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Special Air Service (SAS) - Operation Barras - Sierra Leone

The UK military's first real fight of the 21st Century was a daring raid against 2 enemy strongholds defended by a fearless enemy in the heart of the African jungle.

Late Summer, 2000 in war-torn Sierra Leone - whilst on a UN peacekeeping mission, a group of Royal Irish Rangers were on patrol in heavily armed WMIK Land Rovers when they were captured by a ruthless gang of rebels, known as 'The West Side Boys'.

The rebels contacted the British authorities, demanding various ransoms and concessions. To aid negotiations, the British supplied the rebel leader, Foday Kallay, with a satellite phone, which also enabled them to pinpoint the West Side Boy's location. Negotiations led to a number of the Rangers being released but the rebels held onto a further 6, plus their liaison officer. Despite this breakthrough, further negotiations began to break down and the rebels began to threaten the lives of their hostages.

MI-6 intelligence had determined that the 7 hostages were being held at Geri Bana, a small camp on the banks of a river delta, Rokel Creek. Across the creek, about 400 meters away was a large rebel base at Magbeni. The stolen WMIK Land Rovers were at Magbeni and their HMGs could pose a threat to any rescue mission taking place at Geri Bana.

D squadron, augmented by a number of SBS operators, were clandestinely flown into the country to prepare for a hostage rescue mission. When it was determined that there may be hundreds of troops stationed at Magbeni, it was decided to bring in 1 PARA, in the form of A Coy plus elements of Support Coy and HQ Coy, to take out the main base.

parabolic microphone
SAS recon teams eavesdropped on the West Side Boys using parabolic microphones.

Using inflatable raiding craft and under cover of night, Boat troop personnel, along with SBS marines, delivered 2 6/4 man observation (obs) teams upriver. The obs teams snuck into postion, getting as close to the enemy postions as possible. Once concealed in the jungle foliage, they began monitoring the 2 camps, listening in on the rebel's conversations via parabolic microphones. As the assault teams rehearsed their plans, the OP teams sent back vital intelligence on the strength, disposition and morale of the enemy forces.

The trip to drop off the obs teams had been hampered by sandbanks which ruled out an amphibious insertion for the main force. The obs teams reported that both the camp holding the hostages and the main rebel base were hemmed in by heavy foliage which ruled out a land insertion. That only left a direct aerial assault, which would would not be at all stealthy.

The objectives of the mission, now codenamed 'Operation Barras', were as follows :

  • Rescue the 6 Royal Irish Rangers along with their Liaison officer
  • Capture or kill the rebel leader, Foday Kallay
  • Recover or destroy the captured WMIK Land Rovers
  • Suppress / chase off the rebel troops at Magbeni

At first light on the morning of September 10th, 2000 the helicopter assault force went into action. The assault force consisted of :

  • 3 Chinook HC2 helicopters flown by RAF Special Forces 7 Squadron. 2 Chinooks were carrying integrated SAS/SBS fireteams (70 men total) landing at 2 landing zones (LZs). The third Chinook was carrying paratroopers from 1 PARA.
  • 2 Lynx Mk7 attack helicopters from 657 Squadron AAC, armed with miniguns
  • 1 Mil-24 Hind Gunship manned by friendly local forces

Since stealth was impossible, the plan was to hit the hostage camp and rebel base with maximum speed and firepower, hopefully catching the West Side Boys off guard so they had little time to react and kill the hostages. As the Chinook carrying the hostage rescue team hovered over its LZ, simultaneously, the other 2 Chinooks did the same at their own. As the SAS/SBS fireteams fast-roped out of the choppers, the helicopter gunships opened up on the Magbeni camp. The first wave of Paratroopers were inserted by the third Chinook which quickly flew back to base to pick up the second wave.

The shock and awe of the landings, supported by air support had worked. Many of the West Side Boys were asleep and nursing hangovers when the assault force had suddenly appeared over their camp. The downdraft from the chinooks tore off many of the tin roofs of the flimsy shacks that made up their camp. Adding to the confusion, the SAS obs teams emerged from hiding in the nearby jungle and engaged the enemy.

Under the cover of all this sound and fury the SAS hostage rescue team were able to find and secure the 7 hostages. The rest of the SAS/SBS fireteams went through their carefully planned and rehearsed objectives, clearing buildings and setting up defensive positions.

Across the creek, 1 PARA were mixing it up with the now wide awake rebels. A heavy firefight erupted on their side of the creek. The Paras set up mortars and pounded the rebel positions. The first wave of Paras was eventually reinforced by the 2nd wave, arriving in the returning Chinook. Now at full strength, the Paras pressed on with their attack.

The fighting was tough and the West Side Boys were no pushovers. Despite lacking discipline or any real sense of tactics they seemed to be completely fearless. Some were likely on drugs or believed that they were protected by magical amulets. Whatever the reason, the men, women and boy soldiers of the West Side Boys fought hard and seemingly without care of being killed.

The battle raged for many hours before it was deemed safe enough to call in the Chinooks to extract the hostages and assault teams. The SAS lost one man, named as Brad Tinnion, whilst the Paras had 12 wounded, 1 seriously. At least 25 rebels were confirmed killed although the number may be much higher as many may have been killed by gunship attacks along the treelines. The leader of the West Side Boys, Foday Kallay, had been captured in the raid. The 3 WMIKs belonging to the Royal Irish Rangers were also recovered.

Operation Barras had been a resounding success. It was the first time that the SAS had worked with the SBS integrated into their fireteams. It was also the first time that the Paras had been deployed alongside USKF. This mission template, with Paras provided security carrying out secondary raids for UKSF has become a standard in the current war on terror and its success in Sierra Leone was no doubt one reason for the creation of the Special Forces Support Group.

« SAS operations

Related Book :

Operation Certain Death
by Damien Lewis

Gripping and detailed account of Operation Barras. Lewis tells the story from both the hostages and rescuers point of view and the rescue mission is told in exquisite detail.

Highly recommended.

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