Authors: Stephen Leather
By Stephen Leather
BRECON BEACONS, WALES.
Dan ‘Spider’ Shepherd woke in the dead of night, instantly alert at the sound of a low voice off in the distance. He raised his head. In the faint starlight filtering through the open door of the wooden hut that served as their quarters, he could see an SAS sergeant moving along the row of sleeping men on the other side of the room. The sergeant stooped to shake a soldier by the shoulder and murmured something to him, and the man dressed hastily and gathered his kit, then made for the door. The sergeant moved on, waking three others, but passing Shepherd’s bed without a glance in his direction. He ushered the last of the men outside and closed the door quietly behind him. A few moments later, Shepherd heard a truck start-up and rumble out of the camp.
He lay back, his mind racing. There had been 120 candidates for SAS Selection when they started almost five weeks earlier. By the previous night only fifteen remained and now another four had gone, unless - and the thought gave him a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach - the four who had just left the room were the chosen ones who’d passed Selection, and Shepherd and the others were about to be woken and sent back to their former units.
He couldn’t think of any reason why he would be being rejected; his fitness was damn near perfect and his near-photographic memory meant he rarely slipped up when it came to navigation. He was relieved to hear his friend Liam McKay still quietly snoring in the next bed. Pass or fail, at least they would do so together. They’d met on the first day of Selection and bonded instantly, both with the same will to succeed and the same refusal to accept second best. Shepherd closed his eyes and sighed. Every muscle in his body was aching from the relentless pounding he had gone through over the previous fortnight. It was a brutal, unending succession of day and night route marches and speed marches over ever-increasing distances, carrying ever greater loads in his bergen.
At the halfway point of Selection they had performed the ‘Fan Dance’, ascending and descending the three thousand feet high Pen y Fan three times in four hours,. That had been tough, but the previous day had been the hardest test of all, an endurance march crossing seventy miles of the Welsh mountains, with a bergen weighing well over twenty-five kilos, plus a rifle, belt kit and water. They had to navigate using only map and compass - no GPS - and were forbidden to use any tracks or roads. The off-road terrain was unforgiving: bogs, peat hags, tussocks of mat grass, screes, steep ridges and wind-blasted summits to climb, and icy mountain streams and rivers to ford. It had tested Shepherd to his limit.
‘Green army”’- regular army - exercises always started with a roll-call, but there was none at the start of any of the tests in SAS Selection. If you weren’t where you were supposed to be at the appointed time, you had ruled yourself out of Selection. There was no right of appeal, no excuses accepted; the only thing to do then was pack your kit and get out.
Before they began the endurance march, they were given two six-digit grid references. They weren’t allowed to write them down and had to memorise them, an easy enough task for Shepherd. He had only to glance at a sheet of paper for the contents to be committed to his memory, be it a list, a photograph or a map. The first grid reference was the final RV point he had to make for, a summit cairn in the west of the Brecon Beacons. The second was unexplained, just a reference number.
For a night and much of the next day, Shepherd had marched on through wind, rain and a sudden hailstorm that had coated the ground and chilled him to the bone. Now, as he began to make the ascent to the summit, sweat dripping from him, the straps of his bergen sawing at his shoulders, he saw one of the other candidates climbing the hill ahead of him.
He felt no concern at that; they had been sent off at fifteen-minute intervals to prevent anyone playing ‘follow my leader’ and tracking a more able candidate ahead of them, and Shepherd had been one of the last to set off. The other man reached the checkpoint and began to shrug off his bergen, but the instructors waiting there shook their heads and pointed along the ridge to another summit a mile or so away. There was a burst of swearing from the candidate and Shepherd heard his words carried to him on the wind: ‘No, this is the fucking finishing line. I’ve done what I was tasked to do. That’s it!’ After a further angry exchange, the candidate dropped his bergen in the dirt and stormed off down the hill, following a track towards the distant road, a ribbon of tarmac in an ocean of rock and rough moorland.
The instructors, deadpan, moved the bergen to one side, then stood watching Shepherd as he toiled up the last slope. He was close to exhaustion, fighting to keep his legs moving, but he kept his expression neutral, registering neither surprise nor disappointment as they checked him off on a list and then pointed him towards the next peak. Leaden-legged, his muscles burning with the effort, he plodded on, but had gone only another fifty yards when he heard footsteps running after him. ‘Okay,’ an instructor said. ‘That’s your lot.’ It had been a test, Shepherd realised. Or a dirty trick, depending on your point of view. ‘There’s a truck waiting in a lay-by at the second grid reference we gave you,’ said the instructor. ‘Do you remember it?’
Shepherd nodded. He had kept quiet about his near-photographic memory, but even if he hadn’t remembered the grid reference he wouldn’t have admitted it, for forgetting it would have meant an automatic RTU - Return To Unit, thrown off the Selection course. He hesitated for a moment, uncertain if he had passed or failed, but there was no answer to be read in the instructor’s inscrutable expression - he merely turned and jogged back up to the top to await the next candidate toiling up the slope.
Shepherd checked his map and then moved off the summit plateau, beginning the long descent following a sheep trail winding away down the hillside. He reached the road almost an hour later and found a truck parked up. There was no sign of the other man, who had either ignored the RV or had already been whisked away.
Shepherd shrugged his bergen off his shoulders and used the last of his strength to hoist it into the back of the truck. He hauled himself up after it, lay down at the front and, with the soldier’s ingrained knack of grabbing rest at any opportunity, he was asleep almost at once.
Over the next couple of hours, the remaining candidates appeared, or those of them still standing, anyway. Three more men were missing. They had gone through all the other stages, but had failed at this final hurdle, either dropping out themselves or being thrown out by the instructors. Those who had survived the test clambered into the truck one by one and slumped down, most of them too exhausted to speak. McKay worked his way to the front of the truck and sat down alongside Shepherd. ‘What do you reckon?’ he said. He’d lived in England since he was five, but his accent still carried a hint of Northern Irish brogue. ‘Have we passed or what?’
‘No idea,’ Shepherd said. ‘As far as I know, I did nothing wrong, but they sometimes seem to chuck blokes off for no apparent reason, so I’m not counting on anything just yet.’ He fell silent as one of the instructors appeared at the tailgate of the truck. ‘You’re done,’ said the instructor, a sergeant in his mid-forties. ‘You’ll find out tomorrow whether you’re in or on your way to Platform 4.’ All of them now knew that it was an SAS in-joke, shorthand for being RTU’d. Although there still was a Platform 4 at Hereford Station, no trains had departed from it for years, but back in the days when the SAS first arrived in Hereford after long service in the Far East, the trains to London had departed from Platform 4, and the old phrase had stuck.
That had been the previous evening, and now Shepherd’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of approaching footsteps, scuffing the gravel and rattling the wooden steps of the hut. The first faint glow of dawn was showing in the sky as one of the instructors strode in. ‘Let’s get to it,’ he said. ‘Continuation Training begins today. I want you outside in five minutes.’ He paused. ‘And don’t get complacent. You’ve passed Selection, but there’s a long way to go - around another twelve months before you become a badged member of the Regiment - and not all of you will make it that far.’ He turned on his heel and strode out again.
Shepherd jumped out of bed and began to pull on his kit. McKay winked at him as he struggled into his own gear. ‘A few words of congratulation would have been nice,’ said McKay.
Shepherd grinned. ‘This is the SAS, mate. They don’t do “Well done”, they just do “Get on with it”. And we’re lucky to get that.’ He sighed with relief. ‘I tell you, I’m bloody relieved, I wasn’t sure if we’d passed.’
‘Come on. You’re one of the fittest guys here. I always knew that provided I kept pace with you, I wouldn’t be RTU’d.’
After the acutely physical mountain bashing of Selection, Shepherd and the other ten successful candidates were thrown straight into the Continuation process. There was no time to feel good about themselves, just more pressure being heaped upon them, but it was during the Continuation phase that Shepherd began his love affair with the Regiment, and it also gave him an understanding of the SAS’s affinity with Wales.
The training process followed a simple, tried and tested formula. First, the theory of a subject was taught in a lecture room by the permanent training staff. Then Shepherd and his comrades were taken into the Welsh mountains to test their knowledge of the subject in a series of exercises. On these they were always accompanied by members of one of the Sabre Squadrons, who had now been drafted in to judge the trainees’ competence.
During the following months, Shepherd spent long periods alone on the Welsh hills, learning how to use the terrain to give cover, whether moving by day or night, and mastering the SAS’s complicated system of rendezvous drills, in which they linked up only to attack their target, then separated again to make their return to a safe zone. He notionally destroyed power stations, oil refineries, coal mines, power lines and rescued kidnapped VIPs, and along the way, he discarded most of what he had learned in his time in the Paras. He quickly realised that when the Paras deployed, they always looked for trouble, having the numbers and resources to deal with it. The SAS, on the other hand, went out of their way to avoid trouble until they could deal with it on their own terms, not through any fear but because the task at hand was what mattered, and getting into avoidable contacts with enemy troops was just a needless distraction from it.
Like the rest of the regular army, the Paras were trained to have a standard reaction to particular circumstances, so that everyone operated in the same way and one that was predictable to the Army hierarchy. The SAS training was designed to produce precisely the opposite result; the Regiment wanted every individual to react differently to circumstances, while still achieving the mission objectives.
As he trained, Shepherd found himself slyly observing the Sabre Squadron troopers. The first thing he noticed was that whether they were training or relaxing they were always remarkably reticent about themselves. They weren’t even forthcoming with details of rank and name, always using a pseudonym or a nickname instead, and any discussion of their private lives was absolutely taboo. He also noticed that when they offered advice, they were not overly concerned as to whether it was taken on board by the trainees or not.
Whenever Shepherd was in the field with one or more of the Squadron guys, he saw that they were all exceptionally gifted practical soldiers. Their ability to use the natural features in the terrain was an eye-opener for him. He had previously walked in straight lines across country, descending steep ridges and scree slopes, ploughing through marshes on the valley floor, or chest-high bracken, then climbing straight up the opposite side of the valley, confident in his own fitness to get him where he wanted to be. By following the example of the Sabre men Shepherd learned to navigate over the terrain, using the ground to conserve energy and avoid potential enemy positions.
His particular favourite among the Sabre Squadron guys was a man known as ‘The Bosun’. Nobody knew why he had the nickname, everybody just assumed that at some stage in his career he had served in the Navy. He had what Shepherd was coming to recognise as the typical SAS build, no more than medium height, with a wiry frame, and no obvious muscles. When The Bosun was out on the hills he had a rangy, ground-eating and apparently tireless stride. He was the source of many pieces of military wisdom that stayed with Shepherd for the rest of his career. ‘Hide in plain sight’ was one of them, ‘and by that I mean get in close to the enemy where they won’t look for you,’ he said. ‘Animals can hide in folds in the ground, so can humans.’
Another figure that Shepherd became aware of during this period was a driver from the Regiment’s transport pool. He drove one of the Transit vans that they used to get around Wales, because the threat from the Provisional IRA had led the MoD to decree that units should no longer use military vehicles. He had the nasal accent of someone from the back streets of Wolverhampton, but there was the faintest trace of something else there as well, that Shepherd could not quite identify. He was known as ‘Brummie F’, the F - in true SAS take-no-prisoners style - standing for ‘FLUB’: Fat Lazy Useless Bastard. Brummie F was surly and short-tempered with the other drivers, but he was constantly trying to ingratiate himself with the trainees, offering titbits of supposed inside information to help them in their various tests. Shepherd had formed a powerful dislike for him even before the driver overstepped the mark and The Bosun overheard him asking one of the trainees about the upcoming E & E exercise, the final hurdle in the SAS Selection and Training Process. The Bosun gave him an earful of abuse and then cautioned all of the trainees, ‘Don’t trust that bastard. There’s something about him I don’t like. In my book, he’s a wrong ‘un.’