AS my taxi crawled at a snail's pace through the rush-hour to the Mandarin hotel I recalled the Special Air Service's punishment meted out for lateness which is described in General Sir Peter de la Billiere's autobiography, Looking For Trouble. Then a major, Sir Peter had lost the key to his garage and failed to make 0800 muster parade. For this he was fined GBP50, a considerable sum in the mid-60s, which went to pay for the next squadron party. The daunting prospect of supporting Jardine Fleming's Christmas party loomed in my mind. In the event, Sir Peter, who as a main board director of JF's parent company investment house Robert Fleming, is visiting the territory, was forgiving: the reputation of Hong Kong's traffic has spread far and he apologised for being able to see me only at breakfast. Sir Peter's name has become synonymous with Britain's role in Operation Desert Storm, the successful Allied operation to shove the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait which he had invaded in August 1990. After more than 40 years in the army, the three-star general retired in 1992, able to bask in a glorious light for having led the British forces in punishing a tyrant's aggression and with unexpectedly few casualties on the Allied side. That story Sir Peter told in Storm Command, his personal account of the Gulf War, a bestseller which has notched up more than 200,000 sales. Now Sir Peter, who regularly returns to the Middle East to promote Robert Fleming, has written an often dramatic, occasionally touching and, most of all, endearingly honest account of his life in the service of his country and its allies. Sir Peter, who is 60, lost his father in World War II and grew up a loner, cocking snooks at authority. At the top public school Harrow he purloined a rifle for some enterprising target practice within the school precincts (though he was wise enough to stop when he realised the enormity of his actions) and committed minor acts of vandalism such as daubing the motto of rival college Eton on the walls which would not have endeared him to the Singapore school of values. He subjugated his solitary manner - but not his sense of adventure - in the comradeship of the British army, joining not as an officer but in the ranks and saw action in the embers of the Korean conflict. But it was his time in the Special Air Service, then regarded within the army as a maverick institution, fighting insurgents in Malaya, the Gulf and Borneo that shaped him. He rose to command this precision fighting force, set apart by its rigorous training and an emphasis on self-discipline. While the regiment retained its anonymity in the outside world, Sir Peter was one of those who helped to establish it within the military. Now the whole world knows about its successful operations in storming the Iranian embassy in London when it had been seized by terrorists in 1980, and its vital behind-the-lines work in the Falklands and in the Gulf War. 'I have no hesitation at all in saying that they are the finest, best-trained and most competent special forces in the world,' says Sir Peter, a compact man in an open neck pinstripe shirt whose casual appearance belies the human dynamo that he most obviously is. His memoir records many of the physical challenges he and his soldiers endured. Leeches in the jungle and termites in the desert were their closest companions. 'Physically life is much tougher at the bottom end of the service. Intellectually, it's much tougher at the top end. The days in Oman when we were fighting at night in the desert and climbing 7,000 to 8,000ft with a heavy load were extremely demanding. 'The Gulf War on the other hand was intellectually very demanding. One had to work an 18-hour day every day of the week and, of course, there was a tremendous responsibility on your shoulders. It's all right now, it's all over. At the time we didn't know how it was going to work out.' Brigadier Christopher Hammerbeck, now the executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, commanded the 4th Armoured Brigade under Sir Peter in the Gulf. He evaluates Sir Peter's talent this way: 'The successful soldier is always very different. Unsuccessful soldiers stick to routine, previous form and accept the mood of the herd. But Peter is someone who sticks out from the herd.' Sir Peter's way of looking at problems pragmatically is notable throughout his autobiography. It was no doubt this quality that endeared him to the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who insisted on his appointment in the Gulf. Despite the bouquets, the medals (a Military Cross and bar), and the appointments (Commander British Forces in the Falklands in the wake of the war there), these are not the memoirs of a self-seeking careerist. He took opportunities as they presented themselves. 'I had a quite clear philosophy, which was to do the jobs that I wanted to do and enjoyed doing regardless of the consequences to my career. That meant that I wanted to travel and get involved in operations in any part of the world that the army happened to be involved in.' His reaction when I brought up the mischievous suggestion by a London newspaper that he had been a candidate to succeed Sir David Wilson as Governor of Hong Kong reflected his knowledge of his talents and limitations. He shot the notion down quickly: 'I believe that life out here is very different to everything I've experienced. I've never lived in Hong Kong. I don't know it well. I don't know the people well. What I do know is that in the Middle East if you don't understand the people and you don't know the country, then you won't get your job done properly. It was never on the cards.' With the Storm Command and Looking for Trouble under his belt, Sir Peter has no intention of writing another book, which is a pity because both are highly readable. For someone with so many achievements, he is highly self-effacing: 'I think generally that people in the services are very modest about themselves and I found this one of the greatest hurdles to overcome in writing the books. But it has to be overcome.' So well documented are the books that they give an impression Sir Peter kept a daily journal. He did in a way, but not primarily for himself. 'Storm Command reflected one of the most important aspects of my married life which is that whenever I have been abroad or away from home every night I have written to my wife [Bridget] or phoned her up, and the Gulf was no exception. 'I had the letters to refer to and they stimulated one's memory. It wouldn't have been possible without that because in six months you crammed in two years' worth of activity and one's memory was overcrowded. You needed something to unlock the various compartments for a day by day account.' Aside from his work for Robert Fleming, Sir Peter has his own farm in the United Kingdom and also supports FARM Africa, a charity which seeks to improve agricultural productivity in the continent's more remote areas. He is also President of the Army Cadet Force. His belief in the importance of handling people properly - a recurrent theme in the autobiography whether in handling his own troops or the people they are there to protect - has served him well in his new career in business. Although he is not a political beast, Sir Peter feels deeply about the state of young people in Britain: 'I want to do something for youth in Britain. I think the older generation need to consider whether they are doing enough for young people instead of slanging them off.' Lastly, I asked Sir Peter if he thought he'd ever sailed too close to the wind in his army career. 'I've taken risks; you have to otherwise you won't win wars. They have to be well judged when the benefits of success outweigh the possible losses for failure. You can't command something and not take risks or run risks.' Sir Peter is signing copies of his autobiography, published by HarperCollins, at the South China Morning Post Family Bookshop at Times Square, Causeway Bay, today at 2.30pm.