FORTY FOUR years ago, on a May Bank Holiday evening,  two teams of masked SAS soldiers emerged from the shadows and smashed their way into the Iranian Embassy in London and into the full glare of national publicity. Within 17 minutes, every one broadcast live on TV, they had released 18 people held hostage by six armed gunmen, five of which were shot dead.


However, hidden deeper in the shadows that day was Derek Phillips of Barnards Green, Malvern, without whose vital assistance the legend may never have been born.

Because he was the man operating the thermal imaging camera that showed the troopers which rooms held the captives and where to go.


In the spring of 1980 Derek, who died recently at the age of 90, was working at the town’s Royal Signals and Radar Establishment when it received a call from the Metropolitan Police for assistance in a situation that could go badly wrong.

Remember at this time America had a long running hostage crisis at its embassy in Tehran which was proving disastrous. The dangers were all too obvious.


Derek was despatched down to London in an MoD Land Rover towing behind a large trailer containing thermal imaging equipment. Pre-M40 days the route would presumably have been down to Oxford and on to the capital via Western Avenue, a road not easily travelled at speed, especially with a trailer bouncing along behind.  It was to lead to the most dramatic six days of his life.


“Dad spent thirty years working at RSRE,” said his daughter Sue Handy, “and he went with the MoD for exercises on Salisbury Plain, Germany and Norway, but there was never anything like this. He was an ‘experimental worker’, which meant he was involved with the cutting edge of research, mainly thermal imaging. That’s why he was called upon here.”


The saga began on April 30, 1980 after a group of six armed men stormed the Iranian Embassy in Prince's Gate South Kensington.

Iranian Arabs, they were campaigning for sovereignty of Khuzestan Province and took 26 people hostage, including embassy staff, several visitors, and a police officer, PC Trevor Lock, who had been guarding the embassy.

They demanded the release of prisoners in Khuzestan and their own safe passage out of the United Kingdom. However, the British government, led by Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, quickly decided that safe passage would not be granted and a siege ensued.


Although police negotiators secured the release of five hostages in exchange for minor concessions, such as the broadcasting of the hostage-takers' demands on British television, the situation dragged on and by the sixth day of the siege the gunmen were increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress in meeting their demands.

That evening, they killed a hostage and threw his body out of the embassy. It was time for the SAS to go in.


Two teams of around 30 men had been dispatched from the regiment’s headquarters at Credenhill, near Hereford, and arrived at a holding area in Regent’s Park Barracks. Mainly from B Squadron but complemented by specialists from other squadrons, they were equipped with CS gas, stun grenades and explosives and armed with Browning Hi-Power pistols and Heckler and Kock MP5 submachine guns.


Derek and his surveillance equipment had been positioned a discreet distance from the embassy and there he liaised with Lt Col Michael Rose, commander of 22 SAS, who had travelled ahead of the detachment. The thermal imaging camera allowed the SAS to work out which rooms in the building were holding the hostages and where the gunmen were, thus the eventual rescue operation could be launched with a degree of certainty.


The two SAS teams, Red Team and Blue Team, were ordered to begin their simultaneous assaults, under the codename Operation Nimrod, at 7.23 in the evening of May 5, the sixth day of the siege.  One group of four men from Red Team abseiled from the roof down the rear of the building, while another four-man team lowered a stun grenade through the skylight. The detonation of the stun grenade was supposed to coincide with the abseiling teams detonating explosives to gain entry to the building through the second-floor windows. However, during the descent, one of the abseilers became entangled in his rope.


The soldiers were unable to use explosives in case they injured their stranded comrade but managed to smash their way in using sledgehammers. After the first soldiers entered a fire started and travelled up the curtains and out of the second-floor window, severely burning the stranded soldier. A second wave of abseilers cut him free, and he fell to the balcony below before entering the embassy. Slightly behind Red Team, Blue Team detonated explosives on a first-floor window with much of the operation at the front of the embassy taking place in full view of the assembled journalists and TV crews.


Meanwhile, further teams entered the embassy through the back door and cleared the ground floor and cellar. During the raid, the gunmen holding the male hostages opened fire on their captives, killing one and wounding two others. The SAS began evacuating hostages, taking them down the stairs towards the back door of the embassy. Two of the terrorists were hiding amongst the hostages; one of them produced a hand grenade when he was identified. An SAS soldier, who was unable to shoot for concern of hitting a hostage or another soldier, pushed the grenade-wielding terrorist to the bottom of the stairs, where two other soldiers shot him dead.


The SAS had killed all but one of the gunmen and the last remaining was identified among the hostages and detained. Fowzi Nejad was eventually tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment, but was paroled in 2008. He was granted leave to remain in the UK and now lives under another identity in South London.


Job done, Derek Phillips loaded his thermal imaging camera onto his trailer and headed back to Malvern in the Land Rover. Although his part in this operation had been, like that of the SAS, covered in secrecy, 27 years later he hit the headlines and ended up at Buckingham Palace.


However this wasn’t reward for covert intelligence, but for a very public act of good neighbourliness. When Derek moved from North Malvern to live in Pound Bank Road, Barnards Green in the late 1970s he noticed the local pond, called Hastings Pool, was in a mess. So he set about cleaning it up. “I soon noticed how much rubbish was thrown in and around, so I began picking it up on a daily basis,” he said. In the ensuring years, he cleared up everything from sweet papers to vacuum cleaners and tumble dryers. In 2007 Derek and his wife Pamela were invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Elizabeth II. Plenty of cameras were clicking, but no thermal imaging ones this time.


Derek Phillips’ funeral was at Worcester Crematorium and he leaves daughter Sue.