The Bizarre Origins of the British Special Air Service (SAS)

The Special Air Service in North Africa. Wikipedia

Special forces form a vital component of contemporary militaries, and there is an ongoing, and likely never-ending, debate arguing which unit is the world’s absolute elite. Few, however, argue against the British Special Air Service’s (SAS) status as a leading contender, or the unit’s influence in shaping the evolution of special forces throughout the twentieth century. Dating back to the second World War, the SAS boasts an envious list of battle-honors, yet the unit was relatively unknown outside of the special forces community. The unit’s obscurity disappeared when an SAS assault team’s rescue operation was broadcast live on April 30, 1980, during the Iranian Embassy Siege. This event, combined with the SAS’s inherently secretive nature, stoked the flames of popular curiosity, and the unit’s fame spread over the following decades.

Deeply respected throughout the world’s militaries, the SAS’s storied career began in 1941 when a young Lieutenant in the British Army decided breaking into the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East theatre’s office was the best way to get approval for building a new type of commando team.

Special forces are not a new military concept. Throughout history, numerous armies created elite, specialized, units to sabotage the enemy, stage hit-and-run attacks, perform reconnaissance missions, or execute rapid, long-distance, maneuvers. Ancient Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome, for example, all used select groups to perform either dedicated tasks or commando-style raids. Alexander the Great’s Companion Cavalry, Rome’s Extraordinarii, and Egypt’s Medjay, among others, all share in fathering the role of contemporary special forces. Warfare’s evolved since Caesar’s day, of course, and the rapid transformation and professionalization of militaries throughout the previous three centuries only emphasized the need for specialized units.

Portrait of Lt Colonel David Stirling DSO.

The British Army, in particular, seized the specialized unit concept to police their varied, world-spanning empire. In 1846, they formed the oddly comprised Corps of Guides. Part infantry and part cavalry, the unit was ridiculously fast and maneuverable, and earned a formidable reputation fighting throughout India and Pakistan. Speed and independent action was a key element of the Guides’ success, and the idea took root. Detached, specialized, forces performed reconnaissance throughout the Tirah Campaign (1897–1898) and the Second Boer War (1899–1902).

World War II, however, spurred the development of special forces more than any other conflict. On June 10th, 1940, the Allies strategic situation was in complete disarray. Great Britain no longer had an army on the continent, and France could not stop the Reich’s overwhelming assault. This, of course, did not sit well with Winston Churchill, the fiery British Prime Minister. Retaking France would not happen soon, but allowing the Germans told hold it without a fight just wasn’t his style. Churchill ordered his joint chiefs of staff to raise a force, “prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast.”