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Campaign to honour battle hero 40 years after his death

  • Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba (left) and Sgt Sekonaia Takavesi (Right) with Omani gunners and the 25-pounder field gun that Sgt Labalaba fired in the 1972 Battle of Mirbat. Photos: Hodder/PA Wire

    Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba (left) and Sgt Sekonaia Takavesi (Right) with Omani gunners and the 25-pounder field gun that Sgt Labalaba fired in the 1972 Battle of Mirbat. Photos: Hodder/PA Wire

  • Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba with Omani children in Oman.

    Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba with Omani children in Oman.

An SAS veteran is leading a campaign for a comrade to receive a posthumous Victoria Cross nearly 40 years after he died in one of the special forces regiment’s most celebrated victories.

Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba was killed in the 1972 Battle of Mirbat in Oman, in which nine British SAS soldiers defied overwhelming odds to hold off 400 communist rebels.

For over an hour the Fijian single-handedly manned a 25-pounder field gun, which normally required a crew of four, and he continued to fire it even after being wounded.

Sgt Labalaba, known to his friends as Laba, received only a Mention in Despatches – the lowest honour possible – for his incredible bravery.

Now ex-SAS soldier Roger Cole, who himself fought in the Battle of Mirbat, has written a book which aims to redress the injustice of the “shabby” treatment meted out to the heroes of the day.

He said: “For 39 years I’ve been thinking about this – it’s been a thorn in my side. I actually witnessed what that guy did.

“At the time everyone knew it was a secret war and they couldn’t give him a VC. Everybody appreciated that.

“But three years after the event they started giving some awards and honours. At the time you could only get a Mention in Despatches or a VC posthumously – and he got a Mention in Despatches.”

The Battle of Mirbat on July 19, 1972 saw the nine SAS men fire 15,000 rounds of ammunition as they valiantly defended a fort outside the town against hundreds of well-armed advancing rebels.

Two British soldiers were killed – Sgt Labalaba, 30, and Irish medic Trooper Tommy Tobin, 25 – and surgeons spent 30 hours operating on the wounded from both sides.

Mr Cole said it was the “Rorke’s Drift of our time”, a reference to the famous 1879 battle where a British garrison of 140 men in South Africa fought off up to 3,000 Zulu warriors, after which 11 VCs were awarded.

He hopes his book SAS Operation Storm, the first full-length account of the Battle of Mirbat, will boost the campaign to have Sgt Labalaba awarded a posthumous VC.

“I think the book is going to be the springboard for it. We can then start getting politicians on board,” he said.

Mr Cole pointed out that Mr Tobin received no honour at all despite running half a mile across open ground under fire from hundreds of the enemy to reach wounded comrades needing medical treatment.

The book concludes: “The two men who died from their injuries at Mirbat but were then shabbily treated by the High Command of the British Army are buried just a few feet from each other.

“Neither man received a medal. One received no honour at all. The other was granted the lowest possible award, Mentioned in Despatches.”

Sgt Labalaba is now commemorated with a statue at the SAS headquarters in Hereford unveiled in 2009. Mr Cole, 67, originally from Knowle West, Bristol, said: “The regiment had some money and they had a plinth left in the new camp.

“The Regimental Sergeant Major asked everybody what kind of statue should we have there that defines the regiment. And to a man, they all said Laba.”

He described the Fijian hero as a “gentle giant”, adding: “Physically, he was like a man mountain. But the children were always around him – I imagine if he had been a father he would have been a good father. He was one of those big teddy bears.”

SAS Operation Storm by Roger Cole and Richard Belfield is being published by Hodder & Stoughton on Thursday.

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