John McAleese led the black-clad SAS team which blew its way into the Iranian embassy in London's South Kensington, overlooking Hyde Park, on 5 May 1980 to free hostages held by an Iranian terrorist group. The dramatic assault, broadcast live on TV in what became iconic images, turned the SAS overnight from a shadowy, secretive regiment to one with national and international hero status.
It took only 17 minutes for Lance Corporal McAleese and his men to break in, secure the remaining 19 hostages and kill five of the six terrorists without the niceties of asking questions. Thereafter, McAleese, unmistakable with his chiselled features, Zapata moustache and lowland Scots accent, served in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and Bosnia before appearing in documentaries and TV shows including SAS: Are You Tough Enough?
Six members of a separatist group from the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan – which they called Arabistan – had taken over their country's embassy at 16 Princes Gate, South Kensington, at 11.30am on 30 April. Armed with submachine guns, Browning 9mm pistols and Russian-made hand grenades, they initially held 26 hostages, including police constable Trevor Lock, who had been on duty outside the embassy, and two BBC employees, who had been applying for visas for Iran. Ostensibly, the gunmen were demanding independence for Khuzestan and the release of around 90 of their provincial countrymen from jail. But essentially they were attacking the year-old Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and were reported to have had the backing of Khomeini's arch-enemy, the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Their leader, known as Oan, immediately announced that if their demands were not met by noon the following day, 1 May, "the embassy and all the hostages will be blown up." Needless to say, British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was not for negotiating with terrorists and the white-fronted five-storey embassy building became the scene of a tense stand-off for several days, surrounded by armed police.
Meanwhile, McAleese and his on-call unit from Pagoda Troop, B Squadron, 22 SAS Regiment set up headquarters at an army barracks in Regent's Park and prepared what they codenamed Operation Nimrod – a contingency plan for an assault on the embassy. Some of them took over the Royal School of Needlework, on the same block, to use it as a model since its layout was identical to that of the embassy.
The gunmen released five hostages in return for minor concessions, but any hope of a peaceful outcome ended at 7pm on 5 May when they shoved the body of the Iranian press attaché Abbas Lavasani out of the front door. Oan, who had apparently shot Lavasani, said a hostage would be killed every half an hour if their demands were not met.
That was it. Thatcher immediately gave her Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, the green light to send in the SAS. McAleese and his men were ready – Red Team on the roof, and Blue Team, including himself, in an adjoining building, No 15, home of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
At 7.23pm, eight men from Red Team, all in black overalls, black balaclavas and gas masks, began abseiling from the embassy roof down to its back windows. At 7.26pm, McAleese, carrying a Heckler & Koch MP5 assault rifle, could be seen on live TV on a front balcony of 15 Princes Gate with a few men from Blue Team. As he jumped on to a balcony of the embassy itself, his all-black outfit stood out dramatically against the white of the building. Millions watched the drama unfold on TV – with those on the BBC having coverage of the final of the world snooker championships interrupted. The man in black blew up a window and burst in. The explosion was also the signal for the abseil team at the back to storm in shooting.
By 7.40pm, one hostage had been killed in the crossfire, the others rescued unharmed, five of the terrorists killed and one, Fowzi Nejad, captured alive. He was sentenced to life in prison but freed in 2008.
In a 2008 documentary on Channel Five, McAleese said: "We knew what those guys were like. They kill people. They'd killed others. They're baddies. They were on our home soil and it was like they were the invaders. My only job at this point was to get on to the balcony, place the charge, get back, blow it, turn around and go back in through the window." Describing how he took out one terrorist who had been holding a grenade, he memorably said, in the best thriller writer's fashion: "I could tell by the look on his face he knew he was dead."
John McAleese was born in Stirling in 1949 and brought up in Laurieston, outside Falkirk. He signed up for 59 Independent Commando, Royal Engineers, when he was 20, serving for five years before being accepted by the SAS and moving to Hereford in 1975.
After the embassy siege, he served in the Falklands in 1982 and later in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Unlike the embassy drama, little was known of his role in those latter conflicts, but he was awarded the Military Medal in 1988 for his work in Northern Ireland. He was discharged from the army on 8 February 1992.
Unlike some of his SAS comrades, including the authors with the noms de plume Andy McNab and Chris Ryan, McAleese was anything but shy about using his real name. On civvy street, still with the trademark moustache, he hosted the 2003 BBC series SAS: Are You Tough Enough? in which civilian SAS wannabes from all walks of life had a go at the regiment's tough training and selection process.
He also worked as a security consultant in Iraq and Afghanistan and as an instructor in Airsoft, an outdoor war game using realistic weapons but non-lethal ammunition. For a time, he also ran a pub in Herefordshire.
Two years ago this month, his eldest son, 29-year-old Sergeant Paul McAleese of 2 Battalion The Rifles, who had also hoped to join the SAS, was killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He had gone to help a comrade after an earlier bomb. According to Paul's sister – John McAleese's elder daughter, Hayley – the former SAS man never got over his son's death. "He was a very hard man but losing Paul broke his heart," she said. "He had a broken heart and ultimately it was his heart that took him."
After Paul was repatriated via Wootton Bassett, "Big Mac", as he was always known, accused then Prime Minister Gordon Brown of not providing enough troops or resources in Afghanistan. McAleese said that his son had told him that British forces needed more men to deal with explosive devices. He moved to Greece to get away from the memories and got a job as a security guard in Thessaloniki, where he died of an apparent heart attack, aged 61.
John McAleese is survived by his second wife, by his daughter Hayley from his first marriage, and his son Kieran and daughter Jessica from his second marriage.
John McAleese, Special Forces soldier: born Stirling 1949; married twice (one son, two daughters, one son deceased); died Thessaloniki, Greece 26 August 2011.