The SAS – Peterhead Prison

In parallel with adapting its role to a changed world overseas, the SAS found itself in some unexpected situations in the UK. One such was the Peterhead Prison siege in Scotland in October 1987. It was to lead to a rescue remarkable even by SAS standards.

Fifty dangerous prisoners, some serving long sentences for multiple murder and rape – men with nothing to lose – seized control of the prison’s ‘D’ Block. Once they had got the riot out of their system, the majority gave themselves up, but a hard core of four or five men continued to resist. They held as hostage a 56-year-old prison officer with one kidney who needed drugs and medical attention to stabilise his condition. His worsening state, day by day, put the authorities under unenviable pressure.

The hard core group retreated into the roof space high in one corner of the building and roosted behind barricades, threatening to cut their hostage’s throat if any attempt was made to take them. With regular rooftop performances they could ensure that their appeal to television and microphone would give them an audience beyond the prison governor.  The stalemate continued for almost a week, during which the prison authorities invoked the help of Grampian Police.  The police adopted a gradualist approach, their special reaction team armed with all that was necessary, remaining one side of the barricade, the prison rebels the other, constantly watched through fibre-optic lenses and other special security equipment.

During the proceeding months, there had been a series of prison disturbances in Scotland. The Peterhead stand-off, however, was dragging on a little too long. The stalemate might make sense on the spot but not in the larger world outside, particularly in Whitehall and Downing Street. After urgent talks between the Scottish Office, headed by Malcolm Rifkind and the Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, another two-man advisory team was sent at police request from Hereford. The men set off by helicopter at about 10pm and arrived at the prison in the early hours of the following morning. Their remit was not to break the siege directly but to offer advice to the civil authorities and the local police force. The police believed that the task was one for the SAS. Their legal right to seek military assistance was copper-bottomed. Under the rules laid down for Military Aid to the Civil Power (MAC-P) a soldier breaks the law if he refuses to aid the civil police when they ask him to help. More generally, police forces know that they have the right to call on military power via the Whitehall bureaucracy if order breaks down to a point where they cannot control it.

The use of military power – with its implication of military firepower- within the realm, directed against British citizens has been an emotive topic for years. It still conjures up memories of 1911, when Home Secretary Winston Churchill used the Scots Guards with Maxim gun to suppress armed anarchists in London’s East End; after which the Worcester Regiment opened fire on rioting rail strikers in Wales and 50,000 troops prepared to move on London or Liverpool, where three warships were also brought to bear from the Mersey.

In the great French student revolution of 1968 known as ‘Les Evenements’ rioters controlled much of Paris until the CRS riot squads used CS gas to clear the streets. The British view has always been that aside from Northern Ireland, resort to such a high profile of official force is alien and politically dangerous.

As a result, Britain does not have the benefits of a ‘Third Force’ specialising in civil commotion which goes beyond normal police control, yet falls short of armed insurrection.  The only military team with experience of precisely targeted violence available at the time of Peterhead, and for long afterwards, was the SAS. British police forces, although armed with CS by 1987, were unready to use it in an enclosed space or at all, if possible.

One of the SAS Regiment’s most enduring characteristics is its lack of inhibition about going for the heart of a problem without agonising. Peterhead was a task for a small, swift snatch squad using the weapons of surprise and speed plus a puff or two of CS (technically smoke rather than gas) to keep the opposition subdued during the few minutes required to retrieve the hostage.

The prisoners’ prisoner, the advisory team noted, was the only bargaining chip left to a tiny handful of rioters still holding out in an area under continuous electronic surveillance.  While the discussions continued, the SAS advisers arranged for carefully calculated explosive charges to be attached to various entry points into the wing. There was no need to make a hole in the roof. The prisoners had done that themselves as a way of reaching their television audience. The main assault line proposed by the adviser would require balance and cool nerve: it involved an exit through a skylight, a rope-assisted descent down a steeply pitched roof to a rain gutter followed by a walk of some yards, in the dark, un-roped, with a drop of around 80 feet to the yard below if anything went wrong. This was perceived by the SAS team as an entirely normal procedure; the police were not convinced.

There were more negotiations through the government’s crisis management group, COBRE, in London with the Director of Special Forces, an SAS brigadier. Five days into the crisis, late on into the night of Friday 2 October, a regimental response team flew by Hercules to an airhead some miles from the prison. They brought their standard weapons – HK MP5 sub-machine-guns and Browning pistols – though this was not a task for which firearms would be needed. Their adviser, already on the scene, had arranged for a supply of police staves around 4 feet long instead.

It was well after midnight when the aircraft touched down north of Aberdeen. First light was only a few hours away and the unblinking gaze of television would then resume. The condition of the hostage was getting no better. Somehow, the rescue squad had to be inserted into the prison unobserved; break the deadlock, achieve a clean rescue and get out, still unseen by media and prisoners, by dawn.

The team first moved from the airhead by prison bus to the prison gymnasium. It was 4am. There were two hours of darkness left. From London, COBRE had given final assent to an SAS operation. They were now committed.  Briefings were pared down to essential details. The snatch squad of four men would make the hazardous journey from skylight to prisoners’ roof-hole, by way of the gutter. Back-up teams would blast a way into the floors below on each side of the building and follow through to close any escape route.  Once rescued, the hostage would be brought out to the care of a reception party, which included a resuscitation team.  Another group would receive the surrendering prisoners with handcuffs.

At around 5am, wearing CS masks and armed with their staves, the four-man assault team eased open the skylight and hauled themselves outward. It was a slippery, wet sort of morning to be on the tiles, or slates, of a Scottish prison. To walk the length of the gutter in the dark, with vision dangerously limited by a gas mask demanded a superhuman balance.  With the ‘good, solid Victorian’ gutter creaking slightly under his rubber boots, the point man moved gently forward, aware that if things went wrong at this stage he could find himself dangling, like Buster Keaton, on the end of a very precarious hold indeed. Yet things were OK, he assured himself. He was nearly at the prisoners’ hole now.

Things were not entirely OK. Across the yard to the right, the prison’s B Block held several hundred men – and not all of them were sleeping. ‘Watch out, lads! They’re coming after you!’

The voice that bellowed across the echoing space between the two buildings was one of the prisoners who had, in all probability, given himself up earlier in the siege. Before the lights could come on, before other voices joined the clamour, the SAS point man had reached the hole. So too, almost at the same moment, did one of the prisoners. The soldier thrust the ‘flash-bang’ stun grenade into the space separating them and as the prisoner staggered back, the soldier followed it up with a smouldering CS cartridge, then swung his legs over the void and dropped inside.  One man threw a punch before the CS got to him. Soon those inside the roof were coughing and spluttering uncontrollably, eyes streaming. Small explosive charges around the building swept aside the barricades and announced the arrival of the follow-through teams.

The first of the rescue squad, who had tested the walk along the gutter, was back on the roof by now, hauling the hostage out to the clean air. He then half-carried, half-dragged the prison officer along the gutter to the point where the skylight rope crossed it. The rescued man, weakened by his ordeal as well as illness, was in no condition to get himself up the rope. He was dragged up the last stage of his uncomfortable road to freedom by the same SAS soldier who had brought him this far.  As at Princes Gate, the rest were propelled along a line of soldiers.

‘Move! Move!’

CS smoke was oozing round the rest of the wing now, tickling eyeballs and throats beyond the immediate combat zone, reviving memories, perhaps, of hard nights in Ballymurphy and Whiterock. But a prison officer’s life had been saved and his captors restrained without loss of life or serious injury. This was not 1911, after all. Just five months before the furore at Gibraltar, this was a singularly neat example of the use of minimum force, without firearms, to resolve what was, in SAS eyes, a simple problem. The job had taken just six minutes from the moment the first soldier slipped through the skylight to the moment when the hostage, his face marked with cuts, was reunited with his family in a secure, guarded area. A few legal formalities – Scottish legal formalities, this time – had to be observed. Statements were given to the police, explaining, justifying what was done and how. The soldiers slipped away to their bus and their waiting C130 after just ninety minutes on Scottish soil. Even for Scots on the team, it was long enough – given the circumstances. They were home in Hereford in time for a second breakfast, in time to hear all about it on the morning radio news.