Special Air Service

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The Special Air Service, most commonly referred to as the SAS is an elite special forces regiment of the British Army with a particularly bloody history and reputation.

The SAS in Borneo and Kenya

According to Seán Mac Mathúna [1]

Formed to perform acts of sabotage and assassination behind enemy lines during during World War 2, the SAS evolved into a counter-insurgency regiment after the war. The 1969 Army Training manual stated that their tasks included:
"the ambush and harassment of insurgents, the infiltration of sabotage, assassination and demolition parties into insurgent-held areas, border surveillance, . . . liaison with, and organisation of friendly guerrilla forces operating against the common enemy". [2]
Examples were found during the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya during the mid-fifties, when SAS officers commanded some of the infamous "pseudo gangs" that terrorised the civilian population; [3] in Borneo, where they used cross-border operations to attack and destroy guerrilla bases; [4] and in Aden in 1967, where they dressed as Arabs and would use an Army officer to lure Arab gunmen into a trap and kill them. [5] To defeat the insurgents counter-terror must be deployed back at them - described by Ken Livingstone as "subverting the subverters". [6]

Northern Ireland

SAS troops were operating in the North two years before their presence was acknowledged by the British government, according to a document uncovered by Justice for the Forgotten and the Pat Finucane Centre.
The 1974 file from the prime minister’s office – found at the National Archives in London in January – sheds new light on the early history of British covert operations during the Troubles. The role of the SAS emerged as a live issue in March that year, when Robert Fisk, then The Times correspondent in the North, reported that the regiment’s presence “had been authorised at the highest ministerial level in London”.
In his book Who Framed Colin Wallace?, the late Paul Foot stated that Fisk’s report was based on a leak by Wallace, then an army information officer at Lisburn.
Foot suggested that the leak was part of an MI5 plot to destabilise Harold Wilson’s government, which had not been told that the SAS had been sent in by the previous Tory administration.
The newly-discovered files show that the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the Ministry of Defence were tasked to produce a briefing on the SAS ahead of Wilson’s meeting with Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave on April 5, 1974.
They produced a document entitled Army Plain Clothes Patrols in Northern Ireland, together with a copy of a statement that had been delivered to the Irish government.
The statement to the Irish said: “The facts are as follows. No SAS unit has been or is stationed in Northern Ireland.”
It added that the policy had been not to use former SAS personnel on plain-clothes duties until two or three years after their service with the regiment had ended, but that in the past three months “use has been made of a number of volunteers, whose experience has been acquired only just beforehand.”
The full extent of the SAS role is only revealed in the briefing itself which states:
“Men who have served with the SAS are serving in the SRU Special Reconnaissance Unit but no SAS units are operating in Northern Ireland.
“One officer and 30 soldiers serving with the SRU since early January are due to resume service with 22 SAS by April 7. Their presence with the SRU went undetected until the Robert Fisk article in The Times on 19 March.”
Justice for the Forgotten secretary, Margaret Urwin, said: “If you compare that document with the press release and what was given to the Irish government, it’s very different.”
The SRU is almost certainly the unit generally known by the cover name 14 Intelligence Company, and the precursor of the new Special Reconnaissance Regiment, which was involved in the London shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes, as well as a controversial incident in Basra, only months after becoming operational last year.
The SRU replaced Brigadier Frank Kitson’s MRF, an acronym which stood for Military Reaction Forces, according to the briefing.
It states:
“Plain-clothes teams, initially joint RUC/army patrols, have operated in Northern Ireland since the IRA bombing campaign in Easter 1971.
“Later in 1971 the teams were reformed and expanded as Military Reaction Forces (MRFs) without RUC participation.
“In 1972 the operations of the MRF were brought under more centralised control and a higher standard of training achieved by establishing a Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) of 130 with all ranks under direct command of HQNI.
“The term ‘Special Reconnaissance Unit’ and the details of its organisation and mode of operations have been kept secret.
“The SRU operates in Northern Ireland at present under the cover name “Northern Ireland Training and Advisory Teams (Northern Ireland)” – NITAT(NI) – ostensibly the equivalent of genuine NITAT teams in UKLF [United Kingdom Land Forces] and BAOR [British Army of the Rhine].”
“The prime task of the SRU is to conduct covert surveillance of terrorists as a preliminary to an arrest carried out by security forces in uniform.
“The SRU may also be used to contact and handle agents or informers and for the surveillance and protection of persons or property under terrorist threat.
“The SRU works to a great extent on Special Branch information and the Special Branch have a high regard for it.”
Although the briefing survives in the files from the British prime minister’s office, a copy was also originally held by the NIO.
According to a note left by officials this was destroyed “on the need to know principle” in 1976, some months after the official deployment of the SAS to the North.
The picture revealed by the briefing closely parallels allegations made in the 1980s by former British army major, Fred Holroyd, who has accused the army of murder, kidnapping, collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, and infiltration of the Republic’s security forces during the mid-1970s.
In his report on the Dublin-Monaghan bombings Mr Justice Barron said that, while not all Holroyd’s claims were true, they had contributed to his inquiry’s view on the possibility of collusion between loyalists and the security forces.
Holroyd claimed that an SAS troop led by Captain Julian Ball and Captain Robert Nairac was operating at Castledillon in Co Armagh under two cover names, 4 Field Survey Troop, Royal Engineers and NITAT.
In response to a question from Ken Livingstone in 1988, ministers denied that the NITAT unit existed, and claimed that records relating to 4 Field Survey Troop were no longer available.
The emergence, two decades later, of records confirming the existence of a unit corresponding closely to the one described by Holroyd raises two questions: was the British Parliament misled? And if Holroyd was right about this unit’s existence, was he also right about its involvement in collusion?[7]

South Africa

In 1997, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission linked the SAS to a 'Third Force' operating within the country's military during the transition to majority rule. It said evidence in the unpublished Steyn report included "a suggestion that there was close contact with the British SAS". Press reports linked this to the presence in the region of David Stirling's KAS Enterprises.

Formal military contacts between Britain and South Africa were not restored until 1993. All official exchanges of military personnel were covered by an embargo that had been in force since 1975, the Ministry of Defence confirmed last week.
SAS sources said they would not be surprised at unofficial involvement by former members of the regiment as mercenaries. In particular, veterans of the regiment's old C Squadron, recruited in the former Rhodesia, tended to drift into South Africa, where they often became involved with the special forces.[8]


Directors of the SAS



External links


  1. Seán Mac Mathúna The SAS, their early days in Ireland and the Wilson Plot, originally published in Lobster 18, in 1989 (pp19-21), under the pseudonym of Alexander Platow
  2. British Army Land Operations Manual, volume 3, counter-revolutionary operations. Cited in Bloch and Fitzgerald p42.
  3. Bloch and Fitzgerald p89
  4. Geraghty p42
  5. Geraghty p102
  6. Hansard 7 July 87 p42
  7. Irish were lied to about SAS, by Tom Griffin, Daily Ireland, 5 June 2006.
  8. SAS linked to Pretoria rogue force, by David Beresford, Manchester Guardian Weekly, 9 February 1997.
  9. Lieutenant-General Sir John Watts, The Times, 15 December 2003.
  10. Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, Allen Lane, 2009, p.685.