Book review: The History of the SAS


Chris Ryan is well-placed to tell the tale of the British Special Air Service (SAS), one of the world’s most revered special forces outfits. He served in the SAS for many years but is also famous for having been on the run from Iraqi forces behind enemy lines for two weeks during the 1991 Gulf War.

The SAS was established during the Second World War to cause havoc behind enemy lines. Ryan chronicles the post-war history of the SAS and its evolution, from early operations in Burma to deployments in Oman, Malaya and Northern Island as the SAS was tasked with first jungle, desert and then urban warfare operations.

Ryan describes how the SAS soldiers would have to stay hidden and wait for two to three weeks at a time for the enemy to show up in Malaya. “Maintaining this routine required strict discipline. If the average civilian had to lie absolutely still in the jungle for fourteen days, they’d create an incredible amount of disturbance – if they didn’t go mad first… Imagine waiting in your house and watching the front door, knowing that somebody is going to come crashing through it at some point in the next fortnight. And then having to sit there and not move a muscle for that whole time.”

In Malaya, Ryan says the real contribution of the SAS was in developing a radical new type of unconventional warfare that ultimately led to the defeat of the Communist forces. “They had demonstrated that small sized patrols of elite operators, trained to a very high level, could survive and operate for long periods of time, in the toughest conditions on the planet.”

In Oman, the SAS had shown that a small group of determined men, using speed, aggression and surprise, could achieve results that would otherwise require hundreds of infantry soldiers.

“By the start of the 1980s, in the thirty years since it had been reformed, the SAS had fought in secret wars, mastered warfare in the desert and the jungle and had pioneered a bold new approach to counter-terrorism. But in the last decades of the twentieth century they would take part in two more orthodox conflicts, squaring up against large scale conventional military forces for the first time since the Second World War,” he writes.

Ryan charts the SAS’s ups and downs through conflicts in the Falklands, Liberia and the Gulf, including his gruelling two weeks on the run in Iraq after his patrol was compromised during the 1991 invasion – “the Bravo Two Zero mission was a disaster waiting to happen,” he writes, and maintains that a series of cockups cost unnecessary lives in the 1991 Gulf War.

He finishes the book off with an overview of the unit’s busy time in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan in the last 15 years and the counter-terrorism operations that are keeping them busy.

The History of the SAS is not about politics or a high-level history – as the cover says, it is a boots-on-the-ground look at the SAS from its early post-War operations to the present day. Ryan shows you what it’s like to be an SAS soldier in the steaming jungles of Malaya or the tension-filled streets of Belfast.

The history of the SAS is told very much from the point of view of the guys on the ground and this includes a look at the witheringly tough selection process, which Ryan says is the most demanding Special Forces course in the world.

Ryan points out that the SAS went from a unit that was very nearly extinguished to becoming “arguably the most important regiment in the British Army. It achieved this because it had soldiers who from the very beginning, had the courage to reinvent the way they were fighting. From the moment the SAS was re-formed, it has had a spirit of innovation and a willingness to experiment that set it apart from the rest of the army.”

He has a sometimes excessively high view of the SAS and asserts the unit is the best special forces outfit in the world – South African Recces, US Navy Seals, Green Berets and others would certainly disagree. Not surprisingly, as a loyal SAS member Ryan is very much pro-British and pro-SAS. Nevertheless, The History of the SAS is a great overview of the unit and its operations and provides entertaining accounts of many of its most notable operations as well as some of the shadier operations, including training some former Khmer Rouge rebels in Thailand.

The History of the SAS: As told by the men on the ground
Author: Chris Ryan
Publisher: Coronet (November 14, 2019)
Language: English
Hardcover: 308 pages
ISBN-10: 1529324645
ISBN-13: 978-1529324648