Who said the SAS feed only on enemy sentries and terrorists? Rowdy prisoners can occasionally form part of their diet as well and prison riots can also be the SAS’s playground.
Thirty years ago, a prison riot in Peterhead had turned ugly. Fifty inmates had managed to take control of D-wing. The riot had begun with the stabbing of an officer, but it had quickly escalated in a hostage situation. Two wardens were taken hostage. One of them was released because of wounds; the other was about to endure a five-day ordeal that would only end with the storming of the black-clad SAS troopers.
Peterhead Prison was infamous for its Victorian workhouse conditions. Electricity in the cells was limited, the food was awful, and the drainage horribly unsanitary.
The 50 inmates were all lifers and thus had scant to lose. Stuffing petrol in his pockets, they had paraded Jackie Stuart, the prison officer, through the roof and threatened to burn him alive.
“They were going to set fire to me if they didn’t get something,” the warden remembers.
They also beat him numerous times.
Local law enforcement felt powerless. Home Secretary Douglas Hurd intervened. He managed to persuade Margaret Thatcher to call the big boys. Shortly thereafter, 20 SAS troopers from the constantly stand-by counter-terrorism team were flying North in the back of a C-130.
Their loadout was similar to what they’d used in the famous Iranian Embassy hostage rescue in 1980. Black, fireproof fatigues, body armor, gas masks, and sneakers (for stealth). As for weapons, this time they’d left their MP5s behind, preferring thick, wooden batons and 9mm Brownings instead. Flashbangs and tear-gas grenades would initiate the assault.
The plan was simple: Simultaneous assaults from numerous entry points to distract the rioters, while a four-man team tasked to rescue Stuart would snake its way through the burnt roof. The operation was set to begin in the early morning. Meanwhile, the local police would keep the rioters awake by pretending to negotiate.
The four-man rescue team would snake its way through the burnt roof (PeterheadPrisonMuseum.com).
At 05:00, the assault began. Speed was of the essence. The SAS had to get to Stuart before the rioters could kill him. Tear gas grenades and flashbangs opened the way, as SAS troopers literally beat the hell out of whomever they encountered. (One inmate would later claim compensation from the British government because the SAS beating resulted in his needing psychiatric treatment!) Meanwhile, the four-man rescue team managed to successfully secure Stuart.
“I was in prison clothing,” he remembers, “but [the SAS] probably had pictures of me and the prisoners beforehand.”
The operation lasted three minutes. Once Stuart was safely out and the rioters handcuffed, the local police came in and claimed success. In putting down the prison riot, no SAS involvement was to be mentioned.
This article was originally published in April 2020. It has been edited for republication.