Special Forces routinely pull off audacious rescue missions. But to do so on live television? That takes extra daring. But it’s what Britain’s Special Air Service (better known as the SAS) did in the spring of 1980. The stakes could not have been higher: rescue the hostages and be lauded as heroes or fail and be blamed for the death of innocents, with the fallout watched by a TV audience in the millions. Thankfully for the SAS, their political masters, and the hostages involved, the mission was a resounding success. What’s more, Operation Nimrod is now the stuff of legend, not least in Britain.
It all started on the morning of April 30. A group of six men, calling themselves the Democratic Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan, calmly walked into the Iranian Embassy in London and announced they were taking control of the building. Since they were armed with machine guns and explosives, and since there was only one armed policeman inside the Embassy at the time, they had it under their control within minutes. In all, 21 people were taken hostage. To secure their release, the terrorists demanded that 91 of their comrades-in-arms be freed from prisons in Iran. The British government was given just 24 hours to make this happen.
Straight away, plans to storm the Embassy and free the hostages were drawn up. The elite SAS were to carry out any rescue mission. At first, however, hopes were high that police negotiators could secure a peaceful end to the siege. They did indeed succeed at getting the terrorists to extend their deadlines. But then, on the sixth day, they executed the Embassy’s press officer, dumping his body out in the street in full view of the watching TV news cameras. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, determined to be seen as tough on terrorists, gave the rescue mission her official green light.
The SAS leaders decided on a two-pronged attack. One team of soldiers would abseil down from the roof and enter the Embassy through third-floor windows. Meanwhile, another team would come out of the neighboring building and break in through the first floor. The two teams would then go through the Embassy room by room until they met. At 19:00 on 5 May, Operation Nimrod got underway. Almost immediately, however, it was in jeopardy: one of the men abseiling down from the roof got stuck. The officer in charge told his men to carry on with the plan. It worked.
The terrorists were caught completely by surprise. The better-trained SAS men swept through the Embassy. All the hostages were rescued safe and sound. Five of the terrorists were shot dead, with the sixth taken hostage. TV viewers had watched amazed as the SAS brought the siege to a dramatic conclusion. The SAS men left quickly and quietly. They became national heroes and Operation Nimrod became the stuff of legend – and a blueprint for other special forces to follow when confronted with a hostage situation.