On April 30th, 1980 terrorists stormed the Iranian embassy in London, England to demand the release of prisoners held in Iran. Throughout the 1970’s international terrorism was a frightening new reality that western governments were still trying to cope with. By taking hostages and barricading themselves against assaulters, terrorists could hold entire countries hostage in full view of news cameras broadcasting live to the entire world. Western governments were grappling with two specific mission profiles to alleviate the threat of terrorists leveraging hostages for political ends. These were aircraft hijackings and barricaded hostage situations.
As the Iranian embassy siege progressed over six days, British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher authorized a small and at that time relatively unknown unit to re-take the embassy and end the siege. The Special Air Service (SAS) was suddenly cast into the spotlight in front of the same news cameras that had been watching the siege. This August, a movie depicting the events of April 30th through the SAS assault on the embassy on the 5th of May will be released. “Six Days” will walk the audience through the events leading up to the 17 minute long raid on the embassy and no doubt ask us to reflect on the origins of counter-terrorism operations which are in the press on a nearly daily basis.
SOFREP: The 1970s were the birth of counter-terrorism in many ways, but it always struck me that the SAS had a bit of a leg up on the American units as you guys had a lot of experience fighting IRA terrorists in Ireland. Could you detail a bit about how the SAS’s counter-terrorism tactics, techniques, and procedures evolved and came into being?
Rusty: It was probably fair to say in my day that we did have the upper hand on certain American units as far as counter-terrorism was concerned. Throughout the 70s we the SAS were involved a lot in the Northern Ireland troubles fighting the terrorists. This has been well documented over the years. The SAS have to learn quickly as lives can be at stake. The experience of day-to-day working in trouble spots brings out a lot of times what we called lessons learnt.
The SAS are continually looking to be the leaders in the counter-terrorism world and think over the years we have proven that. Counter-terrorism tactics, techniques and procedures are continually practiced by the SAS. However we did not sit on our laurels and were always looking for new ideas, new weapons, vehicles et cetera et cetera to make sure that we could carry out any given task to the best of our ability.
SOFREP: When did you get world about the Iranian embassy siege? Was an SAS element on standby and how would you rate the unit’s confidence in dealing with hostage barricade situations prior to this incident?
Rusty: I personally got a telephone call around midday at home and to back that up I had a personal pager that alerted me that there was a live operation taking place. Most of the guys had exactly the same messages.
B Squadron were the counter-terrorist team on standby and on 30 minutes notice to move. Coincidently, there being a bank holiday weekend on the horizon we were due to get a call out for an exercise over that weekend. Therefore, as normal all of our operational kit, weapons, vehicles were packed and ready for a call out if required.
Hostage situations are always different and during my time on the counter terrorist team we did numerous exercises incorporating as many different scenarios as possible. Our individual and team shooting skills were always at the highest level. Day in-day out, we used to train in the killing house as it was called, CQB shooting, individual and multi-room combat using live ammunition at all times. The guys in the teams had all passed selection, were highly motivated individuals, and didn’t know the meaning of the word failure.
I started off as a team member back in 1980 and ended up as a team leader. Confidence was high within the two teams of B Squadron, and like me, just wanted to do a professional job. The mission was to rescue the hostages, job done.
SOFREP: What did the planning cycle look like for Operation Nimrod? There were about six days of the siege prior to the SAS assault. Did the plan undergo many revisions?
Rusty: Nobody knew how long the operation Nimrod would last so the thought would be to get on with it until it was resolved. Operation Nimrod lasted eventually for 6 days and throughout those six days it was constant prior, planning, preparation, prevents, piss, poor, performance. Commonly known among the guys as the 7 P’s.
No time was wasted, you are on standby fully kitted out, just in case you had to be deployed to rescue the hostages. If you went on standby you were generally carrying out rehearsals, other options that were taken into consideration and needed proper planning at different locations away from the embassy itself. The plan itself was built on over the six days that we were there, yes there were slight changes as intelligence and information was received from different sources. Let’s just say the plan was tweaked and fine-tuned until the very end when the words “GO! GO! GO!” from the Squadron officer commanding and that along with a huge explosion initiated the start of the hostage rescue.
SOFREP: What was going through your mind as you and your teammates were finally prepared to breach?
Rusty: At last we had proof of murder when the press attaché, Mr. Lavasani, was thrown onto the pavement. He had been executed. This changed everything. It was no longer a police operation, it was indeed handed over to the SAS to deal with it. We started to move into our final assault positions which took about 16 minutes but it had to be done covertly as we did not want to risk compromise.
I was a team leader. My thoughts from memory with numerous, “don’t fail,” the most important was the mission which was to rescue the hostages. Once we were in position I just wanted to hear the words: GO! GO! GO! Once I heard them, I thought, “we are unstoppable,” and started to carry out the plan to rescue the hostages. I should imagine but can’t speak for all of my teammates, they would be exactly the same mindset and at the back of your mind there is always a sort of what if something goes wrong, you have to think on your feet and fix it and carry on the momentum.
SOFREP: What were some of the big lessons learned from Operation Nimrod for the SAS?
Rusty: There was a complete review of all weapons, kit, and equipment to see how we would move forward. Remember most of the kit the individuals were wearing on the assault burnt, coveralls, rubber gas mask, rubber boots, NBC hoods, nylon balaclava, et cetera. Remember the embassy after we finished with it and during the assault? Flames were everywhere. Planning and preparation, intelligence always being updated and added to the plan as time goes on. Do not waste a minute, and that is mainly because nobody knows how long an individual siege is going to last.
SOFREP: You were famously photographed breaching the embassy as the “man with no gloves.” How does it feel to have your image become an iconic moment in the history of counter-terrorism?
Rusty: Firstly I had to spank myself when I got back in after the successful resolution of the siege. I had my gloves at all times, normally tucked down the front of my body armor and the one time I went back to the holding area which was next door to the Iranian embassy I left my gloves on the table whilst watching the snooker [a game of pool] Cliff Thorburn was playing Alex Higgins in the final of the embassy world championship.
Once I went outside with the rest of the team to get in position, I realized I didn’t have my gloves with me. However the police snipers of the day took what you call the iconic picture of me with no gloves in the centre of my team. At the time it wasn’t a big deal, but as time moved forward it brought a bit more attention to me over the years. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did and of course I was given the picture many moons ago way back in the early 80s after the assault.
SOFREP: How did the film about Operation Nimrod come about? What was your involvement with it?
Rusty: The film is called 6 days and as far as I’m aware, the producer of the film, Matthew Metcalfe, who is from the general film Corporation New Zealand read my book GO! GO! GO! and I have been told that was the inspiration for the film. My agent in London put me in contact with the producer and I met him in London, he then put me in contact with a scriptwriter, again from New Zealand, and I took him to Hereford [Where the SAS is stationed] for five days.
I showed him around and introduced him to some of the guys involved in the siege who gave their individual accounts to him. Glenn the scriptwriter went back to New Zealand, wrote a script and that’s how it all started. I was an adviser/consultant along with a number of other SAS consultants.
The producer and the scriptwriter decided on a story, one of many stories that could have been told by anybody involved in the siege, however they wanted to tell the story that is portrayed in the film. I was a guy with no gloves, I took over the command position as a Lance Corporal from the Staff Sergeant in the blue team and finally I was in charge of the blue team when we assaulted the building to rescue the hostages.
They picked an actor called Jamie Bell to play me, the man with no gloves. I had a couple of weeks with Jamie to teach him shooting techniques, weapons handling, basically how we did it in those days with the correct weaponry. As for the filming itself, I had no input. That was down to the director and the producer. Basically, I had to put my trust in what the outcome of that film will look like in the end.
Retired SAS operator Rusty Firmin works as a consultant and his website can be found at www.rusty-firmin.com. His book about the Iranian embassy take down is titled Go! Go! Go! and can be found on Amazon. Autographed hard copies of the book and prints can be ordered through Rusty’s website.
(Lead image: courtesy of General Film Corporation)