History of the Special Air Service

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The History of the British Army's Special Air Service or SAS regiment begins with its formation during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, and continues to the present day. It includes their early operations in North Africa, the Greek Islands, and the Invasion of Italy. They then returned to the United Kingdom and were formed into a brigade with two British, two French and one Belgian regiment. The SAS Brigade then conducted operations in France, Italy again, the Low Countries and finally into Germany.

After the war the SAS were disbanded only to be reformed as a Territorial Army regiment, which then led onto the formation of the regular army 22 SAS Regiment. The new regiment has taken part in most of the United Kingdom's small wars since then. However the Ministry of Defence does not comment on special forces matters, therefore little verifiable information exists in the public domain on the regiments recent activities.[1]

At first, service in the SAS was considered an end to an officer's career progression, however in recent years SAS officers have risen to the highest ranks in the British Army. General Peter de la Billière was the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the 1990 Gulf War.[2] General Michael Rose became commander of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia in 1994.[3] In 1997 General Charles Guthrie became Chief of the Defence Staff the head of the British Armed Forces.[4] Lieutenant-General Cedric Delves was the Commander of the Field Army and Deputy Commander in Chief NATO Regional Headquarters Allied Forces Northern Europe (RHQ AFNORTH) in 2002–2003.[5]

Second World War[edit]

A close-up of six men in three Jeeps. A heavily armed patrol of 'L' Detachment SAS. The crews of the Jeeps are all wearing 'Arab-style' headdress, as copied from the Long Range Desert Group. Jerri cans can be seen mounted around the vehicles
SAS patrol in North Africa during the Second World War in SAS jeeps.

The Special Air Service began life in July 1941 from an unorthodox idea and plan by a Lieutenant in the Scots Guards David Stirling, who was serving with No. 8 (Guards) Commando. His idea was for small teams of parachute trained soldiers to operate behind enemy lines to gain intelligence, destroy enemy aircraft and attack their supply and reinforcement routes. Following a meeting with Major-General Neil Ritchie, the Deputy Chief of Staff, he was granted an appointment with the new C-in-C Middle East, General Claude Auchinleck. Auchinleck liked his plan and it was endorsed by the Army High Command. At that time there was a deception organisation already in the Middle East area, which wished to create a phantom Airborne Brigade to act as a threat to enemy planning of operations. This deception unit was known as K Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade and so Stirling's unit was called L Detachment SAS Brigade.

The force initially consisted of five officers and 60 other ranks.[6] Following extensive training at Kabrit camp, by the River Nile, L Detachment, SAS Brigade undertook its first operation. Operation Squatter was a parachute drop behind the enemy lines in support of Operation Crusader, they would attack airfields at Gazala and Timimi on the night 16/17 November 1941. Unfortunately because of enemy resistance and adverse weather conditions the mission was a disaster, 22 men were killed or captured - one third of the men employed.[7] Allowed another chance they recruited men from the Layforce Commando, which was in the process of disbanding. Their second mission was more successful, transported by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), they attacked three airfields in Libya destroying 60 aircraft without loss.[7]


Members of the Free French Squadron during the link-up between advanced units of the First and Eighth British armies in Tunisia.

Their first mission in 1942, was an attack on Bouerat. Transported by the LRDG, they caused severe damage to the harbour, petrol tanks and storage facilities.[8] This was followed up in March by a raid on Benghazi harbour with limited success but they did damage 15 aircraft at Al-Berka.[8] The June 1942 Crete airfield raids at Heraklion, Kasteli, Tympaki and Maleme significant damage was caused but of the attacking force at Heraklion only Major George Jellicoe returned.[9] In July 1942, Stirling commanded a joint SAS/LRDG patrol that carried out raids at Fuka and Mersa Matruh airfields destroying 30 aircraft.[10]

September was a busy month for the SAS. They were renamed 1st SAS Regiment and consisted of four British squadrons, one Free French Squadron, one Greek Squadron, and the Special Boat Section (SBS).[11]

Operations they took part in were: Operation Agreement and the diversionary raid Operation Bigamy. Bigamy led by Stirling and supported by the LRDG, were to attempt a large-scale raid on Benghazi to destroy the harbour, storage facilities and attack the airfields at Benina and Barce.[12] However, they were discovered after a clash at a roadblock. With the element of surprise lost, Stirling decided not to go ahead with the attack and ordered a withdrawal.[12] Agreement was a joint operation by the SAS and the LRDG who had to seize an inlet at Mersa Sciausc for the main force to land by sea. The SAS successfully evaded enemy defences assisted by German speaking members of the Special Interrogation Group and captured Mersa Sciausc. The main landing failed, being met by heavy machine gun fire forcing the landing force and the SAS/LRDG force to surrender.[13] Operation Anglo a raid on two airfields on the island of Rhodes, from which only two men returned. Destroying three aircraft, a fuel dump and numerous buildings, the surviving SBS men had to hide in the countryside for four days before they could reach the waiting submarine.[14][nb 1]


David Stirling who was by that time sometimes referred to as the "Phantom Major" by the Germans,[16] was captured in January 1943 in the Gabès area by a special anti-SAS unit set up by the Germans.[17] He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war, escaping numerous times before being moved to the supposedly 'escape proof' Colditz Castle.[17] He was replaced as commander 1st SAS by Paddy Mayne.[18] In April 1943, the 1st SAS was reorganised into the Special Raiding Squadron under the command of Mayne and the Special Boat Squadron under the command of George Jellico.[19] The Special Boat Squadron operated in the Aegean and the Balkans for the remainder of the war and was disbanded in 1945.

Officers and men in ranks for inspection
Members of 2nd SAS on parade for an inspection by General Bernard Montgomery, following the successful capture of the port of Termoli. On the left is Major E Scratchley DSO, MC, and on the right is Captain Roy Farran holding a German sub-machine-gun

The Special Raiding Squadron spearheaded the invasion of Sicily Operation Husky and played more of a commando role raiding the Italian coastline, from which they suffered heavy losses at Termoli.[17] After Sicily they went on to serve in Italy with the newly formed 2nd SAS, a unit which had been formed in Algeria in May 1943 by Stirling's older brother Lieutenant Colonel Bill Stirling.[17]

The 2nd SAS had already taken part in operations in support of the Allied landings in Sicily: Operation Narcissus was a raid by 40 members of 2nd SAS on a lighthouse on the south east coast of Sicily. The team landed on 10 July with the mission of capturing the lighthouse and the surrounding high ground. Operation Chestnut involved two teams of ten men each, parachuted into northern Sicily on the night of 12 July, to disrupt communications, transport and the enemy in general.

On mainland Italy they were involved in Operation Begonia which was the airborne counterpart to the amphibious Operation Jonquil, from 2 to 6 October, 61 men were parachuted between Ancona and Pescara. The object was to locate escaped prisoners of war in the interior and muster them on beach locations for extraction. Begonia involved the interior parachute drop by 2nd SAS. Jonquil entailed four seaborne beach parties from 2nd SAS with the Free French SAS Squadron as protection. Operation Candytuft was a raid by 2nd SAS on 27 October. Inserted by boat on Italy's east coast between Ancona and Pescara, they were to destroy rail road bridges and disrupt rear areas.

Near the end of the year the Special Raiding Squadron reverted to their former title 1st SAS and together with 2nd SAS were withdrawn from Italy and placed under command the 1st Airborne Division.[20]


In March 1944, the 1st and 2nd SAS Regiments returned to the United Kingdom and joined a newly formed SAS Brigade of the Army Air Corps. The other units in the Brigade were the French 3rd and 4th SAS, the Belgian 5th SAS and F Squadron which was responsible for signals and communications, the brigade commander was Brigadier Roderick McLeod.[20] The brigade was ordered to swap their beige SAS berets for the maroon parachute beret and given shoulder titles for 1, 2, 3 and 4 SAS in the Airborne colours. The French and Belgian regiments also wore the Airborne Pegasus arm badge.[21] The brigade now entered a period of training for their participation in the Normandy Invasion. They were prevented from conducting operations until after the start of the invasion by 21st Army Group. Their task was then to stop German reinforcements reaching the front line,[22] by being parachuted behind the lines to assist the French Resistance.[23]

In support of the invasion 144 men of 1st SAS took part in Operation Houndsworth between June and September, in the area of Lyon, Chalon-sur-Saône, Dijon, Le Creusot and Paris.[22] At the same time, 56 Men of 1st SAS also took part in Operation Bulbasket in the Poitiers area. They did have some success before being betrayed. Surrounded by a large German force, they were forced to disperse; later, it was discovered that 36 men were missing and that 32 of them had been captured and executed by the Germans.[22]

In mid June, 178 men of the French SAS and 3,000 members of the French resistance took part in Operation Dingson. However, they were forced to disperse after their camp was attacked by the Germans.[22] The French SAS were also involved in Operation Cooney, Operation Samwest and Operation Lost during the same period.[24]

In August, 91 men from the 1st SAS were involved in Operation Loyton. The team had the misfortune to land in the Vosges Mountains at a time when the Germans were preparing to defend the Belfort Gap. As a result, the Germans harried the team. The team also suffered from poor weather that prevented aerial resupply. Eventually, they broke into smaller groups to return to their own lines. During the escape 31 men were captured and executed by the Germans.

Also in August, men from 2nd SAS operated from forest bases in the Rennes area in conjunction with the resistance. Air resupply was plentiful and the resistance cooperated, which resulted in carnage. The 2nd SAS operated from the Loire through to the forests of Darney to Belfort in just under six weeks.[25]

Near the end of the year men from 2nd SAS were parachuted into Italy, to work with the Italian resistance in Operation Tombola, where they remained until Italy was liberated.[26] 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 the German main lines of communications.[27]


Soldiers ranked in review order, being inspected by commanding officer
Brigadier Mike Calvert, at the ceremony marking the passing of 3 and 4 SAS from the British to the French Army at Tarbes in southern France

In March the former Chindit commander, Brigadier Mike Calvert took over command of the brigade.[26] The 3rd and 4th SAS were involved in Operation Amherst in April, The operation began with the drop of 700 men on the night of the 7 April. The teams spread out to capture and protect key facilities from the Germans.

Still in Italy in Operation Tombola, Major Roy Farran and 2nd SAS carried out a raid on a German Corps headquarters in the Po Valley, which succeeded in killing the corps chief of staff.[25]

The Second World War in Europe ended on 8 May by that time the SAS brigade had suffered 330 casualties, but had killed or wounded 7,733 and captured 23,000 of their enemies.[26] Later the same month 1st and 2nd SAS were sent to Norway to disarm the 300,000 German garrison and 5th SAS were in Denmark and Germany on counter intelligence operations.[26] The brigade was dismantled soon afterwards, in September the Belgian 5th SAS were handed over to the reformed Belgian Army. On 1 October the 3rd and 4th French SAS were handed over to the French Army and on 8 October the British 1st and 2nd SAS regiments were disbanded.[23]


At the end of the war the British Government could see no need for a SAS type regiment, however in 1946 it was decided that there was a need for a long term deep penetration commando or SAS unit. A new SAS regiment was raised as part of the Territorial Army.[28] The title chosen for the new regiment was 21st SAS Regiment (V) and the regiment chosen to take on the SAS mantle was the Artists Rifles.[28] The new 21 SAS Regiment came into existence on 1 January 1947 and took over the Artists Rifles headquarters at Dukes Road, Euston.[29]

In 1950 they raised a squadron to fight in the Korean War. After three months training, they were informed that the squadron would not, after all, be needed in Korea, and instead were sent to serve in the Malayan Emergency. On arrival in Malaya they came under the command of the wartime SAS Brigade commander, Mike Calvert. They became B Squadron, Malayan Scouts (SAS),[30] the other units were A Squadron, which had been formed from 100 local volunteers mostly ex Second World War SAS and Chindits and C Squadron formed from volunteers from Rhodesia, the so-called 'Happy Hundred'. By 1956 the Regiment had been enlarged to five squadrons with the addition of D Squadron and the Parachute Regiment Squadron[31][32] After three years service the Rhodesians returned home and were replaced by a New Zealand squadron.[33]

A squadron were based at Ipoh while B and C squadrons were at Johore, during training they pioneered techniques of resupply by helicopter and also set up the "Hearts and Minds" campaign to win over the locals with medical teams going from village to village treating the sick. With the aid of Iban trackers from Borneo they became experts at surviving in the jungle.[34] In 1951 the Malayan Scouts (SAS) had successfully recruited enough men to form a Regimental Headquarters, a headquarters squadron and four operational squadrons over 900 men.[35] The regiment was tasked to seek, find, fix then destroy the terrorists and prevent their infiltration into protected areas. Their tactics would be long range patrols,ambush and tracking the terrorists to their bases.[35] They trained and acquired skills in tree jumping, this involved parachuting into the thick jungle canopy and letting your parachute catch on the branches. Brought to a halt the parachutist then cut himself free and lowered himself to the ground by rope.[34] Using inflatable boats for river patrolling, jungle fighting techniques, psychological warfare and booby trapping terrorist supplies.[35] Calvert was invalided back to the United Kingdom in 1951 and replaced by Lieutenant-Colonel John Sloane.[34]

In February 1951 54 men from B Squadron carried out the first parachute drop in the campaign in Operation Helsby, which was a major offensive in the River Perak–Belum valley, just south of the Thai border.[36]

The need for a regular army SAS regiment had been recognised, the Malayan Scouts (SAS) were renamed 22 SAS Regiment and formally added to the army list in 1952.[37] However B Squadron was disbanded leaving just A and D Squadrons in service[38][39]

Oman and Borneo[edit]

In 1958 the SAS got a new commander Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Deane-Drummond.[40] The Malaya campaign was winding down, so they dispatched two squadrons from Malaya to assist in Oman. In January 1959 A Squadron defeated a large Guerrilla force on the Sabrina plateau. A victory that was kept from the public due to political and military sensitivities.[41]

After Oman 22 SAS Regiment were recalled to the United Kingdom, the first time the regiment had served in there since their formation. They were initially barracked in Malvern Worcestershire before moving to Hereford in 1960.[40] Just prior to this the third SAS regiment was formed and like 21 SAS was part of the Territorial Army. 23 SAS Regiment was formed by the renaming of the Joint Reserve Reconnaissance Unit, which itself had succeeded MI.9 via a series of units (POW Rescue, Recovery and Interrogation Unit, Intelligence School 9 and the Joint Reserve POW Intelligence Organisation) Behind this change was the understanding that passive networks of escape lines had little place in the cold war world and henceforth personnel behind the lines would be rescued by specially trained units.[42]

The regiment was sent to Borneo for the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation, where they adopted the tactics of patrolling up to 20 kilometres (12 mi) over the Indonesian border and used local tribesman for intelligence gathering.[41] They at times lived in the indigenous tribes villages for five months gaining their trust. This involved showing respect for the Headman, giving gifts and providing medical treatment for the sick.[43]

sand coloured square castle with flag flying
Mirbat castle site of the Battle of Mirbat.

In December 1963, the SAS went onto the offensive, now under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Woodhouse they adopted a "shoot and scoot" policy to keep SAS casualties to a minimum.[44] They were augmented by the adding to their strength of the Guards Independent Parachute Company and later the Gurkha Independent Parachute Company.[45] In 1964 Operation Claret was initiated, soldiers were selected from the infantry regiments in theatre, placed under SAS command and known as "Killer Groups". These groups would cross the border and penetrate up to 18 kilometres (11 mi) disrupting the Indonesian Army build up, forcing them to move away from the border.[44] The Borneo campaign cost the British 59 killed 123 wounded compared to the Indonesian 600 dead.[44] In 1964 B Squadron was re-formed from a combination of former members still with the Regiment and new recruits.[46]

The SAS returned to Oman in 1970, the Marxist controlled South Yemen government were supporting an insurgency in the Dhofar region what became known as the Dhofar Rebellion.[44] Operating under the umbrella of a British Army Training Team (BATT), they recruited, trained and commanded the local Firquts. Firquts were local tribesmen and recently surrendered enemy soldiers. This new campaign ended shortly after the Battle of Mirbat in 1972, when a small SAS force and Firquts defeated 250 Adoo guerrillas.[47]

Northern Ireland[edit]

In 1969 D Squadron, 22 SAS deployed to Northern Ireland for just over a month. The SAS returned in 1972 when small numbers of men were involved in intelligence gathering. The first squadron fully committed to the Province was in 1976 and by 1977 two squadrons were operating in Northern Ireland.[48] These squadrons used well armed covert patrols in unmarked civilian cars. Within a year four terrorists had been killed or captured and another six forced to move south into the Republic.[48] Members of the SAS are also believed to have served in the 14 Intelligence Company based in Northern Ireland.[49]

The first operation attributed to the SAS was the arrest of Sean McKenna 12 March 1975. McKenna claims he was sleeping in a house just south of the Irish border when he was woken in the night by two armed men and forced across the border, while the SAS claimed he was found wandering in a field drunk.[50] Their second operation was on 15 April 1976 with the arrest and killing of Peter Cleary. Cleary, an IRA staff officer, was detained by five in a field waiting for a helicopter to land. While four men guided the aircraft in Cleary started to struggle with his guard, attempted to seize his rifle and was shot.[51]

The SAS returned to Northern Ireland in force in 1976, operating throughout the province. In January 1977 Seamus Harvey armed with a shotgun was killed on a SAS ambush.[52] On 21 June six men from G Squadron, ambushed four IRA men planting a bomb at a government building, three were shot and killed but their driver managed to escape.[53] On 10 July 1978, John Boyle, a sixteen-year-old Catholic, was exploring an old graveyard near his family's farm in County Antrim, when he discovered an arms cache. He told his father, who passed on the information to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The next morning Boyle decided to see if the guns had been removed and was shot dead by two SAS soldiers who had been waiting undercover.[54] In 1976 Newsweek also reported that eight SAS men had been arrested in the Republic of Ireland supposedly as a result of a navigational error. It was later revealed that they had been in pursuit of a Provisional Irish Republican Army unit.[48]

On 2 May 1980 Captain Herbert Westmacott, became the highest-ranking member of the SAS to be killed in Northern Ireland.[55] He was in command of an eight man plain clothes SAS patrol that had been alerted by the Royal Ulster Constabulary that an IRA gun team had taken over a house in Belfast.[56] A car carrying three SAS men went to the rear of the house, and another car carrying five SAS men went to the front of the house.[57] As the SAS arrived at the front of the house the IRA unit opened fire with an M60 machine gun, hitting Captain Westmacott in the head and shoulder killing him instantly.[57] The remaining SAS men at the front returned fire, but were forced to withdraw.[56][57] One member of the IRA team was apprehended by the SAS at the rear of the house, preparing the unit's escape in a transit van, while the other three IRA members remained inside the house.[58] More members of the security forces were deployed to the scene, and after a brief siege the remaining members of the IRA unit surrendered.[56] After his death Westmacott was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. for gallantry in Northern Ireland during the period 1 February 1980 to 30 April 1980.[59]

On 4 December 1983 an SAS patrol found two IRA gunmen who were both armed, one with an Armalite rifle and the other a shotgun. These two men did not respond when challenged so the patrol opened fire, killing the two men. A third man who escaped in a car was believed to have been wounded.[60]

On 8 May 1987 the IRA suffered its worst single loss of men, when eight men were killed by the SAS while attempting to attack the Loughgall police station. The SAS had been informed of the attack and 24 men waited in ambush positions around and inside the police station. They opened fire when the armed IRA unit approached the station with a 200 pounds (91 kg) bomb, its fuse lit, in the bucket of a hijacked JCB digger. A civilian passing the incident was also killed by SAS fire.[61]

In the late 1980s the IRA started to move operations to the European mainland. Operation Flavius in March 1988, was an SAS operation in Gibraltar in which three PIRA volunteers, Seán Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairéad Farrell, were killed. All three had conspired to detonate a car bomb where a military band assembled for the weekly changing of the guard at the governor's residence.[62] In Germany, in 1989 the German security forces discovered a SAS unit operating there without the permission of the German government.[63]

In 1991 three IRA men killed by the SAS, according to reports at the time they were on their way to kill an Ulster Defence Regiment soldier, who lived in Coagh, when they were ambushed.[64] These three and another seven brought the total number of IRA men killed by the SAS in the 1990s to 11.[65]

Counter terrorist wing[edit]

In 1975 the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Edward Heath asked the Ministry of Defence to prepare for any possible terrorist attack similar to the 1972 Munich massacre at the Munich Olympic Games and ordered that the SAS Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) wing be established.[66] Once the wing had been established each squadron would in turn rotate through counter terrorist training. The training included live firing exercises, hostage rescue and siege breaking. It was reported that during CRW training each soldier would expend 100,000 pistol rounds and would return to the CRW role on average every 16 months. Their first deployment was during the Balcombe Street Siege, where the Metropolitan Police had trapped a PIRA unit. Hearing on the BBC that the SAS were being deployed the PIRA men surrendered.[66] The first documented action by the CRW Wing was assisting the West German counter-terrorism group GSG 9 at Mogadishu.[67]

Iranian Embassy siege[edit]

The Iranian Embassy Siege started at 11:30 on 30 April 1980 when a six-man team calling itself the 'Democratic Revolutionary Movement for the Liberation of Arabistan' (DRMLA), captured the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Prince's Gate, South Kensington in central London. When the group first stormed the building, 26 hostages were taken, but five were released over the following few days. On the sixth day of the siege the kidnappers killed a hostage. This marked an escalation of the situation and prompted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's decision to proceed with the rescue operation. The order to deploy the SAS was given, and B Squadron the duty CRW squadron were alerted. When the first hostage was shot, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, David McNee passed a note signed by Thatcher to the Ministry of Defence, stating this was now a "military operation".[68]

The rescue mission started at 19:23, 5 May when the SAS assault troops at the front gained access to the embassy's first floor balcony via the roof. Another team assembled on the ground floor terrace entered via the rear of the embassy. After forcing entry five of the six terrorists were killed. Unfortunately one of the hostages was also killed by the terrorists during the assault which lasted 11 minutes. The events were broadcast live on national television and soon rebroadcast around the world gaining fame and a reputation for the SAS,[68] that prior to the assault few outside of the military special operations community even knew of the regiments existence.[69]


In August 1981 a 2 man SAS team was covertly deployed to Gambia to help put down a coup.[70][71]

Peterhead prison[edit]

On 28 September 1987 a riot in D wing Peterhead Prison resulted in prisoners taking over the building and taking a prison officer, 56 year old Jackie Stuart, hostage. The rioters were serving life in prison for violent crimes. It was thought that they had nothing to lose and would not hesitate to make good on their threats to kill their hostage, whom they had now taken up to the rafters of the Scottish prison. When negotiations broke down, the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, dispatched the SAS to bring the riot to an end on 3 October. The CRW troops arrived by helicopter landed on the roof then abseiled into the prison proper. Armed only with pistols, batons and stun grenades they brought the riot to a swift closure.[72]

London bombings[edit]

In 2005 London was the target of two attacks on the 7 July and 21 July. It was reported in the Times that the SAS CRW played a role in the capture of three men suspected of taking part in the failed 21 July bomb attacks. Providing expertise in explosive entry techniques to back up raids by police firearms officers. It was also reported that plain clothes SAS teams were monitoring airports and main railway stations to identify any security weaknesses and they were using civilian helicopters and two small executive jets to move around the country.[73]

Falklands War[edit]

The Falklands War started after the Argentina occupation of the Falkland Islands on 2 April 1982. Brigadier Peter de la Billière the Director Special Forces and Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Rose, the Commander of 22 SAS Regiment, petitioned for the regiment to be included in the task force. Without waiting for official approval D Squadron which was on standby for world wide operations, departed on 5 April for Ascension Island.[74] They were followed by G Squadron on 20 April. As both squadrons sailed south the plans were for D Squadron to support operations to retake South Georgia while G Squadron would be responsible for the Falkland Islands.[74] By virtue of a 1981 transfer from A Squadron to G squadron, John Thompson was the only one of the 55 SAS soldiers involved in the Iranian siege to also see action in the Falklands.[75]

South Georgia[edit]

Mao of South Georgia showing the locations of the settlements
South Georgia Islands

Operation Paraquet was the code name for the first land to be liberated in the conflict. South Georgia an island to the south east of the Falkland Islands and one of the Falkland Islands Dependencies. In atrocious weather the SAS, SBS and Royal Marines forced the Argentinian garrison to surrender. On 22 April Westland Wessex helicopters landed a SAS unit on the Fortuna Glacier. This resulted in the loss of two of the helicopters, one on take off and one crashed into the glacier in almost zero visibility.[76] The SAS unit were defeated by the weather and terrain and had to be evacuated after only managing to cover 500 metres (1,600 ft) in five hours.[77]

The following night a SBS section succeeded in landing by helicopter and Boat Troop, D Squadron, SAS set out in five Gemini inflatable boats for the island. Two boats suffered engine failure with one crew being picked up by helicopter and the other crew got to shore. The next day 24 April a force of 75 SAS, SBS and Royal Marines advancing with naval gunfire support, reached Grytviken and forced the occupying Argentinians to surrender. The following day the garrison at Leith also surrendered.[76]

Main landings[edit]

Prior to the landing eight reconnaissance patrols from G Squadron had been landed on East Falkland between the 30 April and 2 May.[78] The main landings were at San Carlos on 21 May. To cover the landings D Squadron mounted a major diversionary raid at Goose Green and Darwin with fire support from HMS Ardent. After D Squadron were returning from their raid they shot down a FMA IA 58 Pucará with a shoulder-launched Stinger missile that had overflown their location.[79] While the main landings were taking place a four man patrol from G Squadron had been carrying out a reconnaissance near Stanley. They located an Argentinian helicopter dispersal area between Mount Kent and Mount Estancia. Advising to attack at first light, the resulting attack by RAF Harrier GR3's from No. 1 Squadron RAF destroyed one CH-47 Chinook and the two Aérospatiale Puma helicopters.[80]

Topographic map of the Falkland Islands, with settlements marked
The Falkland Islands

Pebble Island[edit]

Over the night 14/15 May D Squadron SAS carried out the raid on Pebble Island airstrip on West Falkland. The force of 20 men from Mountain Troop, D Squadron, led by Captain John Hamilton, destroyed six FMA IA 58 Pucarás, four T-34 Mentors and a Short SC.7 Skyvan transport. The attack was supported by fire from HMS Glamorgan. Under cover of mortar and small arms fire the SAS moved onto the airstrip and fixed explosive charges to the aircraft. Casualties were light one Argentinian was killed and two of the Squadron were wounded by shrapnel when a mine exploded.[81]

Sea King Crash[edit]

On 19 May, the SAS suffered its worst loss since the Second World War. A Westland Sea King helicopter crashed while cross-decking troops from HMS Hermes to HMS Intrepid, killing 22 men. Approaching HMS Hermes, it appeared to have an engine failure and crashed into the sea. Only nine men managed to scramble out of a side door before the helicopter sank. They were the only survivors. Rescuers found bird feathers floating on the surface where the helicopter had impacted the water. It is thought that the Sea King was the victim of a bird strike. Of the 22 killed 18 were from the SAS, one from the Royal Signals and the Royal Air Force pilot.[82]

Operation Mikado[edit]

Operation Mikado was the code name for the planned landing of B Squadron, SAS at the Argentinian airbase at Río Grande, Tierra del Fuego. The initial plan was to crash land two C-130 Hercules carrying B Squadron onto the runway at Port Stanley to bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion.[83] B Squadron arrived at Ascension Island 20 May the day after the fatal Sea King crash. They were just boarding the C-130s when word came that the operation had been cancelled.[84]

B Squadron team parachute from a C-130 Hercules into the South Atlantic

After Mikado had been cancelled B Squadron were called upon to parachute into the South Atlantic to reinforce D Squadron. They were transported south by the two C-130s equipped with long range fuel tanks. Only one of the aircraft reached the jump point the other had to turn back with fuel problems. The parachutists were then transported to the Falkland Islands by HMS Andromeda.[85]

West Falkland[edit]

Mountain Troop, D Squadron SAS deployed onto West Falkland to observe the two Argentine garrisons. One of the patrols was commanded by Captain John Hamilton who had commanded the raid on Pebble Island. On 10 June Hamilton and patrol were in an observation point near Port Howard when they were attacked by Argentine forces. Two of the patrol managed to get away but Hamilton and his signaller, Sergeant Fosenka, were pinned down. Hamilton was hit in the back by enemy fire and told Fosenka "you carry on, I'll cover your back". Moments later Hamilton was killed. Sergeant Fosenka was later captured when he ran out of ammunition. The senior Argentine officer praised the heroism of Hamilton who was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.[86]

Wireless Ridge[edit]

The last major action for the SAS was a raid was on East Falkland on the night of 14 June. This involved a diversionary raid by D and G Squadron against Argentinian positions North of Stanley, while 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment assaulted Wireless Ridge. Their objective was to set up a mortar and machine gun fire base to provide fire support, while the D Sqdn Boat Troop and six SBS men crossed Port William water in Rigid Raiders to destroy the fuel tanks at Cortley Hill. After firing Milan and GPMG onto the target areas the ground assault team came under Anti Aircraft machine gun fire, the water assault group were also hit by a hail of small arms fire, all their boats were hit and three men wounded forcing them to withdraw. At the same time the fire base came under an Argentinian artillery and infantry attack, the Argentinian unit had not been seen from the long range surveillance of the area as they were dug in on the reverse slope. They then had to call upon their own artillery to silence the Argentinian guns to enable G Squadron to withdraw. The raid was to harass the Argentinian ground forces and was a success, Argentinian artillery continued to land on the SAS assault position and the route the squadron took on its exfiltration for an hour after they had withdrawn and not on the attacking parachute battalion.[87]

Gulf War[edit]

Eight armed soldiers at the rear of a Chinook helicopter
Bravo Two Zero patrol members

The Gulf War started after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq on 2 August 1990. The British Army response to the invasion was Operation Granby, which included A, B and D squadrons 22 Special Air Service Regiment. Which was the largest SAS mobilisation since the Second World War. Initial plans were for the SAS to carry out their traditional raiding role behind the Iraqi lines, and operate ahead of the allied invasion, disrupting lines of communications.[88] The SAS operating from Al Jawf, had since 20 January 1991, been working behind Iraqi lines hunting for Scud missile launchers in the area south of the AmmanBaghdad highway.[89] The patrols working on foot and in landrovers would at times carry out their own attacks, with MILAN missiles on Scud launchers and also set up ambushes for Iraqi convoys,[90]

On 22 January three eight man patrols from B Squadron were inserted behind the lines by a Chinook helicopter. Their mission was to locate Scud launchers and monitor the main supply route. One of the patrols Bravo Two Zero had decided to patrol on foot. The patrol was found by an Iraqi unit and, unable to call for help because they had been issued the wrong radio frequencies, had to try and evade capture by themselves. The team under command of Andy McNab suffered three dead and four captured; only one man, Chris Ryan, managed to escape to Syria. Ryan made SAS history with the "longest escape and evasion by an SAS trooper or any other soldier", covering 100 miles (160 km) more than SAS trooper Hugh Davidson (David) Sillito, had in the Sahara Desert in 1942.[91] The other patrols Bravo One Zero and Bravo Three Zero had opted to use landrovers and take in more equipment returned intact to Saudi Arabia.[92]

By the end of the war four SAS men had been killed and five captured.[93]

Sierra Leone[edit]

The SAS were operational in Sierra Leone in September 2000. When a combined SAS, SBS and men from 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment carried out a hostage rescue operation Operation Barras. The objective was to rescue 11 members of the Royal Irish Regiment that were being held by a militia group known as the West Side Boys.[67] The rescue team transported in three Chinook and one Lynx helicopter mounted a simultaneous two-pronged attack after reaching the militia positions. After a heavy fire fight, the hostages were released and flown back to the capital Freetown.[94] One member of the SAS rescue team was killed during the operation.[95]

Iraq War[edit]

At present there has been no confirmation that the SAS took any part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However there is evidence that they took part in later operations. General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander of NATO forces in Iraq, has commented on A Squadron 22 SAS Regiment. That when part of Task Force Black and Task Force Knight (subcomponents of Task Force 145), carried out 175 combat missions during a six-month tour of duty.[96] Also in 2006 members of the SAS were involved in the release of peace activists Norman Kember, James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden. The three men had been held hostage in Iraq for 118 days during the Christian Peacemaker hostage crisis.[97]


Since operations against the Taliban began in Afghanistan, the SAS are known to have taken part in the Battle of Tora Bora.[98] Also for the first time it has been revealed that reserve soldiers from 21 and 23 SAS Regiments have been involved in active operations.[99] In June 2008 a Land Rover transporting Corporal Sarah Bryant and SAS reserve soldiers Corporal Sean Reeve and Lance Corporals Richard Larkin and Paul Stout hit a mine in Helmand province, killing all four. In October Major Sebastian Morley, their commander in Afghanistan, resigned over what he described as "gross negligence" on the part of the Ministry of Defence that contributed to the deaths of four British troops under his command. Morley stated that the MoD's failure to properly equip his troops with adequate equipment forced them to use lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers to travel around Afghanistan.[100]

According to the London Sunday Times, as of March 2010 the United Kingdom Special Forces have suffered 12 killed and 70 seriously injured in Afghanistan and seven killed and 30 seriously injured in Iraq.[101][nb 2]


In March 2011, a joint SAS-MI6 team were captured and detained by Libyan rebels, during the 2011 Libyan civil war. The team were stripped of their weapons. They were moved between at least two locations near Benghazi. They were later released.[102]


  1. ^ The events of the raid were portrayed in the movie They Who Dare in 1954 starring Dirk Bogarde[15]
  2. ^ The death toll includes three from the SBS, one SAS officer, three SAS reservists, one member of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), and four members of the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG). These added to the previous toll from Iraq, where seven members of the SAS and one SBS commando died and more than 30 members of the SAS suffered crippling injuries.
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