Barrister HENRY GOW tells Marc Waddington about his part in a plot to kill Robert Mugabe
PRACTISING law requires discipline, determination and, on occasion, a dose of aggression. And city barrister Henry ‘Harry’ Gow needed all these qualities in droves in his previous profession – as a solider in the elite Special Air Service, the SAS.
So naturally, then, one would believe the scar on the top of his head was gained in the heat of combat.
But in reality, it was inflicted on him “when someone tried to bury a hatchet in my head” on the mean streets of Glasgow, where he was “dragged up” as the son of a violent, “low-level gangster”.
His escape from the brutality of his early upbringing was, in 1970, aged 17, to join the army’s Parachute Regiment. What followed would be an illustrious career that would see him serve in the Falklands and Northern Ireland, as well as in Africa, where he was to play a key role in a mission – which proved “unsuccessful” – to assassinate one Robert Mugabe.
It was in 1977 that, after seven years in the army, he emigrated to South Africa, where he passed the gruelling selection for the crack ‘Recces’ Special Forces unit. More than 400 candidates started the course, but only 12 passed.
It was as part of this unit that the mission which could have changed the course of African history was hatched.
Mr Gow, 59, said: “The most memorable thing I did there was the attempt to assassinate Mugabe. It was a seaborne operation with a 20 man team.
“We got into Maputo harbour in Mozambique in an inflatable dinghy, and there was an old patrol ship, a gunboat, that came patrolling round, but thankfully it didn’t pick us up.
“As far as the operation went, everything went textbook. The problem came when we got to the compound.
“Unfortunately – fortunately for him, though – he happened to be out of the house. We had an intelligence source in the compound who was able to tell us he wasn’t there.”
So the team slipped back into the shadows.
Mr Gow, who works out of the New Bailey chambers in Fenwick Street, said the adrenalin rush of battle – including large scale operations in Sierra Leone – had become addictive, and so a new challenge beckoned.
“I left South Africa with the rank of sergeant, and did the selection process for the SAS.
“I did three tours with them, in the Falklands, in Northern Ireland, and with the anti-terrorist team.
“The SAS is nothing like it’s portrayed in movies or on TV – it’s a lot better than that. Britain should be justifiably proud of its armed services, and our special forces are recognised around the world as being the absolute pinnacle.”
In the Falklands, a major operation to disrupt the Argentinean forces was hatched, in which Mr Gow would play a key role.
“My squadron was tasked to attack mainland Argentina, and we were attempting to take out their planes.
“The plan was to land by C130 on the airfield and then disperse, blow up the planes, kill the pilots, just cause as much damage as we could, steal trucks and drive over the border to Chile.”
But the plan was frustrated at the eleventh hour, when, sat on the runway about to take off, the mission had to be called off because a new off-shore radar installation had been built by the Argentines and the Royal Air Force was not satisfied it could be avoided.
He was then to take part in the first operational large-scale parachute jump since the Suez crisis, landing on the Falklands ahead of the surrender of Port Stanley.
But he argues that the most serious combat he ever saw was in Mozambique. “We did four months of intense operations. We lost four people, I got shot in the leg, and by body count we killed about 67.”
And killing was an inevitable part of a career in special forces, and something about which he is regularly asked when people pluck up the courage to enquire.
He estimates his own grim tally to be around 27, but “soldiers don’t think about killing in the same way normal people do.
“I killed quite a lot of people in my career, and I’ve had the flashbacks about it. But soldiers feel a certain satisfaction when it’s a case of ‘I’m alive and he’s dead’.
“The killing was just part of the job but I found combat intoxicating, almost addictive.
“It’s the adrenalin of facing a man with a gun, and you have a gun, and you come out alive. At the time when you come out of combat, everything is clearer and brighter, you enjoy things more.
“The rush wears off and you don’t get a rush like it from anything else. A lot of guys from the Regiment, when they finish their time, they go off looking for other wars.”
The next conflict Mr Gow was to find himself in was the struggle in Northern Ireland, engaging in several major gun battles, and one mission that he demanded remain off the record before revealing it privately.
Later, “needing a career that would take me into my 50s, and not wanting to be a 42-year-old bodyguard standing outside some rich Arab’s hotel room”, Mr Gow joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
It was in this service that, despite his highly dangerous career beforehand, he came closest to death, being thrown through the windscreen of his vehicle and left unable to walk for nearly two years.
It was at this time, “as therapy”, he wrote and had published a novel, Double Kill, and began the study of law that would take him on to become a barrister. But, it was at the age of 42, after studying at Leeds university and waiting to go on to train for the bar, that he received a phone call from famed SAS author Andy McNabb’s agent, who persuaded him to write his autobiography.
Killing Zone, written under his first and middle names, Harry McCallion, went on to be a bestseller, and made him “quite a lot of money”.
But he said despite the variety of his career, becoming a barrister was the best thing he ever did.
“I love being a barrister every day, I love the challenge of it. We’re a small chambers that has managed to buck the trend to get bigger and bigger.
“And I must say Liverpool is one of the friendliest and warmest places I’ve ever been, and I’m never more happy than when I’m here.”
So, what aspects of his previous professions have best equipped him to practise law in Liverpool? “I don’t think the attributes are necessarily transferable, but one thing is obviously discipline. And tenacity and aggression.
“I couldn’t have done the work I did as a soldier without aggression, and I’m still aggressive in my advocacy, but I’ve had to temper it a bit.”
Surely, considering his incredible and professionally violent careers, an understatement if ever there was one.