Special Forces Heroes

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.

Tuesday 25th November
8:00pm on five

Continuing this week is the drama-documentary series that highlights the heroic work carried out by Britain’s special forces. This instalment recreates the extraordinary events of 18 July 1972, when a group of nine SAS soldiers defended a small fort on the southern coast of Oman from some 300 communist insurgents. The battle pushed the troops to their very limits and has become known by many as the SAS’s finest hour.

At the beginning of the 1970s, a group of soldiers was stationed at Mirbat in the desert of southern Oman as part of a secret SAS mission. Their role was to defend the pro-British Omani sultan and protect the Arabian oil fields from communist insurgents, known locally as Adoo. Their HQ was a British Army Training Team (BATT) house, positioned near the town’s fort.

The BATT house would come under attack from small groups of Adoo every few days, but the battles were always short and easily won by the SAS. However, on 18 July 1972, something changed. It was in the middle of the night when a series of mortar rounds was fired at HQ. Normally, the soldiers would receive forewarning of an incoming attack from the ‘night picket’ – a group of local soldiers allied to the British cause who were stationed in the nearby mountains. But no warning had come. “I thought, ‘Where’s the night picket?’,” recalls Staff Sgt Peter Winner. What they did not know was that the night picket were all dead.

As the soldiers surfaced, they were greeted by the sight of scores of heavily armed insurgents advancing unchecked across the plain towards them. “Thirty or 40 of them appeared at a range of about 300 metres, and they were advancing at speed,” says SAS Sgt Talaiasi Labalaba. As soon as
the soldiers returned fire, the Adoo numbers swelled to around 300. “It was a determined, sustained attack,” says SSgt Winner. “The noise was horrific,” adds Austen ‘Fuzz’ Hussey. The Adoo’s target was the 25-pound artillery gun positioned in a pit by the fort. If they could take this, they could aim it at the nearby town, and the battle would be lost. Operating this old WWII gun was normally a three-man job, but Sgt Labalaba was manning it alone, aiming, firing and reloading at speed. However, when he stopped firing, the other troops knew they were in trouble. With Sgt Labalaba incapacitated, Sgt Sekonaia Takavesi, known as ‘Tak’, made a suicidal dash across 800m of open land to the gun pit. “Nothing was going to stop me from running up there,” recalls Tak. Against all the odds, he managed to
dodge the hail of bullets and help his friend.

At this point, British jets appeared over the clouds, and the SAS men thought they were saved. “I personally thought, ‘This is it’,” says SSgt Winner. But the insurgents turned their machine guns onto the jets. Within minutes, both planes were hit and had to return to the RAF base. “It was pretty deflating,” says SSgt Winner. With the jets gone, the enemy regrouped and tried to surround the SAS. Tak took an AK47 round to the shoulder, but propped himself up and fought on. “A lesser man would have given up, but not Tak,” says SSgt Winner. The Adoo started to lob grenades into the pit, but they miraculously failed to explode. Back at HQ, Cpt Kealy knew Tak needed help, so he and medic Tommy Tobin sprinted across no-man’s- land to the pit. While Cpt Kealy made it, Tommy Tobin was hit just a matter of feet from safety. “This was a desperate situation,” says SSgt Winner.

Just then, two more jets came by and began to drop 500-pound bombs, sending the enemy scattering for cover. Then, salvation came in the form of SAS G Squadron, who arrived in the nick of time and surrounded the remaining Adoo. The battle was won, but bodies were everywhere, including that of Sgt Labalaba. Tommy Tobin also died from his injuries. However, the defeat broke the morale of the Adoo, and they would never attack with such ferocity again. “They thought they were in for a good day out,” says SSgt Winner of the insurgents he faced on that fateful day. “But they didn’t know the SAS were in town.”

Beginning this week is a drama-documentary series that highlights the heroic work carried out by Britain’s special forces. The first instalment tells the story of the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 in 1977. Using dramatisations and interviews, the film reveals how the Special Air Service stormed the aircraft to take down the terrorists.

On October 13th 1977, a routine Lufthansa flight from Palma de Mallorca was hijacked by four terrorists while en route to Frankfurt. Earlier in the decade there was a spate of air hijackings by activists who cottoned on to this relatively new form of terrorism. Minimal security measures and free reign over international airspace offered an attractive opportunity to militant groups.

Co-pilot Jürgen Vietor recalls the first inkling he had that something was wrong that day. “There was a dreadful clatter at the rear,” he says. Suddenly, aman burst into the cockpit. He called himself Captain Mahmud and said he was representing the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. After Vietor was forced away from his controls, pilot Jürgen Schumann was instructed to fly to Bahrain. The terrorists – two men and two women –were requesting the release of prisoners being held in Germany. If their demands were not met, they told authorities they would blow up the plane.

At a training ground in Hereford, the SAS received word of the attack. Sergeant Barry Davies and Major Alastair Morrison were called upon to lend their expertise to the German police. The pair flew to the GSG9 Special Forces headquarters in Bonn, where they talked tactics with their fellow special agents. Davies produced eight stun grenades, which were the latest technology at the time. The bombs were designed to buy assault teams extra time by emitting a loud noise and a blinding flash of lightwhen activated. “Those two or three seconds can make a big difference,” explains Davies.

On day three of the hostage drama, Flight 181 relocated to Dubai Airport, where it remained parked on the runway. It was here that Commander Ulrich Wegener of GSG9 was able to gather vital intelligence as to what was going on in the aircraft, including the number of hijackers. The pilot dropped four cigars from the plane door onto therunway – two were broken and two were intact. “My explanation for that was that he means two of the terrorists were male and the others were female,” says Wegener.

The following day, Davies and Morrison reached Dubai Airport. Together with the GSG9, they practised their plan of attack. Davies surmised that there would be one terrorist in the galley of the 737, another in the cabin and a third at the top of the aisle. The leader would be in the cockpit. “The plan we had had to be really simple, swift and clean,” says Davies. The assault team was to approach the plane from the back. They would split into two groups, each mounting a wing. Emergency doors above the wings served as an entry point. After a successful training session, the agents were ready. However, news arrived that Flight 181 was departing Dubai. It seemed that the assault team had missed its chance.

On October 17, Flight 181 landed in Mogadishu. The hostage drama was threatening to come to a tragic end, as Captain Mahmud grew impatient. He informed the passengers that if his demands had not been met within six hours, he would detonate a bomb on the aircraft. As the hijackers doused the 92 passengers and crew in alcohol, it seemed that time had run out. “I really thought that the end was coming,” reflects Vietor.

Shortly after midnight, the assault team set its mission into motion. The attack lasted just five minutes and resulted in the slaying of three of the hijackers, the apprehension of a fourth and the rescue of all the hostages. For his bravery, Davies received the British Empire Medal. The hijacking of Flight 181 marked a turning point in airport security and there was a sharp fall in the number of terrorist attacks in the air. “What threatened to become a flood was choked to a trickle,” says military historian Lord Michael Ashcroft.

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