John McAleese, who died on August 26 aged 61, led the SAS team that ended the Iranian embassy siege in central London in 1980, an event watched live on television by millions of spellbound viewers.
The SAS storming the Iranian embassy on May 5 1980.
The embassy, at 16 Princes Gate, Knightsbridge, had been taken over on April 30 1980 by six separatists from the oil-rich region in west Iran known as Arabistan. For six days, armed with machine guns, pistols and grenades, they held 26 people hostage as they demanded international recognition for their demands for independence.
Margaret Thatcher’s government was adamant that it would not make deals with terrorists, and as tense negotiations with the separatists continued, police surrounded the 56-room, five-storey building.
At the same time, an SAS team was assembled to launch a possible assault on the embassy under the code name Operation Nimrod.
Some 60 troops of 22 Special Air Service Regiment 56, among them then Lance-Corporal John McAleese, drove from their base in Herefordshire. They were equipped with ladders, climbing ropes and battering rams, as well as with machine guns, grenades and gas-canister launchers.
A few doors along from the embassy, the Royal School of Needlework was meticulously examined by one of the SAS soldiers, Stuart MacVicar (known as “Squash Ball” for his compact physique), because its layout was identical to that of the embassy.
Microphones were drilled into the embassy walls; commercial aircraft flying overhead were ordered to travel at lower altitudes, to drown out any suspicious noises caused by the preparations for an assault.
Meanwhile, the soldiers studied long-lens photographs, taken through the embassy windows, of the hostages in the hope that they would be able to distinguish them from their captors.
Then, on the evening of May 5, a team led by McAleese stormed the building. The assault had been ordered by the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, after the terrorists killed a hostage and threw his body outside the building.
For the first time, an SAS operation was shown live on television as both ITV and the BBC (which interrupted its coverage of the final of the world snooker championships) broadcast footage of black-clad troops in balaclavas — among them McAleese — abseiling down ropes on to the balconies on the first floor of the embassy, where it was thought that most of the hostages were being held.
In order to disorientate the terrorists, the SAS first exploded a so-called “distraction” charge, which they had lowered through a skylight.
The front window of the room were blown out by McAleese and CS gas canisters fired in through the gap. The soldiers then stormed in amid a hail of gunfire.
The raid lasted 17 minutes. All but one of the hostages were rescued. Five of the terrorists were killed; the only one to survive, Fowzi Nejad, was sent to prison — he was released in 2008.
Returning after the assault to their temporary London quarters at Regent’s Park Barracks, the SAS team was visited by the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who told them: “Makes us proud to be British.” McAleese later said: “We knew what our mission was — it was to release the hostages. My only job at this point is to get on to the balcony, place the charge, get back, blow it, turn around and go back in through the window.”
John McAleese was a Scot, originally from Laurieston, in Stirlingshire, and served in the Army for 23 years, including 17 in the SAS. He was awarded a Military Medal in 1988 for his service in Northern Ireland. After leaving, he worked as a security consultant in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had a brief media career as a host of the 2003 BBC series SAS: Are You Tough Enough?, a documentary in which members of the public experienced the proverbially gruelling SAS selection process.
He also acted as an instructor in Airsoft, the outdoor game which offers people a taste of what it is like to experience battle conditions. Participants dressed in combat gear and carrying real weapons (loaded with plastic BB pellets) mimic close-quarter modern infantry fighting.
McAleese said: “You might as well make it realistic. People read books about this SAS stuff and now they can do something similar.”
The last two years of McAleese’s life were marked by the death of his son, 29-year-old Sergeant Paul McAleese, who was serving in the 2nd Battalion the Rifles and hoped to join the special forces like his father before him. Paul was killed by an explosion in Afghanistan on August 20 2009 while attempting to rescue a wounded comrade.
After his son’s death, John McAleese appealed to the Prime Minister Gordon Brown for better resources for the troops serving in Helmand province. He said that his son had complained that there were not enough troops in Afghanistan to monitor areas for explosive devices.
John McAleese, who died in Thessaloniki, Greece, is thought to have suffered a heart attack.
As well as his son Paul, he had a daughter with his first wife. He also had a daughter and a son by his second marriage.