Note: This article is part of a series. You can read part one here.
We already know the basics. The captured British troops serving with the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone were from the Royal Irish Regiment. They were originally part of a detachment that had been deployed to help oversee the evacuation of foreign nationals from what had degenerated into the most vicious and bloody civil wars in Africa for a generation.
Gradually, we learned more about their captors. They were the self-styled West Side Boys—a ragtag group of AK-47-wielding nut cases who had terrorized the population for years. Their trademark calling card was the amputation of the limbs of anyone who crossed their path with sharpened machetes (they called it ‘short or long sleeves’). The whole of the Sierra Leone countryside was littered with the sight of the limbless—including women and young children—who had fallen victim to the psychopathic rebels. We all know how bad IS is; this lot were on the same level.
The leader of the West Side Boys was ‘Brigadier’ Foday Khalley, a particularly brutal and unstable individual. Like all these nightmare ‘soldiers’, Khalley abused drugs on an industrial scale. The narcotics included cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamines. The dope helped them carry out their sickening atrocities against their own people. It also meant it was almost impossible to negotiate with them. Khalley’s coke snorting made him paranoid. The cannabis gave him amnesia. He could hardly remember the decisions he had made only five minutes before. It was a nightmare.
Khalley’s number two, and main spokesman, was another idiot who called himself Colonel Cambodia (the West Side Boys were big fans of the genocidal Khmer Rouge). Colonel Cambodia had a habit of calling up the British Broadcasting Corporation in London and mouthing off his list of demands. This helpfully allowed our Scaleys (signals lads) to get an exact fix on his transmitter, which meant we knew exactly where he was night and day.
Bit by bit, we began to add pieces to the jigsaw puzzle from multiple sources. We knew that the hostages were being kept in a village called Gberi Bana on the banks of Rokel Creek, a tributary of the country’s longest river. On the opposite side of the water, there was another substantial force of heavily armed West Side Boys in the abandoned village of Makbeni. It was obvious that any assault would require taking care of both strongholds simultaneously.
Our main source of intel were eyes on the ground. The very first deployment had been an advanced party of Blades (SAS troopers) in deep-camouflage close-observation points relaying back all the activity in both villages. Insertion had proved tricky in the treacherous currents of the Rokel, but we were helped out by our traditional, deadly rivals (I mean best mates from the Navy!) the SBS (Special Boat Squadron or ‘shakey boats’).
Over the next few days, the situation changed on an hourly basis. Unpredictable as ever, Khalley received the hostage negotiation team, sat, and listened. The team (which included two of our lads wearing Royal Irish uniforms) miraculously managed to secure the release five of the 11 troops in exchange for food and medicine.
The Royal Irish troops were fully debriefed about the situation in Gberi Bana. They painted a depressing picture of exactly the kind of madness we were up against. The hostages had been subjected to mock firing-squad and head-shot executions after prolonged bouts of drinking and drug-taking. Lieutenant Musa Bangura, the patrol’s Sierra Leone Army liaison officer, was routinely brutalized and tortured. He was chained in a pit that the West Side Boys used as the communal latrine.
It became obvious that a full-scale rescue operation was the only way to resolve the crisis. The whole squadron was assembled, so we flew down south to a new camp in the village of Hastings about 30 miles southwest of the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown.
Here, we were joined by another task force—a detachment from A Company, the Parachute Regiment. The Paras had joined us following an exercise in Jamaica. There were traditionally close links between the two units: the SAS draws more recruits from the Paras than any other regiment. They camped down a couple of hundred yards away from where we were, but it didn’t take long for a few shouts of recognition to ring out as a few mates from each side recognized each other.
I remember looking at some of their lads and thinking they were just too young to be there (I was the ripe old age of 27). I subsequently found out that some of them had only finished their basic training a couple of weeks earlier! The decision (and it was the right one) was to blood them straightaway, although the Paras did take the precaution of drafting in some more experienced warriors from other companies: specialist snipers, heavy machine gunners, and mortar support units.
The next few days were all planning and training. Intel continued to come in on an hourly basis. In addition to our eyes on the ground, we now had some extra help. One morning, a tall man in his thirties, dressed in smart civilian clothes, arrived unannounced in Hastings. He carried with him a large briefcase. He never introduced himself (and of course, we never asked) but he spoke with an American accent.
Our new friend opened up his special briefcase in the Ops room. Unfolded before us in glorious 3D was every tiny detail of the village of Gberi Bana. It appeared someone very senior in Washington had been kind enough to deploy some serious satellite technology on our behalf. God bless America!
The satellite imagery (“Capable of counting the hairs on a mosquito’s arse,” as Tommy puts it) proved invaluable. We’d already built a scale mock up of the village in the camp, but the sat tech gave us a whole new perspective. Over the coming days, we would get to know every hut and blade of grass in that small area of real estate.
(Featured image courtesy of Adam Butler)