Special Forces: In The Shadows at the National Army Museum


It is a year since the National Army Museum had its makeover, funded in part by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and it has transformed what was a rather dingy and dusty old mausoleum, to a light and airy, twenty-first century, rock’n’roll, razzamattazz display of film posters, neon signs, interactive consoles, monitors, film clips, maps, weaponry, uniforms, paintings and photographs, just for starters. It is all a bit overwhelming and difficult to focus on any one object, as all around, others are clamouring for your attention.

Their new

temporary exhibition is a more subdued affair, with low-level lighting, backlit photographs, cut-outs, objects in vitrines, testimonies from former soldiers, and acres of captions. The SAS was initially founded by Captain David Stirling during the Second World War, as part of the North African Campaign, and its first mission was a disaster, with half the force either killed or captured. It has grown and matured over the years into the Special Forces we know today, involved in Counter-terrorism, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, as well as Strike and Support.We only know what ‘they’ want us to know, for obvious reasons, so one can only imagine the amount of intelligence that we don’t know. What I do know is that, looking at the selection process in a section called Making the Cut, there is no way that I would even get through the door to the first interview: I failed miserably to spot snipers hiding in the undergrowth in a series of images taken by a German photographer Simon Menner, even with a lot of finger-pointing from the curator. ‘No, there! No, not there, THERE!’ I also failed dismally in an interactive ‘Kim’s Game’, even at entry level.

Since the end of WWII, there was a requirement for Special Forces units to combat the threat from nationalist and communist insurgencies, and now, terrorists of all persuasions, both here in Britain and abroad. The SAS came to prominence, and public recognition during the siege of the Iranian Embassy in 1980, when troops abseiled down the building, crashed through the windows with stun-grenades, all in public view and on BBC TV, and released the hostages. Job done, they drove back to Herefordshire in their black Range Rovers, and were not really heard of again until their rumoured involvement in the Falklands War a couple of years later. It was another eight years before they hit the headlines again in Operation Desert Storm, with SCUD watch teams assigned the now infamous call sign, ‘Bravo Two Zero’, led by a sergeant who now writes under the nom de plume, Andy McNab. When the SAS squadrons arrived in the Iraqi desert, they were woefully under-equipped for the freezing night-time temperatures, and they had goat skin coats made, one of which is on display.

Equipment features quite heavily in the exhibition, from the black rubber gas respirators and black overalls as worn by the troops storming the Iranian Embassy, to a range of guns with silencers, telescopic sights and all manner of bells and whistles, as well as survival kits, body armour, maps, compasses, fighting knives, diving suits and berets. Amongst the ‘booty’, is a captured Nazi swastika flag, signed by SAS operatives and listing their operations in early 1943. In the Shadows looks at how the SAS are portrayed in popular culture including films, books, posters and the media, with the input from Jason Fox, an ex-Special Forces soldier, brought in by the organisers as an Ambassador for the exhibition, so we are guaranteed authenticity. It is an apposite and well-timed show, particularly at the moment, with all manner of counter-terrorism and intelligence operations underway, put in place to maintain the security and secrecy of one vital wing of the British Army.

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