This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine and accompanied a BBC Two series on the SAS
The SAS (Special Air Service) was founded in north Africa in July 1941 with the aim of attacking airfields and other targets deep behind enemy lines. At a time when the north African campaign was going badly for the Allies, the British were prepared to attempt a new form of warfare, which, despite a number of reverses, proved highly successful. The unit rapidly grew from a few dozen men to several thousand. In Europe, the SAS was active in both the Italy campaign and the attacks on France, the Netherlands and Germany. At the end of the war the SAS was disbanded, but was later reformed in 1947 and continues to operate today.
We have an image today of the SAS as a ruthless, efficient unit. Does your research into its wartime inception tally with this idea?
It may be hard to believe now, but in the early days the SAS was amateur. Things went very right for the unit at times, but also spectacularly wrong at others. And these were not over-muscled exemplars of butch masculinity in all cases. The man who founded the SAS, David Stirling, was about as far as you could get from that image: he was 6ft 6ins and not very robust at all. Yet he was a brilliant leader of men who had a fantastically good idea that changed the way war is run.
I hope my research will also cast a new light on the qualities that went into this kind of military action. There was a kind of mental toughness to the people who founded the SAS that is pretty unique. They are an interesting combination of qualities and not all of them expected. Indeed, as one character says, they were the sweepings of the public schools and the prisons. They were people who would not fit into normal military shape, but they were extraordinarily courageous.
The SAS’s origins are quite unusual. Could it only really have been created in that particular circumstance at that particular time?
That’s right and luck played a huge part. The idea for the SAS came to Stirling while he was lying in a hospital bed in Cairo having carried out a hopeless parachute jump. He had snagged his parachute on the back of a plane and it didn’t so much float to Earth as plummet, injuring his back very badly. He came up with this idea of parachuting behind the lines in the north African campaign with the intention of sneaking up onto airfields, blowing up aeroplanes and then running away back into the desert. This was the kind of warfare that a lot of people in the top brass of the military thought was not only unconventional but not really cricket. He faced a lot of opposition from within.
The SAS’s earliest operation ended in disaster. Was the unit lucky to survive this?
In Operation Squatter, the first parachute jump, 55 men jumped into the desert and only 21 came back. It was an absolute calamity that should never have been allowed to happen. The weather was so bad that this was almost a suicide jump. And, yes, it is remarkable that the unit wasn’t disbanded. It came down really to chance and the fact that Stirling rather carefully hid the full scale of what had gone on. In contrast, many of the later desert raids were hugely successful.
How was the SAS able to achieve such amazing results?
It was partly tactical, it was partly extraordinarily good training. Jock Lewes, one of the forgotten heroes of the SAS, was their first sort of training officer. He put the SAS through their paces and achieved a level of physical resilience that would otherwise have been impossible.
On the tactical level, the SAS teamed up with the Long Range Desert Group, a reconnaissance unit who became, in Stirling’s words, a sort of “Libyan taxi service”. The LRDG would ferry units of attackers close to the airfields and they would then slip on to these airfields under cover of darkness, and were indeed extraordinary effective. They destroyed hundreds of planes.
How important was it that Churchill got on board with the SAS quite early on?
It’s pretty clear that the SAS would not have survived if Churchill had not learned of it from his son Randolph, who was actually in the unit briefly, and then adopted it almost as a sort of mascot. Randolph Churchill was a very unlikely soldier, being overweight and a heavy drinker, but he had been taken by Stirling on a hopelessly failed raid into Benghazi and been so excited that he wrote to his father describing in detail what had happened. Stirling had calculated that this might happen and that Churchill would absolutely love this sort of derring-do.
Later, on his way to see Stalin, Winston stopped off in Cairo and invited Stirling to dinner. They got on incredibly well and after dinner Churchill’s secretary sent a note to Stirling asking him to expand on what he’d spoken to the prime minister about. Stirling wrote a memo that more or less asked for all special forces to be put under his command and that’s what duly happened.
How did the SAS cope with the desert conditions?
The Libyan desert is one of the most hostile places on Earth and they had to work out techniques of survival. It was really tough. They would spend months at a time holed up in caves and in tents in the desert under camouflage. It took a psychological as well as a physical toll – a kind of desert madness began to kick in after a while. But the SAS developed a very particular esprit de corps and their own songs, rituals and language for talking about desert life. It was all done with a strange British sense of humour.
One thing some in the SAS never recovered from was having to leave wounded people behind in the desert to die of thirst. It’s something we don’t really associate with the Second World War but it was the brutal reality of what had to happen. They simply could not carry those people across hundreds of miles of desert. There are amazing stories of survival where individuals trudged 150 miles over weeks across the desert, but there are other tales of tragedy. Some just disappeared into the desert and all we know is that they never came out.
How different were the SAS’s campaigns in Europe from those in the desert?
The SAS transformed over time just as the war itself evolved. The north African campaign began as a very exciting adventure: Rommel described it as a sort of gentleman’s war. The rules of war applied, prisoners were taken and civilians were not involved. In Europe it became a much darker sort of war. By the time the SAS was in occupied France they were dealing with civilians, collaborators, partisans and people they could and couldn’t trust.
Hitler issued his famous commando order, which said that any ‘parachutist’ – actually any military person found behind the lines – was to be treated as a spy and executed without trial. This was really a death sentence for the SAS. It didn’t appear to prevent anyone from taking part in operations but it meant that scores, if not hundreds, of SAS people were executed over the course of the campaign. Meanwhile, there were incidents where the SAS, perhaps unsurprisingly, were not entirely tied-down by the rules of war. There were occasional examples where individuals were shot out of hand and when revenge was taken.
One of the darkest moments of the story was when SAS members discovered Bergen-Belsen. What impact did that have on those involved?
A group of SAS were motoring north through Germany in 1945 when they came upon Bergen-Belsen, purely by accident. It was actually the smell of the camp that first alerted them that there was something in the forest. When they drove through the open gates of the camp they came upon a scene of unbelievable horror.
Now, given what the SAS had been through in the war, with so many of their men murdered because of Hitler’s commando order, you might have expected them to stride in and begin executing the SS guards. And there was clearly a moment where some of the troopers were ready to open fire, but the leader of the group, a man called John Tonkin, stopped them. He incarcerated the camp commandant and the SS, but they weren’t murdered, and I think of that as a moment of rare civilisation in an uncivilised war. It was perhaps a defining moment in the contrast between the two elite forces of the war: the SS and SAS.
What kind of impact did the SAS have on the war as a whole?
It’s impossible to put a figure on this kind of thing but what I think has been underestimated is the extent to which the SAS, at a pivotal moment in the war, provided hope. Their mystique, their legend and even their appearance – bearded, swashbuckling ruffians in their own made-up uniforms – all had a huge impact on allied morale.
They had a psychological impact on the other side, too. In the desert, stories of their exploits spread through German and Italian ranks, keeping the soldiers behind the lines in a sense of permanent fear because they never knew when the next attack was going to come. Hundreds and thousands of soldiers were kept back from the front line to defend against attacks.
How much of the wartime SAS can be seen in special forces nowadays?
It’s no exaggeration to say that the SAS invented a new sort of warfare. Up until this time, military thinking pretty much ran along traditional lines: two large armies colliding on a battlefield and that’s the end of the story. Stirling rewrote the rules.
All special forces around the world owe their being to that inheritance, and some such as Delta Force in the US are specifically modelled on it. In many ways this is in fact the face of modern warfare. In Syria, Iraq and Libya (back where it all began) all these sorts of methods are currently being used. The US defense secretary recently described how their special forces meant their enemies “don’t know at night who’s going to be coming in through the window”. That is a precise echo of the philosophy David Stirling used to such dramatic effect 75 years ago.
Ben Macintyre is an author, journalist and broadcaster who has written several books on the Second World War, including Operation Mincemeat, Double Cross and Agent Zigzag.
Ben Macintyre’s history of the SAS is due to air on BBC Two in early 2017. He is the author of SAS: Rogue Heroes – The Authorized Wartime History (Viking, 2016). Listen to more from this interview on our weekly podcast here.