A BBC film crew caught a brief glimpse of one of the SAS team in a Gambian armoury following the coup.
Modern communications have made life very difficult for secret armies. For those who really wish to operate in secret, as opposed to the guerrilla armies who actively seek publicity, secrecy can often help success while the unwelcome attention of the media can often bring failure.
But, even in a country as open as the United States, where public accountability is a cornerstone of the democratic system, the special operations forces have frequently managed to operate away from the public. In Britain, where secrecy is a national tradition and governments are used to suppressing unwelcome information, operations run by the SAS and the SBS have continued almost uninterrupted by the attentions of the media or by scrutiny from elected officials.
This freedom has allowed the special forces to fight in foreign countries with a freedom unthinkable in the United States. One such operation, which has never before been revealed and which is still not officially admitted by the British government, occurred at the end of July 1981.
The wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer on 29 July 1981 provided the perfect opportunity for Libyan- and Cuban-backed rebels in the tiny west African country of the Gambia to attempt a coup. While the Gambian president, Sir Dawda Jawara, was sitting in Westminster Abbey, a 500-strong rebel force moved to seize the country’s radio station, the palace, and the airport, and to take hostages from among the cabinet and the President’s family.
News of the attempted coup reached the British Foreign Office in London on 30 July. The British ambassador in the country’s capital, Banjul, reported heavy fighting and that the radio station had been taken over and was now broadcasting Marxist propaganda in the name of a National Revolutionary Council. The broadcasts said that the council would introduce a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ led by a ‘Marxist-Leninist party’ to promote ‘revolutionary socialism.’
The Gambia had received its independence from Britain in 1965, but ties between the two countries remained close. Although it covers an area of only 4,361 square miles with a population of 600,000, it had become popular with British tourists and was held up as a fine example of a working democracy in Africa. Opposition parties were allowed in its parliament and the leader of the main opposition party was paid a salary by the government. Free elections were held and as there was no effective standing army there was little interference from any military clique. All of this made a persuasive argument for Britain doing its best to quell the attempted coup.
The Foreign Office consulted France, which had very good relations with Gambia’s neighbour, Senegal, then spoke to Washington, who were known to be very concerned about any Libyan-backed expansion in the region, and finally telephoned to Hereford, the headquarters of the SAS.
The call was taken by Major Ian Crooke, then second-in-command of 22nd Regiment of the SAS. He in turn alerted his commander, who was walking with his two children in the Welsh hills. Responding to his bleeper, the commander found a telephone, spoke to Crooke, and ordered him to take whatever he needed and get out to Banjul by any means possible.
Crooke and two colleagues took a flight to Paris with bags filled with rifles, grenades, explosives and a satellite communications system so that he could keep in constant touch with Hereford. The fastest way to Banjul was by Air France which had a plane leaving that same day. The problem of the bags filled with explosives and other dangerous items was overcome by Crooke making a call to a diplomat he knew at the British embassy in Paris who in turn knew an employee at Air France who arranged for the three men to bypass all the normal security checks and board the flight carrying their dangerous cargo (this subsequently caused a major diplomatic row between Paris and London).
Events in Banjul had meanwhile become very confused. The French, in consultation with London and President Jawara, had sent in French-trained paratroopers from neighbouring Senegal who had secured the airport, and the President had returned there from London. But the rebels had consolidated their hold on the capital and were known to have taken twenty-eight senior officials including Lady Thielal N’Diaye, one of Sir Dawda’s two wives, and her four children hostage, and neither the President nor the Senegalese had any clear idea about how they should proceed. The hostages were being held at the headquarters of the Gambian Field Force in the village of Bakau, seven miles west of Banjul.
Kukli Samba Sanyang, the rebel leader, said on the radio that he was ready to kill the President’s family unless the Senegalese troops withdrew. ‘Jawara can’t frighten me. The country is with us and I hold … the power to execute the prisoners — the Jawara family and the members of the government.’
After a meeting with the President, the SAS men were given a free hand to do whatever they felt was necessary to liberate the hostages and put down the revolution. Crooke then moved through the Senegalese lines around the airport, through the rebel lines that surrounded them, and arrived at the British embassy in Banjul. To his amazement, he found the ambassador hiding under a table, although the sporadic mortar fire at the time hardly seemed to justify such precautions.
From sources at the embassy, Crooke learned that the President’s wife had been moved, with one of her children, who had a fever, to the Medial Research Centre in the capital. The three SAS men, whom eyewitnesses reported as being in civilian clothes but festooned with weapons and grenades, headed for the hospital. The guards posted on the gates were distracted by Crooke, a white man, walking up to them apparently unarmed. His two colleagues moved behind and overpowered them. Inside the hospital, a British doctor persuaded the guards looking after the President’s wife that their guns were distressing the other patients and after some argument they laid them down outside the ward. The SAS men then freed Lady Thielal and took her and her child back to the British embassy.
Meanwhile, Senegalese troops had made an attempt to break through the rebel lines and relieve Banjul. Their attack was poorly planned and co-ordinated, however, and they were beaten back. The three SAS men therefore returned through the rebel lines to the airport, rallied a small group of the Senegalese troops who had received counter-terrorism training, and launched an assault that not only quickly broke the rebels’ hold on the airport, but four days later led to the total collapse of the coup and the arrest of all its leaders — with the exception of Kukli Samba Sanyang, who fled to Cuba.
Throughout the action, two other sideshows had been taking place. The US State Department, wanting to play a part in quelling the Libyan-supported coup, had authorised a team of Delta Force counter-terrorist specialists to fly to Dakar, the capital of Senegal. However, State then got cold feet and Delta were in fact never allowed to go into action. Similar nervousness was exhibited by the British Foreign Office, which demanded regular updates on the whereabouts and plans of the SAS men from their headquarters in Hereford. But, not wanting political interference once the operation was running, Hereford firmly claimed that it had lost all contact with the men: they were known to be heading for the Gambia but any further details were unobtainable because of poor communications. In fact, however, Crooke was in regular contact with his headquarters via his portable satellite communications system.
The Gambia intervention was a classic example of the effective use of special forces. A very small number of highly-trained specialists were able to achieve more than two battalions of regular soldiers could have, and with a great deal less political damage. As it was, the revolution was put down in a week, the outside world never heard of Britain’s covert involvement, and the Gambia continues to be a peaceful, democratic country.
A similar but less successful mission began on 23 July 1982, when six tourists — two Americans, two Britons and two Australians — were kidnapped by guerrillas in Zimbabwe. They were taken from their truck about fifty miles north of Bulawayo and dragged into the bush.
Both the British Foreign Office and the US State Department were concerned that the troops of Prime Minister Robert Mugabe were not sufficiently qualified to hunt down the kidnappers. Within hours, a Delta Force team had left Fort Bragg in a C-141 Starlifter transport aircraft on the long journey to Zimbabwe. At the same time three SAS men left Hereford, took a scheduled flight from Britain and arrived in Bulawayo on 29 July. For the next few weeks, the SAS men stayed in the country trying in vain to track down the kidnap victims, who were never seen again; Delta Force got as far as the air base on Ascension Island in the Southern Atlantic and remained there for some days before returning to Fort Bragg.
‘They couldn’t even get overflight clearance, never mind permission to land in Zimbabwe,’ said one US official involved in the mission. ‘Our effort was hailed as a great triumph. We had shown an ability to move at a moment’s notice but the fact remained we didn’t get there so the whole exercise was pointless.’
The Zimbabwe affair demonstrated how widespread the use of special operations forces has become. This was no war or revolution but simply the kidnapping of some British and American citizens in a foreign country. It seems likely that increasingly groups like the SAS and Delta Force will be used outside what are seen as their traditional roles of countering terrorism and fighting wars to go wherever lives or property are at risk.