Officially, the SAS mission was called Operation Barras. The men on the ground called it Operation Certain Death.
In 2000, the British Special Air Service (SAS) attempted its riskiest rescue mission in more than half a century. A year before, an eleven-man patrol of Royal Irish Rangers who were training government troops in Sierra Leone was captured and held prisoner by the infamously ruthless rebel forces known as the West Side Boys. Their fortified base was hidden deep in the West African jungle, its barricades adorned with severed heads on spikes. Some four hundred heavily armed renegades were not only bloodthirsty—they were drink-and-drugs crazed. The guerrillas favored pink shades, shower caps, and fluorescent wigs, draping themselves in voodoo charms they believed made them bulletproof—a delusion reenforced by the steady consumption of ganja, heroin, crack, and sweet palm wine. This was the vicious and cutthroat enemy British special forces would confront in order to rescue their own.
Featuring extensive interviews with survivors, this gritty, blow-by-blow account of the bloody battle that brought an end to ten years of Africa’s most brutal civil war is “as good as any thriller I have ever read. This really is the low down” (Frederick Forsyth).
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Nothing is easy in war. Mistakes are always paid for in casualties and troops are quick to sense any blunder made by their commanders.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower, General of the US Army
It was 25 August 2000. A two-hundred-strong contingent of the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, had been in the tiny West African country of Sierra Leone for four weeks. Stationed within the Sierra Leone Army's Benguema Camp, the British soldiers were split into two units: a larger training force and a smaller defence force. They had been sent to Sierra Leone as part of a British-led effort to train the chaotic Sierra Leone Army to wage war on that country's notorious jungle-based rebels and bring peace to the country. The Royal Irish Rangers Training Force had the daunting task of drilling some basic military discipline into the shambolic Sierra Leone Army (SLA) and teaching them the basics of British Army combat tactics. By contrast, Defence Force faced what should have been the far easier task of maintaining security in and around the Benguema Camp.
The headquarters of the Royal Irish forces in Sierra Leone was based in a crumbling but comfortable diamond smugglers' house in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital city. But the bulk of the men were based out at Benguema Camp, some ten miles to the south-east of Freetown, at an old colonial plantation recently transformed into a functioning military base. Surrounded by ramshackle bamboo fences and rolls of barbed wire, the Royal Irish soldiers were billeted in a tented area at the rear of the Benguema Camp, which itself perches on the shores of the West African ocean. Inland towards the east were the vast swamps, jungles and heavily forested hills of the nation's interior.
But to the north and the west lay the Atlantic shoreline, a series of picture- postcard white sandy beaches fringed with palm trees, from where the crystal blue waters of the tropical seas rolled on uninterrupted until South America. It could almost have been a paradise posting for the British soldiers, were it not for several factors all but unique to Sierra Leone: fabulously rich diamond fields, a bloody civil war, battle-hardened rebel guerrilla forces, rampant corruption, regular armed mutinies and widespread rape, looting, mutilations and murder — and all of it fuelled by a surfeit of modern weapons.
For over a decade, a civil war had been raging in Sierra Leone — a war unrivalled in all of Africa in terms of its senseless horror and brutality. The country had been all but overrun by the crazed rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a group of terrorist bandits and murderers. Bereft of political aims or objectives and with no popular support, they were driven by the lust for power and control over the country's diamond mines. They revelled in meaningless savagery and horror — calling their rebel units names like Burn House Squad or Cut Hands Commando. Kill Man No Blood Unit's speciality was beating people to death without a drop of blood being spilt.
The RUF was no tinpot outfit. They had serious money with which to buy serious weaponry, earning some $100 million a year from the illicit trade in diamonds. And for years, they had preyed on the people of Sierra Leone like an evil plague of locusts, turning their unspeakable practices into so-called 'games'. The rebels' version of Russian roulette was designed to extract maximum 'entertainment' from terrorising groups of captured villagers. They would scribble grotesque 'punishments' on scraps of paper —'cut off hands', 'cut off genitals', 'slice off lips' and the like — which were then screwed up and thrown into a heap on the ground. Each of the captured villagers was then forced to choose one of the pieces of paper, and whatever horrific mutilation was written thereon was exactly what the rebels would proceed to do to them.
The 'sex the child' game was, if possible, even worse. Captured women would first be gang-raped. Presuming they survived that ordeal, the rebels would then gather around any of the women who were heavily pregnant. A ringmaster would take bets from his fellow rebels on the sex of the child the woman was carrying. Once all the wagers were in, whoever had bet the highest price got to slice open the belly of the pregnant women with a machete and haul out the child, hence revealing its sex.
The RUF had committed mass rapes and sexual mutilations designed to destroy the very essence of their victim's humanity. Fathers were forced to watch their own daughters being gang-raped, their sons being buggered. Boys of just eight or nine years old were forced to kill their own parents, and then join the so-called rebels. The rebels achieved real infamy when they had launched an indiscriminate campaign to hack off the limbs of men, women, children and even babies. These, then, were the rebel forces that the Royal Irish Rangers were up against in Sierra Leone; this, then, the insanity of evil that they had come to Sierra Leone to help put an end to, once and for all.
It was the RUF's sick campaign to turn Sierra Leone into a nation of amputees that had finally brought their activities to the attention of a horrified wider world: TV and newspaper pictures of four-month-old babies with both arms amputated at the elbows could not be ignored. While most British, European and US citizens knew little about this country or its war, they knew that depraved rebels were perpetrating acts of terrible brutality such as chopping off babies' limbs. Something had to be done.
In April 2000, with a massive UN peacekeeping force in total disarray and the Sierra Leone Army in retreat, the RUF were poised to capture the nation's capital city. The last time this had happened, some five thousand people were tortured and murdered in the capital city alone. With the RUF and their allies now poised to carry out a repeat performance, a powerful force of British troops, spearheaded by the Parachute Regiment, were drafted into Freetown, under a mission codenamed Operation Palliser. In theory, the Paras were there to carry out an entitled persons (EP) evacuation — to airlift all British and allied nationals to safety. But within days of their deployment, the Paras had moved up-country and engaged the RUF rebels, killing several and stopping their advance in its tracks.
As the immediate rebel threat receded, the British commanders turned their attentions to the bigger picture. An International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT) was put together, under which the Sierra Leone Army was to be given basic combat training by Her Majesty's Armed Forces (assisted by a small number of their American and Canadian allies). The British made no bones about the ultimate goal of this training: it was to enable the SLA to crush the RUF and allied rebel groups, and to restore order and sanity to the devastated country.
Fast-track three months, and the Royal Irish Regiment had arrived in Sierra Leone to take over the IMATT lead role. The Royal Irish Regiment had been formed from a recent amalgamation of the Royal Irish Rangers and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), its combined troops being known simply as the 'Rangers'. The new regiment brought with it a long tradition of highly trained and aggressive airmobile soldiering. In a sense, the Rangers were Northern Ireland's answer to the Paras, although less highly jump-trained and more accustomed to heli-borne assaults. Of particular relevance to the IMATT mission was the Rangers' experience fighting the terrorist war in Northern Ireland. Within their ranks there were decades of combat experience gained in one of the harshest theatres of urban and anti-terrorist warfare in the world. The Rangers would be more than a match for Sierra Leone's rebels.
The men of the Rangers' Defence Force were rotated through stag duty (sentry watch) and security patrols, which made their work a little more varied and interesting than that of the larger Training Force. Many of the Rangers drafted to Sierra Leone had already seen action overseas, most recently in Bosnia and Kosovo, and so they were well placed to defend their IMATT mission. But as had been the case with those conflicts, the Rangers now found themselves parachuted into the midst of a long-running, brutal civil war, one beset by insecurity. The hostile forces of the RUF were massed to their north and east, and several other unpredictable and heavily armed rebel groups roamed the surrounding jungles. It was clearly no place for complacency.
Shortly after first light on that 25 August morning, Defence Force headed out on foot patrol to recce the terrain inland of the Royal Irish base. Their route led into the densely forested, rolling hills stretching from their Benguema Camp eastwards into the remote jungles of the country's interior. The patrol was following narrow bush paths that snaked through the jungle, massive tree trunks towering on either side, reaching a hundred feet or more into the jungle canopy overhead. As the men set out into the forest it was deathly quiet, apart from the tramp of boots on the bare, sandy soil of the forest floor. Dawn mists still clung to the treetops high above them, and so little light penetrated through the jungle canopy that it took several minutes for the men's eyes to adjust to the gloom, so they could see to find their footholds properly.
The patrol's mission was to search for observation points (OPs), from where they could keep an eye on any rebel movements in their area. Ideally, they were looking for a large granite outcrop breaking through the forest canopy, offering a vantage point. As the African sun rose above the forest, the jungle animal and bird life woke with it, the dank air split by the barking of troops of monkeys and the Caw! Caw! of parrots and hornbills. The path climbed over tangled labyrinths of tree roots, dived down slopes into sunlit streams, and skirted around the eerie, man-size mushroom-shaped termite mounds that grew out of the forest floor. But by mid-morning, all the patrol had discovered were several clearings for hashish plantations — a scattering of bright green cannabis plants with spiky leaves, and shacks for drying them. The jungle had proven far too dense to offer the British soldiers any OPs with useful views over the surrounding terrain.
By lunchtime the men were back at Benguema. Word had gone out that the Officer Commanding (OC) at Benguema Camp, Major Alex Martial, was preparing a vehicle reconnaissance patrol into the Occra Hills. The Occra Hills lay some thirty-five miles to the north-east of Benguema, a considerable distance into bandit country. None of the Royal Irish had ventured that far inland before. Everyone in Defence Force wanted to be on that patrol, especially as Major Martial would be leading it. Major Martial was in his early thirties, and one of the youngest majors in the British Army. The word among the men was that he was a good guy in a crisis.
Major Martial was a 'grey man', the sort of person who would be unnoticed in a crowd. He had few distinguishing features as such, and it would be hard to describe his physical appearance. Being able to keep such a low profile was of crucial value in the ongoing wars against terrorism. So far, most of the men had found much of the Sierra Leone posting pretty dull — too much time spent guarding the camp perimeter on stag duty in the pouring rain. The offer of a vehicle patrol was a rare chance to get out and about and see some new terrain.
Major Martial chose Captain Ed Flaherty as his second in command (2iC). Flaherty was in his late twenties and a Belfast man. He was around five foot seven, stocky, and wore his blond hair an inch or so longer than most of the junior ranks (an officer's prerogative). Like the Major, he was seen as being an army career man through and through. As the Regimental Signals Officer (RSO), Flaherty would be in charge of comms on the patrol. Sergeant Michael 'Mickey' Smith, another veteran of Northern Ireland, and another Belfast man, was also chosen to go. Smith was a lanky whippet of a soldier and a typical sergeant — good at keeping things running in the background. Then there were the three corporals — Alistair 'Ally' Mackenzie, Reginald 'Reggie' Ryan and Jason 'Sam' Sampson.
Sam, a tough and uncompromising non-commissioned officer (NCO), was all right once you got to know him, the men would say, but that could take some time. The Major asked Corporal Sampson to select four Rangers as security for the patrol from his own Rifle Platoon. Corporal Sampson chose men that he knew well, with significant combat experience: Rangers Gavin 'Gav' Rowell, Jim 'Sandy' (on account of his bright blond hair) Gaunt, Kieran 'Mac' MacGuire and Marcus 'Marky' McVeigh. At twenty-one, Ranger MacGuire was the oldest of the four. A quiet, popular soldier, Mac had mousy brown hair and was of average build. He was the only patrol member who hailed from Southern Ireland, but that wasn't really an issue; there were lots of Southern Irish in the Rangers and no one felt any animosity towards them.
Rangers Gaunt and Rowell were twenty-year-old neighbours from east Belfast; they'd grown up together on those tough streets and were best mates. Ranger Gaunt was five foot eight and wiry going on thin. With his bleached blond hair and freckled face, he could still have been mistaken for a schoolkid. In fact, he often was when trying to order a few pints of Guinness in the bars of Belfast. Ranger Gaunt was trusting almost to the level of naivety; trusting of his superior officers, the camaraderie of his mates and in the military in general. When he spoke he did so quietly, almost under his breath, with his sentences peppered with 'sort of's and 'youse know what I mean's, as if seeking reassurance all the time. He did his best to disguise this lack of confidence with an off-the-wall sense of humour.
By contrast, Ranger Rowell was over six foot, thickset with close-cropped dark hair and said to look a lot older than his twenty years. A confident individual and a natural soldier, women found the Ranger handsome in that rugged, soldierly way. He had an air about him of being a man who knew he could get the job done, one not prone to fear or self-doubt. When he spoke, he did so confidently, and with an air of knowing what he wanted to say.
Ranger McVeigh, the youngest at nineteen, was another east-Belfast lad. He had joined the Rangers at the same time as Ranger Gaunt, so they were the most junior in terms of time served, but even so, Ranger McVeigh was already convinced that a career in the British Army was the only life for him. Despite their obvious youth, all four Rangers had combat experience, both from Northern Ireland and recent tours in the Balkans. Ranger Rowell, the most experienced of the four, had also served for seven months in Macedonia, so he had spent nearly a year on combat duty before being posted to Sierra Leone. For most of these young men, joining the British Army was a welcome ticket out of Belfast, and one of the few ways to escape from the Troubles that had blighted so much of life in Northern Ireland.
Settling down in the shade of a tree for a chow down of spam (again), Ranger Gaunt glanced around the base. To his right, there was the coiled razor-wire camp perimeter, with the dirt track on the far side. To his left, there was a series of khaki tents in which the Rangers slept, with the old colonial-style red-brick plantation house in the background, where the officers were billeted. As he looked around, the Ranger spotted a group of his mates preparing some Sierra Leone Army (SLA) soldiers for ambush training. God, what a shower the SLA looked, slouching about in their ragtag uniforms, the Ranger thought to himself. At least with Defence Force it felt like they were doing some real soldiering. According to his mates, the SLA recruits were usually half pissed on some locally brewed hooch. Which meant that it was all but impossible to get them up and out for PT early in the morning. The SLA had a long way to go before they'd be ready to patrol the jungles of Sierra Leone, he thought to himself, let alone the streets of Northern Ireland.
As he began cleaning his SA80 assault rifle in preparation for the patrol, the Ranger thanked his lucky stars that he'd been put on Defence Force. He was getting out and about that afternoon, not overseeing some gang-fuck of an SLA training exercise. It was no wonder the SLA had proven so incapable of defeating the rebels, he reminded himself, slamming the breech back into his SA80. He began preparing the rest of his kit for the patrol, checking on his grenades, flak jacket and spare magazines. Now, where was his flaming jungle hat? Oh, there it was. He'd been sitting on it while cleaning his weapon. The five-thousand-strong Sierra Leone Army might outnumber the rebels some three to one, but they remained a bunch of complete incompetents, that was for sure.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Operation Certain Death"
Copyright © 2004 Damien Lewis.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Author’s Note
- 1: Capture
- 2: Training’s Off
- 3: Taken Hostage
- 4: Rescue Mission
- 5: Soldiers of Fortune
- 6: The Nightmare Begins
- 7: Get the Brits
- 8: Dances with Death
- 9: This Means War
- 10: Lottery of Freedom
- 11: Virgin Warriors
- 12: The Siege of the Gimp
- 13: Riverine Assault
- 14: No Escape
- 15: Op Certain Death
- 16: The Killing Game
- 17: The Dead Zone
- 18: Proof of Life
- 19: Dawn Raiders
- 20: A Rude Awakening
- 21: Chicken Run
- 22: In for the Kill
- 23: Salvation
- 24: Ten Men Down
- 25: Time for a Brew
- 26: Return of the Jedi
- 27: Endgame
- Appendix 1: Analysis
- Appendix 2: Call Signs
- Appendix 3: Chronology of the hostage crisis
- Appendix 4: Chronology of Sierra Leone
- Quotation Acknowledgements
- About the Author