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Artillery Row

Who cares who wins

The mythology of the SAS

Eighty years after rampaging behind enemy lines in the deserts of North Africa, and forty-two years since exploding into the public’s consciousness by dramatically ending the Iranian Embassy siege, Britain’s elite Special Air Service (SAS) is once again the centre of the nation’s attention. This renewed notoriety owes nothing to any stunning military success or dramatic action on the part of the Regiment, as it is referred to, but rather to the new BBC television series, SAS: Rogue Heroes. Based on the best-selling book by Ben Macintyre, who was granted privileged access to the SAS’s own classified regimental archives, SAS: Rogue Heroes depicts the wartime birth and first unsteady steps of the world’s most famous Special Forces unit.

Described by the media’s usual suspects of military commentators and cheerleaders as an adrenaline-fuelled, “gung-ho”, “rock-star history” of the SAS’s infancy, Rogue Heroes is not only a piece of televisual entertainment. It serves another, more profound purpose — namely the supercharging of the Regiment’s reputation, fighting-record and mythology. It also adds a further stratum to existing layers of legend, which throughout its operational history have afforded the SAS a distinct psychological advantage over its opponents.

Book shelves buckle under the sheer volume and weight of a growing corpus of work on the Regiment. The high-levels of embellishment, hyperbole and dissembling inherent in these literary outpourings, compounded by operational security, plausible deniability and a refusal on the part of the MoD to comment on the activities and very existence of UK Special Forces units, has meant, unsurprisingly, that academics and journalists alike have found it a challenge to penetrate the shroud of secrecy enveloping the activities of the SAS. It is difficult to differentiate, therefore, between what is fact and what is myth.

Ostracism and stigmatisation have answered their heresies

The late Professor Sir Michael Howard, eminent military historian and one-time Chichele Professor of military history at Oxford, addressed the role of myth in a highly-influential essay entitled, “The Uses and Abuses of Military History”. Howard wrote that “the ‘myth’, this selective and heroic view of the past, has its uses”. “The regimental historian”, in Howard’s opinion, had “consciously or unconsciously, to sustain the view that his regiment has usually been flawlessly brave and efficient, especially during its recent past”. “Without any sense of ill-doing, contended Howard, “he will emphasize the glorious episodes in its history and pass with a light hand over its murkier passages, knowing full well that his work is to serve a practical purpose in sustaining regimental morale in the future”.

Professor Howard believed, however, that “myth” was not an “abuse of military history” if it sustained a soldier on the battlefield “even when he knows, with half his mind, that it is untrue”. Howard, himself a wartime Captain in the Coldstream Guards and recipient of the Military Cross, felt that myth was a form of “nursery history” which could assist in immunising military personnel against the “realities of war”. The only problem with this proposition, however, is that if a military organisation such as the SAS mythologizes its fighting record until it possesses only a passing acquaintance with the truth, then the realities of future combat will rapidly disabuse its personnel of such delusions.

Like the winged Sword of Damocles that features prominently on the Unit’s badge, the “myth” of an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient fighting machine has been a proverbial double-edged sword. For the majority of those who have served in the Regiment over the years, it has sustained them in combat and in adversity. Yet for a select number of “badged” SAS personnel, who have been compelled to question “the myth”, ostracism and stigmatisation have answered their heresies. One of the most high-profile examples of this occurred during the Falklands war of 1982.

Following the sinking of HMS Sheffield in early May by an Argentine Exocet missile, it was directed that the SAS was to undertake a reconnaissance mission, Operation Plum Duff, of the Argentine airbase at Rio Grande, which was home to Exocet-carrying Super-Étendard jets. Plum Duff was a prelude to a much larger Direct Action operation, codenamed Mikado. This envisaged an Entebbe-style raid on Rio Grande involving the force-landing of two C-130 transport aircraft packed with men from B Squadron 22 SAS, whose objective was the destruction of the stationary jets and the death of pilots who flew them. This planned raid was very reminiscent of those conducted by David Stirling, Paddy Mayne and Jock Lewes, the founding fathers of the SAS, against Axis airfields in wartime North Africa — events dramatically depicted in the BBC’s SAS: Rogue Heroes.

Yet a combination of bad weather, poor planning, a paucity of reliable intelligence, navigational errors and the twin tyrannies of time and space forced SAS Captain Andy Legg, commanding the eight-man recce force, to abort the mission and exfiltrate his team across the Argentine border into neighbouring Chile. This was not before Legg had spoken to SAS HQ via satellite communications to deliver a situation report informing them of these insurmountable difficulties. Despite the low probability of completing this near-suicidal mission, Legg had been told to press on regardless.

As Ewen Southby-Tailyour subtly suggests in his book, Exocet Falklands, despite having taken the morally courageous decision to scrub this sub-optimal mission, undoubtedly saving the lives of his men, Legg appears thereafter to have been regarded by SAS high command, quite unjustly, as an individual who had “not maintained” or “perpetuated the myth”. Regrettably, Legg left the SAS shortly afterwards of his own volition, but it is telling that his own Squadron boss back in Hereford had viewed Operation Mikado, which thankfully was never launched, to have been not only “foolhardy” but ultimately “unachievable”.

Setting aside the controversies surrounding Plum Duff and Mikado, Operation Corporate, the British campaign to liberate the Falkland Islands, was not the SAS’s finest hour. In a rare example of official military censure, Major-General Sir Jeremy Moore, a senior Royal Marines officer and commander of UK land forces during the conflict, issued a stinging critique of the SAS in his post-conflict report of proceedings, a document recently declassified at the National Archives, Kew.

Writing to the Commander-in-Chief of the Task Force, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, Moore stated in his introduction that whilst he had “little criticism of the way in which Special Forces, both Special Air Service and Special Boat Squadron, conducted themselves during advance force operations” (i.e. during the shaping phase prior to the amphibious landings on 21 May), he did lament the inability of the SAS, post 21 May, to “integrate with the land force operations as a whole and to provide the accurate and timely reports that I required”. Sir Jeremy concluded by stating that “despite … [the] undoubted quality” of the SAS, there were “improvements which should be made”.

In an annex to his main report, Moore expanded upon these general criticisms, providing granular detail of the SAS’s military shortcomings. Whilst never questioning the individual courage and professionalism of SAS personnel, Moore was highly critical of the SAS as an organisation. Aside from upbraiding the Regiment for refusing to disseminate its own report of proceedings, thereby stymieing efforts to ascertain how the SAS had rated its own performance during the campaign, Moore deprecated it for having routinely “short-circuited” the formal chain of command in the Falklands by using its own satellite communications system. This had effectively shut out the land force commander and the other task group commanders from key SAS planning and decision-making. 

The SAS’s “concentration on counter-terrorism and special operations” prior to the Falklands conflict, was also highlighted by Major-General Moore, who postulated that this “may have developed tendencies which are incompatible with the more conventional roles in support of ground forces that they were tasked with after the landing on 21 May”. As a consequence, the SAS had “found [it] difficult” to adjust to supporting “conventional operations”.

Another vexatious issue for Sir Jeremy and his divisional staff had been the fact that “more SF were deployed than were needed or could be supported in the field”. In the view of the commander land forces, the SAS was “expensive in terms of the support and planning effort needed to sustain their activities” and had become “less effective, in relation to results achieved, when deployed in greater numbers” than was “necessary to meet essential tasks”. Regarding this surplus of Special Forces Units, Major-General Moore concluded that one squadron from the SAS’s rivals, the Special Boat Squadron, SBS, could have “met most of our SF requirements”.

Overall, Moore was forced to admit that in the aftermath of Operation Sutton, the amphibious landings at San Carlos on 21 May, the SAS was “given tasks more out of a sense of obligation than from any valid need”. Evidently, Moore and his staff, in addition to those in HQ 3 Commando Brigade, regarded the SAS as a nuisance. Instead of being part of the solution to the Task Force’s challenges during Corporate, the SAS was in reality part of the problem. 

This toxic culture has been perpetuated into the 21st century

Forty years of research into the South Atlantic conflict has unearthed a litany of unprofessional behaviour, elementary mistakes and failures on the part of the SAS. These ranged from a “blue-on-blue” incident where an SAS patrol shot dead a member of an SBS team, and the near cancellation of the raid on Pebble Island due to tardiness on the part of the SAS — to the poor skill-sets and discipline of SAS personnel manning a covert observation post overlooking the twin settlements of Darwin and Goose Green, whose sub-optimal report on Argentine force numbers helped convince the CO of 2 PARA that there were far fewer Argentine forces there than was the case; and the failure of the SAS to properly secure Mount Kent prior to the heliborne insertion of “K” Company 42 Commando Royal Marines onto this strategically important feature. Various other examples include non-SF units encountering individual SAS patrols in the field, sitting laughing and talking without posted sentries; and a compromised SAS raid on a fuel depot. Having incurred casualties during the raid, the SAS required the assistance of HQ 3 Commando Brigade, eliciting from one staff officer the comment, “Bloody Special Forces; the whole world has to stop for them, I suppose. 

Perhaps the most serious instance of SAS incompetence, however, focused on Operation Paraquet, the British mission to recapture the island of South Georgia. Instructed by Task Force HQ at Northwood to send only a Mountain Troop from D Squadron SAS, the Regiment took it upon itself to embark the entire squadron for this operation. Furthermore, by ignoring the advice of the mountain and arctic warfare-trained Royal Marines landing force commander to avoid the notorious Fortuna Glacier (hubris that was to lead to the destruction of two Wessex helicopters and near deaths of D Squadron’s entire Mountain Troop), the SAS jeopardised the success of the entire operation. The political timing of this near-disaster could not have been worse. In the words of a senior officer instrumental in recapturing the Falklands, “I believe that had there been a serious loss of life on the Glacier among SAS and aircrew … there would have been demands from many MPs … who were dubious about Operation Corporate, to wrap up the whole operation, including retaking the Falklands.”

Controversy has, to varying degrees, been a constant companion to the SAS since its inception in 1941. During the protracted “troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Regiment was repeatedly accused of pursuing a “shoot to kill” policy, whereby terrorist suspects were shot dead without any attempt to arrest them. This cause célèbre peaked in the aftermath of the ambush and killing of three members of an IRA active service unit in Gibraltar in March 1988. It is little surprise, then, that the SAS has been referred to as the “Hereford gun club” or the “Hereford hooligans” by conventional forces. 

This toxic and dysfunctional culture appears to have been perpetuated well into the 21st century. In the last few years, a raft of negative news stories, questioning the culture, ethics and military professionalism of the SAS, have surfaced in the press. These have ranged from contracting sexually transmitted infections whilst on operations, and claims of domestic abuse against the partners and family of serving SAS personnel; to serious allegations, investigated and reported on by the BBC’s Panorama programme, of war crimes committed by particular “rogue” SAS Squadrons whilst on deployment to Afghanistan. The alleged planting of weapons on the dead bodies of unarmed “Taliban ‘suspects’”, and charges that UK SAS squadrons vied with their Australian counterparts to see who could kill the most Taliban on a tour of duty, have been of particular concern. 

The timing of SAS: Rogue Heroes could not, therefore, have been more propitious for the SAS’s PR machine and senior leadership who, it has been revealed, permitted serving SAS personnel to assist in the production of the TV series. This glorification of its distant past could be perceived as a cynical attempt to contain and reverse recent reputational damage, to retrieve some of its tarnished glory.

For those “non-badged” personnel in wider UK Defence, who have had to endure the toxic effects of SAS mythology whilst on operations, the apparent “unaccountability” of the SAS has proved professionally upsetting. The SAS’s total disregard, at times, for the rules; and the indifference to the second, third or fourth order consequences of its “cowboy” actions have over the years led to the bastardisation of its famous motto “Who Dares Wins” into “Who Cares Who Wins”.

Other SF units have wearied of the SAS’s voracious appetite for publicity

Resentment towards a maverick and publicity hungry SAS is not the sole preserve of “non-badged” Service personnel. Contrary to the impression engendered by the media, the SAS is not the UK’s only SF unit. The Directorate of Special Forces’ Tier 1 and Tier 2 order of battle is a veritable alphabet soup of SF acronyms. Aside from 22 SAS and its reserve units, 21 and 23 SAS, the UKSF community comprises the Special Boat Service, SBS, the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, SRR and their support elements, namely the Special Forces Support Group, SFSG, the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing and 18 (UKSF) Signals Regiment. Confusingly, The Parachute Regiment’s elite Pathfinder Platoon, the Royal Marines’ Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron, SRS and the British Army’s newly-formed Ranger Regiment operate under Brigade level HQs and are therefore not part of the UKSF community. 

Historically, the aforementioned units have conducted their core business professionally and, above all, quietly. The SBS, whose motto is “By Strength and Guile”, hold a particular aversion to media exposure. In a recent review for The Critic of a new revisionist biography of David Stirling, authorised historian of the wartime SBS Saul David revealed the Service’s institutional philosophy toward public disclosure. In a thinly-disguised swipe at its brethren in the SAS, the SBS’s classified handbook affirms that, “Some units like to make a noise about their activities. We take a more discreet approach. Whilst some prefer the limelight, we prefer the twilight.

14th Intelligence Company (“The Det”), predecessor of today’s SRR, shared a similar ethos and outlook to the SBS. Fierce rival of the Special Air Service, alongside whom it worked closely in Northern Ireland, “The Det” preferred operating clandestinely in the shadows, watching and listening. This was often in stark contrast to the SAS for whom surveillance was merely a prelude to Direct Action. The fact that “The Det” holds the distinction of achieving more “kills” in the Province than their Hereford counterparts, owes more to the incaution of Irish terrorists than any gung-ho, trigger-happy inclination on the part of its covert operatives, whose training espoused the avoidance of armed confrontation.

Understandably, these SF units have wearied of the SAS’s voracious appetite for publicity and credit, particularly if that recognition should have been attributed to its vital operational input. Units such as the SBS and SRR are significantly less obsessed with myth and legend-making, and they are not, institutionally-speaking, prone to the delusion that they alone can win conflicts. After all, UKSF units — despite their acknowledged ability to achieve effect out of all proportion to their size and strength — are but small cogs in a far bigger military machine, one that ultimately relies upon conventional forces to achieve a decision on the battlefield.

Since the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, an epoch judged to have been the “golden age of special operations”, British politicians and officials have increasingly come to trust in and rely upon UKSF units. A recent investigation into the UKSF community by the Oxford Research Group enumerated the reasons for this infatuation. Not only do UK Special Forces units operate covertly around the globe, under the cover of plausible deniability, making them a “low-risk” option, they are also cheaper than conventional forces whose logistical footprint and public profile are significant. This makes UKSF the ideal tool for policy-makers who wish to circumvent the British public’s increased “risk aversion” to foreign conflicts. Consequently, the UKSF community is increasingly taking on more of the UK Defence effort.

This marked increase in defence output by UKSF units has attracted adverse comment, however. Those monitoring its activities have levelled the charges of “unaccountability” and “lack of transparency” against the Directorate of Special Forces. Unlike UK Intelligence and Security Services, who are officially regulated by an oversight committee, no such forum exists for holding UK Special Forces to account. This is compounded by the MoD’s refusal to comment on UKSF operations, and the fact that Britain’s military elite do not come within the remit of the House of Commons Defence Committee or any other parliamentary body. Without public scrutiny, it is impossible to ascertain the extent to which politicians and senior officials can, or cannot, differentiate between myth and reality in the shadowy world of UK Special Forces. 

The persistent conviction on the part of politicians and officials, that the UKSF community is a panacea for the nation’s defence challenges, has in turn granted HQ UKSF and the Director Special Forces unprecedented power and influence. This is out of all proportion to their relative size, but over the years it provided the SAS in particular with a powerful lobbying voice within the MoD. Until very recently, all Directors of UKSF have been officers drawn from the SAS, making them primus inter pares within the world of UK Special Forces. The recent formation of the British Army’s Ranger Regiment and Special Operations Brigade, together with the Royal Navy’s plans to convert the Royal Marines’ Future Commando Force, FCF, into a Special Operations Force, SOF, merely serve to confirm an emerging UKSF-SOF primacy in defence matters. 

This new growth industry comes at a cost, however. Whilst the current direction of travel is the consolidation and expansion of Tier 1 and 2 UKSF and SOF-capable formations, this growing trend will be at the expense of the conventional “green” Army, in particular infantry, armoured and artillery units who are being substantially cut. By viewing the nation’s future defence requirements through the prism and focus of UKSF-SOF units, Special Forces devotees in Whitehall and Westminster are not only distorting the optics of UK Defence, but are unbalancing and pulling out of shape the UK’s conventional forces.

A foretaste of this step change occurred in April 2006 when 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment — traditionally a specialist light-infantry formation — was converted into a UKSFSG unit, and the Royal Marines were obliged to provide a company group from their existing order-of-battle. Whilst strengthening a growing Special Forces empire, it simultaneously weakened Britain’s frontline infantry strength. It therefore remains to be seen whether this evolving defence model will survive the exigencies of future conventional warfare, or prove to be a costly strategic mistake.

Forty years ago, Major-General Sir Jeremy Moore had the moral courage and professional standing to openly question and challenge, albeit in an official context, the SAS legend. Moore’s ultimate aim was to ensure that the right lessons concerning the employment of Special Forces units in a medium-level, high-intensity war against a near peer adversary were properly identified, and more importantly, learned. Moore’s post-operational report also ventured to underscore the fact that conventional forces ultimately win campaigns and wars. In Moore’s view, by concentrating solely on counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency operations in the years preceding the Falklands, the SAS in 1982 was physically, conceptually and morally unfit to conduct maritime operations alongside conventional forces.

Tellingly, the SAS’s own report of proceedings for Corporate was heavily amended by Admiral Fieldhouse. It bore little relation to the truth and was merely another exercise in myth-making and legend building on the part of the Regiment. Moore’s myth-busting should therefore act as a sobering check to the recent media frenzy surrounding SAS: Rogue Heroes. Instead the SAS continues to be protected by an exquisite enabling wrap of official secrecy, media cheerleaders, tame historians and institutional echo-chambers. All ensure that daylight is not let in upon the magic — to paraphrase Walter Bagehot’s exhortation, made in his 1867 monograph The English Constitution, to perpetuate the mystique of monarchy. Such sycophancy, however, engenders an environment in which military organisations start to believe their own propaganda. This is ill-advised. As Colonel Ollie Lee, another morally courageous Royal Marines officer who was obliged to resign his commission in protest at the gross mishandling of the “Marine A” incident, once told the Afghanistan veteran and future Tory MP Johnny Mercer, “The precise moment you start to believe your own hype, is the precise moment it all starts to go badly wrong.

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