The SAS in the Falklands Campaign: updated

The Mail on Sunday published a story today about a former Argentine intelligence officer’s attempt to rip them off for a quarter of a million pounds.  Victor Randazzo claimed to have access to photos and human remains proving that British Special Forces had fought and been killed on the Argentine mainland.

It’s an interesting idea.  The SAS certainly had plans to land on Tierra del Fuego to wipe out the Argentine Super Etendard/Exocet threat but it was aborted.  No SAS personnel entered the Argentine mainland: a few spent some time in Chile close to the Argentine border.

So what does this photo represent?  The Argentine fraudster in question claims it was found amongst the effects of a dead British SF soldier in Argentina.

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These are apparently British Special Forces personnel but definitely not SAS – according to Rusty Firmin – a former SAS soldier who took part in the Falklands campaign and was part of the sub-unit assigned for the attack on Rio Grande airbase.  Nor are they members of 148 (Meiktila) Battery [Edited to add:  Oh yes they are! I should have recognised the picture, which appeared in Hugh McManners’ excellent ‘Falklands Commando’.  Thanks to all who tweeted to point this out], a part of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery which is how the photo is captioned.

So not SAS, and not part of any mission to attack Argentina.  Probably Royal Marines SBS who played their own part in the Falklands, but weren’t involved in operations on the South American mainland.

What the SAS aren’t doing in the wake of the Paris attacks.

He's not wrong...

He’s not wrong…

There’s a story in the Sunday Express today (you can read it here) which suggests that small teams of SAS men are working with ‘The Police’ (it doesn’t say which force or where) to provide additional security in response to the terrible events in Paris of the past week.  Oooh errr! Top insider journalism eh? Where do they get this stuff?

Well call me a cynic but if you ask me, this has been made up.  If not by the journalist, then by his source.

The great thing, for journalists, about the government’s refusal to comment on stories about the Special Forces and intelligence agencies is that nobody from the government is going to stand up and shout ‘pants on fire!’; they just don’t comment.

So here’s the nub of the exclusive:

“SAS troops are patrolling the streets of Britain to prevent a Paris-style terrorist outrage.”

and:

“Most of the Special Forces will be wearing civilian clothes, while some have donned police uniforms to accompany police officers who visit the homes of persons of interest in response to intelligence leads by MI5.”

and:

“The Sunday Express has learned that a 30-strong SAS team, divided into smaller groups, has been allocated to the Police Counter Intelligence Unit by the regiment’s inner sanctum, dubbed the Kremlin.”

Additionally, a ‘humint’ unit of ‘Asian and Muslim’ operatives is said to be working with the police in the West Midlands, the SBS have 120 men assigned for ‘maritime counter measures’ and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment were ‘last night’ intercepting mobile phone calls.

Really?  Let’s have a look at these claims.

Firstly, I’d bet a shiny sixpence that the SAS are not ‘patrolling the streets of Britain’ for the simple reason that it would not do any good whatsoever.  We can be sure that following the Paris murders, the police anti-terrorist command, MI5 and GCHQ are doing their absolute utmost to keep surveillance on as many known Jihadis as they possibly can.  We can be fairly sure that regional police forces have also stepped up security measures on likely and possible Jihadi targets but, as the atrocities at ‘Charlie Hebdo’ and ‘Hyper Cacher’ – not to mention the murder of Drummer Rigby –  demonstrate, the range of targets that Jihadis go for is somewhat eclectic.  So where would you set your SAS teams to patrol? A special high value target selected from a list that is likely to be quite long, or just have them mooch about a bit to see if they can spot a random Islamist up to no good?  It doesn’t seem like a good use of resources to me; you would just be splitting, and therefore diluting, a very significant resource.

I don’t know if you remember the 70s/80s TV series ‘The Professionals’ in which Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins played two operatives of the elite ‘CI5’ counter-everything organisation?  I loved this as a kid.  Quite a few episodes of it featured the characters ‘Bodie’ (Collins) and ‘Doyle’ (Shaw) patrolling around in their Ford Capri, waiting for something to happen and then piling in, guns blazing when it all kicked off, a bit like Starsky and Hutch.  It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I realised that this is a novel approach for highly-trained intelligence personnel to take.  They don’t add much value driving around suburban north-west London ogling girls in mini skirts on the off chance that a terrorist or spy ‘situation’ is suddenly going to kick off.

The second claim, that the SAS ‘will be wearing civilian clothes’ is pretty trivial.  If the SAS were to deploy covertly on Britain’s streets, they won’t be doing so in regimental No 2 Dress.  Will they be visiting ‘persons of interest’?  Again, I seriously doubt it.  Visiting suspects, some of whom are dangerous and may well get nasty, is the police’s ‘bread and butter’.  They do it every day.  The SAS don’t and, again, I can’t see them adding much value.  The kind of ‘visiting suspects’ practised by SAS teams in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few places, doesn’t normally feature a polite knock on the door whilst dressed as a copper.  It usually involves explosive entry, stun grenades and overwhelming firepower and it’s normally based on credible intelligence of an imminent or ongoing threat.  What’s the value in sending SAS as back-up for police when their own armed units are far more familiar with the procedures they will be using and pretty much as capable of dealing with any problems that arise? None that I can see.

The final SAS claim, that a 30 strong squad has been allocated to the ‘Police Counter Intelligence Unit’ is a bit of a giveaway.  Just for the record, ‘counter-intelligence’ is catching spies, not terrorists.  I assume that whoever came up with this story let their flight of fantasy run away with them a bit there and added in this bogus detail as colour.  It might be kinda, sorta credible to attach a team to the police ‘anti-terrorist’ command but ‘counter-intelligence’? Unlikely.

Incidentally, I know or have known quite a number of SAS people over the years, for one reason or another, and I’ve never heard one of them refer to either the Headquarters Special Forces, the Headquarters 22 SAS or any other part of the organisation as ‘the Kremlin’.  Tony Geraghty mentioned this usage in his history of the SAS published in 1980 and my guess is that it dates back to the 1960s.  These days, pretty well everyone refers to ‘the Head Shed’.

So what will the SAS actually be doing?  Common sense would suggest that they are ensuring that communications and liaison channels are working with Chief Constables who might have need to call on their services, and that reception plans are dusted off and in place for deployment anywhere across the UK.  Meanwhile, it’s no secret that an SAS Squadron, based at their barracks in the Welsh Marches, are on very short notice to move to deal with a terrorist situation if called upon.  This counter-terrorist team spends its 6-month rotation endlessly practising and refining drills to deal with a huge range of different situations which might arise.  I reckon they’ll continue to do this, for the time being.

As for the rest.  The army does have very professional humint units and it’s possible that experienced agent handlers have been drafted in to bolster the police and MI5 effort but they will be operating under civilian control if they have.  The SBS always have a squadron on standby for maritime counter-terrorism operations and the Special Reconnaissance Regiment don’t intercept mobile phones: GCHQ does that.  The SRR may well be assisting police and MI5 surveillance teams keeping watch on terrorist suspects: they’ve certainly done so in the past.

So what?  The answer is that despite the attacks in Paris, it is pretty much business as usual for the anti-terrorism community.  Clearly the threat is extremely high at the moment and I’d guess an attack of some sort is more likely than not, but I strongly doubt that the panic hinted at in the fabricated parts of the Express story is anything like what is actually happening.

Women in Combat

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Some years back I was at the old SAS barracks on the outskirts of Hereford collecting some kit for a friend.  I was chatting to an NCO I vaguely knew when a female soldier walked by.  There was nothing unusual about that: although there were fewer women in the army back then, they were reasonably ubiquitous, primarily in support roles as clerks, administrators, chefs and so forth.

This one was different however, because she was wearing the insignia of a ‘badged’ SAS soldier.  That is to say, a soldier who was a full-on member of the SAS rather than being attached support personnel.  I asked the NCO I was talking to who she was and he explained that she was a member of what used to be called ’14 Intelligence Company’, the undercover unit which was trained and operated under the auspices of the SAS in Northern Ireland.  She had served several operational tours in the unit and had been appointed to its ‘permanent cadre’ and thus had effectively become a member of the SAS. Fair enough: you don’t get much more ‘front-line’ than serving in Special Forces.

So it strikes me as a little strange that we are still discussing and ‘reviewing’ whether women can serve in front line combat roles as infantry soldiers or members of armoured vehicle crews.  The reality is they’ve been in the front line with the British Army for years and, in the kinds of conflicts we’ve been involved in recently, the concept of the front line has in any case become somewhat blurred.

The fact is that we’ve been through this before.  It was going to be the end of the world when we allowed black and minority ethnic recruits to join traditionally ‘white’ regiments; soldiers would be so horrified at having to serve alongside gay men and lesbians that morale would collapse and discipline disintegrate.  None of these things transpired.  Personally I can see no good reason why women who are physically able to act as infantry soldiers or tank crews shouldn’t do so.

Over the years, several – trivial and obtuse, in my view – objections to women serving in close combat roles have surfaced.  These are:

Women aren’t physically strong enough.  It is perfectly true that many women will not be strong enough to serve as infantrymen.  Way back in the day when I was an infantry platoon commander, in rural South Armagh, we routinely carried weapons and equipment weighing 40 or 50 kg for patrols and operations lasting several days.  It was hard work for fit, 6’2″, thirteen stone me; many women would not be able to do it.  But the fact is that some would and if they can, and there is no lowering of standards, there is no physical reason not to let them.  In truth, many men are not up to serving as infantry soldiers either.

Male soldiers would instinctively want to protect female colleagues rather than winning the firefight.  I think this relates to the physical strength argument.  Male soldiers will supposedly protect their ‘weaker’ female counterparts but if their female colleagues aren’t actually weaker, I doubt this is very likely.  As it happens, soldiers within an infantry fire team are surprisingly caring and protective of each other because they live, train and fight closely together but trained soldiers also understand that often the most sensible thing is to get on with the task at hand: if you’re clearing an enemy position with bayonets and grenades, you can’t necessarily down tools when one of your comrades is wounded – you need to finish the job.  We train our soldiers to fight and that often means suppressing ‘instinctive’ behaviour, why wouldn’t they be able to override any urge to protect female colleagues?

It’s ‘unfeminine’ to take part in close combat. Over the years, it’s been considered unfeminine to ride bicycles and horses (unless sidesaddle), play football, vote, attend university etc etc etc. Times change. Women fly fast jets and helicopters, crew artillery guns and do a whole range of other things within the military which ultimately lead to them raining death on their unfortunate opponents; I can’t really see why shooting or sticking a bayonet into an enemy is any less feminine than, for example, dropping a 500 lb bomb on him (or her, in this equal opportunity scenario).

When I first joined the army, women were there, effectively, to do the typing and cook the pasties and chips.  That’s all changed now and a good thing too: it was a hideous waste of talent and resources.  Nowadays, women are pretty much integrated throughout the army, except in the infantry and Royal Armoured Corps.  There is no particularly good reason for this restriction other than tradition and whilst many of our military traditions are valuable, this one isn’t and needs to be swept away along with our ‘traditional’ bigotries about serving with ethnic minorities and homosexuals.  If a woman is physically and mentally capable of serving in any role, then she should be able to do so if she chooses to.

Did the SAS kill Princess Diana?

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Short answer: no.

The interesting point about this is how much public money was wasted as the result of the Metropolitan Police’s ludicrous ‘scoping exercise’ examining whether the SAS was involved in any way in the death of Princess Diana and Dodi al Fayed (and indeed, Henri Paul, the drunken employee of Dodi al Fayed’s father who was actually responsible – nice bit of misdirection there, Mo).  My understanding is that this was one of a number of allegations made by the ex-wife of an SAS NCO sentenced to detention for illegal firearms possession, who was also responsible for shopping her ex-husband and, ultimately, Sgt Danny Nightingale.

You can see the police minds at work here:  she knew her ex had an illegal weapon therefore she must be a credible source on a ‘murder’ which took place sixteen years ago before – I strongly suspect – her husband had even joined the SAS.  What a farce.

What people always seem to forget about the SAS is that it is part of the army, it has budgets it has to justify and it gets its tasking through the normal military chain of command.  It isn’t a question of the Duke of Edinburgh (or the Prime Minister) phoning the CO and asking a quick favour in return for a case of retsina and a large doner with extra chill sauce.

They also forget that a big secret like this would be almost impossible to keep.  One of the great disappointments about working in intelligence was how mundane and unsurprising most secrets are.  Think about it: we know that MI6 recruits spies in foreign countries; we know that MI5 has informers planted amongst potentially subversive groups in the UK. If Anjem Choudhary isn’t actually an MI5 controlled provocateur*, then virtually everybody else he spends his waking life with will be.  When stories like this emerge, they simply don’t surprise us: the devil is in the precise detail.

What’s the biggest secret in the UK? I’d guess it’s the current location of the Trident deterrent patrol submarine – the ultimate guarantee of our national security.  Big secret eh?  Except it isn’t: we all know it patrols in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans.  The precise latitude and longitude are very well protected but the generality of the secret is utterly commonplace.

If the SAS had offed Princess Di, it would have required the Commanding Officer at the time to select a team who would accept such a grossly illegal order, plan a mission and execute it, and then not tell a soul.  Let’s not forget: this is a Regiment with a rich and lucrative ‘literary’ tradition.  Would everyone involved have remained quiet? Not in my experience.

‘Aha’, you might respond, ‘but someone obviously has talked, hence the investigation’.  When the only source is an embittered divorcee, seeking to throw the shit into the fan for her ex-husband and his regiment, a credibility test needs to be applied. By any standard of common-sense these allegations would have failed. That test wasn’t applied, the Met did their investigation, public money was wasted and the non-story gets reported as if it was news.

Actually, Princess Diana was once slightly hurt by the SAS.  During a hostage rescue demonstration at their training area in the Welsh Marches her hair got set on fire and had to be rapidly extinguished whilst Prince Charles and his entourage giggled, but that was it.  There certainly used to be a photograph of her in the Officers’ Mess in Hereford, when she was young and beautiful, wearing a combat smock and sitting in an SAS ‘Pink Panther’ patrol Landrover.  I think they rather liked her.

‘No evidence the SAS killed Diana’, wow, amazing.

*Updated to add this link: Telegraph Blogs  Come on: someone’s protecting him!

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The news that Sergeant Danny Nightingale has received a 12 month suspended sentence for illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition will be greeted with some mixed feelings in the army.

Since 5 May 1980 when B Squadron of 22 SAS Regiment stormed the Iranian Embassy in Prince’s Gate, London, the Special Air Service Regiment has entered popular culture as an awe-inspiring and almost mystical force: part James Bond, part Terminator, all British.  The success of books by former SAS soldiers like ‘Andy McNab’ has, if anything, served to increase this mystique.

Counterbalancing the exciting tales of derring-do is the secrecy of the SAS.  The government rarely, if ever, releases any information about the activities of its Special Forces and as a result, much of what does get into the public eye is based on rumour and speculation.

So it wasn’t entirely surprising when the conviction of Sergeant Danny Nightingale, an experienced SAS NCO, for the illegal possession of a Glock 9mm pistol – and his sentencing to 18-months military detention – provoked a furore in the media.  At its most basic level, this was simply a story about the SAS which could be reported, featuring an SAS soldier who actually could be identified (and who had a feisty and attractive wife) and which shed a little bit of light on what is normally a very closed world:  no wonder it was splashed all over the British press.

To many outside the military, it seemed ludicrous that an SAS soldier should be jailed for being in possession of a pistol:  don’t they always carry guns, surely that’s their job?  More realistically, although Nightingale had pleaded guilty at his original court martial, four distinguished former SAS members – Lt Col Richard Williams, Col Tim Collins, ‘Andy McNab’ and ‘Chris Ryan’ – wrote to the Prime Minister suggesting that the length of the sentence given to such an exemplary soldier, who had served in the Army for 17 years, 11 of which were in the SAS, represented a ‘shameful betrayal’.

There was also the question of a brain injury that Nightingale had suffered whilst competing in a jungle marathon in Brazil.  A medical expert testified in mitigation that Nightingale had problems with his memory and didn’t really remember how he had come by the pistol (the question of the 338 rounds of ammunition were effectively put to one side during the course of the first court martial), and may not even have known that he had it.

Response to the media coverage of Nightingale’s case was rapid.  Defence Secretary Philip Hammond asked the Attorney General to intervene – he was unable to – but the outcry did lead the Court of Appeal to expedite Nightingale’s appeal against sentence and within a fortnight of his court martial, his sentence was reduced to 12 months suspended detention and he was freed pending an appeal against conviction.

Sergeant Nightingale’s conviction was subsequently quashed because it emerged that he had effectively been offered an illegal plea bargain.  The standard ‘tariff’ for the illegal possession of a firearm is five years imprisonment and it seems that Nightingale had been told that he might well receive this sentence if he pleaded ‘not guilty’.  This was all well and good,  Nightingale was already a free man but there was a sting in the tail: the court ordered a retrial.

If retrials were decided on the basis of public, press and political support, Nightingale’s would have been a formality but there were dissenters, and, perhaps surprisingly, many of them were in the military.

What has exercised much soldierly wrath is the idea that being a member of the Special Air Service Regiment should have entitled Sergeant Nightingale to special treatment by the law.  The question is whether a sergeant in, say, the Royal Logistic Corps would have been able to mobilise the same level of support in parliament, public and press in similar circumstances?  The answer is almost certainly not.

The reality is that the SAS is to all legal intents and purposes the same as any other regiment or corps in the army; and its officers and soldiers – as carefully selected and highly trained as they are – are the same as any other soldiers.  Nightingale’s supporters seemed to argue that he should be treated differently simply because he was in the SAS, as if this conveyed a special status.  It doesn’t and shouldn’t.

There was a period in the late 1970s and on through the 1980s when there was a strong feeling within the army that serving in the Special Forces was the only way that the ordinary soldier might ever get to experience combat.  Most thought the Falklands War of 1982 had been an aberration and many of us who were students at Sandhurst over the next few years felt that the British Army was unlikely to do anything similar again.  It was during this period that service in the SAS came to be seen by many within the army as the apotheosis of soldiering.

But this has changed.  Whilst commentators expected a ‘peace dividend’ at the end of the Cold War, and the politicians gleefully cashed it in, the reality has been increased instability and more military intervention.  In 1990, the only British soldiers likely to have taken part in a firefight will have been veterans of the Falklands War, a small handful of veterans of Northern Ireland and members of the SAS; in 2010, any infantryman who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan would most likely have experienced any number of ‘contacts’ at a higher intensity than at any time since the Korean War.  ‘Andy McNab’, the highly decorated SAS NCO turned writer is, in terms of combat experience, a rookie in comparison to many junior NCOs in line infantry regiments.  The net result is that whilst the SAS are still much admired, they don’t have quite the same warrior ‘aura’ they once possessed.  They do a difficult and highly skilled job, but it isn’t necessarily any more dangerous than what much of the rest of the army does; they get paid a significant amount more money to do it; and, by and large, soldiers from other parts of the army think that is special treatment enough.  Members of the SAS should not be able to behave badly and get away with it.

Soldiers like guns.  In fact they really like them.  For many, it is one of the key reasons they first thought of joining the army.  But as they go through training and on into normal service, the huge majority learn to treat guns – and other weapons – with maturity and respect.  The little boy in most soldiers might like the idea of having an unaccountable weapon tucked away somewhere ‘just in case’ but the sensible adult usually trumps this.  I know from my own experience that there were large numbers of dodgy weapons floating around in Iraq – I personally acquired four Kalashnikovs, four 9mm pistols and several thousand rounds of appropriate ammunition for my team in order to increase our limited firepower – but I, and the rest of my team, resisted the temptation to bring any of these back.  Putting aside the question of criminality, every soldier I have spoken with about the Nightingale case thinks he displayed an astonishing level of immaturity in bringing an illegal weapon back to the UK.

Then there is the question of the ammunition.  Every time an officer or soldier from the SAS or any other part of the army  leaves any military range where live ammunition has been used they are briefed to the effect that it is a ‘military and civilian offence to be in possession of live rounds or empty [spent] cases’.  They are required to check their clothing and equipment for any unused ammunition and to give the following declaration to the range conducting officer: ‘I have no live rounds or empty cases in my possession’.  They are then told that if they do subsequently find any ammunition ‘it should be handed in to a responsible officer or NCO’.  Many units, including 22 SAS, also maintain ‘amnesty boxes’ for this purpose.

Despite this, Sergeant Nightingale managed to accumulate more than 300 live rounds, as well as a smoke grenade, at his accommodation.  Apart from being – in a sense – the equivalent of stealing stationery from work this was also a bit weird.  Much of what Sergeant Nightingale had taken home with him could not be used in any context other than his day job as a soldier in the SAS:  the rifle ammunition couldn’t be fired from the Glock he was hiding.  This again was an offence that an ‘ordinary’ soldier would have received a hefty punishment for, as Sergeant Nightingale knew, having previously been fined £1000 when serving with the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment for illegally possessing ammunition.

At the second court martial Sergeant Nightingale entered a ‘not guilty’ plea and focused his defence on the memory issues caused by his brain injury.  His lawyers argued that he he had no real memory of how he had come into possession of the pistol and ammunition if, indeed, he ever had.  Sergeant Nightingale’s defence suggested that his housemate, another SAS NCO who was serving a sentence of military detention for similar offences, might also have been responsible for the weapon and ammunition in Sergeant Nightingale’s room.  In the end, the court martial decided that there was sufficient evidence that Sergeant Nightingale had been aware of the pistol and ammunition to convict him.

With the imposition of a 12 month suspended sentence one must hope that the saga has now come to an end, at least for Sergeant Nightingale and his family.  Even so, it does raise some important points which are worthy of further discussion.

The first of these is the question of ministerial (and indeed Prime Ministerial) influence on the military justice system.  During the course of the second court martial, the Army Rumour Service website (http://www.arrse.co.uk) was contacted by the Director of Service Prosecutions with a warning that the discussion taking place about the Nightingale case might amount to a contempt of court.  Yet where does that leave the Defence Secretary and other ministers and MPs who had very publicly indicated their disagreement with the sentence of the first court martial?  It would not be hard to argue that the Secretary of State had indirectly put the court martial under intense pressure to either acquit or award a lenient sentence on conviction.

The second is the supposedly ‘special’ status of the SAS.  It is easy to understand why the press and public might assume that members of the SAS should be treated differently to other soldiers, but less easy to see why ministers might think they should be.  It is hard to imagine the Secretary of State intervening in a similar case involving a soldier in the Dental Corps or the Royal Artillery.

Thirdly, and most importantly, is the question of Britain’s gun laws.  The minimum sentencing guidelines for illegal possession of firearms were brought in to deter criminals from acquiring and using firearms for the commission of crime.  Even his harshest critics have not accused Sergeant Nightingale, or his former housemate, of intending to use their illegal guns to stick up Sub-Post Offices yet courts are obliged to treat them as if they were.  This is ludicrous.  Sergeant Nightingale and his colleague made gross errors of judgement which deserved condign punishment but that punishment needs to be kept in the context of how and why they acquired the weapons and ammunition and what they intended to do with them: these were not ‘gangstas’ intent on crimes of violence.

A 12 month suspended sentence strikes me as lenient but I certainly don’t begrudge it. I do hope this will be seen as a precedent for all soldiers convicted in similar circumstances, not just members of the SAS, and I’d suggest that now might be the time for the Ministry of Justice to revisit the minimum sentence guidelines for illegal firearms possession in order to give judges far more latitude to take circumstances into account when sentencing.

Finally, many soldiers I’ve spoken with have have criticised Mrs Nightingale for her vocal campaign  on her husband’s behalf, suggesting that she has somehow exacerbated the situation.  I don’t see this at all and I hope that if I was in the same boat, my wife would windmill in in the same manner.  She’s done her best to keep her husband out of jail, succeeded and good luck to her!

Update

This post was written before the Judge Advocate’s somewhat scathing remarks were made public (see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-23450909).  I agree with much of his criticism of the campaign on Sergeant Nightingale’s behalf and it seems to me that there’s an implicit criticism of the Court of Appeal there as well, which is unusual for a lower court.