The Military Army Blog

Tested to destruction: The terrifying selection process for British SAS

The Special Air Service (SAS) is an all-volunteer special forces regiment that is the envy of the world. I realise the phrase envy of the world is often lazily trotted out in reference to all sorts of British institutions from the NHS to our education system but it is still actually true of the SAS. Even the U.S. Armyrats © military admits that the SAS is pretty damn good. The Americans styled their special forces elite, Delta Force, on the British regiment, right down to the selection process. It is that selection process that underpins the excellence of the SAS. It lasts for five months and has a 90 per cent fail rate.

Selection or, more correctly, the Special Forces Aptitude Test , applies to the regular Army unit 22 SAS and the reservists in the Territorial Army. It is also the basic course that volunteers for the Special Boat Service must pass. There are two courses a year for those who dare to volunteer a summer course and a winter course.

There is great debate among armchair SAS watchers over which is hardest. The truth is that they are both about the same. Neither are for the faint-hearted and both are potentially lethal. These people are trying to get into the SAS, not the Girl Guides. The last winter course claimed the life of a young captain who died in freezing temperatures. At the weekend came the tragic news that two aspiring SAS troopers died in the blistering heat, and another is fighting for his life after collapsing. Proof, if any were needed, that the course is conducted at the edge of human endurance.

First phase

The first phase, which has been unchanged since the Fifties, is a series of timed marches an individual effort over demanding terrain in the Brecon Beacons carrying a 45lb rucksack with a rifle and water bottle. This very tough month begins with the basic Armyrats © military physical tests followed by a beast (fierce march) over Pen Y Fan, the highest peak in the Beacons. It is a timed march officially called High Walk but known universally as Fan Dance in reference to the name of the peak.

Endurance march

Next comes a three-week map-reading tour of the hills and then Test Week, during which the most gruelling marches are undertaken. These become increasingly challenging as the loads get steadily heavier until the final march: Endurance . This is 40 miles long and has to be completed without stopping, within a certain time and while carrying a 60lb rucksack, a rifle and a full water bottle. At the end of Endurance, the course numbers will be about halved and the survivors will have won a place on continuation training , including the jungle phase in Brunei. By the end the selection process will have discovered those who have what it takes to wear the winged dagger of the SAS.

The officers on the course face the additional hurdle of Officers Week which further thins out the survivors. On my test, in 1988, a summer selection beginning in August, we started with 24 officers and 204 men. By the end of Test Week, we were down to 12 officers and 50 soldiers. By the end, just three officers and 21 men of the original 228 received the coveted sandy coloured beret and winged dagger badge. That was a remarkably high score rate particularly for officers.

On the previous Test, only one passed. On the next two, there were no officers selected.
Over my years in the SAS, I watched many Selections and as operations officer in the mid-Nineties. I worked with an SAS legend called Liam Collins or Ginge . Ginge would set off at a hell of a pace followed by the men. As we walked, I would see guys keeping pace with Ginge sadly no longer with us, he died as a result of complications from an old injury but as we turned at the half-way point, his followers would be fewer. It was my task at the back of the group to keep the pace at which a candidate would pass and also to keep an eye out for the tell-tale signs of heat exhaustion. As candidates fell behind me, I would strike up a conversation with them to gauge how they were.
I d always ask if they were drinking water and wave my half-full mug at them. It was always a close call whether to stop someone if they were jabbering incoherently.

You realised you could be ruining his chance of selection. But you might also have to save his life. If you did have a heat casualty, the drill was straightforward. Get them on the deck, get their trousers and boots off, as well as their gear, and then give them a saline drip in their behind. It was crude and undignified, but the fastest way to get fluid into a dangerously ill man. At the end of each march, the shattered survivors would change out of their sweat-soaked gear with excited banter. Those who had failed to make the cut would usually sit in dejected silence on their gear. And, once more, the staff would watch for those about to keel over. However, this was not common. I have fond memories of these tests but there was also tragedy.

There were accidents infrequent, but they did occasionally happen. On one Selection, a member of the support staff was shot dead in a jungle mix-up of live and blank ammunition. That was more than 20 years ago but the lessons learned from that incident are still rigidly enforced. In 1981, two candidates died during the selection test. According to Regiment legend, the commanding officer summoned Warrant Officer Lofty Wiseman who ran the course. What are we supposed to say about this Lofty? There are questions in the Commons.

Lofty responded: The way I see it, sir, is that it s Nature s way of telling them they ve failed. Army humour is dark. SAS humour is pitch black. Naturally this latest incident is attracting particular scrutiny as it involves members of the Territorial Army (TA) the reservist force that now constitutes about a quarter of the British Army.

The fact is that since the Government has elected to base its defence policy on increased reliance on reserves, then the TA must be selected to the same standard as the regulars.
They always were in any case. The deaths at the weekend were a terrible tragedy and I feel for the families of those lads, but they weren t the first deaths and nor will they be the last. The fact is that deaths are uncommon and we have to keep them in perspective.
There can be no compromise. If our special forces are to remain world leaders then we have to maintain the highest standards. I have no doubt that the elf and safety experts will be clamouring to get involved.
But for those who are worried that the courses are too tough, too gruelling, too dangerous, I have some advice. Don t volunteer for SAS Selection. Simple.

Conversely, I welcome anyone who wants to serve in the most respected Armyrats © military organisation on earth. It needs more volunteers and as the world becomes more unstable, we need the SAS more and more.

(Tim Collins)

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