SAS: Rogue Heroes: The Authorised Wartime History

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SAS: Rogue Heroes: The Authorised Wartime History


Fri, 11/11/2016 - 13:27


Left:  Ben Macintyre; Right: SAS founder, David Stirling
Left: Ben Macintyre; Right: SAS founder, Sir David Stirling
09 November, 2016

THINK of the major monuments and statues in London and immediately Cromwell, Nelson, Wellington, Churchill and Edith Cavell leap to mind, all wartime heroes to whom we pay tribute on Remembrance Day tomorrow (Friday).

But what of fearless David Stirling, creator of the SAS, who, with the support of Winston Churchill, played a truly significant role in the defeat of the Nazis?

Stirling’s statue, not raised until 2002, has stood on the Hill of Row, near his ancestral home looking towards the Perthshire mountains in Scotland, the B824 from Doune to Junction 11 on the M9, running past it should wish to pay homage.

Indeed, Colonel Sir David Stirling, OBE, DSO, who was born in the First World War and died on November 4, 1990, deserves it, as historian and Times senior journalist Ben Macintyre reveals in his authorised wartime history of the remarkable rogue heroes now, alas, too often forgotten.

Stirling was the bored and eccentric young Commando officer who, in the summer of 1941, at the height of the war fighting Rommel in the deserts of North Africa, conceived the radical idea of the Special Air Service. This was a small undercover unit that would inflict mayhem operating with stealth behind enemy lines.

Despite furious opposition, Churchill personally gave Stirling permission to recruit the toughest, brightest and most ruthless soldiers he could find to make up a band of military renegades willing to take the most monumental risks, many of which have remained secret until now.

Thanks to the SAS deciding to open up their archives Macintyre, who lives in Hampstead, can now reveal how they pioneered a form of combat that has since become a central part of modern warfare.

Robots may well make up the armed forces of tomorrow as suicide bombers try to halt the relief of the Syrian town of Aleppo, but as Macintyre declares: “Bravery sometimes comes in unexpected forms, and in places far from the battlefield. The wartime history of the SAS is a rattling adventure story.” 

And it all began amazingly when Stirling, recuperating in a hospital bed in Cairo following a parachuting accident, came up with the idea of small teams of highly trained men dropping in on top targets, wiping them out and then disappearing, adding mystery, as well as triumph, to their exploits.

Yet, as Mcintyre points out: “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.

“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 war is run.”

He adds: “I hope my research will also cast 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 prisons.”

As if in a James Bond film, they sneaked into German airfields, blew up aeroplanes and then ran back into the desert before the enemy knew what had hit them. Nevertheless, the British top brass thought their heroics were not only unconventional but also not really cricket.

But Churchill came to rescue after his son Randolph, an unlikely soldier who was overweight and a heavy drinker, was in the SAS briefly and wrote to his father telling him in detail of a hopelessly failed raid into Benghazi which totally excited him.

“Stirling had calculated this might happen and that Churchill would absolutely love this sort of derring-do,” explains Macintyre. “Later, on his way to see Stalin, Winston stopped off in Cairo and invited Stirling to dinner.”

The rest, as Macintyre’s glory-filled saga elucidates, is a book about the meaning of courage at yet another vital moment in our deadly history.

l SAS: Rogue Heroes: The Authorised Wartime History. By Ben Macintyre, Viking, £25

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