Shutterstock special forces 2020
Special forces

The Badass Series: Part Three - New Zealand's SAS

Exploring the reputations of the world's elite defence organisations

Shutterstock special forces 2020

New Zealand’s Special Air Service (NZSAS) units are closely modelled on Britain’s SAS and known for their sandy-coloured berets and black-ops gear.

It can take months, if not years, to create some of the planet’s most elite fighting forces.

Here we will explore how recruits of the New Zealand Defence Force can obtain acceptance into one of the world’s most exclusive military clubs.

How Do You Become A Member Of NZSAS?

Firstly, everyone is a ‘volunteer’ – no one is recruited in, you either want to be there or you don’t, and selection will weed out the weakest links or those who are not committed.

This is done by physically and mentally pushing candidates to their absolute limits during punishing exercises – this is where most people will drop out.

Even after candidates have ‘passed’ the initial stages of selection, they have a long way to go and this is when the real training begins.

Candidates can look forward to nine months of vigorous special forces training, live firing inside ‘killing’ houses, learning advanced battlefield trauma life support, weapons training, demolitions, evasive driving and anti-ambush vehicle drills.

During this stage of training, any potential recruits who cannot keep up with the training programme or are deemed to be unsafe can be told to leave.

Just like British special forces, NZSAS candidates are required to conduct and pass 'resistant to torture' training, including escape and evasion. The exercise ends after some 30 hours of interrogation.

Once this is complete and recruits have been confirmed as passing all the necessary training, only then are they handed the coveted sand coloured beret.

SAS Who Dares Wins 2020 Recruit Cage Episode 6 Credit: Channel 4
Special Forces (SF) interrogation training

Who Can Join The NZSAS?

Any serving member of the New Zealand Defence Force is eligible to apply, if they meet all of the strict medical and prerequisite fitness tests.

The unit even allows direct entry from the civilian population – who are hugely disadvantaged to veteran members of Defence Force. However, as recently as 2020, one civilian achieved and passed selection to become a member of the NZSAS.

A NZ Defence Force (NZDF) spokeswoman confirmed that one civilian had passed selection and was accepted for further training.

This individual is one of only eight civilians to have succeeded in passing during the past decade.

How Many Personnel Are In The NZSAS?

The NZSAS has six squadrons – total number of operators is thought to be close to 100 personnel per squadron. However, just like any conventional soldier or special forces units, there are dozens of support personnel behind the scenes who enable soldiers to get across the line.

Each unit within the squadrons specialises in everything from counter-terrorism to jungle warfare and mountain warfare.

All those who have died on active duty, have their name engraved on the war memorial at the NZSAS Regimental Headquarters (HQ) in Papakura.

New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers with a Bristol Sycamore helicopter of the Royal Air Force. Photograph taken by a New Zealand Army photographer during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers with a Bristol Sycamore helicopter of the Royal Air Force. Photograph taken by a New Zealand Army photographer during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

New Zealand SAS Vs Britain’s SAS?

For many decades, and since NZSAS formation, British SAS personnel have worked alongside New Zealand’s SAS - from the jungles of Malaya in the 50’s to the mountains of Afghanistan in the early 2000’s.

They share similar training Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) so that they can seamlessly work together during any joint operations.

They also share similar iconic badges, wings, and cap badges on their sandy coloured berets.

Outrage Over School's Plan To Sell Victoria Cross
Victoria Cross

Notable Members Of The New Zealand SAS?

Bill Henry ‘Willie’ Apiata, VC, is a former corporal in the New Zealand Special Air Service. He is the first, and so far only, recipient of the Victoria Cross for New Zealand - which was instituted in 1999 to replace the British Victoria Cross.

He earned the award for rescuing a wounded comrade while under enemy fire in Afghanistan in 2004.

Why Does New Zealand Have A Defence Force?

Not unlike the United Kingdom, New Zealand is a small island nation compared to many of the world's most powerful countries - it's about 10 per cent larger in land mass than the UK, but with about 60 million fewer people in its population.

With this in mind, the country takes its role in regional and global security very seriously and its defence force consists of three services - the Royal New Zealand Navy, the New Zealand Army and the Royal New Zealand Air Force - headed by the Chief of Defence Force.

The country's armed forces have three main defence policy objectives:

  • To defend New Zealand against low-level threats
  • To contribute to regional security
  • To contribute to global security on the international stage

Within the defence force, the services currently recruit in 109 different roles that make up its armed forces.

Talking about its military roles, the New Zealand Defence Force says: “Together we protect New Zealand’s interests at sea, safeguard peace and stability within our neighbouring regions and further afield, and help others in times of need with agile air operations across the world.

“We stand up for what’s right.

“This could mean fighting alongside our allies in a combat zone, helping safeguard peace and stability in a war-torn country, or going in after a natural disaster and helping save lives and rebuild communities. Or it could see us doing search and rescue or boarding a suspected pirate ship.

“To achieve this, we need to be ready for anything, and to be able to react quickly and efficiently.”

New Zealand's Willie Apiata VC arrives at St Martins in the Fields Church, in London, for a service for the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association reunion. Image PA
New Zealand's Willie Apiata VC arrives at St Martins in the Fields Church, in London, for a service for the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association reunion. Image PA

What Do The NZ Commandos Do?

D Squadron (Commando) is part of the 1 NZSAS regiment and was raised in December 2005.

Its main role is “to provide a specialist domestic counter-terrorist capability,'” according to the New Zealand Defence Force.

Its members are required to complete the same initial stages of selection as the NZSAS, but then move onto their own specialised training programme.

Ref M-0584-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Photograph taken by an unidentified New Zealand Army photographer in Malaya circa 1955, during the Malayan emergency Ref M-0584-F Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Have The New Zealand Special Forces Ever Been Deployed?

Speaking with the New Zealand Herald in 2018, Special Operations Component Commander, Colonel Rob Gillard said:

“Special operations forces, of which the New Zealand SAS is a component of, provide government with options to deploy in any number of contacts and mission types that are beyond the normal capabilities of a conventional force.”

It was in 1955 that the New Zealand government authorised the creation of a special forces unit to deploy with the British SAS, and from 1956 through to the 1970s, they were deployed in Thailand, South Vietnam, Borneo and Malaya – to fight and gather intelligence about the communist guerrilla insurgency there.

The NZSAS has since been deployed in many of the more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.