I ALWAYS HAVE MIXED EMOTIONS AT THIS TIME OF THE YEAR FOR VARIOUS REASONS:
Drawing by ex SAS soldier Graham Colbeck.
Firstly just days before the Embassy Siege, America’s Delta Force had their own epic operation referred to as either Desert One or Operation Eagle Claw.
Those of us in the Regiment at the time had friends in Delta. Delta was originally based on 22 SAS Regiment, and we had helped them in their training in their early days during the mid to late 1970s. It was a huge shock to all of us to learn of their failed and aborted mission to free US hostages held in Iran.
Their operation was extremely technical compared to our much simpler operation played out on home turf. They had many assets from all three services, and their target was thousands of miles from home. Sadly it would be their assets and attachments that would let them down.
My thoughts at this time are always with those lost on that fateful day in the Iranian desert.
We on the other hand had only a small handful of assets and attachments, They played their part to the letter and never let us down…lucky us.
Secondly, as each year moves forward, the anniversary means more to me and not less. More and more of the lads on the team have since passed away…we that are still here are very much the old school now, just as the originals from WW2 were seen by us youngsters as the old school all those years ago.
To put things into perspective…40 years before the Iranian Embassy Siege there was no such thing as the SAS…it still hadn’t been invented.
I operated in the Regiment from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, almost 20 years.
In that time I was honoured to have met the founder of our Regiment David Stirling, a good few of the originals from WW2, and many of my instructors and managers had served in Malaya, the Radfan and Borneo. Op Storm in Dhofar was still ongoing, and the “new kid on the block” so to speak was the extremely secretive anti terrorist team…it was a world leader back then, even albeit in it’s simplest form.
My first “team” had me wearing DMS boots, a black cotton boiler suit (tankies’ overalls), NBC hood, S6 respirator, no body armour, military aircrew gloves, 9mm Browning pistol, H&K 9mm MP5 sub machine gun with a lamp post strapped on top of it for a light, a large personal radio, Scotland rugby jersey (under my boiler suit) and of course black underpants and socks. Over the coming years, the kit got better, the tactics continued to naturally evolve, mainly through learning from our own mistakes, and we continued to be the world leaders alongside Delta Force in explosive entry methods for some time to come, despite the attention of other SF units from around the world.
On this day, 5th May 1980, I was a member of an assault team assigned to clear the top floor of the Iranian Embassy. In truth, I never seen an angry man, let alone an angry “Arab Iranian terrorist.” My heart was thumping, and my eyes streaming…due to the gas managing to eventually penetrate my respirator, we cleared the floor, and eventually worked our way down to contact the teams on the floor below.
Pretty boring and not really worth writing about, eh?
Well, not all the individual glory and self fulfillment comes through “slotting the enemy.” After all it’s a team game, with no room for individuals.
My task prior to the “STAND BY…STAND BY…GO” was to place the charge (talked about by many others over the years) on the centre of the main skylight that sat above the grand spiral staircase and could be seen from the ground floor upwards. The skylight was in a rectangular concrete recess sunken to about 8 feet from the line of the roof.
The charge was basic and would be laughed at today. It was put together using the intricate explosive theory of “P for plenty!”
On one end of the charge was a good mate, initiator in hand ready to fire. The other end, me…slowly lowering the charge inch by inch from the rooftop, while looking all the way through the skylight past the floors to the ground floor. My concerns…one of the terrorists looking up at the skylight and me being compromised…or someone else being compromised at an entry point while I’m slowly lowering down the explosive, which would mean GO being called early, and me being blown to pieces, with my hands flying over West London’s Hyde Park as my mate initiates the explosion. Why? Because that device was the key explosion on the command “GO,” in order to cause everyone inside the Embassy to have the same immediate reaction, and all look inwards allowing for valuable seconds at the mass entry points for the other teams to enter the building. It would be known as the distraction.
Thankfully neither happened, it all went to plan on my side…and the rest has been told by many forms such as books, films and documentaries…and the guy at the end of the bar in every pub in England.
For weeks afterwards I would spend time just sitting down and looking at my precious hands.
There were no heroes that day. Every individual stepped forward and gave his all to the best of his ability as part of a team. That’s because there was no room for individuals in the SAS back then. It was a team event, and thankfully on that day, it was a complete team game that led to that success. If something went wrong, which it did on more than one occasion, then someone stepped in immediately and instinctively, in order to put it right. Improvisation at it’s finest. That’s what we were good at, backing each other constantly and consistently.
In the longer term, life in the Regiment completely changed, due to the media attention on that day. In my view, that attention was the worst thing that could happen to the Regiment. We went from little known about even in the UK, to global attention almost overnight. Life would never be the same, it made both family life and work life much more difficult. At the end of the day, given the government’s reasons for highlighting the assault, it never stopped terrorism from continuing within the UK. But it blew open the secret box that we had all been very comfortably kept in for many years.
However, I’m honoured to have had the chance to serve in 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, and at a time where I was privileged to have met the founder, the originals, and then myself becoming one of the pioneers of the day as a serving member. Just as the earlier pioneers did such a great job of passing their knowledge onto me, it was now my turn. The Regiment continues with today’s serving members, they are now the new pioneers for the future troopers.
A moments thought for my mates who were with me that day, now 40 years ago on the 5th May, sadly too many are no longer with us.
For those who are still kicking, I’d stand shoulder to shoulder with every single one of them…the cap badge doesn’t make the man…the man makes the cap badge.
“We are the Pilgrims, Master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea.”