air service

Special Air Service

The Special Air Service (SAS) is a special forces regiment within the British Army which has served as a model and inspiration for the special forces of other countries. The SAS forms a significant section of United Kingdom Special Forces alongside the Special Boat Service (SBS), Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), and the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG).

The Special Air Service is divided into two distinct parts:


World War II SAS regiments

1 SAS and 2 SAS were British regiments formed during World War II. When the SAS reformed, 21 SAS was named after them. 3 SAS and 4 SAS were the Free French regiments formed during the World War II. They eventually became the 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment. 5 SAS was a Free Belgian regiment. 6 SAS was a regiment to be formed of volunteers from the United States however this unit never formed.


Current SAS roles are believed to include:


The Special Air Service is under the Operational Control (OPCON) of the Director Special Forces and is a strategic asset, however, OPCON may be delegated to Operational and Tactical commanders as required.

The Regiment is a Corps of the British Army under the United Kingdom legal system which authorises the raising of military forces and comprises three battalion-sized units, one Regular and two Territorial Army (TA), each styled as 'regiments' in accordance with British Army practice; 22 SAS Regiment being the Regular unit, with 21 SAS Regiment (Artists Rifles) and 23 SAS Regiment as the TA reserve units, known together as the Special Air Service (Reserve) or SAS(R). The Artists Rifles appellation comes from the amalgamation in 1947 with an unusual pre-existing TA Regiment originally raised from the artistic community at a time when the Rifle Volunteer movement was at its height. The Artists Rifles (originally Artists' Rifles until the apostrophe was officially dropped from the full title as it was so often misused) were of such quality they were used as an officer-producing unit in both World Wars, although the 1st Battalion fought as part of the Royal Naval Division in the latter years of World War I.

Each Regiment comprises a number of "Sabre" Squadrons with some supporting functions being undertaken within 22 SAS; Headquarters, Planning, and Intelligence Section, Operational Research Section, Counter Revolutionary Warfare Wing, and Training Wing. ('Sabre' Squadrons are so called to distinguish the operational squadrons from administrative or HQ squadrons.)

22 SAS Regiment 21 SAS Regiment (Artists) 23 SAS Regiment
'HQ' Squadron (Credenhill) 'HQ' Squadron (Regent's Park) 'HQ' Squadron (Kingstanding)
'A' Squadron 'A' Squadron (Regent's Park) 'B' Squadron (Leeds)
'B' Squadron 'C' Squadron (Basingstoke/Cambridge} 'G' Squadron (Newcastle/Manchester)
'D' Squadron 'E' Squadron (Newport/Exeter) 'D' Squadron (Invergowrie/Hamilton)
'G' Squadron

Each 'Sabre' Squadron of 22 SAS is divided into four 16-man Troops which specialise in a variety of insertion skills (Air Troop, Boat Troop, Mobility Troop, and Mountain Troop).

The Squadrons also rotate through the CRW Wing (originally designated "Pagoda") and is relieved every 6 – 9 months. The squadron is split up into two combined troops, "Red" and "Blue", with each troop made up of an assault group and a sniper team. Though the counter-terrorist teams are based at RHQ in Credenhill, a specialist eight-man team is based within the outer London region (4, south London border & 4, north London border/Hertfordshire). This team rapidly responds to any situation in London as required.

'L' Detachment, formerly 'R' Squadron, is a TA unit comprising former Regular soldiers and assigned to 22 SAS for the provision of casualty replacements or to supplement manning levels for operations. Optionally it also had its own role in the event of limited or general war.

The three regiments have different roles:

  • 21 SAS - to provide depth to the UKSF group through the provision of Individual and collective augmentation to the regular component of UKSF and standalone elements up to task group (Regimental) level focused on support and influence (S&I) operations to assist conflict stabilisation.
  • 22 SAS - Medium and deep battlespace ISTAR and offensive operations, Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW), Counter-Terrorism (CT), close protection and defence diplomacy.
  • 23 SAS - to provide depth to the UKSF group through the provision of Individual and collective augmentation to the regular component of UKSF and standalone elements up to task group (Regimental) level focused on support and influence (S&I) operations to assist conflict stabilisation.

Each TA Squadron and the Honourable Artillery Company, includes attached regular personnel as Permanent Staff Instructors - a ruling established by the then Brigadier Peter de la Billière, as Director SAS, specifying that promotion within the Regiment for any officer or senior NCO would be predicated on experience with the SAS(R).. In the 1980s and 1990s the SAS provided the Commanding Officer and some directing staff for the NATO International Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol School (ILRRPS) based at Weingarten and then Pfullendorf as well as men for the British Army Jungle Warfare Training School in Brunei.

The SAS was formally garrisoned in based at Stirling Lines (formerly Bradbury Lines) , Hereford which was named after the founder of the regiment, Sir David Stirling. The unit has since 1999 been relocated to a former RAF station in Credenhill.

22 SAS Troops

'Sabre' Squadrons in 22 SAS are organised as four specialised Troops, although personnel are broadly skilled in all areas following 'Selection' and 'Continuation' training. The specialised troop provide a focus for particular skillsets and personnel may move between Troops over the length of a career. 21 and 23 SAS do not so distinguish.

Air Troop

Air Troop personnel specialise in airborne insertion from fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft. Leaving the aircraft at high altitude (HALO), personnel are capable of delivering personnel and equipment into the deep battlespace far beyond the forward edge of battle area in support of their ISTAR or offensive operations.

Boat Troop

Boat Troop personnel specialise in water-borne insertion techniques.

Personnel are trained in diving using Open and Closed Circuit breathing systems, learning skills in sub-surface navigation, approaching the shore or vessels underway and the delivery of maritime demolition charges. Much of this training is undertaken with the Special Boat Service.

Once proficient in diving, personnel learn methods of surface infiltration.

Whenever possible, naval warfare tasks are handed over to the SAS sister unit, the SBS

Mobility Troop

Mobility Troop personnel specialise in vehicle insertion techniques, similar to those of the Long Range Desert Group of the Second World War and allows a more sustainable patrol in the medium to deep battlespace but create logistical and force protection challenges.

Mountain Troop

Mountain Troops personnel specialise in the conduct of operations at high altitude and in mountainous terrain, requiring advanced skills in climbing, ice climbing, skiing and cold weather survival. Training is conducted in deserts and mountain ranges around the world. Those members that show particular aptitude are seconded to the German Army where they undertake the 18-month long Alpine Guides course in Bavaria. A number of members from the mountain troops have participated in major military and civilian expeditions to some of the worlds highest peaks although this has not been without loss.

Security, honours and awards

While all military personnel are bound by the Official Secrets Act and undergo vetting, Special Forces personnel are required to undertake a higher level of clearance.

On entry into the regiment personnel are required to limit dissemination of their employment. Anonymity is provided during service and personnel are not required to provide identifying details to police and authorities whilst co-operating. Effectives are entitled to a 24-hour 'warm down' period following offensive action within the United Kingdom, during which they are debriefed. Members are not obliged to provide information to civilian agencies during this period.

Medals awarded to personnel, such as the Military Cross (MC), are publicised in the normal manner and officially and formally via The London Gazette however the individual's original parent Corps or Regiment, if they have such, is attributed as a matter of fact which sometimes provides security cover. The circumstances surrounding personnel killed in action are not routinely disseminated; should this be unavoidable the individual is also usually attributed to their parent Corps or Regiment where this applies. Not all decorations are gazetted. Those that are not gazetted are held as secure records by the Ministry of Defence. Information on un-gazetted decorations prior to a moving dateline, of about thirty years prior, are routinely transferred to the United Kingdom National Archives for public inspection, or are further held back from disclosure if any security considerations or other residual sensitivities are deemed to make this advisable. Before 2006 three officers have been recommended for the VC: two during World War II and one during the Falklands. Only one has been awarded; to Major Anders Frederick Emil Victor Schau Lassen, MC and 2 Bars, killed in Italy in 1945 when he was commanding a squadron of the Special Boat Service. His grave marker bears the badge of the Regiment because the SBS in which he served continued to wear this as their cap badge, and was considered part of the 'SAS family' even though it was a separate regiment, commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel and formed out of the Special Boat Squadron of 1 SAS. Another high ranking SAS officer to be awarded a second MC is now retired living in Wilmington, North Carolina, USA.

Following a number of high-profile book releases about the Regiment, candidates for selection are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, in addition to their duties under the Official Secrets Act. Former members may not release details of their employment within the organisation without prior consent. Ex-members of the Regiment who wrote exposés prior to the introduction of the agreement have used pseudonyms, such as Andy McNab and Chris Ryan. Books in the genre include both non-fiction and fictional accounts based on the experiences of the author.

The British Government has a standing policy of not discussing the SAS or its operations and makes few official announcements concerning their activities. When reports of military operations are given there is usually no mention of SAS, or other Special Forces, involvement. Since the inception of the British 'D' Notice system for the British Press during World War II any mention of the Special Air Service has been one of the cautionary or non-disclosure categories of reporting.


The SAS, like every other British regiment, has its own distinctive insignia.

  • The Cap badge is a downward pointing flaming sword worked in cloth of a Crusader shield was designed by Corporal Robert 'Bob' Tait MM and Bar London Scottish with the motto Who Dares, Wins. It was finally approved by the first Commanding Officer, David Stirling, with the proposed wording 'Descend to Defend' or 'Strike and Destroy' disallowed, following the usual British Army practice of a competition to design a cap badge for the new unit held after the completion of Operation Crusader by the 8th Army. The sword depicted is King Arthur's Excalibur (references to it as the Sword of Damocles derive from an article originally published in the Mars and Minerva, the Regimental Journal written by a highly respected veteran of both British Regiments and the post-war re-raised Regiment. He was subsequently proved to be incorrect, but the story was picked up by the media and still gets repeated.), worked in the light and dark blue colours of the original No. 11 SAS Battalion. This was converted to a Roman pattern gladius when the design was made up by the tailors in Cairo. This badge is now sometimes incorrectly termed the winged dagger due to subsequent wartime misattribution of its significance and the mistaken reference to it as this in the book of that name by Roy Farran who served in 2 SAS.
  • The sand-coloured beret. When the SAS was reformed in 1947 an attempt was made to match the original sand coloured cloth beret from those still in the possession of veterans. This proved impossible to do from existing approved cloth colour stocks held by the British authorities, so, as a compromise and with no authorisation for expenditure on a new colour dye the nearest acceptable colour was selected and approved by an all ranks committee of the Regimental Association. Personnel attached to the Regiment also wear this beret but with their own badges in accordance with usual British practice.
  • The SAS pattern parachute wings were designed by Lieutenant Jock Lewes and based on the basic British Army design approved in 1940 but modified to reflect the Middle East origins of the new unit by the substitution of the stylised sacred Ibis wings of Isis of Egyptian iconography depicted in the décor of Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo.

Battle honours

Note that these officially sanctioned honours, first published in 1957, are for actions by the original 'L' Detachment, both numbered World War II British SAS regiments as well as the Special Boat Service regiment and the present regiment. The World War II honours Benghazi Raid, 1942 and Middle East, 1943-1944 are unique to the regiment. The odd dating for North Africa, 1940-43 is due to the fact that this is an omnibus theatre honour for units serving between these dates.

Order of Precedence

The SAS is classed as an infantry regiment, and as such is shown in the infantry order of precedence. However, because of its role, it is listed 'next below' the other designations (foot guards, line infantry, rifles). The expression 'next below' is utilised in British official publications as a form of 'grace note' to avoid the connotations of first/last since, in spirit at least, no Regiment admits of the claim to being last and all are deemed equal in the scope of their service under the Crown in Parliament.

The current units are shown officially as 21st, 22nd and 23rd Regiments but are styled 'Two-One', 'Two-Two' and 'Two-Three' and written, in short form, as 21 SAS, 22 SAS and 23 SAS. The number sequence derives from the 1944 re-formation of the regiments as a component, second-battalion, Regiment of the Army Air Corps which then consisted of three Regiments: The Glider Pilot Regiment (Only ever of three battalions), Parachute Regiment (Of many battalions, sequentially numbered from 1 upwards, with a separate sequence of numbers from 100 for battalions raised outside the United Kingdom) and SAS. 1 SAS was re-raised as 3 SAS, a decision subsequently rescinded by the War Office, giving 1st and 2nd battalions, Special Air Service Regiment, Army Air Corps. On re-formation it was appreciated that 3 SAS, 4 SAS and 5 SAS had been used to designate the French and Belgian regiments and that combining 1 and 2 as 'Twelve' or 'Twelfth' gave a hard-to-pronounce name and would automatically give the number 13 to the next raised unit (plus confusion with existing 12th Parachute Brigade ) so the identity proposed by the Regimental Association and actually adopted was 'Twenty-One', i.e., the numbers of the British units, reversed.


List of former members

See also


Files available to public scrutiny at The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom

[N]Statistics, life events and other data derived and calculated from officially published UK sources: Army List: Army Council Instructions: Army Orders; Middle East Forces Orders; Commonwealth War Graves Register; Prisoners of War of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth; Public Record Office (now The National Archives) conventionally published histories and digital records now available online.

External links

Sources/Further Information

  • ''Stirling's Men: the inside history of the SAS in World War Two by Gavin Mortimer (Cassell, 2004)
  • The SAS by Philip Warner (1981 and 1982 editions). History of the regiment, commissioned by the Regimental Association
  • Special Forces in the desert war, 1940-1943 Public Record Office War Histories 2001 [Derived from PRO (now TNA) files CAB 44/151 and 152 written by Brigadier H W Wynter, DSO (late Royal Artillery) for the Historical Section of the War Cabinet Office
  • David Stirling: The authorised biography, by Spike Hoe
  • Jock Lewes: Co-Founder of the SAS, by John Lewes
  • The SAS - Savage Wars of Peace - 1947 to the Present, by Anthony Kemp (1994: Penguin Books)
  • Ambush: The War Between The SAS and The IRA, by James Adams, Robin Morgan and Anthony Bambridge (Pan, London: 1988)
  • The Originals, by Gordon Stevens, 2005. ("The secret history of the birth of the SAS in their own words")
  • The Special Air Service, by James G. Shortt (1981: Osprey Men-at-Arms series 116) ISBN 0 85045 396 8
  • British Special Forces 1945 to the present, by James G. Shortt (1981: Arms & Armour Press 1986) ISBN 0 85368 785 4
  • Fighters over the desert, by Ring and Shores
  • Snakes in the Eagles Nest: A RAND study
  • Battle honours of the British Empire and Commonwealth land forces, 1662-1991 by Alexander Rodger
  • The Phantom Major, by Virginia Cowles
  • Files held for public inspection by the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

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