. I am confident my good name will be restored," he said, insisting he was "astonished" when he first heard Biastre claimed he was guilty of misconduct.

When he gave his famous speech to the troops, he concluded on a cautionary note: "You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest, for your deeds will follow you down through history."

Collins must now prove he lived up to his own finely-wrought words.