By HP-Time.com Monday, May. 19, 1980
Tucked away in a Hereford hamlet on England’s border with Wales is the supersecret headquarters of the 22nd regiment of the Special Air Service (S.A.S.)—demonstrably the world’s toughest antiterrorist commando unit.
The S.A.S.’s training grounds were the site of a party last week as the 900-man regiment celebrated the successful assault on the Iranian embassy in London.
Guests of honor were the members of the task force, who in S.A.S. parlance had “beaten the clock” while carrying out the mission. Translation: the men had missed having their names inscribed on the clock-tower memorial at headquarters, the S.A.S.’s tribute to its fallen heroes. Alive or dead, commandos of this elite unit of the British army remain unknown to the world at large. Even when the heroes of the Princes Gate rescue raid are decorated for their feat, the ceremony will be kept secret.
Shadowy, mysterious, masked when they attack to hide any possibility of identification, trained both to rescue and to kill, S.A.S. members have thrived on the unit’s mystique ever since it was founded in the Libyan desert in 1942. The goal then was to penetrate and operate behind enemy lines in North Africa. Moving swiftly and with seemingly phantom-like invisibility, the S.A.S. destroyed hundreds of Nazi planes on their own airstrips, freed countless Allied prisoners and blew up scores of Axis ammunition dumps. The commandos were also sent on missions to assassinate leading Axis generals. One of the unit’s few known failures involved an attempt to kidnap Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the top German commander in Africa. The Germans soon came to fear the S.A.S. men sporting berets decorated with a winged dagger and the motto WHO DARES WINS.
Disbanded after World War II, the S.A.S. was revived in 1952 to fight Communist insurgents in Malaya. In Oman, the unit helped the Sultan repulse Saudi-backed rebels and Marxist insurgents. Gradually, the S.A.S. has focused on combatting terrorism. In Northern Ireland, where S.A.S. men have been posted since 1976, the unit is credited with halving the rate at which British servicemen were murdered by I.R.A. gunmen. One reason for the S.A.S.’s success has been its fearsome psychological impact on terrorists in South Armagh. So great is the S.A.S. reputation that European governments have often called upon its antiterrorist squads for help. During the 1977 hijacking of a Lufthansa 707 to Mogadishu, for example, the S.A.S. sent two men to advise West German commandos in their successful storming of the aircraft.
Training of S.A.S. recruits—all volunteers from other British army regiments—is exceedingly rigorous. The initial four-week selection course has a 90% failure rate. For starters, recruits are sent crawling through noxious sheep-dips and marching over mountainous terrain in Wales carrying 55-lb. backpacks on a 37%-mile, 20-hr, trek. In one ten-day exercise, half-naked recruits are set down at the mouth of a Welsh valley, harried by deafening sirens and an infantry force firing real bullets. Those who pass these tests are then taught such skills as demolition, lock picking, sabotage, unarmed combat, mountaineering, skiing, underwater diving, field communication and parachute jumping. Constant practice in rescuing hostages in simulated situations on trains, aircraft and from buildings has taught S.A.S. experts split-second timing. In preparation for the Princes Gate assault, the S.A.S. built a scale model of the Iranian embassy and practiced liberating it before attempting the difficult operation.
An honorary member of the regiment is Colonel Charlie Beckwith of the U.S. Special Forces, who led the ill-fated attempt to rescue the American hostages in Tehran. Beckwith was dispatched for training to S.A.S. headquarters in Hereford in 1962, before embarking on a tour of duty in Viet Nam. After the war, he drew on the skills and methods he had learned from the S.A.S. when forming his own commando team of “Charlie’s Angels.” “Charlie was the best that any army could produce,” says an S.A.S. officer. “The difference is that we were operating in our own backyard. He was operating over thousands of miles. Lady Luck was with us, she let him down.”