Scottish Daily Mail

The MAD GENIUS who created the SAS

WHO SNORES WINS: So lazy he was known to fellow officers as the giant sloth... but, as a sensationa­l new TV movie reveals, David Stirling was the fearless, reckless, shadow warrior who terrified the Nazis... and changed the face of warfare for ever

- By Gavin Madeley

IN the summer of 1941, great peril stalked the parched deserts of North Africa. The Axis powers were masters of Europe and poised to invade Egypt, seize the Suez Canal and advance towards the oilfields of the Middle East. Under relentless pressure from Rommel’s forces, convention­al notions of warfare seemed powerless to act. A new kind of guerrilla operation was urgently needed to sow chaos and confusion deep behind enemy lines.

So, at least, thought David Stirling. The young subaltern in the Scots Guards had had plenty of time to ponder such matters as he recovered in a Cairo hospital from injuries inflicted during a calamitous debut parachute jump.

With war still a heavily mechanised theatre, Stirling felt certain that a smaller, nimbler outfit of highly trained soldiers with the advantage of surprise could wreak havoc on multiple targets in a single night before melting back into the desert sands. Despite his own catastroph­ic failure with a parachute, he believed an airborne strike force was the answer.

Given that 25-year-old Stirling rashly undertook that near-fatal jump with no training and was lucky to survive at all when his parachute caught on the tailplane and ripped, the suggestion this callow officer was some kind of tactical genius might reasonably have been open to question.

Certainly, Stirling was far from the convention­al soldier. Gangly, aristocrat­ic and decidedly eccentric, he could never march straight and, at 6ft 2in tall, he was so lazy his comrades had nicknamed him ‘the giant sloth’. On completing officer training, he had received a blunt appraisal: ‘Irresponsi­ble and unremarkab­le.’

Yet, he was also astonishev­er, ingly brave, with a capacity for lateral thinking that set him apart from his fellow officers. When high command initially dismissed his idea out of hand, Stirling shrewdly used his prewar Perthshire gentry connection­s to persuade General Claude Auchinleck, his commander-in-chief, to play godfather to what became the Special Air Service.

The raiding force Stirling pioneered in the Sahara, for which he devised the motto ‘Who Dares Wins’, grew into the most formidable commando unit of the war and the prototype for special forces across the world.

Many of Stirling’s first group of ‘rogue warriors’ were oddballs who rubbed up against Army regulation­s and included a tomato farmer, a spectacles salesman, a one-eyed boxer, a parachutin­g priest and an Irish rugby internatio­nal.

Their daring sabotage escapades were a high-stakes mix of jeopardy and extreme violence: bone-shattering parachute drops, terrifying nighttime raids on Nazi airfields, fizzing explosive fuses, near escapes in screaming jeeps, harrowing marches through deserts, frozen forest encounters with desperate Germans and wild drinking bouts.

Within two years, the SAS had proved its worth and won Stirling the reluctant admiration of Auchinleck’s successor, Field Marshal Montgomery. ‘The boy Stirling is mad. Quite, quite mad,’ he snapped. ‘HowI in war there is often a place for mad people.’

It also earned Stirling another nickname – Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, with grudging respect, called him the Phantom Major.

Now, those tales of wartime courage, recklessne­ss and near-insanity are to be retold in a six-part BBC drama, SAS: Rogue Heroes. Written by Steven Knight, the creator of Peaky Blinders, the series is based on historian and journalist Ben Macintyre’s eponymous book, regarded as the definitive history of the regiment’s maverick officers and men.

Currently being filmed on location in Morocco, the cast features a host of establishe­d names alongside up-and-coming actors in the leading roles, including 24-year-old Connor Swindells, star of Netflix hit Sex Education, as Stirling.

Game Of Thrones actor Alfie Allen, 34, the brother of singer Lily Allen and son of actor Keith Allen, plays Lieutenant Jock Lewes, who helped found the regiment, while Skins star Jack O’Connell, 30, portrays one of the original volunteers, Paddy Mayne, an Irish rugby internatio­nal and ferocious drinker.

The programme also features Dominic West as suave spying expert Dudley Wrangel Clarke, an eccentric cross-dressing Brigadier who lent crucial support to the nascent SAS and was as famous for his love of women as for their clothes.

Explaining his casting decisions, Knight said: ‘The people who are depicted and who did such extraordin­ary things were young, in their 20s, and we have made a conscious decision to cast people of the same age.’

He added his aim was to ‘shine a light’ on ‘a secret history telling the story of exceptiona­l soldiers who decided battles and won wars only to then disappear back into the shadows’.

Although in its early phases, Knight’s production has already drawn praise for its painstakin­g research from David Stirling’s nephew, businessma­n Archie Stirling,

Mr Stirling, who is laird of the Keir estate in Perthshire and a former Scots Guards officer, said: ‘Steven Knight got in touch to speak about David and even sent me a script, which I thought was terrific. He is a brilliant writer – I love Peaky Blinders – and I’m very much looking forward to seeing the finished result.

‘Steven told me he wanted to do as much as he could to reflect David and the other fellows that were involved in

‘In war there is often a place for mad people’

those very early days. He wanted to show what David was and who he was.

‘David was a huge figure in my life and I adored him. He was dyslexic and one of the great advantages in life for dyslexics is that you don’t think like anybody else. When was very young, he was abroad but he would come back to Keir and, as I grew up, he was around a lot and we got on pretty well.

‘What was remarkable about David was not just founding the SAS and everything he did but the fact that he treated everybody exactly the same – old or young, black or white, rich or poor. The principles of the SAS are very much all for one and that everyone who joins should be classless, self-discipline­d, humble and good-humoured – and that was David.’

Mr Stirling, 79, who was married to the late Dame Diana Rigg and is father to actress Rachael Stirling, pointed out that the BBC was making a drama not a documentar­y on the founding of the SAS.

He said: ‘Obviously it has to tell an entertaini­ng story, so things may not always be chronologi­cally right; there has to be some artistic licence or everyone will switch off.

‘But he is taking such trouble to get the facts, which I’m happy about and the SAS Associatio­n are also happy about. Sometimes it can be quite hard to reconcile the actual history of what happened and a great story – just look at The Crown.

‘People watch dramas like that on television and it becomes history – they actu

‘Treated everybody the same’

ally believe the stories, not realising that everything is not correct. But in this case i think the history and the great story will be close.’

What is undeniable is stirling’s upper-crust credential­s as a real-life John Buchan hero. The son of a highland laird, he spent his boyhood stalking deer and getting into scrapes that included airgun duels with his brother.

at cambridge he preferred Newmarket to the library, was sent down, and then headed to Paris to try his luck as an artist before driving cattle on the american prairies. he was preparing for a crack at climbing Mount everest when war broke out.

Macintyre said of him that ‘stirling was one of those people who thrive in war, having failed at peace’, but initially, his wartime project seemed destined to failure. Working alongside Lewes, they recruited 55 men for a mission that would see them dropped behind enemy lines at Benghazi, in Libya, to destroy enemy aircraft on the ground.

One of those recruits was randolph churchill, the wartime Prime Minister’s son, whom a calculatin­g stirling had allowed to accompany him on the Benghazi raid despite the fact that he was clearly unsuitable sas material. stirling said that randolph hit the ground hard after his first parachute jump, because ‘he was just too bloody fat’.

Launched in a fierce storm, the mission was a disaster militarily, with just 21 of the 55 men returning. But randolph wrote to his father lauding stirling and the sas. subsequent missions fared better – in one week, they destroyed 60 enemy planes – enhancing the unit’s reputation.

in august 1942, stirling met Winston churchill in cairo. The Prime Minister was entranced by him, nicknaming him the ‘scarlet Pimpernel’. six weeks later, the sas’s future was assured when an order came through calling for the unit to be given extra resources and regimental status.

One of its more famous recruits, Fitzroy Maclean, the scottish diplomat and MP, joined up after falling into conversati­on at a cairo dinner party with a ‘tall, dark, strongly built young man with a manner that was usually vague, but sometimes extremely alert’. ‘Why not join the sas?’ suggested stirling. ‘What is it?’ asked Maclean. ‘a good thing to be in,’ came the enigmatic answer. ‘it sounded promising,’ Maclean later wrote.

italian speakers like Maclean were useful whenever a raiding party needed to bluff its way past italian sentries. One of stirling’s men even pretended to be an italian-speaking German officer who had come to inspect the italian defences during one raid. he told the italians he had found their security seriously wanting.

if success was usually achieved with a combinatio­n of affected nonchalanc­e and brazen cheek, there was a darker side to this secretive group, whose wartime activities were decidedly more ruthless than their Boy’s Own image suggests.

Most disturbing was Paddy Mayne, one of the first officers to join the sas and an unstable character whether drunk or sober. in one raid on an italian base in the desert, before trying to destroy the aircraft, Mayne burst into a hut containing italian and German military personnel, said ‘Good evening’, then opened fire with a Tommy gun. he couldn’t stop himself. No axis soldier left that hut alive.

stirling was reportedly shocked by his subordinat­e’s behaviour. however, he acted in a similar way in June 1942 when, after fixing explosives to planes, he threw grenades into an enemy guardhouse, something he later admitted was ‘close to murder’. The act is said to have haunted him for the rest of his life.

But new rules of engagement were at play and the sas pioneers operated in the shadow of death, having famously ignored hitler’s infamous kommandobe­fehl, which said that any commandos caught behind German lines would be summarily executed.

Missions often flopped horribly: inexperien­ce with parachutes, getaway cars that broke down, inflatable boats with punctures. Men were stranded in the vast ‘sea of sand’ of southern Libya, with nothing but urine to drink.

after several days of this torture, one party of sas men came across italian soldiers, ambushed them, then filled up on tins of ‘fishy spaghetti’ and water from their car radiators.

after the British had pummelled rommel in North africa, the evergrowin­g sas, which by 1943 had some 300 recruits, was deployed in forward missions in sicily and mainland italy, knocking out defensive positions to clear the way for the advancing allied forces.

advancing across europe, they fought alongside the French resistance and helped liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentrat­ion camp, where one-eyed boxer reg seekings, who ‘never took a backward step, in the boxing ring or on the battlefiel­d’, became so incensed by the sight of a guard beating a prisoner that he floored the man with a couple of punches.

By then, stirling himself had been captured and incarcerat­ed at colditz castle, where he spent the rest of the war, with Mayne taking over the running of the sas. The regiment was relieved of its duties at the end of the war, but was revived in 1947.

David stirling, who was awarded the Distinguis­hed service Order for gallantry in 1942, retired with the rank of Lieutenant colonel. he was appointed an OBe in 1946 and knighted in 1990, the year he died at the age of 74.

in 2002, an sas memorial was unveiled at Doune, stirlingsh­ire, near the family estate. it is a statue of its founder standing on a rock, proud and unyielding, like the force he created in his own image.

‘Manner that was vague but extremely alert’

 ??  ?? Africa below, the SAS in North and, Taking a nap: David Stirling
Africa below, the SAS in North and, Taking a nap: David Stirling
 ??  ?? Silent: The SAS wreak havoc on multiple targets
Silent: The SAS wreak havoc on multiple targets

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