A brief history of the Special Reconnaissance Squadron, RAC.

Most readers will be unaware of the Special Reconnaissance Squadron as the Squadron was only in being for two years in the early 1960s and such was its role that its existence was not widely publicised. The Squadron was unique to the Royal Armoured Corps in that it is the only time that an RAC Squadron has been given a role akin to the SAS and organised and trained on SAS lines. Remarkably, within weeks of publication of a short history of the Special Reconnaissance Squadron, the Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, announced the formation of a Special Reconnaissance Regiment though the role of this regiment is very different from that fulfilled by the RAC Squadron. The new regiment, under command of the UK Special Forces Group, will help combat international terrorism through covert surveillance. 

The threat from Warsaw Pact countries in the early 1960s was high and the BAOR concept to counter a massive and rapid attack by Warsaw Pact forces against NATO was one of containment until reinforcements arrived from the United Kingdom. Accurate and timely intelligence concerning enemy movements and strengths would be vital and it was considered by the SAS that such intelligence could be acquired on the 1(BR) Corps front by 4 man patrols hidden in well concealed observation posts and covering likely main enemy axis of advance. A secondary role for these patrols would be ambushes and demolition of key points. In all likelihood, intelligence services would provide warning of an attack, thus, during the transition from peace to war, the patrols would have the opportunity to go to pre-reconnoitred observation posts where, undercover of darkness, they would conceal themselves and remain concealed probably for a prolonged period. Rather than be injected into enemy territory, patrols would allow themselves to be overrun, so parachuting was not considered an immediate requirement. To cover adequately the Corps front and zone of responsibility, it was thought 20 patrols would suffice and patrols would maintain HF radio communication with the Squadron Headquarters located at HQ 1(BR) Corps. The Squadron would form part of Corps Troops and be under the command of the Commander RAC, which at the time was the Marquis of Douro. Patrols would have a self-defence capability with every officer and soldier armed with SMG and hand grenades. There would also be a need for all ranks to speak German, to be familiar with Warsaw Pact force organisations and equipment, to be competent Morse code operators, to be expert with demolition charges, to be able to undertake advanced first aid, and be familiar with escape and evasion techniques. Indeed, everyone had to be highly resourceful and self-sufficient for, once committed, the future would be very uncertain.

The Special Reconnaissance Squadron was thus conceived, but it became an RAC role as a result of amalgamations and cuts in the Army at about this time when Major General GC Hopkinson CB DSO OBE MC, then Director of the Royal Armoured Corps, was keen to preserve the appeal of the corps to both officers and men through diversification. In the Autumn of 1961 he invited Major Ken Bidie QRIH,who was serving in Sharjah at the time, to command such a squadron formed on SAS lines and by March 1962 Major Bidie was back in England sorting out the establishment and system for recruitment with AG 17, RAC Manning and Records and HQ SAS; the latter were particularly helpful in terms of advice and encouragement. In April, he visited Alanbrooke Barracks in Paderborn where the Squadron would be stationed, the local ranges and training areas and the Winterberg area where selection courses and some continuation training would take place.

The establishment allowed for 20 patrols, each of 4 men, plus SHQ, administrative staff and drivers, resulting in a total of 100 all ranks. The Squadron was never up to full establishment, though given time, it might well have been. Sadly, there was extreme reluctance by some regiments to release, in many ways, their best officers and soldiers. Moreover, of those who attempted selection courses, only 25% passed them. As for transport, there were 4 Austin Champs, 4 Bedford 3 ton lorries and a VW Beetle staff car. The clothing and equipment issued to soldiers was identical to that worn by the SAS for a European climate, except for a dark blue beret with a small RAC badge on a red background and a red stable belt. The fawn SAS beret was not worn because the Squadron was not part of the SAS Establishment. 

The first selection course for officers and senior NCOs was incorporated into a 22 SAS selection course for volunteers from all arms at Hereford, which started on 24 April 1962. Lieutenant Bill Bale   3 RTR remembers being summoned to his CO’s office and being offered the chance to join a new squadron based on SAS lines which his commanding officer thought would involve ‘excitement, challenges and good chaps’. When Lieutenant Bale requested time to consider the posting his commanding officer (Lieutenant Colonel A M Taylor MC) replied,with a smile, that he had already put his name forward. Scant details of the new squadron were provided and the call for officers and soldiers from throughout the RAC came unexpectedly and for all there was little opportunity to prepare for what lay ahead.

The first week of the course with 22 SAS in the Black Mountains was devoted to acclimatisation, fitness training and instruction in navigation. Of interest at the time was the way in which those from the Royal Armoured Corps were able to fit in and be accepted by those in 22 SAS. Sergeant ‘Tankie’ Smith, ex 2 RTR, who was part of the selection team, naturally took a particular interest in proceedings. Subsequent selection tests in the Brecon Beacons lasted 10 days and included a point to point test centred on Pen y Fan, a speed march, endurance ex, compass ex, sketch map ex and a night navigation ex. The duration of most exercises was not known until the end for only one leg of the route was revealed at a time. When a control was not reached in the requisite time, the unfortunate soldier would have to hitch a lift back to Hereford, miss his tea, lose sleep but still be up for an early start the following day. Officers were additionally required to complete several reconnaissances and give an operational briefing. Clothing for the tests was standard combat dress, and the equipment carried in a Bergen rucksack included: a sleeping bag, cape groundsheet, 24 hour rations, cooker, eating utensils, washing kit, water bottle - and the obligatory 3 bricks! The all up weight was 77lbs and that excluded a Lee Enfield rifle that had to be carried correctly at all times. The tests were tough and sometimes uncomfortable but one grew accustomed to this. Of more concern were the aches and risk of injury and in the worst case, an injury that would compel withdrawal from selection. All the tests were individual in nature and there was no one to turn to for help and support. Indeed, directing staff at controls, rather than offering encouragement, enticed soldiers to give up. Not surprisingly, the failure rate was high, about 80%. Furthermore, confirmation of acceptance for the SAS and likewise the Special Reconnaissance Squadron was not made on completion of the initial selection course, for throughout continuation (skills) training, officers and soldiers might be considered unsuitable and returned to their parent regiments.

Whilst the selection course at Hereford was taking place, the Squadron 2IC and SQMS were busy making arrangements for the newly formed squadron to be accommodated in Alanbooke Barracks. 4 Division Engineer Regiment, who were the main occupants of the barracks, made the Squadron welcome but were puzzled by it’s presence - not helped by a certain amount of elitism and secrecy promoted by members of the Squadron. Particular importance was given to physical and operational security and all members of the Squadron had to be positively vetted. Additional to the normal G1098 items issued to units, the Squadron received inflatable boats, cross-country and downhill skis, and such climbing equipment as ice picks, crampons, and 100ft nylon climbing ropes. Indeed, the Squadron had no difficulty obtaining equipment thought to be necessary.

The Squadron was officially formed on 1 June 1962 and soon after assembling in Paderborn, a selection team was formed from those who had passed the selection course at Hereford. The Squadron Selection Course was modelled as far as possible on the Course at Hereford but the terrain, of necessity, had to be different. For acclimatisation, fitness and navigation training, the Teutoburger Wald between Augustdorf and Bad Driborg was chosen for its close proximity to Paderborn, its steep slopes and good viewpoints. As in the Black Mountains, groups, each of about 10 all ranks, with all the requisite equipment, would have to climb rapidly from the bottom to the top of the ridge, then hike along to a good viewpoint for a map reading lesson. The stop for the lesson would be just long enough to catch ones breath, before moving a little further along the ridge and going rapidly down and up again. In essence, the sequence was repeated for the best part of a day and successive days for a week, to give volunteers a fair chance of success when put to the test at Winterberg in the weeks to follow.

Following reconnaissances of the Teutoburger Wald, the selection team moved to what was then a BAOR Leave Centre at Winterberg, about 1½ hours drive south of Paderborn. Accommodation and messing for the Squadron was in Nissen huts, adjacent to the Kurhaus which before World War 2 was a rest home for retired miners from the Ruhr. During the war, the Kurhaus was requisitioned by the Nazi Party but after World War 2, it became a leave centre for British Army officers and dependents. Nearby, there was a smaller building for warrant officers, sergeants and their families. The Kurhaus had a magnificent open-air swimming pool and the complex overlooked a bobsleigh run, which today is Germany’s national all year bobsleigh venue. A short distance down the road there was a small RAF wireless station, which had its own SKC cinema. During rest periods, officers, sergeants and to a lesser degree soldiers, could take advantage of these facilities.

Winterberg was chosen both for selection courses and continuation training because it was hilly, sparsely populated and relatively close to Paderborn. The principle difference from the Brecon Beacons was that it was densely forested, which made navigation more difficult and it less easy for soldiers to follow one another. Each selection test was timed and trialled for suitability and those involved in planning selection courses became extremely fit. The first selection course at Winterberg started on 11 June 1962 and, over the next 12 months, there were 5 further courses.

By August 1962, sufficient 4 man patrols had been formed for a two-week exercise in the mountains south of Bad Tolz. The exercise was a stiff test of fitness, stamina and navigation. 10th Special Forces US Army, stationed in Bad Tolz, provided valuable back-up for the training but their method of operation was very different as they generally deployed patrols of 14 men who expected to be dropped within 5 miles of their targets. Even at that early stage in the life of the Squadron, it was evident that soldiers from the Special Reconnaissance Squadron compared very favourably with soldiers of other special forces.

On return to Paderborn, the Squadron began an intense skills training programme which was to continue throughout the Squadron’s existence. All ranks became proficient in handling the Sterling SMG, 9mm pistol, LMG, 3.5 rocket launcher and hand grenades, utilising the nearby ranges at Sennelager. Demolition training under Royal Engineer supervision gave all ranks the opportunity to handle explosives and lay cutting, hayrick and beehive charges. This training too was on the Sennelager Ranges. Warsaw Pact AFV and uniform recognition was obviously important in view of the primary role of the Squadron and it was therefore painstakingly studied. Of equal importance was ones ability to resist interrogation, a subject taught but only latterly practised. All ranks were also required to achieve a colloquial standard in German. 

HF Morse Communication was skill taught by Royal Signals instructors and much evening work was required to bring operators up to the required standard on the 123 set, the dated 128 set, the miniaturised 301 set (receiver only) and the RCA AR 88D receiver used at Squadron Headquarters. The 128 set issued to patrols was crystal controlled to ensure accurate frequency alignment, but with minimal output to avoid detection, it required precise siting of the aerial and highly skilled use of the Morse key and one time pads. Operators were used to relatively powerful VHF and HF sets from their time in their parent regiments, so there was some apprehension initially concerning the 128 set as to whether they would be able to maintain contact with Squadron Headquarters over large distances. Most operators eventually could read and transmit 12 words a minute and wireless exercises with links between SHQ at Paderborn and patrols at Soltau, Heidelberg and in Bavaria confirmed that communication with such a small signal output was possible over great distances, even at night when interference was at its worst.

All ranks became competent First Aiders and additionally, one in each patrol was taught paramedic skills at Rinteln Hospital. Although unstructured, the training at the hospital was very interesting, varied and enjoyable. In addition to administering injections and minor surgery, post-mortems and hypnotism were witnessed. The training concluded with a detailed post-mortem, and having witnessed this, officers and soldiers felt they could cope with any emergency. 

Naturally, physical fitness was important and every weekday morning at 7.00am, and before breakfast, the whole squadron, under APTC guidance, participated in gym work, runs, close quarter battle (CQB) or swimming. Countering attacks with a knife or pistol became second nature, likewise learning to throw and be thrown. As for sport, there was not much available time for team games and adventurous training but the Squadron, when asked to field a team for competitions, was never short of volunteers and achieved commendable success. Skiing and winter warfare training were given special emphasis and the Squadron was particularly fortunate to have superb skiing conditions at Winterberg in February 1963 where after a fortnight, all but a few became moderately proficient skiers. In early April, the Squadron moved to the Sonthofen area in Bavaria for two weeks’ winter warfare training. There, the German Army Mountain Division kindly made available skiing and winter warfare instructors, two mountain huts and helicopters to convey stores to those huts. Although it was late in the season, ski conditions were good, with much time spent on exercise, learning to survive in extreme cold by building and sleeping in igloos and living off the land. From both huts, expeditions were made on skis to the top of the nearby peaks and in these remote mountain huts long standing friendships became established. 

Selection courses and continuation training interspersed with field exercises continued until June 1963 but in late spring, two week-long exercises were held in the perceived operational area to practise the stay behind role. This entailed the construction and occupation of underground hides, at key points or main road and rail junctions without the knowledge of the local population. By occupying the site at dusk and completing the work before dawn, patrols would hopefully remain undetected. Digging separate viewing and rest areas with overhead cover and a connecting tunnel, and getting rid of spoil, all in darkness and unobserved, required a lot of energy and skill. 

The concept of obtaining intelligence from stay behind parties has often provoked debate and it is relevant to quote from a Times review of General Sir Peter de la Billiere’s recent book entitled ‘Looking for Trouble’: “Much more controversial, to my mind, was the top-secret scheme to establish stay-behind bunkers of resolute SAS men up to the former inter-zone frontier of Germany. In the event of a Soviet onslaught, these posts were to allow themselves to be over-run, then report on the direction and weight of the attackers. Given that their positions would almost certainly have been pin-pointed by Soviet spies within NATO, with equal certainty the men would all have ended as posthumous VCs. Fortunately the war never occurred.”

In spite of initial scepticism, regiments soon recognised their vulnerability to enemy troops operating in the rear areas and as the Squadron became more proficient, regiments viewed the Squadron with respect and were sensitive to its presence. Recognising its effectiveness, the Squadron was increasingly called upon to test the security of units on brigade and divisional exercises. A particularly successful test of security was an exercise with 23 (TA) SAS at a NATO Air Base on the Norwegian Island of Andoya, well north of the Arctic Circle

In early June, the Squadron travelled to Fort George, outside Inverness, for 2 weeks’ training in Loch Affric with the South Wales Borderers, and near Gairloch with 23 (TA) SAS. From Fort George, the Squadron proceeded to take what was the only spell of block leave for, in September, all ranks were told the sad news that the Squadron would be written out of the Corps Plan and that the Squadron’s role would be given to 23 (TA) SAS. It was a bitter blow. 

The then DRAC, Major General JA d’Avigdor-Goldsmid OBE MC offered the Squadron a missile role within the Parachute Brigade, which was at the time fulfilled by Cyclops Squadron, 2 RTR. The establishment for Cyclops Squadron required fewer officers than were required for the Special Reconnaissance Squadron, so few officers from the latter were permitted by their parent regiments to transfer to what then became the Parachute Squadron RAC. Cyclops Squadron had difficulty in meeting its establishment for NCOs and soldiers, thus all NCOs and soldiers in the Special Reconnaissance Squadron were permitted to apply for transfer. 80% volunteered to do so and undertook pre-P Company training in December 1963. With the demise of the Squadron settled, sadly some stalwarts were compelled to return to their regiments. Nevertheless, a further 2-week exercise in October in the Bavarian Mountains between Lenggries and the Tegernsee ensured members going to P Company would be physically fit for their course at Aldershot. Leaving Paderborn was naturally a difficult time for everyone.

Those going to Aldershot were extremely fit, so they thought, but in March 1964 only 80% passed the P Company Course. The course was and still is very different from SAS selection in that at Aldershot much of the emphasis is placed on gym and physical teamwork, whereas at Hereford and in the Special Reconnaissance Squadron, selection was based more on individual physical and mental tests. At Aldershot, P Company Selection Staff found the title ‘Special’, rather irritating. Suffice it to say, the Squadron stayed together as a team and having proved itself to the satisfaction of P Company, moved on to Abingdon for parachute training with the RAF. 

The Special Reconnaissance Squadron is a little known but significant chapter in the history of the Royal Armoured Corps. The Squadron demonstrated very well the versatility and resilience of officers and men. Moreover, it showed how well members were able to rub along together, even though they came from many different regiments. Anyone who served in the Squadron felt privileged to do so and would be the first to agree that it was a highlight in his army career, with lasting friendships and very fond memories. The soldiers were refined and of high grade. Life was fulfilling and the comradeship magnificent. It was a SPECIAL and SELECT squadron. What a pity it existed for such a short time.

                                                                                                    RTR PERSONNEL IN THE SQUADRON   Lt Bill Bale 3 RTR                        LCpl Bill Seabury 5 RTR Lt Sandy Moriarty 5 RTR            Tpr  Vic Howard 2 RTR Sgt Brian Thomas 3 RTR           Tpr Pete Nockall 5 RTR Cpl Roger Bentley 2 RTR           Tpr Lionel N St George 2 RTR Cpl Taffy Cousins 3 RTR            Tpr John Urch 2 RTR LCpl Ginger Carress 1 RTR       Tpr John Williamson 5 RTR LCpl Andy Coulstock 2 RTR

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