It boasted unusual operating procedures and soldiers who judged officers by their actions, not their rank and authority.
Every great event has unexpected side effects. However glorious or terrible, it will trigger other moments, good or bad, small or significant.
For the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one of those effects took place half a world away, turning an elite yet obscure British military unit into an institution with influence around the world.
The SAS in 1963
Founded in 1941, the Special Air Service (SAS) was an elite British regiment created to carry out irregular operations during the Second World War. Disbanded at the end of the war, it was reformed in the early 1950s.
The SAS’s role in the Cold War world was not initially well defined. It was used in successful operations in Asia, most notably in Malaysia, where SAS troops fought a grueling jungle war against communist rebels while winning over local support in a hearts and minds campaign.
The SAS was not yet well established. It had not earned the high public profile it would gain in the 1980s, and some senior figures in the army were dubious about this band of misfits. It boasted unusual operating procedures and soldiers who judged officers by their actions, not their rank and authority.
A small unit that had already been disbanded once, the cost of the SAS meant that its future was far from secure.
Shockwaves from Dallas
On the 22nd of November 1963, the sound of a shot echoed through the air above a lively Dallas crowd. John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, slumped in his limousine, dead. The assassination of the country’s glamorous young leader was one of the most shocking events in US history.
The shock was felt around the globe. If the leader of one of the two most powerful countries in the world could be assassinated, then nobody was safe. From elected prime ministers to hereditary monarchs, leaders of state looked urgently at the condition of their protection details.
Until 1962, only the USA and the USSR had offered bodyguard training to their allies. As a result, many western-aligned leaders were protected by men trained by the Americans. But the American president had just been shot and, rightly or wrongly, that raised doubts about American approaches to security.
Leaders started looking for a new source of bodyguard training.
Safety at a Distance
The SAS had established a Bodyguard Training Team in 1962. Instead of using an established approach, they created their own from scratch, drawing on their experience of irregular warfare.
They had done this work from the other side, finding ways to attack well-protected targets, and now they turned what they had learned on its head. They wrote their own rules and began a process of constant improvement that let them evolve their techniques down the years.
The SAS approach to bodyguarding was different from that of the Americans. The US Secret Service valued large numbers of highly visible bodyguards as a deterrent and a barrier around the target. The SAS taught an approach that used smaller numbers of men less visibly placed.
They knew from their own work that an attacker’s biggest worry wasn’t the guards they could see, it was the ones they couldn’t.
In the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, the Foreign Office and MI6 quickly reached out to friendly rulers around the world. The Americans, who for 20 years had overshadowed their trans-Atlantic cousins, had been publicly shown as vulnerable. Britain was offering an alternative.
Bodyguarding as Intelligence
A large part of bodyguarding work is intelligence gathering. The bodyguards need to understand the places they will be with the person they protect, the routes between those places, and where along the way are the best opportunities for attack. They also need to be gathering intelligence in the moment, watching passers-by, and identifying potential trouble.
One of the big changes brought by the SAS was to integrate the initial intelligence gathering with the guard work. As the men and women on the ground, the bodyguards should do the advance prep themselves. It gave them a better understanding, partly because the information was gathered by those people whose lives were on the line if it failed.
The early 1960s was a period of waning power for Britain. The Cold War solidified a lesson from the Second World War – that Britain, though powerful, was now a second-tier power on the global stage, behind the USA and the USSR.
Pressure from within and without was forcing the country to give up its colonies, restoring freedom to countries that had spent decades or even centuries under British rule.
Bodyguard training from the elite SAS provided an inexpensive yet influential tool for maintaining Britain’s influence. Bodyguard training became a favor the Foreign Office could offer to leaders across its former colonies and throughout politically sensitive regions such as the Middle East.
The success of these bodyguards ensured a steady stream of business and, with it, diplomatic coups for the Foreign Office. Bodyguarding was one of the tools used to improve relations with Kenya following its bitterly contested independence, as well as to gain influence with the Shah of oil-rich Iran.
When SAS-trained royal guards saved the life of King Hussein of Jordan, the skill and prestige of the SAS were reaffirmed.
Securing the SAS
In a difficult time, the SAS’s role in bodyguard training gave the regiment a vital place in Britain’s diplomatic toolbox. It ensured favor with politicians at home and abroad, making the SAS more than just commandos.
The dark day in Dallas had shaped the future of the SAS.