Colonel David Stirling formed the Special Air Service (SAS) during World War Two. Stirling had big plans for a commando-style unit to conduct raids behind enemy lines. During the North African campaign, Rommel and his Afrika Korps were tearing things up.
He got his plan started in July 1941. Stirling pulled together 5 officers and 60 other ranks. He placed them under the name of “L” Detachment, Special Air Service in an attempt to confuse the Germans. He wanted them to think there was a much larger force operating in the area.
The SAS First Mission
It was November 1941 that they headed out on their first mission, Operation Crusader. The British Eighth Army was going head to head with Rommel in an attempt to relieve the Siege of Tobruk. The SAS parachuted in support of the Allied Forces fighting in the desert. It didn’t go to plan. The weather was shit and the Germans fought hard, leading to 22 men being either killed or captured.
The failure didn’t deter Stirling though. He pushed on with another mission. The Long Range Desert Group transported them into Libya. The SAS lost two men and three Willys MB (Jeeps) as they destroyed 60 planes to put the enemy right in the shitter.
Stirling Gets Captured
The daring raids always held more risk of the enemy capturing them or killing them. This happened to Stirling in January 1943. The enemy captured him in Tunisia and Robert Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne took over as commander. As the war continued during 1944, the SAS Brigade came together. Allied soldiers from Belgium, France and Britain joined the task of parachuting behind German lines in France.
As the Allies pushed through Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany the SAS played an important role. Such was the damage the SAS and commando units were inflicting on the Germans, Hitler was getting threaders with getting his arse handed to him. Hitler drafted up the Commando Order. In this, he ordered that any commando troops that they captured should be executed.
In July 1944 Operation Bulbasket occurred. B Sqn, 1st SAS were to block the railway line near Poitiers to disrupt the German reinforcements heading to Normandy. The Germans captured 34 SAS commandos executed them. Three months later they caught another 31 and executed them. The Germans captured them taking part in Operation Loyton in the Vosges Mountains.
The SAS Get Disbanded
After the war, the top dogs decided the SAS were no longer needed and disbanded them. The British government didn’t see the need for a unit to conduct missions behind enemy lines. The Allies had defeated Hitler. Luckily, they woke up. A year later they backtracked on that decision and got the SAS up and running under the Territorial Army. The 21st SAS Regiment (Artists Rifles) was back in business on January 1st, 1947.
In 1950 a squadron trained for Korea but they weren’t required. Instead, they volunteered to fight in the Malayan Emergency. They formed a new unit which would be the Malayan Scouts (SAS). Mike Calvert commanded the Malayan Scouts and 21 SAS Squadron became B Squadron. A Squadron had already been formed by 100 volunteers in the Far East and C Squadron consisted of 1000 volunteers from Rhodesia. A New Zealand Squadron replaced the Rhodesians after working together for three years.
Shortly after this, in 1952, the government realised that the SAS was a required force. The government added the SAS to the army list of units. They moved to Hereford in 1960 where they remain to this day. In 1959 a third regiment, 23 SAS was also added to the unit. 23 SAS was known as the Reserve Reconnaissance Unit. They were experts in escape and evasion. This was a major skill required for the types of missions the men would undergo.
Missions All Over the World
22 SAS has undertaken many missions over the world. They were in the jungle in Borneo during the 1960s and Oman a decade later. The Battle of Mirbat was a major fight the unit had. The unit was also involved in the Aden Emergency and had a presence in Northern Ireland and Gambia.
But their most famous operation came in 1980. Six members of an Iranian Arab Group entered the Iranian Embassy in London. They took 26 people hostage. After a six-day standoff, the terrorists were getting frustrated. Maggie Thatcher wouldn’t play ball. They shot a hostage and dumped the body outside.
This led to the SAS storming the embassy, abseiling down from the roof and getting inside. When facing the terrorists they killed all but one them, saving all but one of the hostages. Two more hostages were seriously injured but survived. The operation broadcast live on TV and at this point, the world wanted to know a lot more about the SAS.
SAS in the Falklands
The Falklands War was next up. The SAS conducted a raid that had echoes of the original SAS troopers in World War Two. They wanted to attack enemy aircraft at Pebble Island airfield. They were being used to conduct missions against the British troops. The mission involved 45 operators. Some as a protection force for a smaller number that crept to the airfield. They laid charges on seven aircraft and started making their escape.
They opened fire on the planes and set off the charges, resulting in the destruction of all 7. HMS Glamorgan also shelled the airfield. This resulted in the destruction of the ammo and fuel dump. The mission was a massive success.
In Gibraltar, in 1988 the SAS shot dead three IRA terrorists that they believed were about to mount a bombing attack on a British Army base. An investigation did ensue and resulted in that the men were not killed unlawfully. The main car the IRA members had parked in the car park of the military base didn’t have any explosives in. A second car found at a different location did.
Working With NATO
The SAS helped NATO with airstrikes against the Serb positions in the Bosnian War. They also assisted in the Kosovo war, helping KLA guerillas behind Serbian lines.
One of the most famous SAS missions was in the book Bravo Two Zero. In the Gulf War, the SAS deployed three squadrons to work behind enemy lines. They were to hunt and destroy Scud missile launchers that Saddam was using to attack Israel and Saudi Arabia.
They managed to destroy plenty. One patrol went in on foot instead of using land rovers and they ran into some trouble. Bravo Two Zero was the resulting book that depicted the mission (with some people questioning the truth of many parts).
Operation Barras occurred when five Members of the Royal Irish Regiment were taken hostage in 2000 in Sierra Leone by the “West Side Boys”. The SAS were dispatched to rescue them. With some help from 1 PARA, they rescued the five men and also 21 civilians that were being held captive.
The SAS Heading Into Iraq
The Iraq war in 2003 was a trip back to its old stomping ground for the SAS. After the invasion, they joined Delta Force in Task Force Black to counter the insurgency. It was on the increase after the fall of Saddam. Nightly operations were in full flow to disrupt the enemy from getting too strong. The SAS were under command of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) for the battle against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In Libya, there have been strong reports (and some images) of the SAS working there. They’re not in a frontline fighting role but more of a training role. They acted as forward air controllers for the rebels.
ISIS has been on the end of the SAS battering ram in recent years. There hasn’t been too much information about how the SAS are fighting Daesh. With the battle against ISIS being one of the main focuses now for units all over the world, there’s no doubt they will be involved.
No More Books
One disappointing thing (for me) is that in the late 1990s all SAS and SBS operators were told to sign a contract. This contract prevented them from releasing details of their careers, even after they had left the unit. This has OPSEC at its core and so is understandable.
We are left with personal stories we hear from lads we know in the units and the mainstream media. Most of the media reports are completely wrong and guesswork. Some small details might be leaked, a few images here and there and so we have to get by on that. There certainly won’t be any more books like we have seen in the past.
Selection for the SAS occurs twice a year, in winter and summer. Military experience is essential if you want to join. You can’t walk in off the street and apply. Many of the men who apply come from either the Royal Marines or the Paras.
Usually, there will be a couple of hundred applicants for selection. The DS will whittle this number down over the coming weeks. Some will realise it’s not for them and get RTU’d (Returned to Unit) but there is no shame in this. The level of selection is so high that many fail on the timings during the hills phase.
The hills phase consists of marches in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. You’re racing against the clock. You’re carrying a weight that increases over time, across distances that also increase, often including a march over Pen Y Fan, the highest mountain in Southern UK.
The final march of the phase is Endurance. This is a 40-mile march (64 km) carrying 27 kg (59 lb) that must be completed in 20 hours. You’re going out day after day with less sleep, food and rest that you want. You’ll be aching, with blisters, your shoulders will ache and you will be in a world of pain. The idea is that you’re ready to crack on and keep going off your own back despite how much you want to stay in bed. That’s the mental strength they’re looking for.
If you pass the hills phase you will move on to the jungle phase. Many say that this is the environment that will make or break you. The physical and mental pressure you will be under here is intense. You’ll learn SF tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP). These include patrolling, survival, navigation, medicine skills, contact drills, camp and observation techniques and boat handling skills among others.
You will do all this when you’re soaking wet, being bitten by insects, dealing with skin contusions, cuts and blisters. You need to take care of these or they’ll get infected and result in you being no use to the patrol.
A period of skills training then takes place in the UK, teaching signals, parachuting, counter-terrorism, combat survival and more. They then move on to the last phase.
Resistance to Interrogation
The DS gives you an overcoat and sends you on the run. A team of SFSG or sometimes Gurkhas in the past will then hunt you down with dogs. You have to remain on the run for as long as possible up to 36 hours before being captured. You will then be interrogated at the end regardless of if the hunters captured you or not.
The instructors will put you in stress positions in between periods of questioning. They are looking to see if you will break mentally. By now you’re drained, tired, hungry and generally hanging out of your hoop. The DS might put a bacon sandwich in front of you to try to break you. If you want to pass you need to stick to the rules of what information you can give away. Anything you shouldn’t be saying will mean failure. Signing anything will mean failure. They could use your signature to put against any statement they write and use it as propaganda.
Getting past this means you’re badged and can join a sabre squadron. You will be on probation for a while to ensure you meet the standards. Although the DS make every effort to ensure no bad apples get through, on the odd occasion it will happen. They will rectify this at the soonest opportunity.
Those that passed and are up to the job, often go on to have great careers doing some badass missions.