The Special Air Service (SAS) Originals
Daring to Win
“… I have always felt uneasy in being known as the founder of the [SAS] Regiment. …”
–Sir David Stirling, June 30, 1984
The Time: The night of Nov. 16-17, 1941.
The Place: The Western Desert of North Africa in World War II.
The Force: 65 picked and trained men.
The Mission: Parachute behind German lines and destroy enemy aircraft on airfields, which will threaten an Allied counteroffensive, code-named Operation Crusader, due to launch in just two days.
The Facts: It’s their first mission. The unit, the Special Air Service (SAS), is revolutionary and brand new. Their leader, then-Capt. David Stirling, is considered by his own superiors to be a maverick. And to top it all off, the military bureaucracy of Middle East Headquarters (ME HQ) wants them to fail. Before the SAS can take off, a massive storm blows up and the 65 men are given the option of pulling out. They face a difficult dilemma: Cancel the drop and their own high command will kill off the unit before it has run its first mission. Or jump into the storm, and chances are that many of them won’t survive.
They decide to go and jump. In the storm, the men are separated from their gear and explosives, and don’t even reach the targeted enemy airfields. Of the 65, just 21 make it out, across the desert, to the rendezvous (RV) point for the trip back to their base camp.
This should be the end of the story. In fact, it’s the beginning of the story of a modern military revolution: The birth of modern special operations forces. And to understand what happens next, it’s necessary to know what has gone before. Because the 21 men who jumped into that storm, and somehow survived to fight on, are the founding members of the British SAS. Within their small, insular community they are today known as “The Originals,” and this is their story.
History records that a young Scots Guards officer, David Stirling, founded the SAS in late 1941. Stirling was born into the Scottish aristocracy (his father was a general) in 1915. The indications from his early life weren’t promising. Stirling was sent down from Cambridge University for drinking and gambling. He then spent two years in Paris studying art, then trained in the Alps and American Rockies as a mountain climber. His aim – to be first man to climb Mount Everest.
When war with Germany broke out in 1939, Stirling joined the Scots Guards. In 1941, he went to the Middle East with “Layforce,” a commando force led by Robert Laycock. By late that year, Rommel’s Afrika Korps had driven the British back to the Egyptian border and were threatening the Suez Canal and Arabian oil fields. And in the eyes of aggressive young men like Stirling, the vast potential of British commando units to disrupt the Afrika Korps was being squandered by their own leaders.
In a 1985 interview, Stirling remembered what it was like. “They didn’t want to risk having casualties and therefore unless the weather, or all the other requirements for any operation or undertaking, was absolutely right, they wouldn’t let us go,” he said. “So we were involved in a series of postponements and cancellations.” Nevertheless, the experience of commando operations was already sowing an idea in Stirling’s head.
“It got around thinking regarding how one could carry out the role at a hundredth of the cost,” he said. “In fact, it made it inevitable to come up with a proposition along the lines of SAS.”
The idea became a hard proposal as a result of a near-fatal parachute-training jump. Stirling’s chute caught on the tail of the aircraft and was torn open before he could cut loose. He landed badly. His legs were temporarily paralyzed and he was hospitalized. Stirling used the time to develop and write a paper on the proposal born from his own commando experience, which he referred to as “Hard Principles.” Others would refine them, but today they are the essence of modern SOF doctrine, what the military now calls unconventional warfare. As Stirling explained, “One entire commando, 600 men or so, probably couldn’t succeed in tackling more than perhaps two landing grounds on the same night, and more than three-quarters of the force would be taken up with defending those who were actually operating. We preferred for every sub unit of four to five men to tackle a full target area on their own, and if they failed, it was more than compensated by the fact that with 60 men we could attack, theoretically, probably up to 20 targets on the same night.”
Stirling’s targets would also be different. His new unit would be small and capable, operating deep behind the lines. Their missions, strategic in nature, would involve attacking key points such as enemy airfields, supply dumps, and ports – what Col. John Warden, (USAF, Ret.) would later refer to as “centers of gravity.”
Politically astute, Stirling linked his proposal to create his new unit to an actual Allied plan: Operation Crusader, which would attempt to relieve the besieged port of Tobruk. His concept was that his new unit, broken into small teams, would parachute behind Axis lines and destroy enemy aircraft on their airfields to keep them from influencing the coming battle. Still in his hospital bed, Stirling even found a name for his revolutionary new unit: The Special Air Service. Stirling recalled, “It came mainly from the fact that I was anxious to get full cooperation of a very ingenious individual called Dudley Clarke.”
Clarke, one of the masters of World War II deception, had been conspicuously dropping dummy parachutists, mimicking training exercises, so that word would get back to Rommel that the Allies had a sizable parachute force. The name of his decoy force was the Special Air Service, which Stirling promptly appropriated, probably to confuse enemies on both sides. Sadly, Stirling already had an excess of opponents on the Allied side.
“There was an enormous residue of staff officers from the First World War who didn’t fight, who set the spirit of the administration,” he said. “And it was ludicrously swollen, unnecessarily big, and wholly obstructive to anything that would look like a new idea. There was no way you could put it in, except to the commander in chief. Never at ME HQ. They were layer upon layer of fossilized shit.”
Stirling’s answer was to sell his idea directly to Gen. Neil Ritchie, deputy chief of British forces in the Middle East. Still on crutches, he took a cab to ME HQ, jumped the perimeter fence, and amazingly, made it to Ritchie’s office and a meeting with the general. Incredibly, Ritchie agreed to read Stirling’s paper.
“About halfway through, he really got quite engrossed in it and had forgotten the rather irregular way it had been presented,” Stirling recalled. “And when he’d finished the paper, he said: ‘This is something we can use, this paper looks [to have] real promise.’ … And that was the beginning of the SAS.”
Immediately, Stirling was promoted to captain and authorized to raise a force of 65 officers and men. As might be imagined, the men Stirling recruited were as eclectic and unconventional as him. They included:
•Blair “Paddy” Mayne – An Irish and British Lions rugby international star player, he was in prison awaiting a court martial for knocking out his commanding officer when Stirling recruited him.
•Pat Riley – An Irish-American, he had to deliberately make his background unclear on his papers to join the British army.
•“Gentleman” Jim Almonds – A former policeman, caught poaching while in training.
•Johnny Cooper – Too young to join up, Cooper got in by bribing a recruiting sergeant.
•Reg Seekings – “Fiddled” his name onto a special duties list for commando training without his commanding officer knowing.
•Bob Bennett – A cheeky Cockney, always in trouble while in the Scots Guards for volunteering for hazardous duty assignments.
•Dave Kershaw – A hardened socialist who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, he still got on well with the aristocratic Stirling.
With his men selected, Stirling set about forming them into a unit of action. This included running a competition to design the unit’s own badge and motto. The badge winner was what is now famous as the winged dagger. The front-runner for the SAS’s motto was initially, “Descend to Defend.” However, in a nod to his own unconventional persona, Stirling changed it to, “Who Dares Wins.” All this, of course, was unofficial. To make it acceptable to ME HQ, Stirling resorted to an old military custom – if a general saluted the badge, he authorized it.
“And that was done by tracking Gen. Auchinleck [the Middle East commander in chief] when he came down to do an inspection,” Stirling said. “I was standing at one side to him and, at the end of the demonstration that we laid on for him, as he was coming up to the salute, I turned to him and he saluted the badge, so that was it.”
But Stirling’s battle with the ME HQ bureaucracy wasn’t over; supplies, training, and equipment were held up and threatened to exclude the SAS from Operation Crusader. Stirling’s reaction was simple. The infant SAS needed a base camp – so it stole one. The unit needed its members to receive parachute training – it organized its own. They also needed a special bomb to destroy aircraft, which would both ignite and explode, and was small enough that one man could carry up to 20 of the devices. The new unit’s de-facto second-in-command, Jock Lewes, created the solution. He created a 1-pound charge of C2 plastic explosive (Nobel 808), aluminum and thermite, and motor oil, ignited by a 30-second No. 10-time pencil wrapped in gun cotton: The Lewes bomb. The entire package was wrapped in a canvas pouch or ration sack, coated in grease, and then thrown into a cockpit or into a wing/fuselage joint.