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The Special Air Service (SAS) is a special forces regiment within the British Army which has served as a model for the special forces of other countries. The SAS forms a significant section of United Kingdom Special Forces alongside the Special Boat Service (SBS), Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), and the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG).
The Special Air Service is divided into two distinct parts:
- 22 Regiment Special Air Service, the regular regiment of the SAS, which is the unit associated with most well-known SAS operations.
- Two Territorial Army units, 21 Regiment Special Air Service (Artists) and 23 Regiment Special Air Service.
The SAS was formed in 1941 as a commando force operating behind enemy lines during the war in North Africa and Europe then disbanded in 1945. In 1947 the Artists Rifles regiment was remodelled as the nucleus of the reformed Special Air Service which has become the model upon which many other countries have based their own special forces units.
Current SAS roles are believed to include:
- Intelligence collection in the deep battlespace
- Battlespace preparation by sabotage and offensive raids in the medium and deep battlespace
- Counter-terrorism operations inside UK territory in conjunction with police forces
- Counter Terrorism operations outside UK territory
- Training soldiers of other nations, and training guerillas in unconventional warfare
- Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) activities in support of UK government Foreign Policy
The Special Air Service is a Corps of the British Army under the United Kingdom legal system which authorises the raising of military forces and comprises three battalion-sized units, one Regular and two Territorial Army (TA), each styled as 'regiments' in accordance with British Army practice; 22 Regiment SAS being the Regular unit, with 21 Regiment SAS (Artists) and 23 Regiment SAS as the TA units, known together as the Special Air Service (Reserve) or SAS(R). Under the Operational Command (OPCOM) of the Director Special Forces.
Each Regiment comprises a number of "Sabre" Squadrons with some supporting functions being undertaken within 22 SAS; Headquarters, Planning, and Intelligence Section, Operational Research Section, Counter Revolutionary Warfare Wing, and Training Wing. ('Sabre' Squadrons are so called to distinguish the operational squadrons from administrative or HQ squadrons.)
The Squadrons also rotate through the CRW Wing (originally designated "Pagoda") and is relieved every 6 – 9 months. The squadron is split up into two combined troops, "Red" and "Blue", with each troop made up of an assault group and a sniper team. Though the counter-terrorist teams are based at RHQ in Credenhill, a specialist eight-man team is based within the outer London region (4, south London border & 4, north London border/Hertfordshire). This team rapidly responds to any situation in London as required.
The three regiments have different roles:
- 21 SAS and 23 SAS - to provide depth to the UKSF group through the provision of Individual and collective augmentation to the regular component of UKSF and standalone elements up to task group (Regimental) level focused on support and influence (S&I) operations to assist conflict stabilisation.
- 22 SAS - Medium and deep battlespace ISTAR and offensive operations, Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW), Counter-Terrorism (CT), close protection and defence diplomacy.
- Each TA Squadron and the Honourable Artillery Company, includes attached regular personnel as Permanent Staff *Instructors - a ruling established by the then Brigadier Peter de la Billière, as Director SAS, specifying that promotion within the Regiment for any officer or senior NCO would be predicated on experience with the SAS(R). In the 1980s and 1990s the SAS provided the Commanding Officer and some directing staff for the NATO International Long Range *Reconnaissance Patrol School (ILRRPS) based at Weingarten and then Pfullendorf as well as men for the British Army Jungle Warfare Training School in Brunei.
The SAS was formerly garrisoned in based at Stirling Lines (formerly Bradbury Lines) 52°2′20.85″N 2°43′10.67″W/52.039125°N 2.7196306°W/52.039125; -2.7196306, Hereford which was named after the founder of the regiment, Sir David Stirling. Stirling Lines relocated to a former RAF station in Credenhill in 1999.
'Sabre' Squadrons in 22 SAS are organised as four specialised Troops, although personnel are broadly skilled in all areas following 'Selection' and 'Continuation' training. The specialised troop provide a focus for particular skill sets and personnel may move between Troops over the length of a career. 21 and 23 SAS do not so distinguish. 22 SAS differ from others as they are limited to foreign insurgency, containment and conflict rather than counter-terrorism.
Air Troop personnel specialise in airborne insertion from fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. Leaving the aircraft at high altitude personnel are capable of delivering personnel and equipment into the deep battlespace far beyond the forward edge of battle area in support of their ISTAR or offensive operations.
Personnel are trained in three principal forms of parachute infiltration; Basic static line, High Altitude, Low Opening (HALO) and High Altitude, High Opening (HAHO). HALO insertions involve a long free fall followed by canopy opening at low level, about 2,000 feet (600 m), leaving the operator exposed to detection and fire for the minimum possible period. The aircraft must overfly in the vicinity of the Drop Zone to effect delivery, risking a compromise to the mission should it be detected. HAHO insertions allow the aircraft to deliver the operators from a significantly greater range from the Drop Zone, thus reducing risk of mission compromise. Operators leave the aircraft and immediately deploy a canopy which allows a long glide over great distance. To avoid hypoxia, the parachutists are provided with an oxygen supply to survive the depleted air at high altitude and warm clothing protects from the extreme environmental conditions.
Boat Troop personnel specialise in water-borne insertion techniques. Personnel are trained in diving using Open and Closed Circuit breathing systems, sub-surface navigation skills, approaching the shore or vessels underway and the delivery of maritime demolition charges. Much of this training is undertaken with the Special Boat Service.
One of the main forms of transportation is the Klepper canoe. The first SAS folding boats were designed during World War II for use by Commandos, based on existing designs. The German Klepper has been in service since the 1960s. Other transportation methods include the Gemini inflatable, used primarily for sending small groups of soldiers onto a shore undetected, and the fibreglass hulled Rigid Raiders - fast patrol boats which are larger and can carry more personnel or cargo ashore. Entry to the water is also achieved from rotary wing aircraft and by parachute drop. In case of the former, the helicopter hovers around 50 feet (15 m) above the water and personnel simply jump out. Airborne entry to the water carries a significant risk to equipment with weapons and other equipment sealed using a dry bag.
Deployment from submarines is also taught. Submarine egress bears a high risk given the effect of pressure at depth (nitrogen narcosis and oxygen toxicity), the cold, and the risks inherent in the use of mechanical breathing aids while underwater.
Mobility Troop personnel specialise in vehicle insertion techniques, similar to those of the Long Range Desert Group of the Second World War and allows a more sustainable patrol in the medium to deep battlespace but create logistical and force protection challenges.
Personnel are required to gain skills in vehicle maintenance across the range of vehicles used by the Regiment, particularly whilst on patrol with limited opportunity for combat support. Vehicles include the Jackal (MWMIK), Land Rovers, Supacat HMT, Honda 350 cc Quad Bike, CRF450X, and the Honda 250 cc motorbike.
Mountain troops' personnel specialise in the conduct of operations at high altitude and in mountainous terrain, requiring advanced skills in climbing, ice climbing, skiing and cold weather survival. Training is conducted in deserts and mountain ranges around the world. Those members that show particular aptitude are seconded to the German Army where they undertake the 18-month long Alpine Guides course in Bavaria. A number of members from the mountain troops have participated in major military and civilian expeditions to some of the world's highest peaks although this has not been without loss.
All UK military personnel are bound by the Official Secrets Act and undergo various levels of vetting, Special Forces personnel are required to be cleared to higher levels than many.
Following a number of high-profile book releases about the Regiment, candidates for selection are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, in addition to their duties under the Official Secrets Act. Ex-members of the Regiment who wrote exposés 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.
The British Government has a standing policy of not discussing the SAS or its operations and makes few official announcements concerning their activities. When reports of military operations are given there is usually no mention of SAS, or other Special Forces, involvement. Since the inception of the British D-Notice system for the British Press during World War II any mention of Special Air Service operations has been one of the cautionary or non-disclosure categories of reporting.
Medals awarded to personnel are publicised in the normal manner and officially and formally via The London Gazette. However the individual's original parent Corps or Regiment, if they have such, is attributed as a matter of fact which sometimes provides security cover. The circumstances surrounding personnel killed in action are not routinely disseminated. Before 2006 three officers have been recommended for the VC: two during World War II and one during the Falklands. Only one has been awarded; to Major Anders Lassen, MC**, killed in Italy in 1945 when he was commanding a squadron of the Special Boat Service. His grave marker bears the badge of the Regiment because the SBS in which he served continued to wear this as their cap badge, and was considered part of the 'SAS family' even though it was a separate regiment, commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel and formed out of the Special Boat Squadron of 1 SAS.
SAS cap badge.The SAS, like every other British regiment, has its own distinctive insignia.
- The Cap badge is a downward pointing flaming sword worked in cloth of a Crusader shield was designed by Corporal Robert 'Bob' Tait MM and Bar, London Scottish with the motto Who Dares, Wins. It was finally approved by the first Commanding Officer, David Stirling, with the proposed wording 'Descend to Defend' or 'Strike and Destroy' disallowed, following the usual British Army practice of a competition to design a cap badge for the new unit held after the completion of Operation Crusader by the 8th Army. The sword depicted is King Arthur's Excalibur (references to it as the Sword of Damocles derive from an article originally published in the Mars and Minerva, the Regimental Journal written by a highly respected veteran of both British Regiments and the post-war re-raised Regiment. He was subsequently proved to be incorrect, but the story was picked up by the media and still gets repeated.), worked in the light and dark blue colours of the original No. 11 SAS Battalion. This was converted to a Roman pattern gladius when the design was made up by the tailors in Cairo. This badge is now sometimes incorrectly termed the winged dagger due to subsequent wartime misattribution of its significance and the mistaken reference to it as this in the book of that name by Roy Farran who served in 2 SAS.
- The sand-coloured beret. When the SAS was reformed in 1947 an attempt was made to match the original sand coloured cloth beret from those still in the possession of veterans. This proved impossible to do from existing approved cloth colour stocks held by the British authorities, so, as a compromise and with no authorisation for expenditure on a new colour dye the nearest acceptable colour was selected and approved by an all ranks committee of the Regimental Association. Personnel attached to the Regiment also wear this beret but with their own badges in accordance with usual UK practice.
- SAS pattern parachute wings.The SAS pattern parachute wings were designed by Lieutenant Jock Lewes and based on the basic British Army design approved in 1940 but modified to reflect the Middle East origins of the new unit by the substitution of the stylised sacred Ibis wings of Isis of Egyptian iconography depicted in the décor of Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo.