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One Man’s Hero, Another’s Terrorist

Special Forces Heroes
 by Michael Ashcroft (foreword by Andy McNab)
Headline Review 2009
 Reviewed by SARAH CHANDLER

bookWhile Michael (Lord) Ashcroft’s book focuses solely on the daring deeds of about forty British special forces personnel, it will perhaps be of interest to some New Zealanders in view of NZ SAS Corporal Willie Apiata’s Victoria Cross award in 2007 and John Key’s recent confirmation that 70 NZ SAS troops will deploy to Afghanistan over the next 18 months. Consonant with standard practice, Key has made no comment on the operational aspects of the SAS deployment, and while recent books such as Apiata’s biography and Ron Crosby’s NZSAS: The first fifty years have shed some light on the activities of the special air service, an air of intrigue will no doubt continue to surround the workings of these elite forces.

We do know some things about the SAS; their universal motto is ‘Who Dares Wins’. Its members are subject to a rigorous selection and training process to ensure they become flexible, professional soldiers who can both follow orders and use their own initiative. Operating in small groups, they work in tough physical conditions and are competent in weapons, orienteering, surveillance, close combat, amphibious operations and demolition work. Their training equips them to work undercover and they’re particularly good at sneaking around behind enemy lines, countering terrorists and dealing with hostage situations. They wear a lot of black. The nature of their work means details about their activities is necessarily scant.

Not entirely unlike the SAS, Lord Ashcroft, the book’s author, arouses a degree of curiosity himself. He’s the billionaire Deputy Chairman of the Tory Party, but also a citizen of Belize, the central American country from which he runs some of his many business enterprises. He is said to own the country’s bank. Ashcroft started up UK Crimestoppers, an anonymous tip-off phone line that provides information to police. He describes himself as a businessman, politician and philanthropist with a lifelong fascination with bravery.

Ashcroft is also believed to possess the world’s largest private collection of gallantry medals. In 2006, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross, he wrote Victoria Cross Heroes, the forerunner to this book. Indeed, Ashcroft is so passionate about war medals, he put up an estimated $200,000 for the secure return of the 96 stolen medals from Waiouru Museum in December 2007.

Of the two types of valor he identifies in the book; “spur of the moment, and cold courage”, Ashcroft says he is most interested in the latter. By interviewing the various medal recipients and/or drawing from their memoirs or biographies, Ashcroft links the men to the medals and to the deeds for which they earned them, charting a series of special operations from the Crimean war through to the war on Iraq. (The origins of SAS operations actually lie in the second world war but Ashcroft goes as far back as the Crimean war, arguing that commando style soldiering was alive and well as early as the mid nineteenth century). At about 400 pages, the book covers SAS ops during the second world war, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, The Falkland Islands, and the assault on the Lufthansa Flight LH181, hijacked by Palestinian terrorists in 1977.

Of the various accounts in the book, I found most interesting Ashcroft’s description of Operation Nimrod, the SAS response to the siege of the Iranian Embassy in London’s diplomatic quarter in April 1980. At 16 Prince’s Gate, twenty-six people, mostly Iranian, were taken hostage for several days by six heavily armed terrorists seeking the liberation of the region of Khuzestan from Iran. Among the four British hostages was the then BBC journalist Chris Cramer, who was freed on the second day of the siege after experiencing a recurrence of the dysentery he’d contracted in Ethiopia. Speaking at a conference on war reporting at Massey University this year, Cramer recalled the immense trauma the incident later caused him, but which took some time to reveal itself.

The role the SAS played in successfully freeing the remaining hostages and killing all but one of the terrorists earned the British SAS instant celebrity and widespread admiration, not least because the 17 minute special operation at the embassy was televised. In a lighter moment in the book, one of the soldiers recalls that on the evening the siege ended, SAS personnel involved in the raid were having a few victory beers at Regents Barracks when Margaret Thatcher and her husband Denis unexpectedly popped in to congratulate them. As they sat around watching the events of the day unfold on the television news, the Prime Minister inadvertently blocked the view of some of the men: “McAleese, without thinking, shouted ‘fucking sit down Maggie, we can’t see’. Mrs Thatcher … in the knowledge that she was in a tough, non-nonsense male dominated environment, simply did as she was told and sat cross-legged on the floor”.

All royalties from Special Force Heroes will be donated to the Help for Heroes charity which provides support for servicemen and women injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Sarah Chandlerl is a writer with the Defence Communications Group