The Peterhead Hostage Situation

 I recently came across this interesting little piece of history involving dangerous inmates, a prison guard hostage, the SAS and Margaret Thatcher.  I thought I would write a short article on it:

In 1987, Scotland’s Peterhead prison became the site of a riot when 50 prisoners took over the ‘D’ block and began destroying prison facilities. Many of these prisoners were serving long-term sentences for violent crimes like multiple murders and rapes. This was just the latest in a rash of prison riots, with inmates at Peterhead angry about the conditions of the prison and the distance that their families had to travel to visit the prison. As the riot began to subside, most of the prisoners surrendered themselves to authorities, but a small group refused to surrender and took a 56-year-old prison guard by the name of Jackie Stuart as a hostage.

Inmates parading Stuart on the roof of the prison.

The group of prisoners barricaded themselves in the roof space of the prison, and broke a hole through the roof. Using this hole, the prisoners appeared on the roof to make demands and parade Stuart in front of the media. Prison officials and police unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate Stuart’s release and the standoff dragged on. Making things more complicated was the fact that Stuart suffered from health problems and required regular medication and medical care.

As the crisis continued and Stuart’s health continued to decline, officials realized they were running out of time. A longer siege would mean Stuart’s death due to his poor health, but moving against the prisoners directly would also likely result in the killing of the hostage. Many of the prisoners involved were serving life sentences, and it was felt that they would follow through on threats to kill Stuart. The police made a request for assistance to the only people they felt could effectively deal with the situation – the Special Air Service.

Margaret Thatcher with SAS Operatives

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided that she would send a message to inmates everywhere and called in the SAS. This was a controversial move, opposed by a number of Thatcher’s Cabinet members. The SAS had never been deployed in a domestic situation outside of Northern Ireland as it was felt to be politically troublesome, however soldiers were required by law to assist civil police if assistance was requested.

Initially two men were sent to Peterhead as advisors to police. Civil authorities still believed that breaking the prison siege was best accomplished by the SAS and the advisory team began to formulate a plan. Negotiations continued until October 2nd, 1987 when a team of SAS operatives flew from their base at Hereford to Aberdeen, then were driven to Peterhead and arrived a few hours before dawn.

The goal was to get in, rescue Stuart and round up the inmates before dawn, out of sight of the media cameras at the front gate of the prison. The SAS team entered the prison grounds through the back gate, out of sight and put together their plan. The inmates had no weapons, so SAS operatives carried only police batons and their 9mm browning pistols – just in case things went badly.

After a quick mission brief, four operatives crossed the roof of the prison. With the slick wet tiles and a drop of 60 to 70 feet, the four operatives walked across the roof, in the dark, wearing gas masks that limited their vision. To complicate matters, prisoners in a neighboring block began yelling to warn the hostage-takers of the approaching assault. Their warnings came too late, as the SAS team reached the hole in the roof and used stun grenades and CS gas to stun and incapacitate the inmates. At the same time, other SAS operatives detonated breaching charges that had been placed on all sides of the barricaded section of the prison, blowing entry points into the inmates’ makeshift fortress. More CS and stun grenades were used, and the SAS rushed the barricaded prisoners.

Stunned by the grenades and blinded by the gas, the inmates were no match for the SAS. The four-man team quickly grabbed the ailing Stuart and manhandled him on to the roof, then to safety. The remaining teams captured and handcuffed the stunned prisoners, who had had no time to put up any resistance.

Stuart was reunited with his family, and the SAS quickly packed up their gear, and returned to Hereford after less than 12 hours. To them, this had been a quick, simple job, and the entire assault had taken only 6 minutes, but for Margaret Thatcher, it was a message that the SAS could and would be used against prison riots when called for.

In a recent interview, Peter Ratcliffe, the second in command of the SAS unit sent to Peterhead said, “The hostage-takers were very brave – as long as they had the advantage.  Against us, they didn’t have much chance.”

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