To be eligible for selection you must first pass a 3 day barrier or pre-selection course that involves a series of written tests, navigation, fitness, confidence activities, memory tests and a timed pack march.
Once on SAS selection the duration is 21 days of never knowing what is around the corner. This in itself is enough to screw with some soldiers’ minds that generates doubt, quickly leading them to talking themselves into voluntary withdrawing from the selection process.
Numbers attending differ from year to year which can be anything from 140-170 candidates, most of these drop out within the first week! I wish I knew what was going on in some of these blokes minds when they turn up for selection unprepared. I’m sure they think it is going to be easy!!
A very strict and clear line is drawn in the sand from day one: step outside of those parameters and you’re off the course and RTU’d (returned to unit). This does help the course move along smoothly from a staff point of view but it also puts deliberate added pressure onto the candidates.
Course content does vary every year to prevent soldiers from becoming too familiar with the daily schedule and activities that would give them a psychological advantage.
During my course day 1 started with stores issue, kit check and paperwork formalities. Because everyone is so amped with anticipation no one gets any sleep…apart from the snorers!!
At an early hour in the morning you are woken by the deafening buzz of lights turned on and shouting, very few can understand what exactly is going on at that stage. So everyone is scrambling for socks and boots. In complete darkness we started with a timed 15km pack walk carrying 30 kilos.
Once at our destination and for the next two days we conducted lessons on obscure bits of kit, 1st aid, signals, foreign weapons, different languages, had pressure interviews, etc., that went late into the night.
We had PT twice a day, first thing in the morning and whenever we needed a wakeup call. If someone screwed up during the course of the day or night then we all suffered the physical exercise punishment.
At 0200hrs on the 3rd night we had a surprise weapons inspection that resulted in an absolute killer of a PT session. We did somewhere in the vicinity of 350 push ups and squats – the squats were used as rest in between push ups. No one got any sleep that night.
The next phase was an individual four day navigation exercise, and at each checkpoint we had to conduct an activity from the previous day’s lessons. The distance between each checkpoint varied in length between 3km to 8km.
Your choice whether you continued walking at night or pulled up a bush for some sleep, I slept, occasionally woken by a candidate crashing and stumbling his way past my LUP. We carried all rations and field equipment and resupplied with water regularly, which was spot checked to make sure that you were carrying the required amount of water. The 30 kilo pack was now 35.
I did my selection course in summer where on average the daily temperature was 35 degree Celsius (95 degree Fahrenheit). At one stage the temp rose to 42 degree Celsius (107.6 degree Fahrenheit) for two days on the trot. At night temperatures dropped quite considerably.
During this navigation phase the training staff is able to get a very good idea of who they want. You will always get your surprise packages throughout the course – these are soldiers that have a slow start but just seem to keep growing with every challenge.
At the end of the navigation phase we all met at the urban range complex where a series of activities were in place for the day resembling a high ropes course.
The activity we feared the most was a traverse on 11mm rope between two towers, 30 meters high and 60 meters long. Other activities included caving ladders, abseiling, 90 foot vertical rope ascent using mechanical ascenders and crawling through pitch black tunnels over dead Kangaroo carcasses……which were rotten and stinking!
On completion of the activities we got straight into a pole circuit that seemed to go forever. Each meter long steel bar weighed 15 kilos, not much I know, but try keeping that bar in continuous motion for an hour and a half.
At the end of the pole circuit we went straight into a webbing run (web gear and rifle) along a rough gravel road, 10km of pain and lung burn. It was no normal jog either, these bastards had us stopping at the bottom of each hill to conduct sprint races. It didn’t matter how fit you were at the time, everyone was in the hurt locker.
That night was a 35km speed march with webbing and rifle in sections (squads). There were five activities along the way, all quite difficult. If an activity wasn’t finished in time you were given bricks to carry. The more activities you failed the more bricks you had. The incentive was the faster you completed the 35kms and activities the more sleep you got.
I was fortunate enough to be a member of the team that came in first – we got 2 hours sleep. Some sections were still getting back on day break.
This next activity almost broke me. Not long after the last section got in we had to conduct a 5km stretcher carry. Each stretcher weighed approximately 90 kilos. The run was a blistering pace controlled by the training staff – it was also a race. Each section started with eight blokes and in the first kilometer our section was down to five, which made it extremely hard to rotate blokes off each handle of the stretcher for a rest. We lost the fourth shortly after. This was probably the hardest thing I have done in my life!!
Some of the other sections lost too many so the remaining guys joined other sections.
We were now half way through the course and preparing to move to the coast for the next phase, a 165km individual navigation exercise. Because you only have a limited amount of time to complete the course there are no activities.
On arrival it was dark and we were quickly herded onto a large boat and taken 1km offshore. We were handed a set of fins and an RFD and told to make our own way back to the beach using the chem lights as markers.
Early the next morning we started the nav-ex. This phase gave me a good opportunity to recuperate as my nav was good and I was ok at carrying a pack over distance. I was in my sleeping bag on last light and walking just after first light, and still managed to complete the course in four days. My good friend and Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith finished it 3 days!
The area that we were using was infested with ticks, which kept the medics busy everytime someone came in. These little buggers attached themselves to your armpits, elbow joints, backs of knees and around your waist.
The next move was back to where we originally started selection to conduct more activities to assess your infantry knowledge and skills.
Lucky dip was the final phase of selection and was based around pushing you to breaking point, assessing your courage and determination, your ability to be a leader, a team player and ability to think under stress for four and a half days.
During this phase we were only given one small meal, which was a boiled pigs head on a bed of bloodied cous-cous at the end of day 3. Sleep deprivation was also part of this phase only allowing us 4 hours sleep a night, if you can call it that.
The equipment carries were tough and lasted 10-12 hours. That really tested a person’s character and team integrity. Some of the stores we had to move were tank tracks, a trailer that was missing a wheel with a half full water bladder inside, and a Zodiac minus engine. All completed carrying pack and rifle through the rugged Australian bush.
At night there are activities designed to keep you awake and test your personality to see if any bad traits like selfishness and anger issues showed through. But you don’t tend to lose many blokes during this phase – most are removed due to injury.
Australian SAS compound Afghanistan 2002: Courtesy Brandon Webb’s personal collection.
On the last morning we didn’t know that SAS selection was just about to end, but I do remember we all knew something was different, and that raised our spirits. After a 5km speed march we turned a corner and saw the trucks in the distance, only to see them drive off and disappear slowly over a crest. This was the final test which no one bought into, and just as we crested the hill we started to see the canopy of the truck…….’F#%K YEAH’ I thought.
Back at the hanger, selection over, the cooks had prepared a feast, but because our stomachs were now the size of an apple most of that food went to waste. Ironic isn’t it, all you’ve done for the last three weeks is crave food and now there’s enough on offer to feed a small country you can’t eat it!
Rob Maylor served in the Royal Marines and the Austrian Special Air Service. His tours of duty included Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, and East Timor. An accomplished military sniper, Rob is also the author of Sniper Elite.
(Featured Image: Ian Coate’s Art)