The original rogue heroes of the SAS
It’s a story of extravagant lies, homemade bombs and adrenaline-pumped commandos. Joshua Levine charts the formative years of the SAS through the exploits of four extraordinary servicemen
Fake news in fancy dress
How Mick Gurmin became a member of the SAS before it even existed
In 1941, a young British trooper based in Palestine was sent on an unlikely mission. Together with a fellow soldier named Smith, Mick Gurmin was dispatched to Cairo with instructions to spread an elaborate yarn around restaurants, bars and tourist hotspots. For the mission, Gurmin was issued with a uniform liberally sewn with parachute badges, to back up his membership of the 1st Special Air Service (SAS) Battalion parachute unit, which was completing its training in Transjordan.
It was an intriguing costume – because the 1st SAS didn’t exist.
Both battalion and uniform were inventions of Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke. He had recently arrived in the region, having been summoned by his friend and supporter Sir Archibald Wavell, British commander-in-chief for the Middle East. Clarke’s task was to deceive the enemy about British intentions – and the capture of an Italian officer had presented him with an opportunity. The officer’s diary revealed an Axis belief that British parachute troops were present in the Middle East. In truth, there were none – but Clarke spotted the chance to exploit an existing fear. He schemed a plot to convince enemy intelligence that 500 parachutists, all specialists in vehicle sabotage, had arrived in the region. This deception operation was codenamed ‘Abeam’, and Gurmin’s carefully staged performance was a key element.
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Gurmin and Smith – also in fake uniform – were to leak ‘evidence’ of a crack parachute unit while seeming reluctant to do so. Clarke’s admonition made clear the importance of getting their mission spot-on: “Any carelessness or indiscretion on your part may well upset carefully arranged and important plans and have far-reaching consequences.”
In the event, Gurmin and Smith had a fine old time. They visited the pyramids, watched a football match, and went to a cabaret, the cinema and a dance. They walked around Cairo Zoo and travelled north to Port Said. Wherever they went, they frequented cafes and restaurants where they attracted attention with their badges, talking with disarming conviction about a job they had never done and which didn’t exist.
Operation Abeam seems to have been a success: certainly, rumours of a parachute unit began to spread. Curiously, the fake unit lent its name to the real SAS that was soon to be formed, thereby adding authenticity to Clarke’s deception.
Gurmin had to leak ‘evidence’ of a crack new parachute unit while seeming reluctant to do so
For Gurmin, the consequences were profound. Just months earlier, before joining up with the Staffordshire Yeomanry, he had been an apprentice engineer in Wolverhampton. Now his impressive performance resulted in another commission. He initially joined the Middle East Commando and then, in the autumn of 1942, became an officer in the genuine SAS. He journeyed far across the Sahara desert, eventually reaching the Mareth Line, a system of fortifications in Tunisia, and later took part in the assault on Sicily. None of the celebrated servicemen whose ranks he was joining realised that Gurmin had been a member – of sorts – long before they had.
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After the war, Mick Gurmin returned to Britain and worked in the steel industry. When he died in 1978, at the age of 58, it transpired that he had never told friends or family about his wartime deception work. To this day, the SAS archive holds an uncaptioned picture (left) of two men sitting in a Cairo restaurant, glancing knowingly towards the camera, wearing strange yet evocative uniforms: Gurmin and Smith. Before the SAS, it seems, came the SAS.
Back with a bang
Jock Lewes’ return from the sidelines changed the course of the war in north Africa
In the early summer of 1941, Dudley Clarke decided to boost his deception efforts by staging genuine parachute drops over Egyptian airfields. In the meantime, a determined, God-fearing young commando officer, Jock Lewes, was planning his own parachute drops in the same area. The two men’s plans overlapped fortuitously.
Lewes had arrived in the Middle East as a member of Layforce, a composite commando force that had recently taken part in a series of failed raids on targets such as Crete and the Libyan port of Bardia, and which now found itself sidelined. Some frustrated members, such as the 70-year-old Sir Walter ‘Tich’ Cowan – surely the army’s most unlikely fighting commando – transferred elsewhere. Others returned to their original units or languished in the Guards Depot. A few enterprising souls – like Jock Lewes – dreamed up new roles for themselves.
Lewes’ plan was to create a desert-based parachute unit capable of mounting surprise raids on enemy targets. Having assembled a small group, he was granted permission to carry out trial jumps – which could double as Clarke’s deception drops – from a Vickers Valentia over Fuka airfield on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. In the event, however, the authorities put an abrupt end to Lewes’ experiment. The jumps, they decided, were not demonstrating sufficient potential. Lewes’ scheme seemed finished.
Yet the project was soon saved from the scrap heap by an unlikely scavenger. David Stirling was an aristocratic Scottish idler whom Lewes had grudgingly allowed to join his party. The ‘Giant Sloth’, as Stirling was known to his fellow Commando officers, was unlike Lewes in almost all respects – but he possessed talents and advantages that Lewes lacked. He was, notably, immensely persuasive and hugely well-connected.
Stirling had been injured while jumping from the Valentia and, as he lay in his Cairo hospital bed, he formulated a more detailed version of Lewes’ plan. On his discharge, with the help of his brothers, he drafted a memorandum intended to sell the idea to Sir Claude Auchinleck, newly appointed commander-in-chief in the Middle East.
Stirling’s plan involved parachuting small groups behind enemy lines to raid lines of communication, aerodromes and other vulnerable sites. The men – sidelined commandos desperate to put their skills and initiative to productive use – would lie up unobserved in the desert before striking. The scheme would be economical in terms of manpower and supplies.
Stirling had to win the support of Lewes, whose knowledge and technical ingenuity would be essential. Initially, Lewes refused: in his eyes, Stirling’s idea was merely an extension of his own – and he feared placing it in the hands of a half-hearted socialite. But as he recalled in a letter to his father: “I trusted in God that night… and when David came again in the morning I said yes though I know not why, for I had made no decision in the night.”
Auchinleck also agreed to the plan, and the unit took shape. As it did, Lewes’ respect for Stirling grew, praising his new-found “enthusiasm, his energy, his confidence”, and admitting that “he appreciated the long-term value of my experiment more accurately than I.” Stirling was happy to give credit for the formation of the unit to Lewes.
Whoever founded it, the organisation needed a name – and who more appropriate to provide it than Dudley Clarke? He wanted the new organisation to merge seamlessly with his elaborate fake. So, as his most recent fiction had been ‘K Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade’, the next unit formed would logically be ‘L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade’.
Jock Lewes duly became L Detachment’s training officer, turning his vision into a reality. His entirely improvised but immensely gruelling training programme set about creating an organisation in his own image. When army ordnance experts decreed that a light and simple bomb could not be provided for SAS use, Lewes simply invented his own. His mixture of plastic explosive, thermite and engine oil – dubbed the Lewes bomb – was pivotal in unlocking the unit’s potential. He even designed the SAS parachute badge, inspired by a cod-Egyptian motif above the reception desk at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo.
Jock Lewes was killed at the end of 1941 while returning from a raid on Nofilia airfield near Libya’s Mediterranean coast. His loss was a great blow to the young organisation – as well as a huge personal loss for his co-founder, David Stirling.
Hitting the target
To destroy Luftwaffe airfields, the SAS first had to find them. That’s where Mike Sadler came into his own
The first raid launched by L Detachment – Operation Squatter – was a disaster. Dozens of men were parachuted into the desert in November 1941, in weather conditions so stormy and treacherous that no targets were reached, and fewer than half the men who jumped escaped death or capture.
In the aftermath, David Stirling and Jock Lewes agreed that, for the time being at least, the SAS would not parachute onto targets. Instead, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a motorised desert unit, would act as L Detachment’s taxi service, carrying them by truck to and from operations.
One member of the LRDG, Mike Sadler, became invaluable to the SAS. On leaving school in England, Sadler had travelled to southern Africa, where he worked as a farm assistant. When war broke out he became an anti-tank gunner, then, after a chance meeting in a bar, joined the LRDG and trained as a navigator. “I was so tickled,” he says, “by the idea of being able to find where you were by looking at the stars.”
Sadler used a theodolite and wireless receiver by night to mark his position, and a sand compass by day to remain on a bearing. He found his relationship with the landscape constantly evolving. “You were continually shoved off course by hills or rocks or boulders,” he says.
During the first half of 1942, Sadler took part in both LRDG and SAS operations. That summer, though, Stirling got hold of some tough American vehicles known to British soldiers as ‘Willys Bantams’ – the earliest Jeeps. The SAS could now drive to and from raids – but this posed two problems. First, very few SAS members, many of whom had been raised in relative poverty during the Depression, knew how to drive. Second, the LRDG had provided not only transport but also navigational expertise. How would the SAS find its way?
The first problem was solved by hastily arranging driving lessons, the second by engaging Sadler as L Detachment’s senior navigator – though he was never actually asked if he wanted to join the SAS. “All I knew,” he says, “was that David Stirling decided he wanted me – and somehow he got me.”
This was how the Jeep – a relatively late addition to L Detachment’s desert compendium – became the most instantly recognisable symbol of the wartime SAS. Sadler’s defining moment as navigator – his “finest hour”, according to colleague Jim Almonds – probably came in July 1942. On an ambitious mission, he guided numerous Jeeps and their adrenaline-pumped crews across the desert to Sidi Haneish airfield in north-western Egypt, a key link in the supply chain for Axis forces in the region.
“Where’s this bloody airfield, then, Sadler?” asked Stirling, after many hours of driving. “I think it’s about a mile ahead,” answered Sadler – at which moment a brilliant array of landing lights switched on precisely where he was indicating. In the ensuing raid, dozens of Luftwaffe aircraft were destroyed by fire from 68 Vickers K guns as the SAS party’s Jeeps moved steadily across the airfield in tight formation.
The SAS was gaining a fearsome reputation. As Stirling had envisaged, the psychological impact of a shapeless threat destroying aircraft and breaking lines of communication had been profound. Now, as Rommel’s forces fled west in late 1942 following their defeat at El Alamein, Stirling spotted an opportunity to harry them. Not only would this assist the Allied effort, but it would advertise the SAS as a force deserving of a major role in any coming theatre of war – particularly if it could become the first element of Eighth Army to meet up with the Anglo-American force, which would be moving east after its invasion of French-held territories in Morocco and Algeria.
But then disaster struck. In January 1943, Stirling was captured by the Germans; Sadler narrowly escaped the same fate, slogging through the desert on foot before reaching safety at a French Foreign Legion outpost. Sadler and two SAS colleagues were handed on to an American unit at Gafsa, becoming almost certainly the first members of Eighth Army to make contact with the Americans. This deeply symbolic encounter was witnessed by journalist AJ Liebling, who filed a piece for The New Yorker magazine. Sadler had inadvertently fulfilled Stirling’s desire to advertise the SAS, even if his boss wasn’t on hand to see it happen.
Mike Sadler is, at the time of writing, alive and well at the age of 103.
The warrior with wanderlust
From Sicily to Normandy to the heart of Germany, John Tonkin was on the frontline of SAS operations across various theatres in Europe, marking a new phase in its development
By summer 1943, the SAS had destroyed more than 300 enemy aircraft in north Africa, and had been made the 1st Special Air Service Regiment. Now its war moved to Sicily.
With the unit was John Tonkin, who had first arrived in the Middle East as a Royal Northumberland Fusilier. Bored with constantly running up and down sand hills to stay fit, he volunteered for the commandos before joining the SAS in late 1942. Several months later, Tonkin became an officer in the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS) commanded by Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, the organisation’s pre-eminent figure after the capture of David Stirling (and perhaps for some time before).
The SRS was one arm of the regiment, the other being the Special Boat Squadron commanded by George Jellicoe. The SRS’s first action, on 10 July 1943, saw 287 men landing at Capo Murro di Porco on the south-east coast of Sicily with the job of knocking out the enemy’s artillery defences.
With its deployment in Sicily, the SAS had to adapt. Its men were now used as shock troops, thrown at the enemy ahead of the arrival of the main invasion force. This commando role was quite unlike anything the SAS had been created to do. In truth, the organisation – viewed by many as a localised desert sabotage unit with no wider application – was fortunate to have survived the end of the north Africa campaign.
Several days after the landing at Capo Murro di Porco, Tonkin and his men attacked the port of Augusta on Sicily’s east coast. Jumping ashore from their landing craft as machine-gun bullets rattled the vessel’s armoured side, they headed up a seemingly abandoned street, kicking in doors and periodically dropping down to shoot from low level. Reaching a junction, Tonkin opened fire on a man running down the connecting street – only to realise that the man was his own sergeant.
Finally, the party reached a crossroads where they ran into heavy enemy fire. Suddenly the firing stopped. Tonkin remembered that: “We heard this shuffling… and this peasant woman appeared. She was very old, and she was just walking quietly… down the middle of the road… it was only after she had completely disappeared that the firing started up again.” The war had stopped so that one old lady could cross the road. This small but intensely human moment affected Tonkin deeply.
Bolting for freedom
At the start of October, during the SRS attack on Termoli – a town on Italy’s Adriatic coast – Tonkin was taken prisoner by members of the German 1st Parachute Division. Shortly afterwards, while being transported through the countryside in the back of a truck, he prised back the canvas canopy, jumped and bolted for freedom. With the help of a succession of sympathetic Italian civilians, he reached Allied lines. A fortnight after his capture, he rejoined his SRS colleagues in Bari.
Tonkin opened fire on a man running down the connecting street – only to realise that the man was his own sergeant
In early 1944, the SAS achieved brigade status and prepared for operations in France. The unit’s operational instructions for the upcoming invasion of Normandy indicated that members would parachute behind enemy lines to impede the movement of German forces by attacking roads, bridges and railway lines, and by calling in RAF air strikes. In an entirely new theatre, the SAS would again be performing the role for which it had been created. Tonkin was placed in charge of Operation Bulbasket, which involved dropping men near Poitiers, in the Vienne department of western France. On arrival in France, he met the local SOE agent with whom he would be working closely. Together they agreed that they would allow the SAS’s presence to become known locally, to attract the maximum information about enemy activities.
Clearly, this might have negative ramifications as well as positive – but it soon paid off: a railway worker arrived with news that petrol tankers belonging to the German army were standing in local railway sidings. Tonkin immediately sent a junior officer (dressed in clichéd French costume) to check that the report was genuine. It was – and the following evening, 12 Mosquito fighter-bombers destroyed the tankers.
Discovery and disaster
Subsequent events, however, led to the enemy discovering the location of the Bulbasket camp – and, on the morning of 3 July 1944, it came under attack by hundreds of troops of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division. Tonkin and several other men escaped; most of the SAS men were, though, captured. Four days later, the prisoners were placed in trucks, driven to a quiet spot in the woods and murdered by their captors.
John Tonkin finally returned to England on 7 August 1944, but his war was far from over. In March 1945, he crossed the Rhine as the SAS pushed into Germany in support of Allied parachute landings. Here the unit carried out a combined commando and sabotage role, driving through enemy lines before shooting at them from the rear.
The prisoners were placed in trucks, driven to a quiet spot in the woods and murdered by their captors
The following month, he was part of the SAS party that liberated the concentration camp at Belsen. He remembered arriving at a camp that seemed, from the outside, to be merely a well-maintained military installation. He had absolutely no idea of the horrors that he was about to encounter. After the war, Tonkin worked for Shell Oil, and moved to Australia in the 1950s where he became general manager of a uranium mine near Darwin. He died in 1995, having been awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his services to Aboriginal peoples.
The SAS was disbanded at the end of the war – or so it seemed. However, an SAS War Crimes Investigation team under Major Eric ‘Bill’ Barkworth remained in force to investigate the murders of SAS men in France, as did a series of SAS Mobile Teams sent to Greece to examine the roles of local people in the rescue of Allied servicemen. These teams were still in existence in 1947, when the name and concept was revived with the creation of 21st SAS Regiment. SAS troops have since served in numerous operations across the globe. Any report of the SAS’s demise in 1945 was, perhaps, an exaggeration.
Joshua Levine is a historian and bestselling author. His latest book, SAS: The Illustrated History of the SAS, was published by William Collins in May 2023
This article was first published in the July 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine