41: Special Air Service + Special Reconnaissance Regiment

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Badges of the

Special Air Service

Special Air Service

David Stirling founded the Special Air Service in 1941. The work done by the Special Air Service (SAS) during World War Two was to revolutionise the way wars could be fought and many other special forces were to copy their tactics.

The philosophy of the SAS was to throw out standard military tactics – in one sense, the regiment had no formal tactics and improvisation was at the heart of their success. Some of the higher echelons of the military were less than enthusiastic about what they called “private armies” and in its early stages, the SAS received little support from on high, especially from those senior officers who had been brought up in the traditional regiments of the British Army. Ironically, Stirling had joined one of these regiments at the start of the war – the Scots Guards.

David Stirling had got a taste for unconventional warfare when he volunteered for 8 Commando, which was more commonly known as ‘Layforce’ after its commander, Captain Robert Laycock. The lack of enthusiasm for Special Forces was shown when Layforce reached North Africa for its first taste of action, only to find that it was effectively disbanded before it had been able to prove itself.

Possibly angered by this treatment of Layforce, and to prove a point, Stirling set about setting up a unit that could fight behind enemy lines with the minimal of support but to devastating effect. Stirling believed that a small group of like-minded, highly trained and dedicated men could cause havoc to the Germans. He was joined in the venture by an Australian called Jock Lewes, an officer in the Welsh Guards.

While in early training, Stirling was injured in a parachute jump. He spent two months in hospital. For this energetic man, it must have been a difficult time as he was by his own standards, inactive. However, Stirling’s hospital stay may well have saved the SAS. Because he could do little physical activity in hospital, Stirling dedicated his time to actual planning – something that he had not done a great deal of before hand. By the end of his hospital stay, Stirling had a very clear idea of what he wanted the regiment to be able to do and the qualities of the men who would fight in it.

Using the unorthodox methods that are now associated with the SAS, Stirling did not go through the normal chain of command when putting forward his idea for the new regiment. He managed to get to see the Deputy Commander Middle East, General Ritchie who presented Stirling’s plans to the British commander in North Africa, General Auchinlek. He authorised the use of the SAS almost immediately as he saw that potential it had in an environment like North Africa.

The first unit of the SAS was made up of 66 men from Layforce and it included seven officers. Its official title was L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade. The title was an effort to confuse the Germans as to the size of the new unit – making it seem larger than it actually was.

The very first mission of the SAS was in November, 1941. The unit was to parachute behind the lines of the German Army in Gazala, North Africa, gather intelligence and harass the Germans where possible. The mission proved to be a failure. Stirling placed too much faith in the capabilities of the men in the unit and gave the go-ahead for them to make a parachute jump in weather than simply did not warrant the risk – high winds and strong rain. Of the 66 men on the mission, only 22 made it back. This was the proof that some needed to prove that ‘private armies’ were a waste and an unnecessary drain on military resources. However, the failure of the mission only spurred on Stirling and Lewes and they learned a great deal from this first outing. Though the SAS was on a steep learning curve, what was learned from this failed mission, was an apt memorial for those who did not return from it.

One of the most obvious lessons Stirling learned was that a parachute drop could be a disaster. Therefore, he turned his attention to his men getting to their objective overland. In this, the SAS joined forces with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) who were experts in movement behind enemy lines. They would drop off SAS troops at a designated point and then collect them from another set point. Most travelling was at night – though not exclusively. The two units worked very well together, with a devastating impact on the Germans.

The major targets for the SAS were German and Italian air bases. Jock Lewes had many qualities, and inventing things was one of them. The Lewes Bomb was a bomb that was small enough to be carried in quantity by an individual but had a big enough explosive charge to destroy a plane. Weighing in at just one pound, the bomb could ignite the fuel in a plane, thus destroying it. The most successful plane ‘buster’ was Paddy Mayne, who destroyed dozens of planes. The Axis powers in North Africa lost many planes as a result of SAS activity. The actions of the regiment had another impact which is more difficult to quantify. No-one knew where they would attack next and all German forces were on a constant state of alert with the accompanying drain on resources that this entailed. The Germans were literally chasing shadows in the night. The success of the SAS in North Africa provoked Hitler to produce the order (‘Kommandodobefehl’) that stated that any commandos or special forces men that were captured should be shot and not afforded the protection of the Geneva Convention.

The Germans did what they could to stop attacks by the SAS. In response, the regiment changed its approach. They acquired their own transport, which were heavily armed with machine guns and equipped with plenty of supplies. Now they could stay behind enemy lines for days on end and it made it even more difficult for the Germans to predict what they might do next.

When working with the LRDG, the SAS would walk to their target after being dropped off by the LRDG. Now, equipped with Jeeps, they drove onto an airbase in complete surprise and created havoc. The ensuing panic meant that the SAS received relatively light casualties themselves. However, the defeat of the Germans after the Battle of El Alamein, meant that the SAS now had to find a new role for itself after its work in the desert. The regiment turned its attention to Europe.

In Western Europe, the SAS was in an entirely different terrain – one it had no experience of fighting in. However, the philosophy of the regiment stayed the same. In Western Europe, they set up bases behind enemy lines, gathered intelligence and, when possible, created havoc before slipping away. In France, four men units frequently worked with the Maquis, the French Resistance. Communication networks (rail lines, bridges etc) became favoured targets and intelligence gathering greatly assisted the D-Day landings in June 1944. Not everything ended in success though. Twenty four SAS men were captured by the Germans. They were tortured before being killed. In the final days of the war, one of the main tasks of the SAS was to hunt the men who committed this atrocity along with SS and Gestapo thugs.

Ironically, in the brave new post-war world, there did not seem to be a place for the SAS and it faded away only to be resurrected when its expertise was needed in the Far East against communist insurgents.


The Sacred band was a Greekspecial forces unit formed in 1942 in the Middle East, composed entirely of Greek officers and officer cadets under the command of Col. Christodoulos Tsigantes. It fought alongside the SAS in the Libyan desert and the Aegean, as well as with General Leclerc‘s Free French Forces in Tunisia. It was disbanded in August 1945 but is the precursor of the modern Greek Special Forces.



Further information: Military history of Greece during World War II

Immediately after the German occupation of Greece in April–May 1941, the Greek government fled to Egypt and started to form military units in exile. The plethora of officers in relation to the number of ordinary soldiers, led Air Force Lt. Colonel G. Alexandris to suggest the creation of an Army unit, formed by officers, with soldier’s duties. This suggestion was approved by the Commander of the II Greek Brigade, Infantry Colonel Alkiviadis Bourdaras. Some volunteers that fled firstly to Turkey were told that they would not be accepted if identified as soldiers. Therefore according to reports they claimed to be Greek officers and later joined the original group of officers. Firemen were also reported in that group. Thus, in August 1942 the Company of Chosen Immortals was formed under Cavalry Major Antonios Stefanakis in Palestine, with 200 men. Initially, the unit was organized as a Machine Gun Company and intended to be attached to the II Greek Brigade, then under formation.

However, on September 15, 1942, the unit’s new commander, Colonel Tsigantes, renamed the unit to “Sacred Band” after the Sacred Band of Thebes and the Sacred Band of the Greek Revolution, and successfully applied for its conversion into a special forces unit.

SAS Squadron

In close cooperation with the commander of the British SAS Regiment, Lt. Colonel David Stirling, and with the approval of the Greek HQ, the company moved to the SAS base at Qabrit in Egypt to begin its training in its new role. However, following the Second Battle of El Alamein, the speed of the Allied advance across Libya brought an end to the era of jeep-borne raiding.

Nevertheless, this period provided a useful introduction to the SAS Regiment in general, and Major Jellicoe’s squadron in particular. This squadron was being built upon the amphibious skills of the famous Commando unit, the Special Boat Section (SBS) and would become the Special Boat Squadron (SBS). With the end of the war in Africa, in May, the SAS split into two branches. The Special Raiding Squadron would serve in the central Mediterranean, before returning home to develop an airborne role, whilst the SBS would serve in the Aegean, operating alongside the Greek Sacred Squadron for the rest of the War. Both were later expanded to Regimental status.

Meanwhile, the Greeks were keen to put their new jeep-borne role into practice.

First actions in Tunisia

On 7 February 1943, following Colonel Tsigantes’ suggestion, the Commander of the British 8th Army, General Bernard Montgomery, put the Greek company under the command of General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc of the Free French2nd Armoured Division, with the duties of Light Mechanized Cavalry. On March 10, 1943, in the area of Ksar-Rillan in Tunisia, the Sacred Band gave its first battle against a German mechanized detachment, while covering the advance of the X British Army Corps that tried to by-pass the Mareth defence line from the South.

Immediately after the Allied forces captured the Tunisian city of Gabès, the Sacred Company was detailed to the 2nd New Zealand Division (March 29) and on April 6, a mixed Greek-New Zealand detachment fought against the Germans at Wadi Akarit. On 12 April the Sacred Band entered Sousse, and participated in the battle for Enfidaville between April 13 and 17.

Commando actions in the Aegean

Further information: Dodecanese Campaign

From May 1943, the Sacred Band, now composed of 314 men, moved to Palestine, in various camps. In July, it went to Jenin for parachute training. There it also underwent a reorganization into an HQ Section, a Base Section, and Commando Sections I, II and III. After the Italian armistice on 9 September 1943, British forces moved into the Italian-occupied, but Greek-inhabited Dodecanese islands. Section I of the Sacred Band was dropped by air to the Greek island of Samos on 30 October, while sections II and III moved there on fishing boats. With the failure of the campaign after the battle of Leros, however, Samos was evacuated, and the men of the Sacred Band withdrew to the Middle East.

In February 1944, it was put under the command of the British Raiding Forces. On February 7, Section I moved for combat operations to the islands of the northern Aegean sea (Samos, Psara, Lesvos, Chios), while Section II moved to the Dodecanese with the same purpose.

In April 1944, the Sacred Band was expanded to regimental size, with a strength of around 1,000 men. This reflected the unit’s effectiveness, and, from a British standpoint, political reliability in the face of mounting political tensions among the Greek forces in exile.

The Dekemvriana, end of war and disbandment of the unit

After the Greek mainland was liberated (October 1944), the Sacred Band returned to Greece, where strains were becoming evident in the relationship of George Papandreou‘s British-backed national unity government and the leftist National Liberation Front (EAM), which controlled most of the Greek countryside. The crucial issue was the disarmament of the guerrilla forces and the formation of a new national army out of members of both the exiled armed forces and the guerrillas of ELAS and EDES. However, the Papandreou government wished to retain the Sacred Band and the 3rd Greek Rimini Mountain Brigade intact: faced with the far larger guerilla army of uncertain political intent, Papandreou and the British wished to keep these units and make them the core of the new army. Disbanding them would mean that their members would become individual recruits in a possibly EAM-dominated people’s army. This tension eventually spilled over into the Dekemvriana events in Athens, where the Sacred Band fought against ELAS forces.

Throughout October 1944, and then again from February 1945, after the fighting in Athens had ended, the Sacred Band continued operating against the remaining German garrisons in the islands of the Aegean Sea until the war’s end in May 1945. In June, the unit returned to Egypt prior to its disbandment, which took place in a ceremony in Athens, on 7 August 1945. During the ceremony the unit’s flag was awarded with Greece’s highest military awards, the Commander’s Cross of the Cross of Valour and the War Cross First Class. The unit’s casualties throughout its existence amounted to 25 dead, 56 wounded, 3 missing and 29 taken prisoner.

In the Greek Army, some of the Sacred Band’s traditions are carried on by the Mountain Raiding Companies (LOK), founded in 1946.

British connections

As a unit operating under British direction, the Sacred Squadron and Regiment had British officers attached. Some were figures well known in military or other circles.

Translations of the unit name

Understandably, there is considerable variation in the translation of the unit’s name into other European languages. It is perhaps most commonly referred to by British historians as the Sacred Brigade, even though it never reached anywhere near brigade strength, and occasionally as the Sacred Company, Sacred Squadron or Sacred Battalion. French military historians tend to refer to it as “Le Regiment Sacré”. In contemporary Greek military parlance, a “lochos” is a company, but the unit’s full strength was much closer to that of a regular infantry regiment.




Special Reconnaissance Regiment

The Special Reconnaissance Regiment or SRR is a Special Forces regiment of the British Armed Forces. It was established on 6 April 2005 and is part of the United Kingdom Special Forces (UKSF) under command Director Special Forces,[1] alongside the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS) and the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG).

The SRR was formed to meet a demand for a special reconnaissance capability identified in the Strategic Defence Review New Chapter. The regiment conducts a wide range of classified activities related to covert surveillance and reconnaissance. The SRR draws its personnel from existing units and can recruit volunteers from serving male and female members of all the United Kingdoms Armed Forces.


The Ministry of Defence does not comment on special forces matters, therefore little verifiable information exists in the public domain. The Special Reconnaissance Regiment was raised at RMA Sandhurst and conducts surveillance operations mainly but not limited to counter terrorist activities. It was formed to relieve the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service of that role, and is believed to contain between 100 – 300 personnel.

Media reports state they are based alongside the Special Air Service, in Hereford.he regiment was established following a Strategic Defence white paper identifying a requirement for assets to engage in covert special reconnaissance and surveillance in support of military activities worldwide. It is the second newest Special Forces regiment in the United Kingdom’s Armed forces, announced by the then Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon in 2004.

The regiment was formed around a core of the already established 14 Intelligence Company which played a similar role against Irish republican and loyalist terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland

In March 2009, Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde informed the Policing Board that the Special Reconnaissance Regiment had been deployed in Northern Ireland to help gather intelligence on dissident republicans.

Uniform distinctions

Personnel retain the uniforms of their parent organisations with the addition of an ’emerald grey’ coloured beret and the SRR cap badge. The cap badge shares Excalibur (the sword of King Arthur) in common with the other Special Forces units, in the case of the SRR placed behind a Corinthian helmet surmounting a scroll inscribed RECONNAISSANCE.The stable belt of the SRR is similar in style to that of the SAS, however is darker in appearance, being Midnight Blue.


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