SAS: Rogue Heroes

The Week Middle East - - Arts -

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”.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.