“The boy Stirling is mad. Quite, quite mad. However in war there is often a place for mad people.”
—Lt. Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, Commander, Eighth Army
The SAS – one of the most storied and, until 1980, anonymous special operations units – was the brainchild of Archibald David Stirling, an imaginative and independent-minded subaltern (second lieutenant) who developed it while recuperating from a hare-brained parachute training accident that should have killed him. David Stirling, as he was commonly known, was the son of a Scottish lord and retired brigadier general and had a restless and adventurous nature that caused him to be unintimidated by great challenges. He was 19 years old and training to scale Mount Everest when war broke out in 1939. He enlisted in the Scots Guards, receiving a commission as a subaltern. Bored with conventional military force routine, upon hearing that Capt. Robert Laycock was seeking volunteers for 8 Commando, Stirling applied and was accepted.
Sent to the Mediterranean theater of operations as a part of “Layforce,” 8 Commando saw little action. In fact, the whole of Layforce was for the most part held in reserve. In July 1941, while recuperating in the hospital following his parachute accident, Stirling learned that Layforce was going to be disbanded. Furious over what he saw as prejudice by orthodox-minded conventional force headquarters staff officers regarding Layforce’s combat capability, he struck back. The result was a plan for a small, highly trained force that would be parachuted at night near airfields deep behind enemy lines and, using specially designed ordnance, conduct lightning raids on enemy aircraft before fading away into the desert, eventually returning to their own lines.
Stirling knew that if he went through proper channels, his proposal would be pooh-poohed by some faceless staff officer, pigeonholed, and forgotten. Sterner measures were called for in order to obtain authorization from the one person who could make his plan a reality: the “Auk” – Gen. Sir Claude Auchinlek, newly installed commander in chief Middle Eastern Command. Upon being discharged from the hospital, Stirling, who could only walk with the aid of crutches, decided that since he didn’t have a pass allowing him to enter the commander in chief’s headquarters, he’d simply have to find his own way in, which he did – by crawling under the barbed wire fence surrounding the building.
With guards who had seen him hot on his heels, Sterling hobbled his way into the building and in order to elude the guards ducked into the first office he could – and found himself facing Gen. Sir Neil Ritchie, deputy commander Middle Eastern Command.
It’s not every day that a second lieutenant barges unannounced into a commanding general’s office. Stirling quickly apologized to the surprised Ritchie, stating that he had a matter of “great operational importance” to tell him. His interest piqued, Ritchie motioned for Stirling to sit. Stirling then handed to the general his penciled memo.
Ritchie read it and then, looking up at Stirling, said, “I think this may be the sort of plan we are looking for. I will discuss it with the commander in chief and let you know our decision in the next day or so.”
Three days later, Subaltern Stirling, this time officially, was back at headquarters in a meeting with Auchinlek himself. Orders were cut authorizing him to recruit six additional officers and 60 men under the name “L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade,” a piece of intelligence disinformation, as the SAS Brigade did not exist.
By August 1941, Stirling had his volunteers, training camp, badge, and motto, “Who Dares Wins.”
Their first mission, launched on Nov. 17, 1941, against German airfields was, thanks to bad weather, a disaster. Of the 51 men in the mission, only 23, including Stirling, survived. A second mission in December was a success, and from that point on the SAS played an active role in special operations missions for the rest of the war.
Briefly disbanded following the end of World War II, the SAS was reactivated and, with its identity unknown to the public, participated in an astonishing variety of covert missions throughout the world. The SAS’s anonymity was spectacularly blown in 1980 when, in full view of the international press, an SAS unit rescued hostages held in the Iranian Embassy in London.