John McAleese, who has died suddenly aged 61, was not just an SAS legend but he was one of the few men who got the better of an exchange with Margaret Thatcher when she was in her heyday as Prime Minister.
McAleese, a no-nonsense Scot, encountered Mrs Thatcher (now Baroness Thatcher) – as far as I know for the first and only time – amid jubilant circumstances in early May 1980, just hours after he and his SAS colleagues had successfully stormed the Iranian Embassy in central London.
By seizing control the building in Prince’s Gate, the Special Forces men not only brought a successful end to a six-day siege that had gripped the nation, but they brought the activities of the SAS to the general public’s attention for the first time and bolstered Mrs Thatcher’s reputation as a leader for a crisis and a clinical decision-maker.
The six-day siege, in which initially 26 people were taken hostage, was officially declared over by Scotland Yard at 8.15pm on May 5, 1980, with five of the six terrorists – all Arab extremists – dead and the other in custody. Willie (later Lord) Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, was quickly on the scene and had tears of relief and joy streaming down his face. “I always knew you would do a good job, but I didn’t know it would be this good,” he told the SAS men.
Later that night, in the Regent’s Street Barracks, the SAS men who had taken part in the raid were sipping celebratory beers when Mrs Thatcher and her husband, Denis, unexpectedly joined them. “Gentlemen, there is nothing sweeter than the taste of success, and you boys have got it,” Mrs Thatcher told the Special Forces men. At 10pm a television was wheeled in and everyone began to watch the drama of the day unfold on the news.
However, the Prime Minister was blocking the view of some of the SAS men, including McAleese. Without thinking and already a few beers to the good, McAleese, who was known for his colourful language, shouted: ‘F***ing sit down, Maggie, I can’t see.”
Without flinching and in the knowledge that she was the guest in a tough, no-nonsense, male-dominated environment, Mrs Thatcher simply did as she was told and sat cross-legged on the floor. Not many people got the better of John McAleese, known universally to his friends as “Mac”.
The death of McAleese, from a suspected heart attack while working in Greece, is particularly hard for his family because it comes only two years after the death of one of his four children, Paul, 29, an Army sergeant, who was blown up by a Taliban bomb in Afghanistan shortly after becoming a father for the first time.
I wrote about John McAleese for the first time when he featured in my book, Special Forces Heroes, published in 2008. I had purchased his gallantry and service medals some years earlier when he decided to sell them after retiring from the SAS.
McAleese was born in Stirling, Scotland, in 1949 and enlisted in the Army in early 1970, aged 20. He did not pass his SAS selection first time because he failed to complete the final fitness test by a few minutes – which was due to the fact that he broke an ankle half-way around the course. The Regiment, however, wisely kept him on and he passed selection second time around once his ankle had mended.
Because of the nature of the SAS’s furtive activities, few details are available about his career. McAleese was a calm, thoughtful and intelligent man, capable of polishing off complex crosswords in only a few minutes. Yet, like many SAS men, he also had an air of menace, especially sporting his trademark drooping moustache.
At the start of “Operation Nimrod” to storm the Iranian Embassy, McAleese, then a Sergeant, led his SAS men into the building by putting a charge on the outer window frame and blasting their way into the building. “We stepped through the rubble and smoke into the room and went into our rehearsed routine,” he said, years after the siege.
“Mal [a comrade] went in first and peeled off to the right and I went left. My head kept twitching from side to side because of my gas mark. I had to keep moving to be able to see around.” Of the 20 hostages still in the building after six days, 19 were rescued and one died (on top of a hostage who had been killed earlier by the terrorists). The SAS suffered just one injury: third degree burns for the soldier who had got caught up in his abseil, but he later made a good recovery.
McAleese was awarded the Military Medal in 1989 for unspecified bravery while serving as a warrant Officer with the SAS in Northern Ireland during the height of “the Troubles”.
It is understood that the award was, however, largely for the courage he had displayed the previous year during a shoot-out with the IRA in which three senior terrorists were killed in an ambush at Drumnakilly, Co Tyrone. The ambush came after the Army used an SAS man to pose as an Ulster Defence Regiment man, who British intelligence had discovered was an imminent IRA target. The decoy pretended his lorry had broken down outside Drumnakilly and waited to be targeted.
As the three IRA terrorists came to pick off their apparently “easy” prey, a dozen SAS men, including McAleese, lay in wait. In the ensuing shoot-out, the IRA men fired 17 shots, the SAS fired 236 – and all three terrorists fell to the ground fatally wounded.
Years later, again using colourful language, McAleese described how he had fired at the IRA men in their car using his Heckler & Koch weapon. “It was nice. Very nice… As the others were firing, I stepped into the middle of the road and pumped rounds into the back of the f***ing car. It was all over in seconds.”
McAleese was eventually discharged from the Army in February 1992, after 22 years’ service, more than 17 of them in the SAS. He did various jobs after leaving the Regiment, including running a pub and working in the security business.
McAleese was a brave and formidable character who will be much missed by his family and his former comrades. Many SAS men are fond of a poem, written by an unknown hand, which, for me, seems to sum up McAleese’s approach to life – and death.
"You served your country for years and years.
Many laughs through many fears.
That life ends now, so another can start.
But a soldier, you’ll always remain at heart.”
Anyone wanting to know more about Lord Ashcroft’s book, Special Forces Heroes, should visit www.specialforcesheroes.com.