Menu Close

Episode 7 – Who Dares Wins Part 1

This episode is about the origins of the SAS in the African theatre of WW2. It’s a two parter, with the first section featuring the founder of the regiment, Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling. Stirling was a privileged, quasi aristocratic young man that managed to get himself in command of one of the roughest units in the British armed forces.  Episode marked as explicit due to violence.

1 Comment

  1. admin

    The date was July 15
    , 1941, and in the midst of a blistering Egyptian summer, a young British army captain named David Stirling was driving across Cairo to meet with the heads of the special services division. He was just 26 years old.
    Stirling was born in the town of Stirling, Scotland, in 1915. His family was rich and well connected, with an impressive military pedigree. His uncle had founded an entire regiment, the Lovat Scouts, his father had been a Brigadier General and a member of parliament for the unionist party.
    Both of his brothers, Peter and Hugh, were also officers in the British army. For much of his youth, David had been considered the disappointment of the three. He was the middle child and hadn’t shown all that much dedication to his schooling, scoring middling grades and exhibiting little ambition. As an adult, he turned out to be a bit of a lad. He didn’t settle into a career after university, and set about traveling the world in search of adventure. When World War 2 broke out, he was training for mountain climbing in Nepal.
    In Stirling’s version of the events of July 15th, 1941, he was on crutches following a parachuting accident. He rushed past the guards, lept over a fence, ran up some stairs and broke into the office of Major General Neil Ritchie. With the aid of some notes scribbled on a napkin, he then forced Ritchie to listen to his bold idea for a new type of fighting unit. But that’s not what happened. At all. In reality, Stirling’s father and Ritchie were old drinking buddies and Ritchie had probably invited him over for an afternoon cocktail. Part of David Stirling’s immense charm was that he loved telling a good story, and he was never afraid to bend the truth if it made for a better tale.
    This description might lead you to think Stirling was a loud mouthed, pushy narcisscist, and at times, he could be. In private, Stirling would refer to the old men of allied command as ‘fossilized shit’ and would ridicule what he saw as the staid tactics and systems of the regular army.
    But friends and colleagues all describe the lanky 6 foot 6 David Stirling as unceasingly polite and demure in his manner of speaking. Stirling never demanded anything of anyone. Rather, he sort of confidently suggested it to you.
    Stirling’s idea was a band of saboteurs and assassins who could work behind enemy lines. The unit would not be a part of the regular army, and would not take direct day to day commands from the top brass. The new regiment would set its own hours, use its own methods, and have its own command structure. This would allow the unit to be adaptive, responsive, agile, and creative. Creativity, as you can imagine, isn’t something that thrives in highly regimented organizations like the military. Stirling’s proposed new unit would sidestep that problem by being organizationally isolated from the rest of the army.
    Ritchie took the idea to Field Marshall Auchinlek, the man in charge of the entire North Africa campaign, who approved it, giving Stirling a promotion to Captain in the process. David Stirling was just a 26 year old Lieutenant, someone who would never normally have had such easy access to the very top of the armed services. But he was a rich, well connected and most importantly, upper class.
    This gave him the kind of privilege others could only dream of.
    There was a bit of a problem though: Stirling promised Auchinleck that the new unit would be able to parachute onto enemy airfields and knock out grounded aircraft in time for a major offensive that November. That gave Stirling just 4 months to recruit an entirely new unit, teach them to parachute, and plan a major attack on German airfields. Stirling’s audacious, somewhat arrogant approach to the creation of his new unit would become a defining characteristic of how it operated. Time and time again, SAS members would take terrific risks. Often in the name of king and country, but also in the name of petty rivalry. It was an attitude summed up perfectly in their motto: Who Dares Wins.
    Before we go any further it would be remiss of me not to
    briefly outline the broader picture of North Africa in WW2.
    Britain had been in Egypt since the 1880s, though it was never formally a colony. France had control over the North West, and the Italians had control of Libya and the horn of Africa.
    In June of 1940, France was days away from surrendering to the Nazi invasion, which would result in the creation of the German puppet state known as Vichy France. The Italian facist government, ideologically aligned with the Nazis, allied themselves with Germany and declared war on Great Britain. The Italian forces in Libya then consolidated their forces away from the western border (because the French were no longer a threat), and set about invading British Egypt.
    The Italians had 200,000 fighting men compared to a mere 40,000 allied soldiers, which included British, Australians, Kiwis, and Continental Europeans. Despite their massive numerical advantage, the Italians got smashed to bits. The allies halted their advance, encircled them, and captured or killed nearly 130,000 Italians. They took vast swathes of territory off Italy, including the valuable port of Tobruk.
    In early 1941, the Nazis created the Afrika Corp under the command of Erwin Rommel. The allies, no doubt feeling a bit arrogant after their remarkable victory, badly underestimated the capacity of the Germans and found themselves easily swept out of Libya, with the exception of the now besieged stronghold of Tobruk, which remained in the hands of Australian infantry, the famed ‘Rats’ of Tobruk.
    The situation was looking grim for the allies in Egypt, but on June 22nd, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. This saw the focus of the war shift away from Northern Africa and towards Eastern Front, depriving the Afrika Corps of the valuable resources they needed to properly engage allied forces in Africa. For all his brilliance, the German commander Rommel would from now on be hamstrung by a lack of men, tanks, and petrol. The allies now had a real chance of victory.
    Now back to David Stirling
    Stirling had signed up to the officers core with no real military experience. His tutors at officers school had noted that he was, quote: ‘an ‘irresponsible and unremarkable soldier’. His partying was so wild, there are legends about him knocking out cab drivers and sleeping off hangovers at military hospitals with the aid of an oxygen pump.
    Nonetheless, Stirling was charming, intelligent, persuasive, and well connected. These connections had gotten him into the Commandos, which was supposed to be a regiment for the very best of the British army. The Commandos were formed with similar intentions to the SAS – a highly mobile band of elite soldiers that could sneak behind enemy lines – but the regular army was never quite sure what to do with them. They were employed in several relatively traditional battles and performed quite well – but had suffered terrible casualties in the process. The Litani River operation saw the Commandos lose 130 men from the 400 that saw action. These were unsustainably high casualties from such a well equipped and trained unit. By June of 1941, the Commandos were in the process of being broken up.
    The first thing Stirling needed to do was get recruiting. He needed both officers and soldiers to volunteer for his new unit, and that proved to be a challenge. Though Stirling was very well connected among the higher ups, most of the regular soldiers had a low opinion of him. Other officers weren’t fond of him going around and trying to steal their best soldiers either.
    His first port of call was Lieutenant John Steel Lewes, or just ‘Jock’ to his friends. Jock Lewes had been experimenting with Commando parachute drops in the months leading up to Stirling meeting with Ritchie. Stirling had somehow gotten himself on one of these flights, in spite of Lewes’s strong reservations about Stirling as a soldier. Stirling landed heavily and sustained a spinal injury, resulting in temporary blindness and paralysis of the legs that lasted about a month.
    Jock Lewes was a very different man to Stirling. He was an Australian with a working class background that had gotten himself an Oxford scholarship. He was politically conservative, personally disciplined and judgemental. Prior to the war, he had strong Nazi sympathies. He took a dozen trips to Berlin, attended Nazi fundraisers and almost married a German girl. His faith in facist ideologies only fell away when Hitler assassinated scores of his political enemies at the Night of the Long Knives. Physically, Lewes looked a bit like Errol Flynn’s evil twin.
    Stirling desperately needed Lewes to make the new unit work, and made a sea voyage to the besieged Tobruk to visit Lewes, who was stationed there with the remnants of the Commando. Lewes’s first answer was a hard no. Lewes was resentful that the higher ups had rejected parachute raids when they were his idea, but accepted them when they were Stirlings. He hated knowing that Stirling had been given a promotion to Captain for no reason other than his privileged status as a member of the ruling class. But he also didn’t trust Stirling. He saw him as a soft, lazy drunkard that would never follow through. Lewes also needed to know the particulars of Stirling’s plans. How many men? Where would they be based? What kind of aircraft would be used? What sort of specialized training was required and how long would this take? Stirling didn’t have the answers. He was more of a dreamer than a planner. Lewes chose to stay on in Tobruk, fighting with men who he saw as real soldiers.
    Stirling left, even more certain that he needed Lewes by his side. He realized he didn’t have the day to day discipline or organizational skills Lewes did, and those skills were absolutely essential for the running of the unit. He decided to show Lewes how serious he was, and set about recruiting 50 more soldiers and officers. He returned to Tobruk twice more to plea with Lewes to join him, and on that 3rd visit, not so much impressed with Stirling but with some of the new recruits, Lewes accepted Stirlings request to join the SAS as his second in command.
    The two men working in tandem formed a perfect team. Stirling’s charm and connections got him access to recruits and equipment, and he was able to allay any concerns about the progress of the new unit that Auchinleck might have had. Jock Lewes trained the men and ran the camp on a day to day basis. They formed a classic front of house, back of house double team.
    The men Stirling recruited were the odds and ends of the old Commando, misfits and iconoclasts that rankled at the idea of being returned to regular military units. They included Reggie Seekings, a half blind, dyslexic farmers son with dreams of being a champion boxer, Bill Fraser, a witty little Scotsman who was heavily rumoured to be gay, Eoin McGonigal, a chipper catholic Irishman who was best friends with a highly conservative protestant that hated catholics. His name was Robert Blair Mayne.
    Mayne, known as ‘Paddy’ to most, was a well educated Northern Irishman from a devout protestant family. He held a law degree and was a terrific athlete. He was a top amateur boxer, and played several tests for the British and Irish Lions. His teammates regarded him as one of the most fearsome men they’d ever played with, his hulking 100kg 6’3’ frame dominating the field of play. Mayne was recruited to the Commando and served at Litani River, leading his unit in the capture of over 100 men in his first ever combat patrol.
    Mayne was awkward socially. He mumbled and had trouble looking at people in the eye when he spoke. He was shy and completely deferential around women.
    Until he drank. And he drank a lot.
    When boozed up, Mayne would become terrifyingly violent. In 1938, he threw a man through a pane glass window. On New Years Eve 1940, he chose to stay in and drink alone rather than head out with the other men in his unit, and then opened fire on them when they returned home to the barracks. In early 1941, he got into an argument with a nightclub owner in Cairo, pulled out a pistol, and told the man to start dancing as he shot at his feet. His crowning glory though was the incident of the evening of June 21st, 1941. Mayne was playing cards with Eoin McGonigal, and took offence to something his acting CO, Charles Napier said. Mayne later followed Napier back to his tent and beat the hell out of him. (Though in Mayne’s defence, there are allegations that Napier had shot Mayne’s dog.
    Quoting Lt. Colonel Geoffrey Keyes:

    “June 23, 1941: Had to produce Paddy before the Div Commander, and he is rocketed and removed. Very sorry to lose him, as he did awfully well in the battle and is a great fighter. He is however, an extremely truculent Irishman when he is drink taken, and is as strong as a bull.”
    The new unit, 1 SAS or L detachment, set up a small operating base in Kabrit and began their specialized training. Jock Lewes ran the camp, with Paddy Mayne as his second. Punishment for slacking during training meant going a round with Mayne in the boxing ring.
    It was August, the hottest month of the year. The daytime average maximum was 38 degree celcius, in the middle of the desert. The men did 35 mile timed marches with 20 kilo packs, and had to return from these marches with water remaining in their canteens. They did live jumps off the backs of moving trucks to simulate parachute jumps, though that got cancelled due to a number of broken legs.
    They trained for night missions by navigating a mock battlefield blindfolded, crawling on their hands and knees, identifying objects and terrain by touch alone. Lewes had to experiment as he went. He was training an entirely new type of soldier.
    Lewes had a hard time commanding the unit by himself. He lacked social graces, and at one point told the entire unit that ‘they were all bloody soft’. He was very nearly beaten to a pulp on the spot. It took Lewes some time to understand that the men Stirling had assembled were very individualistic, and unlike normal soldiers, were liable to talk back to their commanding officers. They were excellent warriors, but not necessarily great soldiers. That’s why they had chosen to join a less structured unit like the SAS in the first place.
    For all his hard work back in Cairo, Stirling was having no luck getting decent equipment. The planes they were given by the RAF were old Bristol Bombays. They were slow, lumbering underpowered craft with balance issues. If anyone needed to use the toilet, they had to inform the pilot, because 1 extra man at the rear of the plane would completely throw the center of gravity off.
    Stirling couldn’t get basic supplies for the training camp. Jock Lewes solved that issue by carrying out a night raid on a nearby New Zealand camp. They stole tables, carpets, fuel, ammunition, food, and a piano. This sort of hijinx would go on to become something of a calling card for the SAS, who have a reputation for elaborate pranks, such as the Rendlesham Forest UFO incident of 1980, where the SAS managed to convince a neighbouring US Air Force base that they were under attack by flying saucers.
    By the time Stirling returned from Cairo, it was very much Lewes’s unit. Stirling felt that he was the commanding officer in name only. It was now early October, and he took it upon himself to lead the men in the parachute jumps.

    Parachuting from a plane was a relatively new concept, and the technology was quite primitive. The Bristol Bombays used static line chutes, so instead of pulling at a rip cord, the men had static lines anchored to the aircraft. When a man jumped, their line went taught and opened the chute up 50 feet below the aircraft. The drops occurred at a very low altitude of just 800 feet, and there were no reserve chutes, so if anything went wrong, death was certain.

    On the 16th of October, a Bombay had taken up three men for a practice drop. The first two men, 21 year old Ken Warburton and his friend Joseph Duffy, made the jump, but the third man, Billy Morris, was stopped by the RAF trainer on board. The officer had noticed, a moment too late for the others, that a new linkage on the static lines had failed under repeated changes in air pressure. Warburton and Duffy’s parachutes didn’t open, and they fell to their deaths. Mayne heard them screaming as they fell.

    Their deaths put a terrible toll on morale, but the following day Stirling and Lewes ordered the whole unit to a practice jump. Stirling was the first out of the plane once more, and every other man followed. It was a galvanizing moment both for the squad, and Stirling’s leadership. After the war, Stirling admitted that he hated parachuting.

    For a final test, Stirling ordered his men on a dummy mission: to place stickers on aircraft at the allied Heliopolis airfield, under the cover of darkness, 90 miles away. The airfield commander was one of Stirling’s many doubters, so Stirling made bet the man 10$ that the SAS could sneak in undetected.

    They marched at night and lay hidden under camouflage tarps during the day. The men had only 4 gallons of water with them. The heat and thirst frayed tempers, and Mayne eventually snapped at Private Chestworth, who had been complaining loudly the whole trip. Mayne grabbed him by the throat, held him over a cliff and said “not another word out of you.”

    After three nights march, they arrived at Heliopolis, snuck into the airfield, and without raising a hint of suspicion among the guards, placed stickers on 45 aircraft, many of them more than once. The operation was a roaring success, and exactly what Stirling needed to get Cairo off his back.

    On the 18th of November, 5 Bombays filled with SAS servicemen were scheduled to conduct drops south of the Tamini and Gazala airfields with the intention of destroying the newly deployed fighter squadrons the Germans had in place, and then to rendezvous with the Long Range Desert Group, a division of highly trained scouts, who would drive them home. The idea was to time the raids with a major allied ground offensive – Operation Crusader – which aimed to relieve the siege of Tobruk.

    The weather that evening was appalling. A major storm was scheduled to hit right over the target area, with powerful winds that would make safe jumps impossible. Stirling was encouraged to call it off by the higher ups. But he was concerned that if the raid didn’t go ahead, there was a risk the entire project might get shut down. He had made some very boastful claims about the SAS, and felt immense pressure to prove himself as something other than a boastful drunk. He couldn’t let the doubters be proven right.

    He explained the dilemma to the rest of the unit, and they unanimously agreed to go ahead. At the time of this decision, David Stirling was 26, Mayne 26, with Lewes the elder statesman of the squad at 28. There were no wise old men to turn to for council. It was entirely their call.

    The drop was a disaster. 33 men were lost,and one of the Bombays was shot down by a Messerschmitt 109f, the new German fighter the SAS had been tasked with destroying. It crashed landed with two fatalities, and the rest of the squad was captured.

    Most of the men of who didn’t return were blown away in the storm or suffered crippling injuries on landing. Broken legs and backs. They had to be abandoned in the middle of the desert to die. One of them was Lieutenant Eoin McGonigal. Blair Mayne sustained a chronic, degenerative back injury on landing that would haunt him the rest of his days.

    On top of the appalling casualty rate, the equipment had been dropped separately. It had been scattered across the sahara by the high winds. Stirling gave up on raiding and settled for a reconnaissance mission. Mayne was able to scrounge together enough bombs and able men, and decided to proceed. They marched for 3 hours to the nearest airfield, only to get caught in a flash flood, which ruined the detonators on their timed explosives.

    So began the long, painful walk back to the rendezvous point with the Long Range Desert Group. 36 miles across the desert in the dead of night. The men were soaking wet and freezing, without rations or equipment. When they met with the LRDG, Stirling explained what a disaster the raid had been to Captain David Lloyd Owen. Owen was a little confused by parachute drops. To him, they seemed unnecessary and overly elaborate. He pointed out to Stirling that if the LRDG were able to pick them up, there was no reason they couldn’t drop them off.

    The LRDG was born out of a club of peacetime British officers dedicated to exploring the Saraha. They were expert desert survivalists. They made maps, created their own systems for navigation, modified vehicles for desert use, they knew how to camouflage large trucks against the terrain, they were masters of the Saharan landscape. By the time of their first rendevouz with the SAS, the LRDG had been operating well inside German territory for over a year, sometimes 3 to 400 miles beyond British lines.

    On return to Kabrit, Stirling found himself, and the unit, given a reprieve. Operation Crusader hadn’t gone as planned, and though Tobruk had been relieved, the allies had suffered substantial tank losses, and Auchinlek had replaced the head of the 8th army with Stirling’s old friend Neil Ritchie. No one at HQ had time to notice that the little experimental division had lost 30 men.

    The SAS decamped and moved to Jalo, a rather unpleasant sounding Oasis in the middle of endless sand dunes of northern Libya. From there, Stirling planned 4 raids: He and Mayne would hit the airfields of Tamet and Sirte, while Jock Lewes and Bill Fraser would hit the aerodromes of Aghayla and Ajadabiyaa.

    The journey from Jalo to Sirte took days of driving through the blasted hellscape that is the Sarah desert. 40 degree heat, with not a landmark for hundreds of miles. Just a shimmering horizon bordered by sand and sky.

    On board the first convoy is Corporal Mike Sadler of the LRDG, the mission navigator. At just 22, his job was to navigate Stirling’s men across the desert. He would note average speeds, take compass bearings, and fix his position at night by the stars. He had only been in the job a little under a year, but had come to be regarded as one of the best navigators in the unit, and would consistently be able to deliver the SAS to within a few miles of their targets.

    The trip wasn’t without incident. They got bogged several times, and had a brief skirmish with an Italian fighter plane. But by the evening of the 11th, the SAS were ready to begin their assault. Stirling opted to hit Sirte, while Mayne and his crew attacked a previously underdiscovered Italian airfield slightly to the west.

    At Sirte, Stirling was delighted to find no fencing around the aerodrome, and 30 Italian bombers parked on the tarmac. This was finally his big chance to prove himself. But he opted to hold off. He knew Mayne wouldn’t be in position until the following night, and he couldn’t go in now without compromising Mayne. The following night, right before Stirling and his crew were set to lay their bombs, every single Bomber at Sirte took off, leaving them without a target. Stirling marched back to the LRDG rendezvous, frustrated, depressed, and unsure of the future of the unit.

    Over at airfield B, Paddy Mayne, Reggie Seekings and 3 other men were laying in wait. They had found a squadron of Fiat C42s.

    They waited until late evening, and then crept up to the airfield perimeter. They spied out the machine gun nests, the number of guards, and routes the sentries took. Just as they were about to sneak in and lay their bombs, the squad found a hut full of off duty airmen drinking and playing cards.

    Mayne waited for the guards to pass, crawled up to the front door of the hut, readied his Thompson, kicked in the door and mowed down every man inside. He lobbed a few grenades to finish off the stragglers before bolting back into the desert night. He killed between 20 and 30 men. In his official report he said:

    “Some Italians were followed, and the hut they came out of was attacked by sub-machine gun and pistol fire and bombs were placed on and around it. There appeared to be roughly thirty inhabitants. Damage inflicted unknown.”

    Reg Seekings had a more colourful take:

    “As soon as Paddy cut loose, the whole place went mad, everything they had including tracer, they had fixed lines of fire a couple of feet from the ground. We had either to jump over or crawl under them….Chesworth came slithering over to us on all fours. I can still see him getting to his feet, pulling in his arse as the tracer ripped past his back, missing him by inches. On a signal from Paddy, we got the hell out.”

    After a surprisingly short period of time, the camp settled down, and Mayne reasoned that the Italians would never expect a second attack. Once again, they crept to the airfield, keeping a watchful eye out for guards, and crossed over to the planes. They spent over an hour stealthily laying their bombs on aircraft, fuel, and ammunition. They found they were 1 bomb short of the final aircraft, but Mayne was not prepared to miss a chance at perfection. He opened the cockpit door, got in, and tore apart the instrument panel with his bare hands, before he and the rest of the squad absconded into the night.

    “We hadn’t gone 50 yards when the first plane went up. We stopped to look, but a second one went up near us and we began to run. After a while we… stopped to take another glance. What a sight! Planes exploding all over, and the terrific roar of petrol and bombs going up!”

    The ride back to Jalo held mixed feelings for Captain Stirling. His ideas had been born out, and he could now prove to his superiors the value of the unit. But his lack of personal success in the field dug at him, doubly so because Mayne seems to have spent the entire 3 days back across the desert teasing him about his failure. Stirling may have been in charge, but sometimes he didn’t feel like it – the bravado of some of the men under his command had him feeling insecure about his masculinity at times. And no one made him feel smaller than Paddy Mayne.

    These insecurities weren’t without basis. His men did indeed look at Mayne as the natural leader of the unit. To quote Saergent Fred White:

    “Stirling was too much of a gentleman. In our job, you needed to be a killer….”

    The other 2 squads had mixed results. Lewes’s got spotted by guards, and were nearly surrounded and captured before breaking through the enemy line with a mixture of grenades and machine gun fire. Bill Fraser, on the other hand, did even better than Mayne. He and his team advanced painstakingly slowly on their airfield over several days, before, with perfect stealth, stepping through a carefully cut barbed wire fence and laying mines on 37 grounded aircraft. With planes and fuel exploding behind them, Fraser and his men calmly walked back to the LRDG patrol. They were clearly visible in the light of the enormous fire they had lit, but the Germans were far too busy trying to douse the flames to pay them any attention.

    On return to Jalo, Stirling prepared them a massive Christmas feast. With just a few small operations, the SAS had destroyed 61 aircraft without suffering a single casualty. Mayne was jealous of Fraser’s work overshadowing his own, and began to relentlessly mock the man for being gay.

    On Christmas Eve, Stirling and his men set out again for the same airfields. This time, he took Reg Seekings with him, and paired him with Johnny Cooper, a well to do ‘public’ schoolboy (which in England, meant private, elite schools). Seekings and Cooper hated each other and had been in a number of fights since joining the unit.

    Mayne hit Tamet once more, and took out 27 Savioa Bombers. Their timed mines went off slightly early, alerting the Italians to their presence and illuminating them to enemy machine gun nests. Mayne noted in a letter home:

    ‘Everything went ok except that as we were coming out after leaving our bombs we were challenged. I answered ‘Friendt!’ but they didn’t believe me and started firing. That was rather a mistake for them as I don’t like being fired at.’

    After this raid, he decided to keep a personal tally, aiming to get to at least 100 aircraft by the time the war was out.

    Stirling and his men arrived at Sirte in the early evening, but the Italians had really upped security since the last visit, with a large barbed wire fence now ringing the airfield. In their attempts to get around it, the SAS were spotted by a sentry, barely made it back to the LRDG trucks, were shot at by their own men, and spent the next 5 hours in running battles with axis patrols, gunning down armored cars and blowing up trucks at checkpoints. They inflicted massive damage on the pursuing Italian patrols, and Seekings and Cooper had forged a close bond in combat. From then on, they would volunteer for ops together. But Stirling took no solace in this consolation prize. In the west, he could see the blazes of Mayne’s handiwork at Tamet.

    On return to Jalo, Stirling had little time to sulk. There was no word from either Fraser or Lewes’s squads, and no reports of enemy airfields being hit by saboteurs. With each passing day, the sense of dread hanging over the camp grew, until finally, on New Years Day, a single battered truck rolled into the camp.

    Lewes’s squad had found their airfield largely deserted. They bombed the two planes they did find, and left to meet up with Fraser.

    The following day, a Messerschmidt 110, a slow but powerfully armed fighter bomber, found them exposed in a valley. The plane dove at them and opened up with it’s 4 frontward mounted machine guns. In a running battle over the next hour, the German’s destroyed 4 LRDG trucks. Jock Lewes was struck in the leg and killed, and the men buried him in the desert. His body has never been recovered. The loss of the LRDG trucks also prevented the men from making the rendezvous with Bill Fraser’s squad, rendering the plucky Scotsman officially missing in action.

    Stirling was stunned at the loss, and wasn’t sure how he could continue without Lewes. In letters home, Stirling would write:

    “Jock could far more genuinely claim to be founder of the SAS than I. There is no doubt, that any success the unit had acheived up to the time of Jock’s death, and after it, was, and is, almost wholly due to Jock’s work”.

    Stirling now needed another officer of Lewes’s drive, conviction and practicality, but also a man he could completely trust and confide in.

    He hired a new explosives expert to take on Lewes role as makeshift demolitions man, and appointed Mayne in charge of training the new men coming in. This did not go down well. Mayne wanted to be in the field, and directly accused Stirling of taking him out of combat because Stirling was jealous of Mayne’s success. Mayne was, of course, partly right, and Stirling would later admit that taking his best fighter out of the field was stupid. But in his defence, he had no one else on hand who both commanded the respect of the men and knew what was required of an SAS operative.

    For their commanding role in the SAS raids, Stirling and Mayne both received promotions and Distinguished Service Orders – Mayne became a Captain and Stirling a Major. The success of the unit attracted more than just honors – Stirling had acquired 100 new recruits, including 50 free Frenchman that had been trained as parachutists.

    Stirling set off for a sortie against the port of Boureat. He took 15+ SAS men with him, but the raid was something of a mess. They were scouted out by enemy aircraft and lost their two radio men in the ensuing firefight. When they did arrive at the port, it turned out the information Stirling had received in planning for the op was bad, and there were no enemy cargo ships in port. He then settled for laying mines on fuel dumps and radio towers, which did some incidental damage, but not the devastating blow against enemy freight that he had been hoping for. On the road back, they were ambushed by Italian guards. Their truck was peppered with machine gun fire. The driver floored it, and with a combination of grenades and machine gun fire, they smashed through the ambush, leaving a trail of dead Italians in their wake.

    Back at Jalo, Mayne had not responded well to his new role. Other men had been leading the training in Stirling’s absence, while Mayne sat in his tent drinking whiskey and reading penguin paperbacks. When Stirling confronted him, Mayne would only grunt in reply to his questions. Stirling saw how pointless it would be trying to mould Mayne into anything he wasn’t, and promptly put him back into rotation. It’s also possible that Mayne was sulking that Stirling hadn’t made him the official second in command of the unit, thinking that Stirling was passing him up in favour of someone from Stirling’s own social class. Stirling had actually been courting several officers from upper class backgrounds from outside the unit, though as near as I can tell he never named anyone officially. Considering Mayne’s reaction to being temporarily benched, it’s hard to blame Stirling for his decision. How could someone as temperamental as Mayne have ever dealt with the commanders at British HQ?

    Stirling appointed Pat Riley, the big American injured in the first parachute drop, as new training officer, and on the 10th of January he received some incredible news: Bill Fraser and his unit stumbled into camp. They had spent the last 2 weeks marching and hitchhiking across the desert. Sunburned to a crisp and nearly dead from dehydration, Fraser and his boys enjoyed lengthy break convalescing from their ordeal. Epic marches like Fraser’s weren’t uncommon in the desert war. SAS men frequently got lost or missed the meeting with the LRDG transports, and even when things did go right operations often called for overland hikes of a 100 kilometers or more. SAS men were extremely fit and tough, but their incredible stamina wasn’t just down to hard work and conditioning – like all elite combat forces, including ones currently in operation today, powerful stimulants were often handed out to soldiers to keep them active in the field. The men in these stories would have frequently taken methamphetamine like combat drugs.

    On the 15th of March, Stirling hit the Port of Benghazi and 3 other teams struck nearby airfields. Once again, poor luck ruined Stirling’s part of the operation, with a faulty canoe preventing his squad from laying mines on enemy ships, and once AGAIN, the only man that managed to do any real damage was Mayne, who blew up 15 grounded aircraft. He celebrated by getting drunk and playing with his guns. Mike Blackman, an SAS intelligence officer, put this in his mission report:

    “On the evening of the 26th, the party went into action with rum and lime, rum and tea, rum omelette and just plain rum. Then a fraoli was laid on the sacrificial altar while Captain Mayne went through the weird rites of demonstrating how one should NOT fire his guns and NOT take to pieces at night. MGs, LMGs, tommy-guns, pistols and god knows what other intricate pieces of mechanism. Casualties: Incredible as it may seem, Nil.”

    Stirling planned a follow up operation that May, this time choosing to exclude Mayne in favor of Randolph Churchill, the chubby son of Winston Churchill and a good friend of his.Here he had a chance to get into the ear of the prime minister himself, plus, he was still feeling a touch petty about Mayne’s success.

    Stirling’s truck snapped a control rod on the drive in, and Italian guards could hear the racket the truck made from miles away. A car chase ensued, and after 20 minutes speeding around on busted suspension, the SAS men screamed into town at a lazy 80 miles an hour. The plan was the same as the previous raid – to paddle out into the harbour and lay mines on enemy ships – except this time they would use inflatable rafts rather than an unreliable folding canoe. The team found a quiet spot, cut through the barbed wire ringing the harbour, dodged some sentries, climbed down a gantry, navigated the cargo containers and then spent 20 minutes carefully carrying the raft down to the waters edge – where it failed to inflate. They’d punctured it along the way. They threw away the old raft, went all the way back to the truck, got the other raft, dodged the same sentries, climbed down the gantry and snuck down to the pier – only to find this raft was punctured too.

    They had spent so long messing about without these broken rafts that dawn had begun to break, so the team found a bombed out house to hide out in until nightfall. One of their number, a man named McClean, was fluent in Italian, and could pull off a convincing accent to boot. He’d been challenged by guards several times the previous night, but he’d been able to convince them he was an officer. Stirling and he took the chance to wander around Benghazi in broad daylight. Before they departed, they spent several hours wandering around making notes of targets to blow up for future raides. To quote Corporal Cooper, “If you can think of something the enemy would consider an impossible stupidity, and carry it out with determination, you can get away with it through sheer cheek.

    To add to the farce of the Benghazi mission, Stirling, who was driving the truck, managed to roll it on the way back. Maclean and Churchill were seriously injured, and an embedded journalist who was with them was killed outright.

    Not deterred by his recent setbacks, Stirling planned a large scale, multi pronged attack on the Benghazi area. On the 12th of June, 1942, 8 SAS teams hit 5 different sites, and the RAF was to co ordinate the assault with a bombing raid on Benghazi itself.

    The operation was a beautiful mess. The team of fresh French recruits at the main Berka airfield went too early, and a full blown firefight broke out between them and the defenders. The French would go on to have a terrible night. Their undercover operation, using German Jews as infiltrators, had been exposed by a spy ring in Cairo, and several of their other squads were thwarted by sheer bad luck, being caught out by German patrols at the worst possible moment. Though they fought valiantly and took out some 30 German planes, they also suffered terrible casualties.

    Mayne’s team had to hunker down in a ditch as RAF bombers somehow mistook the secondary airfield at Berka for their main target of Benghazi, and were actively bombing Berka while the SAS were supposed to be in the field. It was sheer dumb luck they werent blown to bits by their own bombers. Mayne noted in his diary how an RAF bomber was shot down and exploded just a few hundred meters from their position.

    This was supposed to be a discreet midnight raid on a moonless night, allowing the squads to sneak right up under the noses of the enemy guards, who were blinded by the darkness. Instead, the airfield was lit up by flames and the SAS could be seen as clear as day.

    When the bombing subsided they placed just 1 mine before being caught. Mayne killed a few of the guards before retreating, and the squad was forced to split up, spending the next day playing hide and seek with German patrols. Mayne came within inches of getting caught as a squad of Germans came right up to the ditch he was laying in, and Corporal Lilley was forced to strangle an Italian soldier with his bare hands to prevent him sounding the alarm.

    Quote:

    “Funny, killing a chap with your bare hands. I can still see his white face and dark brown eyes clearly. His cap had toppled off in the struggle, so I put it back over his face. You know. To make it look more natural.”

    Stirling’s crew spent the day before the raid hiding on a rocky outcrop above the Benina airfield. Benina was an important engineering and repair depot. At 11:30 pm, 15 minutes before the bombers were to hit, his 3 man team snuck down from the hills and infiltrated the facility. They lay their mines on fuel tanks and trucks, silently gliding down corridors and gantries, listening out for the foot falls of German guards. When they arrived at the first hanger, the heavy doors groaned under their own weight when opened. Then silence. Not a single guard had noticed the massive steel doors now open to the night air.

    The hangar was full of fighters and medium bombers in for repair. They planted mines on every last one of them. They wound up hitting four hangars in total. As they were leaving, Stirling spotted a barracks. The squad moved silently to the door, nudged it open, and found it full of sleeping Germans. Stirling pulled out a grenade, removed the pin and said to himself “share this among you” as he rolled the bomb into the room.

    The squad bolted from the aerodrome as the remaining guards ran to help their dying comrades. Stirling would later be overcome with guilt for what he’d done, saying that his attack on the barracks was tantamount to murder. He was also critical of the decision from a tactical point of view. The slaughter of the sleeping Germans could have alerted the base guards to the mines on their planes. Likely bombed up on amphetamines and overwhelmed with insecurities about his leadership, Stirling was taking bigger and bigger risks with each subsequent raid. He had to prove his credentials as a man and a soldier – so increasingly, he would lead from the front.

    From the same overlook they had waited out the day, the squad, just 3 men including Stirling, looked back over the Benina aerodrome as it erupted in flames, devastating the entire compound.

    At the rendezvous the following day Stirling had to brag. It felt great for him to finally get one over on Mayne, who scoffed at Stirling’s story about the devastation he had laid on the German repair depot.

    Mayne flat out told him that he didn’t believe a word of it. Stirling dared him to go and have a look himself, and that’s exactly what they did. They got a truck, loaded it up with a heavy gun or two, and once darkness fell they went back up the road to the Berka airfield, which was now crawling with German patrols furious at the SAS for the deaths of their comrades.

    Stirling would later say “It was foolish, of course, but that’s how Paddy and I were.”

    There are differing accounts, but as near as I can tell there were 6 men in the truck. Mayne and Stirling, sitting up front, with Seekings, Warburton or Storie, Cooper, Lilley in the rear, along with an Austrian Jew named Kahane, a 20 year veteran of the German military. He was a handy guy to have around. Anytime that the men came upon an Italian patrol at night he simply shouted ‘German!’ and they’d let the SAS trucks right on through.

    Near the entrance to the Berka area, they came upon a roadblock. In Mayne’s words, it was ‘A bloody big contraption like a 5 barred gate that was mixed up with a mile or so of barbed wire’. Kahane yelled at one of the guards to let them in, but the guard was on strict orders to be thorough. Ten men with Mp-40s, a type of German submachine gun, along with a Sargent, come out to inspect the truck.

    Mayne’s diary records the following dialogue. Quote:

    “I gathered later that the conversation ran like this: Fritz: “What’s the password?” Karl our Austrian: “How the – do we know what the – password is and don’t ask for our – identity cards either. They’re lost. We’ve been fighting for the past seventy hours against these – Tommies. Our car was destroyed and we were lucky to capture this British truck and get back at all. ‘“Some fool put us on the wrong road. We’ve been driving for the past two hours and then you so and sos, sitting here on your asses in Benghazi, in a nice safe job, stop us. So hurry up, get that – gate open!” ‘But Fritz isn’t satisfied, so he walks to about three feet from the car on my side. I’m sitting there with my Colt on my lap and suddenly I remember that it isn’t cocked. So I pull it back and the Jerry has one look at me and then orders the gates to be opened.”

    Quoting Cooper: “The German must have realized that if he would have been the first man to die if he had detained us. So he opened the gate and let us through.”

    Stirling was sure they were wandering into a trap. The sargent on duty would have certainly radioed ahead that the SAS had just crossed the checkpoint.

    There are mixed accounts about what happened next. Cooper says that they made their way to a truck stop and fixed bombs to anything of value. Storie remembers them gunning down a cafe filled with German soldiers. The official report stated that they shot up a few trucks and left many of the enemy dead and wounded. Mayne said that “We drove on at any rate and came on a lot of tents and trucks and people (at Lete), got our machine-guns up from the bottom of the truck and started blowing hell out of them, short, snappy and exhilarating.”

    No one seems to agree on what damage they did or did not do, but everyone can agree on the escape. Mayne cut the lights on the truck and dashed across the desert towards a dry river bed with a steep bank on the far side, which would cut them off from the pursuing Germans. But as he sped along, he saw lights in the distance. The Germans figured out the plan, and were heading to cut them off at the pass. Mayne floored it, the Chevy skittered over the near bank and slapped into the flat river bed. They sped across to the other side with the Germans in hot pursuit.

    They skidded up the far bank, bullets whizzing by, but Mayne had managed to miss the route up the cliff. The others got out and pushed the truck up the bank, getting the truck up to the road just before the Germans got to them. They clambered in and were driving up the road to safety, when Bob Lilley heard a fuse. One of their bombs had ignited. “Get out, quick!” He yelled. Mayne and Stirling rolled out the front doors with the truck still moving while the rest bailed out the back. It rolled a few more feet before erupting in a huge fireball.

    Cooper said:

    “The explosion bowled us over, the truck was blown to kingdom come.”

    They marched all night and most of the next day back to the LRDG camp. It was difficult to say how effective the raids at Berka had been. Stirling wasn’t sure himself, putting the number of destroyed planes somewhere between 35 and 70. Casualties were high though, particularly among the allied French.

    In the broader war, the Germans had the Allies backed into a corner. They were now just 60 miles from Alexandria, having retaken Tobruk in the process, and the Allies were preparing for the possibility of losing Cairo. In what was called Ash Wednesday, sensitive Allied documents across the city were ordered burned, sending plumes of smoke into the Egyptian sky.

    The British 8th army was to make its stand at a little railway station called El-Alamein, and the SAS were tasked with another round of sorties to soften up Axis air power. The enemy had begun to wise up on the SAS tactics of sneaking in and bombing planes, so Stirling decided to mix their approach up.

    He was given a bunch of American Jeeps. They were small, nimble, robust, and unlike many of the big fords and chevys, came with 4wd as standard. They were the perfect new weapon for a hit and run raiding squadron.

    They also managed to get a hold of some obsolete Vickers K machine guns. Originally designed to be mounted on aircraft for use against other aircraft, the Vickers could pump out an astonishing 1200 rounds a minute. Introduced in 1935, it was pretty quickly phased out in favour of other guns, meaning they were free to a good home. The SAS began bolting pairs of them on the passenger sides of their jeeps. Here’s what a
    Vickers K sounded like:

    INSERT AUDIO HERE

    On July 4th. 6 SAS teams headed for fresh German airbases. 3 were hitting Buka, 1 went for Sidi Barrani, 1 aimed for El Daba, and Stirling & Mayne’s squad hit the main target – Bagush.

    They headed north until they hit the main coastal road, and amazingly ran into no axis vehicles during the entire 8 hour drive. They settled down outside Bagush at dusk, and waited for midnight. Stirling used his truck to set up a roadblock, while Mayne and a few other men snuck into the airbase. They had time to lay 14 bombs before they were caught and shot at. Mayne blew the guards up with grenades while the rest of the crew mined the remaining planes – 40 in total. They escaped into the night and waited for the planes to explode. But something went wrong. Only 22 of the bombs went off.

    Stirling figured the detonators must have gotten wet somehow. “It’s enough to break your heart” Mayne lamented.

    Stirling wasn’t prepared to leave those undamaged planes sitting on the tarmac, and in the spirit of the unit, he improvised. He had two of those new jeeps with Vickers K guns on them, and he opted to go back in and see just how much damage a Vickers K could do to a grounded aircraft.

    As the German garrison desperately tryied to put out the burning aviation fuel, Mayne and Stirling casually rolled right back into the base and strafed the remaining planes. “Shoot low, go for the petrol tanks.” Stirling ordered.

    The Vickers ate the grounded planes alive, tearing away at the fuselages and lighting up their fuel tanks. They set all the remaining planes ablaze before the guards were able to respond, at which point they simply tore off into the still desert night.

    Stirling was thrilled with the new jeeps. They hit the El Daba airfield for 14 planes, then Fuka again for another 20 odd. The Fuka raid has a grim anecdote attached. On rendezvous with the LRDG, Major-General David Lloyd Owen picked Mayne up. When he asked Paddy how the raid went, he replied:

    ‘A bit trickier tonight. They had posted a sentry on nearly every bloody plane. I had to knife the sentries before I could place the bombs.’ Remember, Mayne bombed 20 planes that night. Paddy’s brother Douglas would later say of him:

    ‘Personally, I think he rather did enjoy killing. It was very like stalking a deer.’

    He got 20 new jeeps from HQ and started practicing formations with the men. The jeeps were spaced just 5 yards apart. The SAS spent a week perfecting this horrific ballet of firepower, like equestrian dressage with heavy machine guns. “The rehearsal was even more terrifying than the actual attack” said John Cooper. In the final design, The jeeps would drive to the target abreast, and then fan out into a broad arrowhead shape to ensure they didn’t accidentally shoot each other.

    The target was Sidi Haneish, a major German airfield. They set off just after dark, and drove for about 4 hours under a slightly moonlit night. Stirling grew tense on the journey in. his demeanour had begun to change in recent weeks. The empathy, patience and police nature he had been known for had eroded, replaced a more agitated man prone to frustration and anger. As the mission grew just a few minutes behind schedule, he began to chide Mike Sadler’s navigation skills. As soon as he had finished, the convoy of jeeps drove over the crest of a hill, and they could see the lights of Sidi Haneish shimmering at them in the night.

    The jeeps fanned out, bouncing and shifting on the uneven ground, struggling to maintain formation. Stirling was suddenly blinded by a brilliant light, and his heart sank in terror. They were lit up by a flood light. He was about to order a retreat, when the light moved past them, and he could see it was actually a Heinkel bomber coming in for landing. Stirling gave the order.

    20 Twin Vickers K guns tore the plane to pieces midair. It skittered down the runway and burst into flame. The jeeps funneled out into their arrowhead. They moved into the airfield and strafed the grounded planes, the terrible sound of their machine guns stunning the sleeping Germans. Plane after plane exploded, the heat from the burning fuel flew past them as a hot wind. The Germans returned fire, but they were so completely caught by surprise that no real defence was mounted. A single anti air gun kept fire on the group. Stirling’s jeep was destroyed by it, but he was quickly picked up by his men.

    To quote Reggie Seekings:

    “He drove right up the middle of the runway at 20 mph, and either side was an assortment of planes. It was like a duck-shoot, just pouring fire into those Junkers and Stukas and watching the bullets tear through their fuselage and then bang – they’d explode.”

    Mayne saw a terrified pilot hiding under a flaming bomber before it exploded, Seekings cut a few men near in half with his Vickers. They did a quick reload, came back around for one last broadside on those precious transport planes parked on the far side of the airfield, then scamperred back into the desert.

    The last man on the field was Mayne, who had stayed behind to land a Lewes bomb on a final plane. He sprinted across open ground under a hail of fire, afixed his bomb on a short timer, then sprinted to his jeep before the last plane burst into flames behind him. It was Mayne’s 100th aircraft. Behind them they left 30 to 40 ruined planes and scores of dead Germans, a flaming airfield of twisted steel and shattered bodies.

    For the devastating toll they had enacted on the Germans, they had lost just one man in return, Lance Bombardier John Robson. They said their prayers for him over tea, and buried him in the sandy earth.

    Back at their forward base, the men refitted the jeeps. The medical officer there asked Mayne how the raid went. Mayne didn’t even look up from his book. “Och, it was quite a good crack” he replied.

    The next few weeks were hard going. The Germans were not taking the raid on Sidi Haneish lying down. They hunted down and destroyed SAS patrols, destroying vehicles and even killing a few men in return. Stirling, already stressed, felt the intense pressure of command. In the mission debrief, he ranted at the men about wasting ammunition, straying out of formation, and disobeying his commands. There had been some chatter among the men that the old method, of sneaking in and laying bombs, better than the jeep attacks, and Stirling rankled at the questioning of his decision making.

    The raid, overall, was a huge success, and command was pleased with Stirling. A little too pleased. They roped the SAS into a multi pronged, mix armed offensive on the port of Benghazi. Stirling bristled at his guerilla raiding detachment being used as a part of a regular offensive. He considered it a waste of the talents of his men. But he wasn’t in a position to say no, and after a little flattery, including a dinner with Winston Churchill himself, the SAS were combined with other units into Force X, one of a number of different assault groups that were to make a mixed offensive on the port.

    I won’t go into much detail here. Operation Bigamy, as the operation came to be known, was was a failure. 118 SAS men, including a host of new recruits, drove 800 miles across the desert to an Oasis, received word from their spies that the Germans knew they were coming, met heavy resistance at a roadblock, retreated, and spent the next week being strafed and bombed by aircraft as they ran back across the desert. They lost 60 vehicles and nearly a quarter of their fighting strength.

    There were a number of factors that contributed to the failure of the operation. It was widely known about, so German spy rings would have certainly received advanced word. It misused the SAS, treating them as a regular division of the army, rather than a specialized raiding operation, and the SAS themselves, in particular David Stirling, failed to scout ahead properly, something that was particularly out of character for Stirling, someone who loved a good reconnaissance mission.

    The SAS were then upgraded from being a simple unit, to a full regiment. Overseen by Stirling, the SAS was now split into 4 sections. Group A was seasoned veterans, and would be commanded by Mayne with Bill Fraser as his second. B was new recruits, headed by Major Vivian Street, C was the free French forces, and D was the Special Boat Service, on water operators specializing in shipyard assaults. In addition, a second SAS regiment was founded by Stirling’s older brother Peter.

    1 SAS were to set up base at the oasis of Kufra, to stage night raids on German supply lines near Benghazi. Operation Lightfoot, which would later be known as the Second Battle of El-Alamein, was coming up, and Command wanted German supply lines to be as disrupted as possible.

    Stirling, now a Lieutenant colonel, had no trouble finding officers for the now vastly expanded SAS, but ran into serious trouble finding qualified veterans. He was sternly rebuked for his efforts to recruit directly from other units by senior officers. Stirling was forced to recruit raw troops, who wouldn’t be ready in time for the coming offensive.

    On the 23rd of October, 1942, the second battle of El Alamein began. The SAS were prolific in the actions behind German lines. They blew up the railway lines so many times that they ordered to stop by British command, because the British desperately wanted there to be at least
    railway left for them to use when they captured the territory. And capture it they would. The Germans took a hammering, suffering 35,000 casualties. Rommel was forced into a speedy retreat. But things weren’t perfect. The SAS had trouble making the transition from a small, highly trained raiding unit into a full fledged regiment. The new guys, some of which were rushed into battle with SAS A, needed more experience, and the veterans resented having to take rookies with them on such dangerous missions. They needed men they could trust completely.

    Back in Cairo, Stirling was busily recruiting and training up the new B squadron. He needed to get them for ready combat soon. He knew that operation Torch, the arrival of American forces in the African theatre, would be occurring very soon. He was sure that Torch would spell the end of Axis forces in Africa. He only had a slim window of opportunity for his new regiment to prove itself in combat, and for that, he needed his new B team in operation as soon possible.

    On the 20th of November, 1942, he led SAS B into combat. Driving out from their base at Kabrit, 4 jeeps and a slew of trucks embarked on their mission across the Sahara to meet with SAS A. The two squadrons divided up a massive section of North Western Libya, and set a target of 48 strikes per week on Axis transport movements. This would ruin Rommels supply lines, and soften his forces up for a fresh allied offensive that December. But Stirling didn’t stick around with his new unit. He had work to attend to in Cairo. He left the new officers to run things with only a weeks worth of supplies and a pile of completely green new recruits. When challenged about this by Sas B officers, he replied:

    “Oh, well, you’ll just have to live off your fingernails. Forage around and see what you can pick up from Italian settlements. They’re bound to have hams and that kind of thing.”

    The new SAS B was to receive a crash course in the kind of risky business the SAS was known for. But lacking Stirling’s Chutzpah and Mayne’s hardness, they were quickly decimated. By the 12th of January, 1943, just 3 officers had survived or avoided capture.

    Stirling hadn’t been idle in Cairo. He been working long hours shoring up new recruits and organizing the SAS post Africa role. The scale of the regiment had grown so much that there was little time for leading from the front anymore. When he returned to western Libya, he looked exhausted, suffering from frequent headaches, and showing signs of malnutrition. SAS A under Mayne had crippled German supply lines, and now the British army was planning the major offensive that would allow them to link up with the Americans who had landed further west. Sensing the war in Africa was winding down, Stirling wanted one last piece of action. He ordered the other SAS units to engage in further sorties against German supply lines, and he himself took Mike Sadler and John Cooper on a reconnaissance mission deep into Tunisia. This mission was a totally unnecessary risk, and most historians seem to think Stirling had other motives. It’s likely Stirling was thinking less about the well being of the unit and his own safety, and more about the glory of being present when the British and American armies met, and to reunite with his brother Peter.

    As usual, he would be operating well behind German lines, and thought he could just operate with impunity as he always had. But the land here was different. This wasn’t the endless expanse of the Saraha, into which one could simply flee, it was quasi urban. There were small towns and farms dotted everywhere, paved roads and villagers.

    One evening, the party camped in a small valley. Stirling didn’t post sentries or order the surrounding area scouted properly. He brushed off reports by Sadler of an Italian troop transport unloading nearby. The following morning, Sadler was woken by a kick to his leg. Two Germans with sub machine guns had found him, Cooper, and a 3rd man, Taxis, asleep in their tent. Raising the arms in surrender, the Germans ordered them to stay quiet, and then left them be. They headed down the ravine in search of the groups officer. They moment they were left alone, the three men ran and hid. They managed to escape the Germans, and after an epic several hundred mile march, they found the safety of allied forces.

    Stirling and ten other men were captured by the Germans. Stirling did manage to escape that night, but on his way to safety, stopped for several hours to survey a German airfield. He was still so cocksure that Germans wouldn’t get him that he was willing to waste hours of precious time, alone and without supplies deep in enemy territory. HeLuu see offered a reward to some local Arabs for returning him to safety, but those tribesman decided they would get a better deal from the Italians. They traded Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, commander of the SAS, over the Italians in exchange for 11 pounds of tea.

    Stirling would never see action again. The Germans sent him to the famous Colditz Castle, where he waited out the war as a POW. In his private letters home, Rommel wrote:

    “Thus the British lost the very able and adaptable commander of the desert group that had caused us more damage than any other unit of equal size.”

    In just 18 months, Stirling’s enormous appetite for risk took him from being a disreputable drunken Lieutenant, to a half Colonel in charge of and entire regiment that had, quote:

    “swung a hammer blow out of all proportion to its weight.”

    Stirling’s SAS, not counting the innumerable dead axis troops left in their wake, had destroyed something in the vicinity of 300 aircraft, and taken itself from a tiny experimental raiding group to a full fledged regiment, whose practices and principles would be emulated by militaries across the world.

    Those same gambles had killed innumerate allied servicemen that didn’t enjoy Stirling’s charmed run of luck. In his later years, Stirling would refer to his younger self as a damned fool for the decisions he made on that final, fateful mission. But only a damned fool could have made the SAS work in the first place. Only a fool would demand HQ give him an entire unit to run fresh out of officers school, only a fool would parachute onto a nazi base in the middle of a thunderstorm, and only a fool would sneak around the desert at night with homemade bombs strapped to his back. The SAS needed fools, a gang of unsupervised men in their mid 20s, blinded to the risks, keen on action, and free from the temperate hand of older men, to render as much chaos to the axis cause as they did.

    The SAS would survive Stirling’s capture, and would go on to serve in Italy and France. But the hard men of the regiment still keenly felt the loss of their daring commander. Paddy Mayne would later write to Bill Stirling.

    ‘I only wish that David was still around.’

    In reply, still smarting with a degree of insecurity about their relationship, Stirling would say.

    ‘I loved Paddy. I was more fond of Paddy than he was of me.’

    The unit loved Paddy Mayne as well, and that’s why, despite reservations from command, he was made the new commanding officer of the Special Air Service. Please join me next time for Who Dares Wins Part 2: Paddy Mayne.

Comments are closed.