In June 1955 it was decided that the New Zealand Army required an elite unit capable of unconventional warfare, to contribute to the British counter-insurgency effort in Malaya, and Major Frank Rennie was appointed to form and command the unit. Modeled on the British Special Air Service, the NZ SAS was quickly seen to be both effective and professional. The very arduous selection process, as then, only has a success rate of approximately 2%. Even after being “badged”, the probationary period can see further applicants returned to their original units.
World War Two
The NZ SAS can trace its roots back to the famous Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a British/Commonwealth army unit which fought in the North African desert in World War 2. This unit, which had a close relationship with the British SAS, was initially formed around New Zealand soldiers. This was because British officers believed New Zealanders, with their largely farming backgrounds, would be able to handle machinery and desert conditions better than other troops. The LRDG was nicknamed “the Mosquito Army” by General Wavell. Special Air Service soldiers would refer to it as the “Libyan Desert Taxi Service.”
Malaya and Borneo
In 1955 the 133-strong NZSAS Squadron was attached to the British SAS in Malaya. It fought against Malaysian Communists with great success, spending 18 of the 24 months it was in Malaya operating in the jungle. As well as being tasked with fighting the communist guerrilla forces they were also charged with collecting up and training villagers to fight as well. In over a dozen major engagements only one NZSAS trooper was killed. Soon after the unit was disbanded, having been operationally replaced by an Infantry Battalion. Still, it did not take long for the SAS unit to be reformed.
The NZSAS was also involved in countering Indonesian Communist insurgents in Borneo. Here in the harsh jungle environments the New Zealander’s tracking skills were called upon. Alongside their British and Australian counterparts, “Hearts and Minds” operations were very effective here and are still a major element of Special Forces operations.
Based in Nui Dat, Vietnam, the NZ SAS 4th Platoon served under Australian command in November 1968, attached to the Australian SASR. Here NZSAS was named 1st Ranger Squadron. Most tasks involved ambush of enemy forces and conducting recce missions observing the enemy. The NZ SAS troopers were involved in the South Asia conflict from 1968 to the early 1970s.
1997 – 1998
Starting in late 2001, the NZ SAS began operations assisting in the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan. Three 6 month rotations of between 40 and 65 soldiers from the NZ SAS served in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom before the unit was withdrawn in November 2005. On 17 June 2004, two NZ SAS soldiers were wounded in a pre-dawn gun-battle in central Afghanistan.
Secrecy still surrounds much of the NZ SAS’s operations in Afghanistan, although a Radio New Zealand news piece claimed the service had maintained a mission success rate of 100%.
According to a New Zealand government fact sheet released in July 2007, the NZ SAS soldiers routinely patrolled enemy territory for three weeks or more at a time, often on foot, after being inserted by helicopter.
There were “casualties on both sides” during gun battles, but no New Zealanders were killed.
Presidential Unit Citation
In December 2004, the United States Navy Presidential Unit Citation was awarded to those units that comprised the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-SOUTH/Task Force K-BAR between 17 October 2001 and 30 March 2002 for “extraordinary heroism” in action. One of these units was the Special Air Service of New Zealand.
The citation said SAS units helped “neutralise” Taliban and al Qaeda in “extremely high risk missions, including search and rescue, special reconnaissance, sensitive site exploitation, direct action missions, destruction of multiple cave and tunnel complexes, identification and destruction of several known al Qaeda training camps, explosions of thousands of pounds of enemy ordnance.”
“They established benchmark standards of professionalism, tenacity, courage, tactical brilliance and operational excellence while demonstrating superb esprit de corps and maintaining the highest measures of combat readiness.”
It was announced on 2 July 2007 that Corporal Willie Apiata of the NZ SAS, aged 35, had been awarded the Victoria Cross for New Zealand for carrying a severely injured comrade 70 metres “under heavy fire” from machine-guns and grenades after their vehicle was destroyed in an ambush and then joined the rest of his comrades in a counter-attack.
The announcement was unusual, because the NZ SAS is a very secretive organisation that almost never reveals the names of its members. NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark said Apiata’s name was revealed because it was only the 14th time since World War 2 that the Victoria Cross had been awarded among the 53 nations of the Commonwealth, and the first to a serving SAS soldier anywhere, and it would be almost impossible to keep secret. In addition to Cpl. Apiata, three other SAS soldiers were decorated for actions during the same mission. Although not confirmed, it seems that this action was the one on 17 June 2004, in which two New Zealanders were reported wounded.
In April 2008, Cpl. Apiata gifted his Victoria Cross medal to the NZSAS Trust, so that “The medal is protected for future generations”. The medal remains available to Apiata and his family to wear.
- NZSAS Basic Information
- NZSAS History
- NZSAS Current Organisation
- Counter-Terrorist Tactical Assault Group
- NZSAS Selection
- NZSAS Notable Members