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Andy McNab’s survival kit, c1990
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The art of staying alive: McNab's survival kit

An SAS soldier's personal survival kit contains many everyday objects. These can be used in ingenious ways, demonstrating both the adaptability and the resourcefulness of the Special Forces.

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The Duke of Marlborough, 1702

The Duke of Marlborough: Corporal John

Marlborough’s long career as a soldier and statesmen spanned the reigns of five monarchs. His triumphs were not only due to his amazing military talents; they were also a result of politics and patronage.

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Major David Stirling, c1942

David Stirling: The Phantom Major

David Stirling was a pioneer of British Special Forces. In 1941, he founded the Special Air Service (SAS) in Egypt to undertake small-scale raids behind enemy lines.

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King George II at the Battle of Dettingen, 1743

War of the Austrian Succession

This 18th-century conflict was caused by the question of Maria Theresa’s succession to the Austrian crown. During the war, British troops proved their worth as soldiers. But the armies in which they served enjoyed mixed fortunes on the battlefield.

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An SAS soldier aims a light machine-gun, c2005

What are the Special Forces?

The Special Forces are made up of several elite military units with distinct areas of expertise. Personnel are drawn from all three branches of the armed forces.

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Other ranks’ cap badge, Royal Corps of Signals, c1970

Royal Corps of Signals

The Royal Signals are a combat support arm that provides vital communication and information systems for the British Army wherever it operates in the world.

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Special Boat Service badge

Special Boat Service

This is Britain’s maritime special forces unit. Since the Second World War its highly trained men have served around the world, on land and at sea, often carrying out daring undercover raids and engaging in marine counter-terrorism.

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Other ranks cap badge, The Parachute Regiment, c1973

The Parachute Regiment

The Parachute Regiment is Britain’s elite airborne infantry. Formed in 1942, its soldiers are trained to be resilient, disciplined, versatile, aggressive in battle and self-reliant.

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Gun disguised as a pen for use by SOE agents, 1945

Special Operations Executive

Formed in 1940, SOE was an underground army that waged a secret war in enemy-occupied Europe and Asia. Its agents demonstrated incredible courage and resourcefulness in their guerrilla war.

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Special Air Service collar badge, c1973

Special Air Service

Created during the Second World War, the SAS operated behind enemy lines in North Africa and Europe. Today, its highly trained men are renowned for their skills in covert surveillance, close combat fighting and hostage rescue.

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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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Bagnold sun compass used by the LRDG, c1942

Desert innovator: Bagnold’s sun-compass

The Long Range Desert Group were masters of navigation. They owed much of their success to the scientific talents of Major Ralph Bagnold, whose sun-compass invention revolutionised desert travel.

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Propaganda poster depicting a commando raid on a German-held port in Norway, 1940

The Commandos

In 1940, the British established a new raiding and reconnaissance force. Well-trained and highly mobile, they were to carry on the war against the Axis after the evacuation from Dunkirk.

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