Volume 48, Number 8, September 2010
A piece of real history EVERY once in a while comes an event so dramatic that it is burned into the collective consciousness. We all have something that we will never forget, depending on our age: some international or national event captured on radio, television or the internet that we will remember forever. It might be Chamberlain’s announcement that “this country is at war with Germany”; Churchill’s exhortation that “never has so much been owed by so many to so few”; the day Kennedy was assassinated; the moon landings; the Challenger space shuttle disaster; the day Mandela was released, maybe the day the Berlin Wall came down or the horrors of 9/11. Every one of these has been important enough to stay with those who witnessed it throughout the years, regardless of what else has happened in their lives. Of course, as I reel out that list of iconic events there is one missing—an event that was to change the way British Forces were seen across the world and a day that has been re-enacted a thousand times across the decades by small boys eager to be heroes. I’m talking about an event that enthralled the country, if not the world, as pictures of it were beamed live by the BBC and we watched in wonderment as the Iranian Embassy Siege was finally brought to an end on May 5, 1980 by the black-clad members of B Squadron Special Air Service. The circumstances of the siege are well known, it has been written about and dramatised many times in the intervening 30 years, not least in the “Special Forces Heroes” television series on Channel Five, and for anyone over the age of 35 with even a vague interest in military (or indeed television) history it has become one of those iconic moments never to be forgotten. Even those too young at the time to know what was really happening (or those not even born) are aware of the siege and few who have ever watched the footage (now available on You Tube—I urge you to watch it again if you haven’t seen it for a while) will ever forget it. The SAS’s reputation was forged on that day and no-one who talks about that elite fighting force can avoid mentioning such an important part of their history. Later this month part of that history will come up for sale at Bonhams in their “For Valour” sale when the QGM, Northern Ireland and Dhofar, Falklands, group of three to Sergeant Tommy Palmer, SAS, comes under the hammer. Tommy was one of three SAS troopers to be awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal that day (with one other, and PC Trevor Lock, being awarded the George Medal) and there is little doubt that this is one of the most interesting if not important medal groups to come up for sale for some time. Sgt Palmer was one of the “abseilers” who came down from the roof of the Embassy on May 5 and threw in the first stun grenades. He was one of the first men in action and in fact was almost the first casualty when his abseil rope got caught and he found himself hanging in front of a burning window with his protective clothing catching fire—the hood he wore that day is included in the lot, complete with burns! The rope was eventually cut and Tommy survived to be one of the first into the Embassy killing at least one terrorist. Of course, such a group as this—a gallantry award with a South Atlantic and a Northern Ireland GSM to an SAS trooper—would be beyond the pockets of most of us even were that gallantry award not for the SAS’s most famous action. Factor that in and you’ll understand why I’m not thinking of bidding myself. This should fetch some serious money and with Lord Ashcroft’s stated interest in the Special Forces I would be surprised if he didn’t feature in the bidding somewhere on the day. In short, this is a group few of our readers will get a chance to own (if any of you are in a position to bid then I envy you greatly and wish you luck!) but that doesn’t actually matter. The fact is that this is an amazing group with an amazing story behind it and whilst there are medals that have fetched more in the past, and others that will fetch more in the future, few, I think, have the cachet of being for actions so indelibly printed in our memories, actions we actually witnessed. But that of course is an integral part of what makes our hobby so fascinating. Most of us collectors tend to content ourselves with the “run of the mill” groups—the trios, the singles, all named up to men whom we can’t research as individuals, instead we have to “make do” with Battalion or Regimental histories and, if we’re honest we are quite happy with that. Every now and then we are able to delve further with the research—maybe with medals to an officer or a casualty, but in the main we don’t know too much of the exact circumstances in which the award was won and even if we do the chances of the BBC actually having filmed the whole event are pretty slim . . . So when something like this comes along, something out of our past that immediately conjures up the adrenaline of such a memorable day, we look on with awe and whilst we wish we could afford it ourselves we don’t actually begrudge the future owner his purchase, instead we are happy to be part of a hobby that allows history to come alive in this way. I call it the Top Gear affect and I’ve mentioned it in this “Comment” before—we might drive a Ford Mondeo but that doesn’t stop us coveting the Ferraris or looking at one in envy and admiration as it passes us on the M1. It’s the same with medals—whatever this group makes at Bonhams most of us will be content to look on from the sidelines and remember when we saw those black-clad figures clambering across the Iranian Embassy balcony and think to ourselves that maybe one day we too will be the owners of such a prestigious group—well, we can dream can’t we?
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