James Blunt refused an order to attack Russian troops when he was a British soldier in Kosovo.
Kosovo, June 1999. Serbia has withdrawn from the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of refugees wait over the border to return to their homes. A column of 30,000 Nato troops is advancing towards Pristina airfield – a crucial strategic position.
Unexpectedly, the Russian forces, reach the airfield first; Russia, Serbia's patron, is hoping to stake a claim in the occupation. The soldiers are pointing their weapons at the incoming Allied troops. "Destroy!" orders the US general over the radio – instructions from the very top. World War Three is on the cards. Enter crooner James Blunt. Crisis averted.
Blunt was then 25, a captain in the Life Guards and the lead officer at the front of the Nato column. He risked a court martial by refusing to obey those orders from General Wesley Clark to attack the Russian forces.
In a BBC radio interview last night, Blunt said: "I was given the direct command to overpower the 200 or so Russians who were there. I was the lead officer, with my troop of men behind us... The soldiers directly behind me were from the Parachute Regiment, so they're obviously game for the fight.
"The direct command [that] came in from General Wesley Clark was to overpower them," he said. "Various words were used that seemed unusual to us. Words such as 'destroy' came down the radio. We had 200 Russians lined up pointing their weapons at us aggressively ... and we'd been told to reach the airfield and take a hold of it. That's why we were querying our instruction." The end result was a victory for British common sense. "Fortunately," Blunt recalled, "up on the radio came General Sir Mike Jackson [commander of the British forces], whose words were, 'I'm not going to have my soldiers start World War Three.' He told us, 'Why don't we encircle the airfield instead?' And after a couple of days the Russians there said, 'Hang on, we have no food and no water. Can we share the airfield with you?'"
Blunt told John Pienaar, on Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics, that even without General Jackson's intervention he would have refused to carry out that order given by Wesley Clark, who was at that time the Supreme Allied Commander of Nato forces in Europe.
The stand-off lasted two weeks. Russian forces continued to occupy the airport, until eventually an agreement was secured for them to be integrated into peace-keeping duties, while remaining outside of Nato command. The row had seen General Sir Mike Jackson come close to offering his resignation. General Clark was eventually relieved of his position earlier than expected – his boss Hugh Shelton, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, later cited in a public debate "integrity and character issues". He went on to mount an unsuccessful challenge for the US presidential nomination for the Democrats in 2004.
Capt Blount, as he was then known, spent six years in the Army – two more than the minimum he was obliged to serve after taking an Army-sponsored place at Bristol University, where he studied aerospace engineering and sociology. He left the forces in October 2002, after standing guard at the coffin of the Queen Mother at her lying-in-state. He had only been back on civvy street a few months when he recorded his debut album, the soft rock Back to Bedlam, which contained the surprise hit song "You're Beautiful". (Some critics dismissed it as a cruel assault on rock sensibilities).
His song "No Bravery", on the same album and written in Kosovo in 1999, was taken up by the anti-Iraq war movement. Blunt has said he was deeply affected by his service in the Balkans. "For me, if anyone wants to be labelled pro-war, they would be obscene," he said. "War is an absolutely terrible, ghastly thing. I wouldn't bother describing the things we saw."