David Stirling was the founder of the Special Air Service (SAS) one of the most famous special forces of World War Two. David Stirling was born in Scotland on November 15th, 1915 and he died on November 4th 1990. Both Stirling and the SAS have gone into folklore with regards to what they achieved between 1941 and 1945.
Stirling, the son of a brigadier general, was educated at Ampleforth College. After this, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge University, for a year. However, his heart was set on a life of adventure and activity – not on academic learning. When World War Two broke out in September 1939, he was training for a climb up the then unconquered Mount Everest. However, when war was declared, Stirling joined the Scots Guards Supplementary Reserve of Officers. One year later he joined ‘Layforce’, the nickname for 8 Commando. Here he was in a military unit that promised to fulfil all that he wanted – action. Stirling and ‘Layforce’ then came up against those who held both high military office and traditional views on how wars should be fought. When ‘Layforce’ arrived in North Africa for its first operational tour, it was all but disbanded. There were those who saw what units such as ‘Layforce’ did as being underhand and not ‘British’. Stirling begged to differ.
Despite the despondency over 8 Commando, Stirling was convinced that a highly trained unit could operate behind enemy lines with a devastating impact. He joined with Jock Lewes, who held similar views, to form the nucleus of what was the become the SAS. While in training, Stirling suffered an injury from a parachuting accident that was to keep him in hospital for two months. It was during this time of enforced rest, that Stirling was able to devote the necessary time to actually planning what the SAS would do. Without such planning, he would not be able to sell the new unit to the British military powers in North Africa.
In a traditional military setting, officers had been told that if they had a point to make, they had to go through the proper channels – which could be very time consuming as it meant going to your next superior officer who might then take your idea up to the next one and so on. Stirling went straight to the second most important British officer in North Africa – General Ritchie. Stirling sold his idea to Ritchie who took the idea to his commander – General Auchinlek. By being unorthodox – so important to the way the SAS worked in the North African desert – Stirling got the support of both men. Stirling gathered around him 66 men from ‘Layforce’ and they, as the new Special Air Service, trained to operate behind enemy lines.
The first mission of the SAS was a disaster. Stirling was over-confident about his men’s ability to parachute in adverse weather. They jumped in high winds and driving rain. Some of the men were dropped well away from the drop zone. Only 22 of the 66 men returned to base. Rather than get depressed over lost comrades, Stirling believed that the best honour he could pay to these men was to learn from al the mistakes made in the raid. The most important decision made by Stirling was that any insertion into enemy territory would be best done by going overland – not by parachute drop. It was as a result of this decision that the SAS initially teamed up with the Long Range Desert Group founded by Ralph Bagnold.
Eventually the SAS acquired their own Jeeps that they equipped with twin Vickers K machine guns. Stirling used these vehicles to devastating effect on raids on German air bases. Such was the success of the SAS, that Hitler issued his infamous ‘Kommandobefehl’ order – that any Special Forces man captured by the Germans would be summarily shot.
David Stirling’s participation in World War Two ended in 1943 in what can only be described as an anti-climax. Captured by the Germans, he was imprisoned in Colditz Castle where he spent the rest of the war.
David Stirling has been called “the most under-decorated soldier of the war”. Nicknamed the “Phantom Major” by those who knew him, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his work in World War Two. He was knighted in 1990 and died in the same year.