BOOK REVIEW: Sons of God – Inside the Secret World of Our Special Operations Group by Heath O’Loughlin

BOOK REVIEW: Sons of God – Inside the Secret World of Our Special Operations Group by Heath O’Loughlin

Pan Macmillan Australia
June 2017
Paperback, $34.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Biographies & True Stories / True Crime


Consider the famous trope, “I would love to tell you, but then, of course I’d have to kill you” made famous by the likes of Top Gun, American Psycho and Sherlock, to name a few. You get the sense that this is also applicable when you read the true crime title, Sons of God – Inside the Secret World of Our Special Operations Group. This is an unprecedented and colourful look at Australia’s very first SWAT team, a squad set up by the Victorian Police in 1977 in order to keep the community safe.

In these pages, I have kept my interventions to a minimum, providing background information, introductions and factual details wherever required. The rest is directly in the SOG members’ own words, to give you the best possible insight into the dangers of their ‘workplace’, and the training, attitudes and actions that enable them not only to succeed but also to stay alive. To preserve their anonymity, I have had to change some of their characteristics and code names, but their perspectives and words remain all their own.

This book is written by sports journalist and TV reporter, Heath O’Loughlin. The author is actually the son and nephew of various former members of the Sons of God (SOG). In fact, O’Loughlin is essentially describing the “family business,” because there have been almost 20 different individuals from the O’Loughlin family working in some capacity or other with the Victorian Police over the last few decades. This means that the author was granted unparalleled access and he had a high level of trust from the SOG members he interviewed. This proves to be a great coup the majority of the time but there are some moments where this comes at the expense of impartiality. O’Loughlin paints a very favourable portrait of his family members and their band of brothers, and he is obviously very passionate about what the group do, having idolised and gone to work with his old man and other family members as a kid during school holidays in the time when health and safety laws were much more lax.

So it was emotional at stages but, reflecting on my upbringing I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I learnt a lot through Dad and the SOG including the importance of discipline, teamwork and respect.
To this day, some of Dad’s closest mates are ex-SOG officers and most would never have considered speaking publicly about their experiences with the group. When Dad would return home after work I’d always ask him what he’d been doing, but all he’d ever tell me was, ‘just paperwork.’

This is the first time that these stories have ever been told. O’Loughlin does a great job of providing the context and history behind the group – something that was influenced by the bombing of the Sydney Hilton in 1978. The group was originally lead by former members of the military and it has grown and evolved over time to count the absolute best among its members with  training and selection exercises proving especially gruelling.

The SOG are often considered a “last resort” by the police. They can be called in to deal with armed offenders, critical incidents, hostage situations, terrorist attacks, sieges, dangerous situations, counter-surveillance reconnaissance missions and bomb-related incidents. While some of these stories get surprisingly close to confidential matters related to national security, O’Loughlin seems to find the right balance and offers information that the public will find of interest and are also allowed to know.

RAYDEN: A clever terrorist’s tactic and a good criminal’s tactic is to swap clothes with the hostages so the snipers shoot the hostages and not the bad guys. They give the hostages unloaded weapons, because we can’t tell if a weapon is loaded or not. The only way you can tell is when someone shoots at you, but by then it’s usually too late. It’s the same with trying to determine how many rounds are in a gun – you can’t.

It is fascinating to read the SOG’s recollections of 12 violent and infamous cases that they were involved in. These make for quite tense undertakings and reading this book is certainly not for the faint-hearted. The language is peppered with lots of colloquialisms, obscenities and slang so at times it feels like the equivalent of having a drink down the pub with a highly trained mate of yours.

The Minogues (Craig & Rodney) were handed over to detectives, who expressed their gratitude for the SOG’s work.

DELTA: One of them said to me, ‘Bloody hell, you guys did a job on them all right! Craig’s physically shit himself. He’s got a hard drop of shit in the back of his undies.’ He shit himself. I’ll never forget it. Here’s this so-called big, tough crime hero and he actually crapped himself. It would be traumatising being a criminal, especially a murderer that just killed a young policewoman in Angela Taylor, to be asleep and to have a highly trained special weapons unit hit your room. It’d be the most f**king horrific thing to experience. I think I’d shit myself too if it happened to me.”

Perhaps the most graphic and heart-breaking case explored in this title is from an incident in 1989 when a man took four children captive at a seven hour siege at a Hawthorn kindergarten. Serafettin Huseyin was supposedly promoting his wife’s medical compensation claim through this cowardly act. During this nightmarish ordeal, he doused three boys and one girl with petrol and held them captive. The children would suffer devastating chemical burns.

ROGUE: It was the worst job I’d ever been involved with. Reliving it still makes my heart ache, and the memories are so vivid. I still think about that scene every couple of days. It just pops into my head. I can still hear those little kids. They were so helpless. So scared. So frightened…
That was a bad job…a really bad job. We couldn’t do anything, we couldn’t see anything and yet we were so close to them. We were an arm’s length from him and the kids, and that was excruciating for us. We’re so used to going into situations and being able to have an immediate impact or find a quick resolution, but it wasn’t the case that time.

The case studies explored here are predominantly based in Victoria, which should come as no surprise. But perhaps the most infamous was from when the group were flown via jet to play their part in the Port Arthur Massacre. It is incredible that the SOG were forced to waste precious moments due to ridiculous bureaucracy:

When the jet finally touched down in Hobart after less than an hour in the air, the SOG was directed to a decommissioned police station near the landing strip. The Victorians had to be sworn in before they could carry out their roles in Tasmania – a legal requirement that frustrated them greatly.

SIERRA: We were wasting time on a silly formality, when we could have been saving lives. It was absolutely ridiculous. Making matters worse, they couldn’t find a Bible for us to swear on, and precious time was just ticking away. I tried to tell them we were all agnostic and atheists, but the commanding officer down there wouldn’t hear it and insisted we swore on the Bible. I also tried to convince them that a phone book would suffice. After all, it has all the same letters as the Bible in it- they’re just arranged in a different way.

Sierra was a sniper who could have shot Martin Bryant that day and his recollections are truly fascinating. The SOG had come under fire in the aftermath of previous incidents for exerting too much force, yet in this instance many people seemed to be of the view that the sniper should have shot the gun-crazed murderer. You almost get the sense that these valiant men are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

SIERRA: We arrested him like the SOG arrests people. He had just killed more than thirty people, including children, and we weren’t about to treat him with kid gloves. You know, you’re in the big boys’ sandpit when you’re in an anti-terrorist unit. You don’t have time to muck around particularly with mass-murderers. He was writhing in pain and rolling around on the ground after the flames had been extinguished, but we didn’t make it any more comfortable for him.
I stood over him and he now had his hands strapped behind his back. I looked down and he was just laughing. I remember staring into his piercing, chilling blue eyes. When you look into someone’s eyes, you normally see life. You see humanity, you see character, you can see love, hate, sympathy, or even apathy. You normally see something resembling that of a human being. But when I looked in Bryant’s eyes they just looked like pale-blue glass marbles. There was nothing there, just emptiness.

Sons of God is ultimately an intense slice of true crime and a candid look at security tactics and hardened personnel. It’s a dramatic fly-on-the-wall-style account of some brave boys in black and the tricky risks, decisions, and actions they had to perform in the pursuit of upholding justice in Australia. Sons of God is a well-researched and well-written book that takes the reader into the eye of the maelstrom and back again.

BOOK REVIEW: Sons of God - Inside the Secret World of Our Special Operations Group by Heath O'Loughlin

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