Bri­tain’s se­cret un­con­ven­tional war­fare in World War II

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Muriel Dob­bin


They were the pi­rates of the desert, the mav­er­icks of war who took ter­ri­fy­ing risks to in­fil­trate be­hind en­emy lines — and World War II might not have been won with­out them.

With this ac­count of the op­er­a­tions of the Spe­cial Air Ser­vice (SAS), Bri­tain’s se­cret spe­cial forces that cut a swath through the global theater of war, Ben Mac­in­tyre has con­trib­uted an­other in his se­ries of stun­ning in­sights into cru­cial bat­tles that re­mained clas­si­fied long after hos­til­i­ties ended. He writes about those who fought in the dark and took ap­palling risks.

“This is a book about the mean­ing of courage,” the au­thor writes. He notes that like war it­self, bat­tle­field courage took many forms and his topic is a style of war­fare that was dif­fer­ent and pro­duced “an un­ex­pected species of hero and per­haps a dif­fer­ent sort of brav­ery.”

He ex­plains that the SAS was launched as a raid­ing force in the North African desert and grew into the most for­mi­da­ble com­mando unit in the en­tire war, and was the pro­to­type for spe­cial forces like the Amer­i­can Delta Force and the Navy SEALs. The SAS was an ex­per­i­ment that was not pop­u­lar with the tra­di­tion­ally minded Bri­tish army be­cause it ba­si­cally con­sisted of in­sert­ing small groups of highly trained men be­hind en­emy lines, and it spe­cial­ized in ec­cen­tric­ity. Its mem­bers, as one for­mer SAS of­fi­cer put it, were “the sweep­ings of the pub­lic schools and the pris­ons,” which was highly un­usual in view of the rigid Bri­tish class sys­tem within which species were known to flour­ish as long as they fit­ted in.

Mr. Mac­in­tyre em­pha­sizes again and again that the SAS was at the sharp end of war’s tough­est as­sign­ments and in­flicted im­mense dam­age on en­emy forces, both ma­te­rial and psy­cho­log­i­cal, and paid a heavy price in blood and san­ity.

“The hal­lu­ci­na­tory hell of war echoes through th­ese pages,” he writes, sug­gest­ing that the SAS his­tory in wartime ex­plored the psy­chol­ogy of se­cret un­con­ven­tional war­fare and the re­ac­tions of or­di­nary peo­ple in ex­tra­or­di­nary wartime cir­cum­stances. The book be­gins with a chilling chap­ter about the first mis­sion of the fledg­ling SAS on a night in 1941 when they parachuted by night into the desert be­hind en­emy lines, in­fil­trated air­fields on foot, planted ex­plo­sives on as many en­emy air­craft as they could find and as their pen­cil bombs ex­ploded be­hind them, headed back to a ren­dezvous in the desert. It was be­lieved to be the first time a night para­chute as­sault had been made in the desert and it was to be the first of many.

Be­fore take­off the men were warned that any­one se­ri­ously in­jured would have to be left be­hind, and there was, ac­cord­ing to the au­thor, “no ev­i­dence that any of them found that odd.” It was as though this set the pat­tern of SAS work.

Ap­pro­pri­ately, the founder of SAS was a world-class ec­cen­tric. David Stir­ling proved his bril­liance as leader of a group which did not op­er­ate by any or­di­nary rules. Stir­ling “thrived in war, hav­ing failed in peace.” A Scot­tish aris­to­crat who sur­vived paral­y­sis from a para­chute jump, he went on to even more per­ilous ac­com­plish­ments of war.

He didn’t even march the way sol­diers were sup­posed to and was nick­named The Gi­ant Sloth be­cause of his lack­adaisi­cal at­ti­tude to­ward mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion. But what he was plot­ting from his sick bed was how to smug­gle small groups of men into en­emy ter­ri­tory and sab­o­tage it be­fore leav­ing. It was a dan­ger­ous strat­egy that worked in bat­tle­fields around the world, as the Nazis dis­cov­ered. And the range of the SAS was global. As the war moved on, one of their groups was first to come upon the hor­ror of the Nazi death camps at Ber­gen-Belsen and Buchen­wald.

As in his pre­vi­ous books on the se­crets of es­pi­onage, Mr. Mac­in­tyre demon­strates su­perb skill as a jour­nal­ist and a writer in this riv­et­ing book that takes read­ers into a long-past and still-fright­en­ing world of what real war was like. Muriel Dob­bin is a for­mer White House and na­tional po­lit­i­cal re­porter for Mc­Clatchy news­pa­pers and the Bal­ti­more Sun.

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