SAS Formation and WWII


Colonel David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service, talking with Lieutenant Edward MacDonald [driver] with SAS jeep patrol in North Africa, 18 January 1943.

The SAS was created in the Middle East Theatre of war during 1941 as ‘L’ Detachment of the non-existent Special Air Service Brigade (so-called to deceive German Intelligence). It was developed by Scots Guardsman and Commando, David Stirling, and several of his colleagues, who saw that there was room for a special force tasked solely with strategic small unit operations behind-the- lines, focusing on raiding, sabotage and harassment of the enemy’s military forces and infrastructure (see my forthcoming The Origins Of The SAS for a full and revised account). In other words, regular soldiers would take on a role more normally associated with irregular (non-Army) fighters, operating as guerillas. This was carried on with considerable success by foot and motor patrols between 1942 and 1944 in the Middle East and other Theatres, to such an extent that, by January 1944, a real SAS Brigade was established with the approval of the British Chiefs of Staff [COS], led by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff [CIGS], Field-Marshal (later Lord) Alan Brooke.

The SAS Brigade’s strength included a HQ staff, the 1st. and 2nd. British SAS Regiments, the 3rd. and 4th. French SAS Regiments, the 5th. Belgian SAS Regiment, and ‘F’ Squadron (HQ Liaison) of the ‘Phantom’ special signals organisation. All told, the SAS had about 2500 personnel at this point and was at the peak of its powers. Yet, because the SAS had not been granted its own Corps Warrant by the Army Council (under which new Regiments are raised), it “technically had no separate existence as regiments in the British Order of Battle [orbat] and, for administration [purposes, it] needed to be part of some established [or regular Army] force”. In view of the SAS’s familiarity with and expertise in parachuting, the HQ SAS Troops – formed in 1944, under Brigadier Roderick ‘Roddy’ W. McLeod – was attached to the 1st. Airborne Corps HQ. It was commanded by the highly regarded Lieutenant-General (later General Sir) Frederick A. M. ‘Boy’ Browning. As James Ladd points out, when it came to choosing a ‘home’ for the SAS in the Army, the Airborne Forces “was the obvious choice”, if not one that truly represented its particular function and broader talents.

Suitably impressed by the SAS’s pedigree, Boy Browning took it upon himself to get it incorporated into the British orbat for the forthcoming D-day landings in France. He approached members of the top brass who would be making the crucial decisions in this regard and, in anticipation of acquiring a place in the invasion forces, SAS staff working with Airborne Corps personnel at their Moor Park Golf Course HQ, in north-west London, started planning for these operations. The onus for “initial and strategic [SAS] planning, staff duties and training”, fell on the Brigade’s Liaison Officer to the Airborne Forces, Lieutenant- Colonel Ian G. Collins (a pre-war tennis champion), who worked in the Service’s Tactical HQ. While carrying out these duties – which in geographical terms spanned far more than just the upcoming return of British forces to France – Collins gained valuable experience that would prove crucial to the SAS after the War. Not only did he deal with the preparation of all SAS operations, he took part in the coordination of action with the Commandos and “the activities of special agents”. This included members of the Secret Intelligence Service [SIS, or MI6] and the Special Operations Executive [SOE]. Among other things, they assisted partisan Resistance fighters and movements around the world, just as SAS personnel were doing in Europe and the Middle East.

The knowledge of such enterprises that Lt.-Col. Collins and his colleagues acquired stood them in good stead when it came time to looking beyond immediate wartime requirements and plotting the SAS’s course in the post-war world. Collins, in particular, gained considerable insight into the way that guerilla forces worked, including nationalist partisans, who were the military arm of underground movements. He additionally developed relationships with other British and Allied agencies that were dealing with secret clandestine operations. Furthermore, numerous SAS soldiers gained first-hand experience of unconventional combat, fighting both as guerillas and alongside those operating in the Maquis and other anti-Axis irregular forces. All this meant that a pool of knowledge about unconventional warfare methods, organisation and their practitioners’ vulnerabilities was developing within the SAS, which boded well for a future in which the guerilla would play an increasing role on the international scene. Indeed, during their exploits in Alsace-Lorraine, in eastern France, during August 1944, the SAS and their French comrades-in-arms became the target of massive German counter-guerilla sweep operations, which featured a vanguard force of “special anti-partisan units”. These ‘Jagd-kommando’ (‘Pursuit Commandos’) conducted independent small unit patrols too, just as their quarry did, and the Allied forces had several brushes with these units. It is quite likely that such episodes made an impression upon senior British SAS officers and that they drew upon this wartime experience in due course.

By the autumn of 1944, it appeared to most Allied observers that the Axis was crumbling and that the European War would end sooner rather than later – certainly by 1946. Faced with the prospect of reductions in the British Armed Forces’ funding and manpower, the SAS had to think of ways to survive the axe and remain available for special operations during peacetime. Hence, it needed to demonstrate both that such commitments were likely to arise in the near future, and that it was best equipped to handle them – as opposed to any of the dozens of other wartime special forces.

Adaptability and flexibility would be the SAS’s bywords and, by at least 2nd. September 1944, such virtues were being demonstrated by Lt.-Col. Collins. At that time, “both Airborne HQ Troops and the SAS Brigade .. had begun to consider .. future employments”, and Collins floated the idea of using the SAS for counter-intelligence work in Germany. In addition, he pushed for the creation of Teams that could pursue and arrest suspected Nazi war criminals who had committed war crimes such as the execution of SAS personnel, and who would be trying to flee justice before the end of the War. Looking beyond that time, Collins thought that another commitment that the SAS could fulfil was the disarmament of Axis forces in Scandinavia. Finally, the war in the Far East looked like going on into 1946, so an SAS deployment in Asia was mooted. By 5th. October 1944, Lt.-Col. Collins produced “the first of a number of .. [written] appreciations that were designed to ‘sell’ the SAS to often sceptical higher headquarters” and, in this drive, he was backed up by several senior officers who were friends of the SAS, including Brig. McLeod and Lt.-Gen. Browning.

By 1945, the HQ SAS Troops was trying hard to find “a role – any role – for the SAS”, and a place in “the order of battle for any operation that was going”, whether in North-West or South-East Europe, the Middle East or the Far East. Every effort was made to lobby those in positions of authority, in the knowledge that unless the SAS Brigade was “in at the finish with a record of adaptability to current circumstances”, then it would not be in a position to “claim exemption from .. post-war cuts in manpower”.

Above and beyond the roles and missions suggested by Collins et al, at the end of 1944, the War Office was preparing for the possibility of a long drawn-out German underground resistance to an Allied invasion. In doing so, the Service Department’s Intelligence officers studied the potential problems posed by a determined, well-organised guerilla foe, and they produced reports recommending traditional-style large-scale counter-guerilla operations, such as area sweeps or drives. But, they also referred to the possibilities offered by experimental small unit forces with air support, including the use of pseudo-guerilla units that donned civilian clothing and feigned guerilla status. Some SAS personnel may well have picked up on such ideas and proffered counter-guerilla action as a future SAS role that would be necessary in the post-war world and which the Regiment was well placed to undertake. Indeed, by the end of 1944, there was a precedent for this that was well known to the SAS.

In December 1944, the SAS’s cousins in the SBS took a leading role in the suppression of Communist urban guerillas operating in Athens as part of a wider attempt to seize power there. As James Ladd indicates, Lt.-Col. Sutherland’s SBS soldiers got embroiled in what “was the first brush for their SAS line of descendants with urban terrorists”. Indeed, the SAS had at least one official observer on the spot, who was monitoring how the British forces tackled the Leftist gunmen – Major Roy Alexander Farran. Subsequently a legendary figure in the Regiment, at that point, he was the commander of third (‘C’) Squadron, 2nd. SAS Regiment. He already knew that part of the world and had propositioned the War Office Directorate of Military Intelligence [DMI] to send him to Greece, likely for the express purpose of assessing how counter/guerilla forces operated. Whatever the case, he was posted as the SAS’s observer at the Land Forces Adriatic HQ. From there, he witnessed the fighting on the ground and, although Farran later described his Hellenic sojourn as “a bit of a holiday”, there was a serious side to his employment. Indeed, details of the operations there were reported to his superiors, notably 2 SAS’s commanding officer, Lieutenant- Colonel Brian Morton Foster Franks.

Major Farran’s views would have carried much weight with Franks and others, for, after fighting with 2 SAS in North Africa, Sicily and France during 1943/44 (including missions alongside SOE operatives), Farran had developed “a considerable reputation” in the Regiment. Hence, it is interesting to note that, by 1945, both he and Franks were enthusiastic advocates of a future counter-guerilla role for the SAS. As James Ladd notes, “although special forces of SAS or Commando units were not trained or equipped for anti-terrorist roles [in 1945], there was probably the notion in some quarters that they could be used for this purpose”, and this was nowhere more so than in 2 SAS. Another officer with an even more formidable record in unconventional fighting joined the SAS hierarchy at the turn of 1944/45. Some historians have stated that, in December 1944, Brig. McLeod was replaced as commander of the SAS Brigade by Brigadier James Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert. Others note that he took over command of the SAS in February or March 1945. But his biographer, David Rooney, states that Calvert arrived at its HQ near Halstead airfield in January 1945.

Previously, Calvert had met the Stirling brothers (David and Bill) while instructing Commandos in 1940, before a posting with the War Office’s Military Intelligence (Research) [MI(R)] section. There, he shared his thoughts about unconventional warfare with colleagues like General Sir Colin M. Gubbins (co- founder of the SOE) and Lieutenant (later Field-Marshal Sir) Gerald W. R. Templer (who went on to make his name as COIN supremo in Malaya). During his time at MI(R), Calvert wrote a booklet, The operations of small forces behind the enemy lines, in which he advocated the guerilla defence of Britain by regular Army and irregular forces, in the event of a Nazi invasion. Calvert was able to implement his theories in various territories, following Japan’s conquest of South-East Asia and the Pacific. In 1941, he taught SOE and Commando leaders at the Burma Bush Warfare School and, in 1942, he organised ‘V’ (Viper) Force for guerilla operations on New Guinea. There, Australia’s Independent Companies followed the example set by those that had raided Norway in 1940 (and which had included the core of many British Commando units). Thereafter, ‘Mad Mike’ served with General Orde Wingate and his special force of Chindits in Burma. They practised jungle warfare, including short guerilla patrols, “long-range penetration”, and “strong- hold” tactics. Hence, on arrival at the SAS Brigade, he commanded great respect, both for his intellect and drive, fighting experience, and his will to see his new charge prosper.


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