The Cult of the SAS Is About Britain’s Imperial Delusions

The British media still glorifies the SAS despite revelations about its involvement in war crimes in Afghanistan. There’s a yawning gulf between the force’s macho public image and its true role as a brutal accessory for Britain’s imperial adventures.

The Special Air Service carrying out a weapons test in 1981. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

This summer, a BBC documentary revealed that a unit of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) had summarily executed more than fifty Afghans over a six-month period in 2010–11. This came as something of a shock to many people. The Ministry of Defence accused the BBC of putting frontline troops at risk, and right-wing newspapers claimed that the story was just an example of unpatriotic left-wing smears and propaganda.

In fact, it would have been a much greater cause for surprise if there had been no shootings of unarmed prisoners or suspects. In the real world, such methods are a routine part of British and US counterinsurgency operations. Indeed, it is safe to assume that such shootings are taking place whether or not hard evidence comes to the surface. This is simply what they do.

However, many people in Britain find the idea of the SAS committing such crimes unthinkable, regardless of the evidence, because its soldiers have become a symbol of Britishness, embodying all the British military virtues that are said to have made the country great and enabled it to conquer much of the world.

This celebration of the SAS was at its peak during the years when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Even today, after humiliating defeats fighting in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the subsequent running down of the British Army as part of David Cameron’s austerity program, the SAS is still seen as representing the very best of Britain. Celebration of the regiment is already beginning to revive despite the exposure of the Afghan atrocities.

Myth and Reality

What is the reality behind the myth of the SAS? The regiment was first established in North Africa during World War II. It had peculiarly British origins, being very much a product of the country’s class system. Because of his posh family connections, a young lieutenant called David Stirling was authorized to establish his very own unit to conduct raids behind German lines.

While there can be no doubting the courage of those involved in the operations that the new unit carried out, there can also be no doubt that propaganda reports greatly exaggerated the military importance of these operations, along with the prowess of Stirling himself. One historian of the SAS, Gavin Mortimer, published Stirling’s Men, a somewhat conventional celebration of the great man, in 2004. However, he has now revised his opinions, publishing a new book earlier this year, David Stirling: The Phony Major, which is a determined demolition of Stirling’s reputation.

The SAS took part in the fighting that liberated Western Europe from Nazi occupation, with its members once again often displaying great courage, although the military importance of their activities was as usual routinely overstated. Their operations had a romantic, daredevil dimension that lent itself to wartime public relations (or propaganda as it was then called).

Such material conveyed an image of young officers from a public school background leading grateful working-class soldiers in exciting adventures to defend their country and freedom itself — albeit an understanding of “freedom” that was very much bound up with privilege, inequality, and hierarchy.

This was the version of the war that the British government liked to propagate. The harsh realities of aerial bombardment of German cities and the massive clash of mechanized armies, with thousands upon thousands of casualties, could be effectively displaced by tales of buccaneering heroes operating behind enemy lines, winning the war by their daring exploits.

From Liberation to Counterinsurgency

At this time, there was some substance to the romantic image. It is worth remembering one particular episode that took place during the liberation of France.

In August 1944, two SAS vehicles, both heavily armed, drove into the village of Les Ormes, where the SS were executing twenty hostages. They took the SS by surprise, killing or wounding sixty of them, allowing eighteen of the hostages to escape. One SAS soldier, Lance Corporal James Hall, was killed, and his heroism is still memorialized in the village.

This was an example of the SAS playing a part in the liberation of Europe, often fighting alongside the resistance, including Communist resistance fighters. In Italy, the soldiers even joined the partisans in singing the anthem “Bandiera Rossa”! However, before the struggle against Nazism had even come to an end, the postwar counterrevolutionary role of the SAS was already in evidence.

British Special Forces took part in the fighting against the Communist-led Greek resistance when Winston Churchill intervened to restore the monarchy in December 1944. This was a brutal, bloody campaign that saw the British military deploy over fifty thousand troops, bomb and shell Athens, and rearm the Greek National Guard, which had collaborated with the German occupation.

Once the war ended, the British government no longer considered the SAS useful and disbanded it. However, it was re-formed in August 1950 to assist in the suppression of the Communist insurgency that was threatening to make the British position in Malaya untenable.

Defending the Empire

While the postwar Labour government had withdrawn from India and Burma, well aware that Britain did not have the necessary resources to suppress rebellion in those two countries, it was determined to hold onto the rest of the Empire, and Malaya in particular. Indeed, under Labour rule, the economic exploitation of Britain’s remaining imperial possessions was ruthlessly intensified. Malayan rubber and tin were the Empire’s principal dollar earner at this time.

It was this decision to deny Malaya self-determination and intensify exploitation of the colony’s resources, with the repression it entailed, that provoked the Communist revolt. What defeated the insurgency was the creation of a ruthless police state, together with a brutal “resettlement” program. Some five hundred thousand people, overwhelmingly of Chinese extraction, had their homes destroyed before they were effectively interned in heavily guarded new villages to prevent them from aiding the Communist guerrillas. The use of torture and the summary execution of prisoners and suspects were an inevitable accompaniment of this policy.

The SAS was re-formed to help hunt down the guerrillas hiding out in the Malayan jungle. Cheerleaders of the force subsequently claimed that it was the SAS that had defeated the Communists, but this was nonsense. The Communists were defeated by mass resettlement and police-state methods, which worked in Malaya because their support was largely confined to the Chinese minority and because they had no access to outside assistance, in particular weapons.

As for the SAS, of the 6,398 guerrillas killed by the British forces, only 108 fell victim to the SAS. We can see an early example here of conventional forces growing bitter about what they perceived as the SAS very deliberately trying to claim all the glory of success. This has been a feature of every campaign the SAS has subsequently been involved in.

Crushing the Omani Revolution

The SAS was deployed in Oman toward the end of 1957, aiding in the suppression of a tribal revolt against the reactionary Sultan Said bin Taimur. British imperialism propped up a brutal slave-owning Omani regime that routinely tortured its opponents.

According to the regiment’s admirers, the SAS role was crucial. They “stormed” the rebel stronghold, the Jebel Akhdar, held by some six hundred poorly armed fighters, losing three men in the process. This version of events downplayed or ignored the bombardment of the plateau by heavy bombers dropping thousand-pound bombs — over a thousand tons of explosives in total — and fighter aircraft firing rockets at anything that moved. The commander of the sultan’s army, David Smiley, complained about the way the SAS received all the credit for the defeat of the rebellion at the expense of those who had done most of the fighting.

It was this operation that is generally credited with safeguarding the future of the regiment and preventing its disbandment. As one SAS commander observed, in Oman, the SAS had shown that its soldiers could be flown into “a trouble spot rapidly and discreetly” and operate “without publicity.” This was, he noted, “a capability much valued by the Conservative government of the day.” And not just Conservative governments.

The SAS later returned to Oman after Britain replaced the sultan with his more pliable playboy son, Qaboos bin Taimur. What prompted this palace coup was a left-wing insurgency led by the People’s Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) in Dhofar province. The eventual defeat of this insurgency is generally celebrated as the most important SAS military success. The siege of Mirbat in July 1972, a five-hour battle in which the SAS suffered two fatalities, became a vital part of SAS mythology.

Once again, such accounts wildly exaggerate the importance of the Mirbat engagement, presenting it as an example of British character and prowess in action as well as a supposed turning point in the campaign. What finally defeated the insurgents by the end of 1976 was the overwhelming scale of the forces mobilized against them, which included troops from Iran and Jordan as well as British forces.

As in Malaya, police-state methods played a vital role, and it is also worth noting that the British-backed counterinsurgency made use of reactionary Islamism against a left-wing challenge. This war was all about oil, as the PFLOAG represented a threat to the backward, Western-backed monarchies that dominated the Arabian Peninsula (and still do today).

“Who Dares Wins”

While the exploits of the SAS during World War II have received generous publicity, the same cannot be said for much of what the SAS was involved in after 1945 — for example, its exploits in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. However, after Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she self-consciously embraced militarism, with the mythology of the SAS placed firmly in the spotlight.

The crucial event here was the storming of the Iranian Embassy in London by SAS members on May 5, 1980. Six members of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan had occupied the embassy and taken hostages. The SAS very publicly freed the captives, killing five of the hostage-takers in the process. Thatcher’s government and the SAS itself exploited the publicity generated by this episode on a massive scale.

It unleashed a deluge of books about the SAS, including memoirs, training and survival manuals, and novels. During the 1980s, the SAS became a significant cultural phenomenon, symbolizing for many people what Britain was all about. As the Conservative defense secretary Michael Portillo boasted at his party’s conference in 1995: “Three letters send a chill down the spine of the enemy: SAS.” According to Portillo, the message spelled out by those letters was simple: “Don’t mess with Britain.”

The 1982 Falklands War strengthened Thatcher’s embrace of militarism and enabled her to win the following year’s general election, paving the way for her massive assault on the coal miners’ union (“the enemy within” as she described its members). It also contributed to the hard-line stance she took in Northern Ireland, which arguably prolonged that conflict by a decade.

The SAS were, of course, heavily involved in the war with the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) — indeed, Thatcher pretty much gave them a free hand. Most notoriously, on March 6, 1988, the SAS shot dead — in effect publicly executed — three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar, provoking a cycle of violence that cost another five lives at subsequent funerals held in Belfast.

Thatcher also sent the SAS to provide covert training for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, assisting them in their war with Vietnam. Questioned on her policy of support for Pol Pot’s notorious movement, she famously insisted on a BBC children’s program that she was only assisting “the much more reasonable” elements within the Khmer Rouge. The British undertook this role on behalf of the United States simply because the British House of Commons would swallow what the US Congress wouldn’t.

Unreality TV

After Thatcher’s downfall, the SAS retreated into the shadows during the years of Tony Blair’s New Labour government. The torrent of memoirs came to a halt and publicity about the regiment’s activities was scaled back.

One reason for this was certainly the involvement of the SAS in providing training and assistance for many regimes that British governments would not wish to be too openly associated with. Another was the increasing involvement of former SAS members with private military companies — that is, with some of the many mercenary outfits that have proliferated since the Iraq War. The British government makes covert use of these companies which constitute a standing threat to democratic governments throughout the world.

The humiliating defeats suffered by the British military in assisting the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan also made a playing down of militarism necessary. Even today, the great majority of people in Britain have no idea of the scale of these defeats, with British forces driven out of Basra in Iraq and having to be rescued by US forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

British media outlets simply lied about these wars and still do, to the extent that most people think the occupation of Afghanistan was intended to protect women’s rights rather than to maintain in power one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Nevertheless, the celebration of British military prowess was difficult in these circumstances. However, that is beginning to change in the wake of the war in Ukraine.

British military prowess is once again being championed and we are seeing a revival of the cult of the SAS. There is already a popular TV series called Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins. It is hardly realistic, of course, since contestants are not required to shoot prisoners. The BBC has also produced a new TV series celebrating the founding of the SAS and its early exploits, SAS: Rogue Heroes, soon to be broadcast in both Britain and the United States.

The public image of the SAS has thus become a reliable litmus test for the strength of militarism in British culture. Its image among those who have been unlucky enough to experience its record at first hand is a very different matter, of course.