A sequence of events that occurred in London, England in 1980. Began with the taking of 26 hostages inside the Iranian Embassy by six gunmen. Ended six days later by the Special Air Service (SAS) with 19 freed hostages, seven dead people, and a few injuries.

Embassy Attacked

On the morning of Wednesday April 30th, six Iranians assembled in Hyde Park with guns concealed under anoraks, and walked to the Embassy at Princes Gate. A short time later Police Constable Lock of Scotland Yard’s Diplomatic Protection Group, on duty in the lobby of the Iranian Embassy, was knocked back by flying glass as the front doors were shot out and quickly overpowered by the men forcing their way into the building. He was uninjured, and able to send an emergency call with his lapel radio just before he was captured. Several embassy employees were able to escape through the upper floor windows of the embassy and across the grounds before the Iranians had gained control of the building. Twenty-six hostages remained, including four visiting journalists. All of them were then sealed into an office on the first floor, and all of the security doors in the building were sealed.

The men, from the Khuzistan province of Iran, were only known by first names: Salim (the leader), Hassan, Faisal, Makki, Shai, and Ali. Their aim was to pressure Iran (by threatening their diplomats) into giving the Khuzastani people an independently-governed state of their own and to secure western backing for their resistance against Ayatolla’s new regime in Iran.

The police were on the scene by midday, joined in the early afternoon by the police Anti-Terrorist Squad, units of Scotland Yard's Special Patrol Group, the Technical Support Branch and an Army Bomb Disposal Squad. Their overriding policy, set by a government crisis team, was simple: no surrender, no co-operation. Conveniently Dusty Gray, a former SAS NCO who worked as a dog-handler for the Metropolitan Police just happened to be outside the Embassy as the security services were gathering, and alerted his former colleagues.

The Special Air Service

In local operations, the SAS is responsible to Scotland Yard and The Home Office. They operate under very strict rules in the homeland (as with police officers, they can be prosecuted if they are judged to have used excessive force), and must operate only after authorisation. The SAS maintains a full squadron of troopers, codenamed "Pagoda", on constant alert as a contingency against a terrorist attack. This squadron is backed up by sniper groups and medics trained to deal with evacuated hostages. In fact the group was in the final stages of preparing for a joint exercise with the police at the time, and was ready to move straight away.

They did so (possibly without authorisation), moving to London in two teams, named "Red" and "Blue." "Operation Nimrod" was the codename for the rescue mission. Red Team arrived first; smuggled into a building next to the Embassy in furniture vans. They began preparing an Immediate Action Plan (IAP) which was ready within an hour: They would break into the upper floor windows and clear the building room by room. The British Caretaker of the Embassy was invaluable for this - providing information on the layout of the building and Chris Cramer, one of the journalists that was released from the Embassy told the team the number and whereabouts of the terrorists.

The Embassy, being an Embassy, was well protected: all of its many windows were bombproof and bulletproof, and the attic - with its skylights, the best route for an assaulting force to take - had been blocked off with furniture by the terrorists. However by the end of day the IAP was finalised. Red Team had secured ropes to the roof of the Embassy to aid any possible assault, and were seen in plain clothes, scouting the area in Landrovers. That evening, police negotiators secured the release of a sick Iranian woman.

23 hours after Red Team arrived, Blue Team relieved them. By this time Red Team had prepared much of a second Deliberate Action Plan (DAP), based on the aforementioned intelligence and a full-scale mock-up of the building. Negotiations continued but on day three, shortly after Blue Team took over, the terrorists released a secretary with the message: "Broadcast our demands or a hostage will be shot". The official line however, remained unchanged. There would be no co-operation with the terrorists.

By day four, the government crisis team had decided that the siege was unlikely to end peacefully. The SAS teams rehearsed their DAP plan many times, using a mock-up of the Embassy built at a nearby barracks, while other team members back at the Embassy quietly laid out abseil lines on the roof. Photos of the hostages and terrorists had been passed around all the team members so they could differentiate between them. The plan was for three four-man teams to enter the building: the two teams on the roof would rappel down and enter the first floor and ground floor simultaneously. The third team would assault the first floor balcony using scaling ladders in front of the building next door.

MI5 had placed listening devices around the Embassy early on in the siege, which had established that virtually all of the hostages were being held in two groups on the second floor. The SAS subsequently placed their own surveillance equipment, masking the noise of their installation with air traffic inbound to Heathrow, helpfully diverted over the Embassy by air traffic control (thanks to spiregrain for that bit of information).

Day Six

By this point a total of five hostages had been released due to ill health or injury. The terrorists warned that a hostage would be shot at 5pm, and around that time the Embassy’s press officer was lead out of the room where the hostages were held, who then heard three gunshots. No body was seen, creating a dilemma for the SAS commander and the British government: there was no other evidence of the death of a hostage and assaulting without that pre-requisite would be disastrous, but they could only strike in daylight which would be fading soon.

Confirmation was not long coming. Shortly before 7pm more gunshots were heard, and two masked men pushed a body - later identified as that of Abbas Lavasani - out of the front door of the Embassy. The siege entered the third act: Home Secretary William Whitelaw, presiding over the government crisis team, ordered the assault to go ahead. At 7:07pm the Police formally handed control of the situation over to the SAS. Negotiations continued, but other than that the situation was in the hands of the military. Blue and Red Team were moved up to a ten-minute standby, and television cameras caught them at 7.20pm as they emerged from the roof of the building next to the Embassy and positioned themselves on the Embassy roof. SAS snipers watched from camouflaged positions set up in Hyde Park.

SAS Assault

At 7:23pm the assault began. Demolition charges at the front of the Embassy went off, and set the building on fire. Snipers fired CS gas canisters into the holes left by the explosions. Three minutes later the two teams on the roof began abseiling down to their prescribed entry points; then Red Team leader got caught in his ropes and accidentally smashed a window. He reported this to control who told him to continue. The element of surprise was lost and the squadron commander ordered all teams: "Go! Go! Go!"

As the ground floor assault team moved to place shaped charges on the ground floor window they saw Red Team Leader hanging above them, tangled in his harness. He yelled to be cut free, as he was being burnt by flames from the building. This prevented the planned shaped charges from being used so while he was cut free, the rest of the team entered the window using a sledgehammer. It took 30 seconds of constant pounding before the window finally gave way. The ground floor team entered, accompanied by Red Team Leader.

Meanwhile at the front of the building, a four-man team got up to the balcony by the Minister’s office. Through the window they saw a hostage staring at them and yelled at him to get back, just as one of the six terrorists appeared above them and dropped a grenade, fortunately forgetting to pull the pin out before he did so. He was shot by one of the Hyde Park snipers. The team at the front of the building blew the glass, and threw a flashbang into the room. They entered immediately afterwards and pushed the journalist out onto the balcony, telling him not to move. The terrorists by this point were well aware they were under attack and the the leader, Salim, took aim at one of the SAS soldiers outside. Before he could fire he was tackled and wrestled to the ground by PC Lock, who then tried to shoot him with a .38 pistol he had concealed. He was unable to do so but hearing the shouts of the two men, an SAS soldier came into the room and commanded Lock to "Leave off." Lock rolled aside, Salim aimed at the soldier who quickly killed him with an MP5 burst.

A short distance away across the landing, a second team were confronted by an armed terrorist who threw open a door in front of them. He was knocked back by gunfire and a stun grenade was thrown after him as he ran into a smoke-filled room. Using the flashlights on their MP5s, a Blue Team Sergeant with two SAS soldiers found him on a sofa and shot him twenty-one times as he gestured at them with his pistol.

The team at the front of the building had unexpectedly found the Minister’s office empty and now did not know where the hostages were. One soldier reached to an adjoining balcony and saw a terrorist in the next office; the soldier smashed the window and threw a stun grenade in. He then tried to fire his MP5, which jammed. Drawing his pistol he entered through the window and followed the terrorist as he ran into the room where most of hostages were being held.

The remaining terrorists began firing their weapons wildly, shooting one of the hostages through the face and wounding two others. One only survived because a 50-pence piece in his jacket pocket stopped the bullet. An SAS soldier kicked in the door and as he entered with other troops, the terrorist he was following from the front office and the other who was in the room both threw their weapons away. Some of the hostages reportedly tried to shield them until they were ordered off by the SAS soldiers. One of the terrorists was holding a grenade, and was shot in the head.

Rescue

Attempting to separate the hostages from terrorists the soldiers ordered everyone to lie down. One of them shouted “I am student, I am student” as he did so. When he was searched a soldier spotted metal; the young man then changed position quickly and was shot in the back. A pistol and grenade were found on him.

One terrorist managed to join the hostages without being noticed and started to walk downstairs with them. Hearing shouts from hostages of “he’s one of them, this one’s a terrorist!” a Blue Team soldier hit the man in the back of the neck with the stock of his MP5 and kicked him down the stairs. As he fell the Blue Team soldier and two of his teammates emptied the magazines of their MP5s into him. An intact grenade rolled out of his hand as he came to rest. At the man’s post mortem the medical examiner apparently stopped counting the bullet wounds after seventy-eight. Asked in an interview if the man was warned, one of the SAS soldiers involved said:

"No, no, we shot him. He had a hand grenade. We shot him. That was it, end of story. No reason to give him a warning. He might have had time to pull the pin out and throw the hand grenade in that time."

Aftermath

The remaining hostages were handcuffed in case any terrorists remained among them, and marched outside to be searched. One did remain: he was shielded by several Embassy employees who feared he would be shot if they identified him. He was pointed out by one of the journalists outside, and arrested - the only terrorist to survive the assault.

By 7.40pm all hostages and terrorists were accounted for and at 7.53pm control was handed back to the Police, who now had a burning Embassy to deal with. William Whitelaw famously broke down in relief at the scene as the hostages exited the building. His relief was shared by the SAS, who had fought their first battle on home soil and come out with only minor injuries: Red Team leader suffered burns and another soldier had a mangled thumb.

By 8.15pm the SAS had left the scene in hired vans. The squadron were personally congratulated and thanked by the then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who drank champagne with them as they watched recorded television footage of the assault. Five of the soldiers were later decorated by The Queen - four received Queen's gallantry medals and the badly burned Red Team Leader who ignored his wounds was awarded the George Cross, as was PC Trevor Lock.

In Retrospect

A 2002 BBC documentary on the siege contained the first interviews ever given by soldiers involved in the assault. Some interesting information was brought to light, including that the SAS was allegedly ordered (in not so many words) by Margaret Thatcher herself, to kill all of the terrorists regardless of the threat to the hostages. Robin Horsfall, one of SAS soldiers on the day, stated:

"The message was that we had to resolve the situation and there was to be no chance of failure, and... she did not want an ongoing problem. She didn't want there to be a problem beyond the Embassy...[we were] absolutely clear about it... They didn't want an ongoing problem, which we took to mean that they did not want anybody coming out alive."

This is interesting when one considers the account of Embassy staff member Ahmad Dadgar, who reported that he and other hostages persuaded two of the terrorists to surrender:

"Both were sitting there and put their hands on their own heads," he says. "Then several SAS men came in. And then they took the two terrorists and pushed them on the wall and shot them."

An inquest later found the SAS had used reasonable force, and on 4th February 1981 a Westminster Coroner's court ruled that the deaths of the five Iranian terrorists were justifiable homicides.


This account is drawn from several sources which disagree in places, so may contain minor errors. Please /msg me with any corrections.

Sources:

  • (Author unknown) "The SAS Raid on the Iranian Embassy";
    <http://home.istar.ca/~overlord/raidiran.html>
  • Norton-Taylor, Richard; "Siege SAS men 'told not to take prisoners'";
    <http://www.guardian.co.uk/military/story/0,11816,762237,00.html>
  • (Author unknown) "Operation Nimrod: The Iranian Embassy siege. London, 1980";
    <http://hidden-and-dangerous2.co.uk> (Currently dead)
  • Paul, James/Spirit, Martin; "The Iranian Embassy Assault";
    <http://www.britains-smallwars.com/RRGP/Iranian-Embassy.htm>
  • (Author unknown); "Iranian Embassy Siege";
    <http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/uk/2000/iranian_embassy_siege/intro.stm>

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