Special forces

British Special Forces – where they came from and what they do

An examination of the histories and current roles of the UK’s Special Forces units.

A single event most likely serves as shorthand, in the mind of most people, for everything British Special Forces is and does.

Whether knowingly or not, many people think of the May 1980 Iranian Embassy siege and the SAS men who carried it out when they think of British Special Forces.

Likewise, their American counterparts are often similarly reduced to either Delta Force or Seal Team 6, when in reality the area of American Special Operations Forces is far vaster and most complex than that.

British Special Forces, meanwhile, may not be so numerous and varied, but there is still far more to them than only the SAS.

Given its secretive nature, the area of Special Forces is difficult to define exactly, but the National Army Museum’s definition is a good starting point:

“The Special Forces are made up of several elite military units with distinct areas of expertise. Each has a unique purpose intended to address particular security threats.”

This can, and does, mean small covert groups of highly trained and well-equipped individuals who often carry out direct action roles like small raids, hostage rescue, and counter-terrorism, which might include kill-or-capture missions aimed, for instance, at high-value terrorist leaders.

They might also perform a number of other missions behind enemy lines such as special reconnaissance and covert observation, as well as the destruction of particular targets, like grounded enemy aircraft during the Falklands War, or Scud missile launchers during the Gulf War. One Special Forces unit that carried out the latter mission was the eight-man team Bravo Two Zero. Chris Ryan was a member of this team and he talks about his experiences during this mission in the video just below.

The terms Foreign Internal Defence (FID) and Unconventional Warfare (UW) refer to the training of foreign soldiers for an allied government (FID), or that of guerrilla forces who oppose an unfriendly government (UW.) These tasks may also fall within the Special Forces remit.

In the US military, Special Forces are often referred to by the wider term “Special Operations Forces” (or SOF.) This is clearer and more inclusive, since “Special Forces” traditionally referred to just the Green Berets, which has performed FID and UW missions since the 1950s.

In more recent decades, the term Special Operations Forces has also become a useful way to refer the multiple elite specialists across the US military. These include those who perform supporting roles for the more traditional Special Forces units like the Green Berets, Delta Force and the Navy SEALs.

What follows here is an overview of the UK’s Special Forces units, including what is known about their roles and histories, and some of the other elite units that support them. While every effort has been made to ensure this report is factually accurate, including seeking assistance from the Ministry of Defence, the MOD wishes to point out that the piece is not officially authorised and that they could not confirm the precise details of all aspects of the article.

Former SAS member Chris Ryan describes his experiences in Iraq as part of Bravo Two Zero in 1991

The Special Air Service (SAS)

In ‘The Elite: The A-Z of Modern Special Operations Forces’, Leigh Neville describes ‘the Regiment’, as the SAS is euphemistically known, as the most well-known and emulated special operations unit in the world. The US Army’s Delta Force, for instance, which is also known by various euphemisms, was modelled on the SAS.

Admittedly, this has created somewhat of a paradox: a well-known and highly regarded unit that aims to operate in secrecy as much as possible. And yet, this careful balance is maintained, with “the Regiment” recruiting high-calibre applicants from across the British military (though principally from the Army, and in particular the Paras) and its missions being of intense interest to the media. At the same time, the exact details of these operations, and those who perform them, do not usually become public until years later, if at all.

The genesis for the SAS was a series of missions in 1941 and 42 to destroy enemy-held port facilities and airfields in North Africa during World War 2. The unit was the brainchild of Major David Stirling and the its early missions were performed by men drawn from 7 Commando. The Commandos themselves were at that stage rather embryonic units of mostly coastal raiders in the Army and Royal Marines. Like them, the SAS (known initially as L Detachment) gradually improved its expertise and evolved into highly effective specialised groups.

The “Air” part of Special Air Service was derived from their original practice of training commandos as airborne troops who could parachute behind enemy lines and sneak up and then destroy enemy planes sitting in desert airfields at night. As it turned out, the vast distances of the desert were much better navigated and traversed in small groups of jeeps and the SAS soon teamed up with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) to drive up to and then attack enemy airfields at night.

The SAS was then used in Europe where it again operated at a high level behind enemy lines, from the D-Day landings in June 1944 until the end of the war the following year.

These days the SAS consists of three regiments, the 21st, 22nd and 23rd. When it was disbanded at the end of World War 2, it was first re-established as a Territorial unit (the 21st SAS Regiment) in 1947. Quickly proving its worth again in the Malayan Emergency, the Army created a regular counterpart in 1952, the 22nd SAS. This was seeded by some members of 21st SAS and, as the National Army Museum points out, was the only time that a Territorial Army Regiment had birthed a regular Army unit, rather than the other way around. It in turn developed its own Territorial Army unit in 1959, the 23rd SAS.

Much of what is written about the SAS concerns the activities of the regular 22 SAS Regiment, though the Territorial (and later Reserve) Regiments, 21 and 23 SAS, have also made important contributions to their Regular Army counterpart.

An SAS uniform from the 1980s (Picture: Alamy – EWNGGA)
An SAS uniform from the 1980s (Picture: Alamy – EWNGGA).

In ‘Ghost Force: The Secret History of the SAS’, Ken Connor explains that 21 SAS was trained and intended to act as a kind of stay-behind reconnaissance and sabotage unit in the event of a Soviet invasion of Europe during the Cold War.

What this theoretically would have involved in practice would have been staying behind while a vast Soviet army rumbled past underground hideouts, which were essentially Observation Posts (OPs) protected from nuclear, biological and chemical attacks. The SAS would then reporting by radio on the positions of Soviet troops and installations to help with the targeting of missiles. In other words, a form of behind-the-lines deep reconnaissance and surveillance without the need to first penetrate enemy lines, since in such an operation those lines would come to you.

A related role involved committing acts of sabotage against a still-advancing and occupying Soviet army.

Meanwhile, 23 SAS was trained to run escape routes out of a Soviet-occupied Europe in the event of an invasion, taking over from what MI-9 had done for Allied soldiers and airmen stranded in Nazi-occupied Europe in World War 2.

SAS operator in shadow - Alamy S2GB37
The SAS are somewhat of a paradox, a well-known yet secretive organisation (Picture: Alamy - EWNGGA).

As far as 21 SAS went, Connor later explains that training for their essentially passive role did not always work out as planned. Referring to the aforementioned 1980 siege in which around three dozen operators from 22 SAS stormed the Iranian Embassy to rescue hostages from six terrorist gunmen, Connor writes:

“The only problem was getting the weekend soldiers (i.e. those in 21 SAS) to rehearse their role (as stay-behind observers.) What they really wanted to do was look cool in dark glasses and practise storming the Iranian Embassy. If an exercise was laid on involving a simulated attack or a hostage rescue, every SAS Territorial soldier and most of his mates as well would turn up. If the exercise was to practise what they would actually be doing in wartime — lying up in an OP and carrying out covert surveillance — their instructors would be lucky to get a dozen people attending.”

Connor’s observation is equal parts amusing and disconcerting, though it appears that in more recent decades SAS reservists have shown nothing but extreme professionalism. In ‘The Complete History of the SAS’, Nigel McCrery and Barry Davies explain that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stretching the manpower of the regular 22 SAS, a number of those in 21 and 23 SAS were brought in as replacements. This, they point out, is a role they appear to have performed extremely well:

“The territorial units receive the same training as those in the regular SAS, and their principal role in Afghanistan was their traditional one of long-range reconnaissance. US commanders, in charge of most of the operations in the country, were impressed by their skill and dedication.”

In terms of what the 22 (Regular) SAS got up to during the Cold War, according to Connor they were initially meant to operate like the Jedburgh teams of World War 2, arming and training local resistance fighters to take on the theoretical Soviet occupiers. But Connor, who was serving in the SAS at this time, knew this strategy would have been futile:

“An SAS sergeant at that time would have had a minimum of ten years’ training. We didn’t feel we needed any help from civilians on the ground. The only useful assistance they could have given us would have been a drawing of the actual target.”

Instead, after he convinced higher ups to change direction, the regular SAS took on a deep penetration role that involved gathering intelligence on the enemy instead.

Another contemporary observer who saw the Cold War SAS from the outside was the American Special Forces operator James Stejskal. He too was embedded in a US Special Forces unit meant to stay behind and help in the fight against a Soviet army, if one ever rolled into Western Germany.

In ‘Special Forces Berlin’, Stejskal explains how US Special Forces members learnt techniques for CQB (Close Quarters Battle) from the SAS. This refers to firefights at short distances, often in enclosed spaces such as inside buildings.

Stejskal quotes a 1976 SAS internal training document that outlines the technique:

“CQB is much more a personal affair than ordinary combat and it is just not good enough to temporarily put your opponent out of action so he can live to fight another day. He must be quickly and definitively killed so that you can switch your whole attention on the next target. Besides obvious physical abilities, the CQB operator must be cool-headed and, above all, remorseless. The pistol and the SMG [submachine gun] are the main weapons used by the CQB operator. These weapons are generally regarded by the ignorant as ‘dangerous’ and ‘useless’. In the hands of a trained CQB operator these weapons are extremely lethal. However, for the CQB operator to maintain a high degree of professionalism he must train continuously in an aggressive manner. The end product … must be automatic and instantaneous killing.”

Stejstal also describes how this doctrine was put into practice in training, with four to six-man teams storming into rooms (in a “careful hurry”) with practice targets which were then hit with precisely practiced double taps (i.e. groups of two single shots fired in rapid succession.) Practice scenarios went from single to multiple rooms, to other settings like buses, trains and aircraft.

The present techniques of the SAS of course cannot, and should not, be known. However, one can surmise from their history that they continue to train to perform different specialist tasks like CQB, raiding, hostage rescue and counter terrorism in ways that are continually honed to be as effective for them, and as unpredictable for their enemies, as possible.

Royal Marines 43 Commando Close Quarters Battle techniques Gibraltar MOD
Royal Marines from 43 Commando practicing Close Quarters Battle techniques in Gibraltar (Picture: MOD).

The Special Boat Service (SBS)

It seems likely that a lot of what the SBS does is very similar to the SAS, since they go through the same difficult process of selection designed to test for high physical and mental fitness as well as initiative and military skills. They also go on to learn similar combat skills, with the SBS recruiting primarily from the Royal Marines.

One key difference, though, is that when they conduct CQB operations, the SBS might be fighting at close quarters inside rooms that move, since they have responsibility for countering terrorism at sea. Thus, they train to operate on and rescue hostages aboard ships and oil rigs, or in ports. According to the National Army Museum, they also perform reconnaissance under water, as well as being trained to do underwater demolition, canoeing and diving.

This additional skill set is traceable back to the SBS’ own Second World War history, which, like the SAS, also began as an outgrowth of the commandos. Like the SAS’ David Stirling, the SBS was conceived by a daring commando named Roger “Jumbo” Courtney, who had to fight to prove that his ‘foolhardy’ idea of small canoeist sections could be of tremendous use to the war effort.

According to James D Ladd’s telling of the story in ‘SBS: The Invisible Raiders’, Courtney canoed out to and sneaked aboard one of his own ships at night (HMS ‘Glyngyle’, which was anchored in the Clyde estuary), made several chalk marks and stole a gun cover. He was caught, but the chalk marks he had already made proved his point that mines could be clandestinely placed aboard a ship by quiet, well-trained canoeists.

The National Army Museum’s account, meanwhile, mentions a dripping wet Courtney bursting into a hotel room with senior naval officers and presenting them with the stolen gun cover.

Whatever the exact details of Courtney’s HMS ‘Glyngyle’ special ops demonstration, the logical end point of this was the December 1942 mission known as Operation Frankton. This is sometimes referred to as the Cockleshell raid and carried out by the Royal Marines Boom Patrol Detachment.

SAS selection course - Alamy C12DYD
The SAS and SBS go through the same arduous selection process that the vast majority of applicants fail (Picture: Alamy C12DYW).

It involved several two-man teams dispatched by submarine canoeing upriver and placing limpet mines on cargo ships in the German-occupied port at Bordeaux. It was daring and audacious and, although many of those involved were captured and killed, broadly a success in that several ships were damaged by the mines. Though Ladd points out that there was no cargo aboard the ships when the mines went off, so the operation was not quite as much of a success as it could have been.

Courtney’s original concept also morphed into other offshoot units, such as the Special Boat Section, which at that point was a subunit within the Army’s commandos, and the Combined Operations Pilotage Parties (COPP.) These used canoes to conduct silent reconnaissance of beaches at night before an amphibious landing. COPPs were used, for instance, in the run up to the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944.

Like the SAS, the SBS was disbanded at the end of the war but re-established within the Royal Marines as their Special Boat Company in 1951. It was rebranded as the Special Boat Squadron in 1974 and then finally the Special Boat Service in 1987.

Just as the Iranian Embassy siege brough the SAS into the limelight, and just as this inspired the plot of the film ‘Who Dares Wins’ with Lewis Collins, the SBS were also brought to public attention a decade beforehand. The plot of the 1974 film ‘Juggernaut’ was inspired by a bomb scare aboard the QE2 in 1972, and the subsequent military response that saw the SBS parachuted in to deal with it.

The bomb scare turned out to be a hoax but following the incident the SBS were in any case made the UK’s primary maritime anti-terrorism unit. According to Neville, today the unit’s four squadrons rotate in and out of the counter-terrorism role on a six-month basis and they are also trained to perform special reconnaissance (i.e. covert surveillance, perhaps close to or even in enemy territory or waters) as well as unconventional warfare. They also maintain a close working relationship with the American Special Operations unit DEVGRU, or Seal Team 6.

An example from recent decades of an SBS operation was Operation Barras in Sierra Leone in the year 2000. This involved the SAS raiding an enemy camp to rescue hostages, and the operation was facilitated by the SBS who conducted surveillance of the rebel camp before the raid as well as participating in it along with the SAS.

This close working relationship, something that goes back to the origins of both units, seems very likely to continue as the two elite organisations continue to hone their skills and capabilities for tackling terrorists and other enemies of the UK.

A member of the Special Boat Service (SBS) dragging a boat onto a beach
A member of the SBS conducting a beach landing (Picture: Alamy BHTHTG).

The Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR)

The Special Reconnaissance Regiment cannot boast of an operational history as long as that of SAS or SBS, since the Army only established it in 2005.

However, in a sense its lineage goes further back than that, since it expanded the capabilities of 14 Intelligence Company, which consisted of plain-clothed soldiers carrying our surveillance in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s. Their role involved observing terrorist suspects who might then be arrested later on.

The increase in military operations during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increased the need for reconnaissance capabilities (i.e. beyond those already provided by the SAS and SBS), which is why the SRR was established. Though, according to Neville, Special Reconnaissance ‘Regiment’ might be a bit of a misnomer, since the unit is thought to be closer in size to a company than to a battalion or regiment.

Neville likens it to the American Army’s Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), which uses signals intelligence and human intelligence (i.e. undercover operators on the ground) to conduct important surveillance before, for instance, a Special Forces raid in a foreign town or city. Drones might also be employed by the unit to enhance its surveillance.

An example of an SRR mission was the 2006 raid in Afghanistan known as Operation Ilios. This involved the SRR and the SBS working together to observe and then attack and capture key members of the Taliban leadership. According to Neville, a 16-man team actually managed to infiltrate and grab Taliban targets, but during the extraction (i.e. capture and escape) phase of the mission, they came under sustained fire. The SRR and SBS got support from an Apache helicopter and a Gurkha unit, but unfortunately one member of the SRR and one SBS operator were killed.

As much as Special Forces operations remain largely hidden from public view, reports such as these that do become public knowledge often serve as important reminders of the extreme bravery of Special Forces operators and of the dangers they face.

Special Forces are not the only personnel who operate in small units and by stealth – this report shows members of the Royal Artillery training to conduct covert surveillance

The Special Forces Support Group (SFSG)

The intervention of the Gurkha Rapid Reaction Force during Operation Ilios proves the usefulness, and necessity, of support for Special Forces operations by more conventional forces.

The Special Forces Support Group (or SFSG) was established specifically for this purpose in 2006. As the BBC reported Defence Secretary John Reid saying at the time, the new unit was designed to “ … enhance the capability of the UK Special Forces to operate around the world and … provide the UK with an additional counter-terrorist capability”.

The BBC also pointed to Operation Barras in Sierra Leone as an inspirational precursor for the kind of missions the SFSG was, and is, expected to perform. While one aspect of that mission involved SAS operators with SBS support to launch the raid that led to the rescue of several hostages, this in itself was further supported by a diversionary attack on another rebel camp. This was carried out by a company of 1 Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and it blocked enemy reinforcements who might have otherwise interfered with the extraction of the hostages.

It is, in fact, members of the Parachute Regiment who fill out many of the ranks of the SFSG, though it also has Royal Marines and members of the RAF as well. More precisely, Neville explains that it is structed around 1 Battalion, the Parachute Regiment and is thought to be broken down into four infantry companies, an HQ company and additional companies with supporting weapons and elements like signals and forward air controllers. Additional support comes from troops from the RAF Regiment who provide expertise when dealing with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. Neville says the Royal Marines provide an amphibious capability to the unit (i.e. so that it can attack from ship to shore.)

The MoD has said that the group’s remit includes supporting training tasks as well as providing cordons and doing force protection and giving fire support to Special Forces, or diversionary attacks like the one described above during Operation Barras.

The cordon and force protection roles can also be easily envisaged since a version of them was depicted in the film ‘Black Hawk Down’. This was about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in which Delta Forces (classic Special Forces operators) rushed into a building to capture enemy leaders and Rangers (high-end infantry in a Special Forces support role) formed a defensive cordon around the building to prevent any counter-attack during the operation.

Of course, these days missions will have evolved so as to be less predictable than those already shown in a feature film, but the example is still useful for getting a sense of the kind of help the SFSG gives units like the SAS and SBS.

US army rangers parachuting from the back of a helicopter
Members of the SFSG perform a similar role to the Special Forces support provided for high-tier American SOF operators by US Army Rangers (Picture: US Department of Defense).

Other units that support British Special Forces

In the US military, there is a broad and varied array of different kinds of Special Operations experts who perform multiple roles at a very high level, some in support of other Special Operations Forces and some more broadly. In the American system, these specialists are themselves often considered to be Special Operations Forces (SOF.)

An example of the former might be the “Nightstalkers”, or 160th Aviation Regiment, which is a US Army helicopter squadron that often provides air transport for other US Special Ops forces like Delta Force. An example of the latter, meanwhile, might be Pararescue Jumpers, who are highly trained parachutists tasked with dropping behind enemy lines to find, assist and extract, for instance, downed pilots.

Since the British military is far smaller, its complement of Special Forces operatives is likewise much more limited. Additionally, in the British Armed Forces there are a number of conventional forces that perform certain specialist roles that are not necessarily thought of as Special Forces, even if equivalent roles within the US military might be.

For instance, those in the Army’s Parachute Regiment and in the Royal Marines are high-level infantry who might be thought of as elite, and possibly comparable to US Army Rangers. There are also Royal Marine Mountain Leaders who are specially trained (and train others) to operate in alpine and cold weather environments. They are experts in surveillance and reconnaissance and operate in small teams ahead of other Royal Marine units.

Royal Marine Mountain Leaders
Royal Marine Mountain Leaders (Picture: MOD).

As noted, US Army Rangers are sometimes thought of Special Operations Forces within the US military and they have certainly been known to perform supporting roles for high-tier SOF units like Delta Force during, for instance, the aforementioned Battle of Mogadishu. Paras and Royal Marines have likewise served in the Special Forces Support Group, as outlined above.

Additionally, the Paras have their own subspecialist infantry unit known as the Pathfinder Platoon. The role of Pathfinders involves a kind of special reconnaissance, where these elite soldiers insert into enemy held or contested territory, perhaps by parachute, to assess the situation on the ground. They relay information back to the headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade, usually so that a larger force of Paras can then drop into the area later.

One Pathfinder describes the role this way on the Army’s website:

“We are the first on the ground and our main role is to set the conditions for the insertion of the main fighting force. We work in small teams away from support, so we need to be self-sufficient to be able to get ourselves out of trouble - if we get seen by the enemy or come under fire we want to shoot back and get out of there as fast as we can.”

Pathfinder Platoon paratrooper on exercise in Ukraine in 2020
A Pathfinder Platoon paratrooper on exercise in Ukraine in 2020 (Picture: MOD).

The six-week selection course is meant to be very arduous, even though it is testing soldiers who are already elite. This, along with the fact that Pathfinders work in small teams behind enemy lines suggests they might be considered to be another kind of Special Ops unit if they were within the US military.

Other than special reconnaissance, the role of Foreign Internal Defence (FID) is to be performed by another unit, the Army’s Ranger Regiment, which was officially created at the end of 2021.

Despite being a recently created unit, Rangers can trace a kind of lineage back to early Ranger units in the US prior to the American Revolutionary War during the 18th Century. These days, although they share a name with US Army Rangers, they differ in that they are not meant to be high-end conventional infantry performing the kinds of roles done by the SFSG. Rather, they are perhaps a tier-two Special Forces or Special Operations unit dedicated to training, assisting and fighting alongside the troops of allied nations, usually against terrorist or insurgent threats to those allied governments. This is more akin to the FID role traditionally performed by US Green Berets.

Ranger Regiment Team Sergeant testing situational awareness equipment in 2021 MOD
A Ranger Regiment team sergeant testing situational awareness equipment in 2021 (Picture: MOD).

The 18 Signals Regiment, meanwhile, provides a direct support role for the SAS and SBS, giving them communications and signals security as well as intelligence about an enemy’s signals capabilities.

Because they deploy alongside other Special Forces, those in 18 Signals Regiment also have to have parachuting, high-level firearms and escape and evasion skills, as well as being trained to resist interrogation (i.e. in case they are captured.) According to the National Army Museum, they too have to pass a difficult selection course, this one assessing land movement and advanced communication skills.

In terms of aviation support, the RAF’s 47 Squadron flies the Hercules and performs an air transport, and it has been reported to have done so for Special Forces. There is also the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing, which was formed in 2001 to coordinate the use of different Army Air Corps (AAC) and RAF squadrons in support of Special Forces personnel. It began with 7 Squadron RAF and 657 Squadron from the AAC, with 651 Squadron AAC added in 2006 and 8 Flight Army Air Corps (which later became 658 Squadron) being added in 2008.

Over the years, these units have flown Lynx, Chinook and AS365 Dauphin helicopters as well as Britten-Norman Defender planes in support of Special Forces personnel. Since the disbandment of 657 Squadron in 2018, Jane’s has reported the creation of a specially dedicated Special Forces Wildcat flight.

Other units may also serve in a kind of Special Forces support role. For instance, the Royal Artillery’s 148 Commando Forward Observation Battery has specialist observers trained to bring down artillery and missile fire on enemy targets. They perform this role in support of the Royal Marines in 3 Commando Brigade, though may also support Special Forces units.

And in the end, since the military as a whole consists of thousands of professionals performing their own specialist roles, it is worth remembering that Special Forces, while certainly unconventional, are not necessarily more elite than conventional personnel. An RAF pilot, for instance, might be just as good at their job as personnel in the SAS are at theirs.

Another important and related point is that making such a comparison definitively is also impossible, as indeed it should be. As well as the fact that different roles are difficult to compare, the unconventional nature of Special Forces means that to a certain degree they must always remain hidden from the public scrutiny, meaning that the specifics of their current roles and abilities must therefore be obscured as well.

What can be gleaned from the available information is the presently known Special Forces units, as well as a general sense of the kinds of roles they might be performing. They, meanwhile, will go on honing their abilities to counter terrorist threats and other dangers in secret.

Cover image: Alamy

Hercules 47 Squadron over Ukraine 2020 MOD
A Hercules from the RAF’s 47 Squadron over Ukraine in 2020 (Picture: MOD).