His­tory

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SAS: Rogue He­roes

Ben Macin­tyre (Vik­ing, £25)

THE SAS has long ex­cited the Bri­tish pub­lic. Images of its dar­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, from the North African desert dur­ing the Sec­ond World War to Lon­don’s be­sieged Ira­nian Em­bassy in 1980, have be­come iconic. The reg­i­ment has also long ex­cited au­thors, largely be­cause of the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment’s flat re­fusal to com­ment on any­thing con­nected with the Spe­cial Forces—and quite right, too: there are some things that must re­main a mat­ter of trust between the tax­payer and those we elect to gov­ern us, whose pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity re­mains our se­cu­rity.

The Sec­ond World War is, how­ever, long enough ago for the usual caveats to be re­laxed. Ben Macin­tyre has now writ­ten the ‘au­tho­rised’ his­tory of the reg­i­ment, cov­er­ing the pe­riod from 1941, when it was founded in North Africa, to 1945. He em­pha­sises that this is an au­tho­rised as op­posed to an of­fi­cial his­tory, be­cause, al­though he had ac­cess to the reg­i­men­tal ar­chive, and par­tic­u­larly its war di­ary, he of­fers his own in­ter­pre­ta­tion of its ex­ploits. The end re­sult is both well in­formed and very read­able.

It would be al­most im­pos­si­ble to make this story dull. Ly­ing in a hos­pi­tal bed in Cairo re­cover- ing from a parachut­ing ac­ci­dent caused by an il­licit jump with an im­pro­vised canopy that got caught round the aero­plane’s tail fin, an oth­er­wise undis­tin­guished Scots Guards of­fi­cer dreams up the idea of drop­ping small groups of de­ter­mined men deep be­hind enemy lines to raid enemy air­fields.

Against all the odds and the lay­ers of ‘fos­silised shit’, as he rather un­kindly called the army staff, he gath­ered a group of 60 like-minded men and planned their first para­chute oper­a­tion for

Food Fights & Cul­ture Wars: A Se­cret His­tory Of Taste Tom Nealon (Bri­tish Li­brary, £20)

The au­thor of this ec­cen­tric vol­ume has an an­ti­quar­ian book­shop in Bos­ton, Mas­sachusetts, USA, called Pazzo Books (trans­la­tion: Mad Books). At one time, he de­cided to cook ev­ery in­gre­di­ent men­tioned in Chaucer, but was foiled by a law for­bid­ding the killing of pea­cocks (pre­sum­ably in Bos­ton, not here). In­stead, he’s writ­ten a book full of un­likely the­o­ries, such as that the Cru­sades en­cour­aged fish farm­ing and, even more wild, that Paris was spared the worst of the bubonic plague be­cause le­mon­ade was in fash­ion.

It’s all ter­rific fun and, I sup­pose, could all be true—al­though how have his­to­ri­ans sur­mised that can­ni­bals pre­fer to roast their en­e­mies and only boil their friends (not that the in­gre­di­ent would have felt strongly ei­ther way)? We learn that the word bar­be­cue comes from the Caribs, as does the word can­ni­bal; some con­nec­tion, surely? Les­lie Ged­des Brown Novem­ber 1941. Launched, against ad­vice, in the teeth of a storm, it was a disas­ter; 21 men re­turned out of 55. How­ever, David Stir­ling was not de­terred. Al­though parachut­ing would re­main core to SAS op­er­a­tions, the pre­ferred method of in­ser­tion now be­came via the Long Range Desert Group, which had al­ready been suc­cess­fully insert­ing small re­con­nais­sance par­ties through the great sand sea of the Qat­tara De­pres­sion.

The SAS went on to play a ma­jor part in the de­feat of Axis Forces in North Africa. Rom­mel wrote in his di­ary that it had as much ef­fect psy­cho­log­i­cally on his men as it did phys­i­cally, al­though Paddy Mayne, Stir­ling’s sec­ond in com­mand, de­stroyed more air­craft dur­ing the war than any other in­di­vid­ual—he just did so on the ground.

Sup­port from Churchill, whose son, Ran­dolph, Stir­ling clev­erly re­cruited to his ranks, en­sured the reg­i­ment’s fu­ture and it would also play a key part in op­er­a­tions in Europe, par­tic­u­larly over D Day.

What is so in­ter­est­ing about this book is that the au­thor looks at each SAS man as an in­di­vid­ual. There’s a long-held myth that SAS mem­bers are all su­per-fit psy­cho­pathic killers. This is, of course, rub­bish and he points out that Stir­ling set the pat­tern for re­cruit­ing the in­tel­lec­tual, the lin­guist and the spe­cial­ist, as long as they were fit, brave and de­ter­mined.

Above all, Rogue He­roes is the story of men in com­bat and how it af­fects them. SAS ca­su­al­ties dur­ing the war were ex­traor­di­nar­ily high, partly be­cause of the na­ture of its op­er­a­tions, but also be­cause of Hitler’s now in­fa­mous ‘Com­mando Or­der’, which or­dered all Al­lied sol­diers taken be­hind enemy lines to be sum­mar­ily ex­e­cuted. Many SAS sol­diers were be­trayed by Schurch, the Bri­tish Fas­cist, who was an enemy agent and the only serv­ing Bri­tish sol­dier to be hanged for es­pi­onage dur­ing the war.

In ad­di­tion to its phys­i­cal ef­fect on the ground, it’s worth con­tem­plat­ing two other re­ally valu­able con­tri­bu­tions made by the wartime reg­i­ment. First, it gave a huge boost to morale in North Africa at a time when many Bri­tish sol­diers con­sid­ered Rom­mel un­beat­able. Sec­ond, and we should all be very grate­ful for this, it was the fore­fa­ther of today’s Spe­cial Forces, who do so much to keep us all safe.

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