The history of the SAS
How was Britain's elite special forces unit formed, and what part has it played in history? Gavin Mortimer discusses the SAS's role over the previous 80 years...
What is the SAS?
The SAS (Special Air Service) is Britain’s elite special forces unit, formed in the summer of 1941 by two Scottish brothers, David and Bill Stirling, who were stationed in Cairo. The war in North Africa was not going well for the British, and the Stirlings came up with the idea for a small parachute unit of volunteers to undertake guerrilla raids deep inside enemy territory.
The first operation was launched on 16 November 1941, but it coincided with a fierce storm, and of the 55 men who parachuted into Libya to attack German and Italian airfields, 34 were killed or captured. Undeterred, David Stirling changed tactics for their next raid in December and hitched a lift to the target in lorries driven by the Long Range Desert Group, another special forces unit which was adept at reconnaissance. This time, the SAS destroyed 24 aircraft and a petrol dump on Tamet Airfield without suffering any loses.
What made it ‘special’?
Although the British Army had in 1940 formed a parachute battalion in the UK (which would become the Parachute Regiment), the SAS was ‘special’ because it was much smaller in size and focused on guerrilla warfare, such as attacking enemy airfields and disrupting their lines of communication. Military parachuting was still in its infancy, but the Germans had demonstrated its potential during the invasion of the Low Countries. The SAS learned to parachute at its base 90 miles east of Cairo.
But, as the failure of the inaugural raid showed, the desert was not suitable for parachuting at this time. However, a second SAS regiment formed in 1943 and undertook several successful parachute operations in enemy territory in Italy. Both 1SAS and 2SAS parachuted into France after D-Day to support the Maquis (rural French Resistance fighters) in their guerrilla warfare.
Where did the SAS go after North Africa?
After the Allies’ defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa in May 1943, the SAS was involved in the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy that summer. One of its most important tasks was the destruction of some powerful Italian guns on the southeast coast of Sicily, hours before the arrival of the main invasion fleet.
After taking part in operations in Italy, the SAS returned to the UK in early 1944 and began training for the invasion of France. Both 1 and 2SAS took part in missions deep inside Occupied France, where they waged an effective guerrilla war against the Nazis. Their heroic exploits earned the praise of Supreme Allied Commander (and future US president) Dwight Eisenhower, who praised the “ruthlessness” of the SAS in harassing the Germans.
The SAS subsequently played an important role in Germany, acting as a motorised reconnaissance force for the Allied armour in the final weeks of the war in Europe.
What happened to the SAS in 1945?
The SAS was disbanded at the end of World War II because it was believed the new era of peace would have no place for such a unit. That view was soon proved naive. Not only did the Cold War begin, but many British colonies began agitating for independence.
One of the colonies, Malaya, erupted into conflict in 1948 when the local communist party attempted to overthrow the British. The previous year, 1947, a territorial unit of the SAS – 21 – had been formed, and some of its soldiers were deployed in what became known as the Malayan Emergency.
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As the fighting intensified, it was decided in 1952 to raise a regular regiment – 22SAS – and in the next 20 years it fought in Malaya, Borneo, Yemen and for over a decade in Oman, where the SAS lost a dozen soldiers in fighting to protect the sultan from communist insurgents.
Can anyone join the SAS?
Only serving members of the Armed Forces can join the regular 22SAS Regiment, and few who attempt the notorious ‘Selection’ course make the grade. Applicants are tested psychologically as well as physically, and the course criteria that exist today were first laid down in the 1950s. Drawing on the wartime experience, the SAS listed the seven characteristics of the ideal recruit: initiative, self-discipline, independence of mind, an ability to work without supervision, stamina, patience and a sense of humour.
Today, ‘Selection’ comprises three stages, beginning with a three-week endurance test in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, in which candidates must prove themselves fit and good at navigation. Those that pass then head to the Belize jungle to see how they react in an alien environment, and if they survive that experience, they undergo ‘Escape & Evasion & Tactical Questioning’, a simulation of what would happen if they were caught. Only then has one earned the coveted SAS beret.
What is the SAS most famous for?
For many years after the war, few people knew of the SAS, but that changed on 30 April 1980 when six terrorists entered the Iranian Embassy in London and took 26 people hostage. The terrorists demanded the recognition of the Iranian province of Khuzestan, and the negotiations continued for six days until they murdered a hostage.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered the SAS to end the siege and the television footage of it storming the embassy and successfully freeing the hostages was beamed around the world.
A decade later the SAS was in action in Iraq, operating behind enemy lines, and one of its patrols ran into trouble. The patrol’s exploits spawned a bestselling memoir by one of its men, Steven Billy Mitchell (writing under the pseudonym Andy McNab), entitled Bravo Two Zero, which was made into a television movie.
Are there SAS legends?
Plenty. Every SAS soldier is exceptional for having passed the gruelling selection process, but even among the elite there are some who stand out.
Blair Mayne assumed command of the SAS after the capture of David Stirling by the Germans in 1943. A giant of a man, the former Irish rugby star combined courage with initiative and agility, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) on four occasions.
Another superb wartime SAS man was Roy Farran of 2SAS, who received a DSO and three Military Crosses. Johnny Cooper joined the SAS in 1941 and served with the regiment for 18 years, fighting in Malaya and Oman after the war.
Talaiasi Labalaba also fought in Oman, in 1972, when he was killed in the successful defence of the fort at Mirbat. A statue of the Fijian was unveiled at the SAS HQ in Herefordshire in 2009.
Why is it so secret?
The role of the SAS radically changed in the 1970s: instead of fighting insurgents in far-off countries, it now engaged a new enemy much closer to home. Terrorism as we know it today took root in Europe during the 1970s, most graphically when a group of Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic squad in Munich in 1972. It arrived in Britain in 1974 when an Irish Republican Army (IRA) terror cell launched a bombing campaign. The cell was finally cornered in a London flat in December 1975 and surrendered after a six-day siege when it heard that the SAS had been summoned.
The following year, the SAS was deployed to Northern Ireland as the ‘Troubles’ intensified. It was a new type of war, one that required covert surveillance and stealth. Publicity, as much as the terrorists, became the enemy of the SAS, and the government adopted a policy that continues to this day of refusing to comment on special forces’ operations.
What is the role of the SAS in the 21st century?
The SAS continues to operate in many trouble spots around the world, but the exact nature of its activities is shrouded in secrecy. It was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan at the beginning of the century, and is also believed to have been sent to Syria and Iraq in 2014–15 to help fight the Islamic State.
In April this year, some media outlets claimed that the SAS had been training Ukrainian special forces in sabotage in their war against Russia, but as ever, there was no official confirmation.
WATCH: SAS Rogue Heroes, a dramatisation of the history of the SAS by acclaimed writer Steve Knight, will air on BBC One on Sunday 30 October at 9pm, with episodes available on BBC iPlayer
Gavin Mortimer is the author of David Stirling: The Phoney Major: The Life, Times and Truth about the Founder of the SAS (Constable, 2022), which he discusses on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast
This article was first published in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed