Asked about the most vital qualities required to be an SAS soldier, Colin Maclachlan doesn’t hesitate. “Everyone talks about the physical aspect of being in the SAS but to me that’s twenty percent of it,” he says. “The majority of it is about mental robustness. Give me a guy who’s got that over a guy who’s twice as fit any day of the week.”
He should know: during seven years serving with Special Forces, Maclachlan, 41, has been on the frontline in some of the most dangerous and testing territory in the world, deployed in highly risky operations everywhere from Afghanistan and the Balkans to Northern Ireland and Iraq – the latter three times.
Recently, though, Maclachlan has found himself in an altogether different role – this time on camera. Together with a group of other former Special Forces servicemen, he put a group of 30 civilian rookies through their paces as they undertook a series of gruelling tests from the SAS selection process for a new Channel 4 series.
Former SAS serviceman Colin Maclachlan
It’s not for the faint-hearted: SAS selection is widely acknowledged as one of the most physically challenging and psychologically demanding military entrance processes in the world, and the show – described by Channel 4 as the toughest of its kind ever broadcast – doesn’t shy away from its excesses.
Using exact replicas of the selection process tests, in Maclachlan’s words, it “strips these candidates bare so you can see what’s at the very core.
“It shows the whole process. It’s not just, ‘He can jump out of a plane, he can survive under interrogation,’ it’s looking at all the competencies.”
These included so-called “sickeners”, a punishing full day of exercises with a number of false endings and a “tunnel and kidnap” task, in which they are “kidnapped” by hooded special forces and taken to a room when they are exposed to barking dogs and simulated beatings.
They’re tests Maclachlan knows all too well. He joined Special Forces in 1999, ten years after enrolling with the Royal Scots infantry as a “petrified” 16-year-old. In his first year, he was the first soldier on the scene of a terrorist hijacking, when an Afghan airline landed at Stansted airport with 150 people on board.
‘‘Within an hour of that happening I was 50m behind the plane with my sniper rifle giving commentary and intelligence,” says Maclachlan. “It was touch and go whether we were going to go in but happily all the hostages got released.”
Three tours of Iraq followed, during the latter one of which Maclachlan’s car was captured at a police checkpoint outside Basra by a group of Iraqi military.
Dragged into a brick outhouse he was stripped, blindfolded and handcuffed before being knelt against a wall. “Then there’s something pressing against your head, and there’s a click,” he recalls. He was then interrogated before being taken back outside where he was told to get into an unmarked car.
“I think if I had got into that car I would have been beheaded, but as I was fighting to get in, a surveillance plane flew overhead, which might well have saved my life.” Within moments he heard gunfire, before being rescued by the British army and hastily taken out of the country.
It was a turning point. “I think I felt it was time to make some different decisions. I left the SAS not long after that.” After initially working in private security he followed a different path, studying for a history degree at Edinburgh University before taking a masters in counter-terrorism. He now writes for a number of academic and military publications, as well as working as an advisor on video games.
Leaving the SAS has also allowed him a family life: now married, he has two young children aged four and two. Yet he admits to missing it, and enjoyed the chance to recapture some of the old camaraderie with fellow former soldiers – as well as watching the progress of the recruits. “All these guys had peak fitness – they were at the top of their game – but quite quickly some fell off or emerged to the front,” he says. “It was fascinating.”