The History of the SAS

In May 5th, 1980, soldiers from the Special Air Service (SAS) stormed the Iranian Embassy in Princes Gate, London. In an operation that took less than twenty minutes, they killed five members of the Democratic Revolutionary Front for the Liberation of Arabistan (DRFLA) - shooting one more than eighty times - and rescued twenty-four hostages (the DRFLA had already killed one, and shot dead another during the rescue). This took place in full view of the public and was shown live on television, famously interrupting the snooker. Later that day, prime minister Margaret Thatcher went to congratulate the SAS men involved and sat among them watching a re-run of the attack.

This episode launched an explosion of interest in the SAS that was to build up through the 1980s, reaching a peak in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and continuing today. The public celebration of the SAS in this period was part of the phenomenon of 'Thatcherism' and Mrs Thatcher took a close personal interest in the regiment. For the Conservative Party and for much of the press the SAS became the embodiment of all that was best in Britain. Such celebrations of militarism and of military heroes are hardly new in British history, but by the end of the 1950s it had seemed as if they were a thing of the past.

The SAS had been formed in the Western Desert in 1941. The unit was the brainchild of David Stirling, a well-connected lieutenant in the Scots Guards. He was given permission to establish his own private army for raiding behind enemy lines. After a brief, unfortunate flirtation with the parachute, the unit became firmly attached to road transport though the Special Air Service designation proved too romantic to dispense with.

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