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It was June of 1962. My wife, two daughters, and I arrived in Southampton, England. The instructions I had received in Fort Bragg requested that my family and I take a bus to London and, after checking into a hotel, to call the headquarters of the Special Air Service (SAS) and receive further information about where and when to report to the unit.
The dock was full of activity; but somehow, amongst the press of debarking passengers and the waiting crowd of homecoming well-wishers, I was found and greeted by an American major. He introduced himself as Bob Kingston and told me he had just completed a year attachment to the British Parachute Regiment. He'd come down to the pier to ten me how useful he thought I'd find my tour with the SAS. I tried to be polite and hear everything he had to say, but my mind was on collecting my luggage, clearing customs, and getting Katherine and the girls London-bound.
Settled into the bus, somewhere beyond the cathedral town of Winchester, I had a chance to think about what Major Kingston had told me. He'd been the second person to rave about the Special Air Service. The first had been Col.I.A. "Boppy" Edwards, the CO of the 7th Special Forces Group.
A few years earlier, Colonel Edwards had gotten together an SAS officer, Lt. Col. John Woodhouse, and between they had shaped an exchange program between the two elite units. The Brits would send the U.S. Army Special Forces officer and a noncommissioned officer; and our Green Berets would reciprocate. A Sergeant Rozniak and I got into the program in 1962. We were selected to spend a year training with the 22 Special Air Service Regiment.
I knew a little about the SAS. I knew thatit shared with the Brigade of Guards a deep respect for quality and battle discipline, but unlike the Guards it had little respect for drill and uniform, in part because it approached warfare in an entirely unorthodox manner. During World War II, in collaboration with the Long Range Desert Group, the First SAS Regiment had conducted raids behind Rommel's lines in the Western Desert on Benghazi, Tobruk, and Jalo. Then after the war, throughout the fifties, the unit had fought with distinction in Malaya. Working in small unit formations, some as small as 4-man patrols, the SAS had penetrated deeply into the Malayan jungle and there had hunted down, fought, and helped defeat a large, well-armed Communist guerrilla force. From this long campaign the Special Air Service had emerged with a reputation as perhaps the free world's finest counterterrorist unit.
This thumbnail historical sketch was all I knew. I had no idea how they assessed, selected, and trained their soldiers. Overflowing with the cockiness of youth, I was a hotshot Green Beret captain with Special Operations experience. I'd served a tour two years earlier in Laos. Our people in Fort Bragg had led me to believe I would lend to the Brits special skiffs and training methods we Yanks had learned. At the same time, I expected to pass along to our community information from the SAS. It didn't always work out that way — certainly not in my case.
In London, the adjutant of headquarters SAS, Maj. C.E. "Dare" Newell, told me he would drive us Monday to the Herefordshire home of the 22 Special Air Service Regiment, Bradbury Lines. Early Monday morning, Major Newell came by and picked us up. It was a hot summer's day, and the green English countryside, especially west of Oxford, looked lush. Toward midafternoon we drove into Bradbury Lines.
It was obvious the regiment had gone to a lot of trouble in making preparations to receive us. Several of the officers and their wives were waiting for us at our new quarters, which were situated directly across the street from the officers' mess. Our rooms were completely furnished, and once we had unloaded our luggage from Major Newell's auto, the wives took Katherine and the girls on a tour of the town that would be their home for the next year.
I felt very comfortable in these new surroundings, even if I was surrounded by men from Cornwall and Wales, Liverpool and Glasgow, whose various brogues, accents, and dialects I would have to learn. I expect they had as much trouble with my Georgia drawl.
After the second day, biting at the bit, I was called up to the regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Wilson.
Once the pleasantries were concluded, I was informed I would be going to A Squadron. This was disappointing. I had hoped I would go to D Squadron. It was commanded by a big redheaded Scotsman named Harry Thompson, who had been to the States and understood Americans. In the short time I'd been in Bradbury Lines I'd learned that Thompson was part of the team that had so successfully dealt with the CTs (Communist Terrorists) in Malaya.
A Squadron was commanded by Maj. Peter Walter. A small man and a very sharp dresser, he perceived himself — and was in fact — quite a ladies' man. He'd come up through the SAS ranks, beginning as a sergeant during the Emergency. Walter was a very hard man who had the reputation of being physically and mentally tough. He also wanted you to think he was without scruples. His nickname was "the Rat." At first I wasn't very comfortable with him.
There were four troops in A Squadron, and I would command Three Troop. I was taken by Major Walter to A Squadwo Headquarters where I was introduced to my temporary troop sergeant, "Gypsy" Smith. Sergeant Smith then escorted me- to Three Troop's billets.
Although the camp was World War II vintage, it showed now of its age. Bradbury Lines was, in fact, growing old graciously. The grounds and gardens were meticulously maintained by a crew of gardeners. The barracks had been recently painted on the outside a dazzling white with blue trim.
Straight lines, square comers, yes, sir, no, sir, three bags full. That's what I'd been taught. That's what I knew. I was a captain in the United States Army. Straight lines. Square comers. Yes, sir! No, sir! Three bags fall!
I walked into Three Troop's wooden barracks. The long room was a mess. It was worn and dirty. Rucksacks (called Bergens) were strewn everywhere. Beds were unkempt, uniforms scruffy. It reminded me more of a football locker room than an army barracks. Two of the troopers — I never learned if it was done for my benefit or not — were brewing tea on the floor in the middle of the room...