How British SAS provides mercenaries for the world

The Guardian, August 3 1979

Rhodesia was a natural stopping-off point for Peter McAleese. Although he differed from the cowboy image of the Angolan mercenaries and their leader, Mr Costas Georgiou (Callan), he had one solid advantage, the fact that he had once belonged to the British Special Air Service Regiment.

Former SAS men are thick on the ground in Rhodesia. The country’s own SAS was originally formed as C squadron of the British regiment. Its first six parachute instructors were trained in Abingdon, Oxfordshire; and many of its members fought with the British SAS in Malaya.

Mr McAleese joined the army when he was 17. He saw it not simply as an escape route from his home in Glasgow but as a career. In the 1960s he moved to Hereford, joined the SAS and became an instructor in unarmed combat.

But in 1970, when he had risen to sergeant, things went wrong. His marriage to his first wife, Marlene, was breaking up and he was forced to leave the regiment. But he did not leave the lifestyle, and it was the SAS network which soon gave him a chance for action.

In August, 1970, Mr John Banks, a former paratrooper, offered him his first mercenary work. The plan was to raid Libya’s main prison in Tripoli, known as the Hilton, free supporters of the exiled King Idris and foment revolution against the new ruler, Colonel Ghadaffi.

The operation was organised by a security firm named Watchguard, run by Colonel David Stirling who founded the British SAS in the Second World War. Mr McAleese accepted the work. But the Hilton assignment, as it was known, was aborted by Colonel Stirling after opposition from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Italian secret police, SID, who saw Colonel Ghadaffi as an anti-Communist ally.

Mr McAleese returned to Hereford where he was gaoled for nine months for assaulting his second wife, Irene. Within three years he was gaoled again, this time for nine months, for a similar offence. He found work as a labourer and on the North Sea oil rigs.

Then in 1975 he was rescued again by Mr Banks who had formed the International Security Organisation to solicit work. The plan was to fly to Zambia and to join black nationalists fighting the Smith government.

Mr McAleese was among an advance party which met at the Skyline Hotel at Heathrow airport to fly out to the battle. As they waited, the mercenaries drank more and more. A fight broke out, and they were told to leave the hotel. Once again, the mission aborted.

He stayed on in Camberley, Surrey with Mr Banks lecturing to companies on bomb detection and anti-kidnapping techniques. He hoped to attract business to Mr Banks’s new company, Security Advisory Services, named deliberately to use the same initials as the regiment from which many of its members came.

It was not until January 1976 that the company found work – the ill-fated Angola expedition. Mr McAleese travelled to Kinshasa on January 18. In the weeks that followed he struck up a friendship with Holden Roberto, the FNLA president, and earned the command of the mercenaries after Callan’s blood-thirsty behaviour had backfired.

He was one of those alleged to have court-martialed ‘Shotgun’ Charlie Christodoulou and Sammie Copeland, who were with CaIlan when he ordered the execution of 14 British mercenaries. Sergeant Copeland was found guilty and shot as he tried to run from the firing squad. Mr Christodoulou was sent to the front for six months without pay.

Within a year of returning to Britain Mr McAleese had been charged again with assault and had found a new war. He joined the growing army of foreign nationals fighting for the Rhodesian army.

Some simply hire themselves to farmers in the war zones as guards. Most are former soldiers who have tired of civilian life and are prepared to work for the standard pay offered by the Rhodesian forces.

Mr McAleese is only one of the hundreds of foreign soldiers who have turned to Rhodesia. His notoriety singles him, but his SAS credentials have earned him a new career.