Rogue Heroes: How The SAS Was Forged From The ‘Sweepings Of Public Schools And Prisons’, Revealed In An Elite Regiment’s Secret War Diary
The wind had reached gale-force as the five elderly Bristol Bombay transport aircraft neared their target, bucking in the storm and threatening to flip over.
Driven sand and pelting rain covered the cockpits. The pilots strained to see ahead into the dark sky over the North African desert.
Suddenly, German searchlights picked them out and flak began exploding around them in blinding flashes. A shell ripped through the floor of one plane and missed the auxiliary fuel tank by inches.
In the back of each aircraft sat a ‘stick’ of 11 British parachutists, 55 soldiers in all; almost the entire strength of a new, experimental and intensely secret combat unit. The fledgling Special Air Service — the SAS — was on its first mission behind enemy lines.
Restrained fear was the predominant emotion among them as they sat strapped in, shivering with cold and waiting to go into action.
All of a sudden, the pilots signalled them to jump — though in truth, they were now flying blind, navigating by guesswork.
First, canisters containing explosives, Tommy guns, ammunition, food, water, maps, blankets and medical supplies were tossed out. Then, one by one, the men hurled themselves into the seething darkness.
First out was Captain David Stirling, the creative genius behind this whole new enterprise. Seconds later, he hit the desert floor with such force that he blacked out. When he came to, he was being dragged along by his parachute ‘like a kite’ in a 40mph wind, whipped and grated across sharp gravel and rocks.
He struggled to release himself and staggered to his feet, covered in lacerations and pouring blood.
It took him two hours to gather what remained of his team. One man had vanished completely. Another had broken an ankle and could not stand. A sergeant broke his back on landing and could not even crawl.
The supply canisters were nowhere to be found, leaving Stirling’s unit armed only with revolvers, a handful of grenades and barely a day’s supply of water. As an attacking force, they were now useless.
The SAS — Stirling’s invention, the result of his eccentric military mind — looked as if it was ending in oblivion and ignominy before it had even begun.
JUST five months earlier, in the summer of 1941, the 25-year-old Stirling, an officer in the Scots Guards, came up with his revolutionary plan while lying paralysed from the waist down in a Cairo hospital after an accident during commando parachute training.
Privileged by birth and education, a scion of one of the oldest and grandest families in Scotland, he was not a conventional soldier. He lacked basic military discipline, could not march straight and was so lazy his comrades nicknamed him ‘the Giant Sloth’.
He was impertinent, indolent and often half asleep after nights spent drinking, gambling and playing billiards in smart London clubs. The hospital nurses knew him well, for he frequently popped in during the morning, whey-faced and liverish, to request a blast from the oxygen bottle to cure his hangover.
Since being posted to Egypt with the British Commandos, he had spent much of his time in Cairo’s bars and clubs, or gambling at the racecourse.
Fellow officers found him charming and entertaining, but senior commanders thought him incompetent and profoundly irritating. A cowboy of a soldier, he was under investigation for malingering.
But as he lay in bed recovering, he did a great deal of thinking about how commandos in North Africa might take the enemy by surprise by attacking not from the Mediterranean, where they were expected to launch any raid, but from the other direction, the vast, seemingly impenetrable desert.
The Great Sand Sea, the ocean of dunes that makes up about a quarter of the greater Libyan desert, ‘was one sea the Hun was not watching’, Stirling reflected.
If small, mobile teams of highly trained men could infiltrate the enemy’s desert flank, they could sabotage airfields, supply depots, communications links, railways and roads, and then slip back into the embracing emptiness of the desert.
It was an inspired idea, which he shared with another officer and they wrote a proposal for ‘a new type of force, to extract the maximum out of surprise and guile’.
Specially recruited, highly trained teams would drop by parachute behind enemy lines, creep to airfields and plant timebombs on as many aircraft as possible, before retreating into the desert and making their way home.
What Stirling proposed would leapfrog the front line and take the battle directly into the enemy camp. In the eyes of those in the British Army who clung to the classical conception of warfare, in which men in uniform clashed on a battlefield until one side emerged victorious, this was unsporting, like punching a chap when he is looking the other way.
Worse still, Stirling’s idea threatened the concept of rank. A mere lieutenant, he insisted on going directly to the commander-in-chief to create and command what looked suspiciously like a private army. Stirling knew the resistance he would meet if he put his proposal through proper channels. Military bureaucracy — that ‘freemasonry of mediocrity’ and ‘layer upon layer of fossilised s***’, as he called it — would bar his way.
So, still on crutches from his accident, he wormed his way into Eighth Army headquarters in Cairo and burst unannounced into the office of General Sir Neil Ritchie, the deputy chief of staff.
The general glanced at the paper Stirling thrust into his hands and then announced: ‘This may be just the sort of plan we’re looking for.’
Three days later, Stirling was summoned back to see the C-in-C, General Sir Claude Auchinleck — who just happened to be an old family friend from Scotland and had fought alongside Stirling’s father in World War I.
Auchinleck liked the proposal. He was planning a major counter-offensive to hit back at the German Field Marshal Rommel and reverse the tide of the desert war, and Stirling’s band of raiders might just hamper enemy airpower at a critical moment.
The plan was cheap in terms of manpower and equipment and could pay handsome dividends if it worked. And if it didn’t, all that would be lost was a handful of adventurers.
At the end of the meeting, Stirling was promoted to captain and authorised to raise an initial force of six officers and 60 men.
The new unit’s name was provided by a little-known military genius, Colonel Dudley Clarke, whose job was strategic deception by concealing the truth from the enemy and planting lies instead.
He’d already invented a fake paratroop brigade he called the 1st Special Air Service Brigade, which appeared in false documents leaked to the enemy. For Stirling’s crew he came up with the designation of L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade — the letter ‘L’ meant to imply that detachments A to K were already in existence.
The SAS thus came into being as part of a larger contingent that did not actually exist. It was an oddly appropriate start.
Stirling began recruitment and as word got around, there was no shortage of volunteers. He had a clear idea of the sort of men he needed — those with an ability to think and react independently, something not normally highly prized in the Army.
‘I always hoisted on-board guys who argued,’ he said. They would also have to be willing to kill at close quarters, and not merely for the sake of killing. ‘I didn’t want psychopaths.’
He sought outsiders, misfits and reprobates with an instinct for covert war and little time for convention.
Stirling’s ideal SAS man was exceptionally brave but just short of irresponsible; disciplined but also independent-minded; uncomplaining, unconventional and, when necessary, merciless.
Inevitably, there would be a fair number of thugs, toughies and sheer b******s — not always easy to control. Part soldiers, part spies, these rogue warriors were, as one former SAS officer put it, ‘the sweepings of the public schools and the prisons’.
The new detachment showed its mettle from the start. Arriving at their training grounds in the desert, the men found just three ragged tents, a single ancient lorry and a couple of chairs.
So they stole equipment from a nearby regiment, slipping into their camp at night and making off with tents, bedding, tables, chairs, a gramophone, cooking equipment, hurricane lamps, rope, washbasins and tarpaulins. They even took a piano and table-tennis set.
By morning, they had one of the best-appointed small camps in the Middle East.
Stirling was an officer different from any other. Most of the recruits were used to being disdained by their officers, bullied by their NCOs and generally treated as a lower life-form. Stirling was exquisitely polite to all.
The only thing he insisted on was complete secrecy. There was to be ‘no bragging or swanking’, and members of L Detachment should never speak about their activities outside their own ranks.
The training to survive the desert was intense, the ‘hardest ever undertaken in the Middle East’, according to military records.
6ft 6in gambler – with no respect for rules or authority
In a short life, the aristocratic David Stirling had tried and failed at being an artist, architect, cowboy and mountaineer. World War II was his salvation.
His mother was the daughter of Lord Lovat, the chief of Clan Fraser, and his father a distinguished general, an MP and master of a 15,000-acre estate.
The parents drummed good manners into their six children, but otherwise largely left them to get on with their lives. They grew up stalking deer, hunting rabbits, fighting and competing.
By the age of 17, he was 6 ft 6 in tall, a gangly beanpole, wilful, reckless but also exceptionally polite and socially at ease.
He was sent down from Cambridge after misbehaving on a lavish scale and spending more time at Newmarket racecourse than on his studies.
Stirling went to Paris to become an artist. He wore a beret and lived a louche, Left Bank life, but displayed little talent for painting. The same went for architecture, his next choice of profession, as well as his ambition to be the first person to climb Mount Everest, even though he suffered from vertigo.
As he nonchalantly frittered away his dissolute life, unpaid bills mounted — from his bookmaker, his tailor, his bank manager and even from a cowboy outfitter in Arizona, seeking payment for a saddle.
When war broke out in 1939, he joined his father’s regiment, the Scots Guards, but was the most contradictory of soldiers: ambitious but unfocused, steeped in military traditions but allergic to discipline. He skipped parades and was always getting into trouble.
With the inbred confidence that comes from high birth, he regarded rules as nuisances and was blithely unconstrained by convention. He showed no deference whatever to rank.
It was when he gravitated to the Commandos, the special operations army unit dubbed ‘Churchill’s cut-throats’ for its undercover work, that his leadership qualities finally surfaced.
He had an adamant faith in his own decisions and did exactly what he wanted to do, whether or not others thought his aims were sensible or even possible.
The SAS came into being in part because its founder would not take no for an answer, either from those in authority or from those under his command.
On a personal level, Stirling was a romantic, with an innate talent for friendship but little desire for physical intimacy. He had many women friends but relaxed only among men.
A warrior monk, he craved action and the company of soldiers, but his boisterous exterior belied a lonely man prone to periodic depressions and inner turmoil. When the fighting was over, he embraced solitude.
The men went on 100-mile route marches in full kit and load and with virtually no water. They would have to lie out in the midday heat covered by only a strip of cloth until, after three days of dehydration, some were hallucinating and close to collapse.
Anyone who could not cope was out and ‘RTUed’ (returned to unit). There were no second chances. A note in SAS files records that one private soldier ‘walked 40 miles across the desert in stockinged feet rather than fall out after his boots gave way’.
It was mentally challenging, too. One of the motors of success was the fear of failure. The only acceptable direction was forward.
‘Never run away,’ they were instructed, ‘because once you start running, you’ve stopped thinking.’
As numbers were whittled down, by death, drop-outs, illness and rejection, another kind of bonding began to emerge among these smelly, dirty, sunburned men: the sense of belonging to an elite unit barely 100 strong, tested by trial, selected for survival.
Even before it went into action, this mixed bag of individuals was forging a collective identity. Some were regular soldiers, others were not. Some were natural warriors, nerveless and calm, and a few were touched by a sort of martial madness.
None could claim to have been fully prepared for what they were about to do because no one had ever before attempted a night-time parachute assault in the North African desert.
But a peculiar camaraderie had already taken root, a strange esprit compounded of ruthlessness, guile, competitiveness and collective determination.
‘They weren’t easily controllable,’ Stirling later admitted of his ‘band of vagabonds’, but they were ‘harnessable’, if only just.
At the time of its founding, the SAS was an experiment, and an unpopular one among more traditionally minded officers in the British Army.
But as Stirling’s team parachuted into the North African desert, they pioneered a form of combat which, in time, would become an essential part of modern warfare, reproduced in such units as the U.S. Delta Force and Navy SEALs.
Yet throughout World War II, and for many years afterwards, its activities were a closely guarded secret. The only record was an internal SAS war diary, gathered together in 1945, bound in a single, leather-clad volume of more than 500 pages and held in secrecy for the next 70 years — until I was allowed unprecedented access to it to write its incredible story.
From its pages, it is clear that the first operation in November 1941, code-named Squatter, ought never to have taken place, given that 30-knot winds were predicted — twice the maximum speed for safe parachuting.
But Stirling himself took the decision to go anyway, believing it was now or never for the SAS. If he pulled out, enemies at Army HQ would seize the opportunity to disband his detachment altogether.
The objective was to parachute into the Libyan desert behind enemy lines, enter five airfields on foot and plant explosives on 300 German and Italian planes.
Then, as the bombs went off, they were to head back to base, fleeing south to a rendezvous point deep in the desert where they would be picked up by trucks of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a deep-penetration reconnaissance unit whose rugged, experienced drivers were known for good reason as the ‘Libyan Taxi Service’.
Two hours before take-off, the RAF had laid on a banquet for them, with as much food as they could eat and a bottle of beer apiece. Served by RAF officers, this dinner was intended as a tribute to the parachutists, but some felt they were treated ‘like men going to the gallows’.
It was a bad omen. Now, in the desert, every one of them was struggling to stay alive.
ON the ground, Stirling counted his casualties, bemoaned his lost weapons and re-drew his plans. He decided he and a sergeant would continue and reconnoitre his group’s target airfield, while the rest trekked to the rendezvous — a shallow hollow marked by two hurricane lamps, where the LRDG would be waiting.
The two most badly injured men could not be moved and were left behind, huddled in blankets with a supply of water and two revolvers, in the hope the Germans would find them. They were never seen again.
Stirling and his sergeant went north and managed to reach the coastal escarpment. They located the coast road but were unable to find the airfield. Disconsolate, they turned back and made for the rendezvous, the mission a failure.
Other teams were also in deep trouble. Their pilots, unable to see properly, had guessed the right moment and altitude to drop the men, and they had landed ‘all over the bloody shop’. Not one of the ‘sticks’ of 11 men landed within ten miles of its intended drop zone.
One plane was shot up by a Messerschmitt and crash-landed in sand hills, with many casualties trapped beneath the burning fuselage. The soldier who had walked 40 miles in his socks during training was among the dead. The survivors had no choice but to surrender.
Another team lost its leader, a 20-year-old, who broke his neck on landing and never regained consciousness. His men buried him in the sand and then set off into the desert. Lost, they wandered on to an airfield and were captured by Italian guards.
Even those soldiers who made it down successfully were hard-put to find the canisters containing bombs and guns that had been dropped with them.
None of them had much idea of where they were. All they could do was head north, in what they hoped was the direction of the airfields. Meanwhile, above them, black clouds were rolling in and the worst storm in the area for 30 years was about to overtake them.
Suddenly, the skies opened in a blinding, soaking deluge. In minutes, dry riverbeds were raging torrents. ‘The water was up to your chest,’ one man recalled.
Worse still, there was no sign ahead of their target, just an endless damp horizon of desert.
They huddled together for a sodden, freezing, hungry, sleepless night, broken only by the occasional sip of rum and constant wringing of wet blankets.
As dawn broke, the rain eased, but it was clear that the operation would have to be aborted: the explosives were soaked and useless.
The closest anyone got to their target was the team led by Stirling’s deputy, the truculent and dangerously unpredictable Paddy Mayne, a celebrated international rugby player and notorious bar-room brawler.
The group marched through the night and laid up in a wadi about five miles from its target airfield — until the downpour turned their wadi into an instant lake. The men were soaked to the bone; even their cigarettes — a lifeline for most soldiers — were waterlogged.
Worse still, their sabotage equipment was now useless.
With ferocious reluctance, Mayne aborted the mission and as night fell, he and his men set off on the 35-mile slog south to the rendezvous point.
By now, all the groups had been forced to admit defeat and were trudging into the desert in the hope of rescue.
An exhausted Stirling stumbled into the meeting point at dawn after a 50-mile trek, asking: ‘Have you seen any of my chaps?’
No one had. The rest of his ‘chaps’ had been captured after taking a wrong turn and stumbling into an Italian patrol.
Stirling remained at the desert rendezvous for two more days, scanning the horizon in the hope that other stragglers might eventually emerge. None did.
There was no disguising the grim truth: Operation Squatter had been an unmitigated disaster. Of the 55 men who had parachuted into the gale on November 16, 1941, just 21 had returned. The rest were dead or injured, missing or captured.
What was really devastating was that the SAS had lost most of its strength without firing a shot, attacking the enemy or detonating a single bomb. They had been defeated, not by force of arms, but by wind and rain.
The mission had done nothing to support the main British offensive against Rommel. Worse than that, the failed operation had alerted the enemy that the British were conducting active operations behind the lines.
British code-breakers deciphered a message sent to Luftwaffe and Panzer commanders of the Afrika Korps alerting them to ‘sabotage detachments’ having been dropped.
The survivors of the SAS’s first mission tried to look on the bright side. Yes, it had been a fiasco, but they had encountered some cruel ill-luck.
Stirling pointed out that he had personally reached the coast road and seen the sea, which proved that, given the right conditions, an approach to those vulnerable enemy airfields from the desert was possible.
Mayne reported that his men, ‘although lacerated and bruised by their landing and wet and numb with cold, remained cheerful’. In reality, they were deeply demoralised, not least because every one of them had lost a close friend.
‘There was so much talent in those who died,’ Stirling reflected. ‘It was tragic.’
What should have been a triumphant first mission, he conceded, had been ‘a complete failure’. He had feared that cancelling the operation might jeopardise the future of the SAS, but by pushing ahead, he had very nearly destroyed it. The reduced detachment now seemed likely to be disbanded.
But, as we will see on Monday, in disaster lay the germ of salvation. The infant SAS was down, but, incredibly, it was not out.
Adapted from SAS: Rogue Heroes — The Authorised Wartime History by Ben Macintyre, published by Viking at £8.99. © Ben Macintyre 2017. To buy a copy for £7.19 (offer valid until August 14) call 0844 571 0640 or visit mailbookshop.co.uk. P&P is free on orders over £15.