Britain’s super-secret Special Air Service (SAS) has joined America in the battle against the terrorist stronghold in Afghanistan. For an inside look at this invaluable ally, read on.
by Paul Harris
The ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America was forged in the 20th century. From WWI to the Gulf, servicemen from both countries fought alongside each other. They took on powerful and ruthless conventional foes. At the beginning of the 21 century, that alliance has taken tangible form again as British and American forces take on a less tangible, but equally deadly, enemy: international terrorism. Although the U.S. has vast military assets and access to large numbers of combat personnel, the British possess an outstanding contribution to any conflict: the elite 22 Special Air Service Regiment, popularly known as the SAS. It was founded by Col. David Stirling in North Africa in 1940. Stirling believed that small groups of committed and highly trained men could operate successfully behind enemy lines. As President George W. Bush put it, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 (which killed 78 Britons), this new war, waged against a largely invisible enemy, includes “covert operations secret even in success.” In early December, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld praised Britain’s “unhesitating and invaluable” contribution in Afghanistan.He called British special forces “some of the toughest, smartest troops in the world.” He was referring to SAS and the Royal Marines’ Special Boat Service (SBS), Britain’s covert troops, much like America’s Delta Force and Navy SEALs. SAS and SBS “are doctrinally different from their U.S. counterparts, differences that could be especially valuable in any land campaign in Afghanistan,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Deputy Editorial Features Editor Tunku Varadarajun. “They train to spend long periods in the theater of operations, traversing terrain on foot. This complements the American strategy of airborne insertion and recovery, in which troops spend short, welldefined periods of time on enemy ground.” MERCILESS TRAINING Selection and training for SAS is rigorous in the extreme. Training takes place in the wild Welsh countryside in the area known as Brecon Beacons. The initial course ends, after 21 days, with an endurance march. It is a test of strength, stamina and willpower: 40 miles in 20 hours over mountainous terrain in foul winter conditions with 55-pound backpacks. Only one in 12 candidates makes the grade. A 14-week period of continuation training includes intense physical exercise, navigation, escape and evasion, mountain survival, jungle warfare, living off the land, close proximity combat drills and weapons’ skills. It culminates in an escape and evasion exercise, including merciless interrogation simulating the worst physical and mental torture. On training, Andy McNab, in Bravo Two Zero, wrote: “You’re turned loose on the Black Mountains dressed in Second World War battledress trousers and shirt, a greatcoat with no buttons and boots with no laces … you are subjected to intensive interrogation—stripped naked, hung up by your ankles … ” Those who pass selection go to “squadron” for further training, which lasts around six months. Unusually, the weapon of choice for the SAS is the U.S. M-16, rather than the British army regular issue SA-80, regarded as inferior. However, in Afghanistan, the new ‘three-in-one’ personal defense weapon from Heckler & Koch has been in use. It combines the firepower of a machine gun, the accuracy of an assault rifle and the compact handling of a pistol. SAS is numerically small. The 22 SAS Regiment consists of four so-called Sabre squadrons (A,B, D and G), each around 60 men strong. A reserve squadron (R) is part of the Territorial Army (similar to the Reserves or National Guard). One squadron is on permanent standby in the U.K. to deal with terrorist incidents. Each squadron consists of four troops; each patrol within a troop comprises four men—the key component of SAS ops. Each troop member has a specific skill— typically languages, demolition, communications or medical. A special SAS unit called the Revolutionary World Warfare wing operates at altitudes of 18,000 feet. SBS consists of two squadrons—about 50 men each. Both SBS and SAS are often supported by the Parachute Regiment’s Pathfinders, a 40-man long-range recon unit. OMAN, LONDON, FALKLANDS Most missions never become public, but some of the more dramatic and spectacular are known. Indeed, SAS operated in Afghanistan in the 1980s, training the mujahadin in guerilla tactics in their fight against Soviet occupation. According to one of those trainers, Tom Carew, “We put them through marksmanship, tactical movement, training with weapons, anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft missiles.” Carew, author of Jihad! The Secret War in Afghanistan and a 25-year vet of SAS, served there from May 1980 to December 1981. Desert fighting skills were honed in Oman during the 1970s in actions like the ‘Who Dares Wins’ Britain’s SAS in Action Britain’s super-secret Special Air Service (SAS) has joined America in the battle against the terrorist stronghold in Afghanistan. For an inside look at this invaluable ally, read on. by Paul Harris Battle of Mirbat (July 19, 1972), which is now the stuff of legend: nine SAS soldiers held off more than 250 rebels until reinforcements arrived. Fourteen SAS personnel died helping put down the uprising in Oman, a total exceeded only during the Malayan Emergency (1948- 60), which saw 28 SAS deaths (including five Rhodesians and New Zealanders) and the Falklands War in 1982 (21). Widespread public recognition of the SAS as a unique daredevil force came when the Iranian embassy in London’s Kensington was seized by six armed terrorists in April 1980. They took 26 hostages and the police were unable to resolve the incident. Six days later, black-uniformed, balaclava- clad men of the anti-terrorist team were seen live by British television viewers repelling down the front of the building. They crashed through the windows, which were blown by frame charges. Others entered from the rear and through the roof, clearing the building from the top down, room by room using stun grenades. Breaking the siege took just 17 minutes. The terrorists shot and killed one hostage. Out of the six terrorists, five were shot dead by the SAS. Two years later, the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina in April 1982. The distinguished officer, Lt. Col.Michael Rose, who had passed selection in 1967, returned to command 22 SAS during the war. On April 26, a force of men drawn from the SAS, SBS and 42 Marine Commando retook the island of South Georgia. There was a successful diversionary attack the night before the main task force landed at San Carlos on East Falkland. D Squadron attacked the enemy garrison at Goose Green with 66mm rockets and a sustained barrage of automatic fire. This gave the enemy the impression of a major attack, allowing the unit to withdraw the following morning without casualty. The night of May 14-15 produced another success. A reconnaissance patrol from D Squadron had identified 11 aircraft at the Pebble Island airstrip on West Falkland. Twenty members of the squadron’s Mountain Troop attacked the facility. All the aircraft were destroyed. Toward the end of May, D Squadron seized Mount Kent, 40 miles behind enemy lines. On June 14, it attacked the enemy’s rear at Port Stanley. Sixty men from D and G squadrons, aided by six from the SBS, utilized “Rigid Raiders” to attack Port Stanley Harbor, destroying the oil storage tanks in a spectacular blaze. Regrettably, the most serious loss of life in a single incident had occurred May 19, 1982. A Sea King helicopter accidentally crashed into the sea while cross-decking SAS troops between HMS Hermes and HMS Intrepid. Eighteen SAS men died. PERSIAN GULF WAR At the end of December 1990, the largest SAS deployment since WWII took place when A, B and D squadrons went to the Persian Gulf. After Iraq launched SCUD attacks on Tel Aviv the following month, Coalition commanders feared Israeli retaliation and Arab backlash. Priority was given to taking out the mobile launch bases in Iraq. Road watch patrols, consisting of eight men each, were inserted by helicopter into hostile territory. They set up static observation posts around the main supply routes so air strikes could be called in when SCUD launchers appeared. Four mobile fighting columns, each made up of around 30 men, 12 heavily armed four-wheel drive vehicles and motorcycle outriders, also were inserted. Poor intelligence led to watch patrols being dropped into difficult operational areas. All the groups were inappropriately equipped. Desert attire was insufficient for the sleet, snow and rain. There were also serious radio problems. Notwithstanding these grave difficulties, SAS succeeded in destroying vital communications facilities and some onethird of the mobile launchers. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who was skeptical of the use of special forces, thanked SAS personally. Four SAS men died in Iraq. BOSNIA, KOSOVO, SIERRA LEONE SAS involvement in Bosnia did not start until January 1994 when Rose—now a general—was appointed U.N. commander. He decided to circumvent U.N. bureaucracy, and its extended reporting procedure. SAS men operating under the euphemistic title of “Joint Commission Observers” traveled Bosnia as the eyes and ears of Rose, reporting directly back to him. Seven SAS soldiers were inserted into the beleagured Muslim enclave of Gorazde. They prevented its fall through covert surveillance of Serbian forces and accurate assessment of the relative strengths of fighters on the ground. Some positioned themselves in a bunker close to the Serb lines in April 1994. Engaged by the Serbs, Cpl. F.M. Rennie later died from his wounds. A high-profile mission came 20 months after the end of the war in Bosnia:Operation Tango on July 10, 1997. SAS men were transported to Prijedor from Tuzla aboard U.S. Black Hawk helicopters. Their objective was to arrest two prominent local Serbs, who were charged with setting up concentration camps where thousands of Muslims had been killed. One of the targets was Prijedor’s police chief, who was on a fishing trip. He inadvisedly shot one of the arresting party in the leg; other SAS men returned fire, killing him outright. When the allies launched their air war against Yugoslavia in 1999, SAS men were inserted into Kosovo as forward air controllers. Also, they trained members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, both in country and over the border in Albania. In August 2000, six British soldiers on peacekeeping duties were captured by violent rebels known as “The West Side Boys” (WSB) in Sierra Leone. SAS personnel set up a covert observation operation and, at dawn on Sept. 10, infiltrated the rebel camp on foot and secured the hostages. Chinook and Lynx helicopters dropped assault teams,which linked up with SAS on the ground. A fierce gun battle raged for two hours before it was possible to successfully evacuate all the prisoners. Bombardier Brad Tinnion, serving with the 22 SAS Regiment, was fatally wounded. BEATING THE CLOCK To date, an estimated 160 soldiers have died while serving with SAS since 1950, according to SAS veteran and historian Barry Davies. They are generally remembered by name on the Memorial Clock Tower at SAS Headquarters in Hereford. “The clock tower has a particular significance for every man in the SAS,” said one vet. “If you die on duty your name is inscribed on the tower. If you survive a tour, you are said to have beaten the clock … no man wants to end up on the clock tower.” SAS’s motto is well-deserved: Who Dares Wins. Ever since its inception, members of the regiment have proved themselves able to persevere under the most difficult conditions, take casualties and recover to fight again. Now Afghanistan—where SAS had 80- 100 men and at least four have been wounded—has provided yet another exacting test of their abilities. At Tora Bora, according to a source quoted in the London Telegraph, “We were within a whisker of getting him [Osama bin Laden]. It was a hard battle and will have put the fear of God into his people.”J PAUL HARRIS is a free-lance war correspondent from Scotland. He recently accompanied the British army on exercises in Oman and is now editor of an Englishspeaking newspaper on Sri Lanka. © February 2002 VFW Magazine www.vfw.org