The British Special Air Service, or SAS, is regarded among the world’s best special forces units. Masked and heavily armed, little is known about it beyond its incredible discipline and ferocious competence. However, this level of organisation is a far cry from the individualist character of the SAS established in 1941 in the North African campaign.
The SAS came to be as a result of the unwavering determination of its founder, David Stirling – a trait with which he would imbue the whole unit. In its original incarnation, the SAS was a small band of men who hated the army’s bureaucracy, had little regard for authority and none for their personal safety. Though they were given missions by the British military, they alone decided how they should be carried out.
Stirling, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not considered a good soldier by his superiors. He was described as “irresponsible and unremarkable”, and his laziness earnt him the nickname of “the giant sloth” within his regiment. His character opposed the strict discipline required in the British army.
However, it was this disregard for and questioning of authority that led him to come up with the idea of the SAS. Stirling saw the large-scale assaults and troop movements employed in the campaign were not working: the enemy could track them more easily, therefore anticipating attacks; and the vast numbers of soldiers hindered operational efficiency.
Instead, they should attack from where “the Hun was not watching”. He and another likeminded officer, Jock Lewes, proposed a regiment that would bypass the army bureaucracy – or as they called the “freemasonry of mediocrity” – and raid in small numbers behind enemy lines.
Stirling handed the proposal to General Ritchie who then passed it to General Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief of the Eighth Army. That such a high-profile figure saw it so fast was most likely because Auchinleck was a Stirling family friend – indeed, he had stayed at the Stirlings’ home in Scotland many times. Auchinleck was also under severe pressure from Churchill, as Rommel was then winning the war in North Africa. He was willing to change the existing strategy. Therefore, Stirling’s radical idea was accepted, forming the ‘L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade’. The brigade made its base Kabrit, an inhospitable and uncomfortable desert headland in Egypt. Lewes’s gruelling and at times dangerous training programme would become the SAS’s hallmark in later years. It required intense physical exertion, with an emphasis on parachute jumping, but also tested their navigation and mathematical skills, which challenged many of the men recruited on the basis of their bravery and strength.
The focus of Lewes’s training, above developing his men’s skills, was instilling resilience and determination, without which he believed missions always dissolved into disorganised retreats. He said, “Never run away, because once you have started running you have stopped thinking.” Much of the SAS’s success can be attributed to this mentality. After months of training, and many recruits giving up, the SAS were ready for their first assignment.
Operation Squatter, the first SAS mission, was a disaster. Their target was the Bagush airfield; if incapacitated, it would seriously diminish Axis air power, allowing Auchinleck’s forces to advance. However, as the date for the operation approached, the weather deteriorated. Their aforementioned ‘no retreat’ mentality also led them to be reckless in this case, forging ahead with their mission despite 30 knot winds, twice the maximum wind speed at which parachutes can be safely opened. This was ignored by the SAS party as they leapt from the plane into a sandstorm.
Stirling, like with the majority of his previous parachute jumps, hit the ground so hard that he was rendered unconscious, and the rest of his officers landed in similarly ungraceful fashions. Of the 55 men that jumped, only 21 returned and those that landed safely were blown entirely off course and so were useless to Auchinleck’s attack.
With his morale and reputation destroyed, Stirling turned to the LRDG, a desert reconnaissance unit which were experts in desert navigation, in the hope that collaboration could increase the capabilities of the SAS. The LRDG thus became the ‘Libyan taxi service’ and were instrumental in the SAS’s next, more successful raid on the airfields of the Gulf of Sirte.
Stirling attacked the main airfield at Sirte and Mayne, another founding member of the SAS, launched a simultaneous offensive the airfield at Tamet. Having found that all aircraft in the Sirte airfield had already taken off, an extremely frustrated Stirling had to call off his raid; Mayne had much more success. His squad snuck into the airfield, causing an explosion compared to the northern lights by one of the team. This victory was reported by many British newspapers, one reading, “They were 500 miles behind the front line, but a British patrol was in their midst.” This raid was exactly the style of warfare that Stirling envisioned, getting behind enemy lines without detection and then wreaking havoc.
This raid on the Tamet airfield was one of many that disrupted Rommel’s supply lines and greatly inconvenienced the Axis forces. Their frequency made the SAS legendary within the wider British army, and the Axis forces nicknamed Stirling ‘The Phantom Major’.
The SAS’s fame was not just tied to their flamboyantly successful raids but the feats of individual soldiers. The endurance of these men, both physical and psychological, in harsh desert warfare is a real testament to the incredible mindset and bravery that these men possessed. Mike Sadler, Jim Almonds and Paddy Mayne are just some of many who proved that the men of the SAS were unique.
Mike Sadler become legendary after he and two others walked five days and five nights through the desert after the rest of his group were captured. He was picked up by the French foreign legion and was described to look like a delirious ‘skeleton’.
Jim Almonds was captured by the Italians. Thereafter, he was kept in the frozen and filthy Altamura POW camp in Italy, where he was tortured and publicly humiliated. He escaped after three months and covered 230 miles in 32 days to reunite with the American vanguard. He referred nonchalantly to his incarceration as his ‘Italian Picnic’, as if it were no more than a minor inconvenience.
Paddy Mayne, the leader of the successful Tamet raid, should have won the Victoria Cross multiple times for his incredibly brave and almost insane actions. Near the end of the war in Germany, Mayne charged alone at an enemy battalion to draw fire from some pinned-down comrades. He was put forward for the Victoria Cross but was controversially denied.
The SAS of the Second World War were prepared to go to any length for their country and comrades. They had no regard for their own personal safety and a casual relationship with death, which perhaps explains how they performed so exceptionally when faced with it. However, despite their heroic image and heroic feats, the SAS’s soldiers were just men, and they paid a great price for their endeavours in blood and sanity – as do all soldiers.
King, Anthony. “The Special Air Service and the Concentration of Military Power.” Armed Forces & Society 35, no. 4 (2009): 646–66.
Lewis, D., 2020. SAS: Band of Brothers. Quercus.
MacIntyre, B., 2016. SAS: Rogue Heroes. Viking.