WHO DARES WINS – History of the SAS Regiment

The British Special Air Service regiment, the SAS, is one of the world’s most elite and secretive military organisations.


The Special Air Service began life in July 1941 from an unorthodox idea and plan by a Lieutenant in the Scots Guards David Stirling, who was serving with No. 8 (Guards) Commando. His idea was for small teams of parachute trained soldiers to operate behind enemy lines to gain intelligence, destroy enemy aircraft and attack their supply and reinforcement routes. Following a meeting with Major-General Neil Ritchie, the Deputy Chief of Staff, he was granted an appointment with the new C-in-C Middle East, General Claude Auchinleck. Auchinleck liked his plan and it was endorsed by the Army High Command. At that time there was a deception organisation already in the Middle East area, which wished to create a phantom Airborne Brigade to act as a threat to enemy planning of operations. This deception unit was known as K Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade and so Stirling’s unit was called L Detachment SAS Brigade.

The force initially consisted of five officers and 60 other ranks. Following extensive training at Kabrit camp, by the River Nile, L Detachment, SAS Brigade undertook its first operation. Operation Squatter was a parachute drop behind the enemy lines in support of Operation Crusader, they would attack airfields at Gazala and Timimi on the night 16/17 November 1941. Unfortunately because of enemy resistance and adverse weather conditions the mission was a disaster, 22 men were killed or captured – one third of the men employed. Allowed another chance they recruited men from the Layforce Commando, which was in the process of disbanding. Their second mission was more successful, transported by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), they attacked three airfields in Libya destroying 60 aircraft without loss.

Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne
Archibald David Stirling


1942 – 1943

Their first mission in 1942, was an attack on Bouerat. Transported by the LRDG, they caused severe damage to the harbour, petrol tanks and storage facilities.[8] This was followed up in March by a raid on Benghazi harbour with limited success but they did damage 15 aircraft at Al-Berka. The June 1942 Crete airfield raids at Heraklion, Kasteli, Tympaki and Maleme significant damage was caused but of the attacking force at Heraklion only Major George Jellicoe returned. In July 1942, Stirling commanded a joint SAS/LRDG patrol that carried out raids at Fuka and Mersa Matruh airfields destroying 30 aircraft.
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Operations they took part in were: Operation Agreement and the diversionary raid Operation Bigamy. Bigamy led by Stirling and supported by the LRDG, were to attempt a large-scale raid on Benghazi to destroy the harbour, storage facilities and attack the airfields at Benina and Barce. However, they were discovered after a clash at a roadblock. With the element of surprise lost, Stirling decided not to go ahead with the attack and ordered a withdrawal. Agreement was a joint operation by the SAS and the LRDG who had to seize an inlet at Mersa Sciausc for the main force to land by sea. The SAS successfully evaded enemy defences assisted by German speaking members of the Special Interrogation Group and captured Mersa Sciausc. The main landing failed, being met by heavy machine gun fire forcing the landing force and the SAS/LRDG force to surrender. Operation Anglo a raid on two airfields on the island of Rhodes, from which only two men returned. Destroying three aircraft, a fuel dump and numerous buildings, the surviving SBS men had to hide in the countryside for four days before they could reach the waiting submarine.


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David Stirling who was by that time sometimes referred to as the “Phantom Major” by the Germans, was captured in January 1943 in the Gabès area by a special anti-SAS unit set up by the Germans. He spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war, escaping numerous times before being moved to the supposedly ‘escape proof’ Colditz Castle. He was replaced as commander 1st SAS by Paddy Mayne. In April 1943, the 1st SAS was reorganised into the Special Raiding Squadron under the command of Mayne and the Special Boat Squadron under the command of George Jellico.[19] The Special Boat Squadron operated in the Aegean and theBalkans for the remainder of the war and was disbanded in 1945.

ARMAMENT – Nord Africa WW2 A close-up of a heavily-armed patrol of ‘L’ Detachment SAS in their jeeps with their twin-mounted Vickers K machine guns, just back from a three month patrol, 18 January 1943. Lieutenant Edward MacDonald sits in the wheel (foreground) with Corporal Bill Kennedy, while the driver in the second jeep is Private Malcolm Mackinnon. The crews of the jeeps are all wearing ‘Arab-style’ headdress (kafiyeh), as copied from the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). The officer at the wheel of the nearest jeep has a Sykes-Fairbairn commando knife on his left hip, and insignia on his shoulder and left breast, including the operational ‘SAS’ wings. The jeeps all have modified radiator/condenser systems rigged, and many jerrycans of water and petrol mounted on the bonnet, sides, and in the rear of the body. The patrol leader’s jeep mounts twin Vickers K .303 guns; the central jeep, twin and single Vickers guns at front and rear; and the furthest one, a .50cal. Browning – apparently an aircraft weapon – at the front and twin Vickers at the rear. Note: They are using the American-built Willys Jeeps, instead of the far less-reliable British Land Rover! The famed Special Air Service (SAS) of the British Army was formed in Specially adapted vehicles were used in North Africa, including the famous 4×4 1/4-ton Truck, though heavily modified for its behind-the-lines role. The vehicle began appearing in July 1942. They were generally stripped down to save weight and, for operations in the hot climate,the grill was removed and a water condenser fitted. Weapons such as Lewis and Vickers K machine guns were mounted for use against ground or aerial targets.




 Members of 2nd SAS on parade for an inspection by General Bernard Montgomery, following the successful capture of the port of Termoli. On the left is Major E Scratchley DSO, MC, and on the right is Captain Roy Farranholding a German sub-machine-gun.

The Special Raiding Squadron spearheaded the invasion of Sicily Operation Husky and played more of a commando role raiding the Italian coastline, from which they suffered heavy losses at Termoli. After Sicily they went on to serve in Italy with the newly formed 2nd SAS, a unit which had been formed in Algeria in May 1943 by Stirling’s older brother Lieutenant Colonel Bill Stirling. The 2nd SAS had already taken part in operations in support of the Allied landings in Sicily: Operation Narcissus was a raid by 40 members of 2nd SAS on a lighthouse on the south east coast of Sicily. The team landed on 10 July with the mission of capturing the lighthouse and the surrounding high ground. Operation Chestnut involved two teams of ten men each, parachuted into northern Sicily on the night of 12 July, to disrupt communications, transport and the enemy in general. On mainland Italy they were involved in Operation Begonia which was the airborne counterpart to the amphibious Operation Jonquil, from 2 to 6 October, 61 men were parachuted between Ancona and Pescara. The object was to locate escaped prisoners of war in the interior and muster them on beach locations for extraction. Begonia involved the interior parachute drop by 2nd SAS. Jonquil entailed four seaborne beach parties from 2nd SAS with the Free French SAS Squadron as protection.Operation Candytuft was a raid by 2nd SAS on 27 October. Inserted by boat on Italy’s east coast between Ancona and Pescara, they were to destroy rail road bridges and disrupt rear areas.


1944 – 1945

In early 1944 the 1st and 2nd SAS Regiments returned to the UK and joined a newly formed SAS Brigade of the Army Air Corps. The other units in the Brigade comprised two French SAS Regiments (3rd and 4th)and one Belgium Independent Parachute Company (5th). The Brigade was at the forefront of the action with the Normandy landings in June 1944, serving behind the enemy lines in jeeps assisting the French Resistance, as well as in support of Allied Armed Forces. It continued to serve with great distinction through Belgium, Holland and Germany until the end of the European War in May 1945.

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