One of the world’s first and most famous special forces corps, the Special Air Service began life as “L” Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade. The L was to confuse the Germans into thinking there was another regiment of paratroopers in North Africa. In fact, it consisted of 5 officers and 60 OR, or other ranks. Specially selected commandos with a wide range of skills, the first recruits were trained to survive in the desert, to fight only the battles they chose to, inflict damage and melt away into the desert.
A Bad Start
The SAS barely survived its first mission. A disastrous parachute drop in the middle of a storm and subsequent detection by the Axis forces resulted in 22 men killed or captured. Some were dragged by the wind across the rocky desert floor and shredded alive, unable to jettison their parachutes.
Not to be deterred, the colonel, David Stirling, was given orders to attack three Libyan airfields, which he and his men did with aplomb. They destroyed 60 aircraft, blew up plenty of infrastructure and got out of there, only suffering two casualties (and losing 3 Jeeps). A number of similar actions took place with more planes being destroyed until the Germans got wise to the tactics and started actively hunting for the SAS with planes and patrols, such was their destructive reputation.
Further Action in Europe
Stirling was captured in early 1943 and replaced by Paddy Mayne. A number of reorganisations took place, being briefly renamed the Special Raiding Squadron and splitting from the Special Boat Squadron. The SAS saw intense action in Sicily and again in Italy, being employed to attack fuel dumps, airfields, points of strategic interest. Casualty rates were high but morale was solid, with the men feeling a definite sense of purpose and belonging. They knew that the Commando Order issued by Hitler meant certain death if they were captured, and indeed many were summarily executed by the Axis forces, but they knew the importance of their work, and had not a little pride in the success and reputation of the SAS.
A few renames later, the SAS Brigade (now consisting of a Belgian and a French unit alongside the 1st and 2nd British SAS) parachuted into France with the invasion of Europe before and after D-Day, and continued to support the Allied advance all the way into Germany.
At war’s end the SAS was disbanded, only to be reformed as part of the Territorial Army, eventually emerging as the 21st SAS Regiment (V) in 1947.
Not Quite Korea
The SAS spent 3 months training to fight in Korea against the communists, only to be told they were not required. Never ones for an idle moment, they volunteered to fight insurgents in Malaya during what was called the Malayan Emergency. A new unit was created, the Malayan Scouts, who took part in the successful crushing of the rebellion.
Recruitment went far and wide for B Squadron (the other part of the 21st), with 1000 Rhodesians signing up for 3 years and New Zealanders replacing them. Given the continued need for the SAS, it was decided to make it a formal regiment and in 1952 the 22nd SAS Regiment was born. The 23rd SAS Regiment followed in 1959, formed out of the Reserve Reconnaissance unit, experts in evading capture and escape techniques.
That’s Classified, Soldier
Much of what we know about the SAS is from declassified documents. There are few of these for the modern day SAS, understandably, so it is hard to tell what they have been up to. We do know that they fought in Borneo, Oman, Aden, Northern Ireland and The Gambia during the mid-20th century. There are likely many more actions they took part in that we will never know, due either to their illegality or the “sensitive” nature of the British habit of toppling governments, political assassination and extra-judicial warfare.
Iranian Embassy Siege
The event that brought world-wide fame to the SAS was the highly televised hostage rescue in the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980. 6 men had stormed the Embassy, all members of the Arabs of KSA faction, and took 26 staff, visitors and a police officer hostage. Their aim was to ensure the release of Arab prisoners in Iranian jails, something the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was unwilling to even negotiate for.
After several days of siege and the release of some prisoners, the hostage-takers killed a hostage, so the SAS were sent in. Operation Nimrod started with the SAS men abseiling down the front of the building (all on international news) and bursting in through the windows. They killed 5 of the six hostage-takers and rescued all the hostages but one.
The success of the operation in front of the world’s cameras only heightened the fame of the SAS, who remain a remarkably well kept secret. They fought in the Falklands war, fought the IRA on Gibraltar (more or less a disaster), formed part of the NATO response in Bosnia and Kosovo, rescued hostages in Sierra Leone, joined the Americans in the Gulf War and fought extensively in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Influence of the SAS
Most countries have special forces units, partially because of the visible success of the SAS. The French, Belgian and Canadian special forces units all trace their lineage back to the SAS. Even the Sayeret Matkal, one of the most feared special forces units on the planet, is based on the SAS.