The time the SAS defied orders to rescue two of their own in Iraq

Miguel Ortiz Avatar
22 SAS

The soldiers of the British Special Air Service are some of the most elite in the world. From WWII to the Global War on Terror, their exploits on the battlefield (at least those that are known to the public) are the stuff of legend. Part of what makes the SAS so effective is their loyalty to each other. So, when two SAS operators were captured, their comrades didn’t let anything stop them from carrying out a rescue…not even orders.

british army vehicle
The British Army committed thousands of troops and vehicles to combat operations in Iraq (British Crown/National Army Museum)

On September 19, 2005, two SAS operators named Campbell and Griffiths conducted surveillance in Basra, Iraq in support of Operation Hathor. Operating jointly with MI6, their objective was to collect intelligence on Iraqi police forces suspected of corruption. Dressed in civilian clothes and driving a local vehicle, the two men shadowed a suspect Iraqi police chief until they gathered all of the intel they needed. However, on their way out of the city, Campbell and Griffiths were stopped at an Iraqi police checkpoint.

British forces had recently arrested an Iraqi police official on suspicion of corruption and tensions between the two forces were high. Campbell and Griffiths attempted to talk their way out of the checkpoint before the Iraqi police attempted to drag them from their car. The two operators opened fire on the Iraqis, killing at least one, and fled at high speed. However, their car was unable to evade the Iraqi police and Campbell and Griffiths were forced to surrender. They were beaten and taken to the Al Jameat police station.

images of SAS rescue
Images of Campbell and Griffiths were widely circulated by the Iraqis (Public Domain)

In Baghdad, news of the incident reached the SAS’s Special Forces Support Group in the form of a TV broadcast showing Campbell and Griffiths beaten and tied up. They were accused of murdering an Iraqi police officer and faced a punishment of execution. Outraged, 20 operators of A Squadron 22nd SAS Regiment flew to Basra to conduct a rescue mission. Other SAS operators already in Basra tracked Campbell and Griffiths to the police station. A Predator UAV and helicopter were vectored in to provide airborne surveillance on the prison in support of the SAS raid. There was only one problem: they didn’t have permission.

British infantry and armored forces were sent to encircle the prison as local Iraqis assembled in anger following the release of images of the captured Brits. Stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown at the British forces, setting a Warrior IFV on fire and injuring three soldiers. However, the British government feared an escalation of the situation and ordered the SAS to stand down. Instead, two British officers were sent to the prison with a letter of ultimatum. They were also captured and held in the prison.

22 SAS rescue
A 22 SAS operator during a night raid in Iraq (reddit.com/r/ukspecialforces)

Meanwhile, the Iraqi police decided to turn Campbell and Griffiths over to the Iraqi militia. They dressed the two men in local clothes to disguise them and loaded them into the trunk of a car to be driven to a nearby safe house. However, the British helicopter overhead noted the suspicious activity and reported that the SAS operators were being moved. Fearing that their comrades would be executed by the Iraqi militia, the SAS disobeyed their orders and went in.

The British government did give permission to the conventional forces to raid the Al Jameat police station and rescue the captured officers. However, the raid to rescue Campbell and Griffiths was unsanctioned. At 9pm, Warrior IFVs and Challenger 2 tanks broke down the walls of the prison, allowing the infantry and a few SAS operators from A Squadron to storm in and rescue the captured officers. Simultaneously, the rest of A Squadron assaulted the house that Campbell and Griffith had been moved to. There, they met no resistance and rescued their comrades from a locked room. By all accounts, it was a flawless mission.

special forces support group in iraq
Members of the Special Forces Support Group in Iraq (reddit.com/r/ukspecialforces)

Initially, the British government denied storming the prison and rescuing the SAS operators. However, the operation was later sanctioned, citing suspicions of corruption and links to militia groups within the Iraqi police force.