THE SAS: FACT AND FICTION

John Newsinger, Senior Lecturer in the School of Historical and Cultural Studies at Bath Spa University College.

9 February 2004.

The speaker, who has published a book on the SAS and Popular Culture, stated that although he had no direct experience himself, he hoped that his analyses of accounts would treat his subject fairly. After 1945 memoirs of soldiers who had fought in special forces such as the ‘ Chindits’ , ‘ Popski’s Private Army’ , the ‘ Long-range Desert Group’ , etc. provided romantic stories of exploits that suggested that ‘an individual can make a difference’. The speaker had some reservations about such implications. For example, an ex- Major General, John Strawson, wrote a history of the desert campaign which made no mention of the SAS, yet many years afterwards his later ‘History of the SAS’ argued that the force was very important for the Allied victory then. The speaker would agree on claims of bravery and particular contribution, but he did not see that contribution as decisive.

He was also sceptical of expressions of ‘SAS triumphalism’ by authors such as Peter de la Billiere, which tended to annoy champions for other forces, who also claimed honours. He believes that the SAS role in a number of conflicts has been ‘wildly exaggerated’, as in the post-war Malayan emergency, where the decisive factor was the ability of the British forces to isolate Chinese communists from others, rather than any special forces exploits. On the other hand, he accepts that claims for their significant role in some conflicts, such as the Borneo campaign of the early 1960s, are credible. In that campaign and a similar campaign against communist guerrillas in the 1980s, no accounts were published until much later, since secrecy then was important.

Warfare today is undertaken generally by ‘ large mechanized armies put into the field by industrial states’ in his words, which reduces the attention which might otherwise be paid to individuals. Young men might be convinced that war offers ‘romantic adventure’ by stories such as one reported of the SAS unit which ‘slaughtered’ an SS unit killing hostages in 1944, yielding a local surviving monument to their heroism. These heroic skirmishes are not representative of modern warfare in general, nor significant in military terms.

The aftermath of the Second World War brought a spate of SAS stories, but it was the Embassy siege, much later, which renewed interest in their exploits. That siege coincided at the time with the government’s concern then to ‘lay the ghost of Suez’, just as in America there was concern to overcome the ‘ Vietnam syndrome’. The speaker detected a deliberate celebration then of a ‘British warrior masculinity’. He considers the presence of the Prime Minister then with the SAS forces involved at the televised depiction of the siege, at which all but one of the terrorists were killed, as ‘unsavoury’. She spent much time in many visits to their bases, apparently. He commented that there is a saying that while one wants ‘ferocity’ from soldiers and ‘caution’ from generals, it is expected that politicians will abstain from bellicosity. Nevertheless, the exploit became much publicized and several writers have become millionaires as a result.

In the 1980s those with a direct interest in SAS stories had hundreds of titles available to them, although that abundance may have escaped the attention of the general public. These included a series of 26 novels under the collective title ‘ Soldier A to Z: SAS’, which the speaker considered ‘well written’ but essentially dealing in ‘the pornography of war’, since they generally gave ‘loving descriptions’ of equipment and its effectiveness and also treated enemies with contempt. ‘ The SAS Guide to Personal Security’ was available in most bookshops, giving tips on achieving personal security in everyday life modelled on SAS procedures, which the speaker thought ‘pernicious’ in its implications, as well as ludicrous in some instances. Moreover, in places it advocated illegal behaviour, such as throwing bricks at supposed intruders by recruited neighbours.

Some books were ‘ghost-written’ for ex-SAS soldiers, possibly those by the prominent authors Andy McNabb and Chris Ryan, who may well have provided only the story outlines and essential details, while the bulk of ‘polishing up’ was left to others. The speaker has also detected anomalies, such as the work of Sean Clark, who wrote a book entitled ‘ The Exit Club’, covering his involvement in many bloody campaigns from the early 1940s up to and including the Falklands conflict, which would make him at least sixty years of age. Some books were more acceptable, however, including ‘ A Good Clean Fight', by Derek Robinson, which, apart from being both exciting and well written, was realistic about the ‘nastiness’ rather than the glory of war.

Attention then turned to the first Gulf War. The British commander General de la Billiere gave an account in ‘ Storm Command’, which stressed the role of British heroes in the face of great dangers. The casualty figures, however, suggest otherwise and the speaker bluntly declared the campaign a ‘massacre’ of a weak and poorly equipped force by a greatly superior force in a brief one hundred hours (as at the Battle of Omdurman). The ‘ Bravo Two Zero’ episode received as much attention as the whole of the rest of the war and Chris Ryan’s walk to safety, the courage and endurance shown, together with the fortitude displayed in withstanding ill-treatment, etc. was stressed. No attention was paid to the incorrect radio frequencies supplied the men and their absence of vehicles, which obviated any chance of rescue. A later account by an SAS soldier, Michael Asher, asserted that much of the story was fictional anyway, but outside observers cannot know what was true. Several books have clearly been fake memoirs, since their authors have been shown never to have been members of the SAS. While the Americans were more concerned with their technologies than with special force exploits (by ‘Delta Force’, for example), the speaker regards the British treatment, emphasizing heroic exploits by small groups of soldiers against Iraqi ‘hordes’, as essentially ‘ideological’- distorting the reality of that war.

In 1996 a television programme, entitled ‘ The SAS: the Soldiers Story’, covered several episodes in the history of the regiment, including one in the Gulf War. An SAS patrol attacked an Iraqi radar station at night. When a noise was heard from a vehicle, an SAS soldier shot its occupants, precipitating a gun battle and eventually the blowing up of the installation. Later memoirs by SAS participants claimed that an overstressed officer was replaced and a fearful N.C.O. had driven himself away prior to the action. One ex-soldier reported nightmares, a nervous breakdown and a failed marriage as resulting ultimately from his response to the noise from the vehicle, when he found a single 14 –year-old boy, whom he shot. He also claimed that once he had ‘cracked’ and was discharged the regiment wanted no more to do with him. The speaker considered the participants accounts were the more reliable, more ‘realistic’ and more ‘human’. The assault was unnecessary, anyway, since an American jet plane could easily have accomplished demolition without risk to SAS forces.

More recently, it is arguable that the war in Afghanistan was a ‘special forces’ war, since those forces supplemented the American air assaults and the armies of the warlords. The speaker had thought that we would now be moving away from ‘military adventures’. The SAS has disliked its members ‘breaking silence’ through published memoirs, but the recent Iraq war has stimulated again both old and new reminiscences. He now concludes that ‘glamorisation’ will continue to be favoured by those who want to prepare young combatants for new wars.

His audience asked several questions of the speaker. What of the SAS in Northern Ireland? In his view the SAS and the IRA used similar tactics, but after the Gibraltar killings gave a propaganda coup to the IRA through ‘martyrdom’, the British government pulled the SAS out of the provocative limelight, although the Embassy siege did feed IRA propaganda. Major replaced the martyrdom of killings with imprisonments and both police and intelligence activities were successful, so the current situation registers some success. On a question of treatment of special forces elsewhere, the speaker agreed that while Russia (re Chechnya) and France (re Algeria) also ‘glamorise’, our treatment reflects traditional nostalgia for former greatness as a substitute for our current military weakness, so that we can celebrate the small unit as the best in the world. When asked how many served in the SAS, he reported in the hundreds, but remarked that thirty had recently resigned, probably because now they can earn much more as private security forces in Iraq. On the question of the quality of the SAS forces, he affirmed that the better memoirs showed them as generally intelligent men who were not ‘gung-ho’, who knew the realities and who knew what they could and could not achieve. He commented on a Falklands incident, when an officer refused an order clearly requiring sacrifice of his men and was replaced, when objections by NCOs then caused the order to be rescinded. While officers come and go, the NCOs form the backbone of the force on a longer term basis. Appointments are made only from serving soldiers and the entry requirements are very exacting. Although there is now some doubt being expressed on the current qualities of the force, both officers and NCOs do discuss policies with their men, which is uncharacteristic of armies. As ‘skilled military craftsmen’ he thought their future role would be to be put to service around the world, now presumably in pursuit of policies determined by American governments.

G.Catchpole.

(Speaker – John Newsinger, School of Historical and Cultural Studies, Bath Spa University College, Newton Park, Bath.)