Wed, Jul 26, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Fake army hero weaved tall stories of derring-do

THE GUARDIAN , GLASGOW, SCOTLAND

He claimed to be a highly decorated war hero, an officer in the Parachute Regiment who finished top of his class at the UK's elite Sandhurst military academy and went on to become a terrorism expert, serving in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. With a row of medals on his full military dress and his fiancee Lady Shona on his arm, Captain Sir Alan McIlwraith, CBE, DSO, MC, MiD, regaled a charity function with tales of his exploits on the battlefield as he drank champagne.

But Captain Sir Alan was in fact plain Alan McIlwraith, a call center worker who lived on a Glasgow housing estate with his mum, dad and little brother. His Walter Mitty world, which he kept up for two years, fell apart in April when he was spotted in a society magazine by someone who knew his real identity -- and he became a laughing stock across the UK.

In his first newspaper interview McIlwraith admitted he was a charlatan and that he had created an "alter ego."

"I have not got the education to be an officer in the army, I have not got the build to be anything to do with the army, I have not got the coordination. Everything that you need to be an officer in the army I have probably not got," he said.

The 28-year-old had woven a fine fable of how he served with Nato as a military adviser to the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Wesley Clark. He said he was badly injured protecting a young woman from an angry mob, making him "a hit within the military world."

The UK army's chief of staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, allegedly lauded him as a "a splendid soldier, a credit to the country." But McIlwraith was never a full time soldier. He served with the Territorial Army for 18 months.

McIlwraith spoke of how he had tried to kill himself on the day that he was exposed in Scotland's Daily Record. He says Lady Shona -- in reality an insurance underwriter called Shona McLaughlan -- took him to hospital then sent him his engagement ring in the post with no message. She had loved him as Captain Sir Alan, not the man he really was. His employers posted out his termination of employment papers.

Speaking of his deception for the first time, McIlwraith told how the colorful charade began after he was hit over the head with a scaffolding pole by some youths in the street. Small in height and thin of build, he had been bullied at work and decided that if he created a history of bravery he would not be assaulted again.

"It's like a lightbulb going off in your head. It seemed like a really good idea. If I tell people I am an officer in the army, they will leave me alone. A couple of days before I was attacked I watched a show on television about the army. It was following these couple of officers and nobody gave them any hassle. I figured to myself `that's what I want to be.' By portraying myself as better than I was, they wouldn't want to attack me," he said.

And so it began. He read everything he could on the army and ordered medals and a dress uniform from the Internet. Friends set up a Wikipedia page which said: "He is best known for risking his own life when his company was attaked [sic] by a battalion to protect his men he took charge of a GPMG [general purpose machine gun] and held off the enemy long enough for his men to retreat."

Moving to a new call center job, he told colleagues about his other life and a manager recalled that he had trained with him at Sandhurst. The deceit had become so elaborate that when he met McLaughlan while he was drinking with friends at a bar he could not tell her the truth.

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