A legendary Special Air Service (SAS) operator and assault team leader during the famous Iranian Embassy hostage rescue has passed away.

Command Sergeant Major Tom MacDonald died at the age of 71 in New Zealand where he had retired to. The SAS operator had a long and illustrious career in the British Army. He first joined the Parachute Regiment in the early-1970s. After a few years as a paratrooper, he attempted and successfully completed the arduous SAS selection course. He was assigned to B Squadron and served in various positions in the Regiment including as an assaulter, sniper, and instructor.

During the Iranian Embassy hostage rescue on May 5, 1980, CSM MacDonald led a team of four SAS operators (Blue Team) through the balcony and into the embassy.

MacDonald’s description of the assault on the Iranian Embassy highlights the inherent adaptability in the Regiment. A few months before he passed away he had said in an interview:

“When we went into the embassy it was on five floors, my snipers were meant to contain the first floor, where I was, and the fifth floor and the assault team were to take the middle three floors. It turned out that a couple of the terrorists had come down to the floor that I went in on. It was me that jumped the balcony and went in through the front window, myself and another three. We found the terrorists in there and dealt with them, so within 30 seconds I had gone through a window and killed two people, which wasn’t really expected.”

CSM MacDonald

For his actions on that day, CSM MacDonald received the Queen’s Gallantry Medal (QGM).

The Iranian Embassy hostage rescue put the SAS for the first time in the public limelight. Before Operation Nimrod, as the mission was named, the British Army’s Tier One direct action counterterrorism unit was known only to few. In fact, before 1980, numerous British politicians and military officers had pushed for the disbandment of the SAS.

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Talking about his fallen comrades, CSM MacDonald had said that visiting their memorials was becoming ever more difficult. “I tried to take my now wife and describe what happened where it happened and how it happened,” he had told a local New Zealand newspaper. “I broke down. I couldn’t handle it. So now I go alone, shed a few tears and spend time with them. It’s the hardest thing I do.”

Following his service with the 22 SAS, the active-duty SAS unit, CSM moved to 23 SAS, one of the two territorial SAS units. After he retired from the British Army, he served as an advisor to the Omani military.