Ben Macintyre’s “Rogue Heroes” is a history of Britain’s — and the world’s — first special operations unit.
The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War
By Ben Macintyre
Illustrated. 380 pp. Crown. $28.
Once upon a time, when the president wanted to use military force without becoming embroiled in a major conflict, the cry would go out: “Send in the Marines!” Today the role once played by the Marine Corps — as the troops of choice for low-profile missions without a formal declaration of war — has been largely supplanted by the United States Special Operations Command. With tens of thousands of “operators” and a multibillion-dollar budget, Socom has become virtually an independent military service.
Given the ubiquity and importance of Special Operations today, it is a little startling to realize just how novel they are. While there have long been specialized units, like Rogers’ Rangers of the French and Indian War, professional Special Operations forces date back only to World War II. All of the combatants employed them, but it was the British who were most assiduous in creating small units of swashbucklers.
The regular army establishment, of course, sniffed at the idea of a self-proclaimed military elite, and not without cause. Field Marshal William Slim, the liberator of Burma, wrote, “Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of supersoldiers but by the average quality of their standard units.” But Winston Churchill was enchanted by the supersoldiers and countenanced the creation of myriad units like the Commandos, the Long Range Desert Group, Popski’s Private Army, the Special Operations Executive, the Special Boat Service and the Chindits.
None were more storied than the Special Air Service (S.A.S.), which survives to this day and inspired the creation of foreign counterparts like the United States Delta Force and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal. The origins of the S.A.S. are recounted with verve by the veteran British historian and journalist Ben Macintyre, who has made a specialty of writing about clandestine operations in World War II and beyond. (His most recent book was about the British double agent Kim Philby.) This is hardly the first time the S.A.S. story has been told — a number of its veterans wrote entertaining memoirs, among them Fitzroy Maclean’s “Eastern Approaches” — but “Rogue Heroes” is the best and most complete version of the tale, because Macintyre was granted access to a hitherto-secret scrapbook known as the SAS War Diary.
The S.A.S. was born in the deserts of North Africa. An eccentric young Scottish aristocrat named David Stirling, then a lieutenant in the Scots Guards, perceived that Italian and German forces along the Mediterranean coast would be vulnerable to raids from the vast desert to the south. The Germans, Macintyre writes, considered the Grand Sand Sea, “a vast, waterless expanse of unbroken dunes covering 45,000 square miles,” to be “virtually impassable, a natural barrier, and they therefore left it largely unprotected.” Stirling recruited a few other misfits and adventurers to take advantage of this vulnerability.
It was rough going initially: The first S.A.S. mission, Operation Squatter on Nov. 16, 1941, was an utter fiasco. The troops took off in gale-force winds, intending to parachute behind enemy lines and blow up German aircraft on the ground. Many of the men were injured on touchdown. Others were blown far from their landing zones and lost their equipment in the rain and dark. Of 55 men who jumped that night, only 21 returned. “The rest were dead or injured, missing or captured,” Macintyre writes. The S.A.S. “had lost most of its strength without firing a shot, attacking the enemy or detonating a single bomb.”
The S.A.S. eventually became more expert at its craft and wound up destroying hundreds of German and Italian aircraft on the ground in North Africa. But each mission remained perilous; Macintyre recounts enough close calls and desperate shootouts to make countless films like “The Guns of Navarone” and “Inglourious Basterds.” On more than one occasion the S.A.S. men were forced to drink their own urine to survive in the desert. It was characteristic of the public-schoolboy culture of the unit that these missions were referred to as a “bash out” or a “bit of a fun,” as if the men were engaged in a panty raid rather than a life-or-death struggle with the Nazis.
Things turned grimmer when the “gentleman’s war” in North Africa concluded in May 1943 and the S.A.S. was dispatched to harry the Axis forces in Italy and France. The S.A.S. soldiers were now fighting among civilians, who paid a fearsome price for their exploits; German troops would destroy entire villages in retaliation for acts of sabotage. Hitler also issued his infamous Commando Order mandating that Allied soldiers taken prisoner behind German lines would be shot on the spot. A number of S.A.S. men wound up being executed after capture. Stirling was luckier: He was captured in North Africa but survived the war in a series of German P.O.W. camps.
The hardest blow that the S.A.S. suffered came not from the Nazis but from its own high command, which dissolved the unit shortly after the end of World War II. That hasty decision would be reversed in 1947, by which time it was obvious that the S.A.S. was even more needed to wage the “savage wars of peace” than it had been during the big war. But that is a story for another day. Macintyre’s highly enjoyable and entertaining narrative ends in 1945.