Nine against four-hundred.


Nine against four-hundred.

Today the SAS is well known. Countless books have been written about the regiment, some by former members who were supposed to be keeping their mouths shut. It was in May 1980 when 22 SAS’s counter-terrorism unit stormed the Iranian embassy in London in front of the camera that the public found out about their existence. 22nd SAS Regiment had officially been in existence for over 30 years by this point and could trace its formation back to 1941. The territorial army’s 21st SAS had been in existence even longer and was actually senior to the professional battalion. 23rd SAS would emerge later.

There have been numerous heroic tales of the SAS during world war 2 and subsequent campaigns, right up to the modern day. Few are known publicly. Despite the modern celebrity of the SAS their operations are still largely in the shadows with the MOD’s policy of never releasing details of special forces’ operations. One of the most remarkable feats of bravery occurred on 19th July 1972 out in Oman.

Back then, the SAS was unheard of by the public and not particularly well known even within the British Army. The British government was anxious to avoid the mouth of the Gulf falling into the hands of communist insurgents and had despatched the British Army unofficially to advise and train the Omani army to defeat these insurgents.

Just outside the port of Mirbat, a small building called the British Army Training Team (or ‘BATT’) house occupied by 9 men from B Squadron 22 SAS was besieged for over 4 hours by over 400 insurgents known as the ‘Adoo’. The team was commanded by 23 year old Captain Mike Kealy. Armed with an old 25-pound howitzer, a browning heavy machine gun, one other machine gun and an old mortar along with their personal weapons they held off sustained assaults from the Adoo despite being outnumbered 45 to 1.

The real tragedy of the Battle of Mirbat (as it became known) was that the bravery of one man in particular was never acknowledged; and at least one Victoria Cross should have been awarded that day.

During the course of the siege, Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba from Fiji ran over 500 yards from the BATT house across open ground and exposure to enemy fire to engage the 25-pounder against the enemy. Single-handedly he fired the weapon (which normally required a team of 5) but was mortally wounded by enemy fire. Trooper Sekonaia Takavesi (also from Fiji) volunteered to run over to the 25-pounder to assist but he too was eventually wounded. Mike Kealy and Trooper Tommy Tobin therefore made the next dash to the 25-pounder to find Labalaba dead and Takavesi operating the gun alone and with one arm badly injured. However Tobin was also hit and later died of his injuries. It was not until the clouds lifted that the Omani air force was able to provide air support and reinforcements to the beleaguered team and drive off the Adoo.

Takavesi survived his injuries and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Labalaba was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches and Mike Kealy was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Kealy was to die in 1979 in the most tragic circumstances – succumbing to exposure during an exercise in the Brecon Beacons. Another member of the team that day, Sergeant Bob Bennett was awarded the Military Medal. Tobin received no recognition for his acts and members of the regiment have also campaigned for Labalaba to be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. There were some mutterings from modern commentators that the refusal to award this highest honour to Labalaba was racially motivated. However there is so serious suggestion that this was the case. The British Army is, and always has been composed of men from throughout the Empire and Commonwealth. Today nearly 10% of soldiers in the British Army represent 42 countries around the world. Private Johnson Beharry VC was born in Grenada. The far more likely reason is that the awarding of such an award would have attracted unwelcome attention to the British presence in Oman. Also there would likely be public attention to the regiment itself.

The battle of Mirbat has joined the list of heroic SAS actions – a modern day Rorke’s Drift with members of the SAS facing overwhelming odds to survive. Such events have happened in more-modern wars (like the siege of Cimic House in Al Amarah in Iraq in 2004) and it is a tragedy in many ways that such acts of heroism are not generally known by the British public. A victory in a large battle with roughly equal sized opponents echoes down the ages and rightly so. But there is something even more remarkable when a small handful of men, unprepared  and under-armed with all the odds against them and massively outnumbered manage to survive and win the day.

Chris Thorpe.

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