Peter de la Billière

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General Sir Peter Edgar de la Couer de la Billière KCB, KBE, DSO, MC & Bar (b. 29 April 1934) is a former British soldier, who was Director of the United Kingdom Special Forces during the Iranian Embassy Siege and Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the 1990 Gulf War.

Early years

He was born as Peter Edgar Delacour to Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Denis de la Billiere and his wife Kitty Lawley. On 22 May 1941, his father was killed when his ship, HMS Fiji, was sunk by German bombers in an attack southwest of Crete[1].

He was educated at Wellesley House, Broadstairs and Harrow. He originally enlisted as a private in the King's Shropshire Light Infantry in 1952. He was later commissioned as a Second Lieutenant into the Durham Light Infantry. During his early career as an officer he served in Japan, Korea and Egypt.

Entry into SAS

In 1956, he attended and passed Selection for the 22 Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment. During his first SAS tour, he served in Malaya during the Malayan Emergency and Oman, where he was mentioned in despatches and won the Military Cross in 1959.[2][3] After his initial tour with 22 SAS, he returned to the Durham Light Infantry to run recruit training, before taking up the post of Adjutant of 21 SAS - the London based Territorial Army (reserve) SAS regiment. In 1962, he was attached to the Federal Army in Aden. In 1964, he failed Staff College but was appointed Officer Commanding A Squadron 22 SAS. From 1964-1966, A Squadron was deployed to Borneo for the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation. For his actions during this period he was awarded a bar to the Military Cross.[4]

After this tour, he re-attended Staff College, and, this time, passed. After Staff College he was posted as G2 (intelligence) Special Forces at Strategic Command. He then served a tour as second-in-command of 22 SAS, of which he was Commanding Officer 1972-4. For service in Oman, he was appointed a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) in 1976.[5]

He then served in a number of administrative posts before returning to the regiment as Director, 1978-82. It was during this period that the SAS came to greater public attention as a consequence of their storming of the Iranian Embassy in 1980, amid allegtions that they had in effect executed one of the hstage takers. In 1982, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).[6] After the SAS he was appointed Military Commissioner and Commander of British Forces in the Falkland Islands 1984-5 and then General Officer Commanding Wales 1985-90.

British government 'Middle East adviser' - 1992

The following background is from a Sri Lankan Sunday Times article on Tim Spicer and the mercenary business :

In 1978, Peter de la Billiere, then a brigadier, became director of the U.K. Special Forces. De la Billiere was responsible for overseeing the SAS's most famous operations of the decade, among them the recovery of hostages from the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980, and for commanding Special Forces operations in the 1982 war with Argentina to recover the Falkland Islands. In 1990-1991, as general, he commanded British forces in the Gulf War against Iraq.
In April 1992, de la Billiere returned to London and retired from his military career. He immediately took up a new post as the British government's "Middle East adviser." The job involved selling military services to and obtaining or retaining British bridgeheads in the Gulf. Spicer, who had spent the Gulf War as a lecturer at the British Army's staff college, heard that de la Billiere would need a military assistant.
He applied for and got the job, and finally entered the secret world of the Special Forces. De la Billiere's office was in the Duke of York's headquarters off Sloane Square in London, where the offices of the directorate of Special Forces were also located. Soon after joining de la Billiere, Spicer contacted fellow ex Scots Guards officer Simon Mann and "co-opted" him into the operation, according to Spicer's autobiography. Mann, an anti-terrorism and computer specialist, who had left the SAS in 1985, later went on to found Executive Outcomes in the United Kingdom in 1993.
According to Spicer, de la Billiere and Mann were employed "as liaison with the rulers of the Gulf States." According to a business associate of Mann's at the time, who spoke on condition of anonymity, this story was "absurd." British ambassadors were hired to do that job, and given the staff and resources to do so. Mann's "real job," according to the associate, was "to help Peter de la Billiere market the training services of 22 SAS" and thus gain new clients for Britain's official mercenaries. Meanwhile, according to his autobiography, Spicer moved "down the corridor" to work directly for the Director of Special Forces on "highly classified" projects.
The government's motive in employing de la Billiere and Mann was not necessarily or even primarily to earn money. By placing British appointees in key security or defence posts, Britain could gain information; win influence, influence policy, recruit informants and even agents.[7]

De la Billiere joined Flemings as a non-executive director in 1992, the year he was tasked with his Middle East mission by the British government.


Frank Kitson's (1971) 'Low Intensity Operation', contains a citation to de la Billière's (1969) "Changing Pattern of Guerilla Warfare", published by the RUSI journal, Kitson notes that the 'trend' towards subversion and insurgency:

"...could come about as a result of a further deterioration in peoples' attitude towards authority, or if those conducting the campaigns became even more adept at handling the propaganda media and combining it with other forms of subversion such as the application of economic pressure. Similarly, if the defenders of the existing order themselves become more efficient at countering subversion and insurrection, they will be able to achieve their aim before the campaign can develop into one of the later stages. The RUSI Journal of December 1969 carries an article which comes to the conclusion that low-level urban insurgency combined with propaganda and economic pressure, is likely to be the most popular form of operation in the future, but it is too early to know whether the prediction will be fulfilled."

De la Billiere's biography, "Looking for Trouble", was published by Harpercollins in 1994, and online biographies which draw from it say that even in his early years at Harrow, his attitude towards authority would not be to Kitson's liking: he resented the school rules, and devoted much time to bending or breaking them.[8]

De la Billière has written 'Storm Command: A Personal Account of the Gulf War' and 'Supreme Courage: Heroic Stories from 150 Years of the Victoria Cross.' He is also known for his (very short) foreward to Alan Hoe's (1992) biography of David Stirling, which described Stirling as the 'Robin Hood of the twentieth century'.

Hoe describes a meeting with de la Billière shortly after the SAS' televised raid on the Iranian Embassy as the moment when Stirling realised that the new generation in the Regiment were "very much more politically aware."[9] In 1988, de la Billière and Stirling were invited for lunch with the German ambassador, a veteran of Rommel's 21st Panzer Division.[10]

De la Billiere's respect for authority dwindles to nothing according to 'Cozy, Clubby and Covert' by The Center for Public Integrity:[11]

In his 1994 autobiography, Looking for Trouble, de la Billiere admitted the "SAS mercenary" involvement in Yemen, and even characterized his activities as illegal. He also claimed that his activities were "not sanctioned" by the British government.

However they speculate that de la Billiere may have been "dissembling to preserve the British government's official position that it had not ordered the operation", but add:

Tim Spicer, currently Britain's best-known mercenary and the key salesman making the case for legalizing mercenaries, adopted the quasi-official SAS operations in Dhofar as his paradigm when he set up Sandline International. This, Spicer recounted, was his explicit model for the "legitimate" and respectable private military company, the title that is now applied to modern-day mercenary companies. "What I had in mind," he later claimed, "was a commercial way of deploying military skills to help governments in difficulty." Sandline and the Dhofar campaign were perhaps comparable, but some of the similarities would not live up to the respectable image Spicer wanted to create. Britain's "essential interest" in Oman and the Persian Gulf was the region's oil resources, not in care for the sultan or his people. The SAS's secret war in Dhofar quickly became corrupt as troopers and officers alike made false claims against the sultan's treasury to pay locally enlisted but partly non-existent squads of fighters supporting the sultan.

With all this adherence to and advocacy of discipline and authority, it should come as no surprise that within the SAS leadership and discipline are informal. Professor Elliot Cohen has observed that elite units almost universally lack substantive discipline and disregard orders about saluting, while drills, guards and inspections are 'totally absent'. He quotes de la Billiere as saying the men only called him 'Sir' when "they wanted to be rude."[12] Not that there are no rules — there are two rules according to some of the SAS soldiers: "one for the officers and one for the soldiers."[13] This battle-cry came about in a skirmish in the arduous terrain of the Daily Telegraph over the killing to be made writing books on the SAS and the preferential treatment extended to de la Billière, which was seemingly made official by the MOD:

A senior MoD source said it was "inconceivable" that General de la Billière, who is widely regarded as the godfather of the modern SAS, would be subjected to any exclusion order by the Regiment.[14]

One would have to add 'seemingly' there — and we have an object lesson in the difficulty of obeying authority — because the authorities changed their minds a few times:

A day of rapidly changing MoD statements and frantic meetings of senior defence officials ended in what supporters of Gen de la Billière called "a complete muddle". The MoD finally said a "gentleman's agreement" had been made with the general. He issued a statement but made no reference to a ban.[15]

The Telegraph (9 March 1997) later reported that:

In January the former Gulf war commander, General Sir Peter de la Billière, along with several other soldiers-turned-authors, were banned by the Ministry of Defence from attending all SAS bases, as punishment for breaking the elite regiment's code of silence. They had been widely condemned for revealing their experiences in books and on television. The application form means the former soldiers will be prohibited from even remaining members of the Herefordshire branch of the SAS Regimental Association. They have effectively been expelled.

As coincidence would have it, this all occurred just before a history of the SAS and other special forces units, was about to be published (but was withdrawn following a meeting between ministry officials and the publishers). 'Secret Warfare: Special Operations Forces from the Great Game to the SAS', by Adrian Weale contained new evidence by an Army intelligence officer surrounding "non-judicial executions" of terror suspects by British forces in an SAS action in Northern Ireland in 1991, and was critical of de la Billiere.[16]

De la Billière's attitude towards authority also surfaced during General Schwarzkopf's book tour, according to Newsweek's defence correspondent (who must need a degree in English Literature):

De La Billiere is critical of Schwarzkopf's autocratic" style and intimidating temper. But he praises his steadfastness" in the face of what he clearly saw as "political meddling and muddling from Washington." American politicians, De La Billiere muses, "feel they have a right to tell the generals how to run their campaigns."[17]

Affiliations and Connections



  • Frank Gardner[18]
  • Edward de la Billière Sir Peter's son, is a solicitor-advocate with the legal firm of Hill Dickinson, and has the 'rather large' brief of heading its white-collar crime and China/Far East teams as the legal adviser to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in London.[19]


  1. General Sir Peter de la Billiere accessdate 2007-05-04
  2. LondonGazette issue 41692 p. 2764 |accessdate=2008-03-15
  3. LondonGazette issue 41798 p. 5353 accessdate=2008-03-15
  4. LondonGazette issue=43990 p. 6106 accessdate=2008-03-15
  5. LondonGazette issue 46808 p. 1295 |accessdate=2008-03-15
  6. LondonGazette issue=49212, p. 5- accessdate=2008-03-15
  7. Special Asignment: International dogs of war on security mission in Lanka Sunday Times of Sri Lanka 2 November 2003
  9. David Stirling, The Authorised Biography of the Creator of the SAS, by Alan Hoe, Warne Books, p468.
  10. David Stirling, The Authorised Biography of the Creator of the SAS, by Alan Hoe, Warne Books, p455.
  11. 'Cozy, Clubby and Covert' (2008) The Center for Public Integrity.
  12. Bernd Horn, David Barr, Tony Balasevicius (2007)Casting Light on the Shadows: Canadian Perspectives on Special Operations Forces, p 123..
  14. Tim Butcher (1997)Ex-soldiers banned from SAS bases over books, Daily Telegraph, 22 Jan.
  15. Tim Butcher (1997) Assault by SAS general on ministry book fiasco, Daily Telegraph, 23 Jan.
  16. Ian Burrell (1997) Army goes to war over SAS man's revelations,Independent, Aug 7.
  17. John Barry (2008) What Schwarzkopf's Book Leaves Out: Reading Between The Lines, Newsweek.