The Unit

Every so often, America’s attention is drawn to small groups of men who very sincerely don’t want attention drawn to them.

US Navy SEALs fast-roping onto a carrier

The latest example – and, counterintuitively, one of the most spectacular examples in history – was the May raid by special forces, publicly credited to the Navy SEALS, that killed Osama Bin Laden.   There’ve been other examples; the long patient waiting game in the Arabian Sea last year that led to three simultaneous sniper shots killing three pirates; the rescue of kidnapped British missionaries in Iraq…

Polish GROM commandos. Modeled after the SEALs, GROM became highly-respected in Iraq.

…and, going back a few years, the rescue of passengers from a Lufthansa airliner in Somalia (killing the terrorists, rescuing the passengers), and the rescue of dozens of hostages from the Iranian Embassy in London, after the terrorists had actually started killing hostages.   Other missions – Entebbe, Mogadishu, and even Desert One – are household phrases among people who watch these things.

In every case, the missions were carried out by groups of men that their respective governments denied existed – indeed, actively deceived their publics about; for starters, “SEAL Team Six”, which the media credited with the Bin Laden raid, doesn’t actually exist, and hasn’t in decades (either does “Delta Force”, although the unit it refers to most certainly does).

These weren’t “just” “commandos” – whose debut, seventy years ago earlier this year, we covered – units like the Rangers, the Royal Marine Commandos and other units whose specialty was sneaking up on the enemy and then wreaking untrammeled mayhem.  These were units that combined the determined brawn of the commando and the paratrooper with a subtle precision that was, to those used to the mayhem of an infantry or tank attack, unusual for the military.

It was seventy years ago today that a British infantry captain, David Stirling, founded a small unit of men intended to launch focused, pin-prick but devastating raids deep behind German/Italian lines in Libya – indeed, a unit whose intention was to make “lines” irrelevant.  Some staff officer christened the unit the “Special Air Service”, to throw off German intelligence.  The name stuck.

Col. Stirling and an SAS

The SAS was formed for some of the same reasons as the Commandos – but with a different approach to a mission.  Where the Commandos, and the American “Ranger” units they spun off,  sought to descend on a target by surprise and with overwhelming force and inflict immense mayhem, the SAS was different; working in generally in groups of two to sixteen men, they’d slip in by parachute, or by heavily-modified Jeeps, deep into enemy territory and operate for long periods; sometimes to sabotage enemy airfields and bridges; others, to assassinate enemy officers or collaborationist politicians; others still, to scout targets for bombing raids; other times, to support and create resistance groups among locals deep in enemy territory.

A pair of wartime SAS jeeps. Armed with machine guns intended for air-to-air usage, they were very difficult to aim - but at the range they were used at, aim was superfluous.

The men selected were, above all, tough.  Not “strong”, as such, but men who were wired to go to any length, even death, before accepting failure.   They were trained to a razors edge; experts at stealth, fieldcraft, camouflage, combat demolitions, communications and the blocking and tackling of close-in infantry combat, they were drawn from the hardest men in the British empire; Cockney scouses, New Zealander farmers, highlanders, career soldiers who’d become bored with the lockstep to-and-fro of regular army life.

SAS patrol in Libya

How tough were they?  One patrol of four men, whose jeeps were knocked out, walked 100 miles through the Libyan desert to get to safety – with a two-gallon can of water.

How trained were they?  One man, carrying a truckload of captured Italian mines, heard the sound of a detonator arming itself, and dove instinctively from the truck just before it blew up.

How successful were they?  Hitler himself, after enduring SAS raids in North Africa, the Adriatic and Italy as well as  in France (where SAS patrols linked up with the French Maquis resistance in the Vosges mountains and created a resistance movement that essentially denied the area to the Germans for nearly a year until liberation came), ordered captured SAS men to be turned directly over to the Gestapo, and then executed.

By the end of the war, the SAS comprised five battalions – two of them French, and one of them Belgian.  Both countries’ current special forces units trace their lineage to those units.

French SAS troopers in a village in the Vosges mountains.

As, of course, does the current SAS, the British Army’s premiere special operations unit.

Belgian SAS troopers somewhere in Holland, World War 2

It is, of course, the armchair colonel’s most self-indulgent exercise to speculate who is “the best special forces unit”, especially given that any unit that doesn’t believe that it’s the best is probably not fit to fight.

But it’s worth noting that as we enter the second decade of a War on Terror that has put immense loads on the western world’s Special Forces – the men that can do the seemingly impossible – the number of units that trace their lineage directly back to World War II.

  • We noted some time ago the birth of “The Commandos”, and units like them – America’s Airborne Rangers, the British Special Forces Support Regiment, the French Parachute regiments, Australia’s various Commando Regiments.
  • The “US Special Forces” – the “green berets” of popular lore, born in the Cold War, honed in Vietnam, and 85 of whom (backed up with the full might of the US Air Force) routed the Taliban in 2002 at the head of the other “Northern Alliance”, were rooted in three units that were formed after Pearl Harbor; the “Office of Strategic Services”, which would parachute three-man teams of operatives into France to link up with resistance groups; the “1st Special Service Force“, a joint US-Canadian commando unit intended to infiltrate enemy territory in Norway and Italy, especially in winter, to destroy tunnels and hydroelectric dams; and the 99th Independent Infantry Battalion, recruited from Norwegian natives and fluent speakers in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Michigan, intended to land in Norway to form a guerrilla movement.  These three units all provided the basis for the “Green Berets” mission today; combat power plus cultural and language skills to carry out ‘Unconventional Warfare” – recruiting resisters – deep in enemy territory.  Other units – the “Alamo Scouts”, small groups of American operators that infiltrated the Philippines by submarine to link up with resistance groups – followed the same model.
  • Other units – like “Number 30 Assault Group”, a commando unit with which a young Ian Fleming served as a planner – blurred the line between “commando” and “intelligence operative”; they specifically sought and attacked German and Italian headquarters; adept in lockpicking, burglary, stealth and German as well as close-quarters battle, they sought plans, maps, rosters, communications, encryption equipment and, at the end of the war, data on Germany’s nuclear weapons program – and provided a rich vein of narrative for Fleming to mine in his “James Bond” series.
  • Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols as we know them today started with Britain’s “Long Range Desert Group” – groups of 6-8 men in converted Dodge trucks loaded with radios, weapons and, above all, fuel and water, that’d infiltrate German lines in the Western Desert to scout and report back targets for Allied aircraft to destroy.

But the first, and perhaps the most influential, and that one that brought all those threads together, was the SAS.   The unit fought throughout the war, was disbanded in 1945 but reformed in 1947, and has been the west’s leading “black bag” unit ever since.

SAS troopers in Aden - now called Yemen - in the sixties, in the midst of a very hot war.

A young American exchange officer, Charles Beckwith, used his experience with the unit as a template for the unit that became known as “Delta”, which serves the same role for the US Joint Special Operations Command today.

Are they Deltas? Are they even Americans? Nobody's supposed to know. But this is supposedly a sanitized photo of "Delta" operators in Afghanistan.

The British Marines’ equivalent of the SAS, the “Special Boat Service”, which spun off from the SAS during the missions to support Greek and Yugoslav rebels during the war, became (along with the US Navy’s “Frogmen”, close-recon and demolitions experts in their own right) the model for the US Navy SEALs.

World War II-era "Frogmen" - anscestors of the SEALs.

And the SAS led the world at learning how to fight terrorists at knife-point range…

SAS troopers assault the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980. Terrorists had begun killing hostages; the SAS pulled off the rescue.

…along with the Israelis, of course, whose elite unit, Sayaret Matkal, which carried out the Entebbe raid, is modeled on the SAS, and with whom it shares its’ motto, “Who Dares Wins”.

Israelis greet commandos returning from rescuing over 100 Israeli hostages from Idi Amin's clutches at Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976.

It’s the bleeding edge of warfare as it’s practiced today, spinning together the most rarified strands of intelligence and soldiering – and it started seventy years ago today in the Libyan desert.

8 thoughts on “The Unit

  1. The jeeps look like they got no motors in them. The one one on the right looks like it got a chicken coop under the hood. You sure they ain’t moonshiners?

  2. Pingback: links for 2011-07-01 « Marty Andrade

  3. Some of the tribe just put another page in the annals. Google NZ SAS + Kabul to see the pics going around of the Kiwis who were to be advisors, but who ended up both shooting from an American Black Hawk (160th SOAR?) and doing a room to room clearance of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul when AlQ came in from the hills. The picture of those badasses walking out of the hotel, one with blood streaming from his head, is as hardass a shot as you’ll see this year of operators.

    As for the original boys, I read Major Stirling’s book when Bantam used to put out those 2.25 paperbacks in the 80s, with a painting of the SAS jeeps going to town on an airfield full of Stukas. Steven Pressfield also wrote a great novel a couple of years ago called Kill Rommel about the SAS and LRDG. They have one of their old Chevy 4x4s in the Imperial War Museum in London, found in the 80s in the Libyan desert. I saw it there. Amazing men.

  4. Oh, and Princes Gate, in London, about half a klick from Harrods and across the street from Hyde Park looks the same as it did in the films when the boys blew in the windows. Iranian Embassy’s still there, too. I’m sure I’m on security film somewhere, if they keep that sort of thing.

  5. A minor point of correction, Mitch. A “Cockney” is a working class person from the East End of London (by tradition, born within earshot of the Bells of St Mary le-Bow Church). “Scouse” is the accent particular to Liverpool (think early Beatles).

  6. I’ve heard that a Cockney accent sounds vaguely like whatever accent Dick Van Dyke used in Mary Poppins.

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