Sierra Leone, 2000

RAF Boeing Chinook HC.2s were the mainstay of the UK mission to Sierra Leone.

Securing Lungi airport was the first object of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment.

Freetown and Lungi area (US Defense Mapping Agency)

At 10 am on 5th May, the decision was made to send the Operational Reconnaissance and Liaison Team. We left at 6 pm and after a refuelling stop we arrived at Lungi airport in Freetown at 6 am the following day. Government forces were rapidly falling back on the capital. The rebels were a major threat. The UN troops were the last line of defence but were in near panic. There were violent demonstrations in the capital and everyone was afraid of a coup. Brigadier Richards tried to bring together all the government leaders. On 7th May, we asked the lead company of 1 PARA to deploy. By 15th May, the situation had changed dramatically.

Lt Col Neil Salisbury, Chief of Staff, UK Joint Force Headquarters

16 Air Assault Brigade was only nine months’ old when it got the call to send troops into the heart of one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars. Few members of the Brigade had heard of Sierra Leone in May 2000, as reports began to circulate in the Ministry of Defence in London that the country’s government was in danger of being toppled by a brutal rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Buoyed by the success of his ‘ethical foreign policy’ in the Kosovo crisis, Prime Minister Tony Blair was taking an increasing interest in the problems of Africa. The former British colony of Sierra Leone was seen by Blair and his then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, as a failed state that needed to be rescued. For more than a decade, the West African country had been convulsed by civil war, as rebel groups vied for control of the lucrative diamond mines. The RUF had gained a notorious reputation for brutality and its trademark was the amputation of a prisoners’ limbs by machete. For much of the 1990s, Sierra Leone had no viable government and its population had lived in fear as rival militia groups fought for control of the country and its mineral resources. While billions of dollars-worth of diamonds was illicitly exported from the country, the population’s standard of living hovered near the bottom of most international league tables.

In 1995, the Sierra Leone government was so desperate it employed the services of the South African mercenary company Executive Outcomes and managed to drive the rebels back from the capital Freetown. The British private security company Sandline then provided more assistance with the tacit approval of the Foreign Office in London. Stalemate on the battlefield had allowed the UN to negotiate a cease-fire and begin the deployment of a peacekeeping force, dubbed UNAMSIL. British diplomats played an important role in setting up the UN-led peace process and London was watching its progress closely.

During April 2000, the civil war re-ignited and more than 5,000 RUF fighters appeared to be advancing on the capital. Other rebel forces took hundreds of UN peacekeepers hostage and besieged the remainder in their bases. The whole country and the 11,000-strong UN force looked like being on the verge of collapse.

David Richards

In London, the Blair government decided this was shaping up to be a test of British commitment to the people of Sierra Leone. The Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ) at Northwood was ordered to dispatch part of its Joint Force Headquarters (JFHQ) to Freetown on 5 May to monitor events and prepare contingency plans for British intervention. An Operational Reconnaissance and Liaison Team (ORLT), led by PJHQ’s Chief Joint Force Operations Brigadier David Richards, arrived the following day and more JFHQ personnel followed soon afterwards. The JFHQ is a small, highly mobile headquarters team that is held on two days’ notice to fly anywhere in the world to co-ordinate UK intervention missions. It has enough communications equipment and supplies to run a brigade-sized operation for a couple of weeks before it has to be replaced by a better – equipped headquarters.

Richards led the British participation in the UN mission to East Timor late in 1999. He had a reputation for being very self-confident and relishing missions that apparently had little chance of success. The former Royal Artillery officer radiated optimism and was always cheerful, according to visitors to the British High Commission or embassy in Freetown during the UK intervention.

Over the weekend of 6 and 7 May, Richards sent a stream of reports to London that the rebels were within days of capturing the capital. Hundreds of UK passport holders were at risk, the government looked like it would fall and the UN troops were cowering in their bases.

Blair decided to act. PJHQ was ordered to dispatch an intervention force, initially to evacuate British passport holders, but the scope of the mission soon expanded to include supporting the Freetown government and the UN mission. Richards would command the operation from Freetown but PJHQ and Land Command turned to the newly formed 16 Brigade at Colchester to provide the initial land forces for the operation. The newly formed Joint Helicopter Command at Wilton would have to generate four Boeing Chinook HC.2 helicopters to provide the force with tactical mobility and RAF Strike Command’s No. 2 Group was tasked to get the force to Sierra Leone. This was just the type of mission 16 Brigade was designed to conduct and it would soon be held up as a ‘classic intervention’ mission. The pace of the operation was such that 16 Brigade’s headquarters would not get the chance to deploy to the West African country but several of its major units were in the thick of the action from the very start of the crisis until the autumn of 2000.

Richards’ team hunkered down in the High Commission in Freetown using its satellite communications equipment to bounce ideas back and forth to planners at Northwood during the days running up to the launch of the intervention. The plan went through numerous evolutions, as different force configurations, deployment schedules and tactical plans were considered, thrown out, modified or adapted. Central to all the planning was control of Lungi airport on a peninsula to the south of Freetown. With control of the airport, UK and UN forces could sustain themselves, bring in reinforcements and conduct evacuations of civilians. A second key requirement was securing a forward-operating base in a friendly, neighbouring country from which to mount the force. On 6 May, Senegal agreed to host the UK force and preparation ramped up considerably. Alan Jones, British Ambassador in Freetown, and Richards then got what was left of the Sierra Leone government to ‘request’ British military assistance.

Early on the morning of 5 May, the alert status of the 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment (1 PARA), had been raised and its commanders warned that they could soon be heading to Sierra Leone. It was then the UK Spearhead Lead Element, and was held at seventy-two hours’ notice to move, but the spearhead battalion was rarely mobilised for real. Spearhead duty is usually characterised by a stream of false alarms and chaotic preparations for operations that never happen. So not surprisingly, when news spread around the battalion’s Aldershot base after the Sierra Leone mission, morale rocketed. The Toms of 1 PARA began a period of frenetic activity to get themselves ready for action.

They moved to the UK’s Operational Mounting Centre at South Cerney in Wiltshire on the evening of 6 May to prepare to be loaded on board RAF aircraft in a ‘tactical configuration’. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Gibson was expecting his men to go straight into action as soon as they got off their aircraft in Freetown. On Sunday 7 May, Gibson and his battalion flew from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire in RAF Lockheed TriStars to Dakar in Senegal.

One of 1 PARA’s three rifle companies was on a training exercise in Jamaica as the crisis developed and could not get home in time, so 16 Brigade offered up a company of one of its air assault battalions, 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, to replace it. The Royal Irish company got as far as Brize Norton before Gibson declined the offer of its services. This was to be a Parachute Regiment only operation. More than 200 troops of the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, would be used to reinforce 1 PARA over the coming week.

No. 2 Group and JHC were also ramping up their preparations. Over the weekend of 6/7 May, eight RAF Hercules from 47 and 70 Squadrons took off from Lyneham bound for Dakar. Four Chinooks then left RAF Odiham early on 6 and 7 May to fly to the British forward base in Dakar, via Portugal, Gibraltar and the Canary Islands. After a brief refuelling stop, the helicopters were airborne for Freetown on 8 May to support the evacuation operation.

The first phase was the insertion into Freetown – in a classic Tactical Air Land Operation (TALO) – of C Company of 1 PARA during the evening of 7 May. Richards called them forward to Lungi airport when rumours spread of a coup d’état in Freetown. The single Hercules was packed with 102 fully armed paratroopers whose job was to seize the airport ahead of the main body. It took them two hours to fly to Freetown from Dakar and the arrival of the paratroopers caused much surprise among the hundred Nigerian UN personnel who were still nominally in control of the airport.

The following morning, Ambassador Jones formally requested the start of the evacuation operation. At 10.30 am, four Hercules carrying D Company of 1 PARA and Gibson’s Tac HQ, as well as the heavily armed troops of 16 Brigade’s Pathfinder Platoon, landed at Lungi. Just ahead of them was a pair of Chinooks flown by 7 Squadron pilots. At the High Commission in Freetown, Richards and his team were getting ready to begin evacuating up to a thousand UK passport holders and other foreign nationals from the city.

With the arrival of the Chinooks, at 7 pm Gibson started to fly his troops from the airport peninsula to reinforce the High Commission in Freetown and begin the evacuation from a UN-run assembly area. The 75-mile road into the city went through what was thought to be rebel-held territory so the Chinooks were vital to the success of this phase of the operation. The evacuees were picked up by Chinook and then shuttled to Lungi airport, from where they were transferred to Hercules and flown to Dakar. This phase of the operation received much publicity at the time and the Blair government publicly declared this was the only mission of UK forces in Sierra Leone. Blair’s spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, was reportedly worried about how the wider intervention mission would be reported by the media so he ordered the focus to be on the rescue mission.

As the evacuation was under way, Gibson’s troops were pushing in-land from Lungi airport to set up a screen of blocking positions around the capital. They were not ordered to attack the rebels, just to hold their ground and return fire if attacked. There were little more than 500 paratroopers on the ground at this time but as they moved forward through the suburbs of Freetown, the effect on the population was electric. People came out to cheer. The presence of hundreds of heavily armed British troops rallied the morale of the government and its rag-tag army. Richards told them the British were not going to leave them in the lurch. The scope of the operation now began to expand and Blair in London decided that the British troops would stay to prop up the Freetown government and help the UN.

Lungi airport was not bustling with British activity. Some twenty-one Hercules flights over two days brought in 1 PARA and its vehicles, as well as evacuating British passport holders. It had taken 1 PARA sixty-four hours from getting its first call on 5 May to having its first troops on the ground in Freetown. The paratroopers were amazed at the speed of things, which had been organised mainly through a series of telephone calls and quick verbal orders. Some veteran paratroopers were even heard praising the speed at which the RAF had managed to get its aircraft and helicopters to Freetown. They were a tough audience to please.

Two giant Antonov An-124 airlifters were chartered from the Ukraine to fly from Brize Norton to Dakar with more of 1 PARA’s vehicles on 8 May. Back in the UK, PJHQ and 16 Brigade were preparing a second wave of reinforcements. A medical detachment of the Brigade soon followed 1 PARA. A battery of 105-mm Light Guns from 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery was sent to South Cerney and a Scimitar squadron of the Household Cavalry Regiment was ordered to prepare to deploy. The RAF had no heavy-lift aircraft to carry the armoured vehicles and artillery ammunition to Africa so the Americans were asked to help. They could not provide any aircraft in time but PJHQ decided not to press the issue because a Royal Navy carrier group, centred on HMS Illustrious and a Marines amphibious task group, based around the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean with 42 Commando Royal Marines’ were only a few days’ sailing away from West Africa.

In the outskirts of Freetown, the rebel fighters of the RUF had not yet picked up fully on the fact that the British were now committed to defend the city. B Company of 1 PARA set up three blocking positions to the east of the airport and the Pathfinders moved past them to set up an early-warning post at Lungi Loi. When a group of RUF fighters approached the Pathfinder position during the night, they were engaged. The small group of British troops fired some 1,800 rounds. The rebels, many appearing to be high on drugs, could not return accurate fire and soon fled. The following morning, when the Pathfinders cleared the enemy positions, they found four dead rebels. Many more were believed to have been killed.

The impact on the rebels of this setback was profound. Their morale collapsed, just as the spirits of the government forces were raised by the arrival of the British forces. RUF troops were now in headlong retreat from the capital, with government troops in hot pursuit.

British forces continued their build-up at Lungi airport and continued to sustain a high profile around the capital to maintain civilian morale. Conditions were primitive and 1 PARA found Sierra Leone’s equatorial climate more of a challenge than the RUF. The sudden nature of the battalion’s deployment meant that it had not been able to secure enough of the right sort of anti-malaria tablets for its troops. Some twenty paratroopers and RAF pilots contracted the tropical disease.

By the end of the month, the Royal Marines had arrived off the coast and the hand-over with 1 PARA took place on 28 May. The RAF then flew the battalion back to the UK via Dakar. The operation was hailed as a great success. For no loss of UK life, 1 PARA had successfully stabilised a dangerous situation and contributed to the rout of the rebels.

Britain’s involvement in Sierre Leone was only just beginning. The RAF Chinook detachment remained and the British government decided to deploy a strong training team to build up the Sierra Leone army.

On 10 July, the RAF Chinooks took part in a daring mission to lift Indian Special Forces to relieve an Indian UN garrison, which had been under siege for several weeks in the interior of Sierre Leone

The 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, got its chance to deploy to Sierra Leone in the summer of 2000. It was tasked with establishing three company-sized groups of soldiers to act as training teams to the Sierra Leone army. The ‘training teams’ would be very different from other such missions in that they would be deployed as formed units that would be able to fight their way out of trouble in a crisis. Trouble soon found the Royal Irish.

By August, the RUF had evaporated after its apparent non-stop stream of set-backs but the interior of the country was still dominated by heavily armed militia groups of very shifting loyalty. One such group was known as the West Side Boys (WSBs), which had supported the government during the fighting with the RUF earlier in the year. The Royal Irish mounted regular vehicle patrols around Freetown to gather intelligence and try to establish some sort of contact with these militia groups.

On one such mission, an eleven-strong patrol was surrounded and captured by the WSBs. The soldiers were held hostage in a jungle camp, while the WSB leadership tried to negotiate with the British government. As these talks were going on, the British were preparing a rescue plan. A large contingent of Special Forces was moved in conditions of great secrecy to Freetown and was reinforced by A Company of 1 PARA. When the negotiations collapsed, the Special Forces were ordered to attack in order to rescue the hostages early on the morning of 10 September 2000.

The SAS and SBS rescue force was landed by Chinook and Lynx AH.7 on top of the village, while the paratroopers were landed at a nearby village to block any WSB escape routes. As soon as the first helicopters landed, a fierce firefight broke out. The hostages were soon freed but one SAS man was killed. Outside the main village, A Company were soon trading fire with rebels and the company commander and platoon commander were injured after British 81-mm mortar rounds detonated prematurely after hitting the jungle canopy.

One of the Chinook pilots afterwards told RAF News:

The fundamental key to the success of the operation was that the two-pronged assaults on the north and south camps had to be simultaneous. The Chinook was literally crammed full of paratroopers, all apparently totally focused on what they had to do, despite being in the unenviable position of having no control over their destiny while on board the aircraft. Approaching the target, we could see the enemy tracer being fired towards the aircraft. Fortunately, the Army Lynx did a superb job of suppressing the enemy positions, although seeing tracer passing above us did make us contemplate exactly what we were letting ourselves in for. The landing site turned out to be a waist-high swamp. Therefore after we lifted, we returned fire onto the enemy positions with the M-134 mini-gun, which firing at 4,000 rounds a minute, had a devastating effect.

The SAS neutralised all resistance in the village and the paratroopers helped clean up the objectives after the operation. The now-liberated British vehicles were under-slung under Chinooks to be returned to their rightful owners.

Although Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone did not directly involve the Brigade headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade, many of its major units were involved. The operation was a classic example of the type of rapid intervention mission that 16 Brigade, and other elements of the Joint Rapid Reaction Force, was formed to undertake. The combination of lightly equipped paratroopers, helicopters and air transport worked well, but some in the Armed Forces worried that British forces did not really face a first-class opponent in Sierra Leone. Many British soldiers were worried that they still lacked many items of battle-winning equipment that would make the difference against more determined and better-armed opponents.

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