The concept of the Special Air Service had its genesis in the Western Desert Campaign of World War II in the British Army. The history of the Australian Special Air Service however dates from 25 July 1957 when the 1st Special Air Service Company was raised in Western Australia.
The Company consisted of a headquarters and four platoons comprising about 200 all ranks by the time SAS haunted House HQ it became part of The Royal Australian Regiment in 1960.
The Company was expanded to a Regiment and renamed The Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) on 4 September 1964. This date was significant as it marked the 21st anniversary of the Lae-Nadzab operation in New Guinea during World War II, which was the first Australian combined land, sea and airborne operation.
Members of the Regiment who are SAS qualified are readily identified by their sandy coloured beret and its distinctive badge depicting the flaming sword Excalibur and the words ‘Who Dares Wins’.
The Regiment does not have ‘colours’ as it is classified as a rifle regiment. The Regimental marching tunes are Lily Marlene for slow time and The Happy Wanderer for quick time.
The Regiment first saw operational service on the Island of Borneo in February 1965, when 1 SAS Squadron deployed to Brunei during the Indonesian confrontation.
The Squadron mounted over 60 patrols before returning to Australia in July of the same year. 2 SAS Squadron served in the same campaign, operating from Kuching in Sarawak from February to July 1966. Whilst 2 Squadron was still in Borneo, 3 SAS Squadron, in June of that year, was committed to operations in South Vietnam. 1 SAS Squadron relieved 3 SAS Squadron in February 1967 with 2 SAS Squadron relieving 1 SAS Squadron in 1968.
Thereafter Squadrons were relieved on an annual basis. In October 1971 when the SAS involvement in the Vietnam War ceased, 2 SAS Squadron was disbanded to allow the current Operational Support Squadron (previously SAS Training Squadron then SAS Support Squadron) to be raised.
The Regiment maintained an impressive record during its operations in Borneo and Vietnam. In these two campaigns over 1400 patrols were mounted, reporting the movements of over 5600 enemy troops and accounting for over 500 enemy killed in 298 contacts. After operations in South Vietnam, SASR experienced an extended period of peacetime activities from 1972 – 1993.
This period saw the considerable development that placed the Regiment at the forefront of capability alongside its foreign counterparts.
Significantly, during this era, the evolution of the sophisticated recovery capability in response to the increasing trends of international terrorism took place.
This capability remains the Australian Government’s last resort option to deal with acts of politically motivated terrorism that may threaten Australia’s people and interests. This responsibility was given initially to 1 SAS Squadron. Whilst training in this role in 1996, two Blackhawk helicopters collided resulting in the deaths of 15 SAS soldiers along with three aircrew from the Army’s 5th Aviation Regiment. It was Australia’s worst peacetime military air accident.
In order to maintain both the Counter Terrorism role and the unit’s war roles capability, 2 SAS Squadron was re-raised in 1982. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw SASR increasingly employed in enhanced regional engagement initiatives.
This resulted in bilateral training activities between SASR and regional Special Force units that have improved regional security through promoting good will and developing relationships. In recent years, the Regiment has provided specialist personnel in support of a number of United Nations (UN) missions in areas as diverse as Africa, Cambodia, the Middle East and closer to home in Bougainville, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. These deployments provided opportunities to maintain operational experience in SASR and further develop skills and capabilities. In response to Iraq’s reactions towards UN inspection team activity in 1998 SASR participated in Operation Desert Thunder.
This contribution saw the deployment to Kuwait of a force element based on a SAS Squadron and the SAS Regimental level headquarters, which commanded the ANZAC Special Operations Component as part of the US Coalition Special Operations Task Force. Although escalated conflict was averted by the intervention of the UN Secretary General, the contingent soon established itself as a truly world class Special Forces organisation with US and coalition leaders.
The crisis in East Timor in 1999 resulted in the deployment of SAS force elements to support the successful outcome of International Force East Timor (INTERFET) operations.
The Regiment’s capabilities were employed across a wide range of tasks and significantly contributed to the shaping of the environment for the conventional INTERFET forces. In recognition of these operations the Governor General, as Commander In Chief of the Australian Defence Force, awarded the Meritorious Unit Citation to the SAS in Timor Squadron Group involved ‘for sustained outstanding service in warlike perations.’ Their importance to the successful outcome of INTERFET operations cannot be overstated.
In late 2001, elements of the Regiment were once again committed to operations as part of the allied coalition in the global war against terrorism. This deployment was to Afghanistan and the Regimental Headquarters and the last Squadron to rotate through Afghanistan returned to Australia in late 2002. In early 2003 the Regiment again deployed in support of operations to combat terrorism, this time as part of the coalition force in Iraq. In 2005 SAS and Commando force elements were committed to operations in Afghanistan forming the Australian Special Operations Task Group (SOTG), which was part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Special Operations Force. The SOTG worked with Afghan Security Forces in their battle with insurgents who posed a risk to the people of Afghanistan and stability in the region. In accordance with Australian Government policy SASR was withdrawn from Afghanistan at the end of 2013.