Operation Barras: That time Brits rescued hostages in Sierra Leone

Operation Barras was an audacious rescue mission that would test the mettle of the British forces to their core.
Jessica Evans Avatar
operation barras
A Land Rover with Weapons Mount Installation Kit ("Wimik"), similar to the vehicles used by the Royal Irish patrol, this one in service with the RAF Regiment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez/Released)

In September 2000, a hostage situation unfolded in Sierra Leone during a knee-deep civil war and rampant chaos. Amid this turmoil, a group of British soldiers were under the United Nations’ banner. The service members were doing their best to keep the peace. But life had other plans. These men found themselves in the crosshairs of the West Side Boys. WSB was a rebel group that had a knack for making trouble. This was the crucible that birthed Operation Barras, an audacious rescue mission that would test the mettle of the British forces to their core. A real baptism by fire.

The hostage situation

Now, about these West Side Boys. They weren’t your average rebels. Their brutal tactics and use of child soldiers had already put them on the map for all the wrong reasons. They had taken eleven members of the Royal Irish Regiment hostage and barricaded themselves on an island in the Rokel Creek. This hideout was harder to reach than the peak of Everest, a natural fortress perfect for their sinister plans.

Despite numerous attempts at negotiation, the talks to free the hostages kept hitting dead ends. It was like a never-ending maze with no escape in sight. It soon became clear that a change of tactics was needed, and that’s when Operation Barras was given the go-ahead.

raf operation barras
A RAF Chinook with underslung Land Rover, a procedure used to retrieve the Royal Irish patrol’s vehicles from Magbeni.

Operation Barras: Zero hour

As the clock struck zero on September 10, 2000, Operation Barras was set into motion. This was no ordinary mission – it was as daring as it was dangerous. The British Army’s Parachute Regiment and Special Air Service (SAS) deployed a team consisting of the cream of the crop. Supported by attack helicopters from the skies, their mission was anything but easy. Their objective? Find the hostages, free them and eliminate the West Side Boys.

The operation was like trying to wrestle a crocodile in a swamp. The troops stormed the rebel camp, their attack helicopters strafing the West Side Boys’ positions and sowing chaos. The ground team used this distraction to sneak into the camp, rescue the hostages, and engage the enemy in a fierce battle.

The aftermath and legacy

The mission was a success, but it wasn’t without sacrifice. Lance Corporal Brad Tinnion of the SAS laid down his life during the operation, and several others were wounded. But every single hostage was rescued. Operation Barras landed a crushing blow to the West Side Boys, cutting down their numbers and breaking their spirit.

Today, Operation Barras stands tall as a symbol of the British forces’ professionalism, courage and unwavering commitment. It has become a model for hostage-rescue missions worldwide and is a staple case study in military academies around the globe.

In the end, Operation Barras was more than just a daring rescue. It was a story of humanity, courage, and the indomitable will of soldiers refusing to leave their comrades behind, even in the face of overwhelming danger.