“Flash-bangs” are a key weapon in the modern special operations forces (SOF) and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team armory. In hostage rescue/urban tactical situations, they distract and disorient the captors and/or defenders, giving assault teams vital seconds to deal with them before they are able to react. One of the earliest “non-lethal” weapons to be deployed, flash-bangs were invented to deal with a growing paramilitary development in an increasingly violent world: terrorism. The early 1970s were a time of violent leftist direct action across the globe, as a number of disenfranchised groups began to see acts of violence against civilian targets as a viable way of gaining the world’s attention. Initially, these took the form of airline hijackings, but rarely resulted in fatalities. Then came Munich.
In 1972, the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took hostage and killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Olympic Games. It would take other countries (except Israel) months or years to react and develop a counterterrorism (CT) strategy and capacity. The British Special Air Service (SAS) however, reacted immediately. The morning after the massacre, the commanding officer of the 22nd SAS Regiment tasked his B Squadron with forming an SAS counterterrorism team, officially known as the Counter Revolutionary Warfare Wing (CRW). B Squadron’s immediate mission: Identify potential target types and develop the techniques and technologies this new form of warfare (counterterrorism ) would require.
The CRW’s initial presumed terrorist targets list included embassies, commercial aircraft, oil drilling and production rigs, and various kinds of hostages. B Squadron’s approach was “Chinese Parliament style”; everyone contributing irrespective of rank. They ran through a whole series of scenarios, working out what the terrorists would do, how the SAS CT teams might counter, and how the terrorists could counter the CT teams. In virtually every scenario considered, the critical handful of seconds after entering a siege situation or hostage-filled room was part of this debate. A key conclusion was that the SAS needed something that might distract and disorientate the gunmen, so the assault team could identify and deal with the any enemy gunmen before they could kill the hostages.
The SAS were aware of one such device already in the British army’s inventory: the “Thunderflash,” which, when detonated in a confined area, gave off a loud bang. Thunderflashes had been around for many years, but had evolved little since their introduction. Now, the SAS asked U.K. government engineers to develop a version that looked like a conventional hand grenade, the idea being that if a terrorist saw a grenade come into a room, he would think it was going to explode, and would hesitate, giving the assault team extra vital seconds to enter. The key development came from a scientist of the U.K. government’s top-secret chemical and biological warfare research establishment at Porton Down. The effect of a pyrotechnic “bang” would be magnified, he said, if, milliseconds before the “bang,” the grenade emitted a high-power flash. The result was the G60 stun grenade, today better known as the flash-bang.
The G60 contained a 4.5-gram charge with a mix of magnesium and potassium perchlorate. On detonation it created a blinding flash equivalent to 300,000 candlepower, activating all of the light-sensitive cells in the eye, and making vision impossible for approximately five seconds. In addition, the G60 emits a bang, equivalent to 160 to 180 decibels, which unbalanced and disoriented victims by disrupting the fluid in the inner ear. The grenade itself remains intact upon detonation; it is cylindrical, with the light and noise being emitted through holes down the sides, so there is no shrapnel to harm hostages. One problem of the G60 was the danger of the flash setting fire to flammable objects nearby, but this was considered acceptable given its tactical benefits and capabilities.
No weapon has worth unless it is fully integrated with proper tactics for its usage, and the SAS worked hard to create a new doctrine for CT operations that included the G60. In their “Killing Room” at RAF Hereford, the SAS developed and refined the way they would use flash-bangs in conjunction with close-quarter weapons like the Browning Hi-Power pistol and H&K MP-5 submachine gun. With dummies standing in as terrorist gunmen, but with live hostage roleplayers (SAS volunteers sitting in), live ammunition and flash-bangs were used for the first time. Inside the “Killing House” (and in borrowed aircraft cabins) formal “room clearing” operations were practiced and tactics polished. In the years that followed, the SAS shared their new CT tactics with SOF forces from around the world and got ready to provide advice and support should it be asked for.
That call came on Oct. 13, 1977, when four members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, calling themselves Commando Martyr Halime, hijacked Lufthansa Flight 181. En route from Palma de Mallorca to Frankfurt, with 91 passengers and crew on board, the 737 was crowded with tourists, including a number of participants from the Miss World beauty pageant. For five days, West Germany’s counter-terrorism unit, GSG-9, formed after the Munich Olympics disaster, tracked Lufthansa 181 across the skies of the Middle East, as politicians and hijackers tried to work out a negotiated solution. Two SAS operators, Maj. Alastair Morrison and Sgt. Barry Davies, secretly joined GSS-9 with a “bag of tricks” including flash-bangs.
The hijacking ended at Mogadishu on the night of Oct. 17/18, when at 0207 hours, Operation Feuerzauber (“Fire Magic”) was executed and GSG-9 stormed Lufthansa 181. Intelligence reports suggested that the hijackers had doused passengers with cigarette lighter fuel and liquor, and trials had shown that early flash bangs were especially prone to setting things alight. So GSG-9 did not use the SAS’s flash-bangs inside the aircraft cabin, in deference to the potential fire hazard. Instead, and in sync with the GSG-9 assault, Morrison and Davies threw G60s at the cockpit windscreen as diversions, drawing the hijackers away from GSG-9’s entry points. The diversion worked perfectly: The hijackers went to the front of the aircraft to see what was happening and the GSG-9 teams entered through the rear cabin doors. When the shooting stopped, three hijackers were dead and one wounded. All 90 passengers and the remaining crew were released. The SAS used flash-bangs on two other occasions, both involving hostages. One very public use was at the end of the siege of the Iranian Embassy in Central London in May 1980, (Operation Nimrod), and one non-public operation at Peterhead Prison in October 1987, where prison officers were held by rioting prisoners.
In addition to terrorists and SAS men going through CRW training, a select band of individuals have also experienced what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a flash-bang. As terrorism became an increasing threat, senior politicians like Dame Margaret Thatcher and members of the British royal family, including Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, were put through the Killing House course at Hereford … including live ammunition and live flash-bangs. Flash-bangs are now used by police and military units throughout the world, and in a range of models. Later flash-bangs were designed for single or multiple detonations, so all parts of a room could be reached; they can also contain irritants such as CS or CN tear gas. Their everyday use today belies how revolutionary they were back in 1977, and how effective they still are today.