Operation Barras

By the 5th of September, the British press were speculating that an operation would be launched to free the remaining hostages and reported the next day that British forces had arrived in Sierra Leone. The interest surrounding the arrival of the Paras allowed D Squadron, 22 SAS with SBS support to enter the country without notice.

The SAS team established a base at Hastings, a village 30 miles south of Freetown and were joined by the 130 Paras of A Company. At Hastings, the Paras began live firing exercises and rehearsed various scenarios in a scale replica of Magbeni which had been constructed at the camp. This also gave an opportunity for them to acclimatise to the tropical heat and led commanders to the decision that the Paras would go into battle with minimal equipment to reduce the risk of heat exhaustion, excluding weapons and ammunition, they would carry only water and field dressings.

On the 9th of September, the rebels announced that the remaining 6 members of the Royal Irish, who had now been held for over a fortnight, would only be released after a new government was formed in Sierra Leone. On the same day, the SAS/SBS team near the West Side Boys base reported that they had seen no sign of the captives for the last four days. British commanders decided that an assault would be made at first light the next day. The two villagers were to be attacked simultaneously, the SAS and SBS to take Gberi Bana where the hostages were held and the Paras to attack Magbeni and prevent the rebels there from coming to the aid of those across the creek. The SAS were also tasked with the extraction of Lieutenant Musa Bangura, an SLA liaison officer attached to the original patrol, plus a number of Sierra Leone civilians who were being held by the West Side Boys.

The task force left Hastings and flew towards the rebel base, then stayed in a holding position to give the SAS observation teams time to get into position to prevent the West Side Boys from attacking any of the hostages before the extraction teams could land.

Once this had been achieved, the helicopters proceeded up the line of Rokel Creek, flying low enough that the downdraft tore the corrugated tin roofs off many of the huts in the village including the one holding the hostages. As the Chinooks approached, the SAS observation teams opened fire on the base while attack helicopters strafed the area of both villages.

Over Gberi Bana, the SAS/SBS assault fast roped to the ground and immediately came under fire from the West Side Boys, one bullet hitting Trooper Bradley Tinnion in the chest leaving him seriously wounded. He was dragged back to a helicopter by his comrades and flown to the RFA Sir Percival stationed off the coast, but died en route.

The SAS fought their way through the village, crushing all resistance and capturing those who surrendered, including the leader, Fodey Kallay. The hostages identified themselves by shouting “British Army!, British Army!” and were collected up and evacuated, but it proved more difficult to locate Lieutenant Bangura. He was found in a squalid open pit which had been used by the rebels as a lavatory and had been beaten and starved during his captivity. In less than 20 minutes after the arrival of the SAS, the hostages were evacuated from the area.

The rebel prisoners and bodies were airlifted to the Jordanian UNAMSIL base where the bodies were to be identified and buried. Those prisoners identified as West Side Boys were to be handed over to the Sierra Leone government. The rescued civilians were also taken to the base for identification.

While Gberi Bana was being attacked, the third Chinook carrying part of the Para force arrived over Magbeni, hovering low as the Paras jumped from the tail ramp. They had been warned by the observation teams that the ground was wet, but found themselves jumping into a chest deep swamp. They quickly waded out and gained the cover of the tree line. As the Chinook returned with the remainder of the Paras, it came under machine gun fire from the village. An Army Air Corps Lynx helicopter strafed the area and silenced the gun.

The group began to move towards the village when a mortar shell exploded, injuring seven men including Major Lowe. A signaller called in a casualty report and one of the Chinooks collecting from Gberi Bana, landed on a nearby track and evacuated the wounded men.

The Paras then attacked the village, each platoon assaulting a different cluster of buildings to which they had been assigned during training in the replica village at Hastings. The rebels fought fiercely and, high on drugs, were without fear. The Paras located and secured the rebel’s ammunition store and once all the buildings had been secured, the Paras took up defensive positions around the village and laid Claymore mines in the approaches in case of a counter attack. Patrols were then sent out into the surrounding jungle to search for any escaping rebels. By 8.00, the village was completely secure and the troops set about destroying rebel vehicles including the Bedford truck that had blocked the track. The Paras also recovered the Royal Irish patrol’s Land Rovers which were slung under the Chinooks and removed. The Paras were picked up and flown to RFA Argus, the last leaving at 2.pm.

Troper Tinnion was the only fatal casualty in the battle, but twelve others were wounded. The British government were unwilling acknowledge that Special Forces wee involved in the action and also played down the rebel casualties which stood officially at twenty five, with an unknown number probably killed in the jungle strafing by the gunships. Information released later however, confirms that the rebel death toll was much higher. The Special Forces troops remained in the area for a further 4 hours, seeking out those rebels who had escaped the initial assault. A captured rebel survivor recalls that he could see laser sights moving across the trees and heard the British soldiers shouting, “Come out West Side Boys, Come out if you are a f*****g man”.

Soldiers were said to have taken pictures of themselves posing beside rows of bodies. The corpses were collected up and buried in mass graves while others were thrown into Rokel Creek. Others were simply left where they fell.

The MOD later released a statement noting that, “The West Side Boys fought fiercely and engaged in sporadic follow up fighting for some time while the UK forces were preparing for self extraction”. It is thought that the true death toll was around 200. The Jordanians confirmed that in the following few days, over 350 rebels surrendered to them and the power of the West Side Boys was broken.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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