For a place that didn’t even exist, ‘Arabistan’ sure created a major headache for the British government in the late Spring of 1980.
It was the aspiration of separatist Arabs living in Iran’s south-western province of Khuzestan that this region should break away and form a new nation. (Most of Iran’s population is, of course, Persian rather than Arab).
To this end, six of them were prepared, with Iraqi assistance, to commit an act of terrorism at the Iranian Embassy in London.
Located at 16 Princes Gate, just across from Hyde Park, this attractive corner of London was about to be thrust into the epicentre of a frenzied political storm.
THE SEIZURE OF THE EMBASSY
At 11:30 am on Wednesday, April 30, 1980, the terrorists’ very first hostage was drinking coffee inside the front door of the Embassy with the concierge.
His name was PC Trevor Lock and he was on guard duty. Armed only with a revolver, he was soon overwhelmed by men packing far heavier weapons, likely sneaked into Britain via the Iraqi ‘diplomatic bag’.
There were six gunmen in all and four of them came face to face with Lock at that moment, drawing their weapons right after they’d entered.
One of them sprayed a burst into the ceiling with his machine pistol. Lock and then the concierge were instantly subdued (though Lock did manage to covertly send a distress signal on his radio) and the entire building fell to the hostage-takers within minutes.
This particular incident may have come out of the blue for Lock and his fellow captives but it was very much in political vogue with the times. Just as it is a feature of our post-9-11 world, the 1970s had also seen an uptick in terrorist activity.
The IRA, of course, had been active throughout the decade and there were other international events that had the potential to influence the politics surrounding this one.
One example was the killing of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. A botched police attack at the airport had turned the entire affair into a bloodbath. And, as Gregory Fremont-Barnes points out in his book ‘Who Dares Wins: The SAS and the Iranian Embassy Siege 1980’, following this, “security organizations discovered that, paradoxically, the public tended to view the government and not the hostage-takers with disapprobation if the crisis ended in violence”.
Another disastrous international event was the abortive Delta Force mission, Operation Eagle Claw. This was intended to rescue US Embassy staff taken hostage in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It was aborted before it even started due to faulty helicopters, though even the abandoning of this operation became a disaster in and of itself when one of the helicopters collided with a transport plane.
The west, it seemed, could use a ‘victory’.
Fortunately, the British government wouldn’t be starting from scratch. Out of all this came a number of specially-trained units for dealing with hostage-taking terrorist groups – GIGN in France, GSG-9 in Germany and Delta Force in the US, which was modelled on the SAS.
Meanwhile, the SAS itself had hostage rescue incorporated into the remit of the CRW (Counter-Revolutionary Warfare) Wing, and it later conducted training and operations in this area with the aforementioned foreign units.
Military involvement though could only ever be the last resort. Fremont-Barnes outlines the reasons for this:
“Even during (such a period of crisis) the SAS is stringently subject to the rule of law, with the rules of engagement carefully detailed in the tactical operations room established near the scene of the crisis. In this way the SAS plays no role in the negotiating phase of a siege, and thus is a politically neutral force whose sole function is to carry out military operations if these are deemed necessary.”
And pressure to keep things this way came from inside as well as outside the military:
“Nor is it in the interests of the SAS merely to go in ‘with guns blazing’, for their members are well aware that they could be prosecuted for using excessive force, and that the regiment’s reputation could suffer as a result of the deaths of hostages, whether at the hands of the terrorists or, worse still, at those of the soldiers. In short, public perception that a military operation is heavy-handed could result in a disastrous political situation for the government and a propaganda victory for the terrorists. Much depends, therefore, on the training and equipment of the unit established to thwart hostage-takers.”
Last resort or not, the SAS heard about the Embassy crisis very quickly, thanks to a former member now working in the Met. He relayed information to commander of the regular 22 SAS Regiment up in Hereford, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Rose. (The SAS has two other units, 21 and 23 SAS, which are both reserve, or at the time, territorial, units).
News quickly spread from Rose to men in the regiment. The BBC documentary ‘SAS – Embassy Siege’ introduces us to three of them: Tom, a sniper, ‘Mac’, an assault specialist, and Robin Horsfall, a karate expert who remembers a sniper team member telling him:
“Hey, there’s an operation going on in London. Apparently, the Iranian Embassy’s just been hijacked by some terrorists.”
Mac, meanwhile, was happy at first to find out that the planned training exercise had been cancelled – maybe he could do something fun that weekend instead.
But when he learnt the reason for the sudden change in the schedule, he didn’t believe it:
“Yeah… bollocks”, he said, and walked off.
Tom, on the other hand, was on ‘First Team’ and his beeper going off meant this almost certainly wasn’t a drill, or a rumour:
“From there we were briefed very quickly and we were gone from the camp very very quickly.”
Rose had taken the initiative to send his men south (they drove to Beaconsfield, near London), expecting their presence would be welcomed when official channels finally got around to requesting it.
The police and the government, meanwhile, were rapidly moving their own people to get the situation properly sized up and as under control as possible. Counter-intuitively, this wasn’t as difficult as one might think, something Metropolitan Police Negotiator DCI Max Vernon reminds us of:
“When you think about it, you have a number of hostage takers – they’re armed, they have hostages, they’re in charge. (But are they?) They’re isolated in a house, they can’t communicate with anybody, unless they communicate with the police – they can’t even get cigarettes without asking for it. Everything they require has to be asked for, and over a period of time it does have an effect on them. They aren’t as in charge as they think they are.”
The police also began an urgent investigation into how many hostages were stuck inside the embassy and just who the six gunmen were. Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Dellow told the BBC:
“There were many officers who spent hours and hours looking into the backgrounds of these people… to try and find out who was controlling them. And from their activities they had already bought presents to take home for their families. They’d been shopping in Harrords and other places and some of those presents had actually been sent home. They were also, shall we say, wining and dining, and enjoying the pleasures of ladies that they paid for.”
Interestingly, the investigation also turned up something else. According to the BBC:
“The police also discover that there’s a seventh member of the group. He’s the mastermind, a mysterious Iraqi intelligence officer called Sammy Mohammed Ali. His orders are to orchestrate an armed siege at the Iranian Embassy in the heart of London. He’s recruited and trained the gunmen in Baghdad. Once in England, he supplies guns and grenades and assures them that they’ll return to Iraq as heroes. He then does a runner to Heathrow and flies out as the Embassy is seized.”
Dellow again notes:
“I don’t think those that had organised (the hostage-takers) had told them the truth, that chances are that they would be holed up (at the Embassy) and that it would end up as a terrorist situation. Because they really thought that they were going home within 24 hours, that we would capitulate, put them on aeroplanes and they’d be back in their own country. But the reality was that they weren’t going anywhere, and it took a long time for that to begin to dawn on them.”
Two of the hostages, as it turned out, were themselves BBC men. One was cameraman Chris Cramer and the other was sound recordist Sim Harris, both of whom had gone to pick up visas.
And there was a third journalist inside, from Syria. His name was Mustapha Karkouti and as a fellow Arabic speaker, he could communicate with the terrorists in their own language:
“We told them, ‘if it was publicity you want, the best idea for you is to decide to give up, you will get all the world media inside this embassy – at that moment, you make your decision, ‘we decided to give ourselves up and the hostages are free to go’. Can you imagine what kind of victory your coups would have achieved if you do that?’ We reached that stage, talking to them.”
They didn’t give up, but they did utilise the media to lay out their demands. They were:
a). Respect for their ‘human and legitimate rights’;
b). An independent ‘Arabistan’;
c). The release from jail in Iran of 91 Arabs;
d). Safe passage for them out of Iran to their chosen destination.
The obvious difficulty with this patently ridiculous plot was that the British government not only had no control over the Iranian government, but an antagonistic relationship existed between them.
For their part, the Iranian government believed this might be a CIA/MI6 scheme to meddle further in their country.
Years of grievances had built up this point. In 1953, at British prompting, the CIA had organised a coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. He’d wanted to nationalise Iran’s oil, which likely would have driven up prices and removed BP, formerly the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, from the scene.
A cruel dictator, ‘the Shah’, was installed instead but his reign ended in turmoil following the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
So here the British government was in 1980, caught between Iraq, Iran and a hard place, as it were.
The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, insisted on the application of UK law inside the embassy, even though it was technically international territory, and, to that end, that the terrorists were under no circumstances to leave the country.
She was, though, prepared to pursue a peaceful resolution as much as possible. As she herself later stated:
“The Iranian Government had no intention of conceding these [the terrorists’] demands; and we, for our part, had no intention of allowing terrorists to succeed in their hostage taking. I was conscious that, though the group involved was a different one, this was no less an attempt to exploit perceived western weakness than was the hostage taking of the American embassy personnel in Tehran. My policy would be to do everything possible to resolve the crisis peacefully, without unnecessarily risking the lives of the hostages, but above all to ensure that terrorism should be – and be seen to be – defeated.”
Much of the government response to the crisis was not, though, handled by Thatcher herself but by Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw.
He chaired COBR, pronounced ‘cobra’ and short for Cabinet Office Briefing Room, a body that came into effect during a hostage crisis that was political and not merely criminal in nature. It was advised by senior MoD and Foreign Office officials as well as reps from the SAS, the Met and MI5.
On the morning of day two of the crisis the absurdity of the terrorists ambitions was brought home to everybody when the Iranian government announced that the 91 Arab prisoners would not be released.
Beyond that, expecting Iran to ever give up an oil-rich region like Khuzestan was also barking mad.
Unfortunately, with the apparent brains of the operation, intelligence officer Sammy Mohammed Ali, out of the picture and safely back in Iraq by now, responsibility rested entirely on the shoulders of the group’s leader, Oan (also known as ‘Salim’).
And Oan was getting frustrated. He set a deadline of midday for his demands to be met. If they were not, he said that he and his comrades would begin killing hostages.
Syrian journalist Mustapha Karkouti remembers:
“Immediately, the atmosphere in the room turned into a complete tension. Some of the hostages… were in tears… it was the first shock we had, all of us, that something serious was going to happen.”
The BBC’s Sim Harris was in a similar state of mind:
“I think most of us were panic stricken. I don’t think anybody was thinking straight. (It was) really, really scary… you really start thinking what your BBC pension’s going to leave your wife.”
And for his part, cameraman Chris Cramer, already slightly unwell, willed himself to get into an even worse state. This, he planned, would be his ticket out.
When PC Trevor Lock learnt of his intention, he encouraged it:
“So I said ‘Okay Chris, but don’t forget, once you get out, tell them on the outside (that) there are six of them, they’ve got two machine pistols, they’ve got three Brownings, they’ve got a snub-nosed .45, they’ve got hand grenades and spare ammunition – you’ve got to tell them on the outside’.”
When his captors finally relented, Cramer stumbled outside and into the arms of a waiting policeman:
“I was escorted to an ambulance… I said ‘I want to talk to someone now. Stop the ambulance, you know, there are gunmen in there with hand grenades and there are six of them’, and I was terrified that they were going to storm the embassy thinking maybe there was only one or two… ‘You need to get word to the authorites that there are six extremely well-armed gunmen in there’, and he stopped the ambulance and he jumped out.”
The SAS were getting ready – in fact, they’d been ready since they’d arrived. An IA, Immediate Action plan, was quickly assembled and consisted of assault teams busting in through various points on the upper floors and fighting their way down through the building.
In the meantime, a more detailed operation was being hatched and then rehearsed over and over again at nearby Regents Park Barracks.
This was possible because the SAS were divided into two main groups, Red and Blue Team. Whilst one waited near the Embassy on a knife edge, ready to enact the IA, the other group practised the more detailed plan. Then they switched places.
Fortunately for them and everybody else involved, the deadline passed without incident. Salim had relented, for now.
In the meantime, on top of Chris Cramer’s important intelligence about the level of threat posed by the gunmen, an even more vital asset was located: the building caretaker.
Up until this point, the SAS had developed their plan to include not just the IA’s top-down assault but also additional entry points on the ground. The method of entry? Sledgehammers.
This seems to be one of the most quizzical aspects of the SAS operation. The reason is that while under the rule of the Shah, the Iranian government had consulted experts in the UK on how to bolster the defences of their embassy in London.
The ‘experts’ who were consulted were the SAS and they had advised the Shah to add armour-plated glass. What they didn’t know was whether or not this recommendation was ever implemented, which begs the question: Why bother with sledgehammers if they knew the plan might not work?
In any case, the arrival on the scene of the caretaker the day before had confirmed that armour plating definitely had been added to the ground floor.
They went back to the drawing board, and they needed to work fast. On day three of the crisis things heated up again.
Inside the Embassy, Oan/Salim was getting angry that the phone lines had been cut and thus the terrorists’ message to the outside world blocked. Salim said he might kill a hostage and Trevor Lock convinced him to let he (Lock) speak to the police.
He shouted through a first-floor window: “There is a hostage about to be killed unless you allow Oan full use of telephone and telex”.
This was refused and instead, Salim asked to speak to the BBC. Sim Harris’ colleague Tony Crabb, managing editor of BBC TV News at the time, was brought along to help. Harris shouted the terrorists’ demands through a window to his friend and colleague who noted them down.
As well as the broadcasting that evening of the group’s grievances, the demands were:
a) A coach to Heathrow for everyone inside the embassy as well as the provision of an Arab ambassador to meet with the group;
b) The subsequent release at the airport of the non-Iranian hostages; and
c) A getaway plane to convey the terrorists and their remaining hostages to an undisclosed Middle Eastern country (likely Iraq).
Again, this wasn’t straightforward. The British government were naturally reluctant to have diplomats from another country dealing with their terrorist problem. Said diplomats wouldn’t necessarily have the same objectives as Downing Street, and controlling the situation through them could prove extremely difficult.
In addition, at that point, the feeling was that even if they did arrange for an ambassador the only Arab country in the region they trusted was Jordan and the Jordanian ambassador didn’t want to do it.
The next day Salim demanded to speak to Tony Crabb again. He was displeased with the way the BBC had reported the crisis the previous day.
This time, Crabb, standing beside a police negotiator, agreed that the terrorists’ statement would be taken down and read out verbatim on the news, but Salim had to agree to the release of two hostages.
One of these was to be a pregnant woman, Hiyech Kanji, and the other a Pakistani teacher named Ali Guil Ghanzafar (whose snoring had apparently been keeping everyone awake at night anyway).
Initially, a standoff ensued as Salim demanded his statement be read out first whereas the police insisted on the release of the hostages as a pre-condition for the BBC broadcast.
The most logical compromise presented itself: the pregnant Hiyech Kanji was let go first and, following the airing of the statement, Ali Guil Ghanzafar was released.
The statement on the news read as follows:
“We demand the three ambassadors, Algerian, Jordanian and Iraqi, to start their jobs in negotiating to secure the safety of the hostages and to terminate the whole operation peacefully.”
While this went on in the foreground the SAS, who the press were still unaware were even there, continued their quiet preparations.
That night they crept over the rooftops towards the Embassy. Abseil ropes were calmly attached to chimneys, though not everything went smoothly. A tense moment occurred when one of them broke a tile.
The snapping ceramic sounded like a pistol shot and the man in question had to point frantically to his boot to show that it had just been him. They all signalled a nearby police sniper to stand down and continued to number 16 Princes Gate.
Gregory Fremont-Barnes describes just what happened next:
“The team carefully made its way across the rooftops, avoiding the forest of aerials and telescopic poles, wires and satellite dishes. The reconnaissance leader then discovered it: moonlight reflecting on glass – the embassy skylight. The word was passed at a whisper, and the recce leader knelt down to discover if the skylight was locked. It was. Another member of the team then proposed peeling back the strip of lead waterproofing positioned around the edge of the glass. Careful work for a quarter of an hour offered success: one of the team was able to lift one of the glass panes from the frame, enabling him to reach through the gap and remove the lock. He gradually eased open the skylight.”
SAS trooper Pete Winner recalls:
“Moonlight immediately flooded the small room beneath us. We found ourselves looking down into a cramped bathroom. Directly below us was a large white enamel bath. In the left-hand corner was a grimy wash-basin, and opposite it was the door that could lead us to the top landing of the Embassy and eventually to the terrorist stronghold. I felt a sudden rush of excitement, a surge of adrenalin, at the thought of the options this new development offered. I had to stifle an urge to become the first SAS man into the Embassy. It would have been quite easy to grip the wooden surround of the skylight base and lower myself down on to the edge of the bath. But thoughts of immortality were interrupted by a hand on my shoulder and by Roy’s voice whispering, ‘Come on. Let’s get back to the holding area. We can tell the boss we’ve got a guaranteed entry point’.”
On day five things improved further when another hostage was released.
The trickle of those coming out confirmed existing intelligence: Six gunmen, well armed with automatic weapons and grenades, and, by this point, 22 hostages.
What they couldn’t determine was whether or not the gunmen were bluffing about having rigged the building with explosives.
This, though, wasn’t for lack of trying. The police and military had been drilling holes in the wall, removing bricks ready for a forced entry and lowering microphones down chimneys.
At one point the scratching of a drill had alerted the terrorists, though, in a fluke, Sim Harris and Lock had managed to convince them that this was just mice in the walls.
The authorities, listening carefully, realised they’d been far too careless and Home Secretary Whitelaw got on the phone to organise all manner of ambient noise. He later acknowledged the supreme professionalism of his government employees - gasmen who promptly found ‘faulty’ non-existent pipes that ‘needed’ drilling and air traffic controllers and pilots who re-rerouted planes from Heathrow. The blanket of sounds now covered up the continuing preparations.
Meanwhile, Mike Rose and assault team leader Major Hector Gullan got together with the then commander of SAS Group, Brigadier Peter de la Billiere. They met at the latter’s London flat to pour over maps and continue fine tuning the assault plan.
RAIDING THE EMBASSY
Day six, May 5, opened badly.
Salim was convinced the building had been infiltrated by police because he’d heard strange noises in the night. Bizarrely, he sent Trevor Lock to look around instead of doing so himself.
Male hostages in room 9 (the telex room) on the second floor were also woken – Sim Harris and fellow hostage Ron Morris enacted their normal routine of cleaning cups in preparation for breakfast, which consisted of tea and biscuits and was passed out to the women hostages in room 9A first.
At 10 o’clock an ominous telegram from the Iranian government arrived, addressed to the hostages. It praised their stoic courage but ended with the following phrase:
“We feel certain that you are all ready for martyrdom alongside your nation.”
Martyrdom was certainly taken seriously by Abbas Lavasani, a press spokesman for and enthusiastic supporter of his government. He’d become annoyed by the graffiti insulting the Ayatollah that the terrorists had sprayed about, and raised his own profile in the process.
So when Salim spotted an incriminating bulge in the Iranian-Egyptian Embassy wall and decided someone must pay for ‘police meddling’, Lavasani became the obvious target of his retribution.
Bravely, Abbas pronounced himself ready for martyrdom.
Next door, SAS trooper Peter Winner heard three shots:
“I reached for my MP5, removed the magazine, cocked the action and caught the ejected 9-milly round. I then stripped the weapon and began to clean the working parts meticulously. This is it, I thought as I lightly oiled the breech-block. There could be no going back now. A hostage had been murdered. Direct action would have to be taken. As I threaded the metal beads of the Heckler Koch pull-through down the barrel of the machine pistol, I let my mind wander through the problems of attacking a building with over fifty rooms. We would need speed, we would need surprise, we would need aggression.”
For their part, COBR was headless. The Home Secretary had gone to his official residence in Slough and was about to sit down to a nice lunch when he found himself rushing for the car and being whisked back into London at top speed.
A final flurry of official activity ensued as the authorities tried to ascertain if a hostage, or two hostages (another three gunshots came a little later), had actually been killed. When Abbas Lavasani's body was deposited outside the main Embassy door, that confirmed it. (He was, in fact, the only dead hostage at this point).
Legality for the coming raid was now quickly nailed down between various levels of command, including for Whitelaw. He tracked down the PM by phone, catching her in the car as she too sped into London:
“Yes, go in”, she said.
De la Billiere had paid one last visit to the men at Princes Gate:
“In the Forward Holding Area I talked to members of the assault team, and found the atmosphere typical of the SAS immediately before an operation: there was no sense of over-excitement or tension; rather, an air of professionalism and quiet confidence prevailed. These men had been superbly trained, and they had so often practised the kind of task they were about to carry out that it had become almost an everyday event. This is not to say that they lacked courage or imagination: on the contrary, they knew full well that the terrorists were heavily armed, and that the building could be wired with explosives, and might go up as they broke in. They simply accepted the risks and carried on.”
Back at the embassy panic was setting in, the hostage-takers barricading doors and windows with furniture and Lock yelling down the phone that they were going to kill more hostages.
Somehow the police managed to get Salim back on the line, telling him the coach for his escape was arriving imminently, all while the SAS were visible to those outside the Embassy getting into assault positions.
On the roof Red Team heard “Hyde Park” and then “London Bridge” over their radios, the signals to hook up their ropes and to abseil into position.
But then a snag: The rope of one of the sub-team leaders, Sergeant Tommy Palmer, got caught. Adjacent colleagues swung over to try and tug him loose, but one of them smashed a window below him with his foot.
Inside, Salim heard the breaking glass and put the phone down, going to investigate with Lock in tow.
That was it, they’d lose the element of surprise if they didn’t go now. Their radios came to life:
“Go! Go! Go!”
At that moment the glass dome on the second floor, which had been rigged with explosives as a diversion, was blown.
It shattered violently and a few members of Red Team leapt through the now-gaping hole then bounded up the stairs to the third floor.
On the second floor, Lock seized the initiative:
“I ran as hard as I could towards (Salim) and managed to hit him with my shoulder in the hip, and ran him back maybe eight to 10 feet towards an office door, and I had him, and we were facing the door – and he was going nowhere.”
At around the same moment, the skylight on the top (fourth) floor was blown open and more members of Red Team jumped inside.
Next, snipers launched CS gas canisters through several back windows.
What couldn’t happen was for the explosive charges to be blown around the second-floor windows because Sergeant Palmer was still in the way.
Men below improvised, smashing smaller holes in the glass themselves, then flinging in stun grenades and CS gas canisters.
At the front of the building, Mac’s subunit, part of Blue Team, had climbed across to the first-floor window from a neighbouring balcony.
Sim Harris was right inside and remembers:
“Ever the brave soul, you know, courageous Harris decides this is the time to get out. And I head towards the windows… but they’ve got the shutters across. There’s a chink of light and I pull the curtain apart and there’s what I thought was a policeman.”
He was looking right at Mac who had to yell through is gas mask:
“I thought, ‘wow’, and this guy (gestures) ‘get down, get down’, and there’s one almighty explosion.”
The explosion this time was a frame charge – plastic explosive laid out in a line on a polystyrene base, contouring exactly to the window dimensions. When it went off it blew out the whole thing.
Mac and his comrade climbed back over the adjacent balcony again and dashed inside.
Listening to events over the radio was nail-biting.
Metropolitan Police Negotiator DCI Max Vernon said:
“(I just) sat there and listened to the noise (and believed) that a wholesale massacre was going on. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and hearing. (I was) stunned. And drained, to be blunt. Totally drained… (I felt like a) failure. I’d failed because the SAS had gone in.”
For his part, back at COBR, de la Billiere was fretful about the fact that the explosions had occurred separately. They were meant to have gone off simultaneously.
What the hell was going on? Was the first explosion the start of the assault and the next one the terrorists blowing up the whole building? They’d never had a chance to ascertain if the thing had been booby-trapped as claimed. Was everybody inside and all those in the attacking force now dead?
They weren’t. In fact, despite the hold ups, all of the attackers – 30 to 35 SAS men – would soon be swarming throughout the building.
Ordinarily, of course, this many elite soldiers wouldn’t be needed to take on a mere six terrorists. The reason for such heavily weighted numbers was to spread the SAS out evenly so they could rapidly navigate the rabbit warren that was the Embassy’s 50 rooms, a network one soldier dubbed a “Fucking nightmare”. The point was the get to the hostages as quickly as possible before any more of them were executed.
For the rest of Red Team that meant getting Sergeant Tommy Palmer out of the way first.
The terrorists may not have laid explosives but they had doused their barricades by the windows with kerosene and the stun grenades flung inside had now started a fire.
It arched upwards, the flames licking Palmer’s leg as he desperately swung himself from side to side trying to avoid them.
On the balcony below men of Red Team, including Robin Horsfall, could do nothing but watch their comrade dangle precariously above them.
Fortunately, someone on the roof cut his rope just at the right moment. Had they mistimed it he could have plummeted to his death onto the concrete below, but as it was he fell safely, albeit it with a thud, onto the second-floor balcony.
Incredibly, despite serious burns, he plunged inside the Embassy with the rest of his team and carried on.
Once inside they fanned out. The procedure was to move in two-man teams, blowing off locks with shotguns or a quick burst of machine-gun fire, kicking the door in, flinging in a stun grenade, and then entering the room.
This was all done in the dark – power had been cut. The soldiers all carried Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine guns with an light on top to illuminate their targets – taken on in descending order of immediate danger. First gunmen, then those with grenades and finally those who might weld a knife.
The MP5s were lethal and could empty their 30-round magazines in two seconds flat if the trigger was fully depressed.
They were chosen for this kind of mission because, unlike some submachine guns such as the British Army’s Sterling L2A3, they fired with a closed-bolt action.
This made them more accurate – essential for hostage rescue. The tradeoff was that they were also more mechanically complicated and jams could occur.
Two-man teams helped mitigate this problem because the lead man could drop to his knee if he got ‘the dead man’s click’ and draw the Browning semi-automatic pistol on his thigh while the man behind moved forward with his MP5.
For safe measure, Brownings could take 13 rounds but were typically loaded with only 12 to reduce the odds of them jamming as well.
Another advantage of the Heckler and Koch was its layout.
Sterlings had a magazine on their side, which made manoeuvring in tight spaces difficult because it could catch on doors and walls.
The MP5, on the other hand, had the more normal downward-facing magazine which, when a spare clip was attached to it, helped weigh the weapon down. Many guns kick up when they fire but this extra weight helped keep the MP5 more stable, and thus, more accurate.
A 9mm Browning MP-35, a backup weapon (image: Askild Antonsen)
The careful integration of man and weapon was honed continuously at the ‘Killing House’, a CQB (Close Quarters Battle) training facility at the regiment’s headquarters in Hereford.
Here, endless live-ammo drills, sometimes risking the lives of SAS personnel who stood in as ‘hostages’, took place.
Realistic scenarios were rehearsed continuously, soldiers having to navigate furniture obstacles as they ‘rescued’ their comrades and shot dead ‘terrorist’ targets – DA DUM, DA DUM double taps to the head. That meant short bursts with the MP5 and two single shots with the Browning… preferably to the head.
In addition, the knowledge of the Embassy caretaker had been put to good use along with any maps that had been turned up.
A scale model of the building was constructed so that every part of the building could be analysed in painstaking detail by planners.
After that, life-size models of each floor were constructed out of wood and laid out at Regents Park Barracks.
Each team then rehearsed their part of the attack in their assigned area, learning every inch of the building they were to assault.
The training was certainly paying off now as, room by room, the SAS cleared the Embassy.
Careful planning aside, on the ground floor, Blue Team had also had to improvise. To limit the danger of running into each other’s gunfire, Red and Blue Teams had been assigned clearly defined zones. Those in Blue were to enter on the lower levels - the first and ground floors and then, once inside, the basement - whilst those in Red took the top three floors.
Pete Winner entered at the rear on the ground level and remembers:
“We took up a position behind a low wall as a demolition call sign ran forward and placed the explosive charge on the Embassy french windows. It was then that we saw the abseiler swinging in the flames on the first floor [sic: second]. It was all noise, confusion, bursts of sub-machine gun fire. I could hear women screaming. Christ! It’s all going wrong, I thought. There’s no way we can blow that charge without injuring the abseiler.”
There was nothing for it:
“Instant change of plans. The sledge-man ran forward and lifted the sledgehammer. One blow, just above the lock, was sufficient to open the door. They say luck shines on the brave. We were certainly lucky. If that door had been bolted or barricaded, we would have had big problems. “‘Go. Go. Go. Get in at the rear.’ The voice was screaming in my ear. The eight call signs rose to their feet as one and then we were sweeping in through the splintered door. All feelings of doubt and fear had now disappeared. I was blasted. The adrenalin was bursting through my bloodstream. Fearsome! I got a fearsome rush, the best one of my life. I had the heavy body armour on, with high-velocity plates front and back. During training it weighs a ton. Now it felt like a T-shirt. Search and destroy!”
As Gregory Fremont-Barnes points out, it was actually extremely fortuitous that the ground floor charges on the window weren’t blown. Right next to it was shelves of library books also doused in kerosene.
Had a fire started one imagines that the whole operation might have started to look like a miniature version of the disastrous Belsan school siege in Russia in 2004 in which hundreds of hostages died because of fire.
As it was, while they smashed and blew open doors with sledgehammers and shotguns and moved room to room, the only ‘danger’ turned out to be a dustbin – which Winner sprayed with bullets when he mistook it for a crouched terrorist.
On the first floor, there was a real terrorist. In Steve Crawford’s ‘The SAS At Close Quarters’, one soldier recalls:
“Then we were in. We threw in stun grenades and then quickly followed. There was a thundering bang and a blinding flash as the stun grenades went off. Designed to disorientate any hostiles who were in the room, they were a godsend. No one in here, good. I looked round, the stun grenades had set light to the curtains, not so good. No time to stop and put out the fire. Keep moving. We swept the room, then heard shouts coming from another office. We hurried towards the noise, and burst in to see one of the terrorists struggling with the copper who had been on duty when the embassy had been seized: PC Lock.”
What isn’t mentioned here is that before the SAS entered a stun grenade was flung inside and, just like the curtains that were set on fire, it too caused problems for one of the ‘good guys’.
The struggle between Lock and Salim had escalated when the policeman had finally drawn his pistol. Speaking to the BBC, he said:
“I thought, ‘I’m going to kill this bastard’. He couldn’t believe it – Mr. Trevor’s got a gun! He was saying ‘Please don’t hurt me Mr. Trevor, it wasn’t me, it was the others. I told them what you were saying was true but they wouldn’t listen. They wanted to carry on’. And I thought to myself, ‘If I kill him, I would be killing him out of anger and hatred. And that’s not the way I’ve been trained’.”
Here was the problem: Lock himself didn’t need to be rescued - he had the situation under control. But then:
“Two of these, what I call ‘Green Lemons’, they were like the anti-personnel grenades they used to carry, came rolling in – and these were the things that dominated and frightened the life out of me all the time I was in there. I thought ‘Good God’.”
Dominated and frightened Lock more than the terrorist, in this case.
“I can see Saleen going for his gun. And whilst I’m trying to stop him getting his gun, I hear the door fly open.”
The next thing he heard was:
“Trevor, get away!”
He couldn’t believe it:
“And I let go of (Salim) and I roll over to look at the door from where the voice came from and there he is standing there, this guy who knew me personally.”
It was Tom.
Something else the SAS had been busy doing was looking at pictures, over and over again, memorising the names and faces of everybody in that Embassy, hostages and hostage-takers.
But Trevor couldn’t even see Tom’s face:
“He was dressed in black overalls, mask, had a futurist-looking gun (the MP5), a balaclava, and as I rolled over I immediately heard (gunfire). And I looked back, and there was Salim laying there, absolutely lifeless, and he had a line of bullet holes going at a diagonal, from his eye, across his chest.”
The Embassy after the siege (image: [email protected])
Tom had got to Trevor in the nick of time, but on the second floor two terrorists in the telex room (room 9) began shooting hostages.
They hit four of them, though fortunately for one of a well-placed coined deflected the shot.
Two more lay gravely wounded and one was dead.
At this point, accounts vary. The BBC’s ‘SAS – Embassy Siege’ says the hostages convinced the terrorists to give up and that when the SAS stormed in they stood them against a wall and shot them.
These killings were the most controversial of the siege though the soldiers were later cleared of wrongdoing.
This may have had something to do with the fact that another account is far more indicative of necessary rather than excessive force being employed.
Gregory Fremont-Barnes’ book relates that the gunmen only stopped killing hostages because they tried to hide amongst them, and when they were spotted suspicious movements they made on the floor spooked the SAS enough to kill them.
Grenades are said to have been discovered in their hands.
Whatever the case, two of the terrorists actually were hiding successfully amongst the hostages and posed a critical threat.
With the building on fire and much of the gunmen dead it was time to get out.
The SAS assembled around the stairs and began passing hostages to one another in a long human chain.
It was rough and it was rushed but it was well controlled.
Everything seemed to be going to plan. Then, several members of the SAS spotted something. One of them was Pete Winner:
“He drew level with me. Then I saw it – a Russian fragmentation grenade. I could see the detonator cap protruding from his hand. I moved my hands to the MP 5 and slipped the safety-catch to ‘automatic’.”
But Winner realised he couldn’t take the shot:
“Through the smoke and gloom I could see call signs at the bottom of the stairs in the hallway. Sh**! I can’t fire. They are in my line of sight, the bullets will go straight through the terrorist and into my mates. I’ve got to immobilize the bastard. Instinctively, I raised the MP5 above my head and in one swift, sharp movement brought the stock of the weapon down on the back of his neck. I hit him as hard as I could. His head snapped backwards and for one fleeting second I caught sight of his tortured, hate-filled face. He collapsed forward and rolled down the remaining few stairs, hitting the carpet in the hallway, a sagging, crumpled heap.”
Winner couldn’t shoot the terrorist but now that he was on the ground men further down certainly could:
“The sound of two magazines being emptied into him was deafening. As he twitched and vomited his life away, his hand opened and the grenade rolled out. In that split second my mind was so crystal clear with adrenalin it zoomed straight in on the grenade pin and lever. I stared at the mechanism for what seemed like an eternity, and what I saw flooded the very core of me with relief and elation. The pin was still located in the lever. It was all over, everything was going to be OK.”
Not quite over.
So far Salim, the man dead at the bottom of the stairs and the two terrorists shot in the telex room came to four ‘bad guys’ killed. One more had been shot in an office at the back of the building.
That left one.
By this point the hostages were laid out on the grass at the back of the Embassy. They had their hands quickly strapped in front of them with plasticuffs and the SAS went by, identifying everybody.
Sim Harris spoke up. The final terrorist was laying nearby. Soon identified he was promptly dragged off and later jailed, the only gunman to survive the raid.
Now it really was over – well, apart from the after party.
Back at the barracks, Margaret Thatcher and her husband came by to meet members of Red and Blue Team and praise them for their huge success. Only one dead hostage (apart from the execution of Lavsani that initiated the raid) was well below the 40 percent casualties feared.
Beer cans popped as they all settled in to watch a news report of the day’s events. Mac recalled:
“Suddenly, it was going through the start of it on the telly. It was a newsflash thing… I see me (on telly)… You know, I’m a short arse, and there was this head right in front of me. I said, ‘For fuck’s sake’, I didn’t know whose head it was. I said, ‘Move your fucking head’… and she just moved.”
It was the PM.
ASSESSING OPERATION NIMROD
Decidedly less euphoric about things was Chris Cramer:
“The public at large saw that as a triumphal moment, as something to be celebrated. I found it despairing. You know, (there was) some pride, if you like, with a very small p, that Britain was still capable of producing people who were this well trained, and could execute something as brilliantly as this, but dejection – I thought… this is not civilised behaviour. This is not civilised behaviour. I can understand why it’s happened, but I can’t support it emotionally.”
But Cramer seems to have reserved the worst judgment for himself, claiming that he had to spend the years afterwards coming to terms with the fact the he, as he puts it, is a coward.
It’s hard to understand why he has chosen to be so hard on himself. Perhaps he confused his feeling of fear with cowardice – being afraid, after all, isn’t the same thing as being a coward.
He may also have just compared his own response to the crisis with the overwhelmingly successful one of the SAS.
Either way, it’s ludicrous for him to have expected himself to perform anywhere near as well them. He was ambushed by the terrorists whereas the SAS ambushed them; he was unarmed whereas the SAS had the best possible weapons for the situation; he was outnumbered six to one whereas just the SAS men inside the building outnumbered the terrorists by that same proportion.
Additionally, the take-home message of the Iranian Embassy siege isn’t that heroism wins the day. Everyone involved clearly was heroic, from the SAS operators to the stoic and resilient hostages to the police and government trying to end the standoff outside. But the point is that preparation was the deciding factor.
Men in 22 SAS were drawn from various elements of the British armed forces, often elite ones such as the Parachute Regiment (as was the case with Robin Horsfall). They were then given special forces training and then this particular unit, B Squadron, had trained specifically to deal with a terrorist hijacking or building seizure for seven whole years.
As Horsfall himself told the BBC:
“We’d go out all night practising exercise. You’d do drills, daily – five, six days a week. The amount of ammunition we used to use was phenomenal. A policeman may get 100 rounds a year to fire off. We used to get 400 rounds a morning.”
On top of that, these men had then spent the best part of a week rehearsing the assault inside an exact replica of the Embassy, as mentioned.
Chris Cramer, by contrast, was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and had he not managed to engineer his own escape the SAS wouldn’t have received as much intelligence about the terrorists.
It’s also worth remembering that the assaulters got incredibly lucky.
The terrorists were poorly trained and prepared and, mercifully, had not rigged the whole building with explosives.
The fact that they left the back door on the ground level unsecured and that SAS men coming in that way decided at the last minute not to blow the window charges might have prevented a catastrophic fire.
It’s also fortunate that when the gunmen in the telex room began shooting hostages, they only managed to kill one of them before deciding to either give up or hide amongst them.
Sim Harris was also lucky not to have come to the window a few moments after he did and been blown to bits by the frame charge. In fact, all manner of things that could have gone wrong apparently just didn’t.
In the end, the siege is a testament to the incredible training and bravery of the SAS and everyone who helped them. It’s also a reminder that members of ‘the regiment’ are not superhuman.
The government and the public can appreciate highly successful missions like Operation Nimrod precisely because they display incredible courage and skill for the greatest of reasons: Saving lives.
But complacency about the abilities of those in the SAS should never be allowed to set in, lest we forget that luck is also critical and expect too much of our special forces in future.
For more, read ‘Who Dares Wins: The SAS And The Iranian Embassy Siege 1980’ by Gregory Fremont-Barnes and ‘The Special Air Service’ by James Shortt. For more military history, visit Osprey Publishing.
Cover image: PA Images