SAS and Elite Forces Guide Prisoner of War Escape & Evasion: How to Survive Behind Enemy Lines from the World's Elite Military Units


The POW How To Escape Handbook covers everything you need to know about making a successful return to friendly territory. Beginning from the point where a combatant finds himself or herself trapped in enemy territory, the book offers useful tips and solid advice on how to evade capture and, if that fails, how to escape. Key topics include the will to survive; handling stress in captivity; escape techniques; survival in a variety of environments, including urban, rural, jungle and desert; how to forage for food; ...

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The POW How To Escape Handbook covers everything you need to know about making a successful return to friendly territory. Beginning from the point where a combatant finds himself or herself trapped in enemy territory, the book offers useful tips and solid advice on how to evade capture and, if that fails, how to escape. Key topics include the will to survive; handling stress in captivity; escape techniques; survival in a variety of environments, including urban, rural, jungle and desert; how to forage for food; tracking and how to cover your tracks; navigation, with or without a map; and seeking recovery by friendly forces. The book also includes a number of real life accounts of POW escape from World War II (including The Great Escape story and Colditz), the Vietnam War (Dieter Dengler, with others, escaping from Laos), the Balkans, Iraq (Thomas Hamill in 2004) and Afghanistan.


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780762779895
  • Publisher: Lyons Press, The
  • Publication date: 4/17/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 492,086
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Chris McNab is an experienced specialist in wilderness survival techniques. He has published over 20 books including How to Survive Anything, Anywhere, Special Forces Endurance Techniques, First Aid Survival Manual, Military Survival Handbook and SAS and Elite Forces Guide: Wilderness Survival.. McNab has also acted as an editorial consultant on several other survival titles. In his home country of Wales, UK, he provides instruction on wilderness hunting techniques.

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Read an Excerpt


Although most modern forces instruct their personnel in what to do if they are taken prisoner, obviously it is far more advisable to avoid capture in the first place. The conditions in which soldiers are likely to fall prisoner change according to the nature of the conflict. During major set-piece battles, such as those that occurred in World War II, soldiers are most exposed to capture en masse when their unit is outmanoeuvred or outfought by the enemy. In June 1941, for example, some 287,000 Soviet soldiers became prisoners after they were encircled by the German Army Group Centre during the battle of Bialystok–Minsk, just one of several major disasters that threatened to overwhelm the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa. Although no post-1945 conflict has matched World War II for its scale of prisoners of war (POWs), wars such as the Indochina War (1945–54), Vietnam War (1963–75), Indo-Pakistan War (1971), Iran–Iraq War (1980–88) and the 1991 Gulf War have all seen substantial prisoner counts following conventional engagements.

In the context of modern counter-insurgency warfare, more individual threats to liberty have arisen. Terrorist factions and insurgent groups can extract considerable publicity from the capture of one enemy soldier. On Sunday 25 June 2006, Corporal Gilad Shalit of the Armor Corps, Israel Defence Forces (IDF), was kidnapped by members of Palestinian Hamas organization, following a raid on an Israeli outpost in the southern Gaza Strip (two other IDF soldiers were killed, and three wounded). At the time of the writing (2011), Shalit is still in captivity, his vulnerable position used as a political bargaining chip in the troubled region. Some insurgent groups are far more ruthless in their approach to prisoners. Just nine days before the Shalit incident, for example, a US checkpoint in Youssifiyah, Iraq, was attacked by Islamic militants. One US soldier was killed and two others taken prisoner – Pfc Kristian Menchaca, 23, and Pfc Thomas L. Tucker, 25. Three days later, the bodies of both men were discovered, having been tortured and then beheaded.

Such appalling crimes, and a litany of others, illustrate how critical kidnap awareness training has become for modern soldiers. Such training focuses on key techniques and tactical policies to reduce the chances of being taken prisoner.

Basic Precautions

For regular military units conducting patrols, manning checkpoints or outposts, mounting small-unit raids and performing general peacekeeping duties, there are common ingredients in many hostage-taking situations:

·         Travelling vulnerable routes – Highways, roads and streets are common locations for kidnaps, as they are ideal for establishing unexpected road blocks or for launching ambushes against isolated convoys or vehicles.

·         Getting lost – Small units can became lost within major urban zones or remote rural areas, primarily through navigational errors or having to follow detours because of unexpected obstructions or difficult terrain.

·         Isolation – Soldiers manning outposts or checkpoints might be too few in number to make a convincing defence if attacked, and are sometimes isolated from reinforcements.

·         Dangerous areas – Kidnappings and ambushes (the latter in themselves can lead to opportunistic kidnappings) are often concentrated within known areas where the rule of law or a military presence is weak.

·         Deception – Kidnappings can sometimes involve people known to the hostages; certain individuals can feign friendship, while at the same time leading soldiers into compromising situations.

Special forces soldiers, in their common role as VIP bodyguards, are all too aware of these factors, and so have developed a rigorous set of tactical behaviours that dramatically lessen the chances of being kidnapped in the first place. We will look at some of these rules now, before turning to explore in detail the fundamental techniques of concealment and evasion.

Iraq Kidnapping, 2007

On 29 May 2007 in Baghdad, at 1150hrs (local time), five British nationals were kidnapped by Iraqi militants. The kidnapping set alarm bells ringing amongst the security community. It did not occur on an isolated rural road, but in the Finance Ministry building in east Baghdad. Nor were the victims all amateurs – four of them were ex-military working as bodyguards and security personnel (the other man was a local IT consultant). Eyewitness accounts revealed that the militants arrived in force – possibly up to 100 men – most dressed in police and military uniforms and carrying valid documentation (they were led by what appeared to be a police major). They entered the building, bursting into a lecture room and shouting ‘Where are the foreigners?’ Once a group of Westerners were identified, they were overwhelmed, bundled into a van and taken away for a long period of captivity. The four security guards were eventually executed, while the IT consultant was freed after a long period in captivity. A sixth man, another IT consultant, avoided kidnapping by hiding under floorboards during the initial attack.

Vary your route, vary your times

Insurgents and terrorist groups thrive on predictability. If, for example, they know that a military supply convoy travels along a main road between two cities every weekday morning at 0830–0930hrs, they are able to plan and coordinate the most efficient attack possible, based on days of observational intelligence. For this reason, in contested areas foot patrols or vehicular units have to vary their routes and times of travel on a daily basis, and avoid forming any regular patterns of movement. Local intelligence is important in all route planning. Any route should avoid areas with significant threat levels, especially those with known heavy concentrations of enemy forces. (Unless, obviously, the mission is to clear those areas of the enemy.) If a particularly dangerous route has to be taken, a unit needs to make sure that it has the offensive firepower to handle itself in an attack.

Know your route

Getting lost is one of the most dangerous outcomes for a small unit in enemy-dominated territory. Preparation is vital for preventing this situation. Each member of the patrol, but obviously team leaders (officers and NCOs), should have a sound grasp of the area of operations (AO), including all its major and minor roads, bridges, rivers and streams, natural features and centres of habitation. The soldiers should also be able to identify several major landmarks against which they can orient themselves if lost. If, for example, they know that a particular river runs on an east–west orientation, it can form a general guide to their axis of patrol. Similarly, understanding sun navigation (see Chapter 7) will provide a celestial hint when a wrong turn has been taken. Most importantly, vehicular units should not blindly follow satellite navigation systems, but should always read GPS information in tandem with good maps and prior knowledge.

Move carefully, keep moving

Ambushes and kidnapping attempts tend to be launched in predictable locations. These include:

·         Places were a road narrows between natural or urban features

·         Around sharp bends (the bend limits visibility around the corner, where a roadblock or improvised obstacle could be set up)

·         Isolated outposts

·         Footpaths and trails that channel a patrol along a predictable route

·         Difficult terrain, such as mountains or woodland, which can disperse the members of a patrol

·         Any urban zone, which provides insurgents with familiar attack and escape routes, and which limits vehicular manoeuvres in response

·         Bridges, fords and any other controlled crossing points.

The common thread running through this list is ambushes often occur where a unit has to follow a fixed route of travel through a confined or dispersing space, with limited options for manoeuvring out of trouble should the worst occur.

Yet sensible precautions can help to mitigate the threat somewhat (although in dangerous regions it can never be removed entirely). When approaching sharp bends or corners in a vehicle or on foot, slow down and swing out wide to give you a direct line of observation around the corner before turning. If you spot a roadblock or suspicious-looking obstruction, pull back and find a different route. Check your surroundings carefully. Are there any individuals or groups watching your movements from a distance? Are they talking into a mobile phone, or filming with a video camera? Such could be innocent actions, but the individual might be acting as a coordinating observer for an ambush, relaying instructions about your movements to the main ambush group. Does a road or track seem to be littered with strategically placed obstacles, as if channelling your direction of travel to a certain point? In an urban zone or village, does everything seem suspiciously quiet? Insurgents will often inform local people to keep themselves off the streets when an attack is planned, and soldiers note that an absence of children is particularly concerning.

Typical responses to such ominous signs are:

·         Increased vigilance – Scan your eyes constantly across your surroundings, looking carefully at windows, street corners, the roofs of buildings, ditches, areas of vegetation and anywhere else figures could be hiding or waiting.

·         Preparation – Prepare to defend yourself. Weapons should be loaded and ready to fire, presented in the direction of likely threats. Make sure you are wearing any available body army and your helmet, and that your comrades are doing likewise.

·         Find another route – Take a different route if possible, as long as you know exactly where you are going and the new direction doesn’t increase the threat levels. Choose routes that give you good open fields of fire and plenty of escape options.

·         Keep moving – A moving target is much harder to ambush than a static target. Keep moving at a steady pace through the danger area, and if an ambush is sprung get out of the ‘kill zone’ as fast as possible while applying suppressive firepower.

Know your friends

As the feature on p.? above indicates, kidnappers can come in the guise of official or even friendly personnel. At some point, local people have to be trusted to build relationships, and a soldier must never fall into the alienating trap of thinking everyone is a threat. There are, however, some precautions a soldier can take when working with unknown individuals.

First, try to make sure that everyone is properly vetted. This means looking into his or her personal and family background to check for any previous connections with known insurgency groups or leaders. Try to find out if he has any significant financial concerns – insurgent recruiters can use the offer of money as a simple recruiting tool. Be cautious if very little information can be found; does this mean that he has been recruited from outside the area?

Second, observe his behaviour on a daily basis. Does he appear hostile, or ask frequent unwarranted questions about your whereabouts or future plans? Have you ever seen him taking photographs (either on a camera or a mobile phone) of key military installations and hardware, or disappearing at strange moments to talk on his phone. Such behaviours can have legitimate explanations, but they might also put your on alert, and prompt you for further intelligence on the individual, or even his redeployment away from sensitive AOs. Finally, make sure that he has correct paperwork. Even if the document appears authentic and correct, occasionally do spot checks on the holder to see if it throws up any anomalies against databases or other records. Don’t bend any of these rules for females – in many conflicts, flirtatious female insurgents have been used to infiltrate the trust of soldiers.

Also be very alert if you see unusually large gatherings of people. Many soldiers have been kidnapped during episodes of social unrest, such as riots, when they become separated from colleagues. Get reinforcements or remove yourself from the area whenever you see such groups gathering, unless you are specifically directed to disperse them.

Secure your surroundings

Many kidnappings take place at military outposts and checkpoints, or from public buildings where soldiers and other key personnel congregate. (Rarely will insurgent groups attack major military bases, apart from with stand-off means such as rockets and mortars.) Whatever your location, always maintain awareness and vigilance. Note the entrances and exits of all rooms you enter, and try to avoid cornering yourself in a location from which there would be no escape. Make sure that in high-risk areas you secure doors and windows properly, to prevent easy access, and ensure that all surveillance and alarm systems are functioning, with no ‘blind spots’ around the building.

Outposts or checkpoints should be configured to provide 360-degree observation, and have open fields of fire all round. Approach roads must be secured with staggered obstacles or other barriers to prevent fast vehicular approach, and everyone manning the position has to be clear about the rules of engagement (RoE), with a clear system of warnings before opening fire with live ammunition.

Be prepared to fight

The precautions above can limit, but not remove, your chances of being taken prisoner. The fact remains that in  a war zone danger is generally unavoidable to varying degrees. Based on recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need to stay out of the kidnapper’s hands is paramount, so if a unit is ambushed then it must fight back, and hard. The standard response to ambush is to find cover and return instant and heavy suppressive firepower. Kidnappers will need to get close to take someone captive, and if the price for doing so becomes too high then there is a strong likelihood that they will back off, or at least be pinned down while you call in reinforcements. Target any hostile individuals who seem to be giving orders, or who wear officer rank, to ‘behead’ the attackers’ centre of command. Also watch out for spectators high up on buildings, particularly if they are talking into mobile phones – they could be providing real-time intelligence to the enemy. Warn them in no uncertain terms to move away or risk being shot. All firefights can have uncertain outcomes, but the harder the response to an attack the less chance you have of being taken.

Spotting Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)

In both conventional and unconventional warfare, ambushes are often initiated explosively. IEDs in particular have become the scourge of regular armies in war zones such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – in Iraq between 2003 and 2010, IEDs accounted for 70 per cent of all US casualties. Spotting IEDs is extremely complicated, as both device and deployment have reaches high levels of sophistication. The following, however, are some typical locations/signs of emplaced IEDS:

·         Human or animal remains in strange or prominent locations.

·         Damaged vehicles placed by the sides of roads

·         Displaced kerb stones or pavement slabs

·         Unattended boxes or crates

·         Strangely positioned piles of earth, wood or rubble

·         Disturbed ground or vegetation

·         Indications of road repair, such as filled-in potholes

·         Walls showing signs of modification, such as new brickwork or plastering

·         Wires or cables snaking into the ground, perhaps leading back to a building or ditch.

If an IED is suspected, the area should be avoided (ideally put several hundred metres between you and the potential blast zone, and stay behind cover) and call in the bomb disposal experts.

Staying Hidden

One of the most dangerous situations a warrior can face is being separated from his unit behind enemy lines, or in enemy-dominated territory. The circumstances through which this can happen vary enormously. An airman might be shot down over a hostile state; a marine could be separated from his squad in the confusion of battle; a vehicle might be disabled by an IED, leaving its occupants stranded. Regardless of the circumstances, however, it is a near certainty that the unless the soldier is captured immediately, he or she is going to have to rely on evasion techniques to stay out of captivity.

On an individual level, there is often little a soldier can do to avoid capture if his unit as a whole is taken in a major clash. In some instances, pretending to be dead has merit, especially if an enemy is moving quickly and will not hang around to consolidate ground. During the airborne component of the D-Day landings in June 1944, for example, US paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment snagged his parachute on the church tower in the centre of Sainte-Mère-Église. Even though the town was in German hands, Steele hung there silently, as if dead, and did so until the Germans pulled out the next day and the town fell into American hands. Such an approach has its risks, however. If an enemy soldier has suspicions that someone is feigning death, he is more likely to put a bullet or bayonet into the body than inspect closely.

For these reasons, a better first response will often involve finding a secure hiding position, and waiting until a safer moment to move (usually under the cover of darkness) or for rescue to come to you. Choice of hiding place is critical. Following a major battle or ambush, enemy troops will be all too aware that isolated soldiers will be scattered and hiding, and will search accordingly. For this reason, obvious hiding places are to be discouraged, such as farm outbuildings or huts, unless those locations have secure hiding places within them. Be careful about hiding in places surrounded by animals or livestock. With their acute senses, animals might become interested in your hiding place, and thereby draw the attention of enemy search parties.

When choosing a good hiding place, remember that anywhere you are reluctant to hide, the enemy will be reluctant to search. Your ‘hole-up site’ (in US military speak) can therefore be places such as drainage culverts, large waste pipes, areas of heavily overgrown terrain, inaccessible attics or basements, abandoned factories – anywhere where you are securely hidden from view. You should ideally find a hiding place near your last-known position, as it will be there that friendly search-and-rescue parties will begin their hunt for you. Yet the reality of conditions on the ground might dictate that you have to move.

A US multi-service manual published in 1999, entitled Survival, Evasion and Recovery, issued the following advice for knowing when to move and when to stay where you are:

1. Stay or Move Considerations

a. Stay with the vehicle/aircraft in a non-combat environment.

b. Leave only when ­–

(1) Dictated by the threat.

(2) Are certain of your location, have a known destination,

and have the ability to get there.

(3) Can reach water, food, shelter, and/or help.

(4) Convinced rescue is not coming.

c. Consider the following if you decide to travel:

(1) Follow the briefed evasion plan.

(2) Determine which direction to travel and why.

(3) Decide what equipment to take, cache, or destroy.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Looks at the fundamental psychological principles of how to survive in an escape, evasion or captivity situation.

2. Hiding and Evading

How to evade capture if you find yourself cut-off from your unit or stranded behind enemy lines. Explains techniques such as moving at night, using camouflage and concealment, and covering your tracks, and looks at countermeasures against the tactics and technologies of enemy search parties.

3. Capture and Imprisonment

Explains how you can cope with imprisonment. Through many first-hand examples, it describes techniques of resisting interrogation, handling difficult guards, staying sane and assisting in efforts for your own release.

4. Escape

Advice and tips on how to escape from a variety of environments, including armed guards, vehicles, military prisons and cells. Includes information on how to choose your moment to escape, finding the weak points in prison facilities, creating diversions and how to fight your way out if necessary. Also describes how to form a coherent escape plan.

5. Survival on the Run

This chapter explains essential survival techniques needed while your are on the run, including: finding water, food from animals, food from plants, making shelters, making fire, tools and weapons, hunting and fishing, survival cooking, food preservation, surviving exposure and dehydration.

6. Emergencies

This chapter looks at some of the unique situations that could prevent your reaching safety, and how to survive them. Includes how to survive if caught in an air strike, basic first aid procedures and what to do in nuclear/chem-bio environments.

7. Recovery

Explains the fundamentals of how to return to friendly forces. Includes advice on navigation techniques, signalling, crossing border areas and safely identifying yourself.




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