Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham MBE joined the Parachute Regiment in 1983 and served until 1991 holding an array of positions, including Patrol Commander for operational tours in many worldwide locations and also served as a training instructor for the Regiments as a military specialist. Billy joined the SAS in 1991 as a Mountain Troop specialist and has been responsible for planning and executing strategic operations and training at the highest level in numerous locations (Iraq, Afghanistan, South America and Africa) and has led countless hostage rescues. Billy is a certified Special Forces and Counter Terrorist Sniper Instructor, Advanced Evasive Driving Instructor, Tracking/Jungle Warfare/Navigation Instructor, Demolition/Sabotage Instructor, Ski Mountaineering/Rock Climbing/Abseiling/Ice climbing Instructor, Combat Survival/RTI Instructor, Counter Terrorist Instructor (all options) and has worked as a Patrol Medic/Trauma Life Support agent for five hospital attachments.
He received the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery and the MBE for his outstanding service as the SAS Ground Commander for the London 2005 attacks and for leading several internationally renowned hostage rescues in Iraq. Following his military career, Billy became a bodyguard for some of the world’s most high-profile celebrities. He toured the world as Head of Security for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and looked after Hollywood A-Listers including Sir Michael Caine, Hulk Hogan, Kate Moss, Russell Crowe, Sean Penn and Tom Cruise. His first novel - Kill or Capture was published in May 2021. His second novel will be released in May 2022.
The new series of SAS: Who Dares Wins is back, and quite literally hotter than ever. Tell me what’s behind the move to a desert setting?
The thing is, the show follows the direction of the actual regiment. The regiment tries to train in every theatre of war. We’ll spend part of our time in the Arctic, part of our time in the desert, part of our time in the jungle, part of our time in the mountains and so on. This show sort of follows that sequence. After a couple of years in Raasay, on British terrain, it’s time to move on and push the boundaries back out in the desert.
From your own experience, which environment did you find the hardest?
They’ve all got their challenges, if I’m honest. But if I’m really truthful, the hardest environment I’ve ever found is the Arctic. It’s totally unforgiving. You get things wrong there and in no time you’re into survival mode. If you don’t get it right, you’re going to at least suffer horrendous injuries from frostbite, or you’re going to die.
You’ve spent a lot of time on operations in the desert. What are the main challenges in that environment?
The obvious one is water – water conservation and discipline. It’s paramount. You’re going nowhere without water. But another thing about the desert is at night-time and first thing in the morning it’s absolutely freezing. So, you need to be able to adapt to that sort of change and be ready for it. But the biggest one throughout the majority of the time is water conservation.
You were in the paras for eight years before you joined the SAS. What was it that made you want to join the special forces?
You always set yourself goals, you want to see if you can prove yourself. For me, anyway, it was all about challenges. Can I do that? And a lot of my friends before me had gone on to the SAS, and I knew they were doing great work all over the world. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but I knew it was a different level of working. And I just thought “I need to know if I can do it. And I really want to make a difference.”
In your line of work, the level of danger goes up a few notches when you join the special forces. How do you control your fear when you’re confronted with something terrifying?
To be honest, the first thing I do is control my breathing. Get a grip of yourself, take a breath, and proceed with clarity. When you’re in situations you can’t really change, you’ve got to do something about it. You can’t afford to go into panic, you’ve got to stay calm, you’ve got to stay confident, and that’s what I’ve always done. I’ve never seen myself not getting out of a situation. However, I have walked away from situations where I’ve thought “How the hell did I get out of that?” It’s about staying calm, coming up with an option, and sticking with it and believing in yourself. And that’s based on experience and confidence, really.
Do you have to take a new approach to the course in Jordan, because the environment is so different from Scotland?
Not really. We’re still testing the same things. It’s all about the people. It’s about pushing them through barriers, pushing them where they’ve never been before, both physically and mentally. It’s not about the environment, it’s about the person. Obviously, we take into consideration the dangers, the stuff I’ve alluded to, water conservation and so on. We do our own personal risk assessment, but it doesn’t matter where we are. The course is the same, it’s about the people.
It’s not just the environment that’s changed. You’ve been joined by a couple of Americans.
Yeah, we have. The DS is now 50:50 British and American, the two best armed forces in the world, without a shadow of a doubt. We put our skillsets together – it’s a good collaboration. Over the last 20 years of my fighting, I was alongside Americans on nearly every job anyway. So, it’s just a natural transition.
What were Rudy and Remi like?
They’re Americans, they’re full of energy. They’ve got different ways of thinking and different ways of doing things. But it was a combination that worked really well. I was really struck by how well the team bonded together as quickly as we did. We don’t know each other that well, so we were observing and learning from each other. But having worked with Americans, you know what their strengths are, and what their weaknesses are, and I guess they know ours. We worked very well. Rudy’s a great character – he wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s got a lot of experience, and the same for Remi. Remi was different, he was quieter, but again, a very experienced guy and a great member of the team.
Do they have a different approach to the training, or is it pretty similar?
It’s similar. Americans are all gung-ho and ‘let’s just go for it!’ The British approach is more hearts and minds, theirs is more aggressive. We say we’re the brains and they’re the brawn.
Did you have any advice for Remi and Rudy?
Yeah, we had a lot of advice, because to them, it was all new. They’d never done anything like this before, but obviously they had a lot of military experience to fall back on. But you’ve got to adapt to what this is, it’s a show at the end of the day. It’s about people and their personal experiences. So, we had a lot of experience to teach them, and to be fair, they took it well, they listened, and we worked really well together.
How did you guys all get on?
We got on great. Absolutely great. Rudy’s such a character, you just can’t help enjoying being in his presence. He’s full of energy, he brings a lot to the party. He’s a great character. Remi, same thing. What we’ve got is what we really need, and that’s four different characters, not four people trying to be each other, or be something that they’re not. We all worked together and bonded really well.
How are the UK special forces viewed by the Americans?
UK special forces are held tower high. They’re very much aware of our experiences. We are elite, there’s no two ways about it, and they know that. We’ve got a lot of experience. There’s a great mutual respect there.
Can you describe the kind of bond you form when you’re in the special forces?
It’s family, you become family. It’s all about honesty, trust and integrity. You all show off your strengths and your weaknesses. You’re not trying to be someone you’re not. Where the weaknesses are, others will pick it up and fill that gap. The man next to you is your brother. We have responsibility for each other. And that is shared with the Americans, it’s a great collaboration.
When you’re on camp, do you have much more luxury accommodation than the recruits?
No, we don’t. We have camp beds and a sleeping bag, just the same as they have. Our food might be a little better. But there’s no luxuries. Our shower is a dripping cold tap. It’s like being on operations.
As ever, you guys don’t exactly mollycoddle the recruits. Do you ever worry about overstepping the mark?
No, I personally don’t at all, because I’ve had a lot of experience. I was a DS in the parachute regiment, I had two years of training and knowing how to push people to the limits without pushing them over the limit. Not breaking people but getting them to the point where you can build them back up and get the best out of them. I did that for two years in the parachute regiment, and then I was a DS in the SAS. I’ve got a lot of experience of doing that, so I know exactly where that point is, both physically and mentally. We’re not there to break anybody, or to get rid of anybody. They get rid of themselves. We’ve all got limitations, and once they reach those limitations, they’ll walk away. However, I can see when enough is enough for anybody – probably before they can. We all keep an eye on them to make sure no-one is pushed too far. Injuries you’ll never avoid – people do get injured sometimes.
Is a lot of the skill of what you do knowing when to use the carrot, and when the stick?
Yeah, it is. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde type scenario. You push people to the point where they’re never really sure what’s coming next. They don’t really know your character. They might try and get too familiar, and then we’ll take it up a notch to a more aggressive approach. Or there’s the opposite approach, if they’re a little bit down, they may need a quiet word, and we’re able to do that as well.
How important is the process of getting to know the recruits and bringing out their back stories?
It’s paramount. It took a while when I first started doing this, to figure out exactly where we were going with that. It’s really important to listen to what they’re telling you. A lot of them have got really sad stories, but we have to really get to know each person and find out what makes them tick – what they feel comfortable with and uncomfortable with. And that helps us to get the best out of them. So, it’s really important to understand their back stories – that’s what the programme is, it’s all about the back stories, it’s not about us.
Why do you think so much emotional baggage comes to the surface when they’re on the course?
I think a lot of them have come on the show for that reason. To get it off their chest. To look for direction and inspiration. They know that we’ve probably been through something similar, or worse. I think it gives them hope, and it gives them relief. What I love about the show is we help those people in front of us. I know it doesn’t look like it, because they’re just being shouted at most of the time. But honestly, everyone who’s been on the show comes away a better person. They stay in touch and say, “Thanks for helping us”. It changes their life. The other part is, we have that one person sat in front of us, and there’s thousands of people watching on TV going “If they can talk about it, maybe I can.” So, it helps a lot, and I know that, because I give a lot of talks, and I’ll always have five or six people going “You changed my life” or “You saved my life.” I get messages daily, because of the show. Digging into those back stories, helping them get it off their chest, it really helps the audience too.
So, you’re sort of like a free therapy service?
I’m no psychologist, but I have been through dark times, I have been through something very similar, so being honest and sharing that experience with people, it helps. We all need a bump up sometimes.
When you look back on your own training, what was the hardest part?
Self-motivation. That is a massive ingredient to anything in the military. It’s about having the drive, and getting up when you’re cold and wet, just to keep going forward. That was the hardest part. If you want to talk about the actual specifics of what was hard, I was 17 years old when I joined the parachute regiment. Most people, when I joined, had been to war and conflict, so it was a total no-nonsense environment. As a 17-year-old in amongst all these hard, tough men, every day was tough. I went from “I’ll take this week-by-week” to “I’ll take it day-by-day” to, literally, hour-by-hour. And I grew in confidence each day. Every day I was there, I grew an inch taller. It was tough, it was really hard, and physically, it was horrendous in the parachute regiment. It was full-on, there was no let-up. It was tough, but worth it.
How good are you at identifying which of the recruits will do well?
I think I’m pretty good. I know exactly what we’re looking for. But there’s always somebody that surprises us. One thing about the course, and definitely the SAS one, it’s not about image. So anybody who turns up, 6’6”, muscles, all the rest of it, they don’t last two minutes, most of them. They’re what I call sculptured polystyrene. They’re too busy trying to look good.
Do you think this is the toughest series yet?
It is. It’s easy to say that, but as the show goes on, every time, the most recent one is the best. Because each time we do it, we learn something new. We’re not about patting each other on the back and saying “That was great, let’s do that again.” We always look at “Well, okay, we got the job done, but what could we have done better?” and we carry that ethos forward on every show – how could we make that better? And I can honestly say, this series is unbelievable.
You’ve spent most of your career keeping your job and your identity secret. Is it very odd to go from that to being recognised in the street?
Yeah, it is. I’ve embraced it now. It took me a long time to get used to. I always tell everyone when I do my talks, I spent most of my military career trying to get into the SAS, and the rest of my life denying it. When I left the SAS, I needed to get a job, and the job I got offered was very high profile, working with celebrities [as a bodyguard]. So, I couldn’t worry about being in the media. It was very difficult. Eventually, a number of things became apparent to me. I’ve got work, firstly. Secondly, everyone I was meeting around the globe who were doing the same job as me, apparently were in the SAS. And actually, I was the only one that was. So, then I realised, I had to be up front, “Yes, I am who I am.” And it felt really uncomfortable saying that, because when you say it to somebody, they look at you and say, “You can’t have been in the SAS, because you’d never say it.” So, it was very difficult, it took a long, long time. However, I’ve embraced it now, I’m on the TV, I do what I do. Of course, from a security perspective I have to be very careful sometimes, and I am very aware of my security. It was difficult, but I enjoy it now, I embrace it. I’m really passionate about what I do. It helps people. I’ve got a great platform now, which I use. I’ve got my own charity, I work with three other charities, I really embrace it, I love it.