Sergeant Herbert Chambers with fellow Special Boat Service soldiers in Athens, 1944

Origins of the Special Forces

During the Second World War, Britain created a range of special units who undertook a variety of daring operations against the Axis Powers. The bravery and commitment of these forces has become the stuff of legend.

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General Sir Charles Keightly, Commander in Chief Operation Muskateer, meets French paratroopers at Suez, 1956

Suez Crisis

In 1956, British and French forces invaded Egypt in collusion with Israel. Although the military operation was a success, the political storm it caused led to a humiliating withdrawal.

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Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854

Crimean War

The Crimean War was fought by Britain, France, Turkey and Sardinia against Russia. For the British, the campaign was symbolised by military and logistical incompetence alongside the bravery and endurance of its soldiers.

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The Battle of Abu Klea, 17 January 1885

Egypt and the Sudan

British forces occupied Egypt in 1882 to safeguard the Suez Canal and British financial interests. This led to further intervention in the neighbouring Sudan, where two wars against rebellious Islamic tribesmen were fought in hostile desert conditions.

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General Sir Frederick Sleigh Roberts, 1894

Frederick Roberts: Bobs

Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts was one of Britain’s most successful military commanders of the 19th century, winning victories during the Second Afghan War and revitalising the British campaign in the Boer War. 

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Field Marshal Auchinleck, c1947

Claude Auchinleck: The auk

After initial successes in North Africa during the Second World War, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck transferred to India as Commander-in-Chief. His unstinting logistical support there was vital to the Allied re-conquest of Burma.

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General Sir Thomas Fairfax, c1645

Thomas Fairfax: A man of honour

General Sir Thomas Fairfax was arguably the most important general of the British Civil Wars. As Commander-in-Chief of the New Model Army, he played a key role in defeating the Royalists.

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Bust of Lieutenant-General Colin Campbell KCB, 1858

Colin Campbell: A soldier of coolness and precision

From humble beginnings, Field Marshal Sir Colin Campbell rose to lead the Highland Brigade in the Crimean War and was in command of the 'Thin Red Line' at Balaklava. He later led a relief army with great distinction during the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

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East African soldiers with a captured Japanese flag, 1944 

Far East campaign

Between December 1941 and August 1945, British Commonwealth troops and their allies fought a bitter war across the vast expanses of Asia and the Pacific Ocean against a tenacious and often brutal enemy.

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Major-General Robert Sale, c1845

Robert Sale: Fighting Bob

Major-General Sir Robert Sale served in several important campaigns on the Indian subcontinent. He skillfully commanded the besieged garrison at Jalalabad during the First Afghan War, before being killed in action in the First Sikh War.

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Field Marshal Gerald Templer, 1958

Gerald Templer: The smiling tiger

Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer commanded infantry and armoured divisions during the Second World War. He later went on to lead a successful counter-insurgency operation in Malaya.

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General Jan Smuts, 1918

Jan Smuts: The warrior-statesman

Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts successfully led troops against Britain in the Boer War. He later commanded the South African Defence Force fighting alongside British soldiers in several First World War campaigns.

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Celtic plaid brooch taken from the body of a Sinn Féin rebel, 1916

Easter Rising

On Easter Monday 1916, Irish nationalists launched an armed revolt against British rule in Ireland. Although quickly suppressed by the British Army, the rising was a seminal moment in modern Irish history.

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