David Stirling founded the Special Air Service in 1941. The work done by the Special Air Service (SAS) during World War Two was to revolutionise the way wars could be fought and many other special forces were to copy their tactics.
The philosophy of the SAS was to throw out standard military tactics – in one sense, the regiment had no formal tactics and improvisation was at the heart of their success. Some of the higher echelons of the military were less than enthusiastic about what they called “private armies” and in its early stages, the SAS received little support from on high, especially from those senior officers who had been brought up in the traditional regiments of the British Army. Ironically, Stirling had joined one of these regiments at the start of the war – the Scots Guards.
David Stirling had got a taste for unconventional warfare when he volunteered for 8 Commando, which was more commonly known as ‘Layforce’ after its commander, Captain Robert Laycock. The lack of enthusiasm for Special Forces was shown when Layforce reached North Africa for its first taste of action, only to find that it was effectively disbanded before it had been able to prove itself.
Possibly angered by this treatment of Layforce, and to prove a point, Stirling set about setting up a unit that could fight behind enemy lines with the minimal of support but to devastating effect. Stirling believed that a small group of like-minded, highly trained and dedicated men could cause havoc to the Germans. He was joined in the venture by an Australian called Jock Lewes, an officer in the Welsh Guards.
While in early training, Stirling was injured in a parachute jump. He spent two months in hospital. For this energetic man, it must have been a difficult time as he was by his own standards, inactive. However, Stirling’s hospital stay may well have saved the SAS. Because he could do little physical activity in hospital, Stirling dedicated his time to actual planning – something that he had not done a great deal of before hand. By the end of his hospital stay, Stirling had a very clear idea of what he wanted the regiment to be able to do and the qualities of the men who would fight in it.
Using the unorthodox methods that are now associated with the SAS, Stirling did not go through the normal chain of command when putting forward his idea for the new regiment. He managed to get to see the Deputy Commander Middle East, General Ritchie who presented Stirling’s plans to the British commander in North Africa, General Auchinlek. He authorised the use of the SAS almost immediately as he saw that potential it had in an environment like North Africa.
The first unit of the SAS was made up of 66 men from Layforce and it included seven officers. Its official title was L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade. The title was an effort to confuse the Germans as to the size of the new unit – making it seem larger than it actually was.
The very first mission of the SAS was in November, 1941. The unit was to parachute behind the lines of the German Army in Gazala, North Africa, gather intelligence and harass the Germans where possible. The mission proved to be a failure. Stirling placed too much faith in the capabilities of the men in the unit and gave the go-ahead for them to make a parachute jump in weather than simply did not warrant the risk – high winds and strong rain. Of the 66 men on the mission, only 22 made it back. This was the proof that some needed to prove that ‘private armies’ were a waste and an unnecessary drain on military resources. However, the failure of the mission only spurred on Stirling and Lewes and they learned a great deal from this first outing. Though the SAS was on a steep learning curve, what was learned from this failed mission, was an apt memorial for those who did not return from it.
One of the most obvious lessons Stirling learned was that a parachute drop could be a disaster. Therefore, he turned his attention to his men getting to their objective overland. In this, the SAS joined forces with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) who were experts in movement behind enemy lines. They would drop off SAS troops at a designated point and then collect them from another set point. Most travelling was at night – though not exclusively. The two units worked very well together, with a devastating impact on the Germans.
The major targets for the SAS were German and Italian air bases. Jock Lewes had many qualities, and inventing things was one of them. The Lewes Bomb was a bomb that was small enough to be carried in quantity by an individual but had a big enough explosive charge to destroy a plane. Weighing in at just one pound, the bomb could ignite the fuel in a plane, thus destroying it. The most successful plane ‘buster’ was Paddy Mayne, who destroyed dozens of planes. The Axis powers in North Africa lost many planes as a result of SAS activity. The actions of the regiment had another impact which is more difficult to quantify. No-one knew where they would attack next and all German forces were on a constant state of alert with the accompanying drain on resources that this entailed. The Germans were literally chasing shadows in the night. The success of the SAS in North Africa provoked Hitler to produce the order (‘Kommandodobefehl’) that stated that any commandos or special forces men that were captured should be shot and not afforded the protection of the Geneva Convention.
The Germans did what they could to stop attacks by the SAS. In response, the regiment changed its approach. They acquired their own transport, which were heavily armed with machine guns and equipped with plenty of supplies. Now they could stay behind enemy lines for days on end and it made it even more difficult for the Germans to predict what they might do next.
When working with the LRDG, the SAS would walk to their target after being dropped off by the LRDG. Now, equipped with Jeeps, they drove onto an airbase in complete surprise and created havoc. The ensuing panic meant that the SAS received relatively light casualties themselves. However, the defeat of the Germans after the Battle of El Alamein, meant that the SAS now had to find a new role for itself after its work in the desert. The regiment turned its attention to Europe.
In Western Europe, the SAS was in an entirely different terrain – one it had no experience of fighting in. However, the philosophy of the regiment stayed the same. In Western Europe, they set up bases behind enemy lines, gathered intelligence and, when possible, created havoc before slipping away. In France, four men units frequently worked with the Maquis, the French Resistance. Communication networks (rail lines, bridges etc) became favoured targets and intelligence gathering greatly assisted the D-Day landings in June 1944. Not everything ended in success though. Twenty four SAS men were captured by the Germans. They were tortured before being killed. In the final days of the war, one of the main tasks of the SAS was to hunt the men who committed this atrocity along with SS and Gestapo thugs.
Ironically, in the brave new post-war world, there did not seem to be a place for the SAS and it faded away only to be resurrected when its expertise was needed in the Far East against communist insurgents.