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Polish GROM special forces troops at Umm Qasr during the 2003 invasion of Iraq

Special forces, or special operations forces are military units highly trained to perform unconventional, often high-risk missions. Special forces, as they would now be recognised, emerged in the early 20th century, with a significant growth in the field during the Second World War.


Special forces capabilities include the following:

  • Reconnaissance and surveillance in hostile environments
  • Training and development of other states' military and security forces
  • Offensive action
  • Support to counter-insurgency through population engagement and support
  • Counter-terrorism operations
  • Sabotage and demolition
  • Hostage rescue


Special forces have played an important role throughout the history of warfare whenever the aim has been to achieve disruption by "hit and run" and sabotage, rather than more traditional conventional army combat. Other significant roles lay in reconnaissance, providing essential intelligence from close to or among the enemy, and increasingly in combating irregular forces, their infrastructure and activities.

Chinese strategist Jiang Ziya, in his Six Secret Teachings, describes recruiting talented and highly motivated men for serving in specialized elite units with such functions as commanding heights and making rapid long-distance advances.[1] Hamilcar Barca in Sicily (249 BC) had specialized troops trained to launch several offensives per day. In the late Roman or early Byzantine period, Roman fleets used small, fast camouflaged ships crewed by selected men for scouting and commando missions. Similarly, Muslim forces also had several naval special operations units, including one which used camouflaged ships to gather intelligence and launch raids, and another which consisted of soldiers who could pass for Crusaders who would use ruses to board enemy ships and then capture and destroy them.[2] In Japan, Ninjas were used for reconnaissance, espionage and as frontline assault troops, bodyguards or fortress guards, or otherwise fought alongside more conventional soldiers.[3] During the Napoleonic wars, rifle and sapper units were formed who held more specialised roles in reconnaissance and skirmishing and were not committed to the formal battle lines.

British Army scouts in South Africa (1893): Frederick Russell Burnham (middle); Hon. Maurice Gifford (right)

The British Indian Army deployed two special forces during their border wars the Corps of Guides formed in 1846 and the Gurka Scouts (a force that was formed in the 1890s and was first used as a detached unit during the 1897–1898 Tirah Campaign).[4] For the British Army, it was during the Second Boer War (1899–1902) that the need for more specialised units became most apparent. Scouting units such as the Lovat Scouts, a Scottish Highland regiment made up of exceptional woodsmen outfitted in ghillie suits and well practised in the arts of marksmanship, field craft, and military tactics filled this role. This unit was formed in 1900 by Lord Lovat and early on reported to an American, Major Frederick Russell Burnham, the Chief of Scouts under Lord Roberts. After the war, Lovat's Scouts went on to formally become the British Army's first sniper unit.[5] Additionally, the Bushveldt Carbineers, formed in 1901, can be seen as an early unconventional warfare unit.

During World War I the Anzac and Canadian divisions deployed amongst British forces in France quickly came to be regarded as the best shock troops in the Allied ranks due to their ferocity in battle and their unconventional warfare techniques, and were employed accordingly. The successes during trench raids, and kill or capture missions can be seen as early forerunners of special operations.[6][7][page needed]

World War II


Australia first began raising special forces during World War II, following advice from the British.[8] The first units to be formed were independent companies, which began training at Wilson's Promontory in Victoria in early 1941 under the tutelage of British instructors. With an establishment of 17 officers and 256 men, the independent companies were trained as "stay behind" forces, a role that they were later employed in against the Japanese in the South West Pacific Area during 1942–43, most notably fighting a guerilla campaign in Timor, as well as actions in New Guinea.[9] In all, a total of eight independent companies were raised before they were re-organised in mid-1943 into commando squadrons and placed under the command of the divisional cavalry regiments that were re-designated as cavalry commando regiments. As a part of this structure, a total of 11 commando squadrons were raised. They continued to act independently, and were often assigned at brigade level during the later stages of the war, taking part in the fighting in New Guinea, Bougainville and Borneo, where they were employed largely in long-range reconnaissance and flank protection roles.[10] In addition to these units, the Australians also raised the Z Special Unit and M Special Unit. M Special Unit was largely employed in an intelligence-gathering role, while Z Special Force undertook direct action missions. One of its most notable actions came as part of Operation Jaywick, in which several Japanese ships were sunk in Singapore Harbour in 1943. A second raid on Singapore in 1944, known as Operation Rimau, was unsuccessful.[11]


The German army had the Brandenburger Regiment, which was originally founded as a special forces unit used by the Abwehr for infiltration and long distance reconnaissance in Fall Weiss of 1939 and the Fall Gelb and Barbarossa campaigns of 1940 and 1941. Later during the war the 502nd SS Jäger Battalion, commanded by Otto Skorzeny, also conducted many special operations. On October 21, 1944 Adolf Hitler—inspired by an American subterfuge which had put three captured German tanks flying German colours to devastating use at Aachen—summoned Skorzeny to Berlin and assigned him to lead a Panzer brigade. As planned by Skorzeny in Operation Greif, about two dozen English-speaking German soldiers, most of them in captured U.S. Army jeeps and disguised in U.S. Army uniforms, penetrated U.S. lines in the early hours of the Battle of the Bulge and sowed disorder behind the Allied lines by mis-directing convoys away from the front lines. A handful of his men were captured by the Americans and spread a rumor that Skorzeny was leading a raid on Paris to kill or capture General Dwight Eisenhower. Although this was untrue, Eisenhower was confined to his headquarters for several days and Skorzeny was labelled "the most dangerous man in Europe". Overall, Operation Greif was a failure due to faulty planning and the lack of Allied uniforms, equipments, and vehicles limited the operation. 18 German soldiers who were apprehended behind U.S. lines in U.S. Army uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge were tried as spies by U.S. military commissions, sentenced to death, and executed by firing squad.


During the Second World War, in 1942, the Sacred Band (Greek: Ιερός Λόχος) was formed in the Middle East; composed entirely of Greek officers and officer cadets under the command of Colonel Christodoulos Tsigantes. The special forces unit fought alongside the SAS in the Libyan desert and the Aegean, as well as with General Leclerc's Free French Forces in Tunisia. It was disbanded in August 1945, and is the precursor of the modern Greek Special Forces.


In Italy, the Decima Flottiglia MAS were responsible for the sinking and damage of considerable Allied tonnage in the Mediterranean. After the division of Italy in 1943, those fighting with Germany retained the original name and those fighting with the Allies retitled as the Mariassalto. Also there were other Italian special forces like A.D.R.A. (Arditi Distruttori Regia Aeronautica). This regiment was used in raids on Allied airbases and railways in North Africa in 1943. In one mission they destroyed 25 B-17s.


The Imperial Japanese Army developed an airborne paratroop force in the late 1930s, but the program did not receive much attention by the Imperial General Headquarters until review of the success of similar German paratrooper units during the Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Army paratroops were first deployed in combat during the Battle of Palembang, on Sumatra in the Netherlands East Indies, on 14 February 1942. The operation was well-planned, with 425 men of the 1st Parachute Raiding Regiment seizing Palembang airfield, while the paratroopers of the 2nd Parachute Raiding Regiment seized the town and its important oil refinery. Paratroops were subsequently deployed in the Burma campaign.

Following this success, in July 1943, the 1st Glider Tank Troop was formed, with four Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks. This unit was eventually expanded to battalion size, with a tank company using 14 Type 2 Ke-To light tanks, an infantry company, and a motorized transport company. The paratroop brigades were organized into the Teishin Shudan as the first division-level raiding unit, at the main Japanese airborne base, Karasehara Airfield, Kyūshū, Japan. It was commanded by a major general, and was organized as follows:

  • headquarters company (220 personnel)
  • aviation brigade
  • raiding brigade
  • two glider infantry regiments
  • raiding artillery company (120 personnel)
  • raiding signals company (140 personnel)
  • raiding engineer company (250 personnel)

The unit had an estimated 5,575 personnel.

However, as with similar airborne units created by the Allies and other Axis powers, the Japanese paratroops suffered from a disproportionately high casualty rate, and the loss of men who required such extensive and expensive training limited their operations to only the most critical ones. For the most part, the Teishin Shudan was deployed as elite light infantry.

Two regiments of Teishin Shudan were formed into the 1st Raiding Group, commanded by Major General Rikichi Tsukada under the control of the Southern Expeditionary Army Group, during the Philippines campaign. Although structured as a division, its capabilities were much lower, as its six regiments had manpower equivalent to a standard infantry battalion, and it lacked any form of artillery, and had to rely on other units for logistical support. Its men were no longer parachute-trained, but relied on aircraft for transport.

Some 750 men, mainly from the 2nd Raiding Brigade, of this group were assigned to attack American air bases on Luzon and Leyte on the night of 6 December 1944. They were flown in Ki-57 transports, but most of the aircraft were shot down. Some 300 commandos managed to land in the Burauen area on Leyte. The force destroyed some planes and inflicted numerous casualties, before they were annihilated.

The remainder of Teishin Shudan remained based in the Philippines until the end of the war.


The Organization of Special Combat Actions (Organizacja Specjalnych Akcji Bojowych), popularly known as Osa–Kosa 30, formed in May 1942 as a special operations force of the Armia Krajowa or Home Army of the Polish government-in-exile and in existence until July 1943, was responsible for several actions against German assets on the territory of both Poland and the Third Reich,[12] including (for example) the action at the Friedrichstraße underground railway station in Berlin on 15 February 1943.[13] Even when its actions on occasion did not outwardly achieve their stated objectives, as on 20 April 1943 in the failed attempt at assassination of F. W. Krüger, the SS and Police Leader in Nazi-occupied Poland, the result was the marked man's going to ground (in this case, seriously wounded, with his aide-de-camp dead) and a scaling down of repressive policies.[14][15][16] This remarkable flying subversion squad was disbanded in July 1943 following the mass arrests of its members by the Gestapo during the wedding ceremony of one of its operatives at St. Alexander's Church in Warsaw on 5 June 1943—one of the gravest losses suffered by the Polish Underground State in its history.[17]

The successor of the Osa–Kosa 30 commando unit was in many ways the famed Battalion Parasol (in full, Special Operations Unit of the Directorate for Subversion within the General Command of the Home Army), which took over the special operations for the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) General Command in 1943. It is renowned for spectacular exploits, the best-known among them being perhaps the Operation Kutschera of 1 February 1944.[18][19]


The Russian Spetsnaz GRU, or Russian army special forces, are considered the best trained units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. The Spetsnaz have created a fierce reputation as one of the best special forces in the world today due to the very harsh standards of their training. They are controlled by the GRU. The units of Spetsnaz GRU have no official names, such as the case with units of MVD Spetsnaz. They are generally referred to by unit numbers, for example, "16th Separate Brigade of Spetsnaz", much like any other military unit.

Primary conception of strategy and tactic of application of the special forces real belongs to the Russian military theorist Michael Svechnykov (Stalin killed him in 1938), and could to starting from the bold dream about victory in an unequal fight because had dependence with Russian military traditional readiness to the unequal fight, but practical realization was begun by the "grandfather of the Russian spetsnaz" Ilya Starinov.

Few details are actually known about the operations of Spetsnaz GRU, but it is known that the units were heavily involved in operations in Afghanistan and Chechnya. Spetnaz GRU teams usually wear standard-issue Russian Airborne Troops uniforms, light blue VDV berets and unit patches in order to avoid identification. However, they can also wear different uniforms, for instance, they would wear the uniform of a unit which is stationed nearby, in order to blend in.

United Kingdom

British SAS in North Africa (1943), in jeeps with mounted heavy machine guns

During World War II, in 1940, the British Commandos were formed following Winston Churchill's call for "specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast."[20] The Commandos were selected from volunteers among existing servicemen and went on to spawn a number of other specialist units including the Parachute Regiment, the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service.[21][22][23] Another multi-national unit was formed around the same time the Long Range Desert Group for service in the western desert. In the Burma Campaign, the Chindits, whose long range penetration groups were trained to operate from bases deep behind Japanese lines, contained commandos (King's Regiment (Liverpool), 142 Commando Company) and Gurkhas. Their jungle expertise, which would play an important part in many British special forces operations post war, was learnt at a great cost in lives in the jungles of Burma fighting the Japanese.

The British No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando was formed with complete troops of men from France, Belgium, Norway, The Netherlands and Poland. Most of these troops formed the foundation for their own countries special forces after the war.[24][25][26]

United States and Canada

The United States formed the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II under the Medal of Honor recipient William J. Donovan. This organization was the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was responsible for both intelligence and special forces missions. The CIA's elite Special Activities Division is the direct descendant of the OSS.[27] In mid-1942, the United States formed the Rangers. The United States and Canada also formed a sabotage ski brigade for operations in Norway who became known as the Devil's Brigade, officially known as the First Special Service Force, during their eventual service in Italy. Merrill's Marauders were modelled on the Chindits and took part in similar operations in Burma. In late November 1943, the Alamo Scouts were formed to conduct reconnaissance and raider work in the Southwest Pacific Theater under the personal command of then Lt. General Walter Krueger, Commanding General, Sixth U.S. Army. Krueger envisioned that the Alamo Scouts, consisting of small teams of highly trained volunteers, would operate deep behind enemy lines to provide intelligence-gathering and tactical reconnaissance in advance of Sixth U.S. Army landing operations. In 1988 the Alamo Scouts were individually awarded the Special Forces Tab[citation needed] for their services in World War II and included in the lineage of today's U.S. Army Special Forces.

Late 20th and early 21st century

ODA 525 team picture taken shortly before infiltration in Iraq, February 1991

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st century, special forces have come to higher prominence, as governments have found objectives can sometimes be better achieved by a small team of anonymous specialists than a larger and much more politically controversial conventional deployment. In both Kosovo and Afghanistan, special forces were used to co-ordinate activities between local guerrilla fighters and air power. Typically, guerrilla fighters would engage enemy soldiers and tanks causing them to move, where they could be seen and attacked from the air.

Special forces have been used in both wartime and peacetime military operations such as the 1971 Indo-Pak War, Vietnam War, Portuguese Colonial War, Falklands War, The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Jaffna University Helidrop the first and second Gulf Wars, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, the first and second Chechen Wars, the Iranian Embassy siege (London), the Air France Flight 8969 ( Marseille), Operation Defensive Shield, Operation Khukri, the Moscow theater hostage crisis, Operation Orchard, the 2006 Lebanon War, the Japanese Embassy hostage crisis (Lima), in Sri Lanka against the LTTE, and the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.

The U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan involved special forces from several coalition nations, who played a major role in removing the Taliban from power in 2001–2002. Special forces have continued to play a role in combating the Taliban in subsequent operations.


Special operations units in Bangladesh include Special Security Forces (SSF), President Guard Regiment (PGR), Special Warfare Diving and Salvage (SWADS), Para-commando Regiment, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and Dhaka Metropolitan Police Special Weapons and Tactics (DMPSWAT). SSF, a special agency formed with extensively trained personnel from all three service divisions (army, navy and air force) of Bangladesh Armed Forces, is generally tasked with physical security of heads of the government and the state, as well as visiting heads of governments, incumbent or former, and VVIPs in general. SSF agents make up the closest circle of Prime Minister's protection team. The PGR is responsible for security of the President only. SWADS is the elite unit of Bangladesh Navy whereas Para-commando Regiment comprises the elite paratroopers of Bangladesh Army. RAB, formed with personnel from all service divisions of the armed forces and Bangladesh Police, is originally a counterterrorism and crime prevention unit. It is also tasked with internal search and rescue. DMPSWAT, formed with Dhaka Metropolitan Police officers and operating under the Detective Branch, acts as a tactical unit for special counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and law enforcement situations.


Special Forces of India include the MARCOS, Special Frontier Force, Garud Commando Force, National Security Guards and Para Commandos (India). All these Forces have been constantly active since the past decade operating against counter insurgents and terrorists. The NSG backed up by the MARCOS successfully neutralised all the gunmen in the 2008 Mumbai Attacks. The Para Commandos (India) and MARCOS also saw success during Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and Kargil War. They excelled covert operations in IPKF in Sri Lanka against LTTE during 1987-89.


German Special Forces training near Grafenwöhr

The special operations forces of Pakistan are known as Special Services Group (SSG). It comprises the SSG of Pakistan Army, Special Services Group Navy (SSGN) of Pakistan Navy and Special Services Wing (SSW) of Pakistan Air Force. SSG's primary and special missions are asymmetric warfare, special operations, counter-proliferation, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, special reconnaissance, direct action, hostage rescue, counterterrorism, and personnel recovery. SSG has a large history of special operations during Indo-Pakisatani wars, counterinsurgency in Pakistan's tribal belt, as well as number of hostage rescue missions. The Navy's SSGN was used in the PNS Mehran attack. SSG holds joint exercises regularly with other special forces of the world. SSG of Pak Army also provides security to the Royal Family of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.[citation needed]


The special operation forces of the Republic of Ireland are known as the Army Ranger Wing of the Irish Defence Forces.[28] The Rangers are extremely well trained and have seen deployments in East Timor,[29] Chad and Liberia, where one of their most successful missions took place when they rescued a group of innocent civilians from renegade Liberian forces.[30] Acting on intelligence, twenty heavily armed Rangers were dropped by helicopter at the town of Gbapa. To avoid casualties among the hostages, the Rangers implemented a policy of non-lethal intervention and, after surrounding a 40-foot container holding the 35 hostages, rescued them and captured the rebel commander.The incident, which resulted in no Irish casualties, boosted the reputation of the Irish Defence Forces.[31]

See also


  1. Sawyer, Ralph D. (1993). The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. Boulder: Westview Press, Inc. pp. 39, 98–99. ISBN 0-8133-1228-0. 
  2. Christides, Vassilios. "Military Intelligence in Arabo-Byzantine Naval Warfare". Institute for Byzantine Studies, Athens. pp. 276–280. Retrieved 2011-08-02. 
  3. Turnbull, Stephen (2003). Ninja AD 1460–1650. Osprey Publishing. pp. 44–47, 50. ISBN 978-1-84176-525-9. 
  4. "The Corps of Guides – the original Indian Army special forces." ..."The Scouts were not subordinate to any brigade or division but were army troops – deployed at the discretion of the field force commander." (Bellamy 2011, p. 115)
  5. John Plaster (2006). The Ultimate Sniper: An Advanced Training Manual For Military And Police Snipers. Paladin Press. p. 5. ISBN 0-87364-704-1. 
  6. Ward, R 1992, A Concise History of Australia, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, p235.
  7. Griffith, Paddy; "Battle Tactics of the Western Front"; Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994
  8. Horner 1989, p. 21.
  9. Horner 1989, pp. 22–26.
  10. Horner 1989, p. 26.
  11. Horner 1989, pp. 26–27.
  12. Tomasz Strzembosz, Oddziały szturmowe konspiracyjnej Warszawy, 1939–1944, Warsaw, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1979. ISBN 83-01-00085-6. Henryk Witkowski, "Kedyw" Okręgu Warszawskiego Armii Krajowej w latach 1943–1944, Warsaw, Instytut Wydawniczy Związków Zawodowych, 1984. ISBN 83-202-0217-5.
  13. Witold Biegański, et al., Polish Resistance Movement in Poland and Abroad, 1939–1945, ed. S. Okęcki, transl. B. Ambroziewicz, H. Dzierżanowska & J. Tomaszczyk, Warsaw, PWN [Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe], 1987, page 391.
  14. Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, Armia Podziemna, 8th ed., corr. & enl., Warsaw, Bellona and Oficyna Wydawnicza Rytm, 2009, page 135. ISBN 978-83-11-11617-7 and ISBN 978-83-7399-354-9. (First ed., London, 1951.)
  15. Andrzej Chwalba, Dzieje Krakowa: Kraków w latach 1939–1945, vol. 5, ed. J. Bieniarzówna & J. M. Małecki, Cracow, Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2002, page 289. ISBN 83-08-00115-7 and ISBN 83-08-03289-3.
  16. Stanisław Kołodziejski, et al., Kronika dziejów Polski, Cracow, Wydawnictwo Ryszard Kluszczyński, 1995, page 312. ISBN 83-86328-34-7.
  17. Jacek Wilamowski & Włodzimierz Kopczuk, Tajemnicze wsypy: polsko-niemiecka wojna na tajnym froncie, Warsaw, Instytut Wydawniczy Związków Zawodowych, 1990. ISBN 83-202-0741-X.
  18. Piotr Stachiewicz, "Parasol": dzieje oddziału do zadań specjalnych Kierownictwa Dywizji Komendy Głównej Armii Krajowej, Warsaw, PAX, 1981. ISBN 83-211-0273-5.
  19. Cf. Mieczysław Juchniewicz, Poles in the European Resistance Movement, 1939–1945, transl. B. Arct, Warsaw, Interpress, 1972, page 163.
  20. Haskew, p.47
  21. Otway, pp.31–32.
  22. Breuer, pp.46–47.
  23. Molinari, p.22.
  24. "Les fusiliers marins et les commandos". Ministère de la Défense. Retrieved 17 April 2010. 
  25. "The history of the Commando Foundation". Korps Commandotroepen. Retrieved 17 April 2010. 
  26. "Centre d'Entraînement de Commandos". Ministère de la Défense,la Composante Terre. Retrieved 17 April 2010. 
  27. The Office of Strategic Services: America's First Intelligence Agency, Michael Warner, CIA History Staff, Center for the Study of Intelligence, United States Central Intelligence Agency (2000)
  28. Organisation | Army | Defence Forces. Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
  29. Defence Forces - Overseas Operations - United Nations Mission in East Timor, Intervention Force in East Timor, United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor & United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor. (2008-12-20). Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
  30. Crack troops rescue hostages from gunmen in daring raid. (2004-01-08). Retrieved on 2013-07-21.


  • Bellamy, Chris (2011). The Gurkhas: Special Force. UK: Hachette. p. 115. ISBN 9781848545151. 
  • Breuer, William B. (2001). Daring missions of World War II. John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 978-0-471-40419-4.
  • Haskew, Michael E (2007). Encyclopaedia of Elite Forces in the Second World War. Barnsley: Pen and Sword. ISBN 978-1-84415-577-4.
  • Horner, David (1989). SAS: Phantoms of the Jungle—A History of the Australian Special Air Service (1st ed.). St Leonards: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-86373-007-9. 
  • Molinari, Andrea (2007). Desert Raiders: Axis and Allied Special Forces 1940–43. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84603-006-2.
  • Otway, Lieutenant-Colonel T.B.H (1990). The Second World War 1939–1945 Army – Airborne Forces. Imperial War Museum. ISBN 0-901627-57-7. 

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