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‘Men Apart, Every Man an Emperor’: the culture of exceptionalism in the UK’s Special Forces examined

In 1950, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, then-Chairman of the NATO military predecessor known as the Western Union Defence Organisation, penned a declaration that would capture the cultural ethos of British special operators: “They are, in fact, men apart – every man an Emperor.” 

Though Montgomery spoke here of the wartime Parachute Regiment, an organisation which today serves as one of the primary sources of manpower for the United Kingdom’s Special Forces, his words are equally applicable when describing any of the special operations units carried out by the British military since the Second World War. 

Today, the UK’s special operations capability resides almost entirely in United Kingdom Special Forces, a directorate under Strategic Command which houses regular and reserve units from the Army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force.

UKSF’s primary operational strength is built around two regular units from the Army and Royal Navy respectively – the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment and the Special Boat Service, tasked with ‘green’ wartime special operations such as long-range reconnaissance or direct-action raids as well as a ‘black’ domestic counter-terrorism remit in support of civil authorities. In addition to their associated reserve regiments, both units operate domestically and internationally alongside the Special Forces Support Group, 18th UKSF Signals Regiment, Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing, and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, a recent formation tasked with close-in physical and technical surveillance for UKSF operations.

The degree of present-day public fascination with special operations and the sheer weight of resources possessed by UKSF, however, often obfuscate that, for much of their early history, the distinct culture of these units rendered them decidedly unpopular amongst large portions of the British military.

If the catastrophic defeats suffered by British and Commonwealth forces in the opening stages of the Second World War highlighted the inadequacy of contemporary military means, salvation of sorts came in the form of individual characters who provided an impetus for the formation of the UK’s first organised special operations capability. Often stemming from patrician families, figures such as William Stirling and Lord Lovat, two major Scottish landowners serving as junior commissioned officers in the Regular Army Reserves, played defining roles in the early history of British special operations forces. 

Leveraging deep familial connections with commerce, sport, and government as well as the diverse pools of expertise afforded by the British Empire’s military and administrative ranks, these figures, based at the scenic highland estate of Inverailort House, set about devising the curriculum for an entirely new form of organised military action.

Traditional instruction in marksmanship, demolitions, and communications was supplemented with training found nowhere else in the British armed forces: former Shanghai Municipal Police officers William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes developed novel systems of close-quarters combat that included instinctive pistol shooting and knife fighting; civilian stalkers offered guidance in camouflage and fieldcraft; experienced mountaineers held courses in cold-weather operations and climbing. 

Beyond the atypical nature of this training, the selection process undergone by potential candidates similarly assessed for attributes that broke away from conventional military norms; though the foundation of the special operations service-member remained the professional standards of the Regular soldier, screeners also sought out, in the words of Brigadier General Clarke, the “dash of the Elizabethan pirate, the Chicago gangster, and the Frontier tribesman.”

In effect, the establishment of these specialist training centres and irregular formations in the Second World War, spearheaded by eccentric albeit influential characters such as Lovat and Stirling, instigated the formation of a counter-culture within the broader British military. It was through this rigorous and unconventional training process that selected service-members – “men apart” – entered an exclusive circle defined by an expanded space for individual creativity, a tradition of audacity and guile, and a virtual absence of the rank and formality associated with conventional military units.

The immediate aftermath of the Second World War, however, saw a major reduction of Britain’s special operations capability. Stirling’s Special Air Service was disbanded and a new Territorial Army regiment known as 21 SAS raised in its place, the Commando role was largely amalgamated under the Royal Marines, and the covert action function of the wartime Special Operations Executive was transferred to the Secret Intelligence Service.

All, though, was not lost. Events in the latter half of the 20th century highlighted the continued need for units capable of operating beyond the remit of conventional military forces. Elements of 21 SAS deployed during the Malayan Emergency to conduct long range reconnaissance and raids against the Malayan National Liberation Army, while the Royal Marines Special Boat Section, the successor of the wartime No.1 Special Boat Section, conducted coastal infiltrations against DPRK forces during the Korean War. 

Formed in 1952, the Regular 22 SAS subsequently spearheaded a major offensive in support of the Sultan of Oman on the Jebel Akhdar mountain range and developed its expertise in surveillance and urban counter-terrorism in the streets of Aden, laying the foundation for subsequent operations in Northern Ireland and Iraq. Though the scope of special operations entrusted to these units steadily expanded throughout the late 20th century, the underlying profile of the service-members entrusted with their execution remained that of their Second World War fore-bearers: a high standard of basic soldiering allied to a strong capacity for creativity and unconventional thinking, with the formalised Aptitude Phase, in which potential UKSF candidates are assessed solely as individuals, created in 1955 and remaining in place to this day. 

By the end of the 20th century, the significance of UK Special Forces had become firmly inculcated in the psyche of both military and political leaders as well as the British general public, a phenomenon exacerbated by highly publicised domestic and overseas engagements.

Operation Nimrod, the SAS raid which ended the six-day Iranian Embassy siege in Princes Gate and freed 19 hostages in just over 15 minutes, saw Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declare that the unit’s actions made the country “proud to be British”; a series of high-profile international deployments followed, from the leading roles played by the SAS and SBS during the Falklands War to the joint effort between the SAS and 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment to free five British servicemembers taken hostage in Sierra Leone. In the space of 50 years, UKSF had been transformed from a collection of disparate units often viewed by senior leaders with suspicion or outright contempt into the British government’s force of choice for military problem-solving at home and abroad. British special operators were once again among the first UK servicemembers deployed in the War on Terror, and a rotational system was established between the SAS and SBS with squadrons from both units cycled through combat operations, domestic counter-terrorism alert, stand-by for international contingencies, and training. 

As the campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan continued, however, a darker facet emerged in the conduct of UK, US, Australian, and other Coalition special operations forces. Allegations of war crimes, including the mistreatment of detainees and instances of deliberate civilian killings, soon arose, prompting formal inquiries by military authorities across the world. The contextual and socio-psychological factors which contributed to these atrocities, from widespread frustration over weak local justice institutions which resulted in suspected insurgents often being released to mental burnout stemming from relentless deployments abroad, is outlined in AOAV’s own reporting.

But the notion of a shortfall within the special operations forces of the United Kingdom and other Coalition states remains a sore point but it is precisely here that a greater degree of scrutiny must be applied. In particular, the tradition of insularity from conventional military structures and practices in addition to a history of strong individual characters risks creating an increasingly blurred distinction between a ‘special’ force and an ‘exceptional’ one.

Here, ‘special’ describes the types of operations conducted by units such as the Special Air Service or Special Boat Service. Whether raising a local irregular force to conduct counterinsurgency operations or launching short-notice intelligence-driven raids deep in an adversary’s rear area, these operations are defined by the use of unconventional techniques and require the employment of service-members possessing equipment and training beyond the capabilities of regular forces. The term ‘exceptional’, however, refers to the operators entrusted with the execution of these missions and indicates a belief that the rules governing the conduct of conventional military units were not applicable to them. Instances of this exceptionalism range from seemingly innocuous policies regarding the free consumption of alcohol to more nefarious instances regarding improper civilian casualty reporting and investigation procedures. 

This belief in the designation of Coalition units such as the SAS as ‘special’ allowing for exceptionalism from military regulation and oversight was identified by the Australian Defence Force Inspector General as one of the primary cultural factors behind war crimes perpetrated by Australian special operations forces in Afghanistan. The ADF is not alone in confronting this internal fracture in the conduct of its special operators, with a recent BBC Panorama report revealing similar instances of unjustified civilian killings perpetrated by elements of 22 SAS during a 2010-2011 rotation in Afghanistan. And while it is tempting to dismiss unlawful behaviour as stemming from purely contextual factors, the reality is that the cultural foundation of these incidents did not develop over the last 20 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rather, it traces back to the convictions held by the earliest proponents of UK special operations that the personnel entrusted with their execution were not simply individuals tasked with unconventional operations but an entirely separate category of soldier. Service-members forming part of a distinctive counter-culture, forged through a strenuous selection process and isolated from the seemingly-obstructive formalities of the wider military.

Men apart – every man an Emperor.