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Special Forces: In the Shadows

A new exhibition at the National Army Museum

Special Forces: In the Shadows is the The National Army Museum’s first major exhibition since re-opening in 2017 after a massive refurbishment. It looks at the issue of security - both at home and abroad - and covers the history of the Special Forces, how they recruit and train their officers, the operations they carry out and their public image. Interactive games rub shoulders with uniforms, archive materials and weaponry as this comprehensive (well, as comprehensive as anything about top secret missions can be) exhibition delves into the murky waters of national security.

Special Forces begins with an overview of the multitude of threats currently facing Britain, broken down into three tiers based on the likelihood of the event and its potential impact on society. In Tier One lay the usual big hitters - terrorism, cybercrime, disease. Beneath them lie an assortment of milder threats such as financial collapse, organised crime and chemical warfare (though that may be due an upgrade soon...?). It’s a disconcerting list to stare at for too long, but gives a good overview of the breadth of emergency situations the Special Forces are tasked with responding to. It’s not just warfare.

Next up, a bit of history. The Special Forces were founded during WW2 at the behest of Sir Winston Churchill, and proved to be an incredibly cost-effective and successful means of fighting a war. They disbanded in 1945, but were soon re-formed to combat the rise of Communism and assist while many Asian and African countries sought independence from Britain.

There are currently five divisions of Special Forces. The SAS (Special Air Service) may be the poster boys, but the SBS (Special Boat Service) were born at the same time. The two were joined in 2005 by the SRR (Special Reconnaissance Regiment) in response to the September 11 attacks. Given the covert nature of the SRR’s work they remain the most secretive of the five. The 18 UKSF (United Kingdom Special Forces) Signal Regiment also formed in 2005 to help with communication, then in 2006 the SFSG (Special Forces Support Group) launched to lend operational support. Together they help protect our shores, and our values, from the aforementioned multitude of threats.
Now to meet the founding members of the SAS. These extraordinary men were dropped behind enemy lines in North Africa and charged with duties including disrupting enemy activities, undertaking raids and carrying out reconnaissance. Characters like Roger ‘Jumbo’ Courtney - whose chipper ‘Complete Folbotist’ manifesto is a delight to read - David Stirling, ‘Paddy’ Mayne and ‘Jock’ Lewes aren’t household names, but are some of the bravest individuals to have fought for Britain.

Women get a mention too - indeed an entire video panel is devoted to the question of whether women should be allowed to join the Special Forces (the consensus being ‘yes’, but that they shouldn’t be fast-tracked). There are currently no women in the SAS – incredibly, women have only served in ground combat since 2016 - however the SRR has some. Two of the women who served in the Special Operations Executive during World War Two - Noor Inayat Khan, flown to Paris to transmit communications between London and the Resistance, and Violette Szabo - are profiled in detail. Both were killed in action and posthumously awarded the George Cross for their bravery.
A separate room details specific missions alongside artifacts. A Nazi flag signed by original SAS and SBS servicemen, along with the locations and mission names, is straight out of a movie. Operation Nimrod - the 1980 Iranian embassy hostage situation in London - is perhaps the most famous example of the UK Special Forces in action, but Operation Granby - an ambushed lookout post during the Gulf War - and Operation Nimrod, involving heavily outnumbered Special Forces successfully defending a jeep from a Taliban onslaught in Afghanistan, are incredible examples of life and death situations.

Outside of WW2 the exhibition is understandably light on detail (these are secret operations after all) however its strength is in demonstrating just how elite Special Forces operatives have to be.
Fitness levels are paramount, but intelligence, creativity, teamwork and mental agility are also vital. A series of interactive games - some more successful than others - include a ‘Kims' observation test (where even the entry level is fiendishly difficult) and a series of ‘spot the sniper’ images that prove similarly impossible to complete.
There is a very brief section toward the end on the public image of the Special Forces, however it doesn’t delve into much detail, and perhaps rightly so. Media representation is an important issue, and an attempt to interrogate - for want of a better word - the need, and moral ambiguity, surrounding the concept of Special Forces and secret missions is a conversation worth having. The emphasis here though is on the real men missions, and on de-mystifying the overall image of the UK Special Forces. In this respect, the exhibition is a resounding success.
Special Forces: In The Shadows is at the National Army Museum from 17 March - 18 November. Tickets £8