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The tale of British Airways Flight 149: Thanet man relives the summer holiday that turned into a hostage ordeal

Barry Manners boarded British Airways Flight 149 with his partner Anthony, settling into their business class seats as they looked forward to a summer holiday to remember.

But little did they know that within hours they would begin their descent into a warzone and the start of a harrowing months-long hostage ordeal. Rhys Griffiths tells their story…

Barry Manners has told KentOnline how a summer holiday turned into a hostage ordeal that left him fearing for his life
Barry Manners has told KentOnline how a summer holiday turned into a hostage ordeal that left him fearing for his life

The wheels of the British Airways jumbo City of Leeds left the runway at Heathrow shortly after 6pm local time on August 1, 1990. The Boeing 747 was bound for Kuala Lumpur, with two scheduled layovers en route – the first in Kuwait City, the second in Madras.

Barry Manners had boarded the flight with his partner Anthony Yong, the pair planning to visit Mr Yong’s family in Malaysia and enjoy an extended summer break in Asia. But they had no comprehension of the magnitude of the crisis brewing on the ground in Kuwait.

“I hadn’t been listening to the news or the radio that day,” recalls Mr Manners, speaking to KentOnline from his home in Botany Bay, Broadstairs.

“The first I learnt that there was an issue was in the Independent on page 11, a column saying there were troops on the border.

“But you’re on British Airways - you know that if anything was untoward they wouldn’t land. It didn’t even occur to me that there would be an issue.”

The ‘issue’ was the full-scale Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, its neighbour to the south. Saddam Hussein, the notorious dictator dubbed the Butcher of Baghdad, had ordered his troops across the border to seize control of the oil-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf.

Little more than five hours after leaving London, the 367 passengers and 18 crew members on board Flight 149 were about to touch down in a warzone.

The remains of the British Airways Boeing 747 at Kuwait International Airport. Picture: United States Navy
The remains of the British Airways Boeing 747 at Kuwait International Airport. Picture: United States Navy

‘Oh s***, that wasn’t thunder’

Central to the story of Flight 149 is one simple yet highly-contested question: why was a civilian airliner allowed to land in Kuwait as Iraqi troops poured across the border?

Speaking in the House of Commons while the crisis was still unfolding, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, insisted “the invasion was later”, after the aircraft had landed at an already largely deserted Kuwait International Airport.

But in November 2021, the then Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, confirmed for the first time that at 00:00 GMT on August 2, the British Ambassador in Kuwait passed word to the Foreign Office that an invasion had begun – while Flight 149 was still in the air. British Airways was not informed. The plane touched down 73 minutes later, as Iraqi forces were closing in on the airport.

“We could hear thunder on the horizon and I didn’t equate that with the possibility that that could be a war,” recalls Mr Manners, who was 24 at the time.

“We hadn’t put two and two together even then, because you see the flash and you hear the boom in the far, far distance and you think ‘oh, it’s a thunderstorm’.

“The first that I realised this was not a thunderstorm or something was when I was standing in the galley talking to one of the flight attendants with a coffee, looking out the port hole and I saw what I recognised as a Mirage fighter bomber jet swooping down, close enough to see the pilot in the cockpit, dropping three or four bombs right in front of us. One, two, three, four.

“And that was the first that I realised ‘oh s***, that wasn’t thunder’.

“It happens in slow motion. That’s what really happens – your sense of time is very distorted.

“My principal concern was that I realised we had just been refuelled and we were basically sitting on a bomb. If anything came close or hit the fuel tank we would go up like a torch. So I grabbed Anthony and said ‘we’re getting off this f***ing plane’.”

Passengers and crew were rushed into the terminal building, where through huge windows they watched as the Iraqi forces bombarded the airport. Naturally, there was confusion and apprehension as the gravity of the situation revealed itself.

Barry Manners pictured during his time in captivity in Iraq
Barry Manners pictured during his time in captivity in Iraq

“By then I was thinking ‘oh f***’, we’re obviously in a warzone’,” Mr Manners remembers.

“This is Saddam Hussein. All I knew about Saddam Hussein was that he had murdered [Farzad] Bazoft, the Iranian journalist who worked for the Observer. He’d executed him.

“He was known as the Butcher of Baghdad, and he had gassed the Kurds in Halabja.

“That’s the only three things I knew about Saddam. Oh, and now he’s invading Kuwait. And I just thought, ‘I don’t know how this is going to play out’, because we’re an ace in the hole for this guy.

“He’s got all these westerners. He doesn’t have to say we are hostages, but just by having us here he’s got a bargaining chip, hasn’t he?

“So I kind of thought, ‘s***, are they really going to let us just get on a plane and fly out?’. I can’t see that happening.

“So already it was like ‘s***, this is bad’.”

With the encirclement and seizure of the airfield underway, the passengers and crew were relocated to an airport hotel.

“The tanks came roaring across, and then they came into the hotel,” Mr Manners recalls.

“I remember them [Iraqi soldiers] running into the hotel and they pulled pictures of the Emir [of Kuwait] off the wall and started putting their foot through it. And so they were smashing up anything that had a picture of the Emir on it, but we just high-tailed it upstairs as soon as we could.

Barry Manners was held hostage by Iraq as a human shield
Barry Manners was held hostage by Iraq as a human shield

‘The noise was incredible, like a firework show every night’

The hostages were soon relocated from the airport to another hotel in downtown Kuwait City.

At this early stage of their ordeal, their conditions were outwardly comfortable. There was plenty to eat and drink; their accommodation was air-conditioned; there was even a swimming pool should anyone wish to brave the stifling heat of the Middle East summer.

“It was very comfortable,” Mr Manners remembers. “Boring? Yeah. But it was as comfortable as being here [at home].

“As much coffee and tea as you want. You could sit in the lounge all day. There was a swimming pool, but it was 45 degrees outside. It hit you like ‘bang’ if you walked outside the hotel, but we had air conditioning.

“I did go outside and swim, against the advice of British Airways, ‘because there were soldiers out there’. I thought ‘oh, f*** it, what are they going to do?’

“I was a bit arsey with them, but it was like swimming in warm soup, it was so hot.

“We were just in limbo. This went on for several weeks.

“That’s where I think the British government realised it could play a blinder. They could portray that as, ‘don’t worry, they’re all in a comfortable hotel’, and, of course, to the average Brit who gets to go away for two weeks of the year it’s ‘ooh, those lucky people’.”

The conditions in which the hostages were held in Kuwait may have been benign enough for the Iraqi propaganda machine to portray them as merely ‘guests’ of the regime. But there was still the threat of gross mistreatment – a flight attendant had been raped by a soldier – and the ever-present prospect of violence from their armed captors.

“The officers that we saw in the hotel were quite well behaved and cerebral,” Mr Manners remembers. “I suspect some of them were overseas educated, they were quite smart guys.

“There was a gulf though in terms of appearance, behaviour and all the rest of it between the senior officers and the rank-and-file conscript troops who were illiterate peasants, basically, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way because they were.

“It was intimidating because you’ve got an 18-year-old who hasn’t yet worked out how to shave who’s got a Kalashnikov [rifle].”

On arrival at the hotel, the gift shop had still been open. With thoughts of an improbable escape, Mr Manners had purchased paper maps of Kuwait and Iraq, imagining there might be some slight hope they might be able to make a bid for freedom.

He got talking to a group of fellow captives, men who worked in the oil business, and they revealed their plans to steal a vehicle from the grounds and make a break for the border and safety in Saudi Arabia. In return for the maps, they offered Mr Manners and his partner the chance to join them.

But Mr Yong was seriously unwell. The 40-year-old had Aids, required medication to treat his condition, and was in no state to endure a potentially days-long voyage across the desert. They decided to stay, and only later did they learn the escape plan had succeeded.

The Iraqis eventually became aware of Mr Yong’s condition, and tried to insist he be removed from the hotel and relocated to a hospital in the city. But Mr Manners knew that with his immune system compromised, moving to a medical facility where the risk of infection would be heightened could be a death sentence.

He fought back and a compromise was reached. The couple were relocated to a temporary hut in the hotel grounds, just metres away from where the occupying Iraqi military had dug themselves in, ready for any escalating hostilities to come.

“It was scary because we’re just one road back from the beach and the beach is being fortified with barbed wire, bunkers, machine gun posts,” Mr Manners said.

“And at night they’re test-firing, there’s anti-aircraft guns all the way along the coast being installed. The noise was incredible, like a firework show every night, and any one of those bullets coming back down would just go straight through the ceiling – rip through that like paper.

Barry Manners pictured during his time in captivity in Iraq
Barry Manners pictured during his time in captivity in Iraq

“So you really feel vulnerable, you think if there’s a preemptive raid by the Americans or the SAS, whoever it would be – it wasn’t implausible that there could be some sort of amphibious surprise raid or something – we were basically sat one road behind the bunker with nothing to protect us apart from a bit of prefabricated fibreglass or cardboard.”

The threat of a US-led response to the invasion, which was eventually realised with the unleashing of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, led Saddam Hussein to see the value of his hostages as human shields. Placed in position at high-value military and infrastructure installations, the dictator hoped their presence would deter the savage assault to come.

Mr Manners was to become a human shield. But he would endure this phase of his ordeal without Anthony. The regime had agreed to the release of Indian nationals in his clutches, and for the payment of a bribe Mr Yong was able to secure papers which would facilitate his escape from captivity.

Other hostages who were offered similar opportunities – for one to leave, one to stay – declined to be separated. But Mr Manners had no doubt it was the right thing to do.

“I didn’t have any fears about my own mortality,” he said. “But I did for Anthony, because he was fragile, he was vulnerable.

“He had a lot of strengths that I didn’t have – but being able to fend for himself probably wasn’t one of them. He was the main reason I didn’t probably push it to go through the desert with those three guys.

“I didn’t know that he’d got out, so that was a huge thing hanging over me. Did he get out? Was he exposed for not being Indian? Was he in another installation somewhere that I don’t know about?

“Is he dead at some installation I don’t know about, because he wouldn’t have survived drinking the water – there’s no way his immune system would have coped with drinking the water that we were drinking.

“We all had days of the s***s from the water because we were drinking water out of a lake. It wasn’t f***ing Evian we were getting.”

Dukan Dam in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Picture: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Dukan Dam in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Picture: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

‘If I’m gonna die, I don’t want to be shot begging on my knees’

Mr Yong was now gone – his fate unknown to his partner until much later – and the hostages’ time in Kuwait was coming to an end. They were gradually dispersed to all corners of Iraq, where they would be held as human shields in the regime’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent a military response to the invasion.

“We were at gunpoint, being shepherded onto a bus, taken up to Baghdad on a very uncomfortable journey,” Mr Manners recalls. “It was 50 degrees in the desert in August. It was an open bus, no water. So we were pretty f***ed up by the time we got to Baghdad.”

They were held at a hotel in Baghdad for around a week. By this point, Mr Manners was starting to push his luck with his captors, at one point sneaking away from his guards to the hotel bar, before being unceremoniously dragged out of there by red-faced soldiers.

Days passed, and the hostages grew fewer and fewer, before eventually Mr Manners was driven for six hours north to his final place of confinement, the Dukan Dam.

Here he and his fellow human shields endured the boredom of captivity, occasionally enlivened by the procurement of illicit alcohol and the infrequent opportunity to leave their rudimentary accommodation for short periods of exercise.

Although the civilian staff at the dam, which powered a hydroelectric power station, were broadly sympathetic to the plight of the captives in their midst, there was a combustible relationship between the hostages and their guards.

“I told him what I thought about him,” Mr Manners says of one confrontation with the senior guard. “I told him what I thought about Saddam. I told him what I thought about this religion. I told him what I thought about the whole situation.

“And then I slammed a door so hard that it broke the frame around the door – plaster split.

“He came out waving his gun, shouting ‘I’m gonna kill you now’, and I thought ‘oh f***, he’s probably going to shoot me now’. You don’t want to beg on your knees. If I’m gonna die I don’t want to be shot begging on my knees.

“I think I possibly said something irresponsible like, ‘well, you probably haven’t got the balls to do it’ and ‘you’ll be strung up as well’. Which was probably not a good idea. And you just get a slap.”

Amid the monotony of detention, the sense that death could be lurking around every corner pervaded the human shield’s existence in Iraq.

“They wanted to execute us,” Mr Manners recalls, with a matter-of-fact tone. “I know they wanted to execute us because [the senior guard] came in drunk one day and we were all sat at this table. He started putting his gun against our heads, and he said ‘when America come, I kill you first Mr Barry’.

“You just accept the fact that there is a good chance you could be killed. It’s very likely it’s going to end here.

“You live with it. You learn to accept it as part of your day-to-day reality, that at any moment the door is going to open, whether they’re going to tell you there’s food in 10 minutes or ‘you first’.”

A map shows where Barry Manners and others were held hostage
A map shows where Barry Manners and others were held hostage

A toast to impending freedom

Then, out of nowhere, the day came when they were told they could finally go home.

“We didn’t believe that we were being released,” Mr Manners recalls. “What would happen is you’d hear a rumour that something was happening and then it wouldn’t happen.

“And when you allowed yourself to think that something might change, and then it didn’t – you had that drop. It’s like a rollercoaster drop, where you just think ‘oh, for f***’s sake’.

“You just learn to exist on that level, hoping for nothing, expecting nothing. It was the safest place to be – you just didn’t expect that anything was going to happen.

“Then Mr Roel [the dam’s resident engineer] came along and said ‘no, it’s true. I’ve been told to make arrangements to take you to Baghdad’.

“And then he said ‘would you like to go out for dinner?’. So we said ‘yeah, as long as we can drink we’ll go anywhere’.”

And drink they did. The human shields were taken to a nearby hotel, where they were sat down at a table and told they could order what they liked.

The drinks order was somewhat lost in translation, so Mr Manners was taken down to a cellar where he was invited to take what he liked. He returned with as much wine and whisky as he could carry.

After the meal they returned to the dam and the drinking continued.

“We were f***ed,” Mr Manners admits, adding they were still blind drunk when the cars eventually arrived to ferry them back south to Baghdad.

Within days they were at the airport, ready to board the flight which would return them to the UK. Mr Manners’ parting shot was to steal a bottle of whisky from duty-free as he left Iraq, freedom now so tantalisingly close. He landed in London on December 10, after more than four months in captivity. He was reunited with Mr Yong, who he continued to care for until his death in March 1992.

Barry Manners with Shammon Roel and family in Sydney in 2019
Barry Manners with Shammon Roel and family in Sydney in 2019
Barry Manners with a shop worker, who he met during his time in captivity, during a visit to Iraq in 2011
Barry Manners with a shop worker, who he met during his time in captivity, during a visit to Iraq in 2011

The search to uncover the ‘truth’

In September 2023, it was announced the victims of the aftermath of Flight 149, held as human shields and subjected to beatings, rape, mock executions and starvation, would be taking legal action against the British government and British Airways for their alleged role in the ordeal that followed their arrival in Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

It comes back to that question the hostages feel remains unanswered more than three decades later: why was a civilian airliner allowed to land in Kuwait as Iraqi troops crossed the border and began their invasion?

The lawyers acting for the Flight 149 victims, McCue Jury & Partners, allege that – despite repeated denials both then and now – the government and British Airways knew the invasion had already begun but allowed the flight to land anyway.

Central to the case is a startling accusation: that the British authorities used Flight 149 as a means to covertly “insert a black ops team of former special forces and security services, known as the ‘Increment’, into Kuwait for a special military operation.

While for 30 years successive governments had covered up the fact the Foreign Office had been warned about the invasion, Downing Street explicitly denies this version of events.

In her statement of November 2021, Liz Truss reiterated this, saying: “There was also speculation at the time and since that the flight was used to carry members of UK special forces. The files are consistent with the then Minister for Europe’s statement in April 2007 that ‘the government at the time did not attempt in any way to exploit the flight by any means whatever’.”

The Government also says the warning about the invasion was not passed on to British Airways, which reiterated to KentOnline it knew nothing of the crisis on the ground.

A spokesman for the airline said: “Our hearts go out to all those caught up in this shocking act of war just over 30 years ago, and who had to endure a truly horrendous experience. UK Government records released in 2021 confirmed British Airways was not warned about the invasion.”

Mr Manners, who is part of the legal action against the government and British Airways, supports the theory that Flight 149 was flown into a warzone to drop in special operatives. Likening their case to the ongoing Post Office fraud scandal, he remains committed to exposing what he alleges are establishment lies over the true answer to the central question hanging over the story of Flight 149.

McCue Jury & Partners estimates each of the hostages may claim an average of £170,000 in damages – but for Mr Manners, who is today a Thanet district councillor, it is not a question of money, but of justice.

“I would just like to see the truth of what actually happened and an admission of what happened,” he said.

“I don’t like being lied to, that’s what really f***s me off, being lied to, and also the realisation that as far as the British establishment is concerned we are just an embarrassment.

“People say ‘well, why are you bothering 33 years later?’. Because I’m still being lied to 33 years later.

“If you’re going to ever absolve yourself of something, and put it right, the first stage to absolution is an admission of guilt. And that’s never happened.

“When the only thing that’s left is the truth, then you’ve got to get the f***ers into court and pin them down on it.”

Barry Manners with workers at Dukan Dam, where he was held during his time in captivity, during a visit to Iraq in 2011
Barry Manners with workers at Dukan Dam, where he was held during his time in captivity, during a visit to Iraq in 2011
Barry Manners with a worker at Dukan Dam, where he was held during his time in captivity, during a visit to Iraq in 2011
Barry Manners with a worker at Dukan Dam, where he was held during his time in captivity, during a visit to Iraq in 2011

‘They were as much victims as we were’

Years after his release Mr Manners went back to Iraq, and visited the site of his captivity at the Dukan Dam, in the Kurdish region of the country. During his time there, he met present-day workers at the installation, and through them was able to reconnect with Shammon Roel, the resident engineer who took the human shields for their final meal in the north before they were taken to Baghdad and on to freedom.

The pair have become friends, and Mr Manners has even been out to Australia, where Mr Roel now lives, to spend time with him and his family. The welcome he received at the dam, and the friendship with Mr Roel, appear to have provided a much more satisfying penultimate chapter to his personal story of Flight 149. The legal action, if it uncovers further evidence as to why their flight touched down in Kuwait rather than being diverted, would perhaps be the final word.

“I didn’t go back [to Iraq] to revel in their contrition for what happened,” Mr Manners says.

“I think when I first went back there I was going to go back as a ‘f*** you’, but when I got there I realised it wasn’t like that at all, they were probably as much victims of Saddam and what happened as we were.

“You have to look back at what happened to you in life, and you can’t look back and think ‘oh, wasn’t that terrible’. You can only look back and think that’s part of your experience and that’s what forms your worldview, your character.

“I’m not stuck in a room in a hydroelectric plant in Iraq anymore, but I am stuck on this rock going around the sun once a year. You have to make the best of it while you are here, that’s all you can do. It’s a formative experience and that becomes part of your character.”

It is a reflective way to look back on the harrowing ordeal suffered by the passengers and crew of Flight 149 more than 30 years ago. But for the victims, there remain questions they believe have never been satisfactorily answered, and their fight continues.

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