Behind the camera: BBC footage Screen Capture
Where: Iranian Embassy – 16 Princes Gate, South Kensington, London, United Kingdom
Photo Summary: John ‘Mac’ McAleese leading SAS Team 1 into the building
Picture Taken: May 5, 1980
The Siege of the Iranian Embassy, located at 16 Princes Gate London, began at 1130 AM on April 30th, 1980. The Siege lasted six days and was eventually concluded after a daring raid by the British Special Air Service (SAS). Five of the six armed Iranian terrorists were killed, and 19 of the 26 hostages were saved.
Terrorists take the Embassy
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. The police constable on guard outside the Embassy, Trevor Lock, was on duty was taken captive. In addition to the other 23 hostages, 2 BBC employees, journalist Chris Cramer and sound man Sim Harris were also taken as hostages while they were applying for visas.
The Terrorists came well armed with a small arsenal, including SMG and Browning 9mm pistols (loaded with hollow-point ammunition), a .38 revolver, and Russian-made hand grenades. They were protesting against oppression by Ayatollah Khomeini who had come to power in Iran during the previous year. Their demands were as follows:
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.
In addition to this, they demanded a plane to fly them out of British airspace.
Negotiations continued into the third day and deadlines came and went, Oan, the 27-year-old leader of the terrorists codenamed “Salim” (real name: Awn Ali Mohammed), 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.
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 and dropped his body out of a door to the Embassy. Upon hearing this news, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave permission for the SAS to take the building.
Storming the Embassy: Operation NIMROD
Unbeknownst to the terrorists at any time, PC Trevor Lock had managed, during his capture, to activate an alert device concealed on his jacket lapel. The signal was forwarded to the Metropolitan Police’s C13 Anti-terrorist Squad who dispatched to the area around the Embassy and were joined shortly thereafter by members of C7, Scotland Yard’s electronic eavesdropping and surveillance branch. Sniper and counter-sniper positions were also manned by police sharpshooters.
While these events took place, at the headquarters of the 22 Special Air Service Regiment located at Hereford, a call was received by a former member of the unit’s “D Squadron” who at the time was working as a dog handler for the Metropolitan police. Receiving the call and a brief assessment of the situation through the grassroots intelligence network comprised of such former SAS operators gave the units Special Projects (SP) team of the SAS counter-revolutionary warfare ring a valuable “heads up” and they were able to immediately scramble the necessary personnel.
The members of B squadrons “Pagoda Troop”, the alert team always kept on standby within the SAS specifically for these types of situations, were going through standard Close Quarter Battle (CQB) drills within the Hereford “Kill House” when all their pagers went off simultaneously with the “999” code signalling that this was a real-life event, not a training exercise. They mobilized and were set up at a barracks in Regents Park London and had two-man teams conducting clandestine surveillance of the embassy, even going on to the roof, that very same night.
To mask efforts at surveillance and the storming of the building, all aircraft landing and taking off from Heathrow airport in London were ordered to fly considerably lower over the Embassy. In addition to this, jackhammers were used outside the embassy to mask the sound of drilling on walls for C7 specialists to plant various listening devices and fibre optic probes necessary for the SAS to ascertain exactly what rooms the terrorists were in.
After briefly questioning a janitor that worked in the embassy, it became clear that the initial tools for going through windows into a structure ie. a sledgehammer would not work due to the heavy, bulletproof glass used in the construction of the embassy. It was determined that specially shaped explosive charges should be employed.
The equipment used by the SAS operators for this assault contained Bristol body armour, Heckler & Koch MP5s, Browning High Power Pistols, lightweight Northern Ireland boots (good for running and kicking in doors), S6 respirators (so they could breathe through the CS gas) and an NBC suit, to be worn under the body armour. The clothing was designed to provoke a psychological response within the terrorists when confronted by this totally black, barely human figure the fraction of a second gained could be the difference between life and death.
The SAS had debriefed two hostages that had been released and had been told that the Terrorists had grenades, even some had them in their pockets. This resulted in a decision being made to “go in hard and hot” and eliminate anyone identified as a terrorist with extreme prejudice.
The assault started at 19:23 hours on 5 May 1980 23 minutes after the dead hostage had been thrown from the building. An explosive charge went off at the rear of the building shattering the skylight, raining glass and debris down and effectively stunning anyone in the second-floor stairwell. All power to the building was also cut at this time and the teams moved forward with the assault. A second explosive charge went off almost instantly, shattering the rear doors of the embassy. Five teams then took part in the assault.
Team 1- Using explosive charges on the windows this team entered on the first floor via the balcony. This is the image captured by ITN Cameras.
Team 2- Entered the first floor and clear the basement.
Team 3- Entered the first floor and clear the first floor also acted as a hostage collection point.
Team 4- Abseiled through the shattered skylight onto the second floor.
Team 5- Abseiled from the roof to the rear Balcony and entered there to aid in the clearing of the second floor.
Within 11 minutes 5 of the 6 terrorists were dead and 19 hostages were rescued.
The lead man in the iconic image is John “Mac” McAleese, now 61 years old, is the SAS operator placing the charge on the window just before breaching and leading Team 1 through the windows onto the first floor. In the photo, the SAS can be seen carrying their HKMP5’s and wearing the dull black Bristol body armour and other kit. The image is part of a video seen by millions of people and was broadcast live during the Siege.
Aftermath and Controversy
Not for the last time, the tactics of the SAS were considered by many to be excessive, in particular, the deaths of two terrorists Shai and Makki. These men were, according to the hostages, shot as they lay unarmed and surrendering still within the Embassy. Denis Thatcher, the husband of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was quoted as saying “You let one of the bastards live.” However, the raid has been considered an incredible success and is often referred to as a textbook case of both counterterrorism and the employment of the special forces.
Since 2009 the image has seen a resurgence in the media. Paul McAleese, son of siege hero and the lead man in the siege image John McAleese, was killed in Afghanistan on August 20th, 2009. His father John has spoken out regarding the insufficient levels of troop strength on the ground in Afghanistan.