The SAS confronts its enemy within

The shoot 'n' tell books are bestsellers and a seven-part ITV series on the regiment, starting tonight, will be watched by millions. But now the bigwigs of the SAS say enough secrets have been spilled and it's time to shut up shop. Peter Popham reports

At the base of the regimental clock at Stirling Lines, the SAS headquarters in Hereford, is inscribed a verse from "The Golden Road to Samarkand" by James Elroy Flecker. For General Sir Peter de la Billiere these lines sum up the intrepid spirit of the Special Air Services.

"We are the pilgrims, master; we shall go

Always a little farther..."

But in recent months, as the flood of memoirs of SAS derring-do has continued to feed an avid market, the motto has taken on a new and unwelcome meaning. In the quest for readers, the veterans of SAS campaigns are themselves going "always a little farther", and, say their colleagues, even a little too far.

The first books to shed light on the secretive workings of the SAS were merely stirring tales of daring military adventures, written by officers: de la Billiere's own two volumes, Storm Command (1992) and Looking for Trouble (1994), are in this mould. But then the lower ranks showed that they had literary ambitions of their own. Andy McNab, forbidden by the regiment to write of his experiences behind enemy lines during the Gulf War, left in order to do so, and became a millionaire in the process. The tale he had to sell was not of "mission accomplished" so much as of terrifying cock-up miraculously survived.

McNab's former colleague Chris Ryan followed the same formula, adding a dash of venom against ex-comrades both dead and alive. Harry McCallion, with his book Killing Zone, wrote frighteningly detailed accounts of SAS brutality, while tonight on ITV, in the first of Carlton's series on the SAS, The Soldier's Story, other soldiers break the final taboo and appear on the small screen in person (though wearing balaclavas) to tell the story of the siege of the Iranian Embassy. Six more episodes of blood and thunder are to follow.

Now the SAS has decided that enough is enough. Sir Peter de la Billiere, practically the symbol of the regiment and the man who has done more than anyone to raise its profile, has resigned as chairman of the regimental association. A committee has been set up to see what can be done to staunch the flow of information from what used to be one of the most secretive special forces in the world. There is talk of blacklists, and of draconian penalties against those who offend.

To an extent, however, the damage has already been done. Like the Royal Family, the SAS has traditionally benefited from being veiled in mystery; and like the Royal Family, as that mystery has begun to disappear, so the institution has come to seem more fallible and vulnerable.

In baldly practical terms the SAS is a regiment of the British Army with headquarters in Hereford, a force consisting of, at any one time, about 300 men, with some 20 new recruits (selected from about 200 candidates) joining each year, and two territorial regiments consisting of civilians and retired soldiers. But beyond such bare bones, there have traditionally remained huge areas that were completely mysterious: where it was in operation, what precisely it was doing and with what degree of success. And just as the loyalty of palace servants helped to sustain the mystery (and thus the magical voltage) of the Royal Family, the secrecy of the SAS intensified its menace and effectiveness as a special fighting force.

Anodyne, Boy's Own-style memoirs by officers like the founder, David Stirling, were the equivalent of coffee table hagiographies of the royals. The rest - the weapons, the killing techniques, the screw-ups, the psychopaths, the feuds - was silence. But now the silence is gone, replaced by a babble of assertion and disputation, venom and spleen. And just as endless prurient attention has palpably damaged the Royal Family, there are those inside both the Ministry of Defence and the SAS who fear that the force will never again recover its former stature.

At the heart of the SAS's current problem is a conflict of class. For the first 40 years of its life, since its beginning as a savagely effective strike force in the north African desert during the Second World War, the SAS was different in important particulars from other regiments of the Army. The intensely dangerous and exposed nature of its work put a premium on individual initiative, intelligence, resourcefulness and guts. Every man had to be capable of looking after himself as well as functioning as a team player. To bring this about, many of the imperatives of the Army were junked: salutes, the word "Sir", spit and polish, square-bashing - all the tedious disciplinary methods by which a gaggle of youths is moulded into a smoothly running machine. The SAS didn't need a mass machine: it needed individual fighters. The result was a rise in the power and importance of the NCOs and a corresponding decline in the authority of officers.

De la Billiere, in his autobiography, Looking for Trouble, wrote of the problems he had in coming to grips with this peculiar culture on his first assignment with an SAS squadron in the Malayan jungle. "There were no other officers from whom I could seek advice or support," he wrote. "Like it or not, I had to live and work with my troop for the next 14 weeks. I realised that the only thing to do was to communicate with them as much as possible ... It was better to thrash everything out and solicit ideas than to take the more defensive line of issuing orders and instructions ... Had I tried this, I should very soon have been isolated and ostracised, and lost control of the troop. In talking things through, I unconsciously promoted the SAS tradition of what are known as Chinese parliaments - pow-wows in which everyone has his say about a problem before the commander takes a decision."

Officers, in other words, if they wanted to function as such, had to defer to their troops, or risk complete redundancy. And the NCOs had ingenious ways of bringing home this reality to any pipsqueak officer who imagined he could have things his own way. In a filmed reconstruction in tonight's episode of The Soldier's Story, a young officer is initiated into the terrors of being under live fire: obliged to stand against a wall in a room between two targets, each of them inches from his ears. "Don't fucking move," commands the grunt who puts him in place. Two soldiers then dash into the room and open fire, loosing off at least one magazine each into the targets. "We had a few fidgets," the corporal noted laconically, "but no one actually moved into the line of fire."

For reasons of operational efficiency, therefore, the SAS, the most elite force in the British Army, also became the closest the Army has ever seen to the sort of classless, rankless force created in Mao's China. "The regiment was run by the sergeants' mess," says Harry McCallion, author of Killing Zone and now a barrister. "The officers had their place: after all, someone's got to sign the forms and go up and get the medals. But it was the NCOs who ran the place." Someone, he might have added, has got to write and publish their memoirs: for that, too, was the prerogative of the regiment's officers. It was a nice little sideline in public relations.

It was in 1985, according to McCallion, that all this changed. "A dynamic new commanding officer came in and systematically dismanted the power of the sergeants' mess by the simple device of promoting a couple of corporals to captain, and letting it be known to the rest that if they toed the line, the same could happen to them." Gradually the regiment began to conform to the norms prevalent in the rest of the forces. "You had to go along with the hierarchy," McCallion says. "You couldn't tell your officer to take a running jump. The whole place became more promotion- and career-oriented. As a result, the regiment lost something. Before, we were a regiment of individuals and swashbucklers, who could be part of a team but individuals as well. Now the regiment has become an officer's club."

The disaffection that McCallion voices was responsible for what happened next. No longer allowed to buckle their swashes inside the regiment, the rankers determined instead to make their voices heard in the big world outside. The first to make a move was a soldier - McCallion refers to him as "Pete" - who appears in tonight's Carlton programme as "Soldier I", talking about his role in the Iranian embassy siege.

"Pete had always said he was going to write his memoirs," McCallion recalls, "and his book became a standing joke. But he finally wrote it; it was published in 1987 as Soldier I, and the reaction of the regiment was paranoid. He was banned from the camp, declared persona non grata - he wasn't even allowed to come and support the regimental rugby team. They even looked into whether they could cut off his Army pension, but of course they couldn't."

To Pete's ex-comrades in the SAS's ranks, this reaction reeked of double standards, and events since have only confirmed this view. De la Billiere, who wrote his books to get himself out of a financial hole (he is a Lloyd's name) got a foreword by Prince Charles to his account of the Gulf War, Storm Command, and never a whiff of dissent from the Army. The impression of rank-pulling was compounded when Chris Ryan's story of how he escaped through the Iraqi lines was included by de la Billiere in his own book. Andy McNab, by contrast, did not turn his material over to the general, and it was his decision to publish and be damned that provoked the present crisis.

"You'll never stop the books," maintains McCallion, and the huge amounts of money that McNab and the rest have made suggest he may be right. But if the rumours are right and the regiment tries to strongarm its ex-members into silence by threats of lifelong blacklisting, it could backfire.

"The regiment's a family," McCallion insists. "None of us who've written books would have said anything that would cause harm, that would put people in danger. Everyone knows black things in the regiment - failed operations, operations that go bad, incompetence - but no one writes about them. We're not going to hurt our family. And the public needs heroes. It needs to know the SAS is good."

But if soldiers are banished from the family, such inhibitions could rapidly melt away. And the revelations that then hit the bookstands could make Camillagate and the Squidgy tapes look very tame indeed.

THE SAS: A NOT-SO-SECRET HISTORY

1941: Special Air Service founded by David Stirling (left) during the Second World War. In its first two years alone the force destroyed 400 German aircraft.

1956: Beginning of local opposition to British rule in Yemen. SAS men reportedly sent to Aden.

1972: Marxist-led insurgents seek to topple the British-supported Sultanate of Oman. In the Battle of Mirbat, a band of nine SAS men hold off around 400 Dhofaris (a rebel Omani minority) from a small fort.

1976: First year of the SAS's "official" deployment in Northern Ireland.

1980: Storming of the Iranian embassy in London. Six Arab terrorists fighting for the autonomy of Arabistan (a province of southwestern Iran) held 26 hostages inside.

1982: Falklands War. Successes included the seizure of Mount Kent, an area of key terrain.

1988: An SAS unit shoots dead three unarmed IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. After much controversy, the killings are declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights in 1995.

1991: The eight-man patrol codenamed Bravo Two Zero is sent behind Iraqi lines in the Gulf campaign. Three are killed, four are captured (including group leader Andy McNab), while Chris Ryan escapes.

1994: The SAS locate a group of British soldiers lost in the mountain jungles of Borneo for a month. An SAS man is reported to have been killed in Gorazde, revealing the force's involvement in the Bosnian conflict.

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