Harry unveils tribute to SAS hero as royal couple say goodbye to Fiji

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex attend the unveiling of a statue commemorating Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba, at Nadi Airport, in Nadi, Fiji (Dominic Lipinski/PA) Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

The Duke of Sussex unveiled a memorial for a British-Fijian soldier who died at the Battle of Mirbat as the royal couple departed Fiji for Tonga.

Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba, of the Special Air Service (SAS), single-handedly held off 250 insurgents with a 25-pounder field gun after being shot in the jaw during the battle in Oman in 1972.

He was part of a nine-strong SAS team based outside Mirbat when they were attacked by the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG).

Sgt Labalaba was posthumously mentioned in dispatches for his bravery in battle.

For a year the unit had been on a secret assignment, code-named Operation Jaguar, to protect the Sultan of Oman from the insurgent force.

On the morning of July 19, 1972, 250 of the Front’s best fighters stormed the port in a surprise attack that left the nine SAS men pinned down inside their fort.

Sgt Labalaba, 30, knew that without heavier fire power, the unit faced almost certain annihilation.

He sprinted across an exposed 800-yard stretch to reach a 25-pound field gun, which would usually require three men to operate.

Ignoring his wounds he continued to hold off the 250 Front fighters for six hours.

In SAS: Operation Storm, a book recounting the battle, fellow trooper Roger Cole wrote that the fight would surely have been lost had Sgt Labalaba not taken the 25-pounder.

Sgt Labalaba is an enduring legend among Fijians, 1,250 of whom are currently serving in the British Army.

The soldier’s son, Isaia Dere Labalaba, 53, was at the ceremony and spoke of his pride that the Duke of Sussex would be unveiling his father’s statue.

He said: “I’m so excited, so happy today. I last saw him in 1971 when he left for his tour of duty. He was meant to come home again within days when he died. I was just four years and 11 months old.

“He was a really family man, my father.

“It is a great honour that he (Harry) has agreed to do this.”

Sekonaia Takavesi Wakolo, 75, was with Sgt Labalaba when he died and was himself shot in the shoulder by a bullet that just missed his head.

He said: “We were blood brothers, we stood side by side. It was the last day of our five-month tour.

The duke thanked the people of Fiji as he prepared to leave the island and head to Tonga Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA

“We had some rum to celebrate the night before and had packed our belongings and gone to sleep before the handover. It was 4am when the attack started.

“We thought it would be just another skirmish and they would head back into the mountains. But it wasn’t and we were outnumbered.”

He added: “We have campaigned for a long time for a statue to commemorate him. It is wonderful to have a memorial to him here in Fiji.

“It is very important to the Fijian people. We were very proud to serve the Crown so it means a lot to us to have Prince Harry here to unveil it.

“His brother Prince William unveiled a statue on Hereford in 2014.”

The Sussexes stayed on private island resort Vatuvara on Wednesday night.

Speaking of the royal visit, Faiyaz Koya, Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism, said: “This is a worldwide event and the visit is tremendous for us. We’re honoured to have them here.

“Vatuvara is one of those islands you will not forget. It showcases the Fijian spirit and what we have as Fijian people. It’s absolutely beautiful. Stunning. They would have enjoyed themselves.”