SAS: Rogue Heroes
by Ben Macintyre
Viking 400pp £25 In 1941, when British forces in North Africa were locked in battle with the formidable Afrika Korps led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, a young “aristocratic dilettante” named David Stirling was lying in a Cairo hospital bed, recuperating from “an ill-judged parachute jump”, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. And it occurred to him, as he lay there studying a map of North Africa, that it would be possible to recruit small groups of highly trained commandos to operate behind German lines, “sabotaging aircraft, runways and fuel depots”. Stirling had friends in high places, and soon he had talked his seniors into accepting the idea. Thus, the Special Air Service – or SAS – was born. In his new book, the journalist Ben Macintyre draws on archives recently made public to tell the story of the SAS’s war-time activities, first in North Africa, then in Italy and France. Using his “gift for creating a cinematic narrative”, Macintyre “draws sharp, Dickensian portraits” of the “rogue heroes” recruited for the task, and presents us with a gripping account of the origins of a “new kind” of warfare, based on elite commando units – now the “model for special forces around the world”.
“That boy Stirling is mad. Quite, quite mad,” declared General Montgomery in 1942. But if Stirling was an oddball – he always wore a tie into battle – he is by no means the only one in this “compelling” book, said Sinclair McKay in The Daily Telegraph. The one thing the first bunch of SAS recruits had in common was that they were ill-suited to conventional army life. They included the amateur boxing champion Reg Seekings; Randolph Churchill, the dipsomaniac, son of Winston; and Blair “Paddy” Mayne, a Housman-reading Ulster Unionist given to “volcanic bouts of brutality”. This is a tale of “boneshattering parachute drops” and “terrifying night-time raids on Nazi airfields”, conducted by men who had “sociopathic” tendencies but were also inspired by a “T.E. Lawrence-style romanticism”.
Yet for all their daring, it’s hard to detect what real difference these mavericks made to the War’s outcome, said Richard Overy in The Guardian. Many early missions ended in disaster, and while some have suggested that the SAS helped “turn the tide of war” in Italy, their real achievements were “strategically modest”. The unit did, however, bring to life a “very British way of making war”, based on “maverick” individualism; and this “comic strip” mythology has endured. Told with “flair” and a sharp eye for detail, Rogue Heroes is a “great read of wartime adventuring”.