“… 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.
All this effort came none too soon, as Allied commanders were about to launch Operation Crusader. Despite an influx of new weaponry, including American tanks and aircraft, ME HQ was looking for every advantage they could find against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. One key danger for the coming offensive was enemy air superiority. The Axis air forces had been racking up significant “kills” against Allied aircraft, and something needed to be done to knock out as many enemy fighter planes as possible. This is where Stirling and the SAS came in.
The plan was that just before the start of Operation Crusader the SAS would parachute behind the lines, break into small teams, and then destroy as many enemy aircraft as possible at several airfields. The teams would then exfiltrate across the desert to a RV point with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), who would then transport them back to base camp. As they prepared, the men now known as “The Originals,” were fully aware of the importance of the mission.
“We knew it was very important that Stirling had to have a success, having had such a job to raise the unit, because most people in the Middle East were so anti, and thought that Col. Stirling was mad, talking about getting behind lines and doing these sorts of things,” recalled Bennett.
Stirling and The Originals flew to their departure point at Bagoush Airfield, when a massive storm of Force 7-8 suddenly blew up. ME HQ gave Stirling the opportunity to cancel the raid, facing Stirling and The Originals with a terrible dilemma: Cancel and the enemy within would kill off SAS before it had even begun; but jump into the storm, and the possibility was that most of them wouldn’t survive. Stirling was clear about the situation: “I wasn’t prepared to see the first of our operations, because of bad weather, being postponed. It couldn’t be postponed, it had to be cancelled, because it had to take place on a certain evening.”
In one of the acts that would make him a legendary leader, Stirling gave his men the decision of going on the mission or not. Cooper recalled, “The weather was against us going. We were all given the option of opting out.”
Seekings spoke for The Originals when he later declared, “We, the men, insisted they’d got to drop. Otherwise if it was cancelled, that was us finished.”
The RAF at Bagoush gave the 65 a meal, which Bennett later referred to as, “The Last Supper.” “What went through my mind was: What a beautiful meal this is, and what’s it in aid of? I think the RAF thought they’d never see any of us again.”
Once fed, Stirling and The Originals climbed into their planes, five antiquated Bristol Bombay bomber/transports of 216 Squadron, and took off for their targets. The plan was to drop with static-line parachutes onto drop zones near the Axis airfields at Gazala and Tmimi. Very soon however, they were in trouble, as the sand storm made it impossible for the pilots to find the coastline point from which they would determine the route to the drop zones.
Then, as if Mother Nature and the bad intentions of the ME HQ staff were not enough, the enemy picked them up. Cooper recalled, “Our aircraft got into the searchlights, and all this flak was coming up, and the plane inside was absolutely lit up.”
“The pilot said that it was ‘very very dodgy’ and should he call it off?” Bennett remembered. “And Col. David said, ‘No! Certainly not.’”
Then, essentially blind, the 65 men jumped into what was about to become a disaster, and the beginning of a legend. Stirling recalled, “It was a night without any moon, pitch black. And they dropped the 65 men all over the bloody shop.”
The wind was running storm force. When they hit the ground, many of the men were knocked out, or dragged, or killed in the desert, struggling to get out of their parachute rigging. Cooper remembered: “I went streaming off and luckily for me – because some of them were dragged to death – my parachute got caught in a camel thorn, and I was trying to knock my quick release and I was in such a state of shock, I hadn’t turned it. Then I released it.”
As if conditions were not bad enough for the men, the force’s equipment canisters containing the Lewes bombs were also lost in the sandstorm, which then turned into a vicious rainstorm. Many of the 65 men who jumped were missing, others badly injured. Without transport other than their own legs, those able to move left the injured some water, then turned for an almost impossible trek across the desert to the RV point with the LRDG. Years later, when he put his story on record, Bennett took a moment before he talked about leaving the injured behind. “We don’t know from that day to this whether they survived or not,” he said. “I don’t think they did. … But it’s an awful feeling, to leave two friends that you’ve been operating with and training with.”
Of the 65 Originals that made the drop, just 21 made it back to the RV point. Of the others, five died and 28 became POWs, along with the crew of one Bombay bomber/transport that was lost. For Stirling, it was exactly the sort of failure his enemies at ME HQ would have wanted. Recalling later, Stirling said, “They were very chuffed that the unit had apparently been annihilated; they were going to disband us as it was.”
Cooper, who’d lied about his age to join up, remembered what the survivors thought as they waited at the RV, scouring the horizon in the forlorn hope that more men would come in.
“Thinking that 21 of us came out of that,” he recalled, “we thought of the others – we didn’t know where they were, whether they were alive or dead. I think that most of us wanted to continue. We’d gone through so much, so whatever happened afterwards was going to be a piece of cake. It wasn’t of course, but. … ”
And then, in his 1985 interview, he laughed.
Stirling and the surviving Originals seemed to have lost their first battle – at least against the ME HQ and the elements. But as history would soon find out, Stirling and his Originals would take more than no support from higher command and a killer storm to keep them from their objectives. Stirling decided, quite practically, that if the LRDG’s vehicles could bring them out alive, the LRDG could also take them in a target area. It was now time to break all the rules. Stirling ordered the remaining Originals to return to their purloined camp – secretly – and to beg, borrow, or steal more gear. Stirling would later say, “One of the reasons that the SAS concept has survived longer perhaps than might be expected is because of the fact it was forged in hell, forged behind the lines, and with the running battle with Middle East Headquarters. That forced me all the time to be a step ahead.”
Luckily for Stirling, Crusader had bogged down and ME HQ had bigger problems to deal with than dissolving the new unit. Having reequipped and reorganized in the intervening time, the 21 remaining Originals – totally unofficially – went back into the desert and resumed their mission to attack enemy aircraft and airfields.
Stirling’s revised plan was use the LRDG and their special patrol vehicles as transport in and out of the target area, and hit the Axis airfields at Agedabia, Sirte, and Agheila. Exactly what happened next and when it happened are somewhat unclear even today. No official after-action reports exist, and the intelligence accounts are somewhat unclear. What is known is this: Stirling and the remaining Originals accomplished their mission with amazing success. Almonds remembered, “We set off to do an airfield at Agheila, and when we got there we discovered that there were no planes. And so we turned the situation round into a strafing thing, and we run up the road, and where the convoys were too heavy and there were too many for us we left them alone, and when the opportunity occurred you shot them up.”
Kershaw recalled, “I opened the door of one of the Italian trucks and a blue flash came, and it missed anyway. I had my .45 in this hand and I had the ‘Tommy gun’ slung by the belt over my shoulder and I just held the .45 up and pressed the trigger. I must have caught him right on the bridge of the nose because his face opened up. And at first it was a pat on the back – that I’d won and he hadn’t – but afterwards when I remember seeing what an inside of a man’s face looked like it wasn’t pleasant.”
Bennett remembered that initially, “Bill Fraser’s party … got the biggest bag – they got 37 planes on an airfield.”
Kershaw recalled, “And then it came through that Paddy [Mayne] had got 48 or 42 planes on the ground, so obviously there was jubilation. We’re back in business!”
Bennett recalled the excitement of Mayne’s report, and following him back to where all the excitement was happening.
“I rejoined Paddy and we went back to the same places they’d been to, and got 24 off of the airfield, with no bother at all, except that we were only using 20-minute time pencils and these weren’t efficient enough, because we were still on the airfield when they started going up. So we started running, and we suddenly heard Italians challenging, saying, ‘Avanti.’ And Paddy, in his Irish-German, said ‘Freund,’ which they didn’t believe, and they started shooting. So we just ran through, throwing grenades and firing and managed to get through and back to the RV.”
The Originals claimed some 100 enemy aircraft destroyed during Operation Squatter, which quickly skewed the balance of airpower during Operation Crusader in favor of the Allies. Only when they had accomplished their mission did Stirling bring the unit out of the desert and report back to ME HQ. Stirling could hardly contain his delight when he told the story decades later.
“They didn’t know who the hell was destroying these aircraft up front, and it was only when they got a dispatch from the 8th Army that they realized we [the SAS] would be coming back for recruiting, and a considerable expansion of establishment. And that of course, hit them rather hard. But it made us feel very happy.”
Thus was born the Special Air Service regiment. Stirling was quickly promoted to major and authorized to raise more men. He also acquired a nickname from the Germans, who dubbed him, “the Phantom Major.” For the first time, but not the last, the SAS had dared … and won.
Other recruits, who have spent the next six decades serving the Commonwealth and free world with their unique style of SOF operations, would join Stirling and his Originals. And though he himself would be out of action due to capture in 1943 (eventually he was held in the infamous Colditz Castle after repeated escape attempts), the SAS continued under the leadership of his brother Bill and Mayne. But Stirling and The Originals also handed down another legacy. Nearly 50 years later, when the British government made Stirling a Knight Bachelor, the commander of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Detachment-Delta, better known as “Delta Force,” in a letter to Stirling, wrote: “The common bond between the special forces of the Western world is that we all trace our roots back to you.”
Editor’s Note – This story is based upon a series of interviews, conducted in 1985, with the surviving original members of the British Special Air Service (SAS). Gordon Stevens, who conducted the interviews and is the principal author of this article, used them to produce his 2005 book, The Originals. The only authorized history ever written on the early members of the SAS, it has provided Stevens with a unique prospective on the first operations of the service. All the men whose stories are told here have now passed on. This article is a humble thank you and tribute to them.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2008 Edition.