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 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. 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. In Japan, Ninjas were used for reconnaissance, espionage and as frontline assault troops, bodyguards or fortress guards, or otherwise fought alongside more conventional soldiers. 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.
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). 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. 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.