The history of the SAS (2023)

What made it ‘special’?

Although the British Army had in 1940 formed a parachute battalion in the UK (which would become the Parachute Regiment), the SAS was ‘special’ because it was much smaller in size and focused on guerrilla warfare, such as attacking enemy airfields and disrupting their lines of communication. Military parachuting was still in its infancy, but the Germans had demonstrated its potential during the invasion of the Low Countries. The SAS learned to parachute at its base 90 miles east of Cairo.

  • Read more | Opinion: Why December 1941 was the most important month of the Second World War

But, as the failure of the inaugural raid showed, the desert was not suitable for parachuting at this time. However, a second SAS regiment formed in 1943 and undertook several successful parachute operations in enemy territory in Italy. Both 1SAS and 2SAS parachuted into France after D-Day to support the Maquis (rural French Resistance fighters) in their guerrilla warfare.

Where did the SAS go after North Africa?

After the Allies’ defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa in May 1943, the SAS was involved in the invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy that summer. One of its most important tasks was the destruction of some powerful Italian guns on the southeast coast of Sicily, hours before the arrival of the main invasion fleet.

The history of the SAS (1)

After taking part in operations in Italy, the SAS returned to the UK in early 1944 and began training for the invasion of France. Both 1 and 2SAS took part in missions deep inside Occupied France, where they waged an effective guerrilla war against the Nazis. Their heroic exploits earned the praise of Supreme Allied Commander (and future US president) Dwight Eisenhower, who praised the “ruthlessness” of the SAS in harassing the Germans.

(Video) The Origins of the SAS - WW2 Special Episode

The SAS subsequently played an important role in Germany, acting as a motorised reconnaissance force for the Allied armour in the final weeks of the war in Europe.

What happened to the SAS in 1945?

The SAS was disbanded at the end of World War II because it was believed the new era of peace would have no place for such a unit. That view was soon proved naive. Not only did the Cold War begin, but many British colonies began agitating for independence.

One of the colonies, Malaya, erupted into conflict in 1948 when the local communist party attempted to overthrow the British. The previous year, 1947, a territorial unit of the SAS – 21 – had been formed, and some of its soldiers were deployed in what became known as the Malayan Emergency.

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As the fighting intensified, it was decided in 1952 to raise a regular regiment – 22SAS – and in the next 20 years it fought in Malaya, Borneo, Yemen and for over a decade in Oman, where the SAS lost a dozen soldiers in fighting to protect the sultan from communist insurgents.

Can anyone join the SAS?

Only serving members of the Armed Forces can join the regular 22SAS Regiment, and few who attempt the notorious ‘Selection’ course make the grade. Applicants are tested psychologically as well as physically, and the course criteria that exist today were first laid down in the 1950s. Drawing on the wartime experience, the SAS listed the seven characteristics of the ideal recruit: initiative, self-discipline, independence of mind, an ability to work without supervision, stamina, patience and a sense of humour.

The history of the SAS (2)
(Video) History Channel SAS: Who Dares Wins

Today, ‘Selection’ comprises three stages, beginning with a three-week endurance test in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, in which candidates must prove themselves fit and good at navigation. Those that pass then head to the Belize jungle to see how they react in an alien environment, and if they survive that experience, they undergo ‘Escape & Evasion & Tactical Questioning’, a simulation of what would happen if they were caught. Only then has one earned the coveted SAS beret.

What is the SAS most famous for?

For many years after the war, few people knew of the SAS, but that changed on 30 April 1980 when six terrorists entered the Iranian Embassy in London and took 26 people hostage. The terrorists demanded the recognition of the Iranian province of Khuzestan, and the negotiations continued for six days until they murdered a hostage.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered the SAS to end the siege and the television footage of it storming the embassy and successfully freeing the hostages was beamed around the world.

The history of the SAS (3)

A decade later the SAS was in action in Iraq, operating behind enemy lines, and one of its patrols ran into trouble. The patrol’s exploits spawned a bestselling memoir by one of its men, Steven Billy Mitchell (writing under the pseudonym Andy McNab), entitled Bravo Two Zero, which was made into a television movie.

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Are there SAS legends?

Plenty. Every SAS soldier is exceptional for having passed the gruelling selection process, but even among the elite there are some who stand out.

Blair Mayne assumed command of the SAS after the capture of David Stirling by the Germans in 1943. A giant of a man, the former Irish rugby star combined courage with initiative and agility, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) on four occasions.

Another superb wartime SAS man was Roy Farran of 2SAS, who received a DSO and three Military Crosses. Johnny Cooper joined the SAS in 1941 and served with the regiment for 18 years, fighting in Malaya and Oman after the war.

Talaiasi Labalaba also fought in Oman, in 1972, when he was killed in the successful defence of the fort at Mirbat. A statue of the Fijian was unveiled at the SAS HQ in Herefordshire in 2009.

Why is it so secret?

The role of the SAS radically changed in the 1970s: instead of fighting insurgents in far-off countries, it now engaged a new enemy much closer to home. Terrorism as we know it today took root in Europe during the 1970s, most graphically when a group of Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic squad in Munich in 1972. It arrived in Britain in 1974 when an Irish Republican Army (IRA) terror cell launched a bombing campaign. The cell was finally cornered in a London flat in December 1975 and surrendered after a six-day siege when it heard that the SAS had been summoned.

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The following year, the SAS was deployed to Northern Ireland as the ‘Troubles’ intensified. It was a new type of war, one that required covert surveillance and stealth. Publicity, as much as the terrorists, became the enemy of the SAS, and the government adopted a policy that continues to this day of refusing to comment on special forces’ operations.

What is the role of the SAS in the 21st century?

The SAS continues to operate in many trouble spots around the world, but the exact nature of its activities is shrouded in secrecy. It was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan at the beginning of the century, and is also believed to have been sent to Syria and Iraq in 2014–15 to help fight the Islamic State.

(Video) The early days of the S.A.S.

  • Read more | Russia-Ukraine crisis: 9 milestone moments in history that explain today’s invasion

In April this year, some media outlets claimed that the SAS had been training Ukrainian special forces in sabotage in their war against Russia, but as ever, there was no official confirmation.

WATCH: SAS Rogue Heroes, a dramatisation of the history of the SAS by acclaimed writer Steve Knight, will air on BBC One on Sunday 30 October at 9pm, with episodes available on BBC iPlayer

Gavin Mortimer is the author of David Stirling: The Phoney Major: The Life, Times and Truth about the Founder of the SAS (Constable, 2022), which he discusses on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast


(Video) British SAS (World War II)

This article was first published in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed


Who invented the SAS? ›

Sir Archibald David Stirling DSO OBE (15 November 1915 – 4 November 1990) was a British Army officer, a mountaineer, and the founder and creator of the Special Air Service (SAS). He saw active service during the Second World War.

Who were the first SAS members? ›

What is the SAS? The SAS (Special Air Service) is Britain's elite special forces unit, formed in the summer of 1941 by two Scottish brothers, David and Bill Stirling, who were stationed in Cairo.

When was the SAS disbanded? ›

The SAS was disbanded in 1945, but an independent strategic reconnaissance and surveillance capability was restored in 1947 when 21 SAS Regiment was raised.

Who is SAS most famous soldier? ›

Lieutenant-Colonel 'Paddy' Mayne is a legendary figure in the history of the Special Forces. A celebrated sportsman with a turbulent character, he played a vital role in the early successes of the Special Air Service (SAS), becoming one of its most important commanders.

Is there an American SAS? ›

Fox has greenlit an American version of “SAS: Who Dares Wins,” an unscripted format from the U.K. The U.S. version has been given the working title “Special Forces: The Ultimate Test,” and features 16 celebrity contestants who are put through a set of challenges meant to emulate special forces training camp.

What's America's SAS called? ›

The US Army's Delta Force was modeled after the SAS, and the units share a close relationship.

Who is the oldest surviving SAS soldier? ›

Mike Sadler, a resident at Arlington Manor Care Home in Girton, is the last surviving founding member of the Special Air Service (SAS), founded in 1941. The six-part series, SAS Rogue Heroes, retells the story of the elite unit and how it formed during the war, with Mike featuring in episode three.

Who was the last surviving SAS founder? ›

Blind veteran Mike, now 103, is the last surviving founder member of the SAS. The BBC One drama – SAS Rogue Heroes – features the real-life character of Mike Sadler. As well as being the last surviving founder member of the Special Air Service (SAS), Mike is also a blind veteran and has received our support since 2017.

Who is the longest serving SAS soldier? ›

John McAleese
Born25 April 1949 Stirling, Scotland
Died26 August 2011 (aged 62) Thessaloniki, Greece
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branchBritish Army
6 more rows

How much do SAS get paid? ›

The average salary for SAS jobs is £57,500. Read on to find out how much SAS jobs pay across various UK locations and industries. We have 6 jobs paying higher than the average SAS salary!

Does the SAS still exist? ›

The brigade's formations took part in many operations, frequently behind enemy lines, from D-Day (June 1944) until the German surrender in May 1945. But shortly after the war, the SAS was disbanded.

Did the SAS fight in Afghanistan? ›

War in Afghanistan

Operation Enduring Freedom– Afghanistan , 7 October 2001 – 28 December 2014, NATO deployment in Afghanistan. The SAS were involved in the initial invasion and remained active in the conflict.

How old is the youngest SAS soldier? ›

Floyd Woodrow joined the SAS at the age of just 22, making him one of their youngest ever soldiers. He went on to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded both the Distinguished Conduct Medal and an MBE. We're sorry but Podbean Player doesn't work properly without JavaScript enabled.

Are there female SAS soldiers? ›

One in ten of the armed forces are women but there are none in the SAS or its sister regiment the Special Boat Service.

Who was the youngest person to join the SAS? ›

In 1959, at the age of eighteen, Wiseman became the youngest person ever to pass selection for the SAS, joining from the Parachute Regiment, which he had joined a year earlier. He went on to serve in the SAS for 26 years, rising to the rank of Warrant Officer.

What is the most elite military unit in the US? ›

Say it again: American Special Operations Forces. There's a lot that's not known about this group and that's intentional. But everyone knows that these forces are among the most elite and best trained in the world.

How many SAS agents are there? ›

22 SAS normally has a strength of 400 to 600. The regiment has four operational squadrons: A, B, D and G. Each squadron consists of approximately 65 members commanded by a major, divided into four troops (each troop being commanded by a captain) and a small headquarters section.

What is the SAS motto? ›

The motto 'Who Dares Wins' summed up Stirling's original SAS concept.

What do the SAS do day to day? ›

The SAS - the Special Air Service - is a special forces unit of the British Army which specialises in counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, and covert reconnaissance.

What did the SAS do in Vietnam? ›

SAS personnel were highly trained and their role in Vietnam varied from conducting reconnaissance patrols and observing enemy movement to offensive operations deep in enemy territory. The SAS had the highest "kill" ratio of any Australian unit in Vietnam.

Who has the best army in the world? ›

United States. The United States of America is a North American nation that is the world's most dominant economic and military power.

Who is the highest ranking SAS? ›

Billy is TV's most experienced, highest ranking and most decorated SAS leader and SAS instructor. He is Chief Instructor on Channel 4's hit show SAS: Who Dares Wins, alongside DS Rudy Reyes, Jason Fox and Chris Oliver.

How many years was Bear Grylls in the SAS? ›

Trained from a young age in martial arts, Grylls went on to spend three years as a soldier in the British Special Forces, as part of 21 SAS Regiment.

What is the age limit for SAS selection? ›

Applicants. 21 & 23 SAS processes applications from male and female applicants, with no previous military service. Applicants must be no older than 42 years 6 months when applying to join the Army Reserves (AR).

How many of the original SAS survived? ›

Of the 54 men who took part in the inaugural SAS raid, only 21 returned to British lines. The rest were killed or captured.

Is SAS staged? ›

An anonymous recruit from last season told the Daily Mail that there were plenty of "fake" moments in the show, including scripted interactions and clever editing to make certain scenes more dramatic.

How true is the SAS rogue heroes? ›

According to the opening blurb of the BBC's souped-up WW2 drama, SAS Rogue Heroes, “those events depicted, which seem most unbelievable… are mostly true.” The six-part series – created and written by Peaky Blinders' Stephen Knight, and based on the book by Ben Macintyre – tells the story behind the formation of the ...

What is the height limit for the SAS? ›

There are also some height and weight requirements, with all applicants required to be at least 158cm (5.1”) tall and weigh at least 50kg (8 stone). Applicants must not be currently serving in the armed forces.

How hard is SAS training? ›

In order to thin out the herd, the SAS holds one of the most arduous and rigorous selection and training programs in the modern special operations community. Timed cross-country marches, treks through jungles, and a mountain climb are just a few of the challenges that make joining the SAS an extreme task.

How long is SAS training? ›

This is a selection-specific 10-week, 6 day/week training program specifically designed to prepare athletes for the British Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), and Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) Selection Course.

What country invented SAS? ›

The Special Air Service (SAS) has its origins in the North African desert. It was formed as 62 Commando in July 1941 to undertake small-scale raids behind enemy lines. This drew its men from No 7 Commando and also operated under the title L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade.

Who came up with the SAS motto? ›

As motto of the SAS it is normally credited to its founder, Sir David Stirling.

Was the founder of the SAS Scottish? ›

David Stirling, the Scot known as the founder of the SAS, was not what you would expect of a military hero.

Are any original SAS members still alive? ›

Mike Sadler, 101, is the last surviving member of the original SAS and today tells the Mirror what it was like to fight in the desert with the unit, which was the idea of Scottish aristocrat and mountaineer David Stirling.

Was the SAS involved in Vietnam? ›

SAS personnel were highly trained and their role in Vietnam varied from conducting reconnaissance patrols and observing enemy movement to offensive operations deep in enemy territory. The SAS had the highest "kill" ratio of any Australian unit in Vietnam.

Did SAS make Delta Force? ›

Charlie Beckwith created Delta Force in the late 1970s, he based it on the British SAS, in which he had served as an exchange officer.

Is the SAS American or British? ›

The Special Air Service (SAS) is a special forces unit of the British Army. It was founded as a regiment in 1941 by David Stirling and in 1950, it was reconstituted as a corps.

What SAS was Bear Grylls in? ›

Trained from a young age in martial arts, Grylls went on to spend three years as a soldier in the British Special Forces, as part of 21 SAS Regiment. It was here that he perfected many of the survival skills that his fans all over the world enjoy, as he pits himself against the worst of Mother Nature.

Are there female SAS? ›

The ban on women serving in frontline units, including the SAS and SBS, was lifted in 2018.


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