Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Ben Macintyre, author of the bestselling military histories AGENT ZIGZAG, OPERATION MINCEMEAT and DOUBLE CROSS , who extends his shelf of World War II intrigue with this seminal work on Britain’s Special Air Service. This is the previously secret fighting unit that parachuted – or otherwise traveled–behind enemy lines. To commit all kinds of mayhem that permanently changed the way wars are fought.
The organization was founded by David Stirling, young, gadabout aristocrat from a Scottish family with a long military history, whose aimless early life hid a strong strategic mind. His colleagues looked at a map of World War II’s African theater; saw a protracted struggle with Rommel’s desert forces. Stirling saw an opportunity. Given a small number of elite, well-trained men, he could parachute behind enemy lines; sabotage their airplanes, war materiel. And when paired with his constitutional opposite, the disciplined martinet Jock Lewes, also of Scottish military family, Stirling assembled a fighting force that not only influenced the outcome of the war, but also the nature of combat itself. He of course faced resistance from those who found his tactics ungentlemanly or beyond the pale. But SAS in its remarkably successful exploits facing the Nazis in Africa, then on the European continent, created a model that would shortly be followed by most of the world’s major armed forces. And I thought might possibly have served as the model for a favorite World War II movie of mine, THE DIRTY DOZEN.
In just the paragraph above, you might have noticed a heavy Scottish presence, which continued throughout the WWII period of the organization, if not to this present day. This reminded me that I’ve been told that during WWII, German soldiers referred to their kilted tormentors as “the ladies from Hell.” And reading this inspiring book, which documents the privations, injuries, battles and terrors the unit’s men survived, I thought, just so. The book also illuminates the interesting phenomenon that “As the end [of the war] approached… the war seemed to be reducing into a conflict between the two ruthless military elites: the SS and the SAS. “ “German military intelligence reported that their enemy specialized in ‘single combat, characterized by ambush, deception, utilization of the weapons in hand to hand fighting (brass knuckles, daggers etc.),’” and warned: “Experience gained in the campaign in Italy and France shows that members of the SAS are specially trained for this kind of work. Their activities are extremely dangerous. The presence of SAS troops is to be reported immediately.” As the war inched towards its end, and the allies fought their way through Germany itself, the writer states, “The SS seemed ‘happy to fight and die,’ and the SAS often seemed happy to oblige them.”
Macintyre serves as a writer-at-large for The Times of London; has also written and presented BBC documentaries of his work. I don’t often tackle military history: am a girly girl in some respects. But I grew up as Daddy’s little helper on construction jobs around the house; had a great teacher – who may have had CIA connections–of Ancient History at Cornell University – he threw in a lot of military history, acting out, for example, the battle of Thermopylae. So I will occasionally go for military history, and I’ve been lucky here. Have not previously been familiar with Macintyre’s books, but I sure will search them out now, for this book is superb.