The SAS Assault at Princes Gate
By Thomas B. Hunter
Reprinted by permission of Special Operations Journal (c. 1997)
At 11:30 a.m. on 30 April 1980, six armed revolutionaries of the Democratic Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRMLA) burst into the Iranian Embassy at No. 16 Princes Gate, London firing weapons and taking twenty-six hostages. They brought with them a small but deadly arsenal, including SMG and Browning 9mm pistols (loaded with hollow-point ammunition), a .38 revolver, and Russian-made hand grenades. The gunmen, it would soon be revealed, were members of an Iraqi-backed, anti-Khomeni organization whose goal was regional autonomy for Arabistan, an oil-rich province in southwest Iran. Oan, the leader of the terrorists, promptly made the following announcement: "One: we demand our human and legitimate rights. Two: we demand freedom, autonomy and recognition of the Arabistan people. Three: we demand the release of ninety-one Arab prisoners in Arabistan." Then came the threat. "If all the demands are not met by noon on Thursday, May 1, the Embassy and all the hostages will be blown up."
Unbeknownst to the terrorists, Police Constable Trevor Lock who was present in his capacity with the Diplomatic Protection Group at the embassy during the takeover, managed to activate a hidden alert device on his lapel. Thus notified, the Metropolitan Police's C13 Antiterrorist Squad was dispatched to the scene, along with electronic intelligence specialists from C7 (Scotland Yard's Technical Support Branch) and other personnel. These units joined police sharpshooters who had taken up sniper/countersniper positions and were providing on-site intelligence.
At the same time, at Hereford, headquarters of the 22 Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), a call came in from a former member of the unit's D Squadron, then working as a dog handler for the Metropolitan Police. He notified them that a situation was developing that might require the attention of the Special Projects (SP) Team of the SAS Counter Revolutionary Warfare Wing (CRW), the on-call SAS unit tasked specifically with responding to developing terrorist incidents. This advance notice - a result of an informal intelligence network comprised by just such former troopers - provided the SAS with valuable lead-time. Members of B Squadron's Pagoda Troop, the SP alert team, were taking part in regular close-quarters battle (CQB) drills in the regiment's 'Killing House' when their beepers went off in unison. The team hastily departed Hereford in specially modified Land Rovers and drove to a barracks in Regents Park, London. On arrival, two SAS men in civilian clothes immediately left for Embassy Row and performed covert reconnaissance of the area, including the roof of No. 16 Princes Gate.
From this, the SAS began to develop a plan to assault the building, in the event it became necessary. Initial plans to break through ground- and first-floor windows with sledgehammers were reconsidered when an off-duty embassy caretaker notified the SAS men that the windows on those levels were armored, and thus impervious to such manual devices. In this new light, the decision was made that special shaped charges would be required. Back at the barracks, SAS explosives experts set to constructing the charges, while other specialists hastily constructed a scale model of the Embassy, including each of the fifty rooms. Later that first evening, Oan released one female hostage, an Iranian national who had taken ill. Police negotiators refused to comply with repeated terrorist demands, including a request to send a doctor to examine a second hostage, a BBC sound technician who appeared severely ill with a stomach ailment. The sick man was eventually released on 01 May, whereupon he was immediately and thoroughly debriefed by the SAS and police. This event provided a windfall of vital intelligence, and was followed by the relocation of Pagoda Troop (in three rented civilian vans) to a site much closer to the embassy.
The situation did not look good. The Iranian Embassy was a 50-room, five story maze. In an effort to mitigate the problems inherently caused such a large building, the C7 specialists installed covert surveillance devices and microphones through adjoining walls and down chimneys. This action provided planners with 'real-time' video and audio of the movements of terrorists and hostages alike. It was soon learned that the terrorists were located on three floors, while the hostages were being held in two rooms on one floor. One location, designated Room Nine held the four female hostages (all members of the embassy staff), while Room Ten held the fifteen males. Any assault would have to target every room holding terrorists or hostages in order to prevent a potential massacre.
As negotiations continued into the third day and deadlines came and went, Oan became increasingly irritated with his lack of progress. Such was his obvious agitation, that authorities decided to agree to his request to the broadcast of his demands on national television. This seemingly promising step backfired, however, when the BBC incorrectly reported portions of his statement. Instead of pacifying him, this mistake further enraged the terrorist leader, and he vowed that the British hostages would now be the last to be released. At this point, the police decided to intervene. They transcribed Oan's new demands verbatim as they were shouted from a first floor window. This positive development prompted Oan to release two hostages, in return for a promise from authorities that the statement would be read promptly on the BBC TV News.
It had previously been decided that the best method of assaulting the Embassy would be the use of three teams of four men each. Two of the teams would rappel down the rear of the building from the roof, with one team stopping at the first floor balcony, the second all the way to the ground. These would then effect a dynamic entry by means of either frame charges or sledgehammer. Team three was assigned the front of the building and would cross from a balcony at No. 15 Princes Gate over to No. 16 and enter using similar methods.
The psychological tools available to the assaulters were not lost on the SAS. Each man was purposefully dressed from head to toe in black, hooded suits, body armor, and full-face gas masks. The goal was to present the terrorists with an inhuman, starkly menacing enemy, with intimidation hopefully giving the shooters an invaluable extra moment of reaction time over their opponents. To heighten the disorientation, assaulters would use 'Flash-bang' stun grenades and CS gas immediately prior to entry to stun and disorient those inside.
Any hope for a peaceful resolution to the siege ended at 1:45 p.m. on 05 May when Oan shot and killed Abbas Lavasani, the Iranian press attache. Initially, it was not clear to those outside the Embassy what had occurred following the gunfire. However, at 7:00 p.m., the terrorists shoved Lavasani's body out the front door and announced that unless their demands were met immediately, one hostage would die every thirty minutes thereafter. When informed of this, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered the SAS to intervene to prevent further loss of life to the hostages.
As the two teams (divided into four pairs of two men each) assigned to the rear of the building set about securing their rappelling ropes to the roof, the third team emerged onto the front balcony of No. 15. At precisely 7:23 p.m., the troopers on the roof of No. 16 stepped over the edge of the roof and began their rapid descent. The first two pairs made it down safely, however one of the ropes, purchased in haste in London during the first day of the siege, succumbed to friction and twisted into a knot. The knot fouled in the gear of one of the SAS men, stranding him precariously just outside one of the second story windows. This development prevented the SAS pair below him from using explosives on their entry window as planned, for fear of killing the entangled trooper. They instead smashed the windovvs with sledgehammers and tossed in their stun grenades. The entangled man was soon cut free and dropped to the balcony, whereupon he rejoined the assault team.
Oan was on the phone with negotiators at the first moments of the assault - a carefully choreographed diversion designed to fix Oan in one location. The sound of breaking glass, however, caused when a member of the first team inadvertently kicked an upper story window while rappelling, prompted Oan to hang up and make his way to the first floor landing on his way to investigate. He looked up to see one of the SAS men preparing to break through a window and raised his weapon to fire. Police Constable Lock acted quickly, tackling the gunman and taking him to the floor. The struggle ensued for a moment longer until the trooper broke into the room and yelled, "Trevor, leave off!" Lock rolled clear of the terrorist, who promptly leveled his weapon at the constable. The SAS man fired his MP-5, emptying the magazine and killing the terrorist leader.
At 7:26 p.m., two members of Pagoda Troop at the front of the Embassy activated the ten-second fuse on a frame charge affixed to a window. The large explosion that followed both signaled the rappelling teams at the rear to begin their assault and provided entry to the four SAS men on the balcony. Simultaneously, electrical power to the building was cut and tear gas canisters fired through the broken windows in an effort to contribute to the chaos being forced onto the terrorists. These teams were supported by rarely reported team that burst through a weakened first-floor plaster wall shared by the Iranian and Ethiopian Embassy and linked up with the assaulters.
The first room to be assaulted contained neither hostages nor terrorists, and prompted the troopers to move even more quickly. The noise caused in the first few minutes left no question to the three terrorists in Room Ten that an assault was underway, prompting them to open fire on their hostages, killing one and injuring two. Upon hearing the approach of the SAS men, however, they threw away their weapons and shouted in Farsi, "Tasleem!" ("We surrender!") before diving to the floor. Seconds later, troopers burst through the door and, realizing what had happened, demanded: "Who are the terrorists?" When one of the hostages pointed them out, they were immediately shot and killed.
As the hostages were being rapidly evacuated down the main stairs and out the back door, a lone terrorist brandishing a fragmentation grenade was spotted amidst the group. His position amongst the civilians prevented the closest trooper from firing. Instead, the SAS man struck him in the back of the neck with the butt of his MP-5, sending the terrorist sprawling down the remaining stairs, away from the fleeing hostages. Two troopers at the base of the stairs immediately emptied their 30-round magazines into the would-be assassin, killing him instantly. Upon hearing the gunfire, the terrorist guarding the four female hostages threw his weapon down and attempted to hide among his hostages. When the SAS arrived, however, he was seized and quickly searched for weapons and a possible detonation trigger for the explosives Oan had vowed were planted throughout the Embassy. The terrorist unwisely resisted the search and was rewarded by being unceremoniously hurled down the stairs before being dragged out of the building. He would be the only terrorist to survive the SAS assault.
When the smoke cleared, the success of the operation became clear. Of those present in the embassy at the start of the assault, all but one of the hostages were rescued, while five of the six terrorists were killed. Moreover, the widely-televised operation sent a message to terrorists worldwide that Great Britain would not be intimidated by, nor tolerate, terrorism perpetrated against its citizens.