By Damien Lewis
1979, war-torn Beirut. Under the cover of a massive firefight, an unknown band of armed men blast their way into the Imperial Bank of Beirut. Over the next 48 hours they load up three truck-loads of gold bullion, and the raiders and the loot disappear forever.
Six days earlier, an SAS Major newly arrived in The Regiment had tasked his men with stealing terrorist documents hidden in that bank vault. But when SAS veteran Luke Kilbride presented his plan for the mission, the Major tore it to pieces.
Kilbride didn't appreciate this jumped-up officer telling him he was a fool. Neither did the men in his unit. Together, they decided to prove the Major wrong and rob the bank anyway, becoming fabulously rich in the process. They code-named their mission 'Cobra Gold'.
But whilst the robbery went like clockwork, this was just the start of things going badly wrong for Kilbride and his men. Cornered on the gun-blasted streets of Beirut, they are forced to hide the loot and make a spectacular getaway.
Two decades later, Kilbride and his team return to recover their hidden gold. But unbeknown to them, a powerful and ruthless adversary is hell bent on finding it first. Kilbride dreams up a breathtaking decoy mission to lead the enemy away from the loot. So begins a deadly race against time, where the stakes being played for are survival itself.
Fact: the 1976 Beirut bank heist remains the world's biggest ever bank job. No one has ever been arrested. The crime has never been solved. None of the gold has ever been found.
"A guerrilla force blasted its way into the Beirut vault, clearing out contents worth some 50 million dollars." Guinness World Records
Media & Press
'As good as any thriller I have ever read'.
'Reveals a true story of British courage and daring.'
The Sunday Times
Richard & Judy Show
'Grotesque, glorious and utterly gripping.'
Bolton Evening News
'A rollercoaster journey into the very heart of darkness.'
The Gerry Ryan Show
'The most dramatic story of a secret wartime mission ever.'
News of the World
'Exciting and revelatory.'
'A tremendous read.'
"In 1976, a crack team blasted its way into Beirut's British bank of the Middle East and stole gold bars worth 100 million sterling at today's prices - making this the world's biggest ever bank heist. Niether the robbers nor the bullion were ver found - but now, with the story the basis of a major new bestseller, a remarkable theory has emerged."
The Mail on Sunday Live Magazine, Sunday 3rd June, 2007.
"A Ryan show favourite, having experienced war, terror and espionage Damien Lewis is now writing about it, and his new book is an extraordinary account based upon a true story of the world's biggest bank robbery featuring special forces in Beirut, in the 1970s. It's a crime that was never solved and it's now a griping thriller called Cobra Gold. It's a cracker." Gerry Ryan, You can hear the full interview with Gerry Ryan at Gerry Ryan Show, 5th June, 2007-06-07 Damien's interview starts approx 2hrs 32mins into the show. This link requires the RealAudio player, which is available to download for FREE from www.real.com
"Tell the gripping story of the world's biggest bank robbery, and those who may have done it. Amazing and superb."
Sid Olivera, REM-FM
"Cobra Gold is a fast moving story built around the biggest bank robbery the world has ever seen. The story starts with a highly professional bank-heist in Beirut. The SAS team that break in are faced with a prize of staggering and unexpected proportions, then as courage, greed, opportunism and recklessness starts to unfold you get sucked into the problems of trying to hide, let alone dispose of a heavy and cumbersome mountain of gold valued at $50million. With an eye to technical accuracy, which is such a feature of Damien's writing, the tale finally brings us to the modern day. The terrorist organization that claims ownership of the gold and the authorities that send the team in to this most covert of covert operations are formidable adversaries and throwing them off the trail is no easy matter. This is modern drama at its best with Damien Lewis in top form."
A.J. Hogan, Compass Magazine
Before he was even fully alert Kilbride knew what had woken him. A low, throaty growl was coming from the direction of the bedroom window. It was barely audible and certainly not enough to rouse a man under normal circumstance: but this was far from normal and Kilbride knew it for what it was - an urgent warning. His dog, Sally, had been through the Defence Animal Training Centre, in Leicestershire, before spending the next four years on active duty with the SAS. Sally didn't growl at nothing. They had an intruder outside their window.
The hairs on the back of Kilbride's neck had gone up, and he could sense the imminent threat. He forced himself to remain where he was and breathed deeply, as the adrenaline flooded into his veins. His instinct was screaming a warning at him that the unknown prowler was a danger to him and his family. He could feel his heart pounding, his blood throbbing in his temples. It was one thing to have spent thirty odd years on the front lines of various wars: it was quite another to have his family menaced in this way.
Sally's growling changed imperceptibly, rising to a slightly higher pitch. She would know instinctively that her master was awake now, and she was signalling to him that the prowler was coming closer. Kilbride chanced a quick glance at the window. All he could see was Sally's squat, powerful form silhouetted against the faint glow of moonlight, her head and body immobile and one hundred percent focussed outside. The growl became a low snarl, and Kilbride guessed the figure was at the half-open window now, peering in.
He felt his wife shifting beside him slightly, as the dog's distress filtered through to her subconscious. Don't bloody wake up now, lover, he willed her. Stay sleeping. Stay still. Be cool. Whoever they are, wait for them to leave.
Any man who tried to come through that window would be a fool, Kilbride told himself. Sally would go for the groin area, dragging her victim screaming to the floor in a rictus of agony and terror. And then she would hold him in the vice like grip of her jaws until ordered to do otherwise. The thought comforted him somewhat. But then he remembered that his two sons were alone and unprotected in the bedroom next door. For an instant Kilbride almost lost it, and bolted for their room. But he held himself in check. Sally was hugely protective over the kids, and she would immediately know if the enemy had refocused their attention onto their bedroom.
There was the sharp crack of a breaking twig, clearly audible through the open window, and Sally's snarl lessened. The intruder was withdrawing. It appeared to have been a surveillance mission only. Kilbride knew that Sally would be using her acute powers of hearing to track the intruder's progress. Her growl died down to a faint, throaty murmur, which meant that the enemy had to be retreating further into the forest.
Kilbride gave it another minute, then rolled away from his bed. Keeping low in the room he grabbed a black T-shirt and a pair of olive combat trousers off the beside chair. He reached under the bed frame and ripped aside a length of gaffer tape. The squat black form of a Remington 870 pump-action shotgun fell into his open hand. It had a short, 10-inch barrel, an eight-round magazine and a pistol-grip butt, making it a compact and devastating weapon at close range. The shotgun had been Kilbride's weapon of choice in the Malaya jungle, along with 'Bones', a Black Labrador war dog. Over the months spent fighting in the jungle, Bones and he had become inseparable, even sleeping together in the same basher.
As Kilbride went to open the bedroom door he gave a faint, barely audible whistle. Sally broke off her lonely vigil by the window and was immediately at his heel. Kilbride slipped out the beachside entrance of the house. He paused for a second at the door to Berger's hut, and then thought better of it. He had always preferred to operate alone when on a manhunt with his war dog. It made the instinctive bond between man and beast more intense, rendered the chase and the final dance of combat more mutually binding. Man and dog skirted around the property and came to rest at the open bedroom window.
Kilbride was now standing where the enemy had stood, some ten minutes before. He crouched down and traced the line of a footprint in the soft earth. From the curved, ripple-like imprint he could tell that the intruder had been wearing jungle boots. It was no African villager then, as if he'd needed any confirmation. He squatted on his haunches and waited, letting the silence of the night dark forest sink into him. As he did so, his eyes adjusted to the gloom. Faint slivers of moonlight filtered down through the leaves, weaving a patchwork of silver on the forest floor.
He placed his arms around Sally's thick, muscular neck, and whispered reassurances in her ear. She knew she was on the hunt now, and it was a long time since she had last been so. Kilbride had had her for five, wholly peaceful years and he wondered if she might have got rusty. For an instant he wondered the same about himself, but forced such thoughts to the back of his mind. He grabbed some of the damp earth and smeared it around the exposed skin of his face and neck, until it took on a similar hue to the forest shadows. For a second or two he fingered the cold steel of the shotgun, then rose to his feet.
'Let's go,' he whispered.
Sally took the lead, her head bent low and shifting from side to side, as she tracked the scent of the enemy. A short distance from The Homestead she stopped and gently pawed the earth. Kilbride bent to inspect, and saw that two further sets of boot prints had joined the first. Two men had waited here, whilst the third had gone ahead to peer through his window. There were three enemy, at least, probably a fourth back at their base or vehicle.
With his fingers he traced two rectangular imprints where the men had rested their weapons, butt-downwards, on the forest floor. As he did so his hand caught on something soft and man-made. He raised it to his face. It was a fragment of cellophane. They had unwrapped a set of batteries here, which meant that they might well be using night vision goggles. Either way it had been a sloppy operation, at least by SAS standards. They had left all the signs for him to follow.
Kilbride now knew that he was up against three or more men armed with rifles, and possibly using night vision. Even with Sally to assist him, that was a considerable force to be up against. For a second he considered going back to fetch the others, but the lone hunter in him prevailed. He would track them to their lair and then return to fetch his men. Kilbride rose to his feet, Sally rising with him. Silently as a pair of shadows, man and dog flitted through the Baobab forest, climbing inland and upwards as they did so.
Five minutes later Kilbride knew where the men were holed up. Their path through the forest led to a nearby Kopje, a tumbled outcrop of giant boulders, the highest of which rose above the treetops. He had suspected to find them here: it was the only place from where an enemy could keep watch on The Homestead. But even from the top of the boulder pile they would see precious little, due to the density of the forest. The enemy had tried to obscure the last few yards of their route into the rocks by using a tree branch to brush away their footprints. But it was too little and too late: Kilbride had their location nailed. Whoever the enemy were, he was astounded by their lack of jungle craft.
Sally led him to the very edge of the Kopje. Here their path passed between two towering Baobab trees. Kilbride was amazed to see that the enemy had marked their route with a blaze, a strip of white trunk glowing faintly in the moonlight. But as he went to step through the opening Sally froze, Kilbride freezing with her. His sixth sense was kicking in big time, warning him that one wrong step would finish him. During the years spent fighting in Malaya and Borneo Kilbride had learnt to trust the instinctive, animal powers of his sixth sense absolutely. It was a lesson he'd never forgotten. Sally dropped to her stomach, her muzzle on her paws. Kilbride dropped alongside her, the Remington held before him. He could read her every move and this one signalled extreme danger.
Sally 'pointed' with her snout up ahead, and Kilbride tried to focus in amongst the rocky shadows, searching for the human form of an enemy. As he watched and listened, he noticed a thin sliver of silver glistening in the moonlight. It was suspended at ankle height, just above the path, and barely inches in front of them. In a flash Kilbride realised what Sally was trying to tell him. The danger wasn't up there in the Kopje, it was two feet in front of her nose. A trip wire had been strung between the two Baobab trunks, either end attached to grenade. The trip wire was there to serve a double purpose: it would kill anyone approaching the Kopje, and warn those hidden there of any such approach. Kilbride and his dog had been one step away from death. It seemed that he had underestimated the enemy.
Kilbride backtracked down the path, being careful to place his footfalls within those of the enemy. In that way he covered his tracks, as they would find no prints in the morning other than their own. Having put some distance between him and the Kopje, he looped around to the far side and made a beeline for the dirt road. Here there was a well-used path, which the kids from the nearby village used to come and play on Kilbride's land. At the junction with the dirt road Kilbride found a pair of fresh tyre tracks, sharp in the night dew dampness of the sand. These led him to the enemy's vehicle.
Half-hidden in the forest was a standard Toyota saloon car, with a hire company's sticker on the driver's door. It was locked, but Kilbride soon got around that. Leaving Sally to guard his back, he rifled the glove compartment. There were three items of interest: one, a Koran; the second, an 'SAS Jungle Survival Handbook' published by an ex-member of The Regiment; the third, a well-thumbed Playboy magazine. More parts of the puzzle fell into place: the enemy were clearly Muslim; they had been doing a crash-course in jungle warfare; and they had piss-poor taste in porn. For a second Kilbride considered disabling the car, but time was getting on and he had to get back to The Homestead.
As he retraced his steps he reflected on what he'd discovered. The Kopje was close to his home, barely 300 yards away, which made it a risky hiding place. As you couldn't actually see his house from there, he could only conclude that the enemy had to be using some specialist eavesdropping gear, and that 300 yards was about the limit of its range. The Kopje was a favourite playground for the village kids, so whomever the enemy were they had done little to check out the viability of their hideout. That was all the more reason to hit them soon and hit them hard. The last thing Kilbride wanted was some local kids surprising the gunmen in the morning, and getting blown away.
Back at The Homestead Kilbride headed straight for his office. He grabbed a black marker pen and a sheet of A4 paper. He scribbled in large letters: 'SOMEONE'S LISTENING. HEADS UP ON THE BEACH IN FIVE.' He made his way to Berger's cabin and let himself in quietly. But as Kilbride went to part Berger's mosquito net, he realised that the big American was far from alone. Curled up beside him was the lithe form of Tashana, his maid. He groaned inwardly. The crafty Yank bastard. Still, it was no time to deal with that now. He shook Berger awake and held up the sign.
Five minutes later Kilbride was joined on the beach by Berger, Smithy and Boerke. He had left Sally at The Homestead, very much on guard. The men walked in silence away from the house, until Kilbride was satisfied they were well out of range of any listening gear. They spoke in hushed tones, down where the inrush of the sea would better kill their voices. As quickly as he could Kilbride outlined the events of the last hour. Then he proposed his plan of attack. It was approaching 5.00 a.m. and he wanted to hit the enemy before dawn.
He would send Sally into the Kopje first. In the close, dark confines of the rocks Sally's sudden assault would be terrifying. The shock alone would drive the enemy out, let alone the raw, animal fear. Sally would account for one or two of them, and the rest would be up to Kilbride and his men. Kilbride scratched a quick diagram in the sand showing the positions of The Homestead, the Kopje, the enemy vehicle and the dirt road. He figured the enemy would flee in the direction of their car, and that's where they would set their ambush.
'Any questions?' he asked.
'What about weapons?' said Smithy.
'We've got the one shotgun. Plus we've got Sally and the element of surprise.'
Smithy snorted. 'What, four wrinkly fifty-somethings with one shotgun and a dog against how many tooled-up terrorists . . .'
'Four. Maximum five. You wouldn't get more than that in their vehicle.'
'Still, it'd be nice to have something to even up the odds a little . . .'
'Hows about we dismantle their booby trap and reset it on their escape route,' Bill Berger suggested. 'Those two grenades - that'd fuck 'em up some.'
'We don't have time,' Kilbride countered. 'Dawn's what, half an hour away. And anyway, it's too risky.'
'I've an idea, man,' said Boerke.
Kilbride glanced at him. 'Go on.'
'You have some traps hanging on your office wall. They look to me like mantraps, from the slaving days. Are they still working, man?'
Kilbride nodded. 'You know how to use them?'
Boerke smiled an evil reply.
'Right, this is what we do. Smithy, Berger, go fetch three pickaxe handles from the boathouse. Boerke and I will get the mantraps. We set the traps first, then move back thirty yards or so. They flee from Sally, hit the traps, I mallet the rest with the Remington and then the three of you move in and club any of the fuckers left standing.'
'One more thing, you gotta stop their car,' Berger added. 'If they get past the 'geriatric brigade with their gardening implements', then that's their getaway vehicle. How about you get the big Mercedes jeep parked up on the dirt track, broadside on to the road. They make contact with that girl, they ain't gonna be none too happy about it.'
'There's only one fucker making unwelcome contact with a girl around here,' Kilbride retorted. Having discovered Bill Berger in bed with Tashana, he couldn't resist having the dig. 'But you're right, mate. I'll get Nixon to take the Merc G-wagon up there, quietly and slowly as he can . . .'
Some twenty minutes later and a low, ghostly form approached the location of the trip-wire booby trap. Sally knew exactly where it was this time, and she carefully stepped over it. Kilbride followed her. They stopped near the entry point to the Kopje. Kilbride crouched down and ruffled her neck. 'Go get 'em, girl,' he mouthed in her ear. 'Go get 'em.' He pushed her gently forwards.
Sally knew she was on her own now. She padded ahead, the soft forest floor ending shortly in a grey wall of boulders. A narrow, twisting channel ran up into the centre of the Kopje, which was just wide enough for a man - or a dog - to pass through. At the entrance to the passageway, Sally stiffened. Her ultra-sensitive powers of smell could detect the individual chemicals that combine to make explosives, and she had been trained to recognise danger when she did so. The smell of the enemy was also strong here, and to Sally the combination of the two meant that another booby trap had been set.
Sure enough, a tiny three-foot long trip wire was strung across from one boulder to the other, at just above ground level. Sally stepped over it, and crept ahead into the black rocks. Her mind was focussed on her hearing now, and she could already detect the noise of her prey up ahead. Two men were snoring. Another was talking. To one side of her she heard a snake's scaly uncoiling, as it sensed a danger far greater than itself and slid into the rocks. And she could smell the faint drift of tobacco smoke on the damp forest air.
Sally reached the last corner of the passageway, where it opened out into a central clearing at the top of the Kopje. The enemy were just feet away from her now. She dropped to a belly crawl, so her body shape blended in better with the darkness, and inched her head around the rock wall. She could make out the forms of three men. One was smoking, one was talking, and the third was cleaning his weapon. Sally had learnt to recognise the long silhouette of a gun, that it spelled maximum danger. She sensed that there were two sleeping figures out of sight to her left, which was where the snoring was coming from.
A yard in front of her snout was a further tripwire, although this one was attached to some empty tin cans, as opposed to grenades. It was designed to provide a last warning, rather than to kill - as a grenade detonated in this enclosed space could finish everyone, those who had set the booby trap included. Sally calculated the distance to the nearest figure. It was some ten feet, which was an easy leap for a dog her size. She tensed her muscles and gathered herself for an explosion of animal power and aggression. These were the men who had intruded on her territory and were threatening her survival and that of her 'family'. She would gladly kill them all.
The first they knew of Sally's presence was a black, wolf-like form flying through the air, teeth barred in a terrifying snarl. The nearest enemy figure went down under ninety pounds of pure muscle and canine fury, Sally's jaws tearing at his throat. The victim tried to scream, but her bite stifled his cries. For a split second the others were frozen in pure terror and disbelief. None of these men had been to Africa before, and it had crossed each of their minds already that evening that they were in the midst of the untamed bush. In the raw terror of the moment each man now feared the worst. Hyenas? Leopards? Lions even? It could be anything attacking them.
One of the figures opened fire, a long burst from his AK47 drilling over the heads of the tangle of bodies that marked Sally's attack. Bullets slammed into the surrounding forest, the Kopje ringing with the smack of lead into wood and the splitting of trees. Sally barely flinched. She had been trained to show zero fear towards the sounds of war: weapons firing, explosions, human screams. She tore her jaws away from her first victim and launched herself at the second. She sunk her teeth into his weapon arm and he let out a horrible, piercing scream as her fangs pierced to the bone. He tumbled over backwards, his AK47 clattering onto the bare rocks. The three remaining enemy fighters turned and fled in terror, their Arabic curses ringing out across the forest.
One hundred and fifty yards away, Kilbride and his men crouched in the dark undergrowth. Each handler was supposedly taught never to identify too closely with his dog, in case he or she were killed. But it never worked that way. The bond between man and canine was unshakeable, and Kilbride felt sick with worry for Sally. Kilbride heard the thumping feet of the approaching enemy, fleeing in headlong panic along the path. He readied his Remington, setting it to gas, as opposed to pump-action, mode. Utilising its automatic feed the weapon could fire off its magazine of eight shotgun shells in one continuous blast, throwing out a wall of led that would stop just about anything.
As the sound of the enemy drew closer there was a sharp metallic snap, followed by a horrible, unearthly screaming. Boerke grinned. A mantrap had found a victim. Feet pounded onwards, and a figure rounded a bend in the path. Kilbride held his fire until the enemy fighter was almost upon him, hoping to catch them all in the one blast. He compressed the trigger gently and the quiet of the forest erupted in a deafening explosion, fire spitting from the shotgun in a long, continuous tongue of flame. Three shotgun rounds thumped into the man's chest, lifting him up and throwing him backwards into the undergrowth. There was a short, piercing cry, and his bloodied torso hit the forest floor.
Kilbride kept his weapon in the aim and waited: he had four rounds left, and there were still an unknown number of enemy out there. Suddenly, there was a blast of return gunfire. Bullets chewed into the canopy of vegetation, the noise of the weapon magnified by the confined space of the forest. Kilbride dived into some cover, and from his prone position he nosed his weapon forward in the general direction of the enemy's muzzle flash. The main advantage of the shotgun was the wide arc of devastation that blasted forth from its barrel. Even if you couldn't locate the enemy exactly, the Remington still had an odds-on chance of hitting him.
He fired again, four shotgun rounds pumping into the darkness. This time Kilbride could almost hear the hollow whack-thump as the shot impacted with a human body, and sense it's falling. There was a long, low agonised wail, followed by the frenzied jerking of branches to Kilbride's right, as an enemy figure tried to crawl away. Kilbride glanced over at Boerke and Smithy, and nodded in the wounded man's direction. In an instant the two of them had disappeared into the gloom, pick axe handles held at the ready.
Kilbride and Berger waited, trying to sense the direction of the next threat. Kilbride was out of ammunition now, so it was all down to hand-to-hand combat. That, and their cunning and guile. From the direction of the mantrap came a long, crazed burst of gunfire. Rounds went ripping through the branches over and above Kilbride, as the enemy figure loosed off a whole magazine into the trees. The firing stopped and the forest went deathly quiet again. The smoke of battle hung in the air, and a sharp slick of cordite caught in Kilbride's throat. Berger signalled that he was going forward to deal with the mantrap victim. He melted into the forest. Kilbride gripped the barrel of his shotgun: if any of the fuckers came down that path he would club them to death with his weapon.
The big American crept up unnoticed on the fallen enemy figure. He had one leg caught at ankle level in the serrated jaws of the mantrap. His trousers were ripped and torn around the vicious metal teeth, revealing the pink-red of his shredded calf muscle. He had fought long and hard to free himself from the vice like grip of the trap, but all he had succeeded in doing was driving the jagged iron deeper into his flesh.
The young fighter's fingers shook uncontrollably as he tried to slot the curved steel clip of a fresh magazine into his weapon. For a split second Berger sensed the man's all-consuming terror. Then he raised the pickaxe handle and brought it down hard on the back of his skull. There was a crunch of wood on bone, the victims' eyes rolled up into his head and he fell unconscious. As Berger straightened his shoulders, the forest fell silent. He sensed, instinctively, that the battle was finally over. But as for the war, the big American figured it had only just begun.