The SAS have carried on a ‘Dirty War’ in British colonies long before their deployment in the conflict in the North of Ireland or their latest skirmish in Iraq. A look at the history of the Special Air Service, from the book ‘Oliver’s Army’ by Aly Renwick.


Throughout the history of winning and holding the Empire, Britain’s military forces had acquired a reputation for using irregular forms of warfare to stifle dissent, crush rebellions and generally gain advantages for British economic and political interests. Some of these were outlined in 1896 by a serving army officer, C. E. Callwell, in his book Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice. This ‘counter-insurgency’ tradition was carried on into the 20th century by soldiers like T. E. Lawrence, who helped lead the Arab revolt against the Turks during the 1st Word War, and Orde Wingate of Chindits fame, who organised Special Night Squads of Jewish police in Palestine to attack Arab villages and camps just before the 2nd World War. The operations of regular troops were strictly defined in special army manuals like Notes on Imperial Policing (1934) and Duties in Aid of the Civil Power (1937).

During the 2nd World War, with Britain hard pressed in Europe, a secret military unit was set up to organise and support anti-Nazi opposition in occupied territory. The Special Operations Executive (SOE), which trained and armed resistance movements, was ‘responsible for offensive subversive activities which did not involve the use of officers or men wearing uniforms’. Two of its leaders, J. F. C. Holland and C. M. Gubbins, while young officers, had served in Ireland at the end of the 1st World War. During the Anglo-Irish war, both Holland and Gubbins had been impressed by the IRA’s campaign of guerrilla warfare, much of it orchestrated by Michael Collins, and subsequent SOE training was often based on the lessons they had learned: ‘What Collins did in Dublin had a noticeable impact, in the end, on British secret service methods ... Irish resistance ... showed the rest of the world an economical way to fight wars.’

British military and intelligence experts had been especially impressed by the way Collins had organised the IRA’s undercover campaign and were keen to adapt similar forms of covert action for their own use. While SOE was mainly concerned with helping and establishing espionage networks in German-occupied Europe, they also recommended the formation of ‘commando squads’ and other special forces. The Special Air Service (SAS) was created during this period for operations behind German lines - cutting supply lines, general harassment and creating havoc. SAS personnel were specially picked and trained to be self-reliant and ruthless.

After 1945 the West was faced with a series of colonial revolts in various parts of the world, and while the imperialist forces had an overwhelming superiority in terms of military capability (soldiers, weapons and technology), they suffered humiliating defeats in places like Indonesia, Algeria, Mozambique, Angola and Vietnam. In a prophetic article, Henry Kissinger wrote in 1969 that in guerrilla warfare: ‘The conventional army loses if it does not win. The guerrilla wins if he does not lose’. This represented an attempt by the imperialists to understand the concepts of the ‘protracted warfare’ strategy used by Mao Tse Tung in China and subsequently adapted, to their own circumstances and conditions, by liberation movements throughout the world. This form of guerrilla warfare could render the vastly superior military capability of the imperialist forces impotent, as the insurgents maximised their ‘intangible’ resources of time, space and will against the imperialist’s ‘tangible’ resources of weapons, technology, logistics and vast numbers of soldiers and police. The gradual increase of urban guerrilla warfare proved especially difficult for the West’s conventional forces to defeat and they looked for other means to combat it.

Counter-Revolutionary Operations

After the 2nd World War the SAS were almost phased out, but were saved by the spate of small wars in British colonies - which included Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden. Many of these counter-insurgency campaigns were conducted by men trained or influenced by the SOE, who quickly realised the usefulness of special ‘counter-revolutionary’ units. Especially, if they operated clandestinely and worked closely with the intelligence network, but outside of the normal army chain-of-command.

A pattern had emerged during the previous ‘Emergencies’ (colonial conflicts were never referred to as wars), as the counter-revolutionary operations began and reinforcements of British troops arrived. The British authorities always tried to maintain an appearance of ‘normality’ and therefore preferred to operated under the existing civil law - although they were quick to implement ‘emergency legislation’ to facilitate their requirements. In 1969, this was outlined in volume three of Land Operations, the Army’s secret training manual, entitled Counter-Revolutionary Operations - which ironically started with the famous quote from Mao: ‘Political power comes from the barrel of a gun’. Time Out magazine obtained a copy of Land Operations and stated:

“Most importantly the manual shows that central to Army thinking is the close integration of the civil powers, the military and the police. Once this happens, in the interests of national security, political opposition to the government becomes identified as ‘the enemy’ ... ‘(The) fundamental concept (is) the working of the triumvirate, civil, military and police as a joint and integrated organisation from the highest to the lowest level of policy making, planning and administration’.”

As well as the presence of armed police and soldiers and the all-pervasive surveillance, it was intended that total social control should be exercised over the disaffected population. From the planning and building of roads and dwellings to the handing out of grants, all aspects of public life was to be open to input and manipulation. The media should also be managed, to ensure that the establishment’s view of the situation predominated. From the military’s point of view the key elements of this strategy were:

1 Ensuring that ‘emergency’ legislation was enacted that 1] enabled ‘subversive elements’ to be imprisoned with a minimum of difficulty; and 2] tailored the judicial system to allow the security forces to carry out their operations legally.

2 The strengthening of local police and militia and the co-ordination of army operations with them.

3 Building a large intelligence-gathering and surveillance network.

4 Organising secret psychological warfare , ‘dirty tricks’ initiatives and covert assassination squads, which included controlling - and sometimes forming - other ‘loyal’ clandestine indigenous forces.

Conventional military units and the colonial police - the ‘Security Forces’ - were seen as the main factors in stabilising the conflict, using heavy levels of state-force to repress dissidents. Meanwhile, special units like the SAS and other secret forces would provide a more selective cutting edge by ‘taking the war to the enemy’ and fighting ‘terrorism with terror’.

The SAS in Aden

Aden was also one of the colonial conflicts where there was extensive use of special forces and in his book, The SAS: Savage Wars of Peace, Anthony Kemp outlined the background to the use of the SAS in Aden:

“In early 1966 A Squadron was back in Aden, ostensibly for training, and Peter de la Billiere set up a so-called close-quarter battle school which taught accurate pistol-shooting. He selected a group of his men who, disguised as Arabs, were to sally out in small groups into the town, looking for targets. If prisoners could be taken and interrogated that was a bonus, but essentially the purpose was to meet terrorism by terrorism. These squads became known as keeni-meeni, from the Swahili word for the slithering movement of a snake through the grass. During the early 1960s the SAS had recruited a number of excellent Fijians and they proved particularly suitable for the work as their skin colour was similar to that of the local population. Others who had black hair and swarthy complexions were also chosen.”

George Lennox, an ex-Royal Army Ordnance Corps corporal, remembered the use of the SAS in Aden: ‘I know that the Special Air Service were called into Aden, to act undercover, covertly to act in an overtly provocative role. The SAS and other volunteers who were stationed inside Aden and who could speak the language were dressed up as Adenis, with chocolate colour on their faces. They went out into the streets and they had names of suspected so-called terrorists and those who were heading the then-illegal political opposition groups and they had instructions to search them out and to assassinate them, kill them.’ Lennox continued:

“Inside Aden you had two main political opposition groups, one was the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the other was the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY). The two had different political approaches, political interests which they were representing. ... The SAS’s role inside Aden was to create confusion within both political organisations. They would go and bump off a couple of the FLOSY guys and this would be put out by the Army press as being an inter-group fight. And of course this would make the FLOSY group take retaliation and go and seek out the NLF and bump off a couple of their people.”

In Aden, regular soldiers were not informed about the operations that the SAS were conducting and they only became aware when incidents happened. Like this ex-para, who remembered a time when ‘things were hotting up and the dirty tricks department were in the thick of it’:

“Although the Al Mansura district was sewn up tight, one night a bomb exploded at the house of a local political leader who was against the British troops. His wife, son and three local policemen were killed in the blast. The only vehicle reported as being in the area that night by the soldiers was a Landrover carrying men from the SAS and the Army Special Branch. A few nights later, when four Arabs were spotted carrying weapons, a gun battle lasting 15 minutes occurred - until a message came over the radio to cease firing, as they were friendly troops. When the smoke cleared it was discovered that they were SAS men dressed as Arabs.”

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