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Special Air Service

Page Created
May 6th, 2022
Last Updated
November 11th, 2023
British Flag
Additional Information
Special Air Service
Order of Battle

Badge of the Special Air Service
Who Dares Wins
July 1941
October 8th, 1945
Theater of Operations
North Africa
* Egypt
* Libya
* Italy
* Greece
Western Europe
* France
* The Netherlands
* Germany
You might consider the foundation of the Special Air Service (SAS) as one big coincidence. It all starts on May 20th, 1941, when the Germans perform the first coordinated parachute and glider attack on the island of Crete. This airborne assault makes the British realise that airborne troops can be used to land a large body of troops and equipment in hard-to-reach places to seize tactical objectives. Until then, the British focus on a more commando-like approach in the use of paratroopers. They decide to form two Parachute Brigades, one to be raised in Great Britain and the other in India. To facilitate the formation of the Parachute Brigade in India, Type X parachutes are shipped to the area.

Jock Lewes
Jock Lewes

However, fifty of these parachutes end up in Alexandria, in the hands of Jock Lewes, a member of No. 8 Commando. This commando is part of the Commando Brigade known as “Layforce,” under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Laycock. Layforce consists of No. 7 Commando, No. 9 Commando, No. 11 Commando, and the Special Boat Section of No. 8 Commando. The Brigade is created to support troops in North Africa with special operations. Unfortunately, General Headquarters Middle East lacks the ships to support any seaborne assaults of the Brigade.

Major-General Sir Robert Edward Laycock
Major-General Sir Robert Edward Laycock, Chief of Combined Operations in 1943

Another young officer from No. 8 Commando, known now as David Stirling, like Jock Lewes, is also playing with the idea of airborne insertions instead of seaborne. So when Jock Lewes comes up with the misplaced parachutes and has permission from Lieutenant-Colonel Laycock to start experimenting with them, Stirling is among the first to enter the program. In June 1941, a total of eight men from No. 8 Commando start parachute training at Mersa Matruh Airfield in Egypt. Lewes also gets hold of an old Valencia bomber. The biggest problem the group faces is that there is no parachute training center in the Middle East and none of them are parachute trained or qualified. Accidents are therefore waiting to happen. Unfortunately, the Vickers Type 264 Valentia they use has been converted to a mail plane. The aircraft lacks the proper rigging for fixed line parachutes. Undeterred, they tie them to the seats instead and jump anyway. For the first few jumpers, things go well, but Stirling’s parachute snags on the tailfin of the plane. This sends him plummeting to earth significantly faster than intended. Not much later, David Stirling is lying in the Scottish Military Hospital in Alexandria with temporary paralysis of both legs due to a spine injury.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Archibald David Stirling
Major Archibald David Stirling, founder and first Commander of the Special Air Service

During his time in the hospital, Stirling works on a paper in which he envisions a small raiding unit. This unit would consist of patrols of four men, with a total of no more than sixty men. They would land behind enemy lines by parachute, close to the target, hide until nightfall, then attack and retreat to a rendezvous area. There, they would be picked up by a transportation unit and returned to Allied lines. The significant advantage of parachute insertions over seaborne landings is that targets are not limited to coastal areas. Moreover, there’s no need to secure a beachhead and leave up to 25 to 30 percent of the troops behind. Thus, a larger force is needed than is necessary to reach the objective, which could compromise the element of surprise.

In July 1941, Stirling is released from the hospital. Convinced that the unit he envisions will be successful, he tries to sell his plan to General Headquarters Middle East. One story tells that Stirling, still on crutches, climbs the wall of GHQ Middle East to gain entry. After some effort, Stirling manages to contact the Deputy Commander of the Middle East, General Ritchie. Ritchie likes the idea and brings Stirling into contact with the new Commander in Charge of the Middle East, General Auchinlek. Auchinlek almost immediately takes to the idea, under pressure from Winston Churchill to mount commando-like offensive operations. With no ships available for Layforce and the Commando Force in North Africa diminished by action in North Africa and Crete, Stirling’s unit appears to be Auchinlek’s best bet. General Auchinlek authorises Stirling to draw a group of sixty-six men from Layforce to form his unit. This unit becomes known as L Detachment, suggesting that the parachute capability in North Africa is much larger than it actually is. It is attached to the Special Air Service Brigade.

SAS volunteers jumping from steel gantries while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.
L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade jumping from steel gantries while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt in July 1941.

Within a week, six officers, five non-commissioned officers, and fifty-five enlisted men are selected to form the nucleus of the unit. The training area is set up in Kabrit, at a small airport on the edge of the al-Buḥayrah al-Murra al-Kubrā (Great Bitter Lake). The training facilities at Kabrit are quite basic, but a nightly “shopping trip” to a nearby New Zealand army camp makes things more comfortable. Training includes improvised parachute training, navigation skills, desert survival, and combat. The parachute training proves particularly hazardous, as the unit cannot draw from the experiences at Ringway.

Their trainers are sourced from No.1 Parachute Training School (P.T.S.), formerly the Central Landing School, an RAF-operated facility in Ringway and Tatton Park, Manchester. This center has been active in parachute training since June 1940.

The dispatch of these instructors to the detachment comes after prolonged communications with Middle East Headquarters (M.E.H.Q.), instigated by a request from Stirling himself. Eventually, approval is granted, and the trainers are transported via the WS 10 convoy, boarding the R.M.S. Windsor Castle and arriving at Suez in September 1941. There, they begin their assignments after a period of acclimatisation.

At Kabrit, the new arrivals, Flight Sergeant Jim ‘Ginger’ Averis, Sergeants ‘Natch’ Markwell, Ian ‘Mac’ McGregor, and Ken ‘Joe’ Welch, quickly become known as ‘The Four Toffs.’ This nickname results from their high-stakes games of poker and boxing during the voyage, which net them a stash of luxuries like quality cigarettes and other coveted items. Their living conditions are a far cry from what they have known back at Ringway, with only tents for shelter and a directive to make do as best they can. They are quickly assimilated into the fold under the guidance of Pat Riley, who ensures that they integrate smoothly with the troops.
Their training methods include some innovative techniques, likely inspired by Len Willmott, an S.O.E. signaller who has experienced similar training. The instructors begin in earnest once parachutes and aircraft are at hand, initially using the limited resources they bring with them to teach proper parachute packing techniques to avoid malfunctions like the dreaded ‘roman candle.’

They take a hands-on approach, building a twelve-foot tower to drill the men in the art of jumping and landing correctly. This rigorous regime results in a significant improvement in training quality, transforming the camp into what would be recognised as No. 4 Middle East Training School, a hub that sees forty-seven courses through by the summer of 1943.

The trainingis is not without casualties. During parachute training, two men die when their static line fails as they drop from a Bristol Bombay Bomber. The “graduation” assignment is, besides testing the unit’s capabilities, also intended to silence the critics of the unit.

During the exercise, forty men of the unit move 140 kilometres through the desert on different routes towards Heliopolis, the main Royal Air Force base near Cairo. They slip in unnoticed, stick tape on the aircraft, and slip out undiscovered. In the months to follow, the unit prepares itself for their first assignment. A parachute assault on five German airfields to support General Auchinlek’s November offensive. They gather intelligence, study maps, work on their assault plan, and prepare their equipment. Jock Lewes produces the Lewes bomb, a time-delayed bomb to destroy aircraft. L Detachment is ready for their first assignment. Despite some reservations and the tragic loss of two men, the instructors’ steadfastness brings the others up to a commendable level of proficiency.

Men from L Detachment  emplaning into an RAF Bristol Bombay transport aircraft prior to a practice jump while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt.
Men from L Detachment emplaning into an RAF Bristol Bombay transport aircraft prior to a practice jump while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt in July 1941.
Into Battle

On November 15, 1941, the assault force, along with their charges, heads to the forward landing ground at Maaten Bagush, ready for Operation Squatter. All four instructors participate, with an Australian, John Pott, as the fifth dispatcher. Joe Welch’s concerns about the upcoming conditions are dismissed, and the operation proceeds, with Welch dispatching Stirling’s section, Pott with Bonington’s section, and McGregor, Averis, and Markwell joining Mayne, McGonigal, and Lewes.

Operation Squatter, starting on the night of November 16th/17th, 1941, is a testament to the courage of the men who jump into the maelstrom, their training, instruction, and the knowledge they receive from their instructors. Of the four sections that jump, only six out of the forty-odd men are unable to continue due to injuries sustained on landing or death shortly after, which is around 13%.