SAS patrol in North Africa during WW2.
The survival of the British SAS, alone among wartime special forces teams, is a textbook example of political escape and evasion. Though the Socialist Attlee government had decreed that it must die, in the gloomy corridors of the War Office a cell was created in 1946 to consider the future of SF, if any. It concluded that in the next European war, there would be no static front lines. It acknowledged that small parties of stay-behind forces could punch above their weight, so long as they did not try to take over the functions of SIS or become a reborn SOE. In what was an obvious compromise between letting the government have its way over Special Forces and covering an unguarded military flank, the War Office gave its blessing, in principle, to the creation of a reserve, Territorial Army (National Guard) unit. This exercise was massaged by the ubiquitous Brian Franks, former boss of 2 SAS in Occupied France. Over later years, he would emerge as a key player in the continuance of special operations, not all of them not authorized by government. Between 1946 and 1947, Franks took two initiatives. First, he arranged for the Gladio network, promoted by the SIS chief, Sir Stewart Menzies, in various European capitals, to be serviced by British Liaison Officers who were former SAS and SOE operators.
He also arranged for a respected reserve regiment, the Artists Rifles, to be reborn as 21 SAS (Artists). Founded in 1859, the Artists accommodated such creative spirits as William Morris, Wilfred Owen, and Noel Coward and turned them into soldiers. It was disbanded in 1945 and reconstituted as an officer-training team two years later. By a process that is still not clear, Brian Franks arranged for the resurrected Artists to become 21 SAS (Artists) (Reserve). A humble national guard unit, 21 SAS was licensed to prepare for a stay-behind role in Germany, to wage guerrilla war against the Warsaw Pact invaders and identify targets for nuclear weapons. It was an awesome responsibility for weekend soldiers. The SAS reservists prepared by digging large holes in German soil for use as hides. In time, it found another role as a supplier of deniable soldiers for clandestine missions far from Europe and a recruitment agency for well-connected mercenaries.
On the other side of the world, in the Malayan jungle, a very different sort of conflict was about to have a decisive impact on the SAS phenomenon. In the spring of 1948, ethnic Chinese Malayans, armed with an arsenal of British and Japanese weapons, began an offensive to turn Malaya into a Communist state. The emergency had a shocking beginning. Small groups of armed Chinese entered rubber plantations, seized their Chinese foremen, and summoned villagers to witness the executions of these alleged enemies of the people. On 16 June, three young Chinese men cycled into Elphil Estate in Perak and shot dead a fifty-year-old British planter, Arthur Walker. A few miles away, Ian Christian and his manager, J. Alison, were bound to chairs and murdered in the same fashion.
One of the most charismatic leaders of the insurgency was Chin Peng, OBE. During the Japanese occupation, Chin Peng had worked with British agents from SOE’s Force 136 and with Spencer Chapman, to whom he was “a true friend.” It is believed that Chin took part in the London Victory Parade in 1945. But then he turned his guns on Britain. He became leader of the Communist guerrillas and took to the jungle. Chin Peng did not give up easily. His war against the British and Malayan governments continued until 1989. In 2008 he was living in exile in Thailand, hoping to return to Malaysia.
In 1950, to fight this latest jungle conflict, Brigadier “Mad Mike” Calvert, a wartime SAS commander and heavyweight boxing champion, was instructed to raise a force able to survive in the jungle for long periods, taking the battle to the Communists on their own ground. It was a novel idea at the time. Calvert was expected to create the new force almost overnight. He raised the Malayan Scouts, which he then renamed the Malayan Scouts (SAS). They were a very mixed bunch. There were some excellent veterans from SOE, SAS, Ferret Force, and Force 136. A squadron of 21 SAS reservists, on its way to the Korean War, was diverted to join the Scouts. Calvert also recruited 1,000 volunteers from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a group that would re-emerge later as “C” Squadron, SAS. It still exists as a phantom squadron. Calvert also acquired some cowboys whose units were glad to be rid of them. A handful of National Service conscripts was added to the mix. At that time, the prolonged selection process for which the SAS would become a world leader did not exist. Calvert once told the author that the Scouts had similarities, in his mind, with the Black And Tans as an ad hoc formation that could be readily disbanded if it provoked a political row. No surprises there: most Special Forces units are ad hoc, temporary entities, dispersed when their work is done.
The Scouts were withdrawn in 1951 to be reorganized as 22 SAS Regiment under a new commander and retrained at the Jungle Warfare School, Kota Tingi, Malaya. This was an interesting establishment that subequently trained Australian SAS soldiers to fight in Vietnam. Run by a veteran jungle fighter named John Cross, it replicated some very evil jungle booby traps used by the Vietminh. Colonel Cross could imitate most of the bird calls to be heard in the jungle. During the Second World War, serving with the Gurkha Rifles, he heard a call that belonged to a nocturnal bird. It was mid-morning. He set up an ambush and waited for the Japanese patrol to walk into it. Did it work? “We killed every last one of them,” he once told the author.
The reformed SAS returned to the jungle, fighting an often clandestine campaign until around 1960. Further changes from 1955 resulted from the appointment of Lieutenant Colonel George Lea, an Arnhem veteran, as commanding officer. Lea sacked the most ineffective officers and recruited some new talent including Lieutenant Peter de la Billiere. As a Lieutenant General, he led British forces in the first Gulf War in 1990–91. By 1956 five SAS squadrons totaling 560 men were operating in the Malayan jungle. But as yet, it was still an ad hoc force of the sort envisioned by Calvert.
There was always a darker side to the evolution of these forces. The same individuals who led by heroic example in the Second World War were thrust into counter-insurgency campaigns later perceived as “dirty wars” in which they matched evil with evil. Some of the Long Range Desert Group, having taken prisoners who were an embarrassment—since there was no provision for POWs in the Libyan desert—considered murdering their captives. They did not do so, releasing them to their fate in the wilderness instead. In the 1930s Wingate’s Special Night Squads, hunting Arab saboteurs in Palestine, were disbanded because of the treatment of captives and because the SNS, like the Black And Tans in Ireland in the twenties, provoked rebellion rather than suppressing it. During the Vietnam War, the “Green Beret” affair arose from the unauthorized killing of a double agent in 1969.
The most dramatic moral breakdown, however, occurred not within the ranks of the SAS or SBS or their American counterparts in OSS, but within the U.S. Navy’s equivalent, the Office of Naval Intelligence, which lubricated the Allied advance across Sicily in 1943 by cutting deals with the Sicilian Mafia, first in New York and later in Sicily itself. This morally ambiguous strategy was followed, as noted above, by OSS arrangements in Italy with Italian Fascists in the organization of shadowy anti-Soviet “stay-behind” units known loosely as “Gladio,” The Sword. In Italy, Germany, and Belgium, assassins linked to Gladio teams took direct action against communists suspected of being part of a fifth column prepared to run Moscow-puppet governments should the Red Army overrun the country. The organic nature of the Gladio network after it was secretly adopted by NATO made it inevitable that some operators from these countries were trained in Britain and elsewhere by British and American Special Forces, just like the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s.
For four decades after the Second World War, the British army had two commitments. The first, known as Priority One, was the defense of Western Europe from attack by the Red Army and its allies. These were edgy times. As Sir John Killick, British ambassador to NATO, told the author during those years: “We know their capabilities. We do not know their intentions.” It does not seem to have struck Western governments that the Soviets, having lost 26 million dead following Germany’s invasion, might have felt it needed buffer states in eastern Europe as an insurance against a repeat performance. Meanwhile, the scope for Special Forces activity in the frozen strategy of the Cold War in western Europe—a potential conflict between lumbering dinosaurs—was limited, but not impossible.
In Europe, throughout the forty-four years of the Cold War, a team unconnected with the wartime freemasonry founded by Gubbins and Stirling operated across the front line alongside the agent-running arm of SIS. It was known as Brixmis, or the British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany. It answered to the intelligence secretariat of the Ministry of Defence and unlike the Foreign Office (vide Philby) or CIA (vide Aldrich Ames) it was never penetrated by the KGB. Its intelligence product was sent to Washington, sometimes before it reached London. From 1947 two similar, smaller missions worked alongside Brixmis. These were the U.S. Military Liaison Mission, which included Major Arthur Nicholson, and the French MLM.
Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, from 1969 onwards, following the explosion of resentment among the minority Catholic population in response to the government’s failure to provide equal rights in voting, jobs, and housing, street politics boiled over to become an insurgency and full-blown campaign of terrorism. British intelligence was caught by surprise, asserting that the IRA was a long-dead, moribund force. After Gunner Robert Curtis, the first British casualty, was shot dead in Belfast in February 1971, elements of Britain’s conventional “green army,” configured for the European battlefield, adopted counter-insurgency methods including the use of civilian clothes, burglary of private homes to plant bugs, and assassination. For many soldiers it was a schizophrenic experience in which the Red Army’s tank divisions were the threat during one operational tour, while at other times the Improvised Explosive Device teams of the IRA awaited them on the back streets of Belfast.