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Special forces

The Badass Series: Part One - SAS

Exploring the reputations of the world's elite defence organisations

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This is not just another article about the SAS. This is not a list of achievements or a retelling of 40-year-old operations, or summary stories of how the world's most admired special forces organisation came to be.

Important that all may be, this article is an examination of the one thing that proceeds any and every conversation about the SAS … its reputation.

When we talk about the SAS, either subconsciously or not, we are talking about its reputation.

The Badass Series looks beyond the headlines of some of the world's most revered defence organisations, unpicking facts from fiction and asks questions to the operational benefit of something as perceptive as a reputation.

We start close-to-home in part one, with an exploration of the persona of the SAS, Britain's primary special forces organisation.

What Is The Reputation?

Perhaps a difficult question to start with is the one about the commonly perceived idea of a single entity, person, or organisation. After all, who is the question even directed at? Should we expect different answers from different groups? Does the understood reputation differ between those who have served in the military and those who have not? Do any of these things matter anyway, if, the organisation itself does not care either way what people think of it?

That last question may have been easier to answer before 2020.

In November 2020, a jaw-dropping report in Canberra found that members of the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment unlawfully killed 39 civilians over some years while conducting operations in Afghanistan. The report, written by Maj Gen Paul Brereton following a four-year-long inquiry, indicated that incidents included the initiation of younger members of the regiment by way of having to execute captured detainees as a way of proving their worth.

In an instant, the reputation of Australia's special forces was questioned, and possibly forever.

In the days following the report, there were even calls to disband the regiment altogether.

It may well be that an organisation does not care about its reputation when times are well or when the direction of public opinion is on-side. But in the case of Australia's SAS, it may be naive not to expect both commanders and the general public alike to be feeling nothing but shame following the publication of Gen Brereton's report, and the subsequent attention it has received globally.

In terms of Britain's SAS, much has been documented about the affairs of the elite regiment. And a considerable portion of written work has been authored by people who served in the organisation directly. However, an academic study has directed criticism towards first-person, memoir-based, evidence.

Dangers Of Autobiography

Writing in Armed Forces & Society, an international journal focused on the research of matters ranging civil-military relations, veterans, force effectiveness, military culture and ethics, Anthony King outlined issues related to the writing of memoirs by former members of the SAS.

His research said:

"Following the Iranian Embassy siege, a new subgenre of literature appeared in Britain dedicated to the Special Operation Forces. SAS autobiographies, memoirs, and histories have figured prominently in the best-sellers lists. These works are extremely useful sources for the analysis of the Special Operations Forces. However, these sources also need to be treated with care. As Peter Radcliffe, a former SAS Regimental Sergeant Major notes in his own memoirs, "What is most saddening, however, is that so many SAS books, all written under pseudonyms, have been published which contain deliberate lies, distortions and fantasies."

King's paper goes on to list some of the more prominent examples of this distortion of truths, which this article does not want to illustrate directly, but suffice to say he makes claims against some of the best-known works of literature that deal with SAS operations. Summarising this, King says:

"SAS memoirs can be hyperbolic, consistently exaggerating the performance of individuals and the SAS as a whole."

Books of former members of the SAS have, as described by King, sold well and in some cases later been made into films. So, although he describes startling inaccuracies between the actual event and recalled memoir, the latter has secured a receptive audience numbering millions.

This matter then poses an uncomfortable question: is some of the SAS's reputation based on fictcional, or part fictional, accounts told in books?

Through The Lens

If the first-person accounts of writers who have either served in, or studied, the SAS are to be met with a pinch of salt, where else could the discerning public turn to build a sense of a truthful reputation? The obvious answer is to perhaps look to journalism. But how often do the exploits of Britain's special forces – covert in nature – feature in mainstream news?

If this discussion were about the SBS, the ever-so-slightly older sister to the SAS, then we could describe the October 2020 oil tanker siege off the coast of southern England. That would serve as an example of contemporary special forces operations. It has been some time since a significant item of current affairs dealt so centrally upon the SAS specifically and its members.

The Iranian Embassy siege is the most globally understood reference point in the history of Britain's elite fighting force.

Ask yourself, what image springs to mind when you think of the SAS? Are the pictures you conjure that of uniformed black-clad figures abseiling down the front of 16 Princes Gate, the detonation of explosives and the sound of gunshots ringing through the built-up streets of west London?

So much has been said of that fantastic operation, there is little point retelling it all here, but perhaps the easiest way to summarise the impact of that event is to say it was the day the SAS appeared on the map of public consciousness. And some.

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Terrorist tackled on the stairs (image from ‘Who Dares Wins’ by Gregory Fremont-Barnes © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The newsworthiness of the Iranian siege was unquestionable. If the same were to happen today, there is little doubt that the same would be true. That said, there is a factor to the SAS operation of May 6, 1980, that many overlook. And that is the fact that it came from nowhere; there was no earlier reference point, no other British comparisons of the sort of live TV counterterrorism operation performed that day. Perhaps you are old enough to remember the impact those pictures had on you, playing out live on your TV set. Was it exciting?

King discusses the factor of appearing from obscurity in his Armed Forces & Society article. He says:

"Illustrating its marginality, during the cold war, the SAS was looked on with outright hostility by some senior officers in the Army, who regarded the regiment as unnecessary and potentially divisive at a time when Britain's main defense needs were centered upon the armored divisions in West Germany. The regiment was deployed to Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, where it was involved in some controversial incidents in which a number of terrorists and civilians were killed. Following the debacle at the Munich Olympics of 1972, the SAS was awarded the exclusive responsibility for counterterrorism by the British Government."

Referencing the regiment's marginality, King speaks to the fact that the operational duties of the SAS were mostly unknown (to both the general public and much of the broader military community). Divisive, based on a covert motif Operandi to the backdrop of high cold-war tensions where the number of armoured tank divisions, alongside nuclear weapons, was seen as the mark of a superpower. Whatever the SAS was doing operationally in the 1970s, it was doing so without making much fuss. This characteristic played a vital role in the impact of the SAS and its style during the Iranian Embassy siege.

King's article continues:

"On May 6, 1980, the SAS famously ended a hostage crisis in the Iranian Embassy to a world television audience. On that warm spring evening, black-suited SAS troopers stormed the embassy, killing five of the six hostage-takers and securing the release of all the remaining hostages. The Iranian Embassy catapulted the SAS into public consciousness and government favour."

Returning to the question in hand – what we measure the SAS's reputation against – we now have a plausible response: the Iranian Embassy siege. But, the unmissable barrier to this answer lays in the fact the event was over forty years ago. The Embassy siege was closer to the end of World War Two than it is to today. Does this not raise a question of relevance?

SAS Iranian Embassy Siege
PA

Keys To Number Ten

Margaret Thatcher referred to the SAS as her boys. During the early eighties, the Prime Minister became both the admirer of the regiment and admired by it, following the Iranian Embassy siege and Falklands War.

The affection held by not just the more comprehensive Special Air Service towards the Iron Lady, but explicitly the men who stormed the embassy on her orders, was made clear in the aftermath of her death in 2013. Writing in the political magazine, Prospect, Pete Winner, one of the SAS leaders of the Iranian Embassy raid, spoke of the mutual admiration between No10 and Hereford throughout the 1980s. He said:

"Another of her achievements was to bring the SAS out of the shadows. At the siege we had smoke generators ready to be initiated as the assault went in. They would have put a smokescreen down and blocked the view of the world's media. Word is reported to have come down from Mrs Thatcher via Cobra: 'Don't initiate the smoke generators.' She wanted the whole assault on the TV screens to send a message to the world's terrorists.

"She definitely got the farewell she deserved. This was the day when the SAS and all British forces gave her in death the honour she so richly earned in life."

Dominic Sandbrook's Who Dares Wins details life in Britain from 1979 to 1982, and reveals how the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and the SAS flourished following the Iranian Embassy Siege in May 1980.

The optics of Thatcher's bringing the SAS "out of the shadows" had the first-hand consequence of giving the SAS a reputation. And a hard one at that. But the matter was somewhat reciprocal. In his 2019 book, Who Dares Wins - Britain, 1979 - 1982, Dominic Sandbrook went into detail about the relationship the Prime Minister had with the Hereford-based regiment in the immediate hours following the SAS embassy raid, something that remained in place for the following nine years of her premiership. 

"The Prime Minister never wavered in her admiration for the SAS. Only hours after the siege had ended, she and her husband Denis had visited their Regent's Park barracks. As one of her officials recalled, 'the air was thick with testosterone,' the men kicking back with bottles of beer to celebrate a job well done. According to one account, Denis jokingly complained: 'You let one of the bastards live.' But the SAS did not mind. Together they watched the coverage on the evening news, the men giving Mrs Thatcher a raucous running commentary. At one point, one of them remarked: 'We never thought you'd let us do it,' a tribute she never forgot. 

'Wherever I went in the next few days,' she wrote in her memoirs, 'I sensed a great wave of pride at the outcome.' Afterwards, their brigadier rang Number 10 to let Mrs Thatcher know that the regiment had been 'thrilled to bits' by her visit. 'Her smile', one soldier said afterwards, 'would have lightened up the darkest room.'

"From that moment, the romance between Mrs Thatcher and the SAS was sealed."

Given that the Prime Minister enjoyed a bounce in popularity in the aftermath of the Iranian Embassy Siege, could it be suggested that some of this newly established, reciprocal, reputation was the outcome of some clever, opportunistic political maneuvering by an ever-popularity aware Margaret Thatcher?

Margaret Thatcher giving a speech 121084 CREDIT PA
PA

Are You Tough Enough?

Something much more in the present is the reality TV programme, SAS Are You Tough Enough. A firm forces favourite – which is not the easiest accolade to secure, ask the writers of Our Girl. The annual Channel 4 series sees a general cross-section of civvies put through their paces on a mini-SAS selection process. Alongside this, the show's creators also produce a celebrity version which has seen the likes of Katie Price, Joey Essex and footballer Wayne Bridge turn their hand to special forces training.

What makes the show so well respected is the fact it is fronted by a group of former members of Britain's elite special forces, most commonly the SAS and SBS.

But how is it that former members of the SAS can be disputed in one form of media (the writing of memoirs) yet respected, even celebrated, in another?

Ant Middleton SAS Who Dares Wins Chief Instructor Episode 6 Credit Channel 4

The DS staff on SAS: Are You Tough Enough – many of whom are ex-Regiment – are now household names.

For King, writing in Armed Forces & Society, a vital component of the SAS experience that is undisputed is their use of tactics, something which is rooted in training. He says:

"The descriptions of these practices and procedures are not fundamentally compromised by the hyperbole that punctuates individual texts. Indeed, it is relatively easy to detach personal hyperbole from viable evidence, especially since it has been possible to corroborate the SAS's tactics through the observation of other elite British Forces, the Royal Marines Commandos and the Parachute Regiment. These forces employ many Special Operations Forces techniques, and they include many members of the Special Operations Forces."

Many people, although not in detail, would likely be able to describe some element of SAS selection and training. Knowledge of the precise ins and outs may be the preserve of keen enthusiasts – or those who have the first-hand experience – but generally speaking, a lot of people know there is an element of extreme in the stakes at play. Whether those extreme stakes be jumping out of planes, surviving in a jungle environment or fighting through the infamous escape and evasion phase of selection, they all provide underlining of the scope of danger involved in the job.

Today, a lot of general knowledge possessed by everyday men and women about the SAS is thanks to documentary or reality programmes on television like SAS: Are You Tough Enough. So perhaps an appropriation of the credit belongs here.

Celebrity SAS Who Dares Wins Episode 4 Surf Immersion Credit Channel 4

The Greatest Trick

A well-known saying, with credit due to the writers of the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, is that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. Perhaps this phrase, slightly cheesy, can serve a purpose in the discussion around the reputation of the modern-day SAS? The statement intends to emote a vibe of covertness; it is to say that although people talk of the devil every day, nobody has seen him. Would there likely be a preference within the SAS to allow everyday conversations about themselves to base itself on operations that are the best part of a half a century ago? If the daily affairs of the world's most elite fighting force are to succeed, nobody but a select few ought to possess knowledge about what they precisely are. Arguably, it is better to allow that status quo to continue.

While the world awaits that rare moment of a hostage-taking siege live on-screen, the SAS could be moving into an OP at the end of your street without anybody noticing, or be on assignments abroad that have not even made the evening news.

The cornerstone of such matters is complete secrecy; that is the nature of Special Forces operations.

BFBS Listeners Say …

In November, BFBS Radio listeners took part in a poll on Twitter asking what the reputation of the SAS is built upon. Like the topics covered in this article, respondents could choose between SAS selection and training, the Iranian Embassy siege, TV shows such as SAS: Are You Tough Enough and the written memoirs of former members of the regiment.

Interestingly, a quarter of those who participated answered that the Iranian Embassy siege was the chief reason behind their perception of the SAS, even though the event was forty years in the past, and that counterterrorism is just one element of the operational scope of the regiment. Margaret Thatcher's idea of removing the intended privacy smoke screens on that day in 1980 is still paying dividends all these years on.

The most popular response to the poll (at 64%) was the SAS's selection and training, something King described in his research paper as being an element of the SAS experience that can be trusted and viewed upon as reliable. Across the areas of the SAS experience mentioned in this article, the training of SAS troopers is the most unambiguous: it is bloody hard, and it produces bloody good men and women.

So, whether you agree or not that the primary reference point in exploring the SAS's reputation rests upon the training members of the regiment are exposed to during recruitment - and continuously while serving - one thing that cannot be doubted is the reliability of that training. Unlike memoirs written by former members, or studies by others, the commonly understood protocols of SAS selection and training are accepted as accurate. That training has had a causal effect on the success of operations be they in West London, Iraq, Afghanistan or for that matter, anywhere else in the world. 

Perhaps the truth is that a little of everything discussed in this article provides this thing called reputation. But in terms of being badass, standing the SAS out from the rest - the one thing that makes the regiment the best - is training. Training, training, training. 

Who Dares Wins.

 

For more, read ‘Who Dares Wins: The SAS And The Iranian Embassy Siege 1980’ by Gregory Fremont-Barnes and ‘The Special Air Service’ by James Shortt. For more military history, visit Osprey Publishing.

Also titled Who Dares Wins, Dominic Sandbrook's historical examination of the the early 1980s is available in books shops, published by Penguin.