Hanging by a thread

As defence cuts threaten the future of special forces, exclusive images reveal how the Iranian embassy siege, which brought the SAS worldwide fame, could have gone badly wrong
November 14, 2012
Last month’s article on the future of special forces by Robert Fry, former Deputy Commanding General in Iraq, led to an approach from two former members of the Special Air Service (SAS). Their recollections of storming the Iranian embassy in London on 5th May, 1980, the event that brought fame to the British army’s most secretive unit, show that the assault did not go as smoothly as politicians later claimed. So do their photographs, published here for the first time in the media. But they echo one of Fry’s points—that forces’ awareness of their political value is a weapon in their fight for survival.

Bob Podesta, 25 years in the SAS, trained the team that broke the siege. Pete Winner, 18 years in the SAS, was one of its members. Both names are pseudonyms.

Bob Podesta: During [General Peter] de la Billière’s time [director, SAS 1979-1983], there was a lot of talk about what the task of the regiment was. They decided to build the anti-terrorism team.

[On the 5th May raid] There was no build-up towards it. This was something that happened suddenly and the regiment was ready to go. We were lucky to have an ex-regiment guy stationed in the police in London and he gave us the nod that something was happening at the embassy. Suddenly the team was stood to.

We were all taken aback by the public reaction. The regiment operated in great secrecy and it was after the embassy siege that it really came into the public eye.

Pete Winner: It was the massacre at the Munich Olympics of the early 1970s that was the main trigger to get the hijack team going [seen in planning room]. That is just prior to getting the codeword “ROADACCIDENT” [see photo]. Success is maximum entry points attacked simultaneously. Everyone else was moving into final assault positions, ready to abseil down the back of the building. At the same time, the guys at the front were getting ready to blow the windows out and another team was moving in to take out their entry point.

That is just prior to the diversionary charge going off when we blew in the glass dome in the light well. Then these guys were abseiling down the back of the building. You can see the red team guys coming down the back of the building [see photo]. Their objective was to enter the second floor, where we knew the hostages were, to make for the terrorist stronghold and neutralise the threat.

Things started to go wrong. You can see a guy whose abseil equipment jammed and he is swinging in the flames [left side of this image] That was the leader of the red team, a Fijian guy, who carried too much ammo. It caused the abseil harness to jam. This was 30 odd years ago and the equipment wasn’t that good. The guy was badly burned because he didn’t have flameproof overalls. We told them we should have flameproof overalls and we were told to use the bog standard black overalls. The guy suffered because of it. We had lost the element of surprise.

Can you see that one guy with his gas mask burned off? [Figure on left of this image with face uncovered] Tommy Palmer—you can use his name as he died in Northern Ireland [8th February 1983, aged 31. Car overturned in Lurgan during an operation.] He is looking in to see the terrorist, who had soaked the carpets and curtains with petrol, and they were on fire. He got a bead on the terrorist with his MP5. He got a “click”: a dead man’s stoppage. Gun jammed. Tommy chased the terrorist, Hassan, down the corridor. Hassan was fishing for a grenade. Tommy caught up with him, got him by the scruff of the neck and gave him the good news. A round in the back of the head and killed him instantly.

The plan was the “deliberate action,” a well-planned approach: a “stand by, stand by—go” and everyone attacks simultaneously. But one of the abseilers put his foot through a window and the head terrorist heard the noise and he said to the head negotiator that he could hear suspicious noises. Then the commander Hector gave the “Go go go,” which is the code for an “immediate action” rather than “deliberate action.” An “immediate action” is pretty hairy: got to go in fast and hit them like an express train.

We were on a sticky wicket then. The guy hooked up on his abseil harness—it was all avoidable. We recommended using ladders, but they wanted abseiling because it was much more glamorous. We nearly paid a real price for that. It could have blown the thing wide open. When my team—blue team—ran out the back of number 14 [next door] we could see all this happening; the chaos on the second floor balcony. We couldn’t use a charge to blow in the back door because the blast would have sent shrapnel up to the guys on the balcony. So we had to use a sledge hammer—another problem area that held up the speed of entry.

The only part that went smooth was when they blew the glass dome in that led to the second floor, we had two teams climb down. Their objective was to completely ignore anything they saw, hostages, terrorists or whatever and run straight up the stairs to the third and fourth floor. No “blue-on-blue,” [friendly fire incident] that’s what we were worried about then. They then took out the third and fourth floor and that went smoothly.

Politicians are wafflers, talk a good fight. But when it comes to it, they need a force like the SAS. That’s why special forces will get on for the foreseeable future. The politicians love a guaranteed success. That’s why Maggie loved us. After the siege we had an open cheque book. It resurrected her career. When she committed us to that and it was a success, afterwards she could do no wrong.