The Australian Special Air Service Regiment has been around for 55 years, but back when the unit was originally raised on July 25th 1957, it was known as 1st Special Air Service Company of the Royal Australian Infantry. Then in the early 60’s it became part of the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), which allowed the unit to expand and be redesignated to the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR).
SAS Motto- ‘Who dares wins’
Based in Perth, Western Australia, ranks wore maroon berets that are issued to airborne forces and the cap badge of the Royal Australian Infantry. When the unit’s designation changed so did the cap badge to that of the Royal Australian Regiment. It wasn’t until the mid 60’s that the unit was given permission for its qualified personnel to wear the sandy beret with a metal “Winged Dagger” cap badge on a black background.
The unit is modeled from a similar structure to that of Britain’s 22 SAS with a primary role of special reconnaissance and secondly being a harassment force. Training in the early days was developed on the traditions of the Australian World War 2 Commandos from ‘Z’ Force and the Independent Companies.
These units had worked extensively in Papua New Guinea, Timor and other areas of the South Pacific where they were almost totally self sufficient whilst winning Hearts & Minds with the local inhabitants and fighting the Japanese.
In February 1965 the unit was deployed to Borneo to work alongside the British SAS and SBS, and also New Zealand and Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) SAS to conduct covert operations against Indonesian communists. 22 SAS had been there since 1963 living for long durations with limited resupply in small jungle Forward Operating Base’s (FOB’s) that they had developed themselves.
These extended stays were on average three months in duration, so their jungle combat and survival skills became impeccable. This knowledge and experience stood the operators of SASR in good stead for their next deployment which was to be Vietnam in June 1966.
Pre-deployment training for Vietnam was conducted in Papua New Guinea with the aim to hone jungle skills, acclimatize to a tropical environment but more so for each patrol member to bond. Operators had to become acutely familiar with one another’s skills and idiosyncrasies to the point where they almost knew what each member was thinking.
The role of the SAS in Vietnam started similar to that of their deployment to Borneo which was intelligence gathering and deep reconnaissance. But this quickly morphed in to a more offensive style of operations and ambushing became the bread and butter of the Regiment.
On average, each squadron 12 month rotation accounted for between 83-151 enemy KIA’s. Probably not a dent on U.S. enemy casualties per year but take into account the size of each squadron and the intense patrolling program they ran with. Operator numbers were usually up around 120 and this was with New Zealand SAS attachments, this gave the squadron 24 x 5 man patrols. Patrols per year numbered between 230-245 in areas such as Phouc Tuy, Bien Hoa, Long Khanh, and Binh Tuy provinces.
During their time in Vietnam, SAS patrols had such an impact on the VC that it was reported that a bounty dead or alive of $5,000U.S was placed on the head for each ‘Ma Rung’ – Phantoms of the Jungle. In the 6 years that the Australian SAS fought in Vietnam only one operator was killed by enemy fire: he was wounded but later died in hospital in Australia due to complications.
At the end of Australia’s Vietnam War, SASR was at a “loose end” so to speak. But following the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in 1978 in Sydney, where 12 foreign leaders were staying due to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting, talks began about raising a domestic Counter Terrorism capability (TAG).
In 1980 training was in full swing to develop a range of responses to terrorism within Australia and its controlled waters. These included the capabilities to board ships, alongside and underway, oil platforms and hostage rescue.
The Regiment still maintains Tactical Assault Group West (TAG West) but the primary domestic role was handed over to the Australian Commandos early last decade leaving SASR with the responsibility for special recovery operations overseas.
In 1998 1 squadron, along with a troop of New Zealand SAS, deployed to Kuwait in preparations for Operation Desert Thunder, which was to be the second Gulf War, but the crisis was resolved peacefully without them having to cross the border.
Then in September 1999 the regiment was deployed to East Timor as political violence was spiraling out of control.
East Timor had been under the brutal control of the Indonesian Military for 25 years. Independence supporters were subjected to persistent violence from Pro-Indonesian militia groups, and then violence escalated after an overwhelming vote on their political future. Indonesian soldiers and police joined the armed militias in such a deadly campaign that it shocked world leaders.
Each of the 3 Squadrons rotated through Timor until they became involved in the global war on terror (GWOT) after September 11. During Operation Anaconda, SASR were based in Bagram and frequently participated in combined U.S. and Australian SF Op’s.
The Regiment was withdrawn from Afghanistan in 2002 and then in 2003 1 Squadron was deployed to Western Iraq to assist in ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’. 1 Squadron wasn’t replaced but elements of SASR have deployed to the region since to assist in VIP protection and strategical planning for the recovery of Australian hostages.
The Regiment was re-deployed to Afghanistan in 05, where they have been conducting operations since then. Originally we conducted lengthy vehicle mounted operations projecting ourselves as far as 90kms from our FOB, Camp Russell. We had the ability to maintain a presence of 2 troops in the field for months at a time if push came to shove, but generally that term was in the vicinity of 3-5 weeks, resupplying from U.S. Chinooks flanked by Apache gunships.
We began to draw down our vehicle mounted operations in 07 due to a spike in IED incidents and concentrated our efforts on ‘Kill or Capture’ missions of Taliban hierarchy.
In the background small numbers are continually being deployed on Peacekeeping missions in a variety of monitoring roles, some of these have been in Rhodesia, Somalia, Rwanda, Papua New Guinea, Sudan and Sinai. I know it’s not war fighting but these do develop situational awareness and improve relationships with allies.
By Rob Maylor, the author of Sniper Elite.