Regarded as the best special forces unit in the world, the Special Air Services (SAS) has been home for some of Fiji's most distinguished soldiers. Operating in a shadow world, unable to divulge their whereabouts or mission details, SAS officer PETE SCHOLEY brings to life the story of genuine Fijian heroes in his - SAS Heroes ... Remarkable Men Extraordinary Heroes Ã¢â‚¬â€ and gives an insight into the heroic deeds of one particular Fijian whose superhuman efforts have made him a legend among legends. In a four-part series, Scholey tells of his friend and unsung hero who has inspired generations of SAS soldiers. This is Part Three of Sgt Talaiasi Labalaba's story.
FOUR years later, on 19 July 1972, the two Fijians were lying on their bunk in their billet in the small Omani harbour town of Mirbat.
A low mist hung over the slope of the Jebel Massif only a mile or so inland, spreading its penetrating drizzle almost as far as the coast where Mirbat nestled on the shore of the Arabian Sea.
This was the monsoon season and the thick cloud meant that, at 5am, daylight was still sometime away. This suited the Adoo, who crept silently towards their targets in the darkness.
Over 250 of them swept down from the mountain, heading towards Mirbat. They divided into specific attack groups, those further split into squads of 10 men, and made for their start positions, ready to advance on the town from all sides.
Mirbat was surrounded.
The Adoo's first objective was an outpost just over half a mile north of the town, standing on a small hill. Halfway between the town and the mountains, the hill towered over the target area and any sentries stationed at the hilltop had to be dealt with swiftly.
The eight men manning the outpost were supposed to have died silently, their throats cut as they slept, but things did not go exactly as planned.
A shot rang out, cutting through the damp air and, in the instant that it takes to recognise a gunshot, it was joined by a volley that left the sentries in no doubt that they were under attack.
Having lost the element of surprise, the Adoo mortar teams immediately opened up in Mirbat.
Inside the town, Laba and Tak and the seven SAS British Army Team (BATT) heard the thud of the mortar explosions and rubbed the sleep from their eyes. Surely the Adoos werent trying to lob mortars into the town from way out on the Jebel again?
The harassing fire rarely caused any real damage and the mortar teams always fled back into the mountains before anybody had a chance to get them.
Then a second wave of shells landed. Laba and Tak exchanged glances.
This sounded different, closer.
The SAS men scrambled to their stand-to positions to try to see what was going on.
The fishing harbour and garrison town of Mirbat lies on a standby beach about 40 miles (64km) east of the southern regional capital of Salalah.
The narrow strip of coastal plain around the bay is furrowed with wadis cut by water from the summer monsoons rushing down from the nearby mountains to the sea.
In the dim light of the approaching dawn, from the roof of the mud-brick BATT house the team could see the walis fort to the north-east, barely make out the looming mass off the Jebel Ali much farther up to the north and just about identify the Dhofar Gendarmerie, their arsenal.
A deep wadi separated the small clutch of buildings that skirted the marketplace, including the BATT house, from the main dwellings of the town further round the bay to the south. Surrounding the whole town, undulating over the uneven ground and cutting through the patchy scrub, was a perimeter fence of barbed wire.
Flashes in the distant gloom identified the location of the Adoo mortars at the base of the Jebel Massif. Their barrage was creeping closer, the rounds now falling at the edge of the town.
Smaller flashes from rifles and machine-guns sparked on the Jebel Ali. It was clear from those that the DG sentries in the outpost had been overrun. Most of the fire from the Jebel Ali, including bright green lines of tracer, was directed against the DG fort.
The walis fort was manned by around 30 Askars, regular troops assigned to the local wali and whose job was security. They searched anyone coming into or going out of the area for weapons or food that might be destined for the Adoo up in the mountains.
The Askars were armed with old .303-calibre bolt-action rifle that were accurate in expert hands, but did not provide a very impressive rate of fire.
Heavily armed with mortars, several RPG7s (rocket propelled grenades) and at least one Carl Gustav (both originally designed as anti-tank weapons), Kalshnikov assault rifles, heavy machine guns and grenades, the Adoo were confident that they outgunned outnumbered Mirbats defenders.
Their intentions were quite simple take the town and slaughter everyone in it.
The Adoo had suffered some dispiriting defeats at the hands of the sultans forces and badly needed a resounding victory to rally their disillusioned supporters. They chose Mirbat as a demonstration of their strength because the town was the local point of the local Firquat, who were being trained by the SAS BATT.
The attack on Mirbat was intended to teach the turncoats a lesson and show that the Adoo were not to be crossed. Sacking Mirbat was so important to them that they had assembled their best-trained, most experienced soldiers for the operation.
They knew that most of the Firquat were out on patrol in the mountains and wanted them to return to a town that had been razed to the ground, with the butchered bodies of their families lying in the ruins.
It was obvious to the SAS team, under the command of Captain Mike Kealy, that the Adoos primary target in the village was to be the DG in the fort, which dominated the town, and the 25pdr field gun dug in outside the forts main gate.
The guns main purpose was to provide covering fire for the Firquat should there be any Adoos on their trail as they returned from patrols in the mountains. Dug in with its ammunition bunker alongside, the gun was the type used by the British Army in World War II, reputed to be the finest artillery piece of its size at the time and still a formidable weapon in the right hands 30 years later. Laba decided that those hands should be his. If the gun was captured, the Adoo could lay waste to the fort and the rest of the town.
By this point shrapnel from the bursting mortars was screeching over the BATT house and there was sporadic, largely inaccurate, incoming small-arms fire from all sides.
Laba left the BATT house and sprinted across the rough ground towards the 25pdr. He took over where he could, but never for long. The gun urgently needed to be brought into action.
Tak watched his friend disappear towards the fort from his position in the BATT house mortar pit just a few yards from the building. The machine-guns mounted on the roof of the BATT house, one GPMG and one .50-calibre Browning, as well as the other troopers SLRs, remained silent.
There was no point in giving away their exact positions by opening fire when there was barely enough light to identify a target. Tak, however, was busy with the 81mm mortar, pounding the Adoos mortar positions.
As one of the three-men team took fire control instructions over a walkie-talkie from the mortar controller on the roof of the BATT house, another was frantically unpacking mortar bombs from the containers, removing the safety pins and stacking them ready for Tak to drop them down the tube.
In the Fijians big hands, the deadly 9lb (4kg) shells seemed no more than lightweight childrens toys.
Then came the reassuring crash and boom of the 25pdr opening up. Laba had reached the gun pit and was aiming, loading and firing the gun single-handed.
Under more normal conditions, the gun would have had a crew of five. As the light started to brighten, the Adoo could be seen advancing towards the wire in the wake of their mortar barrage, which was now creeping forward ahead of them into the town.
Using classic assault tactics, one squad advanced to good cover than gave covering fire as the squad leapfrogged them.
Capt Kealy gave the order for the BATT house machine-guns to open fire and the troops in the forts also began to give good account of themselves, although the rate of fire from the ramparts was as nothing compared to the hail of bullets now streaming into the town.
Inside the BATT house, Capt Kealy ordered Pete Winner to contact SAS headquarters at Um al Gwarif, on the outskirts of Salalah, informing them that Mirbat was under attack and they were taking heavy fire.
As Pete worked the Morse Key, a mortar round rocked the building. Abandoning normal encoding procedures, he sent the desperate message in plain text.
Outside, the Adoo were probing towards the wire, searching for breaches opened by the mortars. No one wanted to present a tempting target by becoming entangled.
The exchange of fire continued unabated and the clearing morning mist was reinforced by a pall of smoke and dust. Visibility did, however, slowly improve, although the low cloud made the beleaguered BATT units requests for air support almost impossible to fulfil. Reinforcements, however, were being organised.
The men of B Squadron in Mirbat had been due to go home on the day of the attack. Their replacements from G Squadron were already at Um al Gwarif and were now emptying the armoury, taking every GPMG and loading as much ammunition as they could carry into the trucks that would take them to the airstrip at Salalah.
From there, helicopters would airlift the 22 men and their equipment to Mirbat once the mist had cleared enough for the pilots to be able to see where they were going.
Meanwhile, Laba worked hard, crouched behind the armoured shield of the 25pdr, his shirt stained with sweat and blackened with powder. The Adoo were so close that he was reducing to sighting the gun down the barrel, firing into the advancing men at what amounted to point blank range for a gun that was capable of hurling its high-explosive rounds more than three miles (5km).
There were occasional, and temporary, lulls in the battle when the gunfire subsided from a thunderous frenzy to a more sporadic exchange as the Adoo went to the ground. Then, having regrouped, a fresh wave rose to advance on the DG fort and its gun emplacement.
They faced a withering hail of defensive fire and the determined barrage from Laba on the 25pdr. When the Adoo had closed to less than 50 yards (46m) from the fort, the rocket-propelled rounds from their RPG-7s and the high explosives from the Carl Gustav blasted enormous chunks of brick and plaster from its walls, leaving gaping holes. Then a message came through on the walkie-talkie from Laba in the gun pit.
Ive been chinned, but Im okay.
The message caused grave concern in the BATT house.