The SAS in World War II: An Illustrated History

James Holland reviews an absorbing account of wartime adventure

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Reviewed by: James Holland
Author: Gavin Mortimer
Publisher: Osprey
Price (RRP): £20

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There have been a few excellent books about the Special Air Service in recent years, and particularly their exploits in the Second World War, not least by the author of this latest work in his earlier narrative, Stirling’s Men.

Presumably, this notable account put him in good odour with the special forces fraternity, because this new illustrated history is jam-packed with both superb photographs from the SAS regimental archives, many of which are being published for the first time, and also personal testimonies – some of which are by now well known, but others of which are considerably less so.

Importantly, Gavin Mortimer has clearly won the trust of many of those brilliant men who fought through north Africa, Italy and north-west Europe, and over the past 15 years,
has been rewarded with a number of interviews with survivors, recording their memories for posterity before it was too late. 

The key to oral history is proper research around a subject’s memories, and this Mortimer has wisely done, and thoroughly so, producing a highly authoritative but also absorbing account.

Sensibly, he does not linger on their foundation and exploits in north Africa, for which the wartime SAS is still best known, and about which the most has already been written. Rather, he gives much weight to the expansion and development of the SAS and their wide participation in Europe, highlighting not only their numerous successes, but also the inter-battalion tensions and later shortcomings in training. 

Recounted with breathless pace and very effective use of first-hand testimonies, and supported by a superb collection of photographs and documents, this is a fascinating and hugely enjoyable book. It should prove an important starting point for anyone wanting to learn about the early years of this legendary regiment.  

James Holland is a historian and author. He recently presented a BBC Two Timewatch documentary on the Dambusters
 

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