A new breed of warrior has emerged to fight a global plague of coups, kidnappings and assassinations: the commando. Follow these international super soldiers on actual covert missions as they take on the world’s worst villains.
Episode 01 – The U.S. Green Berets: The Battle of Lang Vei
On January 31, 1968, North Vietnam violates a truce during “Tet”, the Vietnamese New Year. The NVA, or North Vietnamese Army, launches shock attacks on several key cities and provinces in South Vietnam. With 24 hours, the US embassy in Saigon falls to enemy invaders. Caught in the crosshairs of the invasion is Lang Vei, a small special forces camp, located a half mile from the enemy border. The 24 Green Berets stationed at Lang Vei act as “force multipliers”–their mission is to train allied indigenous troops and lead them on covert reconnaissance patrols. Operating deep within enemy territory, the risk of death or capture is extremely high.
Shortly after midnight on February 6th, a deep rumbling alerts the Green Berets to trouble. Rather than launching an infantry attack as expected, the NVA attacks with tanks for the first time in the war. As the noise grows louder and closer, the Green Berets are able to make out eleven tanks moving on the camp’s barbed-wire perimeter. The tanks are monsters—modern Soviet PT-76s with a 76-millimeter gun mount. They smash through the camp’s perimeter, inflicting massive casualties. Sgt. Richard Allen, a combat medic at Lang Vei, likens the scene to Dante’s Inferno.
One of the tanks rumbles onto the roof of the underground Tactical Operations Center or TOC. Eight Green Berets, including Lt. Paul Longrear and SP4 Franklin Dooms, are trapped inside the bunker with a group of indigenous soldiers. During the long hours that follow, the Green Berets and their South Vietnamese allies wage a desperate underground fight for survival. Enemy soldiers drop hand grenades and tear gas into the bunker’s ventilation shaft. The trapped men are lacerated by white-hot shrapnel from the explosions. After two hours of noise and chaos, the indigenous soldiers surrender, only to be cut down by the enemy as they exit the bunker. There is an unspoken agreement between the eight Green Berets who remain inside: there will be no surrender. Above ground, Sgt. Dennis Thompson rallies his men for a counter assault. But they just don’t have the firepower to rescue the men in the TOC.
NVA soldiers pack the ventilation shaft of the TOC with plastic explosives. The explosion nearly rips the bunker apart, wounding six. Confident that the bunker will hold, Lt. Miles Wilkins helps coordinate a series of air strikes. U.S. jets descend from the sky, unleashing their fury on the remaining NVA tanks. As predicted, the enemy scrambles for cover. The U.S. jets make three bombing passes. The fourth pass is a pre-arranged dry run—no ordinance is dropped. For the men trapped inside, this is their only chance…
The surviving Americans stagger up the stairs of the bunker and limp to the jungle. They make it as far as a nearby clearing where a helicopter evacuates them to Khe Sanh. Sgt. Thompson, who was operating outside the bunker, misses the helicopter by seconds. He is taken prisoner by the NVA and spends five years in a POW camp. Even now, Thompson remembers Lang Vei as a defining moment: “I saw some of the finest soldiers I’ve ever seen in my life up there.”
The courage of the Green Berets in holding their position under such extreme circumstances makes the battle of Lang Vei the Special Forces’ finest hour. According to Lt. Wilkins, “there’s a Special Forces saying that you’ve never lived until you’ve almost died. Life has an excitement that the protected will never know.”
Episode 02 – The Royal Dutch Marines: Terror Strikes Twice
On the morning of May 23, 1977, children attending a grade school in the Dutch village of Bovensmilde settle down for their morning lessons. Suddenly, four South Moluccans storm the building, firing bursts from their submachine guns. In their quest for an independent state, the Moluccans have resorted to terror to achieve their goals. The gunmen quickly herd 105 screaming children and six teachers into two classrooms and order them to cover the windows. Astrid Tingen, a schoolgirl at the time, remembers “the terrorists were walking around with their hand grenades. We had to lie down on the floor and we were very afraid.” Eef van Vliet, the school principal, was terrified for the children. He and the teachers quietly agreed that if the terrorists detonated a grenade, “whoever was closest would jump on it.”
A short time later, a commuter train outside of town screeches to a sudden halt—someone has pulled the emergency cord. The concerned conductor investigates. As he opens the door to the main carriage, he finds himself staring into the gun barrels of nine more terrorists. The South Moluccans board the train, taking all 60 passengers hostage. Toos Faber, a spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Justice, remembers the double hostage scenario as “a catastrophe”.
Police, backed by heavily-armed Royal Dutch Marines, surround both sites. The Marines, known in Holland as the “BBE”, are the country’s elite counter-terrorism and commando squad. After 14 long hours, the terrorists aboard the train permit police to bring them a field telephone so they can issue their demands. First, they want 24 fellow Moluccans released from Dutch prisons. They also demand that the government of the Netherlands exert pressure on Indonesia to grant independence to their homeland of South Molucca. Finally, they demand that a 747 be fueled and waiting at Schipol Airport for their escape.
As the government stalls for time, the BBE gathers intelligence. Using thermal imaging devices, they are able to determine the position of the terrorists in real time. A squad of daring commandos crawl underneath the train to plant electronic listening devices. Now they can hear everything that happens inside. During the standoff, many of the children held hostage in the grade school fall mysteriously ill. With nearly half of their young hostages vomiting, the terrorists are forced to release them. The teachers and the principal remain hostages.
Negotiations with the terrorists drag on for two solid weeks. The BBE uses the time to plan a double rescue mission with an impossible objective: the commandos must take out the terrorists without killing the hostages. At first light on June 11, a Dutch fighter jet flies over the train, kicking in its afterburners. The noise of the jet engines is deafening. As expected, the hostages throw themselves to the floor in terror. Suddenly, an explosion detonates at the front of the train, signaling an attack by the Royal Dutch Marines. As they unleash a blistering fusillade of covering fire, the terrorists have no time to recover before the door is blown in and the commandos storm inside. Seven terrorists are shot and six captured. Only two of the 60 hostages are killed in the firefight. At the school, a second squad of Marines smashes through a wall using an armored personnel carrier. Flash bang grenades are used to stun the terrorists, who are captured without firing a single shot.
The 1977 double siege is the most famous mission of the Royal Dutch Marines. It is still studied by counter-terrorism units worldwide as a textbook example of how to handle a hostage crisis.
Episode 03 – The British SAS: Attack in the Desert
January 17, 1991 sets a new benchmark in the history of warfare—by the end of the first day of Operation Desert Storm, U.S. bombers and fighter jets have already established air superiority over Iraq. For the U.S.-led coalition, it promises to be a clean, high-tech war. But that night, Sadam Hussein strikes back with volley after volley of deadly Scud missiles aimed at both Israel and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. preaches restraint on the part of the Israelis—if they enter the war, the fragile coalition of Western nations and Arab states waging war against Iraq will disintegrate.
When allied bombers fail to stop the Scuds from the air, the job falls to the British SAS on the ground. Since WWII, these highly trained commandos have been used to carry out sabotage and reconnaissance missions deep behind enemy lines. On January 21st, eight members of SAS squadron Bravo Two Zero under the command of Sergeant Andy McNab are airlifted to northwestern Iraq. “The whole regiments effort was focused on stopping the scuds firing into Israel,” according to McNab. “The problem was there was no information; very little mapping and no satellite imagery of the area.” That lack of information would prove to be Bravo Two Zero’s undoing.
The patrol tries to dig a “laying up” position along a main supply route before daylight exposes them to the enemy. But the ground is solid bedrock for miles around. Instead, they are forced to hike 12 miles before dawn to find a hiding place in a low gully. A goat wanders into the gully, followed by an Iraqi child. Unwilling to kill a child, the commandos slip away from their compromised position. The only way out is a 75-mile march to Syria. They log over 50 miles–the equivalent of two marathons—the first night.
On the second night, they engage Iraqi troops in a fierce firefight. Although numerous Iraqis are killed, the SAS escape. Subzero temperatures and lack of water disorient the commandos, however, and they become separated. One group hijacks a yellow cab along a lonely desert highway and boldly drives through several towns before being caught in a military convoy. They flee on foot in a hail of bullets. The other group must swim across a freezing river and engage the enemy again and again.
Despite the odds, all eight commandos come within a few miles of the Syrian border. Two die of exposure and one dies of gunshot wounds sustained in a firefight with Iraqi soldiers. Four of the commandos are captured by the Iraqis. They are tortured and imprisoned until the end of the war. But one soldier—medic Chris Ryan—actually makes it all the way to Syria. Suffering from dehydration, septic wounds and uranium poisoning from drinking toxic run-off, Ryan has walked, run and crawled 186 miles in eight nights.
It is later established by British intelligence that the members of Bravo Two Zero—just eight men–left 250 Iraqi dead and wounded in their wake.
Episode 04 – The German GSG-9: Jihad in the Fatherland
On September 15, 1977, five masked gunmen abduct Hans Martin Schleyer and execute his three bodyguards. The Red Army Faction, in association with Germany’s notorious Baader-Meinhof Gang, takes credit for the crime. For the German government, this isn’t just a high level kidnapping—it’s a national nightmare. Schleyer is not only a director of the Mercedes Benz Corporation, but the President of the German Employer’s Association.
Barely a month later, a Frankfurt-bound Lufthansa flight leaves Majorca, Spain with 91 passengers and a crew of five. The plane, piloted by Captain Jurgen Schumann, would never reach its destination. An hour into the flight, four Arab terrorists–two men and two women—draw their weapons and take over the plane in the name of the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Within hours of the hijacking, West Germany mobilizes its special anti-terrorist unit: Grenzschutzgruppe-9 or GSG-9. The GSG-9 was formed in response to the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Never again would Germany find itself the defenseless victim of terrorism.
Mahmoud, the leader of the hijackers, instructs Schumann to fly to Rome. In broken English, he broadcasts his demands over the radio: the release of Baader-Meinhof gang members jailed in Germany, as well as a nine million pound ransom for the aircraft and the hostages. After a refueling stop in Cyprus, the plane lands in Dubai. Captain Schumann drops four cigarette boxes out of the cockpit window as a signal to waiting authorities. His message is clear: he has four terrorists on board. Enraged, Mahmoud kills Schumann and forces his co-pilot to fly the plane. After several days of criss-crossing the Mediterranean, Mahmoud orders the co-pilot to land at Mogadishu airport in Somalia. It is October 17 when the plane finally touches down for good.
Commander Ulrich Wegener and 30 GSG-9 commandos board a specially outfitted 707 code-named Stuttgart. They touch down a few hours after the hijacked plane. The commandos find Somali forces have already set up a security perimeter and have begun surveillance. Mahmoud threatens to blow up the airplane if his demands aren’t met. To emphasize his point, he throws Schumann’s body onto the tarmac. This brutal gesture would prove to be Mahmoud’s undoing–the GSG-9 now know they have no choice but to storm the plane.
Just after midnight, the commandos take up positions near the emergency exits of the hijacked 747. At 2:07 am, Somali forces ignite a fuel truck on the tarmac as a diversion to draw the terrorists into the forward section of the plane. At the same time, GSG-9 commandos use boarding ladders to reach the plane’s emergency exits. A minute later, they blow open the emergency doors with shape charges and enter the fuselage, tossing flash bang grenades as they go. One female terrorist is immediately taken out with a .38 shot to the head. Another female terrorist is wounded by an MP5 9mm blast as she runs to the back of the plane.
The commandos evacuate hostages through the rear exits of the plane while the battle for the cockpit rages on. Although wounded several times, Mahmoud tosses two grenades into the cabin. They luckily explode under the seats, slightly injuring several hostages and an operator. Mahmoud is finally killed by an MP5 burst. Wegener himself shoots the last remaining terrorist four times in the head, ending the operation. Five minutes after the commencement of the assault, it’s over. Over a month into their ordeal, the hostages and the GSG-9 return to Germany and a hero’s welcome. Forty-three days after his abduction, the body of Hans Martin Schleyer is found in trunk of an abandoned car in Mulhouse, France.