The U.K.’s Special Air Service needs no introduction to anyone remotely interested in military history or Special Operations. However, there is much more to learn about this elite unit when one traces its existence and influence across the once global British Empire. Much of the power of the Brits was derived from their colonies and their stock of available military recruits. Australia and New Zealand have kept the title of the SAS for their elite units.
After the end of the Second World War, the British government saw no further use for the unit and disbanded it in October 1945. Within a year of that decision, a reversal was made and the SAS was resurrected. They drew soldiers from the Territorial Army and continued training for future conflicts on the horizon. In 1950, Britain committed to helping the UN to stop communist aggression on the Korean Peninsula. After three months of preparation, 21 SAS was given orders to Korea. During this same period, another problem arose in Malaya, which was administered by the British. The problem perfectly suited the Unit’s capabilities.
In 1948, communist guerillas began attacking British infrastructure and challenging British rule. These insurgents were a reconstituted arm of the local units that the British had trained to fight Japanese occupiers in WWII. The terrain and tactics of the guerillas were difficult to counter with conventional forces. Sabotage and hit and run operations began against the transportation system and the lucrative rubber plantations that were vital to Britain. The guerillas would come from the impenetrable jungle and disappear back into it.
The British had learned many valuable lessons in jungle warfare while fighting the Japanese in South East Asia. This training and experience still lived on in the commanders of the Malayan detachment. With forces being committed to the Korean conflict and the need for manpower worldwide, it was decided to make a recruiting drive for men in the colonies to try out for the SAS. So troops were raised to fill A Squadron and B Squadron, mainly from experienced British Territorials who had geared up for wartime deployment to Korea.
These forces would form the Malayan Scouts (the forefathers of the modern SAS) whose primary mission would be reconnaissance and the interdiction of the Communist Terrorists (CTs) along their known supply routes. It was a steep learning curve for the two squadrons and jungle illnesses took a brutal toll.
In 1951, Major “Mad Mike” Calvert, the expedition’s commanding officer, decided to take a trip to the far-away African colony of Rhodesia. Rhodesia had contributed greatly in proportion to its population in WWII and a few Rhodesians had served in the SAS. Rhodesian lads, who had felt that they had missed their chance to fight for the Crown due to their youth during the war, applied in droves. This caused quite a stir and the applications were capped at 1,000. These 1,000 applicants were carefully screened and 100 men were chosen to be a part of the Malayan Scouts and the resurrected SAS.
Once they were chosen they were trained by two Rhodesian veterans of World War Two, Lt. Peter Walls and Lt. Ron Campbell-Morrison. Both were combat experienced and were expected to be replaced by a British commander once in-country. With great fanfare and a crowd of 3,000 people in Salisbury, the 100 were sent off to war. Upon arrival in the harsh jungle environment, they were faced with the reality of a hard-bitten counterinsurgency campaign. The Rhodesians would be C Squadron, the unit designation that would stick with them far into the future.
Their reception was none too friendly and the men of A Squadron made an impression on the Rhodesian recruits. Yet, being highly motivated and unspoiled they remained hearty and willing to get on with the mission at hand.
As a small self-contained and isolated unit is sometimes prone to, there were disciplinary problems among A squadron. While the Rhodesians did a six-week workup, discipline was restored among the other men and several of them were sent packing. After the training course in the country, it was decided that the Rhodesians would not be split up nor have a British commander. Peter Walls would command C Squadron for the duration of the deployment. During the Bush War, Lt. Walls would later become the Combined Operations Commander for the Rhodesian Army.
The young lads had been chosen for their background and ability to work with a team in a harsh environment. Rhodesia was a breeding place for excellent soldiers. Many of the men had grown up hunting and tracking. Tracking in Africa was an essential skill that could not be learned overnight. But they found themselves having to learn to operate in the jungle instead of an open, sunlit battlespace. In the Rhodesian bush, the sun would light the tracks and give the tracker information by the shadows created. This made it easier to spot spoor, making for a quick assessment and pursuit. Among the men was a youngster by the name of Ron Reid-Daly. His upcoming learning experience would eventually help revolutionize counterinsurgency warfare with the formation of the Selous Scouts in the Bush War.
The canopy of the jungle blocked the sunlight causing the men to look for different spoor than they were accustomed to. The floor of the jungle was full of rotting vegetation and oftentimes the bush was so thick that machetes had to be used to move forward. The vegetation was as much their adversary as the CTs were.
Here, the lessons of Guerilla Warfare were born for the Rhodesians. This war would not allow for the entire squadron to hack through the jungle in open pursuit of the enemy. To do so would invite ambush and death. Small unit tactics were refined to a razor’s edge. Operating in small groups from a four- to a 14-man patrol was the norm. The conventional doctrine taught that soldiers could operate for a maximum of seven days in the jungle. Yet, the SAS had other plans.
The enemies were not large in number but their control of the jungle allowed them to overcome a pursuing army. C Squadron’s job was to find the CTs, take their safe havens away, and then drive them out of the bush into the hands of more conventional army units. This took patience and resolve. The SAS would often spend weeks at a time tracking and piecing together the intelligence that they developed. The helicopter, a new tactical tool, allowed the men to be inserted deep into enemy-held territory and hunt their prey.
Typically, a team would insert into an area believed to be home to a band of CTs and plot out the areas to recon, methodically searching behind every bush for information that would lead them to their objective. A base camp would be set up and from there, men would be sent in four distinct directions to create a 360-degree search area. This might go on for days or weeks until they would find a trail or a camp. Once the enemy was located, they would devise an ambush plan. It was rare to make an outright assault due to the small number of operators. Their training in Navigation, Patrolling, Snap Shooting, and Ambush was being implemented with an ever-growing proficiency.
The fresh-faced lads that arrived in 1951 turned into Men of War, Jungle Fighters, and Soldiers of the Elite C Squadron of the SAS. Their reputation as solid SAS men grew among the British. For nearly two years the valiant “100” navigated, patrolled, and battled communist aggression in Malaya.
Due to their skill, patience, and fortitude, they returned home in 1953 after nearly two years of combat with only three KIA. For his leadership in a merciless environment, Lt. Walls received the MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. More important than any medals or accolades that the British gave them was the fact that a foundation was created whereon Rhodesia could build an elite unit on par with the rest of the world. The unit was to battle the storm that was on the horizon in an increasingly Post-Colonial Africa.
Book suggestion on The Rhodesian SAS:
A Handful of Hard Men: The SAS and the Battle for Rhodesia
Rhodesian SAS Combat Manual
Shadows of a Forgotten Past: To the Edge with the Rhodesian SAS and Selous Scouts