The Special Air Service (SAS) is the principal special forces organization of the British Army. Formed in 1941 to conduct raids behind German lines in North Africa, with the Long Range Desert Group, it today serves as a model for similar units fielded by other countries. The SAS is a small and secretive organization, but attracts a disproportionate amount of media coverage. It forms part of the United Kingdom Special Forces, alongside the Special Boat Service (SBS), Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) and the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG). The SAS is widely regarded as one of the finest and best-trained special forces units in the world.
They are supported by a signal regiment, 18 (UKSF) Signal Regiment, which includes one TA squadron, 63 (SAS) Signal Squadron (Volunteers).
As with other UKSF assets, the SAS is supported by 8 Flight Army Air Corps and the other components of the Special Forces Air Wing.
All SAS members have to pass a rigorous selection procedure, but due to the part-time nature of the TA, the selection process for members of 21 SAS and 23 SAS is stretched over a period of over a year. Signalers must also undergo a similar selection process to become Special Forces Communicators, however this concentrates on strategic and tactical SF communications rather than the advanced military skills of SAS troopers.
Current SAS roles are believed to include:
- Gathering intelligence behind enemy lines.
- Sabotage and offensive raids behind enemy lines.
- Executing Counter Terrorism operations in support of, or assisting, police units such as CO19.
- Training Special Forces of other nations.
- Performing Counter-Terrorism operations outside UK territory.
- Conducting Counter Revolutionary Warfare activities in support of UK government Foreign Policy.
- Protecting senior British dignitaries and personal protection of VIPs.
Even though each troop has a designated role (Mobility, Boat, Mountain and Air), each man is expected to develop skills appropriate to the other troops, leading to companionship and responsibility throughout the entire regiment.
|22nd SAS Regiment||21st SAS Regiment (Artists)||23rd SAS Regiment|
|HQ (Credenhill, near Hereford)||HQ (Regent’s Park, London)||HQ (Kingstanding)|
|A Squadron||A Squadron (Regent’s Park)||A Squadron (Invergowrie/Glasgow)|
|B Squadron||C Squadron (Basingstoke/Cambridge/Southampton)||B Squadron (Leeds)|
|D Squadron||E Squadron (Newport)||C Squadron (Newcastle/Manchester)|
In addition, L Detachment (formerly R Squadron) is part of the TA, but is assigned to 22 SAS for the provision of casualty replacements.All of its members are ex-regular SAS. R Troop does a similar task for the signals unit.
The three regiments have different roles: the TA regiments specialize in Close Target Reconnaissance (CTR), while 22 SAS performs a wider range of tasks also including Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW), Counter-Terrorism (CT) and acting as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF). The relationship between the regiments is somewhat distant at times, but members of 22 SAS are routinely attached to the SAS(R). During the 1980’s, the Director of the SAS, Brigadier Peter de la Billière, established a rule that an officer or senior NCO in 22 SAS who wished to gain rank had to serve time with the SAS(R).
22 SAS also has a Headquarters, Planning and Intelligence Section, Operational (Ops) Research Section, CRW Wing, and Training Wing.
Each Sabre Squadron is divided into four 16-man Troops with different responsibilities (Air Troop, Boat Troop, Mobility Troop, and Mountain Troop).
The CRW Wing is made up of one squadron, which rotates every 6–9 months. The squadron is split up into two troops:
- Red Troop (Air and Mountain Troops)
- Blue Troop (Boat and Mobility Troops)
Each of the two troops is made up of an assault group and a sniper team.
The SAS has been based at Hereford in the west of England for many years. Stirling Lines, named after David Stirling, was initially the home of the Regiment but in 1999 they moved to a former RAF base at Credenhill on the outskirts of Hereford.
The main objective of the SAS Air Troops is to parachute out of an aero plane at 25,000 feet and land deep behind enemy lines. In the SAS, the men of the Air Troops are known as “Ice Cream Boys”, due to their parachute logos, which resemble ice cream cones in shape, and for their tans and the sunglasses they often wear, as they are required to train where the weather is fine (preferring clear skies for parachute training).
Air Troops have two ways of infiltration: HALO and HAHO. HALO jumps take place at about 25,000 feet. The trooper free falls until about 2,000 feet above the ground and only then opens his parachute. This allows him to land close to a target, but the plane will never be seen or heard. Both of these types of parachuting are very dangerous. Parachuting with heavy loads can make the thin silk of the parachutes collapse quite easily in the thin air.
Air Troop operators must wear large aircrew helmets (“bone domes”) when jumping from high altitudes. An oxygen mask is hooked onto it to provide the trooper with air while he is parachuting. The trooper also wears goggles. His equipment is carried between his legs and is lowered on a cord just prior to landing on the ground. The trooper’s weapon is carried under one of his arms, ready to fire. He also wears an altimeter on his wrist and heavy clothes to protect him from the cold. A reserve parachute is usually carried in the front.
Troopers of the Boat Troops are tasked with the job of waterborne insertion techniques. The soldiers first have to master diving. Diving is taught with Open and Closed (bubble-less) Circuit breathing devices. The troopers learn how to approach a ship that is underway, and attach a limpet mine. The new Boat Troop members will spend a great deal of time sitting at the bottom of Poole Harbour with members of the Special Boat Service.
Once proficient in diving, the new troopers will learn methods of infiltration. One of the main forms of transportation is still the Klepper canoe. The first SAS folding canoes were designed during WWII for use by the SAS and Royal Marine Commandos. The German Klepper has been in service since the 1960s and will probably remain that way for a long time.
Troopers also learn how to handle certain types of boats. Gemini inflatable boats are used primarily for sending small groups of soldiers onto a shore undetected. Fibre glass hulled Rigid Raider fast patrol boats are larger, and are used to help carry more people or cargo to the shore.
Demolitions is a big part of diving. The soldiers must be able to stop a ship or blow up a bridge. Underwater Navigation using a compass is also taught. The men practice heloborne entry into the water. A helicopter will hover some 50 feet above the water, and the men will simply jump out . Parachute drops into the water are also very common. When in water, the soldiers weapons must be sealed to prevent jams. This is normally done with a “dry bag”.
Deployment from submarines is also taught. This is very dangerous, given the pressure at certain depths, the cold, and the risks inherant in relying on breathing equipment while underwater (such as nitrogen narcosis and oxygen toxicity). When performing these operations, the men usually wear dry suits to ward against hypothermia. Long rope-type ladders (commonly referred to as Jacob’s Ladders) are attached to a ship or oil rig using a telescopic pole. The assault team will then use the ladders to gain entry. Snipers are usually put on smaller boats near the target (usually smaller ships to hide amongst regular sea traffic), or they can even be flown in quickly via helicopter as the assault begins. Though the SAS would probably not be called upon to assault an oil rig or a ship, they are still trained for it. Assaults like these would usually be carried out by members of the SBS.
Mobility is one of the oldest skills in the SAS. Dating back to WWII, the SAS used “gun jeeps” and Chevrolet light trucks to help provide mobility and heavier fire power. The Mobility Troop of today still has the same role as the SAS troopers of WWII, to travel deep behind enemy lines and cause havoc on the enemy. Sometimes the Mobility Troops may call in air support but usually a strict radio silence is ordered. Flags are used to provide communication between vehicles on the move.
When a new trooper is assigned to a Mobility Troop he must master all the skills of an experienced mechanic. He also has to learn how to fix SAS vehicles while under severe combat stress. A lot of Mobility Troop are ex-Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) soldiers. There are many types of vehicles used by the SAS today. Probably the most well-known is the “Pink Panther” or “Pinky”, so called because of the colour of the camouflage they were painted with during World war two; nowadays these are modified Land Rover 110s, often armed with a mixture of weapons, such as the Browning .50 caliber machine gun, Mk 19 40mm grenade launcher, twin or single L7A2 7.62mm GPMG , and the MILAN anti-tank guided missile. Mobility Troop is also equipped with Land Rover 90s, smaller versions of the 110 that lack its weapon mounts. In limited use is the LSV, or Light Strike Vehicle. It is a two-seat dune buggy with a mount for a machine gun or Mk19. The Honda 350cc Quadbike is small and can be held easily in a helicopter or small boat. The quiet Honda 250cc motorbike is useful for forward reconnaissance. Standard British Army trucks may also be used in a supply convoy during long-distance operations.
During Operation GRANBY, the British involvement in the 1991 Gulf War, the motorbikes proved invaluable. On one occasion a patrol behind enemy lines was spotted by Iraqi forces who immediately sought to escape. The SAS pursued them until outriders pulled in front of the Iraqi trucks making them stop. When the rest of the patrol engaged the trucks, two outriders got caught in the cross fire, one of whom died. For his actions, Corporal Denbury was posthumously awarded the Military Medal.
The Mountain Troops are responsible for all aspects of mountaineering and skiing. Training for Mountain Troop takes place all over the world in deserts and in mountain ranges. Many training expeditions are organized and troopers in mountain troop have a reputation as being some of the best climbers in the world. Kenya is often used as a training ground for its hot climate and difficult terrain.
Upon entry into the regiment, troopers have to abide by strict rules, such as not telling anyone other than close family that they are a member of the SAS. Anonymity is also provided whilst serving in the SAS. Troopers also may not give names and information to any police authority whilst co-operating. Troopers have the right to a 24-hour ‘warm down’ after any firefight and do not have to give evidence to the police during this period.
If a medal is given to a member of the SAS, such as the Military Cross (MC), the soldier is listed in the media as being in their parent regiment and not the SAS. If an SAS trooper is killed in action (KIA), and if it can be avoided, the information is not made public, and if it is unavoidable then the parent regiment is again listed and not the SAS.
Following a number of high-profile book releases about the SAS, candidates for selection are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, in addition to their commitments to the Official Secrets Act. Former members may not release details of their employment within the organisation. Ex-members of the Regiment who wrote exposures prior to the introduction of the agreement have used pseudonyms, such as Andy McNab and Chris Ryan. Books in the genre include both non-fiction and fictional accounts based on the experiences of the author in the Regiment.
The British Government has a standing policy of not discussing the SAS or its operations and makes no official announcements concerning their activities. When reports of military operations are given there is no mention of SAS, or other Special Forces, involvement.
The SAS, like every other British regiment, has its own distinctive unit insignia.
- Sand-coloured beret (sometimes called the beige beret; the SAS do not wear the peaked cap, although some officers did so when it was first formed).
- Cap badge – the badge is actually meant to depict the flaming Sword of Damocles (the sword of retribution) or Excalibur, not, as it is usually called, a winged dagger, although the misinterpretation is now universally accepted; the cap badge was designed by Sergeant Bob Tait, and the SAS Motto was added by Stirling.
- SAS parachute wings (different from those used by the rest of the Army – nicknamed “Egyptian Wings” – a small parachute with 5 lines between 2 upward sweeping wings with light and dark blue banding).
- Silver regimental collar pins (collar dogs)
- Royal blue stable belt
- Silver belt buckle with engraved regimental badge
Selection and Training
Commanding Officer (CO) Major John Woodhouse introduced SAS Selection in 1952. Before that, troopers had earned their credentials in the field.
SAS Selection and Training is the most demanding military training course in the British Army: it reportedly has a pass rate of less than 10%. It is a test of strength, endurance, and resolve over the Brecon Beacons and Elan Valley in Wales, and in the jungle of Brunei. The Namib Desert is also used as a desert training ground. ‘Selection’ takes around 6 months to complete.
Selection is held twice a year regardless of conditions. A candidate must be male and have been a regular member of the Armed Forces for at least three years or a member of 21 SAS or 23 SAS (which can be joined directly from civilian life) for at least 18 months. All soldiers who apply must have at least 39 months of military service remaining. A candidate who fails any stage of the selection is ‘Returned to [his parent] Unit’ (RTU’ d). Candidates are allowed only two attempts at selection, after which they may never reapply. Many are not even allowed that.
The Parachute Regiment is the SAS’s main recruiting.
Special Forces Briefing Course (2 days)
Over a weekend, potential candidates are shown what life in the SAS is like and are briefed on what to expect during selection. There is a map and compass test, a swimming test, a first aid test and a combat fitness test.
Fitness and navigation (4 weeks)
The first stage of selection is held in the Brecon Beacons and the Elan Valley, Wales. The weather can be quite unpredictable and several soldiers have died during selection, mainly due to exposure. Selection starts with the Basic Personal Fitness Assessment (BPFA), a 1.5 mile run in under 10 minutes 30 seconds and is followed by a number of basic gym tests. This is a minimum fitness requirement common to all British Army Soldiers. The first week of selection consists of runs in the Beacons, up and down hills with a small load in the Bergen. Lessons in navigation and map reading are included. Navigation runs in small groups in woodland areas and night tabs follow shortly. The load in the bergen gets heavier and an SA80 rifle with no sling has to be carried. Soldiers have to keep the rifle in their hands as they climb up the slopes and jog down again. In the third week navigation is solo from grid reference to other points on the map. At each rendezvous (RV) point, the soldiers have to indicate where they are before the next grid reference is given. The final stage of the “hills” phase of selection is known as “Test Week” and culminates with “Endurance”, a forty mile march across the Brecon Beacons, completed in less than twenty hours carrying upwards of fifty five pounds in weight, not including water, food or rifle.
Initial continuation training (4 weeks)
This consists of detailed and realistic training in weapon handling, demolitions and small patrol tactics.
Jungle training (6 weeks)
Soldiers are divided into patrols of four and are watched over day and night by Directing Staff (DS). Soldiers must stand-to for one hour at dawn and one hour at dusk every day without fail and must also keep their knife with them at all times. After lessons in navigation through dense jungle, boat handling, camp building and jungle contact drills there is a final test, where all things that have been learned must be applied correctly. Soldiers will learn to live, fight and survive in the jungle, and will have to take care of every cut, scratch and blister, as it could easily get infected. The rain is almost constant, which further demoralizes the candidates. Jungle training is usually carried out in the thick rainforest of Brunei or Malaysia.
Combat survival (4 weeks)
There is another month of training in survival skills, living off the land and using escape and evasion (E & E) tactics. There are lessons and lectures in interrogation techniques from people who have been Prisoners of War (POWs). The last few days is the E & E stage. In groups the soldiers are dressed in greatcoats to slow them down and have to evade capture from the Hunter Force, which is usually comprised of Parachute Regiment or Gurkha soldiers. When captured, or on giving themselves up in the unlikely event that they make it to the scheduled end of the exercise, every soldier has to withstand tactical questioning (TQ).
After passing selection, soldiers lose any previous rank and become troopers. They have to work their way up again from the lowest rank. If they ever leave the SAS, they revert to their original rank (called Shadow rank) with appropriate increases in rank for length of service. Officers, who must hold a minimum rank of Captain, do not lose their rank but may only serve a three-year tour with the SAS. Officers are allowed to do a second three-year tour provided they pass selection again.
Specialist training includes:
- First Aid, to a fairly high level, with stints in busy hospitals, including a week in a mortuary
- HALO (High Altitude, Low Opening) parachuting technique
- HAHO (High Altitude, High Opening) parachuting technique
(this takes place for four weeks at RAF Brize Norton)
- Sniping – all SAS snipers are trained by the Royal Marines at the Sniper course at CTCRM (Commando Training Centre Royal Marines)
- Vehicle Operating Skills – off-road, for cross-country insertion and patrolling, and also on-road evasive driving as part of the close protection role
- CRW Training
- Explosive Method of Entry (EMOE)
- VIP protection (body-guarding, or close protection)
During the desert war the SAS performed many successful and daring long range insertion missions and destroyed aircraft and fuel depots. Their success contributed towards Hitler issuing his Kommandobefehl order to execute all captured Commandos. When the Germans stepped up security the SAS switched to hit-and-run tactics. They used jeeps armed with Vickers K machine guns and used tracer ammunition and Lewes bombs to ignite fuel and aircraft. They took part in Operation Torch.
David Stirling was captured by the Italians in January 1943 and he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war in Colditz Castle. His brother Bill Stirling and Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne took command of the SAS
The SAS were used in the invasion of Italy. At the toe of Italy they took the first prisoners of the campaign before heading deeper into Italy. At one point four groups were active deep behind enemy lines laying waste to airfields, attacking convoys and derailing trains. Towards the end of the campaign Italian guerrillas and escaped Russian prisoners were enlisted into an “Allied SAS Battalion” which struck at Kesselring’s main lines of communications. In 1945 Major Farran made one of the most effective raids of the war. His force raided the German Fifth Corps headquarters burning the buildings to the ground and killing the General and some of his staff.
SAS men were inserted into France as 4-man teams before the Normandy Invasion to help maquisards of the French Resistance. In a reversal of their by now customary tactics they often traveled during the day when Allied fighter bombers drove enemy traffic off the roads, and then ambushed enemy troops moving in convoy under the cover of darkness. In Operation Houndsmith 144 SAS troopers parachuted with jeeps and supplies into Dijon, France. During and after D-Day they continued their raids against fuel depots, communications centers, and railways. They did suffer casualties—at one stage the Germans executed 24 SAS troopers and a United States Army Air Forces pilot. SAS units equipped with heavily-armed jeeps operated around Arnhem before Operation Market Garden to reconnoiter possible drop zones. At the end of the war the SAS hunted down SS and Gestapo officers. By that time the SAS had been expanded to five regiments, of which two were French and one Belgian.
Many other missions followed. The SAS fought anti-sultan rebels in Jebel Akhdar, Oman in 1958-1959. They fought Indonesian-supported “guerillas” during the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation in Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak in 1963-1966. They also tried to pacify the situation in Aden in 1964-1967 before the withdrawal of British troops. They fought against another insurrection in Dhofar, Oman in 1970-1977. SAS troopers were involved, secretly, in the South Asia conflict in the early to mid 1970’s.
Most of these deployments were unofficial. Membership, missions, and the whole existence of the SAS became a secret. The SAS’s role was expanded to bodyguard (BG) training and Counter-Terrorism (CT) work. They also began to work in civilian clothes on missions unless they could use the uniforms of some other unit as a disguise. The British Secretary of State for Defence still does not discuss the SAS or its operations.
During the Falklands War of 1982, SAS teams worked alongside the SBS in many operations before the main force landings at San Carlos and after the landings ahead of the Forward Edge of Battle Area (FEBA). These included operations in South Georgia, guiding Harrier strike aircraft attacks on Stanley airport to destroy Argentine helicopters, and the destruction of eleven Pucará attack aircraft on Pebble Island. During the war, 22 SAS, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Rose, were the only land unit that had their own satellite communications back to the UK.
In 1987 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered an SAS team into the high-security prison at Peterhead, Scotland. A rebellion by inmates had resulted in one of the prison officers being taken captive. The soldiers were armed with staves and entered the building by way of a skylight. After violently subduing the inmates, the SAS team freed the prison officer and the operation ended. Some time after the incident, the Prison Service relaxed its zero tolerance attitude to drug use in that prison.
In the Gulf War of 1991, the SAS’s role was similar to their forerunners in World War II: they deployed deep into Iraqi territory to gather intelligence and destroy mobile Scud missile launchers. They did the job with anything from explosives to pneumatic drills. Perhaps the most famous mission of the war, known as Bravo Two Zero, was popularized by books written by two participants in the mission. Their accounts describe an eight-man SAS patrol cut off deep in Iraq during a scud-busting raid. Discovered by the Iraqis, they supposedly fought their way to the Syrian border over a distance of 120 miles, killing around 250 Iraqi soldiers along the way. Four members of the patrol were captured and tortured, and three were killed in action. Corporal Chris Ryan managed to escape across the border to Syria. The accounts written by the survivors have received some severe criticism from former members of the SAS.
Some troopers (officially former members of the Regiment) fought in the Vietnam War and helped the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. There was also official SAS training of Mujahideen in Scotland in the 1980’s, with particular emphasis on shooting down Soviet helicopters with American-made Stinger Surface-to-Air-Missiles. Some ex-members have also become mercenaries or private military contractors.
In September 2000, members of D Squadron were tasked with the hostage rescue of six members of the Royal Irish Regiment and one Sierra Leonean Corporal in Sierra Leone. The operation was called Operation Barras. The soldiers had been taken hostage by the West Side Boys, led by Foday Kallay, and were held in the dense jungle in western Sierra Leone. Alongside the SAS, members of the SBS and A Company of 1st Battalion, the Parachute Regiment fought in the battle. Twelve British soldiers were wounded in the operation and one SAS Lance Corporal was killed. The operation was a success and many rebel leaders were captured; not long after, the West Side Boys had all but been defeated.
On 30 January 2005, an RAF Hercules crashed near Baghdad after being shot down by rockets fired by guerillas, killing ten British servicemen. The plane had just dropped off fifty members of G Squadron north of Baghdad for an operation to combat the increased insurgency.
On 19 September 2005, two supposed SAS (now thought to be Special Reconnaissance Regiment members) members were arrested in the city of Basra in Iraq. Iraqi police claimed the two were arrested trying to plant bombs dressed in civilian clothing and had shot at police officers. The arrests sparked clashes in which British armored personnel carriers came under attack from petrol bombs. Later, official Iraqi sources said that British armored personnel carriers knocked down a wall storming the city’s jail and rescuing the soldiers. The British Ministry of Defence initially said that the men’s release was negotiated and the armored personnel carriers were merely trying to collect them. They later, however, claimed that the police had illegally handed the men over to Shi’a militia and it was from these that they had to be rescued.
On 23 March 2006 B Squadron, 22 SAS assisted in an operation to free British hostage Norman Kember from a town north of Baghdad in Iraq.
Lesser quality intelligence was supplied to infantry COP teams, who, because of the tenuous quality of this intelligence, were less likely to get a contact with the ‘Players’ (British forces colloquialism for IRA), but these COP teams were trained by SAS instructors. It was common for SAS-qualified soldiers to serve with 14 Intelligence Company (known colloquially as ’14 Int’ or often simply as ‘The Det’ because its members were volunteers who were detached from other units). A specialist unit set up specifically for Northern Ireland, 14 Int was an all arms unit, which meant they recruited from all branches of the armed services. They served in the Province in an intelligence-gathering role, mainly operating in plain clothes. 14 Int liaised closely with the RUC Special Branch and other security forces units and allegedly, Loyalist paramilitaries.
22 SAS boasts that its tough reputation is such that during the Balcombe Street siege the IRA surrendered once the SAS deployment was publicized.
According to the book Immediate Action by former SAS NCO Andy McNab, five undercover and two active service SAS members were killed by the IRA between the years 1977–1991.
- Second World War:
- North Africa, 1941-43;
- Tobruk, 1941;
- Benghazi Raid, 1942;
- Landing in Sicily, 1943;
- Termoli, Valli di Comacchio, Italy, 1943-45;
- Greece, 1944-45;
- Adriatic, Middle East, 1943-44;
- Normandie and North-West Europe 1944-45
- Falkland Islands, 1982
- Western Iraq, 1991
- Western Iraq, 2003
Order of Precedence
The SAS is classed as an infantry regiment, and as such is included in the infantry order of precedence. However, because of its unique role, it cannot be included alongside the units with traditional designators (foot guards, line infantry, rifles), despite its common descent from the Army Commandos alongside the Parachute Regiment, which is classed as line infantry. Therefore, the SAS is included at the end of the list, after the regiments of rifles.
|Infantry Order of Precedence|
Last in Order of
Precedence of the infantry