The Special Air Service Regiment


Prominent Commanders     David Stirling
     Paddy Mayne
Major Battles

Probably the best known of all Special Forces units, the SAS has been in action, in one form or another since 1941. It was briefly disbanded after World War II, but rose again in the fifties to fight Britain's counter-insurgency wars in Asia. The SAS has evolved enormously in the five decades of its existence. From Desert Raiders to Jungle Warriors to Elite Counter-Terrorist Squads, they continue to be of great interest to those interested in Special Warfare. The following is a brief history of the Regiment, beginning with it's peculiar inception during World War II in North Africa.

David Stirling the "Phantom Major"

The founder of the SAS was a Scottish Laird named David Stirling. Prior to World War II, Stirling was engaged in training to climb Everest. He was always adventurous, and eager to take on new challenges. He definitely stood out in a crowd; at 6 foot, 5 inches frame he was not one to be ignored.

When the war started, Stirling joined the Scots Guards as a subaltern, but soon volunteered for 8 Commando, named for it's commander Captain Robert Laycock as Layforce. At this time in history all Special Forces elements were viewed by the military establishment as more cost then they were worth. "Private Armies" as they were disdainfully known were given little support in quality men and materiel, and were undertrained and over-criticized. An Old-Guard mentality was pervasive, and set-piece battles were seen as the only way to achieve success. Young David Stirling got his first taste of this in Layforce which was dismantled in all but name prior to arriving in North Africa. Special Forces as used in North Africa seemed doomed by this unfortunate circumstance.

Fortunately for the British army, David Stirling saw the amazing possibilities for Special Operations behind enemy lines. He reckoned that a group of highly-trained, highly motivated soldiers could wreck havoc on enemy supply lines, bases and moral. He joined forces with Australian Jock Lewes , an officer with the Welsh Guards, and this meeting would prove to be the nucleus of the Special Air Service Regiment.

Lewes, an amazing adapter and improviser had scrounged a supply of fifty parachutes, which at first seemed to be the best mode of delivery for troops to get behind the lines. He and David started to jump immediately, and the result was at one disastrous and fortuitous. Disaster struck when David jumped from the old Valentia aircraft, which most unsuited for the job, and his parachute snagged on the tail of the aircraft. David was injured in the fall, and he ended up spending 2 months in the hospital. While uncomfortable, he was now able to devote his time to planning his new unit.

Upon his release from the hospital, Subaltern (2nd Lt.) Stirling headed straight for the High-Command Head-Quarters to see the Commander-in-Chief General Auchinlek. Now, the British military establishment has a strict protocol, and the chain of command was to obeyed to the letter. David knew that if he tried to get things done in an appropriate fashion, it would never come to bear fruit. So David slipped past the guard, on crutches, and hobbled into the building, hastily seeking refuge in an office. In this office was Deputy Commander Middle East General Ritchie.
Ritchie was instrumental in the formation of the new unit. He read David's pencil written notes, and promptly presented the plans to Auchinlek. Both Generals saw the opportunity to use the new unit immediately, as an offensive was planned for the near future. The new unit was to consist of sixty-six men from Layforce, including seven officers and many NCO's. This independent command was to be called L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade. This was done to make the German's think it was larger than it actually was. Stirling's dream had become reality.

"These Men Are Dangerous"

Thus began an unparalleled adventure in North Africa. Rommels Afrika Korps had arrived, Britain's forces where being pushed back to Egypt by the Desert Fox, and supplies to the Allies were running short as Malta lay under siege. The first mission for the SAS (November 17th 1942) was to jump behind enemy lines and gather intelligence as well as harassing and tying up German forces while the British mounted the offensive. It was a disaster. Because moral was high and the troops well trained, Stirling decided to jump despite terrible conditions. Many men never made it back, of the sixty-six who went only twenty-two returned. While disastrous, Stirling and his officers Lewes and Paddy Mayne learned much from the experience.

One of the most import innovations came from Jock Lewes, who was challenged to devise a bomb small enough to be carried which would both explode and ignite when detonated to put a plane out of action. The Lewes Bomb was created, out of oil and thermite. It would explode on top of a wing and ignite the fuel within. It weighed one pound, and one man could carry enough to decimate a squadron of planes.

The focus now changed from aircraft insertion to overland. The Long Range Desert Group, a motorized reconnaissance unit would pick up the SAS raiders, circle south and west then north to enemy territory, drop off their cargo and rendezvous at a specified point at a predetermined time. The SAS would walk to their destination, usually an airfield carrying minimal weapons and supplies. They moved mostly at night and laid up during the day to avoid German and Italian Air and foot patrols.

The most successful of all the raiders was Paddy Mayne, an Irish rugby player who's fierce determination and courage accounted for dozens of planes blown on the tarmac. At one point, out of Lewes bombs, he ripped out an aircraft control panel with his bare hands. He is a legend in the Regiment today, embodying the rugged individualism sought when recruiting Special Forces personnel.

As the SAS successes mounted, and dozens of airplanes were destroyed on the ground, the Germans started to take notice. Their activities caused Hitler to issue a shoot to kill order in which he stated "These men are dangerous." Accordingly, the German Army stepped up security and patrols in order to intercept the Raiders. This caused a change in tactics - along with the acquisition of several Jeeps. The SAS could now mount their own mobile operations. Jeeps were equipped with twin Vickers K machine guns, and became a formidable weapon, perfect for the long, rugged journeys they encountered. The jeeps formed the nucleus for mounted raids on enemy airfields. A Squadron of jeeps would enter onto the tarmac, fan out and throw a sustained series of fire , consisting of tracers at the aircraft, causing them to be torn to shreds and ignite. This caused so much confusion that casualties for the SAS tended to be light, and they could slip away back into the desert. These operations lost quite a few jeeps due to enemy fire or break-downs. The cost was insignificant compared to the amount of damage inflicted.

The SAS in Europe

Eventually, disaster struck when David Stirling was captured and imprisoned at Colditz POW camp, where he was to spend the rest of the War. His brother Bill ended up commanding 2 SAS, while Paddy Mayne took over David's position as commander of 1 SAS. The War in North Africa ended, and Allied attention turned to Europe. SAS units became useful for establishing bases in France, far behind enemy lines. They were dropped in the standard squads of 4 men with limited supplies. Often they would contact groups of Maquisards, and arrange for drops of supplies, weapons and communications equipment. The SAS teams would implement training and carry out daring raids on German supply depots, rail-lines and strategic positions. Reconnaissance was the most important function as the Allies prepared for Operation Overlord, the D-Day Invasion.

The SAS succeeded in tying up hundreds of German troops who otherwise would have been used against the Allies at Normandy and the subsequent withdrawal from France. These actions were perilous for the men involved. At one point, two dozen were rounded up, and evidence shows they were tortured and executed in horrible fashion.

The SAS remained in Europe until the end of the War, participating in ferreting out SS men and Gestapo who tried to hide or slip away in the chaos. A special unit investigated the deaths of their fellows who had not been heard from, bringing closure to this chapter of SAS history.

Nearly the End of the SAS

After the war, Britain began to demobilize her large army, and determine what and who were to remain. "Private Armies" or "Mobs for Jobs" - the names given to irregular forces raised during the War - were looked down upon by the British Military Establishment. 21 SAS (the combination of 1 & 2 Regiments) became a Territorial Army Regiment, and was vastly downsized, almost spelling the end for this amazing group of soldiers. Fortunately for the Special Air Service, the post World War II era would mean a changing face of warfare, with small, low intensity conflicts springing up around the globe.
The rise of International Communism, as sponsored be the USSR and China, caused new theaters of operation to spring up overnight. These conflicts were unsuitable for Regular Troops due to unusual terrain, politically sensitive situations, and the need for highly specialized training and use of small numbers of soldiers. As Britain entered the new era of decolonization, and sought to leave her former colonies with a large degree of stability, the need arose for highly mobile, highly motivated action oriented specialized troops. This began the resurrection of the Special Air Service.

Malaya 1950 - 1959

The resurgence of the SAS was far from pretty. The country of Malaya was thrown into turmoil by the emergence after the War by Chinese sponsored Communist Terrorists (CTs). These Terrorists live according to Mao's dictum "Kill one, frighten a thousand". They swept into Malay villages, gave long lectures and executed those who were unwilling to comply, or were merely convenient. The terrorists were made up of approximately 1200 men divided into 10 regiments, 9 of which were Chinese.

June 16, 1948, 3 Europeans were executed at their plantations. This act caused the British Government to announce a state of Emergency. The situation escalated from a conflict against Terrorist to an all out Guerrilla campaign in the jungle. Six Gurkha battalions were rushed to Malaya, poorly equipped and including some raw recruits. A Unit called Ferret Force was created by including some Veterans of the war with the Japanese, some regular Army volunteers and Iban trackers from Borneo, known for being headhunters.

By March 1950, the Death Toll stood at 863 civilians killed, 323 police officers and 154 soldiers, while the Communist losses were 1,138 killed, 645 captured, and 359 surrendered. But this proved to be only the beginning.

An Expert in Guerrilla warfare, "Mad" Mike Calvert was enlisted to study the Malaya problem, and implement a solution. Calvert went on patrol in Malaya, covering over 1500 miles of enemy infested territory, although he was "only ambushed twice". Calvert and the Director of Operations General Sir Harold Briggs decided to implement what became known as the "Briggs Plan". The idea was to uproot whole indigenous populations, moving them to fortified villages, while undertaking to deny the CTs a steady food supply.

Calvert was instructed to raise a force of soldiers who would live in the jungle, taking the battle to the Terrorists on their ground. He succeeded in creating the Malayan Scouts (SAS). The Recruits consisted of veterans from SOE, SAS, Ferret Force & Force 136, as well as men dissatisfied with their regular units. Calvert went as far as Rhodesia, recruiting from a 1000 volunteers to form what would become C Squadron. His Intelligence staff was made up of Chinese interpreters from Hong Kong. Other soldiers came from 21 SAS the Reserves and Territorial Army, some of whom had served under David Stirling.

While conflicts with the enemy were few, the Malayan Scouts got their feet wet and learned some vital lessons about jungle warfare. When Calvert was invalided back to Britain, his replacement shipped off many of the unit's unrulier sort and instituted an new measure of discipline. John Woodhouse, an officer of Calvert's went back to England to start a Selection process that would become infamous for its toughness.

In Malaya, a new tactic of parachuting into the high trees which covered the landscape was instituted, and although there were frequent casualties, it continues until the end of the war. The Scouts would stay in the bush for weeks at a time, mounting far ranging patrols, doing reconnaissance and engaging the enemy, while being resupplied by air drops. A new policy was authored by General Sir Gerald Templar, the Military High Commissioner, which coined the phrase winning "the hearts and minds of the Malayan people". Soldiers went into villages and assisted the inhabitants with medical aid and protection from Terrorists, gaining their trust and assistance in intelligence gathering.
This tactic of influencing the local population worked well, toughening their resolve to stay free. It was an accomplishment of great proportion as Malaya joined with other South East Asian countries to become Malaysia, progressive and prosperous. The Rhodesian C Squadron, lead by Peter Walls, who later became the leader of all of Rhodesia's Armed Forces after UDI, went home to be replaced by a squadron of New Zealanders. the Rhodesian experience would prove invaluable when they fought encroaching terrorist threat at home. One young trooper in C Squadron was Ron Reid Daly, who would raise and command Rhodesia's elite Selous Scouts. The Rhodesians would maintain their connection to the British SAS for years to come.

The most famous soldier to arise in Malaya was Sgt. Bob Turnbull, an amazing tracker and incredible jungle fighter. His favorite weapon was a 12 gauge pump-action shotgun, perfectly suited for devastating effect at close quarters. At one point, Turnbull tracked a group of 4 enemy terrorists to their hide at a small hut deep in the jungle. He waited patiently, and watched as the sentry went inside to stay dry while it began to rain. At this point he approached quietly and opened up, killing all four. Definitely a force to be reckoned with.

In 1957 deep cuts were made, and the SAS squadrons, depleted already, were made smaller and consolidated - so B Squadron, 22nd SAS was disbanded and her men absorbed by the understrength A and D. C had gone home to Rhodesia.

After 1959

After the war, the SAS saw action in Oman, Aden, Borneo, and to some extent, Vietnam (apparently in U.S., Austrailian, or New Zealand uniforms).These operations were mainly of the counterinsurgency type. They have also been deployed in Ulster against the IRA, with some twenty-five IRA members being killed by the SAS in the eleven years between 1976 and 1987.

They also saw extensive action in the Falklands war. Teams infiltrated various points for reconaissance missions. An Argentine submarine was attacked in Cumberland bay. RN Harriers were guided in at Port Stanley after a team spotted Argentine helicopters being redeployed. An airfield at Pebble island was raided; eleven aircraft were destroyed at the cost of one SAS member being injured.

Their most famous operation was the assault of the Iranian embassy in May of 1980. Iranian Terrorist opposing Kohmeni's rule seized the embassy and twenty-six hostages. An eight man team rappelled from the roof while a four man team reached a balcony from adjoining buildings. Another team reportedly blew a whole in a previously weakened plaster wall. Only one terrorist had survived; he had hid within a group of female hostages who were protecting him.

During the Gulf War, SAS teams were inserted deep within Iraq to search for mobile Scud launchers. They would locate the launchers and then call in air strikes or dispatch the missiles themselves. Within nine days of the war's beginning, Scud launches from the SAS' area of responsibility had completly stopped.

During the war, one team was compromised the day after it was inserted and tried to escape west to Syria; 100 miles away by air. The team became split up. They endured the worst weather the region had experience in 30 years. Of the original eight-man team three were killed and four were captured. One man managed to make it across the Syrian border and to safety, a journey of 180 miles, on foot. Four members managed to steal a car and drive to within eight miles of the border. Hitting a military checkpoint, they left the car (as well as the dead guard) and ran for the border. In the mad flight to the border two SAS were killed. One man managed to get within 2-3 miles but the remaining two SAS member were captured and tortured. In their flight it is reported that this eight-man team killed around 250 soldiers before the end.

The effectiveness and reputation of the SAS is such that many of the other teams in the world are patterened after the SAS. Delta force used the SAS structures when they were first created. Australia and New Zealand have their own SAS.



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