Last updated: 12 February 2016
The Special Air Service (SAS) was formed in July 1941 as 62 Commando. It drew its men from 7 Commando and also operated under the title L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade. Although a brigade was usually made up of around 5,000 men, this force only existed as a fiction designed to deceive the enemy.
L Detachment was renamed No 1 Small Scale Raiding Force two months after its formation. It went on to operate behind enemy lines during the North African campaign (1940-43).
In October 1942 the unit was renamed 1st Special Air Service and in April the following year it was reorganised into the Special Raiding Squadron, undertaking raids in Sicily and Italy alongside the 2nd Special Air Service which came into existence in May 1943 in Algeria.
In 1944 these two units were placed under the umbrella Special Air Service Brigade and were joined by the 3rd, 4th and 5th Special Air Service. The latter were formed by renaming Free French and Belgian parachute units. The brigade’s formations took part in many operations, frequently behind enemy lines, from D-Day (June 1944) until the German surrender in May 1945.
Shortly after the war had ended the SAS was disbanded. However, in 1947 it was re-formed, but this time consisting of just one Territorial Army (TA) unit, 21st Battalion, Special Air Service Regiment (Artists Rifles). The Rifles had originally been formed at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1860 as 38th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps, later becoming 28th Battalion within the all-territorial London Regiment.
In 1951 Z Squadron of 21st SAS was deployed during the Malayan Emergency (1948-60). That squadron fought under the name of the Malayan Scouts and in 1952 it was absorbed into the regular Army as 22nd SAS Regiment. This marked the only time a regular unit has ever been formed out of a TA unit. Many of the first volunteers were Rhodesians and New Zealanders.
In 1959 a third SAS unit was formed, this time a TA one known as 23rd SAS Regiment. This was a re-naming of the Reserve Reconnaissance Unit, successors to MI9 and whose members were experts in escape and evasion. In 1960 Hereford was established as the regimental depot.
In the years that followed the SAS served in many locations including Borneo (1962-66), Oman (1962-76), Aden (1964-67) and Northern Ireland (1969-2007). In 1980 the regiment rescued hostages from the Iranian Embassy in London and two years later it deployed to the Falklands (1982).
SAS units served during both Gulf Wars (1990-91, 2003-11) and were deployed on hostage rescue missions in Sierra Leone (2000). Recently the SAS has been engaged against the Taleban in Afghanistan (2001-). In 2005 it shifted to the active side of special forces operations, with reconnaissance work in that area being taken over by the new Special Reconnaissance Regiment.