Lt Col Mark Phillips was a Special Forces hero who carried out hundreds of covert operations behind enemy lines, including an audacious mission to blow up Saddam Hussein’s telecommunications cables network buried deep in the earth under a sports arena in southern Baghdad during the first Gulf War, following the tyrant’s capture of Kuwait.
It was dubbed the proverbial “mission impossible” by insiders, and many did not expect Phillips and his team to make it back alive.
On 22 January 1991, flying in under the cover of darkness on two Chinook helicopters at low altitude to avoid radar detection, Phillips’ Special Boat Service (SBS) team were dropped near the heavily defended stadium, while a diversionary attack was launched to lure forces away from the area. Sustained allied aerial bombing raids had failed to knock out the fibre optic cables carrying Iraq’s command and control messages to Basra.
The team was ordered to cut cables, and plant more than 700lbs of explosives at strategic points, but things did not run smoothly.
Two unsuccessful attempts were made to find and cut the cable, but on each occasion headquarters relayed back that Iraqi signals were still being sent.
On the third attempt, the team planted all their explosives and detonated them. Iraqi communications suddenly ceased. Flushed with success, they dug and recovered a portion of the cable, before pulling back to their waiting helicopters. So successful was the mission that the piece of fibre optic cable has since been displayed at London’s Imperial War Museum. Shortly after, Phillips took part in the SBS raid to retake the British Embassy in Kuwait City.
Royal Marines Major-General Rob Magowan CBE said, “Foggy was an inspiration, both to me and across our Corps.
“Bright, physically strong, courageous, hugely visionary and immediately engaging, he had all the attributes of a Royal Marine. People were swept up by his energy and leadership. I first met him on an adjacent rowing machine and I must admit to feeling intimidated.”
Born in 1961, in Gloucestershire, Mark Christopher Phillips was educated at Charlton Kings Secondary Modern, Cheltenham.
Upon leaving school, he briefly joined the police before successfully applying to the Royal Marines. During training he was quickly earmarked as an exceptional recruit for displaying qualities of courage, selflessness, professionalism and cheerfulness no matter what the situation; this resulted in the award of the coveted King’s Badge as top recruit, when he passed out in 1985.
After serving for almost two years with 45 Commando, Phillips underwent the gruelling selection process (and training) to join the SBS, the Special Forces unit of the Royal Navy. He remained with them for the next 26 years until retiring with the rank of Lt Colonel and being CO of the SBS.
Known as “Foggy”, a light-hearted reference to his namesake, Captain Mark Phillips, Princess Anne’s former husband, he was one of the Corps’ fittest and most respected officers, and a courageous and energetic leader who carried out many daunting and dangerous missions behind enemy lines. He also became a well-known figure in military circles for his exploits in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 2003, Phillips returned to Iraq and was based at MI6’s station house in Baghdad, from which the SBS mounted strike operations against insurgents in Sadr City, while also carrying out surveillance posing as Western civilian contractors. His team was also attached to Task Force 21, a joint UK/US task force, which had the high-priority mission to find and capture Saddam.
In 2008, he joined another special UK-US Special Forces unit known as Task Force 42, which tracked Taleban commanders. On 18 February, dropped in by helicopter, the SBS commandos successfully ambushed Mullah Matin and one of his sub-commanders, Mullah Karim Agha, as they travelled across the desert on motorbikes.
Matin was the vital right-hand man to Mullah Omar (the supreme commander and spiritual leader of the Taleban) and responsible for the deaths of two British soldiers and dozens of Afghan civilians, as well as numerous attacks on UK troops.
Phillips was appointed MBE in recognition of his gallant and distinguished services in the field.
Although he kept out the public eye, Phillips was also known as an athlete. During the 1990s he won the 125-mile Devizes (Wiltshire) to Westminster International Canoe Race four times in succession, which had previously been won by Paddy Ashdown and Ranolph Fiennes.
Upon retiring from the Royal Marines in 2013, Phillips set up his own security business, but in June of this year he was diagnosed with sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (the human form of Mad Cow Disease), a rapidly developing type of dementia which affects only one in a million people.
Phillips died after a short illness; he is survived by his wife, Jacqui, whom he married in 1990, and their three children, Emily, George and Bethany.