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The Special Air Service is the army component of the UK Special Forces. The regiment was formed in 1941 as a commando force operating behind enemy lines during the war in North Africa. Since then, it has become the model upon which many other countries have based their own special forces units.


1941 – 1945

Free French SAS Memorial in Sennecey-le-Grand, France

The SAS was raised by then Lieutenant Archibald David Stirling, (a Supplementary Reserve officer of the Scots Guards) during World War II as 'L' Detachment, SAS Brigade,[1] (so named from August 24, 1941) adding to the pre-existing 'J' and 'K' Detachments of the notional Special Air Service Brigade. Given the acting rank of Captain by the Commander in Chief, Middle East Forces and an initial authorised strength of 68 All Ranks, Stirling's No 1 Special Service Unit was originally created as an all volunteer airborne force to conduct raids and sabotage far behind enemy lines in the desert on the model of a concept worked out by Lieutenant John Steel Lewes. Lewes, an experienced Weapons Training Instructor with the Welsh Guards prior to service with No. 8 Commando, became the Detachment's first chief instructor. 'L' Detachment operated in conjunction with the pre-existing Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Lenox Prendergast, Royal Tank Regiment (who later became Deputy Commander of the SAS Brigade in North West Europe in 1944)[N]. Stirling (also formerly of No. 3 and 8 Commando) selected recruits by personal interview and recruited from the disbanding Layforce and from officers and men of other units of the British Army stationed in Egypt awaiting posting at the Infantry Base Depot at Geneifa. The name ‘Special Air Service’ was used as a part of a deception operation (Operation Abeam; mounted by the specialist deception organisation 'A' Force) to suggest that Britain had increased its airborne forces capabilities over and above the single 11 SAS Bn then in existence.[1]

The unit also adopted the basic rank style of parachutist, abbreviated 'Pct', which continued in use until succeeded by trooper, abbreviated 'Tpr' from 1944[N]. On June 30, 1984, at the opening of the new SAS base at Stirling Lines, Hereford, Sir David Stirling declared in his opening speech, published in his authorised biography:

"... I have always felt uneasy in being known as the founder of the Regiment. To ease my conscience I would like it to be recognised that I have five co-founders: Jock Lewes and 'Paddy' Blair Mayne of the original 'L' Detachment, SAS; Georges Bergé, whose unit of the Free French joined the SAS in June 1942; Brian Franks, who re-established 21 SAS Regiment after the SAS had been disbanded at the end of the Second World War; and John Woodhouse who created the modern 22 SAS Regiment during the Malayan campaign by restoring the Regiment to its original philosophy. ..."

This reiterated his view expressed years earlier in a 1942 condolence letter to Lewes's father (Lewes was killed during an operation in December, 1941) first published in 1995 in Joy Street: A Wartime Romance in Letters: "'Jock could far more genuinely claim to be the founder of the SAS than I."

Their only operation in North Africa inserted by parachute, Operation Squatter, commenced on the moonless night of November 16–17 1941 in a single option mission to secure air superiority for the British 8th Army 24 hours before the commencement of the army main offensive Operation Crusader. Five Bristol Bombay aircraft of No. 216 Squadron, Royal Air Force, carrying 54 All Ranks of the Detachment attempted a clandestine night drop with statichutes on two DZs adjacent to the Axis airfields at Gazala (three aircraft) and Timimi (two aircraft) behind enemy lines in support of General Sir Claude Auchinleck’s offensive. Forecast, but discounted, adverse weather conditions with winds gusting to Force 7-8, wrecked the insertion plan, the men and their equipment and the mission was aborted with the loss of one aircraft, its crew, a GHQ Army observer officer, and SAS casualties of five killed and 28 prisoner of war. Only 21 out of 54 effectives reached the agreed rendezvous point with Easonsmith's Patrol of the LRDG. (Of the dead, Pct David Keith, Scots Guards, was killed at sea as a prisoner of war when the Italian ship he was being transported on to Italy was torpedoed by a British submarine. Of the other prisoners of war, seven were released at the Armistice with Italy in 1943 and two, Pct. James ("Jim") Blakeney [not Joseph. Info confirmed by his sister Joan Holland in 2009 and by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry for him, service number 2660354 then of 1 SAS], Coldstream Guards, and Pct Roy David Davies, Welsh Guards, were killed together on April 8, 1945 on Operation Archway.)[N]

Stirling subsequently managed to organise another surreptitious assault against the Axis airfields at Agedabia, Sirte and Agheila, this time transported by the LRDG in support of Bencol operations aimed at the capture of Benghazi. They destroyed a large number of enemy aircraft without a single casualty although the claims for aircraft destroyed on the ground do not correlate well with Axis operational records. [N] Fitzroy Maclean, supposedly one of the inspirations for James Bond, describes in his memoir Eastern Approaches the two raids he undertook to Benghazi. Both involved driving with the LRDG from Alexandria or Cairo. The first was with Stirling and Randolph Churchill, son of the prime minister, and, although it had been intended as a raid, became reconnaissance only. The second was a full-scale assault.

Later redesignated 1 Special Air Service Regiment, known in abbreviated form as '1 SAS', from the notional date of 21 September, 1941 (When the Detachment was actually on Operation Bigamy.) David Stirling's elder brother 'Bill' or William Joseph Stirling, a Regular Army Reserve officer of the Scots Guards also raised a second regiment, again known, in abbreviated form as '2 SAS', from a detachment of the Small Scale Raiding Force or SSRF also designated for cover reasons as No. 62 Commando.[N]

During the desert war, the SAS performed many successful and daring long range insertion missions and destroyed aircraft and fuel depots. Their success contributed towards Adolf Hitler issuing his Kommandobefehl order to execute all captured enemy personnel of the type now commonly known as Special Forces. When the Germans stepped up security, the SAS switched to hit-and-run tactics. They used jeeps, which had been sent over to North Africa, armed with Vickers K machine guns (although this feature was part of the SAS’s modifications of the vehicles) and used tracer ammunition and Lewes bombs to ignite fuel and aircraft.

David Stirling — who was by that time sometimes referred to as the “Phantom Major” by German controlled radio, was captured in January 1943 and he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war, escaping numerous times before being moved to the supposedly 'escape proof' Colditz Castle. Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne Royal Ulster Rifles, TA subsequently took command of 1 SAS after an interim period when 1 SAS was commanded by Lt Col Henry J. 'Kid' Cator, MC, Royal Scots Greys. 'Bill' or William Joseph Stirling, Scots Guards (Subsequently William Joseph Stirling of Keir on the death of his father) was succeeded in command of 2 SAS by Brian Morton Franks, Middlesex Yeomanry, TA who subsequently re-raised the SAS in the post-war British Army.

The SAS were used in the invasion of Italy. At the toe of Italy, they took the first prisoners of the campaign, before heading deeper into Italy. At one point, four groups were active deep behind enemy lines laying waste to airfields, attacking convoys and derailing trains. Towards the end of the campaign, Italian guerrillas and escaped Russian prisoners were enlisted into an ‘Allied SAS Battalion’[2] , which struck at Kesselring’s main lines of communications. In 1945, Major Roy Farran made one of the most effective raids of the war. His force raided the German Fifth Corps headquarters, burning the buildings to the ground and killing the General and some of his staff.

SAS men were inserted into France in 9-man 'sticks' from the Normandy Invasion to help maquisards of the French Resistance. The 4 SAS (French) participated to Operation Dingson and Operation Samwest and was the first allied troop to be dropped for the Invasion of Normandy [3]. In a reversal of their by now customary tactics, SAS often travelled during the day when Allied fighter bombers drove enemy traffic off the roads, and then ambushed enemy troops moving in convoy under the cover of darkness. In Operation Houndsworth, 144 SAS effectives parachuted with jeeps and supplies into Dijon, France. During and after D-Day they continued their raids against fuel depots, communications centres and railways. They did suffer casualties - at one stage the Germans, under the Commando Order, executed 34 SAS soldiers and a US Air Force pilot who were captured while participating in Operation Bulbasket. At the end of the war, an SAS War Crimes Investigation Team, commanded by Major Eric Alistair 'Bill' Barkworth Somerset Light Infantry TA (Subsequently AAC) of 2 SAS traced all the SS and Gestapo personnel responsible for these killings and handed them over to the Allied authorities for trial as war criminals.[N] By that time, the SAS in the UK had been expanded to five battalion sized units, known according to British practice as regiments, of which two were French (known as 3 SAS and 4 SAS) and one Belgian (known as 5 SAS). In the Middle East the other SAS units were the Special Boat Service (Disbanded on August 15, 1945) commanded by Lieutenant Colonel David George Carr Sutherland, Black Watch who was appointed CO of 21 SAS May 10, 1956 - January 1, 1960 (not to be confused with the identically named Special Boat Service operating from the UK, or in the Far East where they were predominantly manned by the Royal Marines, or the Special Balkans Service of the OSS) and the separate and single mission regiment known, for cover and deception purposes, as No 1 Italian Special Air Service Regiment with all volunteer personnel drawn from the Italian Co-Belligerent Nembo and Folgore units. An American Special Air Service Regiment had been mooted by the US Army command element at 18 Army Group HQ but, in the event, was never formed due to American antipathy to the idea.[N]

About 2,500 individuals served with the SAS and SBS (SAS) in World War II; from 1944 specially selected volunteers from the Auxiliary Units of the Home Guard were included in this figure as well as a small number of women who crewed the 'DZ cover' ambulances in the UK.[N]

1946 - 1979

The War Office disbanded the UK based British SAS regiments on the notional date of November 30, 1946. The French and the Belgians were returned to their own authorities; the French on October 1, 1945 and the Belgians on September 21, 1945. The British SAS were re-raised as Territorial Army unit 21 SAS on May 1, 1947. In April 1948, however, the Malayan Races Liberation Army began an insurrection which transformed into the Malayan Emergency. Two years later former Brigadier Mike Calvert, RE now in the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel re-created an SAS type commando unit similar to jungle troops like the Chindits which he had once commanded. Personnel from a specially formed squadron, known as 'K', of 21 SAS were redeployed from the Korean War and sent to Malaya to join Calvert's unit, some of whom were recruited from personnel of the original SAS, other units and Rhodesia. The unit name "Malayan Scouts" was incorporated with the title SAS as SAS (Malayan Scouts).

Training new recruits took time. They learned tracking skills from Iban soldiers from Borneo. They began to patrol in teams of 2 or 4 men. Less than sanitary conditions forced them to learn first aid. They also learned local languages and respect for the local customs and culture. Patrol periods in the jungle were progressively extended to three months. Soldiers unsuitable for jungle warfare were RTU'd (Returned to Unit). At that stage some troopers were armed with pump-action shotguns. They also earned the respect of some of the indigenes by helping them. By the end of 1955 there were five SAS squadrons in Malaya. They stayed in mopping up operations until the end of 1958.

Many other missions followed. The SAS fought anti-sultan rebels in Jebel Akhdar, Oman in 1958-1959. They fought Indonesian-supported "guerillas" during the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation in Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak in 1963-1966. They also tried to pacify the situation in Aden in 1964-1967 before the withdrawal of British troops. They fought against another insurrection in Dhofar, Oman in 1970-1977. SAS soldiers were involved, secretly, in the South Asia conflict in the early to mid 1970s.

Most of these deployments were deniable and covert. Membership, missions and the whole existence of the SAS became more secret. The SAS's role was expanded to bodyguard (BG) training and Counter-Terrorism (CT) work. They also began to work in civilian clothes on missions unless they could use the uniforms of some other unit as a disguise. The British Secretary of State for Defence still does not discuss the SAS or its operations.

1980 - 2001

SAS troopers parachute from a C-130 Hercules to land in the water near HMS Cardiff during the Falklands War

On 30 April, 1980, six Iranian terrorists took over the Iranian Embassy in Princes Gate, London. After six days of unsuccessful negotiations and one hostage's murder, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered an assault. At 19:26 on Monday 5 May, the SAS went in. More than thirty effectives entered the building, including some who went in across the now famous balcony broadcast live by the BBC. A diversionary attack was staged and other men went in through the ground floor. One hostage was killed by the terrorists, but within minutes the terrorist threat had been eliminated, with five of the six having been killed and one captured. Of the original 26 hostages, 24 were safe. The operation was hailed as a great success and was to change the way the public viewed the regiment.

During the Falklands War of 1982, SAS teams worked alongside the Special Boat Service (SBS) in many operations before the main force landings at San Carlos and after the landings ahead of the Forward Edge of Battle Area (FEBA). These included operations in South Georgia, guiding Harrier strike aircraft attacks on Stanley airport to destroy Argentine helicopters, and the destruction of eleven Pucará attack aircraft on Pebble Island, known as the Raid on Pebble Island. During the war, 22 SAS, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Rose, had its own voice satellite communications to the UK which was utilised on one occasion by a press reporter, Max Hastings, given exceptional access, to file a 'scoop': a matter which was subsequently raised in Parliament.

Throughout the 1980s, the SAS helped train Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, mostly in the use of land mines, as well as psy-ops. [1]

In 1987, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered an SAS team into the high-security prison at Peterhead, Scotland. A rebellion by inmates had resulted in one of the prison officers being taken captive. The soldiers were armed with staves and entered the building by way of a skylight. After subduing the inmates with what was called a "hard arrest", which was violent but disciplined and in this case caused no injury, the SAS team freed the prison officer and the operation ended. Some time after the incident, the Prison Service relaxed its zero tolerance attitude to drug use in that prison.

Some soldiers (officially former members of the Regiment) fought in the Vietnam War training US Combat Tracker Teams 1965-1971 [2] and helped the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. There was also official SAS training of Mujahideen in Scotland in the 1980s, with particular emphasis on shooting down Soviet-made helicopters with American-made FIM-92 Stinger, man-portable surface-to-air missiles. Some ex-members have also become mercenaries or private military contractors.

During Gulf War 1991, the SAS were deployed deep into Iraqi territory to gather intelligence and track mobile Scud missile launchers. The most famous of these patrols was Bravo Two Zero, popularised by books written under pseudonyms by three patrol members. Discovered by the local Iraqis, the patrol attempted to make the Syrian border on foot, but became separated. Four members of the patrol were captured and three died during action. Only one member, Chris Ryan escaped to Syria. The first two accounts published by patrol members were widely criticised by members of the SAS such as Peter Ratcliffe and Michael Asher.

In September 2000, members of 'D' Squadron were tasked with the hostage rescue of six members of the Royal Irish Regiment and one Sierra Leonean Corporal in Sierra Leone. The operation was named Operation Barras. The soldiers had been taken hostage by the West Side Boys, led by Foday Kallay, and were held in the dense jungle in western Sierra Leone. Alongside the SAS, members of the SBS and A Company of 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment fought in the battle. Twelve British soldiers were wounded in the operation and one SAS Lance Corporal was killed. The operation was a success and many rebel leaders were captured; not long after, the West Side Boys had been all been defeated.

2002 - present

After the 11 September 2001 attacks, the SAS were involved in operations in Afghanistan. Operation TRENT employed a proportion of the Regiment in a successful attack on an $85,000,000 opium storage plant in Helmand province, which doubled as an Al-Qaeda local command centre. SAS members also participated in the Battle of Tora Bora with their American counterparts.

On January 30, 2005, an RAF Hercules crashed near Baghdad after being shot down by rockets fired by guerillas, killing ten British servicemen. The plane had just dropped off fifty members of 'G' Squadron north of Baghdad for an operation to combat the increased insurgency.

On 19 September, 2005, two supposed SAS (now thought to be Special Reconnaissance Regiment) members were arrested in Basra in Iraq. Iraqi police claimed the two were arrested trying to plant bombs dressed in civilian clothing and had shot at police officers. The arrests sparked clashes in which British armoured personnel carriers came under attack from petrol bombs. Later, official Iraqi sources said that British armoured personnel carriers knocked down a wall storming the city's jail and rescuing the soldiers. The British Ministry of Defence initially said that the men's release was negotiated and the armoured personnel carriers were merely trying to collect them. They later, however, claimed that the police had illegally handed the men over to Shi'a militia and it was from these that they had to be rescued.

On 23 March 2006 'B' Squadron, 22 SAS assisted in an operation to free British hostage Norman Kember from a town north of Baghdad in Iraq.

In October 2008, Major Sebastian Morley, commander of some Territorial Army SAS troops in Afghanistan, resigned over what he described as "gross negligence" on the part of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that contributed to the deaths of four British troops under his command. Morley stated that the MoD's failure to properly equip his troops with adequate equipment forced them to use lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers to travel around Afghanistan. In June 2008 a Land Rover transporting Corporal Sarah Bryant and SAS soldiers Corporal Sean Reeve and Lance Corporals Richard Larkin and Paul Stout hit a mine in Helmand province, killing all four.[4]

Northern Ireland

The Regiment was deployed to Northern Ireland from the early stages of what became known as 'The Troubles', starting in 1969. The SAS initially operated as an openly uniformed regiment, wearing their distinctive sand-coloured beret with the winged dagger cap badge, later they assumed a more undercover posture and focused on counter-terrorism operations. Initial detail of this deployment have been routinely released to general public scrutiny on January 1, 2007 in files held at the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

Over the course of the Troubles the SAS worked closely with the intelligence agencies, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Special Branch and are reported to have operated jointly with the Special Boat Service with some personnel serving with 14 Intelligence Company on long term attachment. Personnel are likely to have had access to the military intelligence systems deployed to the province to inform their positioning of covert Observation Posts and ambush operations.

The use of a shoot-to-kill policy has created some controversy. For instance, on 10 July 1978, John Boyle, a sixteen-year-old Catholic, was exploring an old graveyard near his family's farm in County Antrim, when he discovered an arms cache. He told his father, who passed on the information to the RUC. The next morning Boyle decided to see if the guns had been removed and was shot dead by two SAS soldiers who had been waiting undercover.[5]

The Troubles were classed as an internal United Kingdom matter and employment of the British Army in the Province is Military Aid to the Civil Power, as such British military personnel were not permitted to cross the border with the Republic of Ireland, technically an invasion. Despite this legal obstacle to the conduct of the mission, personnel did pursue suspects into the Republic of Ireland with a number being apprehended by the Garda Síochána, although rarely charged with firearms offences but returned to British authority. On one occasion, in March 1976, Seán MacKenna, an IRA commander, was allegedly abducted from his home in the Republic by the SAS and handed over to a British Army patrol once across the border.

In the 1970s the IRA started to attack British Army personnel on the European mainland, in 1989 the Germany|German]] security forces discovered an SAS unit operating in Germany without the permission of the German government.[6]

The Regiment are reputed to claim that its reputation resulted in the IRA surrender in the Balcombe Street Siege once the deployment of the SAS had been publicised.

Regiment personnel were involved in Operation Flavius in Gibraltar in which three IRA volunteers Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) Volunteers, Seán Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairéad Farrell, were killed.

See also


  1. ^ a b Macdonald, Peter (1990) The SAS in Action; Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd. p.8
  2. ^ Warner, Philip (1971). The Special Air Service. William Kimber. p. 157. ISBN 718301722.  
  3. ^ Bonnecarrère, Paul (1985). Qui ose vaincra. Marabout Université. p. 471. ISBN 2501007484.  
  4. ^ Harding, Thomas, "SAS Chief Quits Over 'Negligence That Killed His Troops'", London Daily Telegraph, November 1, 2008.
  5. ^ The Irish War: the hidden conflict between the IRA and British Intelligence, Tony Geraghty, p.124
  6. ^ David Charters, The deadly sin of terrorism: its effect on democracy and civil liberty in six countries, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994, ISBN 0313289646, 9780313289644 p. 50


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