The terrible truth about why 385 passengers and crew were held hostage by Saddam Hussein has now been revealed, by a New Zealand journalist who refused to let the story go.

On August 2, 1990, a British Airways 747 inexplicably landed in Kuwait as Saddam Hussein invaded the country. The plane was captured, and nearly 400 passengers and crew were taken hostage, some held for months as human shields. But now, the secret story of why the plane landed has been revealed. Mike White talks to the New Zealand journalist who has spent 30 years uncovering the truth, and discovers the extraordinary damage done to those involved.
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Helen Peters still remembers everything.
The guns, the terror, the certainty she was going to die.
How she sat on the ground as soldiers herded everyone into a room and locked the doors. How she couldnt stop shaking, thinking this was it, they were all about to be shot.
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Helen Peters was one of 385 British Airways passengers and crew who were captured and held hostage when their plane landed in Kuwait at the start of the first Gulf War.
She remembers so much more, too, of the month she was held hostage in Kuwait during the 1990 Gulf War, after the airliner she was on was captured by the invading Iraqi Army.
How it changed her from a carefree and trusting 28-year-old with the best job in the world as a British Airways First Class stewardess, to someone racked with constant anxiety and recurring nightmares.
How she had to leave England to escape the fear and frightening dreams, finding some kind of peace in New Zealand.
And how nobody has ever explained why they were allowed to land in a war zone.
Only now have the answers finally become clear. And theyre not what she ever expected.
Oh my God, she says from her Auckland home. Oh my God…
Peters wrote a diary during her captivity, while a friend in England kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about the hostages. Peters has kept them both, providing an emotional reminder of her ordeal.
Stephen Davis had his head and hands full.
His first child had just been born, hed been appointed news editor of Britains just-launched Independent on Sunday paper, and a war was breaking out in the Middle East, as Saddam Husseins Iraqi forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait over an oilfield dispute.
The New Zealand journalist had been working in the UK for 10 years when word came through that a British Airways 747 had been caught on the ground in Kuwait during a stopover.
On board Flight 149 were 367 passengers and 18 crew, who were immediately taken hostage by Iraqi troops.
Stephen Davis, journalist and author of Operation Trojan Horse, which reveals how a British Airways 747 was allowed to land in Kuwait during the 1990 war, to insert a team of spies, resulting in nearly 400 crew and passengers being taken hostage by Saddam Hussein.
Davis remembers initial reports suggested the hostages were in luxury hotels, sipping cocktails by the pool.
But then he got a phone call telling him things werent like that, and it soon became clear the danger the hostages were in.
Despite Saddam describing them as guests of peace, they and other Westerners in Kuwait were split into groups, moved around the country and into Iraq, and often held as human shields in critical installations, to deter attacks from American and British forces massing across the border in Saudi Arabia.
Some, including New Zealanders Henry and Daphne Halkyard, were kept in frightful conditions for months.
New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore, right, speaks with Brian Halkyard, whose parents Daphne and Henry were held as human shields in Iraq, and another hostage support group member, Adele Leadley.
But by December 1990, all had been released, and Davis admits journalists moved on, focusing on Operation Desert Storm, which drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
The public were preoccupied by the price of oil, not the price paid by those caught up in the war.
Unfortunate innocents, said British Airways officials, wringing their hands sympathetically. Collateral casualties, said British politicians, wiping their hands of blame.
Liars, says Stephen Davis, pointing the finger at both of them for 30 years of denials and cover-ups, and hiding the terrible truth of what happened.
Barry Iverson/The Life Images Co
Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded neighbouring Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and took hundreds of Westerners hostage.
As Flight 149 sat on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport on the evening of August 1, 1990, news broadcasts were already reporting 100,000 Iraqi troops were lined up on Kuwaits border.
Concerned passengers, including the Halkyards, asked British Airways staff why the plane was still stopping over in Kuwait on its way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, but were assured everything was safe, and they would divert if necessary.
Then, just before the planes doors closed, a group of nine men boarded, and took seats near the rear.
Soon after midnight, Saddam Husseins troops rolled across the border into Kuwait, heading down the asphalt highway splitting the desert, on their way to the capital. Meeting little resistance, the first forces arrived in three hours.
Flight 149 touched down at 4.13am, for refuelling and a crew change. Shortly afterwards, Iraqi jets began strafing the runway, and troops circled the airport.
Everyone was taken hostage and transferred to hotels. Everyone except the nine men who had boarded the plane late, who had been escorted from it as soon as it landed.
British Airways 747, Flight 149, was destroyed at the end of the Gulf War. Britain claimed fleeing Iraqi forces blew it up, but author Stephen Davis says he has evidence the UK asked American fighter planes to bomb it, so evidence of the top secret mission was removed. British Airways received compensation for the plane. The British passengers on the flight, who were held hostage, were denied compensation.
The men were part of a top-secret intelligence team called The Increment.
Drawn from former soldiers and spies, members were recruited by the British government for undercover missions that were so sensitive, they could be denied if anyone was caught.
The four two-man teams and an intelligence officer, posing as engineers, with surveillance gear disguised as surveying equipment, were to be inserted into Kuwait to provide reports on the war and liaise with the Kuwaiti resistance.
The mission had been authorised by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Ministry of Defence, and MI6 (the UKs foreign spy agency), with the co-operation of British Airways.
The plan was for the team to be on the ground, and Flight 149 to have carried on to Kuala Lumpur, well before Iraqi troops arrived in Kuwait City. Neither of these things happened.
One Increment team was rounded up immediately by Iraqi soldiers, and held with other hostages. Another eventually made it to the south of Kuwait, but had to be rescued by helicopter when they became ill. The other two teams, however, did provide intelligence reports during Saddams occupation and the subsequent war.
British Prime Minister at the time of the Kuwait invasion Margaret Thatcher. Stephen Davis says Thatcher knew of Flight 149s secret mission, and was prepared to allow innocent civilians to be captured and face great danger, in order for the operation to succeed.
But the remaining passengers on Flight 149 suffered terribly for the British governments mission, being subjected to rapes, assaults, mock executions and starvation (one group was fed a giraffe from Kuwaits zoo), during their time as hostages and human shields.
While all other planes were diverted away from Kuwait, and the last flight left there at 1.45am, Flight 149 was allowed to land two-and-a-half hours later four hours after Iraqs invasion began to offload the intelligence team.
But for 31 years, the British government has denied there was such a mission, denied The Increment existed, denied Flight 149 was a Trojan horse to get spies into Kuwait, denied the passengers lives were placed at enormous risk for the sake of an intelligence operation.
Indeed, when questions were raised about why the flight had landed in Kuwait at such a dangerous time, Thatcher told the House of Commons Iraqs invasion began after the plane landed.
It was a stone-cold lie, designed to deceive, designed to put people off the story, no doubt about it, says Davis.
As one sustained lie, it must be up there as some kind of record holder. No part of what she said was true.
New Zealand journalist Stephen Davis conducted more than 300 interviews over 30 years to uncover the truth about Flight 149 and the secret passengers it carried. The history of intelligence operations is filled with the most enormous cock-ups made by the smartest people.
Davis knows this because hes spoken with two of the Increment team on the mission. And another who helped plan it. And countless others with knowledge of it.
And more than 100 of the hostages, who suffered dreadfully because of it.
And I could not sit in a living room and listen to any of those people and not think, this is an outrage, this is disgusting. And the lack of knowledge about what happened here has just been terrible.
His three-decade investigation has culminated in his just-released book, Operation Trojan Horse, which is also being adapted into a BBC drama.
Davis, 64, has worked in newspapers and television, in England, New Zealand, Australia and America, and now lives in Dunedin, lecturing at Otago University.
Hes constantly had official doors slammed in his face, been threatened, and taken to court while investigating intelligence agencies, and expects push-back from British authorities over his most recent revelations.
This was because they didnt want secret operations exposed, and were afraid of further compensation claims by Flight 149 passengers, Davis says.
Im more nervous about this story than any other Ive done in my life. And that includes being stuck in the Amazon rainforest surrounded by armed men.
On Monday this week, the 31st anniversary of the hostage-taking, Davis held a press conference in London, where he was joined by more than a dozen Flight 149 hostages, together calling for an apology, and for a hidden government report on the episode to be released.
Human shields and hostages from British Airways Flight 149, which was captured in Kuwait, gather in London in August 2021 for the launch of Operation Trojan Horse by Stephen Davis.
Crucially, Davis shared the stage with Anthony Paice, who was MI6s station chief in Kuwait in 1990, was aware of Iraqs imminent invasion, and was in communication with British Airways.
Paice said he had previously been prevented from speaking about the incident, because of restrictions under Britains Official Secrets Act.
However, he has now broken ranks and broken his silence, confirming the military intelligence exploitation of BA149 did take place, despite repeated official denials by the Ministry of Defence, since 1991.
I know that it was a hastily and misguidedly prepared attempt to put intelligence boots on the ground, Paice said, adding it was important to acknowledge the flights passengers and crew, who suffered many weeks of privation, isolation and terror, and who were owed a profuse apology by the British government.
Stephen Davis speaks at a press conference in London on August 2, with Flight 149 hostages, at the release of his book, Operation Trojan Horse.
British authorities have continued to deny the operation, and British Airways remains silent on what happened.
Davis is adamant Margaret Thatcher would have ordered the bombing of Iraqi and Kuwaiti installations, despite hostages being held there. The fact Thatcher had authorised the very intelligence operation that led to them becoming human shields, only magnified her ruthlessness.
But he stresses such covert intelligence operations are common around the world.
Same in New Zealand. Lets not fool ourselves, whether its National or Labour, theyll still deploy the SAS in official or unofficial roles if it suits them, if it suits geopolitics, if its doing a favour for somebody.
Chris Miller/Sydney Morning Herald
Freed human shields Daphne and Henry Halkyard are greeted by their grandchildren at Auckland Airport as they arrive back in New Zealand after 84 days in captivity.
Rowan Halkyard-Mills had no idea her parents were even in Kuwait. As far as she knew, they were enjoying a few days in Malaysia on their way home to Matakana, after visiting family in England.
It wasnt until a week after Flight 149 was captured that a British Airways representative informed the family that Henry, 60, and Daphne, 57, were prisoners of Saddam Hussein.
The couple had emigrated from the UK to New Zealand in 1969, with Henry working as a farm manager.
However, for this trip, they were travelling on their British passports, meaning they were treated more harshly by Saddam.
Eventually, Rowan, then a 20-year-old university student, and her three siblings discovered their parents had been moved to Baghdad.
The reality was much worse, however.
Daphne and Henry were taken to a nuclear power plant as human shields, where conditions were awful.
But when Saddam announced he was releasing all women and children hostages, Daphne refused to leave her husband, insisting they were a couple.
Back in New Zealand, the family wrote them countless letters, but none got through.
The first they saw of their parents was when they were paraded on Iraqi TV to meet Saddam, which left Rowan shocked and upset.
We were very frightened and pretty helpless, really. You live in hope, but by the time youre nearing three months of them being in captivity, with the evolving situation over there, you start to realise you might not be going to get a good outcome.
At the end of November, after 84 days as hostages, the Halkyards were released, following the intercession of former British Prime Minister Edward Heath. (Former New Zealand Prime Minister David Langes similar mercy mission freed 16 New Zealanders, whod been living in Kuwait and taken hostage.)
Former New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange gets a hug from Karen Lane, spokeswoman for the hostage families support group, after negotiating the release of 16 New Zealanders held in Iraq, in November 1990.
Daphne eventually wrote a book about her experience, and the events sparked a life-long interest in the Middle East for the couple.
However, Henry remained angry they never got an apology from British Airways all they received was compensation for their lost luggage.
And Daphne admitted she remained haunted by what they experienced, suffering flashbacks and moments of absolute terror.
But they carried themselves with a lot of strength and dignity. I think, more than ever, they realised you just need to get on with things, says Rowan.
Henry died in 2003, Daphne in 2019.
Despite the time that had passed, Rowan still hopes the truth about Flight 149 will finally come out.
It was a traumatic event in my parents lives, it was a traumatic event for myself and my siblings lives.
It should never have happened. You should be able to board a civilian airliner without feeling at risk of being used in some kind of military or political manoeuvre.
Helen Peters never felt safe in England after her experience in Kuwait, and eventually shifted with her family to New Zealand. You live your life each day, but you have that fear its always there.
Oh my God, repeats Helen Peters, having just learnt that the captain of Flight 149, Richard Brunyate, was an MI6 asset, and knew the plane was carrying a secret team of spies.
Because of this, Brunyate had been given contacts with the Kuwaiti resistance, and managed to escape with several other crew members from the hotel they were being held in.
Peters was meant to go with them, but couldnt make the rendezvous, after encountering guards and having to hide in a bathroom.
All you could hear was your heartbeat and watch ticking.
Without her captain, and abandoned by British Airways Kuwait manager who also fled, Peters broke down crying.
We were just left, and I felt scared. Reality just hits, and you think, whats going to happen now?
Peters during her time as a hostess working in First Class on British Airways 747 Jumbo Jets. She felt she had a dream job before she was taken hostage in Kuwait. Your minds going, This isnt happening, this isnt real BA are going to send a bus, were going to get out, its going to be OK… I was a guest of Saddam a guest that could never leave. Its a bit like that song, isnt it, Hotel California.
The next morning, Peters and others were put on a bus, driving through the bombed and burnt out city, eventually ending up at the ransacked palace of a Kuwaiti royal family member.
Here, she experienced the surreal experience of eating meagre rations from gold plates, and drinking water from crystal glasses.
But they remained surrounded by soldiers, and the fear was constant, especially given two other British Airways attendants had already been raped.
Youre helpless, youre absolutely helpless.
Throughout the ordeal, Peters kept notes, written on whatever paper she could find, a diary she still has today.
Peters kept a diary during her time as a hostage, written and typed on whatever paper she could find, including stationery from the ransacked Kuwaiti palace she was held at for a time.
August 18: Tonight I broke down and cried for the first time … God, get me out of this place, I can see us being here for weeks, even months.
After more than four weeks, Saddam Hussein announced women and children were to be released, and Peters was bussed to Baghdad, then flown back to England.
But the effects of her experience were immediately apparent.
The next day, looking out the window of her house, she told her friend a tank had just driven past.
Peters returned to work, but after three flights, encountering armed guards in India and Hong Kong, and hearing gunshots in South Africa, it all proved too much, taking her back to being a hostage in Kuwait, so she transferred to short-haul flights close to home.
Even then, anxiety lurked everywhere. She avoided London, stopped going to shopping malls, and didnt like going out, terrified of terrorism.
I was a very happy-go-lucky person. And I always said I was a strong person Id been through a lot, growing up. But Id been turned into a person who, if anything bad happened, Id be shaking.
I had recurring nightmares that I was caught in another war.
Peters was recently asked by someone from England whether she had any loyalty to the country she grew up in. And I said, No way, not after the British government put my life in danger, do I have any allegiance to England. No way.
Eventually, the anxiety of living in England became too much, and Peters and her family moved to New Zealand in 2006.
And as soon as I got here, I just suddenly felt this relief that I felt safe.
Life has got better. The nightmares have stopped.
Her husband, Martin, and four children have been Peters rock.
I poured all my love into my family, and that was my healing, I think.
But the anger at what happened, and how she was treated by British Airways and the British government, has never disappeared.
They changed me. My personality wasnt the same when I came back. It made me run away from my country because I felt so scared.
What makes it worse for Peters, 59, is that until now, there has never been any explanation why Flight 149 landed in Kuwait when the Iraqi invasion had already begun, despite everyone knowing war was imminent, and passengers and crew raising concerns before the plane took off.
They put all our lives, hundreds of lives, at risk. We were just pawns.
For Peters, and the other surviving Flight 149 members, an apology and acknowledgement of what happened to them is still important, even after 31 years.
Peters received £5000 and a certificate from British Airways as compensation for what she went through.
But never an apology. And never any acknowledgement of the intelligence team on Flight 149 that caused the plane to land in a war zone, as Daviss book conclusively reveals.
You want to know the truth. Theyve got to be held accountable for what theyve done. Theyve got to own up and apologise.
I dont think theres one person it hasnt affected and put a mark on their life. And the story needs to be told.
Operation Trojan Horse: The most shocking government cover-up of the last 30 years, by Stephen Davis, (Bonnier/Allen & Unwin, $36.99) is released in New Zealand on August 23.