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The origins of modern-day Commandos can be traced back to the Boer War1. The name Commando was given by the British to the Boer irregular troops in recognition of their exceptional marksmanship and guerrilla-style2 warfare.
In World War One, the opposing armies had reached a stalemate. Victory was possible but at great cost to both sides, and the current tactics had to be improved on. Storm troopers, deployed by the German Army, were sent before the first wave of an attack, to seize essential sites. Lightly armed and equipped, but possessing better weaponry than the average infantryman, they had the edge in trench warfare. Relying on speed rather than brute force to take targets, the Storm troopers were normally exposed to artillery and machine-gun fire for short periods at a time.
The first paratroopers3 were not British, German or even American. It was the Russians - after picking up the original idea from Italy - who showed the world the potential of airborne strikes. They could achieve much more with a lot less equipment, and could be deployed into trouble spots quicker. This was demonstrated by a training exercise held in the 1930s, in the Ukraine, when Russian troops parachuted onto an 'enemy-held' airport, secured it, and then waited to be further reinforced by air and then by armoured forces.
Unfortunately for the British, the idea went over their heads. It was not until 22 June, 1940, that British war-time Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, called for the formation of a corps of 'at least five thousand parachute troops, suitably organised and equipped'.4 This was the foundation of Britain's Parachute Regiment. The Americans did take notice but had other things on their mind - in 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. It fell to the Germans to be the first to utilise airborne troops to their fullest extent. The effectiveness of this new form of waging war was demonstrated when, in 1941, the Germans invaded Crete, and then Norway, with airborne troops.
By the time Britain's parachute regiments were up and combat-effective, most of mainland Europe and the off-shore Channel Islands were under the control of the Axis countries. Britain and her British Commonwealth allies simply did not possess enough resources to attempt to liberate this occupied territory. The war in North Africa was raging. The idea of small Commando raids arose as an acceptable solution to appease public discontent. Here was a way Britain could co-ordinate attacks on mainland Europe without openly engaging the Germans in battle. Marine Commandos (now known as the Royal Marine Commandos) struck at St Nazaire, the 'largest dry dock in the world'. Not only was it the only dock capable of servicing the giant battleships Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, it was an important U-Boat5 base. Dieppe was raided by the Marine Commandos and Walcheren was seized by them.
North African Campaign - WW2
This campaign was fought mainly because of two things. The first was the Suez Canal, which was vital to control the Middle East. The second was Middle East oil resources. Should the Axis powers attempted seizure of the oil fields in Russia fail (which it did), then the Axis coalition would need to find a supply of oil elsewhere. The only thing that stood in its way was, at first, a small British Commonwealth Army under the over-all command of General Wavell. The Italians they faced outnumbered them 10-1, and promptly, due to far inferior equipment, low morale and poor logistics, found themselves with the military equivalent of a bloody nose, broken ribs and two shattered knee caps. Hitler could only do one thing. He sent in one of his best units, the Afrika Korps, with General 'Desert Fox' Rommel at the helm. The two armies grew in size and since neither could quite finish the other off, found themselves in virtual stalemate, coming and going across the desert areas surrounding Egypt and Libya.
Special Air Service
At about this time David Stirling, the founder of the SAS, was lying in a hospital bed, injured in a parachute jump mishap. A subaltern in the Brigade of Guards, he had noted the inefficiency of commando raids. Realising the same results, or better, could be achieved with much smaller groups of men, on his return to active duty he bluffed his way into the 8th Army headquarters and put his idea to General Ritchie. At the time, the Allied forces were on the run from Rommel's army. Because it would not require much in logistics, Stirling's idea appealed to Ritchie, who named the new unit, the Special Air Service Brigade. The idea behind the name was to give the Germans the impression that the Allies had a large airborne force in North Africa.
Harsh selection and training was implemented straight from the regiment's first day. Recruiting and training took less than a week. The initial SAS force consisted of six officers and 60 enlisted men. The two officers that Stirling most wanted, Paddy Mayne and Jock Lewes, would write themselves into SAS folklore.
The SAS's first operation went badly. Stirling had perceived the best method of getting behind enemy lines was by parachute. Alas, the weather was so bad that the ground was impossible to see by the pilots. The parachutists landed way off target. They had to leg it across to Allied lines, which was no mean feat. Less than half the force eventually made it back to base. Fortunately, Allied High Command was more concerned about German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel and his new offensive.
Stirling was not put off, and co-ordinated with the successful reconnaissance group, the Long Range Desert Group. The plan was that the LRDG would provide the transport, and the SAS, the destruction. They went after anything in range, such as airstrips and even Rommel's headquarters. Eventually the Germans lost hundreds of aircraft and scores of supply posts to SAS raids.
In Tunisia, in 1943, Stirling paid the price for leading from the front. Captured, he escaped four times before he was transferred to Colditz Castle prison camp for the remainder of the war.
Many 'Private Armies', as the General Staff called them, relied on the 'charisma and drive of one man', but perhaps the true sign of SAS skill and bravery, was, even without Stirling's charismatic leadership, they continued to inflict heavy damage on the Axis war machine.
The SAS caused havoc in Italy and in Operation Wallace (post D-Day landings). After a battle in Dijon, it was estimated that they had killed 7,731 Germans, captured 4,784 prisoners and destroyed, or took control of, 700 vehicles. 164 railway lines were cut, seven trains were destroyed and 33 were derailed. Perhaps, the most dubious recognition of the SAS's success was the Fuhrer Directive, calling for all captured Commandos to be shot.
These men are highly dangerous... they must be ruthlessly exterminated.
- Adolf Hitler
This meant Axis forces were supposed to shoot anybody who was not a downed airman. The order was in breach of the Geneva Convention6. Some people who obeyed this order would eventually be prosecuted for war crimes.
After WW2 the scaling down of the armed forces looked likely to foreshadow the end of the Commandos. All were scrapped, save the Marine Commandos, who were merged into the Royal Marines, leaving only a territorial unit of the SAS (21 SAS).
Somewhat fortuitously, the Malaysian Emergency in the 1960s resurrected the SAS. In the form of the Malaysian Scouts they would perform counter-insurgency operations against the communist insurgents. One of the reasons Malaysia, in its present form, is here today is through the success of the SAS.
The SAS were then given a regular regiment, the 22nd and another territorial unit, the 23rd. The 22nd would see action over the ensuing forty years in numerous theatres of war, establishing themselves once again as one of the worlds 'premier' special forces.
In Oman, communist insurgents were battling against the pro-British Sultan. The SAS was sent in twice in the guise of British Army Training Teams (BATT) to help train up the Sultan's troops and fight themselves. One of the most notable battles was in Jebel Akhdar, where troopers assaulted a rebel stronghold ensconced in a previously unassailable place. Another was the Battle of Mirbat, where insurgents or 'adoo' were attempting to raise flagging support by assaulting a garrison town. Only the SAS and gratefully-accepted air support from the Oman Air Force prevented this occurring.
On Home Ground
Undoubtedly, one of the more famous missions the SAS has undertaken was the siege at Princess Gate, London, home of the Iranian Embassy. Terrorists, financed by Iraq's Saddam Hussein, attempted to force Britain to use its (almost nil) influence on Iran to restore the deposed Shah to his throne. The British Government sent in the SAS, resulting in defeat for the terrorists. Two innocent people died; a hostage was shot before the SAS went in, and in the ensuring assault, the assistant press attaché was killed. All bar one of the terrorists died.
The Falklands Conflict
In 1982, the ruling Argentine military junta took the world by surprise when they invaded the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Resistance by the Royal Marines was spirited, until ordered to surrender by the island's Governor. In Britain, a Task Force featuring 2 and 3 PARA, a Commando Bridge (40, 42, 45 Commando) and light tanks of the Blues and Royals was assembled. The SAS was also mobilised. Along with mounting reconnaissance missions into the occupied islands, the SAS staged diversionary raids when the sea-based British Taskforce mounted their successful action to reclaim the islands. Perhaps the most daring raid of this war was the attack on an airfield in Pebble Island. Ten Pucara ground-based aircraft had to be eliminated before the task force could commence landing. The SAS destroyed all the aircraft and eliminated the garrison.
Allegedly, as a countermeasure to cover for Britain's lack of airborne-early-warning aircraft to detect the Argentine Super Etendards and their Exocets, two groups of SAS were dropped into mainland Argentina. They took up positions where they could see the aircraft land and take off, and hence give warning to the British Fleet. The book Soldier K which is part fiction, part fact, is based on this premise. What is not in doubt is that a Royal Navy Sea King did crash-land in mainland Chile.
Combating Saddam Hussein
Perhaps the SAS's worst disaster was Bravo 2-0 (Northern Road). In 1990 Iraq dictator, Saddam Hussein, invaded and annexed the tiny oil-rich state of Kuwait. He then had to face a coalition of the mightiest military powers ever assembled. His only possible way of winning such a war was to provoke Israel into the war by attacking her with SCUD missiles. He hoped this would break up the fragile coalition, as the Arab nations would now refuse to fight. From 1949 to 1996, Israel was in a state of war with most Arab countries.
To combat the SCUD threat, and cause general mayhem, three SAS sections were deployed by helicopter into the flat, desolate, Iraqi desert. Two of the sections got straight back into their helicopters and flew back to base. The one that didn't was Bravo 2-0. Hampered by inaccurate radio frequencies and a position dangerously close to an Iraqi outpost, they were compromised and had to make a fighting retreat across the Iraqi desert to Syria. Only one made it, Corporal 'Chris Ryan'. The rest were either captured - Sergeant 'Andy McNab' - or died. What happened in Iraq was a shambles, to put it mildly. What Bravo 2-0 did to get themselves out of their position was hugely creditable. They left 200 Iraqi soldiers dead. They pushed their minds and bodies to the limit - either from self-torture, or sheer bloody mindedness - to get home.
After this debacle, SAS squadrons operated in armed Landrovers, and achieved remarkable success. By enforcing a no-go zone, where no SCUD Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) would venture across. The SCUD missiles no longer had the range to strike Israel.
More recently, in Bosnia, SAS teams were detailed to provide laser spotting on the artillery pieces bombarding the city of Sarajevo. SAS personal have also provided reconnaissance of possible landing zones in Kosovo for the Air Mobile elements of the British Army and to observe Serbs withdrawing from previously-held positions in the province. An on-going SAS operation is the seizure of suspected war criminals in the former Yugoslavia.
Over many years, Britain's SAS has operated in Northern Ireland. Their on-going efforts to help build a lasting-peace between the warring Catholic and Protestant militia is outside the scope of this article.
Liaison And Training
In the SAS's Counter Terrorist (CT) and Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) roles, the SAS liaise with, and train, many of the premier HRT teams based in other countries. These include Germany's GSG 9 and France's GIGN, among others.