Phantom Soldiers

Most SAS keep to themselves. They socialise together, are hard drinkers, and `watch each other’s backs’. They don’t talk freely about their work, which is why most of what they do remains secret….

In recent years SAS has received nearly $5m of new communications equipment, including compact satellite communications units and “special warfare equipment”.

Special warfare, or “internal warfare”, generally refers to unconventional military operations within a country against a group of its citizens. This is warfare by sabotage, assassination and guerilla-style hunting of the enemy.

The NZSAS has been involved in special warfare operations in many countries since its formation in 1955. The SIS was established a year later. Both were formed at the request and with the support of Britain as elements of a Cold War alliance fighting communism at home and abroad.

On its first overseas tour in Malaya in 1955-57 the NZSAS was attached to the British 22nd SAS Regiment and spent weeks in the jungle fighting “communist terrorists”. In two 13-week operations in the Fort Brooke area they killed the opposition ASAL leader Ah Ming and his deputy, and in the mountainous Negri Sembilan area killed resistance leader Li Hak Chi. The deployment was regarded as a great success in a report from the time, with a total of 26 “terrorist eliminations” during a tour of 17 months.

The NZSAS was disbanded when it returned from Malaya, but was re-established in 1959. It was sent to Borneo in 1965 and operated with Britain’s SAS and Royal Marines. Although officially stopping incursions into Malayasian Borneo, it is now known SAS teams were entering Indonesia, killing soldiers there.

These were code-named “Claret” operations and occurred without the knowledge of the New Zealand or British parliaments. The SAS teams called them “shoot and scoot” excursions. The operation helped destabilise the Sukarno government and was followed by an internal bloodbath.

Next was Vietnam. In late 1968 the first 26 NZSAS soldiers, from the 1st Ranger Squadron 10, arrived in Vietnam. They were based with Australian and New Zealand Army units at Nui Dat.

During 26 months there the NZSAS undertook 155 patrols, usually lasting for 10 days, after being dropped in by helicopter. Their primary task was intelligence gathering, which was used to direct attacks, most often by US B52 bombers.

According to Dan, the close ties with the British SAS established in Malaya and Borneo continue today. His overseas deployments are usually with the British SAS.

He has been sent to a South American country, to Papua New Guinea, and at least once to Indonesia. He also mentioned a short deployment to Sri Lanka and Cambodia. Other NZSAS members have fought with the British SAS in Northern Ireland, been part of the May 1980 British SAS storming of the Iranian embassy in London, fought beside President Ferdinand Marcos’ troops against Filipinos and helped to train forces and operated throughout Southeast Asia.

Former British SAS officer David Mason is on the record saying “troops” of four NZSAS soldiers were regularly sent to Britain on secondment and that he had fought with two of them, who were on “extended secondment to the British SAS”, in Oman in 1974-76.

This was the Dhofar War, in which since 1963 a revolutionary movement from Dhofar province had been trying to overthrow an autocratic sultan supported by Britain and the Shah of Iran.

Few New Zealanders would have had the slightest understanding of the reasons behind this war, but still NZSAS members fought there.

The movement in Dhofar was defeated in 1976, and the NZSAS is still providing support to the sultan. For example, an NZSAS parachute training officer went to Oman in 1990-91.

Mason said the NZSAS had fought in combat roles with the British in “Northern Ireland and everywhere that Britain goes”. From another source I have information on NZSAS snipers working in Bosnia from the start of November 1994.

Bravo Two Zero, a book by British SAS sergeant Andy McNab, describes the activity of one NZSAS soldier _ known only as “Mark the Kiwi” _ in Iraq during the Gulf War. He served in a unit sent to attack communications facilities, pipelines and Scud missile sites.

The mission was a shambles. Their intelligence proved dangerously inaccurate _ they were dropped right next to an Iraqi military position and their radio did not work.

On their first morning in Iraq they were spotted _ by a boy herding goats _ and from then it was a case of just trying to survive and escape. But they had almost no food and water, and only light clothing, and nearly froze to death in snowstorms.

They did, however, have a staggering arsenal of weapons and tried to shoot their way out. One escaped, four were captured and three died. They estimated they killed or wounded about 250 Iraqis. Mark the Kiwi returned to Britain on a stretcher.

Defence sources quoted elsewhere say no New Zealand SAS died during the Gulf War but three were killed in an incident in another, unnamed, country shortly after. Army stories also tell of two others killed fighting “communist terrorists” in Southeast Asia _ probably Malaysia _ in the early 1980s.

Mark, Dan and other NZSAS members “joined” the British SAS for the duration of the Gulf War by using a routine bureaucratic trick. During such overseas operations, SAS members are “seconded” to foreign special forces. They “officially leave” the New Zealand Defence Force, which allows New Zealand to be dissociated from such operations.

This subterfuge also keeps the operations secret from the public and, often, from the Government. After a period of operations overseas the soldiers quietly “rejoin” the NZSAS. My 1990 list of past and present SAS members has numerous examples of individuals leaving and rejoining some months later.

Many other “secondments” _ like Dan’s _ are not formally recorded but serve the same purpose. Everything is secret and “deniable”. As Dan explained _ a deliberate dodge.

Dan is proud of the NZSAS. He says it is respected by overseas counterparts because the small size requires broad training and versatility. He contrasts this with US special forces members, who “have all the equipment but can’t think for themselves”. He said this was certainly the case in the Gulf War.

SAS members train intensively. Dan was trained in unarmed combat, small weapons, heavy weapons, operations under water, in jungles and in snow, and in parachuting and helicopter insertions.

Dan does not seem like a trained killer. He is quiet, humorous and well read on current affairs. He sees most international situations in terms of “go in, sort it out, get out quick” solutions. When it to work, the SAS obey orders without question.

He says most SAS members keep to themselves. They socialise together and are hard drinkers. They are close _ “always watching each other’s backs”. Their wives often stay together when the men are overseas.

Dan has been to Norway for training in winter skills with the British SAS, to France for parachute training, trained in underwater operations with US Navy SEALs, has frequent training trips to Australia and has trained with the Ghurkas in Nepal.

The NZSAS also has regular exercises in Southeast Asia (notably Malaysia) _ including with US special forces _ and in the South Pacific. Until 1985 these openly included exercises with US counterparts.

In the Philippines in 1981, NZSAS members joined with US, Australian and Marcos government special forces for training, including “neutralising an enemy VIP”.

After the Anzus row in the mid-1980s, only the publicly visible US military links were cut. For example, one NZSAS member trained with US special forces units in Hawaii for more than six months in the late 1980s. Another attended a three-month course in the US in late 1990.

Some former SAS troops become mercenaries after leaving the army. The most popular regions are Israel and other Middle East countries, where they command high salaries. There are no restrictions on where they sell their skills. There could be and should be. The Government refuses to release information about the SAS.

This policy seems to be less for security reasons than political ones: To protect the SAS from public accountability.

Military complaints about underfunding are often heard. A good place to start saving money would be to abolish the SAS’s special warfare role — one designed more to curry favour with old allies than to serve our real interests.