Colonel Clive Fairweather: Soldier who went from the SAS to inspector of Scottish prisons


Although he did not himself abseil into the occupied Iranian embassy in London in May 1980, Clive Fairweather, at the time a 35-year-old major in the Special Air Service, had helped plan the dramatic raid codenamed Operation Nimrod.

As deputy in the unit 22 SAS to the overall commander, Lt-Col Mike Rose, Fairweather was in a tactical headquarters near the embassy in Prince's Gate, close to Hyde Park, and had briefed the black-clad SAS team on how to assault the embassy from front and back. Among his men was his close friend and fellow Scot, John McAleese (Independent obituary 30 August 2011).

The embassy had been taken over by a group claiming to want independence for the Iranian province of Khuzestan but Fairweather and others were always convinced they had been financed by Saddam Hussein. His previous SAS operations – in the Middle East and Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles – had been dangerous but discreet. Those 17 minutes on a May day in 1980, however, carried live on television, turned the SAS from a shadowy "we were never there" unit into national heroes. Their motto "Who Dares Wins" entered the national lexicon and arguably encouraged Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had given the green light for the embassy assault, to take on the Argentinian invaders in the Falklands two years later.

The speed with which the embassy occupiers were dispatched – one of the six survived – led to widespread comment that Thatcher had declared "no prisoners". One of the SAS assault team anonymously leaked that they had received a direct, verbal message from Thatcher: "The message was that we had to resolve the situation and there was to be no chance of failure, and that the hostages absolutely had to be protected. The Prime Minister did not want an ongoing problem beyond the embassy – which we took to mean that they didn't want anybody coming out alive. No surviving terrorists."

Fairweather later denied any "bloodthirsty" motive: "The Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, issued everyone with a clear set of orders, that we had to play it long, that the rule of law must prevail ... That the police must be in charge and that only minimum force could be used ... His last instruction was that no terrorists were to leave the country ... people thought the message from Thatcher was 'waste them', but ... the message was to rescue the hostages, not kill terrorists."

Also on Fairweather's CV was responsibility for guarding Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess in Berlin's Spandau prison. During the 1980s, Fairweather became Commanding Officer of the Scottish Infantry Depot in Glencorse, outside Edinburgh, where he first hit media attention when he had to deal with the murder of three soldiers. Corporal Andrew Walker shot his three comrades while they were on a security mission to carry cash to a bank in Penicuik, and Fairweather had his first experience dealing with the media – something he would develop, with charm and mutual respect.

In the late 1980s he was Commanding Officer of 1st King's Own Scottish Borderers, later Colonel of the Scottish Division, where he played an outspoken role during the amalgamations of Scottish regiments. His last job was as military security officer for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a key job in these days of terrorist threats.

Fairweather went on to become Her Majesty's Inspector for Prisons in Scotland from 1994 to 2002, winning a reputation for fighting for prison reform, for better conditions, better treatment for women prisoners, and not least for alternatives to prison, especially for young offenders – including the Airborne Initiative, providing alternatives to prison for offenders from 16-25. He was deeply hurt when the programme closed in 2004 largely due to lack of funding from the devolved Scottish government. In retirement he was a passionate campaigner and fund-raiser on the issue of combat stress. He often said it was a miracle he did not suffer.

Clive Bruce Fairweather was born in Edinburgh in 1944 and attended George Heriot's School, whose headmaster "asked me to leave early for the sake of staff and pupils." He was a fine pianist and planned to be a musician before deciding on the military. He joined the Territorial Army, gained his wings as a paratrooper in the 15th (Scottish) Parachute Regiment, trained at Sandhurst from 1962-64 and was commissioned into the King's Own Scottish Borderers soon after his 20th birthday. He was proud to take part as a guard at Winston Churchill's funeral in London in 1965.

After serving with the KOSB in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Borneo, he joined the SAS in 1968, one of four of 42 to pass the gruelling tests. As a captain he was involved in discreet Middle Eastern operations – Sharjah, Iran, Dhofar and Oman – and served as a security adviser to the Shah of Iran and King of Jordan. In the mountains of Dhofar, in Oman, he trained and commanded a group of guerrillas called firquat warriors. According to an old journalist friend, Ian Bruce, Fairweather and his men called the guerrillas "the Freds." They called him "Shams" (the Shining One) because of his unruly mop of fair hair.

According to Bruce, Fairweather once showed the ragtag guerrillas the film Zulu. They fired their guns in the air in delight. But their leader came to Fairweather – presumably unshaven, unkempt, trying to look local and covered in sand – and said: "Shams, the men want to know how you can be a proper British officer when you no have red tunic and white helmet?"

Promoted to Major, Fairweather served in Northern Ireland, where he was wounded by an IRA booby-trap bomb. He also investigated the 1977 murder by the IRA of the British army captain Robert Nairac, who had been working undercover with the SAS In 1979 he was appointed second-in-command to Mike Rose.

After serving as prisons inspector, Fairweather became chief fund-raiser for the charity Combat Stress. Bruce recalled meeting him "over many laughter-filled lunches at the Doric in Edinburgh and the Press Bar in Glasgow. Old habits died hard and every time we entered the bar, he would automatically and unconsciously occupy the 'gunfighter's seat', the chair in the far corner facing the door so he could see everyone entering."

In retirement he was an impressive pianist, a keen glider pilot, grouse shooter and fell runner. He died four months after an inoperable brain tumour was found.

Phil Davison

Clive Fairweather, SAS officer and HM Prisons Inspector: born Edinburgh 21 May 1944; OBE 1990, CBE 2002; married 1980 Ann Dexter (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter); died Edinburgh 12 October 2012.