Operation Certain Death (4/4)

Continuing this week is the drama-documentary series that highlights the heroic work carried out by Britain’s special forces. This instalment recounts the execution of Operation Barras – known unofficially by the soldiers as Operation Certain Death –in which paratroopers worked alongside the Special Air Service to rescue hostages being held by rebels in west Africa.

In August 2000, a battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment was stationed in Sierra Leone to carry out training operations with the war-torn nation’s army. “This was a country that was in a state of near anarchy,” says Colonel Simon Fordham. On 25 August, 12 men, including one soldier from the Sierra Leone Army, journeyed deep into the jungle on an intelligence-gathering mission. It was a risky operation, as it incorporated the Occra Hills, home to the notorious West Side Boys militant group. The gang members were a motley crew of embittered ex-soldiers and outright criminals who worked together to terrorise the local population.

The patrol’s worst fears were realised when they were ambushed by a pack of West Side Boys and delivered to their isolated camp, Geberi Bana. Five hours later, Col Fordham received word that his men had been taken hostage. “It was quite clear to me that we were in a very volatile and dangerous situation,” he says.

In London, the Ministry of Defence was alerted to the situation and the decision was made to dispatch a Special Forces squadron. Over 100 paratroopers were also sent to act in a support role. Back in Sierra Leone, Fordham met with the leader of the rebels, Foday Kallay, to begin negotiations. Kallay requested food, medicine and a satellite phone in return for the guaranteed good treatment of the hostages. As proof that the captives were alive and well, Kallay produced the patrol’s second in command. When Fordham shook the soldier’s hand, he was surreptitiously passed a small square of paper. It was a hand-drawn map of Geberi Bana, which showed in detail the layout of the village, including the rebels’
quarters, sentry posts and the hostage camp.

The British assault team, which consisted of 150 paratroopers and 50 SAS soldiers, was positioned in a remote part of the jungle. In the operations tent, the men planned the rescue using the hand-drawn map and satellite images of the Occra Hills. The rebels had spread themselves out over two sides of a riverbank. Kallay was based at Geberi Bana on the northern side, where the hostages were being held. As rescuing the captives was the goal of the mission, the SAS soldiers were assigned to this area. To the
south of the water lay the village of Magbeni, which housed the barracks. The paratroopers would take
the village in order to prevent the terrorists from mobilising and attacking the hostages. “Whatever moved at Magbeni, that was your target,” says trooper Cpl David Aitchison.

It became evident that there was no feasible way to take the village by land or water, so the soldiers were left with no choice but to attempt a difficult air assault. This meant that both the paratroopers and the SAS would descend on the village from Chinook helicopters.

Just before dawn on 10 September, the assault team boarded the choppers. While the parachute regiment landed in a clearing near Magbeni, the SAS dropped to the ground from the Chinooks so as not to disturb the slumbering Kallay. “This was the first time the SAS had ever done an operation
like this,” says author Andy Pacino.

Before long, the SAS had secured the hostages, but across the river, the mission was not going so well. The West Side Boys had fired a mortar, leaving some of the troopers with serious injuries. Group commander Major Matthew Lowe was badly hit. Captain Danny Matthews took control of the mission and his men swept Magbeni from west to east before surrounding it. At the end of the assault, 28 terrorists and one Briton were dead. “From our perspective, it was a resounding success,” Matthews says of Operation Barras.

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