The Hilton Assignment

The attempted overthrow of Col. Qaddhafi of Libya by mercenaries in 1969

On 1st September 1969, a small group of junior military officers led by Gaddafi staged a bloodless coup d'état against King Idris while he was in Turkey for medical treatment. His nephew, the Crown Prince Sayyid Hasan ar-Rida al-Mahdi as-Sanussi, was formally deposed by the revolutionary army officers and put under house arrest, they abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the new Libyan Arab Republic.

A plan to use mercenaries to restore the monarchy was organised by David Stirling, founder of the British Special Air Service, who at the time was running a company known as "Watch Guard". Secretly his company had been approached by a member of the Libyan Royal Family.

The plan dubbed the "Hilton Assignment", (a reference to the Libyan jail) was made up of 100% English nationality personnel. A group of 25 mercenaries where to try and release from a Libyan prison a large group of political prisoners, who would then join up with a coup that would be in process to overthrow Colonel Gaddhafi. The raid was to be launched from Italy by boat.

The mercenaries were then to return to their boat having slip away quietly as the locals took over.

Despite Stirling's confidence, the plan was called off at a late minute by the British Secret Intelligence Service, allegedly because the United States Government felt that Gaddafi was sufficiently anti-Marxist and thus acceptable.

Although it was later revealed that David Sterling was involved with a lot of very high-ranking government members including Sir Alec Douglas-Hume, the then Foreign Minister and he was warned off and told that no British subjects should take part in the raid. The British Government was worried that Colonel Qaddhafi would retaliate against them if the attempt failed.

Although the British called off the first attempt, a second and third attempt was planned and made up of 100% French nationality mercenaries. A Frenchman called Leon led the second and third attempts, that was fraught with problems with each attempt.

James Kent also took an active part in all three attempts, in fact the first attempt was his plan and he put it into operation, only failing when the arms and ammunition failed to turn up.

On Sunday the 21.03.71 as the third attempt was about to get under way. The Italian security forces stormed on board the motor vessel Conquistador X111, as it was about to leave Trieste Harbour, picking up the Captain and three French crew members and placing them in prison.

The  CIA appealed to the Italian Secret Service and also the British to terminate the assignment. The Captain was charged under the name of Jock Fraser.

To read some of the fine details its worth reading the book.

The Hilton Assignment first came to the public eye via a book wrote by Patrick Seale and  Maureen McConville.  Published by Maurice Temple Smith Ltd (London) in a paperback during 1973. ISBN-13: 9780851170473 and ISBN-10: 0851170471. (In New York by Praeger). At the moment it is out of print in both countries.

Patrick Abram Seale is a British journalist and author who specialises in the Middle East, as well as a literary agent and art dealer. He is a former correspondent for The Observer and has interviewed many of the Middle East's most prominent leaders and personalities.

Seale is the author of a number of books, including The Struggle for Syria (1965), French Revolution 1968 (1968), Philby, the Long Road to Moscow (1973), The Hilton Assignment (1973), Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (1988), Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire (1992), and The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (2010). He also ghostwrote Desert Warrior, the 1995 Gulf.


'The Hilton Assignment' by Patrick Seale and  Maureen McConville. 

'Wages Of War' The life of a Modern Mercenary Published by Leo Cooper 1978 Hard cover. ISBN 9780850522358. John Banks gives his slightly different version of events.