A Brief History Of The SAS, Britain’s Fighting Elite

SAS patrol in North Africa during WW2.

Britain’s principal special forces unit, the SAS are perhaps the country’s most famous military unit They are internationally influential experts in special missions.

World War Two: A New Kind of Unit

Cairo, 1941: Colonel David Stirling, a British officer serving in the North African campaign, has realized that a new type of unit is needed to more effectively fight World War Two. Knowing that the normal command chain would ignore his idea, he breaks into the British headquarters to find the Commander in Chief. Instead, he finds the deputy, General Ritchie, and explains his idea.

This was the moment when the Special Air Services was born.

Stirling’s idea, which Ritchie helped make a reality, was to create a special forces unit. Organized and motivated by self-discipline rather than externally imposed discipline, these elite soldiers would carry out daring operations against important targets.

The SAS’s first operation was a disaster. Parachuted behind enemy lines, two-thirds of the team were killed, captured or wounded. But lessons were learned, and the next operation destroyed 60 enemy aircraft with no losses.

Operation Clipper. A jeep manned by Sergeant A Schofield and Trooper O Jeavons of 1 SAS near Geilenkirchen in Germany. The jeep is armed with three Vickers ‘K’ guns, and fitted with armoured glass shields in place of a windscreen. The SAS were involved at this time in clearing snipers in the 43rd Wessex Division area.

Growing over the course of the war, they carried out highly successful raids in Africa and Europe. Like many other units created to fight  in World War Two, the SAS was disbanded at the war’s end.

Post-War Development

21 SAS soldier after a night parachute drop exercise in Denmark, 1955

21 SAS soldier after a night parachute drop exercise in Denmark, 1955.

It soon became clear that a specialist commando unit was needed, and so in 1947, the SAS was reformed as part of the Territorial Army, Britain’s volunteer reserves. In 1952, a regular SAS unit was created, emerging from special forces assembled to serve in Malaya.

In the late 1950’s, and again in 1970, the SAS served against guerrillas in Oman. They played a vital part in operations in Borneo in the 1960’s, where they lived for months alongside natives to gain their trust.

Throughout this time, the SAS developed skills and tactics that allowed them to have an impact out of all proportion to their numbers.

Northern Ireland

From the late 1960s until the culmination of the peace process in the Belfast Agreement of 1999, tensions over British control of Northern Ireland turned into an escalating cycle of violence. In particular, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) launched an armed paramilitary campaign, aimed at removing Northern Ireland from British rule.

The SAS played an important role in fighting the IRA. Their intelligence gathering, covert patrols and special operations took out a number of leading IRA men. The organization came to fear the actions of the SAS.

These activities also caused controversy. On at least one occasion, the SAS operated illegally across the border into the Irish Republic. On the 6th of March 1988, they killed three unarmed members of the IRA in Gibraltar, and though the SAS were found to have acted lawfully, this and other killings were condemned as murders by Irish Republicans. It was in the nature of the SAS’s work to operate secretively and outside normal military parameters, and this added to the heated Northern Irish politics.

Terrorism at Home and Abroad

By ComradeJackson - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Photo credits: ComradeJackson-CC BY-SA 3.0

With the growth in IRA activities and the 1972 Munich Olympics killings, the British government became very concerned with counter-terrorism operations. The SAS had experience training bodyguards for friendly heads of state. Based on this, they formed their Counter-Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) wing, specialists in hostage rescue and anti-terror operations.

After assisting in a number of anti-terror operations in the 1970s, the CRW saw their most famous operation in 1980, when they stormed the Iranian embassy in London, defeating the hostage-takers who had taken the occupants captive. The operation was considered a great success. It was witnessed live around the world thanks to TV cameras, and made the SAS famous.

The Falklands

The SAS played a part in the Falklands War of 1982, in which Argentina invaded the British-owned Falkland Islands and Britain re-took them.

As the British fleet approached the islands, as SAS team landed on Pebble Island, where the Argentinians had an air base. They crippled the base, taking out eleven aircraft, a radar installation and supplies of fuel and ammunition. Their only casualties were two men slightly wounded as they withdrew.

Plans were also drawn up for the SAS to land covertly in Argentina and take out key installations there. The risks involved delayed these plans, and the brevity of the war meant they never took place.

A pile of discarded Argentine weapons in Port Stanley.

A pile of discarded Argentine weapons in Port Stanley.

1990s: Fighting in the Shadows of the Media Age

The SAS played their now familiar raiding role in the First Gulf War. This led to another famous incident, when team Bravo Two Zero were attacked by Iraqis and most of the men were captured or killed. Both Andy McNab and Chris Ryan would go on to write popular books about their experiences in the raid.

Following the collapse of Yugoslavia, the SAS were part of international operations in Bosnia, hunting Serbian war criminals and calling in airstrikes against Serb forces attacking the Bosnians.

But the closer we get to the present, the harder it becomes to be certain about SAS activities. Aside from the Bravo Two Zero books, the SAS has succeeded in maintaining secrecy around many of its operations, lurking in the darkened fringes of the bright modern media glare.

21st Century Warriors

Though full records of their modern activities have not yet been released, and it is likely some will always remain secret, reports still emerge, sometimes through official channels, of SAS activities.

They have participated in all of Britain’s high profile wars of the 21st century. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, they used their specialist skills to capture key opponents for questioning, release hostages and take out strategic targets in raids behind enemy lines. They also helped to build communication networks with locals in Afghanistan. As of March 2016, British newspapers reported that they were active in training, organising and supplying militias fighting against Daesh in Libya.

From their beginnings in World War Two, the SAS have remained a small, elite force, but one whose skills and fame continue to grow.

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