How British special operators defied their bosses to rescue 2 comrades captured on a secretive mission in Iraq

40 Commando British Royal Marines in Basra Iraq
Members of 40 Commando Royal Marines on patrol in Abu Al Khasib, a suburb of Basra, March 31, 2003.

  • In September 2005, British special-operations forces in Basra faced a problem.
  • Two of their own had been captured during an undercover operation, and their lives were in peril.
  • In addition to hostile Iraqis, British SAS troops had to overcome reluctant commanders in order to save their comrades.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In September 2005, British special-operations forces found themselves facing a problem.

Two of their own had been captured and beaten by local Iraqi police during an undercover operation in Basra, and their lives were hanging by a thread.

The operators were members of the famed Special Air Service (SAS) – the British equivalent of the US Army’s Delta Force – and had been part of a surveillance operation targeting the police and their commander, suspected of rampant corruption.

Coalition intelligence also suspected the Iraqi police chief was working with insurgents, particularly the brutal Mahdi Army, a Shia militia organization supported by Iran.

The Shia insurgents had no love for the British. SAS, Special Boat Service (SBS), and Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) commandos had been targeting them in a nonstop for months as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.

That meant there was little room for negotiation. Other US or Coalition troops who had been captured by insurgents had been tortured and killed. If not rescued immediately, the two SAS operators faced the same agonizing fate.

An operation gone south

A British soldier jumps from a burning tank
A British soldier jumps from a tank set ablaze after a shooting incident in southern Iraq city of Basra, September 19, 2005.

The two operators, a sergeant and a lance corporal, were using a light disguise to better blend in to the environment.

As they were finishing their surveillance mission, they were compromised by some plainclothes Iraqi policemen. A scuffle ensued, and the British commandos fired their weapons, wounding some Iraqi policemen.

The two British commandos tried to escape, relying on their “native” garb for protection.

“I always thought as soon as I spoke to someone, they would realize I was British. But we had fake tan, hair dye – I was even driving an Iraqi taxi – because we were trying our best to fit in,” one of the captives, Sgt. Colin Maclachlan, said years later.

Maclachlan spent seven years in the SAS, serving in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone, where he was involved in the rescue of British troops held hostage in September 2000.

As they were leaving the area, they came upon an Iraqi police checkpoint and decided to try to talk their way out of an increasingly bad situation, but to no avail.

With an angered mob gathering, the Iraqi policemen handcuffed the SAS troopers and took them to the Al-Jamiat police station.

Screw the brass

Iraqis protest a British raid in Basra
Iraqi police and civilians demonstrate against a British raid which freed two undercover soldiers, in the southern city of Basra September 21, 2005.

The team to which the SAS operators belonged was too small to launch a rescue on its own, so they requested urgent reinforcements from Baghdad, where the main SAS contingent had its headquarters in the Green Zone, right next to Delta Force.

As the SAS commandos were preparing to rescue their own, the officer-in-charge received a call from the UK, ordering him to stand down any rescue attempts. The SAS operators, including the unit’s commanding officer, were dumbfounded.

The bureaucrats in London had also been taken by surprise and were slow to react. The political situation in the recently liberated Iraq was precarious. A complicated insurgency made up of terrorist groups and Sunni and Shia militias was threatening to destroy the very fabric of Iraqi society.

This political quagmire was the only rational reason for the senior leadership’s hesitation to rescue their own.

However reasoned that decision was, it was unacceptable for the SAS, whose leaders decided to disobey orders in this critical moment, risking court-martial to save their own.

An Iraqi boy taunts British soldiers in Basra Iraq
An Iraqi boy taunts British soldiers after a shooting incident in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, September 19, 2005.

Meanwhile, the situation inside the police station was deteriorating. The Iraqi policemen issued a statement, accusing the two British commandos of subversion, and published pictures of the operators looking harangued and beaten.

The Iraqis also put the British commandos through several mock executions.

“They had a pistol up against the back of my head, then there would be a click. There was lots of shouting, but I couldn’t really tell what they were saying. They were going to execute us,” Maclachlan told The Scotsman in 2009.

An assault troop of 20 SAS operators from A Squadron and roughly 40 paratroopers from the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) flew to Basra. (SFSG is a specialist unit designed to support other British special-operations forces.)

“I was keeping myself mentally alert and I still had faith in my SAS colleagues coming to get me though. But being at the sharp end of this incident, I had no idea about the hoo-hah which went on,” Maclachlan said.

As reinforcements were en route, the British military sent in a mechanized infantry company to try and negotiate the release of the two commandos. That effort failed, and those regular troops had to evacuate after a mob of Iraqis attacked them with stones and Molotov cocktails, setting one armored personnel carrier ablaze and lightly wounding several British soldiers.

The situation was getting worse by the hour.

‘Who dares wins’

A British military helicopter lands in Basra Iraq
A British military helicopter lands near the scene of an incident between Iraqis and British soldiers in the southern city of Basra, September 19, 2005.

With the reinforcements in Basra, the SAS launched another rescue attempt with helicopter and mechanized infantry support.

They stormed the Al-Jamiat police station, rolled over the wall surrounding the compound, assaulted the building, and took the Iraqis by surprise. But their colleagues had already been moved.

During an impromptu interrogation, Iraqi policemen revealed that the two SAS captives had been taken to a nearby compound. The ground force regrouped and made up another assault plan on the fly.

Once they reached the compound, they stormed the building through numerous entry points, a classic hostage-rescue tactic meant to disorient the captors and prevent them from killing the hostages.

At first the rescue force couldn’t find the captive SAS troopers and feared they had been moved again. But in another sweep of the compound, the task force found the two SAS operators handcuffed in a bathroom – beaten and disheveled but alive.

On that September day, the SAS leadership took a great risk, mutinying to save their colleagues. But it was a calculated risk that paid off. British political and military leadership gave post facto permission for the rescue attempt. The SAS lived their motto: “Who Dares Wins.”

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