Special Air Service


Second World War

The Special Air Service was formed in 1941 as a commando force to raid enemy facilities and installations. It evolved over the course of the war into an established force which took part in different theatres of operation.

As its role was to strike swiftly and at points unexpected, it was highly mobile, using Jeeps equipped with Vickers GO No. 1 Mk. 1 guns mounted in pairs on the front and rear. This created a heavily armed, yet light and fast, fighting platform. They also used the Mk. I Vickers in a support fire role.

1st SAS Regiment

As of 6th June 1944, this unit was commanded by Lt. Col. Paddy Mayne.

2nd SAS Regiment

As of 6th June 1944, this unit was commanded by Lt. Col. Brian Franks.

As it served in Northern Italy, where it could be quite hilly and mountainous, the Vickers was moved by mules and man-carry in ‘unorthodox’ ways, particularly with the ammunition belts strapped around the body of the men.

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2nd SAS Regiment – Italy, 1945

One of the operations in which the 2nd SAS Regiment participated was Operation GALIA between 27 December 1944 and 15 February 1945. This operation consisted of five sticks (of either five or six men) and a Troop headquarters of eight men and officers. They parachuted behind enemy lines inland from Spezia in the north-west of Italy. After their initial parachute drop they were resupplied on several occasions and this included a drop of three Vickers Mk I machine guns and at least one 3-inch mortar.  These were used very successfully to ambush enemy columns and supply lines from the mountains and hills in the area; however, despite the clear intent and planning to use the Vickers during these operations, only two of the men parachuted in were considered trained in their use: All of the other men had to learn ‘on the job’ whilst behind enemy lines.

In the preliminary report written by Capt Walker Brown MBE and cited by Robert Hann (2009) the following entries include reference to the operational use of the Vickers machine gun. All other entries have been omitted:

13 Jan 45 Returned to [drop zone] “Halifax” [the operation’s original drop zone] to find that a single B25 [American bomber] had dropped a Vickers MMG without a parachute.

15 Jan 45 Received a drop with two Vickers MGs. Moved to Rossano. Cpl. Johnson and two men with the remainder of the drop were left as the equipment and stores could not be carried that day owing to shortage of mules.

18 Jan 45 Captain Walker Brown’s party, leaving behind the following sick: Pcts. [presumably Parachutists] Rose, Gargan and Hildage, moved to Codolo, 685400 [all map references from Italy 1:100,000 sheets 84 and 95 using North Italy Brown Grid P], with Major Lett, intending to carry out a Vickers gun attack against the German garrison of 300 in Vignola, 700416. This attack, however, had to be abandoned owing to the fact that the enemy had the route between Codolo and Vignola under observation. It was then decided to carry out an ambush on the road South of Pontremoli and immediately afterwards to attack the road North of Pontremoli. Accordingly, the SAS party moved to Arzelato, 691366, with the intention of leaving the mules at Arzelato and attacking the road that night. The march from Codolo to Arzelato was exceptionally hard and slow because there was heavy cloud, ice and snow, and it was pitch black. It was found that it would not be possible to attack the road that night and for the party to withdraw to a secure base by daylight. Therefore the following day was spent at Arzelato.

19 Jan 45 All personnel had to remain in houses with no movement outside as Arzelato was under full observation of the enemy garrison of Pontremoli. On the night of the 19th, a party of partisans from the band of Ricchetta, who had asked permission from Major Lett to take part in an SAS attack, arrived and placed themselves under SAS command. The party of 20 was commanded by a partisan known as Nino, a man with a high reputation among the partisans.

At 19.00 hrs, in darkness, Captain Walker Brown’s party and the partisans, less Major Lett, Cpl. Johnson, and the mules, attacked the Pontremoli – Aulla road at 744363. Owing to the bad light only two Vickers guns were used and both of these were sited to fire on fixed lines at a point where the road has a drop of 50 ft on the West flank and a steep cutting on the East flank. A single vehicle with headlights was engaged and drove straight into a column of marching troops who were also hit by MG fire. Casualties are not known but German troops told civilians the following day that there were large numbers of dead on the road. The enemy replied with very weak and totally ineffective rifle fire but it was sufficient to make the partisans disappear rapidly.

20 Jan 45 At 00.30 hrs the SAS party and partisans withdrew from the ambush position and marched to Codolo. The partisans remained at Codolo and the SAS party moved to Noce, 632377, to an [rendezvous]. He carried a message informing Captain Walker Brown that Cpl. Johnson and the mule train had made contact with an enemy patrol but had succeeded in withdrawing without incident to Arzelato where Major Lett had redirected them to Coloretta, 623370.

The SAS party accordingly marched to Coloretta, arriving at 07.00 hrs. The party was extremely tired. At 07.15 hrs, first light, a large force of Germans estimated at battalion strength were observed at 250 yards advancing in extended order. The alarm was given and the SAS party succeeded in withdrawing without casualties under enemy mortar fire.

Lieut. Riccomini who was suffering from a septic foot, Pct. Sumptor, and an Italian guide, were left – after the SAS and partisans withdrew from the ambush position – to follow after the main body slowly. The partisans in Codolo were surrounded and six, including Nina, were shot.

Pcts. Everett and Hann who had been sent out to make a recce of our line of march did not succeed in rejoining the main body for some days. Cpl. Johnson and the mules did not make contact with the main body at Coloretta owing to the fact that he was fired upon en route; most of the mule drivers deserted and the bulk of the equipment was lost, including all [wireless transmitting] equipment, rations, rucksacks, and sleeping bags. With the main body were two mules carrying both Vickers guns. These were unloaded before the alarm was given and both mules and equipment were captured by the enemy.

At first light the enemy attacked the First Ligurian Div from Pontremoli, Borgo Val di Taro, Bedonia, Varese, Borgeto, and Calice, simultaneously. Captain Walker Brown and party moved to Rio, 546335, arriving at 17.00 hrs. At 17.30 hrs the enemy opened fire on Rio with a 75 mm gun. The party then moved to the foot of Monte Gottero, 561397, where they spent the night.

7 Feb 45 Contact was made with a partisan leader named Bucchione who commanded a band of 150 strong. This band had high morale and had done a considerable amount of damage in their area, including raids on Spezia, and they will definitely fight. On the night 7/8th Feb, Sgt. Rookes with one Vickers gun and three Bren guns destroyed 8 enemy vehicles and inflicted a large number of casualties on a party of German troops and mules bivouacking at the side of the road. The remainder of the troop under Captain Walker Brown attacked the Genoa – Spezia road at 618225, destroying two enemy trucks and two houses at Statano, 745192, and one house at Manzile, 623244, as a reprisal. An Italian runner from Bucchione’s band sent to investigate Sgt. Rookes’ attack could not get precise information about casualties, but he reported that civilians living in Isola, 745186, on the scene of the attack, said that there were many enemy killed and wounded.

APPENDICES

(d) NOTES ON EQUIPMENT

In the troop area all heavy stores had to be carried by mules. It is not possible to do long carries with a 3″ mortar or a Vickers MMG for more than 1,000 yards.

The Vickers MMG was used with success. It is an ideal weapon to use in conjunction with a 3″ mortar.

There was a shortage of trained mortar numbers and Vickers machine gunners … The only trained machine gunners were Sgt. Rookes and Cpl. Larley.

(e) LESSONS LEARNT

1. Combined mortar and machine gun attacks against enemy held towns seem to produce more rapid and heavy  reaction than simple ambushing of roads. In addition, enemy traffic was invariably halted for a considerable number of hours after one of these attacks.

4. It was found that 1/25,000 maps were invaluable for estimating the ranges for Vickers MG and 3″ mortar. The maximum weight men can carry across snow covered mountainous country is 20 lbs in their packs. If heavier weights are carried men become excessively fatigued.

5. Mules are essential for carrying heavy stores but they cannot be taken closer than 800 yards to the fire position owing to the amount of noise they make on rough rocky tracks.

9. … No civilians or partisans must be allowed to pass the mortar or Vickers position if they are proceeding in the direction of enemy, unless the time factor would obviously make it impossible to warn the enemy.

3rd SAS Regiment

As of 6th June 1944, this unit was commanded by Commandant Conan. It was formed from the 3e Regiment Chasseurs de Parachutists of France.

4th SAS Regiment

As of 6th June 1944, this unit was commanded by Commandant Bourgoin. It was formed from the 2e Regiment Chasseurs de Parachutists of France.

5th SAS Regiment

As of 6th June 1944, this unit was commanded by Captain Blondeel. It was formed from Belgian Troops.


Post-Second World War

The SAS was disbanded after the Second World War, yet was re-established shortly after and continued to serve around the world, particularly in a counter-insurgency role.  They continued to use the GO No 1 Mk I even when they moved from jeeps to Land Rovers even as late as 1960, up until their replacement by the General Purpose Machine Gun.


Sources