Tony Shaw on the SAS, Selection and the South Georgia Boating Club

Tony Shaw

Tony Shaw, SAS Falklands veteran, discusses Selection and his time in the Regiment.
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Tony Shaw, many congrats on the new book. First off, Selection. There are TV shows about this now, but asking for a friend, if one keeps themselves fit in the gym and running regularly (perhaps with the odd marathon), surely, as long as you don’t give up, passing Selection is very much achievable?

Keeping fit and regular running will certainly get you to the physical stage of being ready to train for Selection. I was already very fit before starting Selection training which for me lasted a whole year. I put together my own training schedule, but gratefully accepted tips and words of advice from those who had gone before me. I continued with running and gym work, but went tabbing in the Brecon Beacons carrying a fair bit of weight on my back most weekends. You must be mentally prepared to expect the unexpected. This means you must be mentally tough and able to take setbacks along the way. I saw many men fitter than me who were unable to bear the mental stress of simply not knowing what time we would finish, having poor navigational skills or simply someone who couldn’t get out of bed when it was 4 a.m. on a winter’s day and the wind was howling outside. There was never any praise or criticism of a candidate’s efforts. You just had to give your very best performance on each and every day. The most important question asked of himself by each instructor was “Would I be prepared to go to war with this man in my patrol?” A negative response from one or more instructors was enough for you to be cast aside.

The Navy SEALs claim the toughest Special Forces Selection, taking up to a year. SAS Selection seems a bit more relaxed, lasting 5 weeks. Does indicate a significant difference between the two?

I wouldn’t describe any aspect of Selection as being “a bit more relaxed” in comparison to any other special forces assessment course. Selection is conducted in a series of phases with the navigation, fitness and tabbing being ramped up in the first four weeks, prior to “Test Week”. If a candidate has prepared well enough to get through this phase there are several more hurdles to overcome, including jungle training, field firing and combat survival. At every phase, you are being constantly being evaluated, with little or no feedback as to your prospects of surviving another day. The whole Selection process actually takes about six months and is followed by a military parachuting course if not previously qualified. If you manage to pass all that you are then SAS “badged”. You then spend the rest of your time in the SAS undertaking courses at patrol level (signaller, medic, demolitionist and linguist), troop level (in my case kayaking, small boats and diving), theatre or terrain (desert, arctic, jungle and temperate zones), conventional warfare (infantry minor tactics), counter-terrorist (CQB and sniping) and close protection (VIP protection etc), NATO operations, irregular warfare and the list goes on.

The South Georgia Boating Club is the nickname given to your troop after the Falklands War. Does this point to a certain black humour in the Regiment?

I suppose it makes light of what was a seriously difficult island to infiltrate on to, in our case using small boats with suspect outboard motors. The weather was constantly changing, usually for the worse and it paid to have a sense of humour, then and now.

You seem rather self-deprecating in describing your life in the SAS. On your journey down to the Falklands what were you feeling – couldn’t wait to get cracking or a little more apprehensive?

The British Army trains for war, even more so when you happen to be in the SAS. If you are not prepared to do what it takes to win the firefight, or the battle, or the war, you shouldn’t be there in the first place. Once the adrenaline kicks in, it is too late to be afraid. You simply have to endure all hardships and crack on. Peer pressure is a vital aspect to all this.

The South Georgia operation in April 1982, in which you participated, was a great success resulting in its recapture and a moment to ‘Rejoice’. But it started badly with two Wessex helicopters crashing on Fortuna Glacier. The amphibious assault suffered with 2 Gemini boats experiencing engine failure – what was going through your mind with all this going on?

Several times in my Army career, both before and after the Falklands War, there have been defence cuts. This always has a negative impact on the equipment that you are issued with and the hours of training that can be afforded. That is why the SAS devote so much time to train and develop a man who already has the physique and mental acumen to start the journey. Nowadays, I believe equipment shortfalls are not as bad as in my day?

The Sea King crash on the 19th May was a tragic event, killing 22 of whom 18 were in the SAS. This was the largest loss of life for the SAS since the Second World War – just how big an impact was it on the Regiment?

In a word, huge. The next morning, D Squadron gathered together on HMS Intrepid and the definitive list of those who had lost their lives was read out. Then we had a short pep-talk from the Squadron Commander about getting on with the job and leaving the grieving process until after we returned to the UK. There was also some adjustment of manning levels to reconstitute 18 (Mountain) Troop who had been hit the hardest.

Having risen up through the ranks and leaving the Army as a Major you have a pretty rare view of life in the army for the vast majority. This may seem like a trite question but isn’t intended to be, is it easier as an officer or regular soldier?

A soldier doesn’t always appreciate how much planning and preparation the officers have to put into any operational or training activity. When I was an operations officer, I would often burn the midnight oil putting together training programmes or operational orders. Meanwhile, junior officers often fail to realise how much bullshit, and changes to the plan, that a soldier has to endure on a regular basis. This is far less of a problem in the SAS as the officers are expected to match the soldiers in all aspects of soldiering and then add their leadership qualities to the mix. There are some things that make being either a soldier or an officer that much easier, but on the whole, you still have to put a shift in whatever your rank!

How much has your life been influenced by your time in the SAS?

Never a day goes by, without thinking of fallen comrades. Never a day goes by without thinking would this attitude or this performance be good enough for the SAS? Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today. The SAS instilled in me the pursuit for excellence in all that I do.

Tranmere’s greatest player, Pat Nevin or John Aldridge?

They were both class acts. However, in terms of impact, Aldo scored the most goals and then went on to be player/manager of the club. They were both in the team that got Tranmere Rovers to the play-offs in three successive seasons for what is now the Premier League. Sadly, it was not to be, but maybe one day perhaps?

Tony Shaw is the author of SAS South Georgia Boating Club: An SAS Trooper’s Memoir and Falklands War Diary, published by Pen & Sword.