(London Telegraph) A career soldier, Vaught had served in the Second World War, in Korea and latterly in Vietnam. His role in the abortive hostage rescue mission was as commander of Delta Force, the secretive US airborne counterterrorism unit which he had been instrumental in forming following a spate of terrorist incidents in the early 1970s.

Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage when a mob stormed the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4 1979. Within hours, Delta Force was on full alert and plans were being drawn up for a rescue.

But the Americans faced a daunting task. Tehran lies deep inside Iran, surrounded by more than 700 miles of desert and mountains and far from friendly countries. Good intelligence about the forces inside the embassy and in Tehran itself was hard to come by. Moreover all the planning and training had to be carried out in complete secrecy.

President Jimmy Carter ordered Vaught to execute an audacious plan involving a joint task force formed from all four military services — including the US Marines — using eight helicopters (to evacuate the hostages), and a dozen aeroplanes (for refuelling and troop transport). But the US military was much smaller than it had been in Vietnam, and there were far fewer crack troops. Only Delta Force stood out. The unit had been certified as operational after conducting a hostage rescue exercise, and was now ordered to start planning for the real thing.

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