It was only fitting that a unit that would finish World War II as a byword for boldness began its life with an act of audacity. In July 1941, a tall, slender Scots Guards officer limped up to the front gate of Middle East Headquarters (MEHQ) in Cairo. Lieutenant David Stirling wasn’t long out of hospital, and he still carried the scars of a parachute accident the previous month. The 25-year-old officer had spent his convalescence working on an idea that he now intended to present to General Claude Auchinleck, commander-in chief of the Middle East Forces.

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The trouble was that Stirling didn’t have a pass to present to the sentries stationed outside the entrance to MEHQ. And no pass meant no entry. Having failed to sweet-talk his way past the guards, Stirling shuffled away in dejection, but then something caught his eye. A flap of the wire fence that encircled the headquarters was loose. Was it big enough to squeeze through? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, thought Stirling, and in an instant he was through the flap and making his way as fast as he could into MEHQ.

Pitching in

Once inside, Stirling located the office of General Neil Ritchie, the deputy chief of staff and a family friend of long-standing. The breathless young officer saluted, handed Ritchie the memo, and briefly explained its contents. The General ran an eye over the memo, then over Stirling, and said he would show it to Auchinleck.

Three days later, Stirling was summoned to MEHQ. This time he did have a pass, and an appointment with General Auchinleck. He wanted to know more, so Stirling elaborated on his idea. “I argued the advantages of establishing a unit based on the principle of the fullest exploitation of surprise and of making the minimum demands. on manpower and equipment,” he wrote shortly after the war had finished. “I sought to prove that, if an aerodrome or transport park was the objective of an operation, then the destruction of 50 aircraft or units of transport was more easily accomplished by a sub-unit of five men than a force of 200.” And his force wouldn’t just attack one target on a given night, but several, sowing fear and confusion into the mind of the enemy.

Photo of General Auchinleck
General Auchinleck, commander-in chief of the Middle East Forces. (Photo by Keystone-France-Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Auchinleck liked what he heard. He was new to his job, having replaced General Wavell as commander-in-chief the previous month, and the war in North Africa against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps was not going well. It was clear to Auchinleck that desert warfare offered opportunities to the bold and unconventional, and Stirling’s proposal was certainly that.

Promoting Stirling to captain, Auchinleck authorised him to recruit six officers and 60 other ranks to a unit that was designated ‘L’ Detachment of the Special Air Service Brigade – that way, if one of the myriad enemy spies lurking in Cairo got wind of the force, he would report back to his German masters that the British now had an airborne brigade in Egypt.

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The men Stirling recruited to his new unit were representative of Great Britain – there were Scots, Welsh, Irish and English. Some were regular soldiers before the war, others hotel managers, tile fitters and solicitors. What united them was a thirst for adventure. “We were just hanging around in the desert getting fed up,” recalled Jeff Du Vivier, a Londoner who had worked in the hotel trade before enlisting in 1940. “Then along came Stirling asking for volunteers. I was hooked on the idea from the beginning, it meant we were going to see some action.”

From painter to warrior: Colonel David Stirling

David Stirling was 23 when World War II broke out. An aristocratic dreamer who had failed in his ambition of becoming a Bohemian painter in Paris, he was commissioned into the Scots Guards, and soon his quest for romantic adventure led him to volunteer for the new unit formed in 1940 called the British Commandos.

Among Stirling’s fellow commando officers were the novelist Evelyn Waugh and Randolph Churchill, the Prime Minister’s son. Shipped to the Middle East in early 1941, the Commandos spent several frustrating months launching a series of largely unsuccessful seaborne raids against German and Italian targets in Libya, Syria and Crete.

At 6ft 6in, Stirling was not physically a natural commando, but had the intelligence, innovation and adaptability of a man ideally suited to guerrilla warfare. In war, Stirling found his vocation, and it was inevitable that peace would once more leave him feeling restless and unfulfilled.

He dabbled in business in Africa and Britain, but never found anything to match the excitement of the war years. Knighted in 1990, Stirling died a few months later aged 74.

Another of the recruits, Aberdonian Jimmy Storie, enjoyed the philosophy of the new force, commenting: “In the SAS you were treated as men; in the rest of the army you did what your sergeant said or the lieutenant said, but in the SAS... you got your say.”

Throughout the rest of the summer and into the autumn, the SAS trained at their base at Kabrit, a desolate desert location 90 miles east of Cairo. The unit was divided into One and Two Troops under the command of Jock Lewes, a former president of the Oxford University Boat Club, and Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, a 6ft 4in Ulsterman who had. played rugby before the war for Ireland and the British Lions.

Mission complete: the SAS hit list

Agedabia, Libya: December 1941

Five men creep onto a German airfield and, in the darkness, plant bombs on 37 aircraft, managing to withdraw unseen as the explosions rock the desert.

Sidi Haneish, Egypt: July 1942

Eighteen heavily armed jeeps appear out of the desert darkness and lay waste to a remote German airfield, destroying or damaging 40 aircraft in a blizzard of gunfire.

Murro di Porco, Sicily: July 1943

The SAS are in the vanguard of the Sicily invasion, landing in darkness and capturing three powerful coastal guns ahead of the arrival of the main invasion fleet.

Op. Baobab, Italy: January 1944

Ten SAS raiders land on the Italian east coast by canoe and blow up the railway bridge on the line linking Ancona and Rimini.

OP. Houndsworth: June – August 1944

In three months of guerrilla warfare in occupied central France, an SAS squadron kill 220 Germans, derail six trains and destroy 23 vehicles.

The training was brutal and relentless, but by the end of October the men were survival experts, masters of navigation, explosives specialists and certified paratroopers. They were now ready for their first operation.

It was timed to coincide with a major British offensive, codenamed ‘Crusader’, the aim of which was to retake the eastern coastal regions of Libya that had been lost to the Germans just the previous June.

Bumpy start

The task of the SAS was to parachute into enemy territory and attack the airfields at Gazala and Tmimi, in eastern Libya, at midnight on 17 November. They took off in five aircraft in the early evening of 16 November, and flew straight into one of the fiercest storms to sweep the region in years.

In his report on the operation, a laconic Blair Mayne described the landing as “unpleasant,” adding: “I estimated the wind speed at 20-25 miles per hour, and the ground was studded with thorny bushes.” In his diary, Jeff Du Vivier recounted how the wind had dragged him 150 yards until finally he snagged on a thorn bush. “When I finally freed myself, I was bruised and bleeding and there was a sharp pain in my right leg,” he wrote. “When I saw the rocky ground I’d travelled over, I thanked my lucky stars that I was alive.”

Enemy number 1: how Hitler reacted to the SAS

Special forces were a new phenomenon to Adolf Hitler, a veteran of World War I when the nature of trench warfare made such soldiers unnecessary. Consequently, like many men of his generation, he regarded special forces as little more than terrorists, and his prejudice became murderous in the autumn of 1942. The Nazi leader was incensed by reports that Canadian troops who had raided the French port of Dieppe in August 1942 had bound the hands of Germans prisoners, some of whom drowned.

Then, on the night of  4 October, a 14-strong commando raiding party landed on the Channel Island of Sark and killed a number of Germans. News of the deaths provoked Hitler into issuing the same month what came to be known as his Commando Order, in which he instructed his military that all captured Allied commandos or similar units were to be “annihilated to the last man”.

The Order, issued in the utmost secrecy, was ignored by a small number of senior German officers, most notably Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who continued to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. But he was in the minority.

The first SAS soldiers to die as a consequence of the Order were a group of raiders who parachuted into Italy in September 1943 to sabotage railway lines. The British learned of the Commando Order in April 1944, when one of their offiers returned to the UK having escaped from a German military hospital in Italy with the connivance of a sympathetic German doctor, who had been ordered to hand the wounded SAS officer to the SS.

Initially, his testimony was treated with scepticism by British authorities, but in August 1944 two SAS soldiers escaped execution in a French forest by sprinting into the trees before their executioners had organised themselves into a firing squad. They eventually returned to the UK and revealed all. By then, more than 70 SAS and SBS soldiers had been executed, and more would die in 1945 as a result of the Commando Order.

After the war, an SAS War Crimes Investigation Team spent three years pursing those responsible and bringing them to justice, which in some cases meant the gallows for Nazis who had murdered on the orders of their Führer.

Then it began to rain, a deluge that turned the dried river beds (‘wadis’) into raging rivers. The temperature dropped and suddenly the mission became not a daring raid but a fight for survival. “I was shivering, not shaking,” described Du Vivier. “All the bones in my body were numbed. I couldn’t speak, every time I opened my mouth my teeth just cracked against one another.”

Of the 54 men who took part in the inaugural SAS raid, only 21 returned to British lines. The rest were killed or captured. Not one enemy plane was destroyed. Stirling gathered the survivors, and with characteristic confidence, told them it was a setback but certainly not the end. He promised there would be “a next time,” prompting Du Vivier to tell his diary: “I don’t fancy a next time if this is what it’s going to be like.”

Down to earth

Stirling fulfilled his promise. There was a “next time”, and it was only a few weeks after the disastrous first raid. The targets were the same – German and Italian airfields in Libya – but the modus operandi was different. Instead of parachuting, the SAS would be driven in trucks to the target by the Long Range Desert Group before making the final approach on foot.

Paddy Mayne scored the first success for the SAS in December 1941, leading eight men onto the airfield at Tamet. As the huge Irishman passed a building en route to the aircraft, he heard voices.

The special forces expand…

The idea for a seaborne special forces unit came from Roger Courtney in the summer of 1940. A former big-game hunter and adventurer in Africa, Courtney envisioned sending canoeists to raid German targets in occupied France. Once established, this small unit – called the Special Boat Section (SBS) – were sent in early 1941 not to Europe but to the Middle East. However, within the year, Courtney’s health broke down and he returned to the UK, leaving the SBS in the hands of David Stirling and his SAS.

In the summer of 1942, the SBS launched a series of raids on the Mediterranean islands of Crete and Rhodes, the men paddling ashore from submarines, before moving inland on foot and attacking airfields. Dozens of aircraft were destroyed, but at a high cost of men killed or captured. In September 1942, Stirling was given permission to increase the size of the SAS to regimental strength, enabling him to form a squadron dedicated to seaborne guerrilla warfare.

They were rechristened the Special Boat Squadron, and throughout the rest of the war they operated with ferocious audacity, attacking German targets in the Aegean before taking the war onto the European mainland in Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy. Their methods weren’t to everyone’s tastes. One British MP described them during a Commons debate as “a band of murderous, renegade cut-throats,” to which Churchill replied: “If you do not take your seat and keep quiet I will send you out to join them.”

“I kicked open the door and stood there with my Colt 45, the others at my side with a Tommy gun and another automatic,” he later recalled. “The Germans stared at us. We were a peculiar and frightening sight, bearded and unkempt hair. For what seemed an age we just stood there looking at each other in complete silence. I said: ‘Good evening’. At that a young German arose and moved slowly backwards.

“I shot him… I turned and fired at another some six feet away. He was standing beside the wall as he sagged… the room was by now in pandemonium.” Leaving four men to deal with the German air crew, Mayne and the rest of the raiders moved onto the airfield and festooned 24 planes with bombs. Then they withdrew, calmly striding off the airfield and melting into the darkness as the 30-minute fuses started to detonate.

British troops of the Special Air Service (SAS) drop from a helicopter, into a jungle clearing in search of bandits (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
British troops of the Special Air Service (SAS) drop from a helicopter, into a jungle clearing in search of bandits (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

A fortnight later, another SAS raiding party surpassed Mayne’s tally, wreaking havoc at the airfield at Agedabia. Jeff Du Vivier was among the party, describing in his diary the “blood-curdling deafening roar” as the bombs on 37 aircraft exploded. “Though we must have been at least half a mile away by this time,” wrote Du Vivier, “we felt the concussion press on our lungs.” The raids continued in 1942, and by June the SAS had destroyed more than 150 enemy aircraft along with supply dumps and enemy vehicles.

Pushing boundaries: other special forces

Long Range Desert Group

The pioneers of British special forces in World War II, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) were formed in June 1940 by Ralph Bagnold, a desert explorer in the. inter-war years.

Their primary role was the reconnaissance of enemy positions, although later in the Desert War the LRDG navigated SAS raiders to their targets.

Chindits

Determined to strike back at the Japanese in the Far East, the British Army raised a special forces unit to penetrate deep into the Burmese jungle, waging a guerrilla war against their enemy in 1943 and 1944. Commanded by Orde Wingate, the Chindits were named after the mythical Burmese creature.

Z Special Unit

An Anglo-Australian unit formed to attack Japanese targets in the Far East, Z Force carried out dozens of missions by sea and parachute. The most successful operation was in 1943, when six men paddled into Singapore’s harbour and sank or damaged seven Japanese ships using limpet mines.

Marine Raiders

The first US unit to be formed for purely guerrilla warfare, the US Marine Raiders Battalion was established in 1942 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson. They took part in a number of raids on Pacific islands, using their jungle skills to good effect during the bitter battle for Guadalcanal.

Fallschirmjäger

Formed in the 1930s, German airborne units played a significant role in the rapid occupation of the Low Countries in May 1940. A year later, a mass airborne drop captured the island of Crete, but the heavy casualty rate deterred Hitler from using his paratroopers again in similar operations.

Tenth Light Flotilla

Italy’s underwater special forces unit used 22-feet mini submarines to attack British shipping in the Mediterranean. The flotilla’s biggest coup was in December 1941, when three subs, each crewed by two frogmen, slipped into Alexandria Port and sank two British battleships by placing limpet mines on their hulls.

The Germans responded by strengthening airfield defences, so Stirling altered the SAS tactics, procuring a fleet of jeeps armed with heavy machine guns capable of firing 1,200 rounds a minute. Sidi Haneish airfield was attacked in the early hours of 26 July with the 18 jeeps emerging out of the darkness in two columns. “Gun discipline was vital,” recalled Jimmy Storie, a gunner on one jeep. “We had to keep in a strict formation, two abreast, firing outwards the whole time.”

More than 40 aircraft were destroyed or badly damaged as the SAS drove methodically up and down the airfield. It was a pattern repeated in the weeks that followed, the British raiders accounting for 86 enemy aircraft downs in the space of a month.

New horizons

Stirling’s luck eventually ran out in January 1943. The previous October, General Montgomery’s Eighth Army had gone on the offensive at El Alamein, sending the Germans into a headlong retreat west across Libya towards Tunisia. Stirling was captured as he led a reconnaissance patrol into Tunisia, and the founder of the SAS spent the rest of the war in Colditz, Germany.

It was a heavy blow to the SAS at a time when their existence was being discussed at the top level. Though they had expanded into regimental size in September 1942, the SAS was still considered a guerrilla force by many senior British officers, ideally suited for desert warfare but not on mainland Europe. With Stirling captured, it was left to his replacement, Paddy Mayne, to argue for their continuation. The Irishman was successful, leading the SAS ashore during the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, and then taking them into Italy where they fought a series of bloody engagements as the Allies pushed slowly north.

Photo of a SAS jeep patrol
A Special Air Service jeep patrol is greeted by its commander, Colonel David Stirling, on its return from the desert, 18 January 1943. (Photo by Capt. G Keating/ Imperial War Museums via Getty Images)

In 1944, the SAS reverted once more to guerrilla warfare to complement the main Allied landings in Normandy. A typical SAS operation in the summer of 1944 was the one codenamed ‘Houndsworth’, undertaken by the men of ‘A’ Squadron, 1SAS. Parachuting into the wooded countryside approximately 80 miles west of Dijon, their tasks were to cut railway lines between Lyon and Paris, arm and train the French Resistance, and generally harry the German reinforcements being sent to Normandy, where the main Allied invasion fleet was fighting its way inland.

In three months, ‘A’ Squadron killed or wounded 220 Germans, derailed six trains and destroyed 23 vehicles. Jeff Du Vivier was partly responsible for one of the trains. “We found a suitable spot and set about laying the charge,” he wrote in his report on the incident. “I had decided that we should make three charges and join them together with cortex at 50 feet apart and all under the same rail.” The first train that came down the line triggered charges, “completely wrecking” the engine and derailing and damaging ten wagons laden with munitions.

Red-Letter day

In total the SAS Brigade was estimated to have killed 7,733 German soldiers during operations in France. Around 740 motorised vehicles were destroyed, seven trains, 89 wagons and 29 locomotives. 33 trains were derailed and railway lines were cut on 164 occasions, and the SAS called in more than 400 air strikes on German targets. So impressed was General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, that he expressed his gratitude in a letter to the SAS, commenting: “I wish to send my congratulations to all ranks of the Special Air Service Brigade on the contribution which they have made to the success of the Allied Expeditionary Force.

Photo of US Marine Raiders
US Marine Raiders and their jungle-trained Devil Dogs as they search for Japanese snipers, Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, 1943. (Photo by USMC/Interim Archives/Getty Images)

“The ruthlessness with which the enemy have attacked Special Air Service troops has been an indication of the injury which you were able to cause to the German armed forces both by your own efforts and by the information which you gave of German disposition and movements.”

An end to the horror

By the time the last of the SAS squadrons had withdrawn from France, the Allies were well on the way to winning the war in Europe. In March 1945, elements of the SAS were in the vanguard of the advance into Germany – several soldiers were veterans of the first raid of November 1941, men who thought that they had seen the very worst war had to offer. Then on the morning of 15 April, an SAS patrol drove through a pine forest and saw up ahead a signpost to a place called Belsen.

New challenges: the SAS post-WWII

Despite vigorous campaigning by the SAS to remain a part of the British Army, the regiment was disbanded in October 1945, with the new government believing that the postwar world had no need for a special forces unit. Its optimism was soon brutally shattered as the British Empire began to crack under the pressure of countries demanding independence.

In the summer of 1947, it was decided that a territorial regiment should be raised, and within 12 months it numbered 200, with a third of those veterans of the wartime SAS. Their first deployment was to Malaya (now known as Malaysia) to fight a communist insurrection, which launched its guerrilla attacks from jungle bases.

In 1952, a regular SAS was formed – 22SAS – which today comprises four squadrons of approximately 60 soldiers. Once Britain granted Malaya its independence in 1957, the SAS spent the next 20- odd years fighting other insurgencies in far-flung outposts of the Empire, including Aden and Oman, away from the glare of publicity.

It was the emergence of Irish and Islamic terrorism in the 1970s and 80s that propelled the SAS into the global spotlight, most memorably when live on television they spectacularly ended the siege at the Iranian Embassy in May 1980. Heavily involved in the conflicts in the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq, the SAS remain the world’s most secretive and most elite fighting force.

“We imagined that a concentration camp was similar to a barracks,” recalled Sergeant Duncan Ridler. The SAS drove up to the main gate and peered through the three-metre wire fences. “We had never seen people looking like this,” said Ridler. “They were all trying to say something – not shouting – their faces dull, exhausted, emotionless, not capable of expressing joy or excitement as had everyone else in Europe.”

It was a sight those SAS men present never forgot. A unit that had been formed to fight in the chivalrous theatre of North Africa had come face to face with the depravity of the Nazi regime. Yet because of their audacity, their ingenuity and their initiative, the SAS had played a small but significant part in bringing down Hitler’s evil empire.

WATCH: SAS Rogue Heroes, a dramatisation of the history of the SAS by acclaimed writer Steve Knight, will air on BBC One on Sunday 30 October at 9pm, with episodes available on BBC iPlayer

Gavin Mortimer is the author of David Stirling: The Phoney Major: The Life, Times and Truth about the Founder of the SAS (Constable, 2022), which he discusses on an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast

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This article was originally published in the November 2016 edition of BBC History Revealed

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