In the original dustsheet. Red cloth binding with gilt title on the spine.
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The book behind the BBC series ‘SAS: Rogue Warriors’
From the secret SAS archives, and acclaimed author Ben Macintyre: the first ever authorized history of the SAS
In the summer of 1941, at the height of the war in the Western Desert, a bored and eccentric young officer, David Stirling, has a vision for a new kind of war: attacking the enemy where they least expect it – from behind their own lines. Despite the intense opposition of many in British High Command, Winston Churchill personally gives Stirling permission to recruit the toughest, brightest and most ruthless soldiers he can find. And so begins the most celebrated and mysterious military organisation in the world: the SAS. With unprecedented access to the SAS secret files, unseen footage and exclusive interviews with its founder members, SAS: Rogue Heroes tells the remarkable story behind an extraordinary fighting force, and the immense cost of making it a reality.
Review: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know! Lady Caroline Lamb’s famous epithet on Lord Byron is a wonderfully appropriate description of the founders of this now famous regiment. Ben Macintyre is at the top of his game here; with coveted access to the famous SAS war diary, he displays his usual measured but immensely readable style. His usual journalistic approach, involving interviewing anyone still alive who participated, was rather hampered by the fact that only one survivor, the navigating whiz Mike Sadler, is still alive (a feisty centenarian).
I knew a certain amount about David Stirling, but very little about the other original members of what became the Special Air Services. Macintyre plainly sets out his stall in the beginning, stating that this is the story of men who failed at peace, but succeeded at war. The staggering levels of eccentricity, oddness and bordering psychopathy that engendered the founding of this originally phantom regiment were clearly described, beginning with pocket biographies of Stirling, Lewes and Mayne. I started watching the current BBC series (which on the whole faithfully reflects Macintyre’s book) but quickly decided to read the book, finishing it well before the end of the series. It was good to meet the redoubtable (and under-rated) Colonel Dudley Wrangel Clarke again (he made a brief appearance in Macintyre’s book on Operation Mincemeat.) Inevitably the TV series portrayed him as a habitual cross-dresser, whereas the infamous photo of him dressed as a woman was taken in Madrid and was possibly an example of him taking his spycraft a step too far. It didn’t harm his career, and his brilliance at deception was instrumental in giving substance to David Stirling’s concept.
There is no doubt that the early days in the desert, initially in conjunction with the equally fascinating Long Range Desert Group, were the most attractive part of the book. It certainly seemed to adhere to a more gentlemanly code than the latter horrors in mainland Europe. The sheer range of nationalities of the various oddballs and eccentrics who fetched up in the SAS was astonishing. I was interested to note that many of the earliest recruits came from Guards Regiments, which seems a little counter-intuitive, unless even in wartime, they recruited to a higher standard. Then there was the preponderance of men from Scotland and Ireland – the berserker fighting wings of the British Army! There was also a fair sprinkling of aristocrats and landed gentry. This was useful in persuading/cajoling the members of this class who ran the Army (and indeed the country, in the person of Winston Churchill) to back what was seen as an inherently ungentlemanly and un-British sort of warfare. Macintyre emphasised that David Stirling, although something of a drifter and dreamer, and certainly a less than useful Scots Guards officer, displaying drunken and insubordinate tendencies in spades, had immense personal charm, courtesy and powers of persuasion. Which he never hesitated to use, or failed to call in his father’s rank and grouse shooting estate if it served his cause. What needs must (as opposed to Who Dares Wins!)
The early demise of the organised, disciplined martinet Jock Lewes (who, interestingly, had previously flirted with Nazism) led to the ascendancy of the frankly terrifying Blair “Paddy” Mayne. Probably the most fascinating, as well as flawed of the SAS’s founding fathers, he was not, as he was portrayed on the TV, some sort of lowly Irish bog trotter, but from an established, well to do middle class professional family. He was trained as a solicitor, for heaven’s sake. And he was an international rugby player and all round sportsman. By turns terrifyingly violent and out of control (he smashed up rooms on rugby tours in truly rock star style) and sensitive and poetic, he was possibly a closet homosexual and guilty of what would now be classified as war crimes.
Macintyre’s excellent chronological history takes us up through Italy (with a vere back there later) and on to the bitter fighting in France and Germany, along with the different, and rather less successful use of the much enlarged SAS in that campaign. I was not aware how many of the SAS were shot on capture as a result of Hitler deciding to treat all paratroops as spies/irregulars. Some of the regiments’ own treatment of captured Nazis does not bear too close an inspection, however.
This is an immensely readable account of a fascinating story, including how the SAS became the template for all other nations’ Special Forces. Amidst the oddballs and borderline psychos are some wonderful characters, the empathetic doctor Malcolm Pleydell, the inspiring padre Fraser Macluskey and the great navigator Mike Sadler. Plus a whole host of other astonishingly brave individuals, whose tendency to understatement and insouciance in the face of terrifying danger gave rise to the SAS legend.
Such is the secrecy surrounding the SAS and all its doings, even very recently, that I was fascinated by the information in this book. That it had been briefly disbanded, but secretly kept alive as part of the War Crimes enquiries, and then reformed purely as a TA regiment, was new to me. I have only known a couple of people who were in the SAS, and that was not bruited about willy nilly. The Army is keen that those it recruits are not discernibly mad, and one of my acquaintance was initially turned down several times for being too gung-ho (he made it eventually and after retirement ended up in the entertainment wing of the SAS – doing adventure programmes on TV – not Bear Grylls!!)
The postscript on the post war lives of those who survived shows, not altogether surprisingly, that many found it difficult, if not impossible, to adjust to civilian life. Stirling, whose capture and enforced sojourn in various POW camps, including Colditz, had taken him out of the equation relatively early on, had possibly the most adventurous and controversial post war life. This is altogether a terrific book, of interest to more than just military history nerds.
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