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Operation Certain Death

By Damien Lewis

Operation Certain Death book coverIn 2000 the British SAS pulled off what many consider to be their greatest mission of all time. A group of rebels in the West African country of Sierra Leone had taken 11 British soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment hostage. The British soldiers had been on peacekeeping operations. The rebels were a famously brutal group – called The West Side Boys - known for amputating the limbs of civilians for fun and forcing children to become rebel fighters. Over the proceeding 17-day ordeal, the British hostages – two of whom were just 17 years old – were subjected to a living nightmare in the rebels’ jungle base. This became an archetypal story of Africa’s heart of darkness. As the British military tried to negotiate, the rebels’ horrific excesses culminated in children’s heads being paraded on poles before the hostages. Finally, the British SAS and SBS were called in to mount a rescue operation, supported by the men of The Parachute Regiment. A combined force of some 75 SAS and SBS soldiers were sent in to assault a heavily defended rebel base occupied by 1,000 enemy. This is a story of how they flew into target in a lightning assault, and succeeded in their mission against all odds. The story is a modern day tale of hostages and heroes, an epic of soul-shattering confrontations.

Officially called Operation Barras, but known to the men on the ground as Operation Certain Death, it was a joint operation between the Paras, the SBS, the Navy and the RAF, but spearheaded by the SAS. Because of the traditional secrecy surrounding Special Forces operations this story has never before been told, but it is one the men themselves wanted telling. This book is that story in their own words. It is the single most daring Special Forces rescue mission since World War Two.

The West Side Boy rebels wore pink shades, shower caps, fluorescent wigs and sported voodoo charms. They believed these made them invulnerable to bullets – an impression re-enforced by ganja, heroine, crack cocaine and gallons of sweet palm wine. They terrified the local inhabitants by dressing up in monkey skins and abducting children for rape, torture and mutilation. They worshipped torture and killing. Their motto was: “What makes the grass grow? Blood. Blood. Blood.” The hostage taking was the first stage in the rebels’ planned Operation Kill British – a campaign of murder and torture of British soldiers to force the British military to abandon Sierra Leone to the rebels. Then, in Operation Kill All Your Family, the rebels would have seized power in an orgy of violence and terror.

Extensive interviews with the survivors and participants of Operation Barras have produced this blow-by-blow account, in which Damien Lewis recounts the sights, the smells, and the soul-shattering confrontations. Against amazing odds the hostages were rescued. And rather than succeeding in Operation Kill British and Kill All Your Family, the rebels were annihilated – so bringing an end to ten years of Africa’s most brutal civil war. This is the story of the rescue mission of the century in Africa’s heart of darkness.

Media & Press

What a story! As good as any thriller I have ever read. This really is the low down.
- Frederick Forsyth

It takes a special kind of writer to get behind the eyes and inside the mind, hearts and brains of warriors, showing what makes them adapt, overcome and ultimately prevail. Operation Certain Death is evocative proof that Damien Lewis had joined this select company.
- John Weisman, New York Times bestselling author of SOAR: A Black Ops Mission, Jack in the Box: A Shadow War Thriller and Direct Action.

When the SAS was told to rescue British soldiers in Sierra Leone, the odds were so high the top brass warned of a possible disaster. Damien Lewis reveals a true story of British courage and daring behind a rescue in the African jungle, and reveals how they triumphed. The story begins .. Nosing their inflatables up yet another vast sandbank, the SAS men gathered in the darkness. They were exhausted, soaked to the skin, covered in mud from the river and eaten alive by mosquitoes. The boat trip was clearly over. It was time to say goodbye. The inflatables disappeared into the night, leaving ten men behind. They were the advance party of one of the most hazardous mission ever undertaken by the SAS ..
- Sunday Times, February 29th and March 7th, 2004

Return to Operation Certain Death, one of the most audacious and dangerous hit and run military raids of the decade. An elite squad of shock troops stormed the guerrilla camp where fellow British soldiers were being held hostage. Tonight – the story of that ferocious firefight, the deliverance of the hostages and the heavy price paid in blood by the terrorists. This is the riveting story of how a small band of elite British soldiers fought a violent action against terrorists, which is now a text book example of how to hit the enemy harder than ever he thought possible. An intense firefight and one of the most difficult operations the SAS has ever had to pull off.
- Richard & Judy, Channel 4

Operation Certain Death: the British forces were on hostile terrain and outnumbered five to one. “There was full scale unlimited violence on sale,” commented one SAS soldier. “Everyone wanted to be part of it.” When elite British forces were sent in to the vicious heart of Sierra Leone on a rescue mission, they vowed to kill each other rather than be taken alive. Sent in to rescue 11 soldiers held hostage in the jungles of Sierra Leone, Britain’s elite Special Forces ominously nicknamed their mission “Operation Certain Death”. Flying in to assault a rebel base controlled by the infamous West Side Boys gang, they knew they were outnumbered some five to one. “We knew how cheap life was for the rebels, what they were capable of,” said an SAS fighter. “It would be a slow, agonising, horrible death.
- NUTS Magazine, Issue 37

Damien Lewis’s book reveals the horror of the kidnapping of the British soldiers in Sierra Leone in August 2000, and the lightning assault by British Special Forces to rescue them.
- Sky News, March 2004

A rollercoaster journey into the very heart of darkness, made even more chilling by the fact that this terrible tale is true.
- Gerry Ryan, RTE’s the Gerry Ryan Show

Sierra Leone, 2000. A civil war is in progress. Eleven Royal Irish Rangers – there to train the shambolic Sierra Leone army – and one Sierra Leonean soldier are captured by the main rebel group, the vicious West Side Boys. Pumped up with drugs and voodoo beliefs, and packing some serious weaponry, the West Side Boys (which includes plenty of girls) are a formidable fighting force. A rescue mission in mounted, a joint UK forces operation, spearheaded by the SAS. Nothing is spared in Lewis’s exciting and well-researched book, which means there’s plenty of graphic – but not gratuitous – violence. The UK troops are portrayed as exceptionally well trained and committed fighting men, rather than as the supermen of media hyperbole.”
- Ink Magazine, May 2004, Review: Operation Certain Death.

“Grotesque, glorious and utterly gripping.”
- Bolton Evening News

“A powerful docu-novel, which conveys the danger of the operation and courage of those who went into successfully rescue their colleagues.”
- Sunderland Echo



Gaining height and circling out above the vast expanse of the harbour, the seven aircraft go into a holding pattern. It feels like an age to the men of D Squadron - poised and ready for action inside the choppers - although it can only last for a little more than ten minutes. They all know the reason for the delay: they have been listening in on the radio net to the short exchange of words between the Chinook pilot and Lassie on the ground at the rebel base. It's still too dark to hit the target. If only the fucking sunrise would get a move on, they're thinking. If only the fucking river mist would clear.

Despite the noise of the aircraft's turbines, it is eerily quiet and tense as everyone waits for the mission proper to begin. These men know that when they pile off this chopper, all normal rules and values in life will have disappeared. There will be no one behind them from Safety checking that they're sticking to the regulations, and they will do whatever is required to get the job done. Whatever it takes. From the moment they hit that target, they will be thinking about nothing else but the mission.

Each man will then exist in a totally new space, where if he does not do his job right he knows that he will end up dead. This is a unique moment in each of their lives. Each man has a single, absolute focus now, an all-consuming purpose. Nothing can get in their way. Nothing can stop them. These men are no longer just a unit of British soldiers, a group of individuals, a band of brothers even. They have become as one now, a single fighting machine - a living, breathing, deadly animal of war.

They feel the Chinooks turning, slipping, dipping down now, loosing altitude and gaining speed as they do so, and immediately the men are back in the reality of the moment. with their hearts leaping. It is 6.15 am and the mission is on again - and they are just 10 minutes to target.

"THIS IS IT," the loady yells back down the long body of the chopper. Most of the men cannot hear what he is saying above all the noise, but they know anyway. The expression on his face says it all. "THIS IS IT. We're going in for REAL this time."

No sooner has the loady finished speaking than the men on board the Chinook start going crazy, pounding their weapons into the floor, beating on the sides of the chopper with their fists, smashing their helmeted heads into the guy's in front of them, and yelling and screaming - all in an effort to relieve the tension and get the adrenaline really pumping for the assault.





The air armada levels out over the river waters, now - three giant Chinooks roaring down the Rokel Creek at 160 mph in line abreast, with the four attack helicopters sticking close behind them. The Chinooks' wheels are all but skimming the water's surface, scattering the river mists as they pass. There is the wild rush of wind through the open windows in the hold of the lead chopper, with a blur of water, sky and trees all around them. The men are being thrown from side to side as each speeding machine follows the contours of the riverbed, hugging its twisting course through the trees.

The lead chopper already has its rear ramp open now, and the men standing there in the pounding back draft of the slipstream can see river waters and reed beds flashing past directly below them. They catch sight of crocodiles scrambling off sandbanks into the swamp at the rivers' edge, with a flash of their white underbellies, startled by the deafening roar of the airborne beasts above them.

It is like a sign for the coming mission, the watching soldiers are thinking. We are jumping into a crocodile infested swamp. And woe betides any of the fuckers who don't get out of our way.

The loady is counting down the time to target now, hand-signalling each passing minute to the men behind him. As they reach the three minutes to target mark, the uproar in the lead chopper dies down, to be replaced by a silent, icy calm. Each man is preparing himself for the task before him, running through the assault plan one last time; his unit's overall objectives, his Fire Team's specific targets and Limit of Exploitation (LOE), his own personal mission. This is it. No turning back now. We are going in

They hit the two minutes to target mark, and suddenly, the first Chinook, Sierra One, swerves hard left towards the northern end of Gberi Bana, the men in the back being thrown against the side of the chopper as it does so. The second, Sierra Two, comes roaring in directly after it, veering towards the southern end of the village. The third Chinook, packed with men from the Parachute Regiment, swings hard right across the water towards the opposite river bank, where the Paras will be going into action against the rebels at Magbeni.

Within seconds, Sierra One and Sierra Two are across the scrub at the edge of the village and 'flaring out' over the buildings, the pilots searching below them for their specific Landing Zones (LZs) and the rope down points. In the rear of the choppers, the men are at the open windows now, guns at the ready, eyes combing the ground below for rebel targets, as the first men into action prepare to jump.

As the giant choppers flare to hover, they let off spectacular clouds of chaf - a mixture of hundreds of individual flares and aluminium strips, fired out in a dense, dazzling cloud. It is normally used to confuse an enemy heat-seeking missile. But in this case, the pilots rain down the chaf on the rebel village, to add to all the panic and confusion below them.

Suddenly, there is the awesome, deafening howl of the belt-fed Chain Guns roaring into life, as the two Chinooks begin raking the village with machine gun fire. The loadies are doubling as door gunners now, and they are pounding the rebel's heavy gun emplacements on the corners of the buildings, taking them out before they can fire back in anger at the choppers.

As the two Chinooks come in low over the rooftops, Lassie, Mat and the other men of the SAS observation team have the hostage house covered, from their positions hidden in the trees. They are watching it like hawks. At any sign of movement from the rebels, at even a sniff of trouble, they will open up on them from the jungle shadows.

The first men go down the fast ropes from the southern chopper, Sierra One, at 6.25 am exactly, and still the SAS obs team have detected no rebel response. The six-man hostage rescue team hits the ground running, and they race for the hostage house, yelling and kicking in the front door as they do so. In seconds, they're in. There are a series of flashes and loud explosions from inside the building, smoke billowing from the open doorway, followed by the controlled crack-crack-crack of gunfire.

The SAS obs team spot the first rebel soldiers come stumbling forth from their building now - wearing nothing but their underpants. Others follow in a similar state of undress, and equally ill prepared to repulse the assault. One or two start firing wildly at the Chinooks with their AK47s - emptying whole magazines skywards, with little attempt to aim. But most are just gazing dumbly at the two massive aircraft suspended in the sky above them.

The SAS obs team have found their targets now, and they open up on the rebels from the cover of the jungle, putting down a blistering barrage of fire from their light machine guns.

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