Microphones were drilled into the embassy walls; commercial aircraft flying
overhead were ordered to travel at lower altitudes, to drown out any
suspicious noises caused by the preparations for an assault.
Meanwhile, the soldiers studied long-lens photographs, taken through the
embassy windows, of the hostages in the hope that they would be able to
distinguish them from their captors.
Then, on the evening of May 5, a team led by McAleese stormed the building.
The assault had been ordered by the Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, after
the terrorists killed a hostage and threw his body outside the building.
For the first time, an SAS operation was shown live on television as both ITV
and the BBC (which interrupted its coverage of the final of the world
snooker championships) broadcast footage of black-clad troops in balaclavas
— among them McAleese — abseiling down ropes on to the balconies on the
first floor of the embassy, where it was thought that most of the hostages
were being held.
In order to disorientate the terrorists, the SAS first exploded a so-called
“distraction” charge, which they had lowered through a skylight.
The front window of the room were blown out by McAleese and CS gas canisters
fired in through the gap. The soldiers then stormed in amid a hail of
The raid lasted 17 minutes. All but one of the hostages were rescued. Five of
the terrorists were killed; the only one to survive, Fowzi Nejad, was sent
to prison — he was released in 2008.
Returning after the assault to their temporary London quarters at Regent’s
Park Barracks, the SAS team was visited by the Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher, who told them: “Makes us proud to be British.” McAleese later
said: “We knew what our mission was — it was to release the hostages. My
only job at this point is to get on to the balcony, place the charge, get
back, blow it, turn around and go back in through the window.”
John McAleese was a Scot, originally from Laurieston, in Stirlingshire, and
served in the Army for 23 years, including 17 in the SAS. He was awarded a
Military Medal in 1988 for his service in Northern Ireland. After leaving,
he worked as a security consultant in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had a brief
media career as a host of the 2003 BBC series SAS: Are You Tough Enough?, a
documentary in which members of the public experienced the proverbially
gruelling SAS selection process.
He also acted as an instructor in Airsoft, the outdoor game which offers
people a taste of what it is like to experience battle conditions.
Participants dressed in combat gear and carrying real weapons (loaded with
plastic BB pellets) mimic close-quarter modern infantry fighting.
McAleese said: “You might as well make it realistic. People read books about
this SAS stuff and now they can do something similar.”
The last two years of McAleese’s life were marked by the death of his son,
29-year-old Sergeant Paul McAleese, who was serving in the 2nd Battalion the
Rifles and hoped to join the special forces like his father before him. Paul
was killed by an explosion in Afghanistan on August 20 2009 while attempting
to rescue a wounded comrade.
After his son’s death, John McAleese appealed to the Prime Minister Gordon
Brown for better resources for the troops serving in Helmand province. He
said that his son had complained that there were not enough troops in
Afghanistan to monitor areas for explosive devices.
John McAleese, who died in Thessaloniki, Greece, is thought to have suffered a
As well as his son Paul, he had a daughter with his first wife. He also had a
daughter and a son by his second marriage.