The Special Air Service has been held in high regard ever since its inception in 1941, but that could easily have not been the case after its very first mission – called Operation Squatter – attacking enemy airfields in Libya during the Second World War ended in disaster.
The unit was the brainchild of Lieutenant David Stirling, who was fighting against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Scots Guards. Lt Sterling convinced his superiors that small teams of specially trained soldiers could perform clandestine drops behind enemy lines in order to destroy aircraft and supplies belonging to the Axis alliance of Germany, Italy and Japan.
The plan for Operation Squatter was for Lt Stirling to take more than 50 men and land in the North African desert about 50 miles away from the coast. Armed with explosives, they would then proceed to coastal airfields and blow up as many planes as they could find.
While it was a simple enough plan, an adverse weather forecast had been discounted and they encountered one of the worst storms the region had seen for 30 years. None of the men parachuted during the operation reached their objectives, with severe gales causing them to be dispersed. One of the Bombay transport planes was also shot down, with all 15 soldiers and crew members being killed.
As a result, less than a third of the men reached the agreed rendezvous point, with some of them literally being scraped to death along the desert floor because they couldn’t unclip their parachutes. The mission’s official report stated the remaining SAS soldiers were ‘widely dispersed and demolition material soaked’.
Zero enemy aircraft were destroyed as a result. Of the 65 men who took part in Operation Squatter, only 22 were able to make it back after trekking for more than 36 hours through the desert to their rendezvous point.
Despite a disastrous start to the SAS, Lt Sterling knew that failure would likely mean the end of the unit, so he went on to send his remaining troops back overland using Jeeps in December the same year. This raid was much more successful on this occasion, with the men destroying more than 60 planes.
Despite being disbanded at the end of the war, the SAS was reformed as a territorial unit in 1947 before being formally added to the Army list in 1952.
Whilst the first stories of the Special Air Service are quite harrowing, they are also an important reminder of the amazing people that make up these teams. With extreme mental strength and courage in abundance, they are able to take on some of the toughest missions known to man, while having the ability to remain completely undistracted from the task in hand, regardless of what is thrown in their way.
They are a credit to the country and we cheers to them here at DropZone.