Where second is always first!
Updated on 07/14/2019
It didn’t have as compelling a birth as the first Special Air Service regiment. It didn’t have its great founder driving point in a souped-up jeep during attacks on German air bases. It didn’t have the romance of the desert as its initial stomping grounds. About the only thing it seemed to have going for it was the reputation of its elder-brother regiment whose members were very skeptical of the younger’s ability to do the job. As a whole, even historians overlook it as an entity on its own, but instead group it in with other SAS units as part of a broader history with little analysis of its long-term influence and its special place in UK special operations history. But the second regiment of the lethal and highly trained Special Air Service of World War II was more than just another elite unit that did daring things, it was one of the most important units of WWII and may have had the biggest influence on all post-war special operations forces both in the UK and in other western countries. Known as 2SAS, it was the second Special Air Service regiment ever commissioned by the UK.
The UK’s 22 Special Air Service (SAS) regiment today is one of the world’s finest special operations forces and a wholly unique military entity. There are other special operations forces around the world, but none that have the same culture, history, breadth of training, or esprit de corps as 22 SAS. Having been in operation for almost 80 years, it is the standard by which all the world’s special operations forces are measured.
SAS operators are trained in all the things one would associate with elite special operations soldiers. They are trained in unconventional warfare, weapons, vehicles, explosives, intelligence, counter-intelligence, surveillance, counter surveillance, close combat, hostage rescue, advanced infantry tactics, advanced parachuting, jungle warfare, alpine warfare, urban warfare, desert warfare, warfare warfare, protection, close protection, languages, how to train other forces, management, navigation, survival, evasion, waterborne operations, and any training specific to whatever operation in whatever part of the world as is necessary. Think of them as really smart professional athletes who will do whatever they need to do at any given moment, and who will never give you the full story of how they operate.
SAS operators from WWII to today rely on guile, surprise, stealth, and cunning more than any bomb, bullet, or knife to achieve their mission goals (although they can just as easily bring the big guns when the mission calls for them). Even their name, Special Air Service, was a somewhat cheeky effort at misinformation in a fashion that was uniquely British. For only the British could have referred to the most lethal combat group of World War II as a “special air service”, a name more suitable for an airfreight delivery company than a fighting force.
One of the main things that set SAS operators apart from other soldiers is not their physical presence or any particular aura of bad-assery, but their patterns of thought, confidence without overconfidence, attention to detail and planning, and their situational creativity. This is a fact of most top-tier special operations soldiers, but the SAS was specifically built on these qualities from is earliest days in the North African desert. Those WWII SAS soldiers were extraordinarily audacious not just for their time, but even for now. One SAS operator once walked 150 miles through Saharan desert, with barely enough water to fill a Dixie cup, to get back to his own camp rather than surrender (a feat later repeated during the Gulf War). Another, after conducting sabotage missions in Northern Italy, walked the length of the Italian peninsula through the mountains all the while evading German patrols over a period of several months to get back to friendly lines. One group while on a mission in Libya lied their way out of trouble in Italian-occupied Benghazi by pretending to be officers on the “General Staff”, going so far as to rebuke several Italian sentries about their lax security. Two more did a similar thing in Italy when they walked through a German-occupied town right past a German sentry who spotted them but didn’t fire or raise an alarm — possibly out of shock but likely because he knew he would have been the first killed if things went kinetic. There are several accounts of SAS soldiers who while working with maquis or resistance groups in occupied France would frequently go into town to eat in restaurants as if the area wasn’t teaming with German Gestapo agents and fascist sympathizers looking specifically for British agents. In the middle of an operation in southern Italy, two SAS soldiers left their posts to go looking for a pub in a nearby town while German panzers were moving through the area. One group of SAS soldiers, without any official authorization, kidnapped a suspected German war criminal in Soviet-occupied Germany and spirited him into the French sector to bring the him to justice. Even two of the founders of the SAS — David Stirling and Blair Mayne — after a friendly argument over who had destroyed more enemy aircraft during raid they had just completed, got into their truck, drove back toward the airfields where they had JUST sabotaged a bunch of aircraft and where enemy soldiers were on full alert, to have a look at the aftermath of their mission all so they could see who caused more destruction. (Apparently Stirling won out that time, but it must be stated that it was he who later told the story.)
One doesn’t want to use a word like “crazy” to describe these very brave and very capable soldiers, but as one former 22 SAS veteran of almost 20 years once remarked, “We were all barking mad!”
There were were a total of six SAS regiments raised during the war. Formed in 1941, the first SAS regiment and the most famous was the prototype and the first to prove the concept and overall operational efficacy of the unit. The second regiment we will get to in a bit; the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth SAS units were made up of French (3SAS and 4SAS), Belgian (5SAS), and Dutch (6SAS) soldiers. All of those regiments were either dissolved or were repatriated to their own country’s armies and subsequently absorbed into new units after the war ended. But the British SAS for a brief period in the post-war years ceased to exist until world events compelled the UK to reinstate them.
Today there are technically three SAS regiments in the British army. They are 21, 22, and 23 SAS, although two — 21 and 23 — are reserves and are listed as SAS(R). In almost every possible way, it is 22 SAS — commonly referred to as “the regiment” by members serving today — that carries the mantle of the original units first formed in WWII.
As with most “firsts”, it is the first SAS regiment — the one “born of the desert”1 and the one that became a very long thorn in the side of the German Afrika Corps — that is the most widely known and celebrated. It was a colorful unit with a colorful cast of characters — the stuff of Hollywood fiction — but when you look at the subsequent history of the SAS, what it was and what it is today, it was the second regiment of the SAS, 2SAS, that had the most significant impact on its long-term success. Without a doubt, it was the bridge between the prototype 1SAS and the contemporary 22 SAS, and for all other of the world’s special operations forces who owe some part of their existence to the original SAS.
This is not an article about the history of 22 SAS, or one entirely about the history of the SAS in World War II (although there is a lot covered here). If you wish for a fuller history of the early SAS, please refer to the Recommended Reading section at the end of this article. Several of the books listed there were used as reference material for this piece. This is the story of 2SAS — its history and its impact . As with most things that come second, to understand 2SAS, we first have to tell the story of how and why the SAS was formed along with the personalities that formed it. It all began in the arid, desolate, and inhospitable North African desert where the British army was fighting off the combined German and Italian armies in the early days of WWII.
The United Kingdom in the beginning of 1941 was alone. With no significant allies remaining in Europe, they stood as the only world power operating against the German and Italian armies not only in Europe but in North Africa, the entire the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean, and in the Middle East (against mainly German-allied Vichy French forces). The “arsenal of democracy” U.S. was still about 11 months away from being attacked by Japan and pulled into WWII, and Soviet Union was not yet an enemy of the Axis.2
Events in the North African desert had so far gone well for the British who had previously repulsed an Italian thrust toward Egypt, then a UK possession, but their position was again growing precarious. Italian forces backed by Germany were again threatening Egypt and its all-important Suez Canal, the loss of which would have forced British boats sailing to and from India and Australia, also British possessions, to have to go all the way around the tip of Africa. In addition, the loss of Egypt would have given the Italians and Germans a direct route into the Middle East, its oil, and a nice backdoor route into Asia to potentially link up with their Pacific ally, Japan.
As the Italian army pushed into Egypt, it was essential for the British to obtain reliable information on the strength of the Italian army and how quickly they were moving supplies along their main supply routes. The group that was formed to address this need was the Long-Range Desert Group — a deep-penetration reconnaissance and raiding unit. Formed in 1940, the unit was made up entirely of volunteers who came from various ranks in the British army, along with a sizable contingent of New Zealanders who were farmers in civilian life. But the most important volunteers were a group of English cartographers and cartographic enthusiasts who before the war had spent many months exploring and navigating the Sahara Desert. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, these desert explorers had made several expeditions deep into the Sahara to places that had never previously been mapped. They were uncommonly adept at desert navigation, and they had a knowledge of the desert that few Europeans or even most locals had. Equally important, they knew how to drive and modify vehicles for service in the desert, which was a very specific skillset that few had.
During those tense early months in North Africa, the LRDG conducted numerous surveys and reconnaissance missions, which took them deep into the desert, around enemy patrols, and north toward the main Italian supply roads that ran along the coast. What was remarkable about the LRDG was their ability to drive into the desert to avoid enemy spotter planes (there were few because the Italians and the Germans did not think that anybody in their right minds would ever try to navigate so far into the unforgiving Sahara) and then navigate toward precise points on the North African coastal supply routes. These were the days before GPS, satellite imagery, or any type of advanced electronic terrestrial navigation. Instead they used modified sun compasses3, which required a high level of expertise to use over the vast distances in the featureless desert. Even the slightest error in calculation could result in being off course by hundreds of miles.
The LRDG didn’t just watch roads, they also made several small and limited attacks on elements of the Italian army. But their real contribution was in providing information on enemy movements, and ferrying personnel into areas behind enemy lines. The information that the LRDG provided for British 8th Army between 1941 and 1943 contributed directly toward their successful stand in Egypt and eventual success against the Axis in North Africa. When all is taken into account, it was the LRDG that first showed how effective an independent party of mechanized soldiers could be in operating deep behind enemy lines with little oversight or specific direction. They would also play a key role in helping to shape the future SAS.
In 1940 back in the UK, around the same time that the LRDG was formed and while the Italians were making their first thrusts toward Egypt, a new highly trained raiding force was being put together whose mission was to conduct large-scale raids on targets such as towns, ports, or artillery installations. They were called the “commandos” and they were trained to conduct their operations in groups of 100 to 500 soldiers usually without any support of armor, artillery, or planes. These men were trained to hit their targets quickly and then get out before any massed counter-attack could be mustered.
Commandos were some of the finest soldiers in the British Army, and at the time, they were the most well-trained and most audacious. In their early days, they conducted several important raids along the French coast, Norway, in the Mediterranean. One of the most famous raids was the raid on St. Nazaire, France, on March 28, 1942, when a large contingent of British commandos rammed a ship laden with explosives into a dry dock that was vital to the continued German naval blockade of Britain. The raiders blew the dock up and caused a considerable amount of localized havoc. It was after the St. Nazaire raid that German Chancellor Adolf Hitler issued a directive to his army — known as the “commando order” that any captured British commando was to be considered a spy and executed immediately.4 This order, ignored at first, was the reason for many later atrocities that were committed against uniformed British and American soldiers, even ones who were clearly parachute infantry and not spies. By the end of the war, at least 250 British soldiers and downed airmen are believed to have been killed as a result of this order. Interestingly, the commando order was not common knowledge in the British army until about 1944.
Over in the Mediterranean, a somewhat stitched together commando unit was formed to conduct operations in the Middle East. The unit, which altogether numbered around 2,000 soldiers, was commanded by Colonel Robert Laycock and came to be known as “Layforce”. They saw action at Bardia, Crete, Tobruk, and in Syria, but overall their success was minimal as they took steady losses in each engagement. Commando units were lighter quick-strike soldiers, who were best used not as heavily armed infantry in the middle of large-scale pitched battles. Layforce however often found itself thrust into the frontlines, a role for which it was ill-suited. The unit slowly bled off as casualties mounted and replacements didn’t materialize. By the middle of 1941, Layforce was reduced to a point where it was no longer combat-ready or able. What was worse was that morale was suffering greatly as the remaining members found themselves languishing on the edge of the Mediterranean undermanned and with no real purpose.
The misuse of commandos went beyond being thrust into frontlines, but they were also misused in the types of raids they conducted. Lt. (Archibald) David Stirling was an officer in Layforce who saw this first-hand. An eccentric and adventurous soldier from an aristocratic Scottish family, he thought deeply about contemporary warfare focusing on the use of commandos in large-scale raids and the goals which they were trying to achieve. Such raids had their place, but there were other strategic opportunities that were being missed, ones that could better be addressed with smaller units. Often times commandos went into missions with forces numbering around 100 to 200 men either by boat, parachute, or land. Because there were so many of them, they would be easily spotted once the operation began. Additionally, the force would be diminished from the get-go since half of the commandos would end up having to be left with their exit vehicles to guard them from counter attack. In the end they would always lose the element of surprise, which to Stirling was the most essential part of any mission.
Stirling more than any other person in those early days of WWII understood the need for a new type of force as mobile as the LRDG and as lethal as the commandos that could operate deep behind enemy lines taking out targets of opportunity, straining supply lines, and compelling the enemy to adjust their security to account for them. Instead of hundreds of men hitting a target with guns a blazin’ and shitfire raining everywhere, Stirling thought that small teams of 12 men divided into three fire teams would be far more effective. Each man could carry 5 or so bombs, and sneak into places that commandos could not. Since there were no vehicles to protect they could attack in force, and because there were so few of them the element of surprise would not be lost. If all went well, each man could plant his bombs with timed fuses and be miles away before those fuses went off leaving the enemy confused and shooting at shadows. Commandos, the manner in which they were used and trained, couldn’t do that.
Stirling shared his thoughts with Lt. John Steel “Jock” Lewes, a colleague from Layforce who was a well-respected officer in his own right, and who agreed with Stirling’s views. It can very easily be said that Stirling and Lewes were the first ever members of the future SAS with Lewes being its first recruit. Their conversations turned to actions which led the two to go on an experimental parachute jump to educate themselves on the practice. Neither had ever jumped out of a plane before so like most things in Stirling’s military life, there was a “learn as you go” aspect to the whole endeavor. In what was a rare moment of bad luck for Stirling, the jump went badly and he ended up in hospital with a broken leg and a spinal injury. He spent several weeks there with little to do but think.
Surrounded by maps and notes all over his hospital bed, Stirling developed his idea into a full-on memorandum. He believed that there were many opportunities for his force to be a nuisance to the Axis in North Africa, where there were many soft targets to hit along their main supply line. Blowing up supply dumps, mining roads, shooting up aircraft on the ground, blowing up bridges, cutting telephone lines — these were the disruptions that could help the Brits win battles before they even began. Especially in the North African desert, where most supply ran east-west over a narrow inhabited area along the Mediterranean coast, disrupting this supply line could be relatively easy. The main points he covered in his memo can be broken down to three:
Keep in mind, this would have sounded like a batshit crazy idea to most officers in the British army at the time. A bunch of small teams running around behind enemy lines blowing up stuff? It was almost too fantastic for fiction and it ran counter to what many understood as military orthodoxy.
Leaving his hospital bed, still with a broken leg and walking with a cane, Stirling went to the British Middle East headquarters in Cairo to pitch his idea. At first he was refused entry, but broken leg and all, Stirling snuck through the gate and into the building past the guards. He made his way into the office of a very surprised General Neil Ritchie who was chief-of-staff to General Claude Auchinleck, Comander-in-Chief of British Middle-East Forces. Despite the impertinence of the tall, hobbling, lower-ranked man barging into into his office, Ritchie was shockingly receptive and read Stirling’s memorandum outlining his ideas. To Stirling’s absolute surprise, Ritchie agreed with the premise of the memo and promised to act on it. Several days later, Stirling was brought in to meet Auchinleck and to make his pitch.
Contrary to SAS lore, it wasn’t just Stirling’s persuasive and charming personality that won Ritchie over. Ritchie himself had been entertaining similar thoughts in his head for some time, looking for any advantage the British army could gain in the desert war. He too saw the inherent issues in the large-scale raid concept, identifying many of the same problems Stirling found. What Stirling did for Ritchie was to come up with a solid plan to address those problems, one that Ritchie could use to convince his boss.
Stirling was very eloquent and persuasive as he pitched his idea to Auchinleck. Additionally his being from an aristocratic background put Stirling in a similar societal status as the general, which greatly helped grease the wheels of the conversation. He laid out his plans for putting together his force and discussed everything from the types of soldier he would recruit to the training course to the overall operations profile of the unit. Stirling won over Auchinleck and in July 1941 he got his permission to form his new detachment. He also convinced Auchinleck to create the unit as fully independent force within the army, responsible for its own training, recruitment, and operational planning outside the normal chain of command. Stirling had a very low opinion of British officers whom he colorfully referred to as “fossilized shit” because of their outdated views on warfare and and often times damaging reticence. Even more, Stirling had little use for bureaucracy and the chain-of-command, which he saw as a hinderance. He emphasized that his unit had to come directly under Auchinleck’s command to avoid the fossilized shit. Again, Auchinleck agreed, and along with his blessing, he gave Stirling permission to recruit six officers and 60 other ranks. With almost no oversight, no budget, no formal plans or documents of what the new unit was to be, Stirling went off to build what many referred to as “Stirling’s Private Army”.
It’s impossible to see anything like this happening in the British army today, and in fact, regulations were later implemented that would prevent such a thing from happening again, the chief one being that new units had to form within an existing one before it could be given a “Royal Warrant”. But those were desperate times, and Stirling gave his superiors an option that would cost them no more than some men and some equipment but promised to be highly successful. For Ritchie, Auchinleck, and the rest of British 8th Army, it was a pretty good gamble.
The person who came up with the name of Stirling’s new unit was Dudley Clarke, a very capable and forward-thinking British Intelligence officer who was at the time working in Cairo. Clarke ran counter-intelligence operations and disinformation campaigns in an effort to confuse Italian and German spies, even going so far as to make up phantom units complete with decoys and fake memorandums. He came up with the name “Special Air Service Regiment” as a way to fool the Italians into thinking there was a large airborne force in the area. When Stirling came along, Clarke agreed to work with him as long as the new unit adopted the name Special Air Service Regiment even though it was nowhere near the size of a true regiment. To further pad the deception, Stirling’s new unit was given the full name of “L-Detachment, Special Air Services Regiment”. The operators within the group initially referred to their unit simply as L-Detachment, before adopting the more general Special Air Service term, or simply SAS, as the ruse was no longer necessary. It wouldn’t be until September 1942 that the unit was redesignated 1SAS as more units were added to the SAS ranks.
Two of Stirling’s first recruits into L-Detachment unit were John Steele “Jock” Lewes, and Blair “Paddy” Mayne, both of whom are legends in SAS history and, even in the opinion of David Stirling himself, the most influential personalities in establishing the culture of the SAS.
Jock Lewes was a Lieutenant in the Welsh Guards before joining the commandos and being assigned to Layforce. Born in India, he spent his childhood in Australia before heading over to England to attend university at Oxford. A very dashing man of his time, he was highly intelligent and uncommonly accustomed to living rough having spent his youth rambling about. Most important, Lewes was able to think creatively and was always trying to come up with new ways to harass the Germans and Italians.
Stirling was very aggressive in his recruitment of Lewes, however, Lewes’ experience from LayForce made him very skeptical of Stirling’s idea and his claims as to how the unit would be run. Lewes also wasn’t sure what type of leadership to expect out of the tall Scot. But after much discussion, Lewes agreed to join up with the SAS and become its first training officer. This proved to be a very fortuitous posting.
Lewes devised a training program that was heavy on both physical training and tactical skills, and was designed to toughen their men mentally as physically. They were trained in among other things first aid, demolitions, vehicle handling, hand-to-hand combat, and desert navigation. They were also trained on using just about every type of Allied and Axis small arms available.
Lewes like Stirling believed in leading from the front, or at least demonstrating from the front. He believed deeply that he should never let anyone in the unit do or try anything unless he did it first. From running through a training course, to jumping out of planes ill-suited for parachuting, Lewes wanted to show the men under him what was possible so that they would have the confidence to do what needed to be done.
The men were put through grueling marches and runs in the desert while carrying full packs and weapons. There were also night maneuvers where men were taught to orient themselves in low light and to shoot at sound. There were no instructors or schools in Egypt for parachute training, so the SAS had to create their own, the early stages of which involved jumping out the backs of jeeps driving at 30 mph, and jumping off scaffolds all to teach the men how to hit the ground hard and roll. It was the overall feeling in the SAS that training had to be far more exacting than commando training, which itself was difficult. It was also important to use training to instill confidence in each soldier, which in the opinion of Stirling, was more important than anything else. He believed that with repetition and training, confidence would naturally follow.
As it is in today’s 22 SAS, there was constant evaluation of recruits. Failure wasn’t so much not being able to do something or not being quick to learn something, but rather a failure of drive. People outside the SAS then and today concentrate on the physical aspects of the job, but in reality, it’s always in the mental aspect where recruits failed. As is true with marathon runners and extreme sports athletes, SAS recruits had to overcome their fatigue and physical pain and keep going on with the task at hand. They may have made mistakes during their training, but those could be learned from and corrected. Mistakes where soldiers let themselves give up and stop due to fatigue were not as easily forgiven. As for Stirling’s SAS, if a recruit were to prove unsuitable he would be RTU’d (returned to unit).
Among Lewes’ other innovations, he invented the “Lewes Bomb”, a special type of bomb made specifically to destroy aircraft on the ground, a version of which is still used by special operations forces today. Without getting too much into the chemistry or the finer points of demolitions, Lewes formulated a bomb that on detonation would not only provide a lot of explosive force, but would generate a high enough temperature to melt metal. There was also an incendiary element that would make a nice big fireball on detonation igniting anything within range of the blast. Prior to Lewes’ invention, demolition experts at the time hadn’t thought such a weapon was feasible since one portion of it would counteract the others. The Lewes Bomb ended up being a huge advance for the unit and made many of their missions possible.
Unfortunately for the SAS, Lewes was killed during a raid in December 1941 when the truck he was in got strafed by a low-flying German aircraft. He was hit in the leg and bled out within minutes.
News of his loss greatly depressed unit morale as well as Stirling personally, who had seen Lewes as both a kindred spirit and one who understood what they were building. Not only did they lose a fine soldier, leader, and SAS contributor, the unit lost a strong personality whose presence gave confidence to others. The SAS swagger was somewhat diminished, but the culture Lewes helped build still remained strong.
More than any other person, however, Blair “Paddy” Mayne was the ideal — quite possibly the finest SAS member there ever was. Born into a middle-class Protestant family in Northern Ireland, Mayne was a well-respected solicitor (lawyer) before the war and an accomplished amateur boxer and rugby player. He joined the commandos and like Stirling and Lewes, he was assigned to Layforce. Tall and athletic, Mayne was highly intelligent, affable, and spoke gently, but when it came to combat, he was a ferocious, violent, and vicious person whose courage was, without even a hint of exaggeration, super human.
Mayne was also a difficult and violent drunk. He would often throw punches at anyone who crossed him during his drunken states, making him a bad person to be around in pubs. It was a startling change for many who knew Mayne as a quiet, very polite, almost reserved person. Other officers would avoid him whenever he was looking for someone to drink with. It was due to his being a violent drunk that Stirling came to meet Mayne.
In one incident before he was in SAS, Mayne drunkenly punched a superior officer and ended up in a Cairo jail. While Mayne languished, a friend of Stirling’s from Layforce recommended Mayne for inclusion in the new unit. Mayne had distinguished himself during a battle against Vichy French forces in Lebanon at the Litani River, and he had a reputation as being a capable and professional soldier. He also apparently hated superior officers — perfect for L-Detachment.
Interestingly enough, Mayne’s self-destructive drinking helped push him into L-Detachment. Unlike most other officers Stirling looked to recruit, Mayne’s superiors were only too happy to foist him onto Stirling.
During their brief discussion in the prison cell, Stirling outlined his plan to Mayne who was very outwardly skeptical. Like Lewes, Mayne soon realized that he may have found an officer with whom he could work. In Stirling’s own account of the meeting, Mayne asked him very directly, “What in fact are the prospects of fighting?” Stirling replied, “None. Except against the enemy.” Mayne, thought for a moment, smiled, and said, “All right. I’ll come.”
What Mayne brought to the SAS more than anything was his edge. A quiet leader, he was pragmatic but all-around courageous if not absurdly reckless. In one incident during a nighttime sabotage mission against an Axis airfield in North Africa, Mayne had run out of bombs to plant on the planes, so not wanting to leave any enemy vehicles untouched, he leaped into the cockpit of a remaining plane and ripped out the control panel with his bare hands — not at all an easy thing to do.
Soldiers serving with Mayne often marveled at his calm during battle, and seemingly bottomless well of courage often displayed during firefights where he would run toward danger, without a thought for himself, to either help a comrade or complete his mission. His calm, however, like many brave soldiers was actually a deception. Inside he was as petrified as any other person in those situations. He had seen enough of war to know how fleeting the life of a soldier could be, but he also knew that a soldier’s worst enemy was panic. What Mayne had more than any other person, except perhaps Stirling, was a remarkable sense of self-control on the battlefield and during missions.
Over time the men in the SAS came to view Mayne with a quiet awe. His mere presence on a mission would give calm and confidence to the unit, possibly more so than Stirling’s. Nobody had better situational awareness than Mayne, and nobody made others around him better in the way Mayne did.
Stirling was a different type of leader than Mayne, but where the two were alike was in the way that they always led from the front. Neither ever asked soldiers to do what they themselves wouldn’t, but there was little that they would never do themselves. Neither was afraid to put himself in danger and neither was afraid to die. Their differences lay in mostly in style. Stirling was had more flair and dashing, and could often inspire men with his words. He would often be the first to make an assault and did so at times in an almost cartoon-like fashion, as if it never occurred to him that one of the many enemy bullets whizzing by him could actually have his name on it. Mayne was quieter and had less flair, but was a more determined tactical type who gave the impression even during battle that he had control over everything including the enemy.
One former SAS operator in comparing the two leaders felt that Mayne was always focused on the immediate task and how to get the most out of a mission, whereas Stirling was always thinking of the next mission and how he could improve things the next time they carried out a similar task. That’s not to say that Stirling wasn’t focused, but he was more concerned with the bigger picture and what was next, which was the right attitude to have for a man looking to build a lasting unit-culture. Mayne, on the other hand, had the right attitude for driving performance in the field by specifically not worrying about what would come next, or how the next mission would play out. He excelled living very much in the moment and taking care of every possible variable during his operations.
If there were two things that all three men — Lewes, Mayne, and Stirling — shared was their desire to lead by example, and their ability to relate to anyone of any social class or background. They could see beyond the rank, accent, or look of a person, and had an uncommon collective ability to show confidence in people who were not like them.
Over those first few months in 1941, the Special Air Service under Lewes, Mayne, and Stirling trained and grew into a very capable behind-the-lines special operations force ready for action. Unfortunately, their first mission was a complete disaster.
Stirling was eager to show British Middle East Command what the new L-Detachment was capable of. Indeed, he was curious himself as to whether or not his idea was sound. The opportunity to show off L-Detachment presented itself with the upcoming offensive known as Operation Crusader, whose objective was to push the German and Italian armies back from Egypt and out of Libya.
The first SAS operation was a nighttime raid in support of Crusader. Operation Squatter was the SAS airborne infiltration of two airfields behind enemy lines at Gazala and Timini. Their mission was to sabotage aircraft on the ground and divert resources away from the main British thrust, which was to begin on November 18, 1941. They would then make their way to a rendez-vous point nearby in the desert where the LRDG would pick them up. Airborne assaults were still a new thing then, and ones done in the dark were almost unheard of. Previous airborne operations including the German airborne attack on Crete had mixed results. In reality, the SAS was being very ahead of their time in doing a nighttime clandestine drop behind enemy lines.
Squatter began on the night of November 7 as 54 SAS soldiers and their equipment were packed into four planes at a Royal Air Force base in Egypt. A huge gale was blowing in over the North African coast, which made take off very bumpy and flying a hazard. Flying through a gale was dangerous enough, but trying to drop soldiers at night in a gale was close suicide. Stirling knew that they were taking a huge risk in pursuing the mission, but he felt that the unit absolutely had to make the jump in order to prove its mettle and to sway the opinion of his detractors. There had been many fits and starts with the mission and several cancellations, so Stirling felt that unless the SAS acted when they were supposed to, they would lose whatever support they had with high command.
As the planes approached their target, winds and clouds made finding the exact drop zone exceedingly difficult. When the men finally did jump — Stirling, Mayne, and Lewes were there as well — they were blown about on their decent and scattered. Some landed too close to Italian positions and were gunned down. Others were taken prisoner. One of the planes dropping them was shot down killing all aboard. Those soldiers who landed and weren’t gunned down or captured were dispersed and unable to make an attack. So they made their ways to the appointed rendezvous point with the LRDG, and ended up being pulled out without ever having hit their target. The entire mission was a disaster, for a little over half of L-Detachment was killed or taken prisoner. Stirling was deeply dismayed.
Lt. Col. Guy Prendergast, who was in command of the LRDG, after the mission suggested to Stirling that instead of having the SAS parachute near an objective and having the LRDG pull them out after a mission, it would be just as easy for the LRDG to actually take the SAS toward its targets in their jeeps as well as to ferry them back. At the very least it would take away some of the risk in the mission by eliminating all the unknowns that were inherent in parachuting. Stirling readily agreed and thus formed one of the most successful unit partnerships of World War II.
Their next mission in December was far more successful. With the help of the LRDG, SAS soldiers were able to sneak onto several Axis air bases, evading Italian sentries, and destroy more than 60 Axis aircraft on the ground using Lewes bombs with timed fuses. The Italians and Germans were completely surprised by the action, and were almost helpless in trying to defend their air bases from future incursions. As time went on, the LRDG trained SAS soldiers in desert navigation and driving techniques, which allowed them to come up with their own modifications for desert jeeps. Chief among those modifications was the mounting on jeep dashboards of twin-Vickers machine guns, the same ones used in fighter planes, which allowed SAS soldiers to go tear-assing around German and Italian airfields shooting up whatever targets they could acquire before slipping back into the desert under the cover of darkness as quickly as they came. Stirling even came up with a formation where a large number of jeeps equipped with machine guns could drive onto an airfield and using those guns take out the planes on the ground without ever getting out of their jeeps. At one point the SAS was responsible for destroying more Axis aircraft in North Africa than even the Royal Air Force. For the rest of the North African war, the SAS and LRDG continued to work with each other.
One of the most difficult concepts for conventional military leaders to understand about the SAS was that the types of operations it was best suited for were strategic rather than tactical. For military planners at the time, the commando unit was an easy type of unit to understand because it was essentially light infantry, which could be deployed for quick strikes and skirmishes. These types of units had existed for centuries. Like their historic predecessors, commandos were fit for tactical missions, where they would take out specific targets like a pillbox, or a gun emplacement as part of a general attack. If you wanted to take out an airfield, you would organize a raid with planes, soldiers, maybe even ships, then hit the target and either get out or hold it until the main force could arrive. Commandos, did this exceptionally well. The SAS was different but in a very subtle way. The best way to understand the relationship between the different forces is with the following analogy: if the infantry was the machete, then the commandos were the well-honed dagger, and the SAS was the scalpel; each could do the job of the other, but in the end, each has its best use scenario and training to match.
The SAS could operate as a larger force and hit specific targets like commandos, but they were better used in much smaller formations when they could hit a series of targets and targets of opportunity far away from the battle in enemy territory. In the desert war, parties of SAS-driven jeeps and lorries would trek deep into the desert behind enemy lines, places where the enemy would not operate due to the difficulties in supply and navigation. They would hit targets of opportunity along the North African coast, then return to a forward hidden basecamp they had established to regroup and plan more missions. In this manner, the SAS hit airfields, destroyed vehicles, ammo dumps, gunned down enemy barracks, laid mines in the roads and disappeared only to do the same thing the next night. They would do this in groups of up to 100 soldiers in jeeps rolling through and shooting anything in site, or in fire squads of 3 or 4, sneaking into towns, bases, airfields, and supply dumps. They would do this night after night hitting multiple targets, sapping the enemy of resources destined for the front lines. For weeks, they would linger in the theater operating behind enemy lines for causing further erosion of the enemy supply line, compelling Germans and Italians to dedicate more soldiers to protect these “soft” installations. The more soldiers guarding rear areas, the more that were taken away from the frontlines where they were needed to fight off the surging Brits and later, Americans. Commandos simply didn’t do this. They were not intended to be deployed in the field on mission for longer than 36 hours before being pulled out or relieved. For the sake of speed, their armament was light, they carried few supplies, and they weren’t trained in long-term deployment in enemy territory.
Another aspect of the SAS role that was different from commandos was the need to be diplomatic. Especially in Greece, France, and Italy, SAS operators worked closely with local resistance groups to bleed the enemy from within, like an insurgent collective rather than as a tactical spearhead. They could operate as guerrillas and train local groups to be more effective. Commandos or other infantry units didn’t do this, nor should they have because their mission profiles didn’t require such training.
Many in the British army still didn’t see the bigger picture and often focused solely on their own immediate needs. This was apparent in 1942 when Stirling first met with the new commander of the British 8th Army, General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery. At that meeting Stirling asked Montgomery for “his best desert troops” during the final months of the North African war to conduct more raids and sabotage missions against the retreating German Afrika Corps. He argued that expanded SAS action could have a crippling effect on the enemy, possibly hastening their retreat before any organized defense could be mustered. Montgomery didn’t see things the way Stirling did and quite reasonably refused. Monty said to the brazen Stirling who had by then risen in rank to colonel, “What makes you think that you can deploy my best troops better than I can?” In his opinion, to hand over his best soldiers to the SAS would weaken the other units of his main assault.
Monty had a point, but Stirling had a slightly better one. Having the best troops in small groups hitting German targets along their line of retreat would be using their talents to their fullest and not wasting them on large-scale operations the could be handled by regular infantry using large-scale regular-infantry tactics. This could in the long run save British lives. Eventually Monty came around but it took him some time and the accounts of other officers who appreciated the SAS before he did.
To be fair to the military thinking at the time, it was always considered prudent to gather as much local firepower and manpower as possible then make an attack in force. The more soldiers attacking, the more losses the attacking army could absorb hopefully ensuring victory in what would always turn out to be a matter of attrition. The SAS way, which favored sneaking small fire teams into battle according to conventional military orthodoxy at the time seemed foolish and wasteful at best, downright idiotic at worst. Part of what made Stirling’s idea different wasn’t so much the manner of attack but the scale. Military planners didn’t see small operations as having a huge effect on battle, but they neglected the psychology of small-scale but numerous hit and runs as well as the manpower needed to thwart them. They also didn’t realize how easy it was to throw a wrench into the modern military machine and mess everything up. Tanks needed fuel, parts, ammo. Planes needed fuel, parts, ammo. Soldiers needed ammo delivered in trucks, which in turn needed fuel and parts. Take out a fuel dump with a well-place bomb. Take out a hangar with a few well-placed bombs. Take out an ammo dump with several more well-placed bombs. Take out trucks with machine guns. All of those things only required a few soldiers to carry out, but the effect they would have would be completely out of proportion to the resources dedicated toward those tasks — the SAS got a great return on investment.
Even nowadays, what would be easier? To sneak 100 guys onto an airfield, or to sneak 8 guys? For the SAS it wasn’t about taking out a specific gun emplacement or machine gun nest, it was more about bleeding the enemy army, depriving it of its precious fuel and ammunition before they could be used kill anybody. It was about instilling an uncertainty and fear in the enemy psyche, which may have been the single worst that thing the SAS did to the Germans and Italians.
After having made their mark in North Africa, the British general staff decided to expand the Special Air Service for operations in Italy, Greece, and France. Stirling’s idea had truly been realized and it was about to enter a new phase in its development. Unfortunately during those final months of the North Africa war Stirling himself got captured by the Germans during a mission in Tunisia and ended up spending the rest of the European war in a prisoner-of-war castle in Germany. Having lost their militarily and idealogical leader, it was feared among many in the SAS that they would be turned into yet another numbered unit to be used incorrectly by unimaginative and myopic “fossilized shit” generals. Luckily for the SAS, there was still Paddy Mayne, several of the original founding members of L-Detachment, and another Stirling coming to North Africa.
British army Lt. Colonel William “Bill” Stirling was in an unenviable position in May 1943. His younger brother Lt. Colonel David Stirling, had been captured by German soldiers the previous January, while on a raid in Tunisia. Ranking officers in British army were looking to deploy the SAS on missions better left to other units. And Bill’s own regiment — 2SAS, the second Special Air Service regiment — was still untested and had to endure what was essentially a shunning by the remnants of 1SAS most of whom had been reorganized into the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS), and who by and large dismissed 2SAS as a bunch of newbies. So Bill Stirling was left with the task of recruiting and training a new SAS regiment to build on the success of the old one, and to have them ready in time for operations in Southern Europe. On top of that, he still had to wrestle with the same general staff with whom his brother had to wrestle, a high command that did not understand the purpose of the Special Air Service, the best way to deploy them, or the type of soldier necessary to fill its ranks. Of course, there were the German and Italian armies to deal with as well, in many ways, the enemy was the easier problem to solve.
After Stirling’s capture, the SAS was split up into a small array of acronymed units all beginning with the word “special”. There was the Special Boat Section or SBS (which actually existed prior to the SAS, and was tasked with carrying out boat-based special missions, but operated differently). There was the Special Raiding Squadron or SRS (headed by Paddy Mayne, this was essentially 1SAS but with a different name and was filled with SAS veterans). Then there was the newly formed 2SAS, which was made up almost entirely of new SAS soldiers. Also formed were the French 3 and 4 SAS, Belgian 5SAS, and Dutch 6SAS.
The second SAS or 2SAS was officially formed in May 1943, and was based in Philippeville (present-day Skikda), Tunisia. This was an unfortunate location to have been given because Philippeville was located near a mosquito-ridden swamp teeming with malaria. By the time 2SAS was ready for deployment, more than half would end up in hospital with the disease, unable to carry out missions. And for many, they would carry the disease for the rest of the war.
Bill and his brother shared a similar military background. Both were Lieutenant Colonels and both had trained and served as commandos. They also shared a strong opinion in the best way to deploy the SAS. Quite possibly the biggest way they were alike was that neither had any affinity for the military brass. Unlike David, however, Bill wasn’t a natural lead-from-the-front type of soldier. A good leader in his own way who had the affection of many of those under him, Bill far was more reserved and cerebral. Not to say that David wasn’t cerebral — he was highly intelligent and intellectual — but Bill spent more time in his head trying to work out every possible detail of action before sending his men out into the field. He also possessed a better knack for dealing with the boundless bureaucracy of the army than his brother did. Until the very end of his tenure as commander of 2SAS, Bill was able to smooth relations with some in the military and actually work within the military structure quite effectively.
As a leader Bill had a firm grasp of his strengths , and being a field operator was not one of them. During his whole period as commander of 2SAS, Bill never once went out on a mission, which was a good thing and did not at all take away from the respect his men or other SAS operators held for him. David, on the other hand, before he was captured, not only went out on dangerous missions but insisted on driving his own attack jeep.
When it came to dealing with the men, David and Bill both possessed the ability to find common ground with anyone and converse about anything, which made them very popular . By many accounts Bill was a very likable person, but he didn’t possess the same disarming charisma of his younger brother who could often sway people simply with his manner of conversation. But probably the biggest similarity in their leadership styles, and one that drove both to perform perhaps more than any single motivation, was their absolute devotion to the men under them. Both Stirlings worked tirelessly to ensure their men were put in the best possible position to succeed, and defended their interests passionately whenever higher-up planners ever tried to misuse them. This drive would later cost Colonel Bill command of his regiment.
With a wealth of operational experience to go on, 2nd SAS from the beginning functioned more as a fully formed unit with specific and measurable standards. Having benefitted from the experiences of L-Detachment, the Special Boat Service, the LRDG, and the commandos, Bill Stirling and the heads of the special warfare unit had a better idea of the type of soldier they were looking for and the types of situations they’d be getting into. There was less feeling around in the dark and guessing what type of person would fit in, and more hand-picking of qualified men. There was also more formality to the whole endeavor, it was less freewheeling as it was during the desert campaign. From the beginning 2SAS had far less freedom to develop as they pleased, however, the more rigid standards put in-place were ones that were built on and codified from the experiences of L-Detachment.
One thing 2SAS had to endure that L-Detachment didn’t as much was the lack of quality soldiers fit for SAS duty. By the time 1943 rolled around, there were few commanding officers in combat units willing to let their best soldiers be transferred to the SAS. This made things even more difficult for Bill Stirling as he was also feeling competition for soldiers from Mayne’s SRS/1SAS. In addition, there was feeling among many officers in the British army that the SAS was no longer necessary, especially since the war in the desert had ended and there wasn’t a need for anybody to go tooling around in souped-up jeeps anymore. When David Stirling set out to build the SAS, the lack of understanding of what he was building almost helped him in recruiting soldiers since other officers had nothing yet to criticize. In what was and continues to be an ironic hindrance for the SAS is their own intense secrecy and modesty can work against them, especially when others are trying to assess their impact in a given theater or situation. When it came to recruiting soldiers to SAS or even keeping the unit alive, other officers for lack of knowledge could make the case that the whole SAS thing was indeed a fruitless endeavor. Of course they were wrong.
For manpower, David had almost the entirety of Layforce to draw from, which was itself an elite commando unit. Bill Stirling was able to draw from his old commando unit, but unlike David’s Layforce, Bill’s old unit was still fighting and the officers in that unit resisted his recruitment. Over time, however, this situation began to change for 2SAS as the SAS in its entirety grew in popularity and prestige.
Aside from pools of soldiers to draw from, another difference from 1SAS to 2SAS was in the selection process. For one thing, the selection process for 1SAS was often little more than David Stirling asking candidates a few questions. If he thought them fit he would send them out on his grueling training course to see if they could keep up. Those that didn’t were sent packing back to their units. 2SAS on the other hand had a more structured process of selection and interview, which included long timed runs up hills. If they made it past that next came weapons training, demolitions training, parachute training, constant evaluation by SAS vets, not to mention physical training up the wazoo. For 2SAS, the selection process looked far more like today’s 22 SAS selection than it did to L-Detachment/1SAS selection, except it was done in a shorter timespan.
To compare 1SAS and 2SAS in this manner, 1SAS evolved to incorporate all that they had learned; 2SAS came in a late stage of development and had very little institutional history to address. This was a good thing since the latter’s development required the combined personalities of David Stirling, Mayne, and Lewes to push it along. 2SAS couldn’t come together simply by force of personality alone, it relied on established SAS culture and experience, and a structured approach. In that sense, if 1SAS (from its days as ‘L-Detachment’) was the prototype, 2SAS was the finished product, the one that could be replicated and reproduced, thereby being the model for all future SAS selection, operation, and training. It was no longer “Stirling’s Private Army”, but a full-on top-to-bottom British special operations force with hard, specific standards and training.
The very first operations conducted by 2SAS were small-scale jeep raids in Tunisia ahead of U.S. First Army’s advance from the west. More like recon exercises than actual missions, these small raids together composed the entirety of 2SAS’s North African operations. It wasn’t until they began operation in the Mediterranean before 2SAS experienced the full agony of their growing pains.
There’s no other way to put it, those first operations conducted by the new SAS unit in the Mediterranean went terribly. The operators themselves seemed downright incompetent especially when compared to their predecessor unit SRS/1SAS. But it really wasn’t incompetence that was the problem with 2SAS. They were just new.
One of the unit’s first operations involved landing a small team of 11 operators on Sardinia where they hoped to take prisoner one of the soldiers in the Italian garrison for interrogation. Known as operation Marigold, the mission was a ridiculous fiasco from the get-go.
Marigold took place on a dark night in May 1943. The HMS Safari — a British submarine — took the operators as close as they could to their beach landing zone before surfacing to allow the raiders to disembark. The men loaded themselves into inflatable dinghies and began to paddle toward the shore. Things soon started going wrong.
The first issue was the wind, which was blowing northwards pulling the dinghies away from the beach. The operators compensated by trying to row against the wind, but it made the trip take far longer than they had originally planned — one and a half hours instead of a half hour. When they finally made it to shore, they realized that they were very much behind schedule. So to save time and get to their objective quicker, the operators decided to keep their dinghies inflated on the beach instead of deflating and hiding them. This could have easily come back to bite the operators in their collective butts, but according to Harry “Tank” Challenor, one of the SAS operators present, that decision probably saved their lives.
With all the stealth and tact they had spent weeks training to perfect, the team made their way up the bluff trying in vain to lessen the sounds of their footsteps over the loose and noisy shale. As their luck continued its downward trajectory, one of the men, a private, accidentally dropped his weapon onto the rocky ground, which made a very loud sound. According to those who were present, the loud clack of the gun hitting the ground seemed to echo up and down the landing. It was only a brief moment later that an Italian machine gun from out of the darkness opened fire on the tired SAS lads, who were were caught in the open on the difficult-to-maneuver-over shale bluff. The almost complete darkness was swept away by a flair sent up by the Italians that lit up the whole beach. The operators returned fire quickly scattered in different directions ultimately running back to their dinghies still inflated on the beach. Challenor and three other men got into one dinghy and began paddling as fast as they could out into the dark sea. In what seems like a scene from a dark comedy, Challenor realized that their boat was circling around because one of the other operators got into the boat facing the wrong way with his back to the others, and was paddling against them. Upon realizing this, all the men in the boat got up and turned around, including the one who was turned around in the first place, so the whole crew ended up back in the same position they were in before paddling against one another. After several more tense moments with Italian machine gun fire hitting the water around them, the men finally righted themselves and began paddling out to sea. The machine gun fire stopped as the operators slipped into the darkness.
Things seemed to be going better for Challenor’s boat until one the men noticed their dinghy seemed bigger than it was. That is, it seemed to be inflating more. In the rush to get out to sea, one of the men had inadvertently hit the inflate valve, which began overfilling their boat with air. The team was away from the shore and covered by the darkness, so believing they were a safe distance away, they tried to let out some air to prevent the boat from bursting. In doing so, the valve let out a very loud high-pitched squeal, which again drew machine gun fire from the shore. In the end, most of the raiding force made it back to the sub, all except one who went missing during the operation. Despite the loss of a comrade, the surviving operators had a dark chuckle over the absurdity of their ultimately fruitless and wasteful mission.
A similar operation took place on Pantelleria, a small rocky island halfway between Tunisia and Sicily in a very strategic location. This island had been a problem for the British since the early days of the North African war. They had attempted to take the island over in 1940 but were repelled by Axis aircraft and the huge artillery guns that were mounted on the island. In advance of their upcoming invasion of Sicily, Allied Command decided it was imperative they subdue the island along with its 10,000-strong garrison. Lacking any concrete information about the island defenses, it was also decided that as part of the overall effort to obtain information a team from 2SAS would sneak onto the island, take a prisoner, and bring him back for interrogation. The mission was called operation Snapdragon.
Unlike Marigold, the raiders had little trouble leaving the sub getting onto the island. They even managed to quietly and efficiently scale a steep cliff that overlooked the sea, which at night is a very difficult and dangerous thing to do. At the top, the operators found an Italian soldier who luckily was on guard duty all alone with nobody else nearby. The SAS operators easily captured the very surprised guard and secured him for the trip back down to their dinghies. All seemed to be going well until they began making their way down that steep dangerous cliff. Details of the operation vary, but the operators accidentally dropped the Italian soldier who then fell to the bottom of the cliff breaking his neck. The mission ended with the raiders heading back out to sea empty-handed and an unlucky Italian guy dead at the base of a cliff.
(As a side note, the island was later reconnoitered by air and sea and was taken over by British forces after a horrific bombardment where the RAF dropped upwards of 4 tons of explosives on the garrison, which was complimented by a large naval bombardment.)
There was another separate mission taken up by 2SAS to take out a radar station nearby on another small island between Tunisia and Sicily. Of course, it being a radar station, the Italians knew the British were coming because they were alerted to the British presence by that same radar — an event whose possibility hadn’t occurred to the planners of the mission. As the boats of operators came within range of the shore, a flare went up and machine guns blasted. There were no casualties as the men of 2SAS turned about and headed back to their sub.
What really didn’t help things for 2SAS was an operation in Sicily where two teams parachuted onto the northern of the island with the goal of taking out German and Italian supply dumps and to block roads preventing the Germans from to containing the allied landings on the southeastern portion of the island. Bill Stirling himself had advocated for such a mission because it was the type of operation that he, like his brother, felt was the true purpose of the SAS. In a memo he issued to Allied Command, Bill suggested dropping 140 men from 2SAS over a large area in northern Sicily, where they would disperse in fireteams of 2 to 4 and harass the Axis supply lines in any way they could. Knowing his commanders’ reluctance to perform such an airborne operation given the debacle of Operation Squatter, Bill clearly stated that his unit was quite willing to undertake an un-reconnoitered nighttime parachute drop despite the dangers. Allied command was sold on the idea, but not on the scale. They decided that only two teams of 10 men each would drop into northern Sicily, and would be supported by about 40 more 2SAS operators who would arrive later. This mission was named Chestnut.
The drop took place on the evening of July 12, 1943, and it did not go well at all. One of the teams was scattered during their drop while the other landed too near a town where there was a heavy German presence. What was worse was that nearly all their equipment including their radios were lost, which meant that they were effectively cut off from reinforcement and resupply. Several operators were eventually captured while the others, not able to conduct any meaningful sabotage missions without their equipment, made their way toward the advancing allied lines. More tragically, one of the transport planes that carried the force toward its drop zone was lost on the way back.
Not all was bad for 2SAS in Sicily. One bright spot for the unit came on the eve of Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily. A small group of operators from 2SAS was attached to SRS in a mission to take and hold a lighthouse on the southeastern coast of the island, which had a commanding view of the landing beaches and was believed to house several machine gun nests that would have made the landing more difficult. The operators launched from their transport ship in small dinghies on the evening of July 9 into choppy seas. Making their way onto land, the operators maneuvered toward the lighthouse and took their objective easily, although it should be noted that there was absolutely nobody there for them to take it from — the place was deserted.
Given these early setbacks it was no wonder that Paddy Mayne and the operators of 1SAS/SRS looked down on the newbies of 2SAS. While 2SAS was fumbling about trying to establish themselves, 1SAS/SRS was splitting their time between training in the eastern Mediterranean and conducting successful recon and raiding missions. Like any close-knit group that had their collective history, for many of the original soldiers L-Detachment, it was almost galling to see this group of 2SAS “amateurs” trying to play the role of clandestine soldier. The newcomers weren’t there for the early raids on the airfields in Libya. They weren’t trained by David Stirling or Paddy Mayne. They weren’t the men who helped turn the tide in the North African war.
What the newcomers were, however, was the next step in the evolution of the force. The early troubles of 2SAS weren’t any worse than those of L-Detachment in the early days. Even though 2SAS had many advantages over 1SAS, chiefly among them the training that was based on L-Detachment’s experience, much of what had to be learned had to be learned in the field. 1SAS in many ways had the luxury of obscurity — nobody knew what they were doing. 2SAS had scrutiny to face, from the same non-believers who plagued 1SAS, and 1SAS itself.
Operations in Italy began in earnest in 1943. If it was in the desert where 1SAS became a dangerous force, it was Italy was where 2SAS as a unit came into its own.
British 8th army had invaded the Italian mainland on September 3, 1943. In support of this invasion, 2SAS figured heavily in both the south and north of Italy. The situation in Italy itself was very fluid as it had only been recently then that the Italian government had formally surrendered and took itself out of the war. The Germans, however, were not about to let Italy fall into the hands of the Allies and they ended up occupying Italy. Over the next two years some of the fiercest fighting in the war took place in there. Because of the mountainous terrain, the ideas of blitzkrieg and maneuver warfare were set aside for WWI-style artillery and trench warfare.
In support of the Allied landings at Calabria and Salerno, five squadrons from 2SAS landed at Taranto on September 10 to seize the port and harass any retreating Italian and German troops who were heading north. Little was known about what sort of resistance they would encounter, which was a major cause for concern for not only 2SAS but for the entire invasion force. Luckily for 2SAS, it was a relatively easy operation as they were able to push aside the tiny garrison of Italian defenders quickly. With little resistance, several squadrons of 2SAS were ordered to push inland, scout out the rugged terrain around Taranto, and harass any hostiles they came across.
D Squadron of 2SAS headed toward Bari in their modified jeeps looking for any German or Italian partisan resistance. Along their way, the squadron came upon a bridge defended by a small group of skittish Italian soldiers. One of the operators got out to go talk to the Italians, but before he got very far, the Italians opened fire barely missing him. The rest of D Squadron returned fire killing one of the Italians. After a very short exchange, the Italians put down their weapons and surrendered when they realized they were shooting at British. Apparently, the Italians thought they were facing fascist guerrillas who did not accept Italy’s surrender and were determined to stand by their German allies. In the end the Italians apologized to the Brits and cooperated with the operators giving them information on the situation in the surrounding area.
A day later, D Squadron came upon a very unlucky German column that was heading north and east away from the Allied beachhead. According to first-hand accounts of the skirmish that took place, the 2SAS operators took up hidden positions on either side of the road over which the Germans were traveling. As the column passed by, the operators opened fire completely surprising the German soldiers. In the final tally of the skirmish, the operators took out 10 German vehicles, killed at least 6 soldiers, and captured 42.
On another patrol, 2SAS operators came across the jarring sight of a concentration camp — the first that any of them had seen. The camp housed mostly Italian political prisoners, who were malnourished, emaciated, and filthy. Although there had been reports of such place, it was still a shock to the men. Many prisoners would not come out from their cabins either because they were too weak or they were worried it was a trick by their captors. When the camp was secured, the remaining guards were rounded up by the SAS operators and in a reversal of fortunes, the guards were placed under the care of their former prisoners. The scouting patrol went on their way when satisfied that the camp was fully liberated, but the image of the prisoners and the conditions they lived under stayed with the operators who were not prepared for such a sight.
As the camp was being liberated, other SAS patrols were still going on. In one instance that could have ended up a tragedy, a group of 14 operators came across an automobile tunnel under a hill. Two operators were left at the entrance in case any Germans should come up behind them, the other 12 went in to scout the tunnel. As time passed, the two soldiers left to guard the tunnel thought it a great opportunity to go find a tavern to get a drink. Believing they were in a quiet sector they left their post — in the middle of an invasion — to go have a pint.
While the witless soldiers were off seeking a tavern, elements of a German battalion came driving through the tunnel where the two guards were supposed to be. Luckily the other 12 SAS operators were able to avoid detection but only barely. Once the column passed and the SAS patrol returned, the two shirkers were exposed for having left their post and by the next day, they were kicked out of the SAS and sent back to their regular infantry units.
There were other skirmishes fought during this time between elements of 2SAS and the German army, all the while ecstatic Italians who were tired of war came out and cheered the British soldiers in some places where they went through. All in all, it was a good showing for 2SAS.
Jonquil and Begonia
After several more scouting forays, 2SAS was ordered back to Bari to take part in operations Jonquil and Begonia, and operation to ferry liberated British POWs from their camps in Italy to the sea where they could be picked up by the navy near Termoli. The POWs had been freed with Italy’s surrender and were themselves in a rather precarious position with German troops hunting down any who escaped.
As the plan was laid out, several squadrons from 2SAS and SRS were to make beach landings up the east coast of Italy to meet up with freed prisoners. In a parallel operation, a detachment of 200 commandos would drop in behind the frontline to help round up the prisoners, take out any German resistance, and bring the POWs to the coast. Those POWs would then be ferried to Termoli where D Squadron of 2SAS provided area security.
Unfortunately the plan never fully came together partly because of German action around Termoli, and partly because of poor planning. In the end of the operation which took place throughout October and November, very few of the prisoners were rescued despite several months of operation. At headquarters, the mission was considered a failure, which irked Bill Stirling, who faulted the staff officers who planned the mission. He felt that the mission was a failure partly because neither he nor anyone from 2SAS was consulted on the planning. Furthermore, he felt it was yet another misuse of the SAS. Fortunately, another group of 2SAS men had landed about 50 miles north of Termoli on October 27, also as part of the Jonquil mission and ended up taking out many elite German SS soldiers over the next few months. The group ended up being a thorn in the side of the German army in southern Italy until January when they returned to allied lines.
The Battle of Termoli was a significant event in the history of 2SAS as it was the first time that they fought alongside 1SAS (as SRS) in a full-on armed confrontation. In support of 8th army’s invasion of Italy, the SRS (1SAS) with Mayne in charge along with a combined force from No. 3 Commando and No. 40 Royal Marine Commando — altogether a force of 207 men — were tasked with taking and holding Termoli, a port city on the southeast coast of Italy. Termoli was far to the north of the main body of British army or any of the American units operating around Salerno. It was to be used as a base for further SRS incursions along the Adriatic coast as the main Allied force pushed up the Italian peninsula. It was also supposed to be the evacuation point for British POWs secured in operations Jonquil and Begonia. The British hit Termoli from the sea on October 3, completely surprising the German garrison, which did not expect a seaborne assault to take place in their sector. The invasion force was able subdue the town later that day after fierce building-to-building fighting, but the situation in town was precarious and fluid.
To shore up the SRS defenses in Termoli soon after it was taken, in addition to elements from the 11th Infantry Brigade who had arrived, 20 operators from 2SAS under Roy Farran from D squadron were ordered to join Mayne and the SRS as all signs pointed to a German counter-attack in the Termoli area. Farran and his men drove up from Taranto in their modified jeeps and arrived at Termoli just in time to bolster Mayne’s flank on October 5, as the German counter attack, which included panzers, came. Gathering whatever guns they could, D Squadron for a whole day held off repeated attempts by the Germans to force their way into Termoli in fierce fighting that left many German soldiers dead.
Miraculously, only three soldiers in 2SAS were injured despite the concerted German effort to dislodge them. Of the bloody engagement, Farran later said, “It was the only pure infantry battle I ever fought in the war and I never want to fight in another.”
Other missions were carried out in southern Italy by 2SAS operators. Most of them involved blowing up railway lines and bridges, and laying mines in roads, all in an effort to inconvenience the Germans. One particularly fruitful mission involved several sticks of 2SAS operators who blew the railway lines between Ancona and Pescara, however, many of the operators in that mission ended up killed or captured.
If there was ever an operation that embodied both the greatness and peril of being a member of 2SAS, it was Operation Speedwell. All the qualities inherent to SAS operators then and now were on full display in Speedwell — the gumption, the spirit, and the incredible luck.
Speedwell was a daring 2SAS mission to slow the German resupply of their front in southern Italy by blocking vital railway lines connecting the north and south of Italy and the port and naval base at La Spezia. In addition to the rail lines, the operators were to take out any other targets of opportunity as they came, but the primary goal was the rail lines. Speedwell was exactly the kind of mission for which the SAS was formed and firmly within the wheelhouse of 2SAS. The plan was for the SAS operators to conduct their primary sabotage missions and then head south to meet up with the allied armies that were fighting their way up from the south.
On September 7, 1943, the same day that the British invaded the Italian mainland in the far south, 13 2SAS operators split into two groups or “sticks” were dropped into a mountainous area of northern Italy. The first group was commanded by Lt. Anthony Greville-Bell and the second team was under the command of Captain Pat Dudgeon. After spending a day collecting their equipment, orienting themselves, and setting up a hidden camp, the groups split up into smaller teams and set off toward their targets. They agreed to meet back there in seven days and then head south together toward friendly lines.
Captain Pat Dudgeon and Bernie Brunt headed off toward the La Spezia – Genoa rail line. After a long hike, they made it to their target, a railway line, and blew it up. Making their way back to their rendez-vous point, they were come upon by a German staff car driven by two German signalers. It is not known why they took the action they did, but Dudgeon and Brunt killed the two German signalers and took the car, which may not have been the best thing to do in retrospect considering they were two British soldiers driving a German car through enemy occupied Italy where any number of German soldiers, Gestapo, or Italian Fascists could have seen them. The two then headed south over the Cisa Pass, they somehow ended up getting caught about 30 miles west of Parma and subsequently executed.
The team made up of Lance Corporal Harry Challenor (who was mentioned above during Operation Marigold) and Lieutenant Thomas “Tojo” Wedderburn headed toward the La Spezia – Bologna rail line. For two days, the men hiked over rough terrain for more than 20 miles over mountains avoiding major roads and towns, before arriving at their target — a railroad tunnel that ran north and south on the line that was a vital supply link for the Germans who were trying to contain the Allied advance in the south. Surprisingly, the tunnel was unguarded.
Challenor and Wedderburn watched the rail line for several hours to be sure it was safe from German patrols and to get a feel for the frequency of the rail traffic. When they were satisfied with their reconnaissance, the two emerged from their hiding and set about laying explosive charges just under the downline of track (the one running toward La Spezia) inside of the tunnel. It being the middle of the night, it was pitch black inside, but the two were able to wire their explosives. To be extra sure the job was done, the men walked north into the tunnel for several hundred yards into the darkness and laid more charges on the set of tracks that were heading up the line. It was at that point, they heard a train coming in from the direction of the downline which was outside the tunnel. This put them in a tight spot since they had to run toward the oncoming train to get out of the tunnel. After quickly laying their second explosive charge, the operators ran as fast as they could out of the tunnel.
Just before the train entered the tunnel, the operators managed to get out and take cover. The train tripped the explosive and causing the track under the train to explode with a loud bang derailing the engine and causing the entire rest of the train to crumple up behind it. According to Challenor, the sound of screeching and bending metal was excruciating. The operators were quite pleased with the result, but then to add their dark joy, they could hear another train coming in from the upline direction through the tunnel. Two trains in one go! Several moments later, the second train hit the explosives inside the tunnel, derailed, and then slammed into the wreckage of first train. It was a terrific wreck of steel and fire, which made the rail tunnel completely impassable.
Satisfied with the result, Challenor and Wedderburn made their way back to their camp to meet up with their comrades. It was a long hard climb back up into the mountains, but they made it back to their rendez-vous camp on September 15, the first of the SAS groups to do so. The two men waited at their camp for three days for the others to show up, but none ever did. So they decided to begin their trek south toward the advancing allied lines which were many hundreds of miles to the south. Their trek was a long, arduous, and highly dangerous.
Because of all the sabotage going on and rumors of British commandos operating in the area, the Germans sent troops to the area to find the saboteurs. Wedderburn and Challenor managed to evade these patrols as well as Italian fascist paramilitaries still loyal to the Germans and Mussolini. For several weeks, the two men from 2SAS relied on the kindness of anti-fascist Italians who provided them with food and shelter on occasion. As the weeks turned into months, Challenor became ill with malaria, which he had previously contracted while training at Philippeville (the malaria-infested shithole that was the original 2SAS headquarters and training ground). He begged Wedderburn to leave him, but Wedderburn refused. The two managed to find shelter with a family who let them stay until Challenor was fit to move.
By December, the two had travelled 250 miles to the town of Coppito, just outside L’Aquila, in the mountainous Abruzzo region. There the two operators were taken in by a woman named Domenica Eliseo, who was very anti-German and who was already harboring three escaped British prisoners-of-war. The men were fed well and sheltered for several days before more Germans began showing up in the area — they were retreating from the advancing Allied armies who were coming up from the south. By Christmas, the situation for Eliseo and the Brits became extremely perilous with numerous German patrols nearby, so Challenor and Wedderburn decided to leave Eliseo’s house and split up. Challenor went and hid in a cave near the farm while Wedderburn went and lodged with a local woman. Unfortunately, they didn’t hide themselves well enough.
On December 27, the house where Wedderburn was lodging was raided by German soldiers, capturing him and shooting the woman who housed him. Challenor didn’t fare much better; a few days later while heading south, he was caught by German SS soldiers who proceeded to beat the living crap out of him before driving him to the town of Popoli where he was to be tried as a spy. He was put in a prisoner-of-war camp, but soon escaped dressed as an Italian villager and continued his trek south. All along the way he received more aid and lodgings from locals, often times holing up in locations teeming with Germans. By April, Challenor had come close to the frontline, but while trying to pass through to friendly territory he was again captured. Two days later, Challenor again managed to escape and make his way across the frontlines.
After a little over seven months trekking through the enemy-occupied Italy, Challenor finally made it across to friendly lines and to safety. As for Wedderburn, he spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. He was freed in April 1945 when the camp was liberated by elements of U.S. 9th Army.
Things were no less interesting for Anthony Greville-Bell and his team, which included himself and two other operators. From the get-go Greville-Bell was hindered after he cracked two ribs when he landed in a tree parachuting in. Hopped up with morphine Greville-Bell continued on.
Five days after they landed Greville-Bell and his team reached their objective, a stretch of the train line that connected Florence to Bologna that, like Challenor’s team, led into a tunnel. There Greville-Bell’s team blew a train inside the tunnel. Over the next two weeks, they blew up two more trains and the rail lines they were on, which caused the Germans to allocate a larger number of troops to the defense of the area to find the saboteurs responsible. This included a division of German mountain troops that were specifically brought to the area to find the SAS operators.
Over the next month, the three men like other SAS teams in Italy, relied on handouts from locals t0 keep themselves alive. Along with Greville-Bell’s cracked ribs, the men were suffering from dysentery and frostbite. At one point, in early November, the three men accidentally exited a forest smack dab in the middle of a German encampment. According to Greville-Bell himself, there was little the three could do so they simply walked through the camp right past two sentries. One of the German sentries, Greville-Bell believes, caught sight of the operators as they walked past, but then quickly looked away, knowing that if he sounded the alarm that he would be the first one killed before any other help could arrive.
After another week of evasion, the Greville-Bell and his team made it across the Sangro and back to friendly lines.
As for the rest of the 2SAS team, little is known about their end of the operations. Bill Foster and James Shortfall were captured and executed inside disused pottery factory. Phil Pinkney was never seen alive again. He was likely injured from the drop in and shot by Germans who found him. His remains were found after the war had ended.
The experience of 2SAS in Italy showed how effective SAS tactics could be behind enemy lines even more so than in the desert. Whole companies of Germans were disengaged from other areas and brought in to track down the British operators. In addition, it forced German field HQs to re-evaluate their security and keep more men on watch to prevent SAS incursion. At the same time, they were able to significantly hinder the German efforts to supply their frontlines and stop the allied advance from the south.
By the end of 1943, 2SAS was pulled out of Italy to prepare for operations in France. However, almost a year later, they were back to assist resistance fighters in northern Italy. In December 1944, Operation Galia, which included about 35 2SAS operators parachuted into northern Italy, to conduct sabotage operations around the Bologna area to prevent the German army from moving soldiers east and west along their front lines to reinforce areas against the advancing British and American armies coming up from the south. During the two-month operation, 2SAS working alongside Italian partisans managed to ambush several German convoys, conduct many sabotage operations, and tie up a significant number of German forces in the area.
In March 1945, several squadrons from 2SAS parachuted into the Albinea area in Italy for Operation Tombola. They linked up with anti-fascist Italian partisans and conducted several devastating raids on German rear camps. The group was bolstered by several dozen escaped Soviet POWs who fought with the unit until the end of the war. The unit also included a Scottish bagpiper who wore a kilt and played his pipes as they went into battle to let the Germans know that it was a British attack and not one that included Italian locals.
Throughout the history of the Special Air Service, from L-Detachment right on up to today’s 22 SAS, the unit was always being put into situations it wasn’t meant for, simply because they were and are among the most capable operators in the world. Just as 2SAS was being formed, military planners and generals began to take more notice of SAS operations and tried to use the SAS in ways they weren’t meant to be used. To put this into perspective, think of the SAS as a scalpel, the commandos as a fine chef’s knife, and the regular infantry as a chain saw. Each one can do the job of the other, but people wouldn’t use a meat chef’s knife to remove an appendix, any more than they’d use a scalpel to cut a buffalo in half. The problem for the SAS is that they are often asked to do jobs that would be better for commandos or infantry simply because they were highly trained and elite. The problem with using the SAS for so much is that it would not only waste their training, it would keep them from performing missions in other areas suitable for their skill set. Even so, there were some mission plans that were just plain stupid.
In late 1943 and early 1944, plans for the eventual June 1944 D-Day landings were being passed around, discussed, and evaluated. Unit formations, specific targets, timetables, and air support schedules were all being hashed out. Part of these plans included the deployment of SAS units, with a particularly large role to be played by 2SAS. The plan going around called for the operators to be dropped inland from the Normandy beaches about 36 hours before the main invasion started. Their task was to stand in the way of and confuse German support units as they raced toward the coast to contain the beach head that would be created by the main invasion force.
Ignoring the fact that this would have been a handful of airborne infantry operating on their own for a full day and a half in France in a sector where there were sure to be large numbers of German forces, and too far inland to be relieved within even the most fortuitous circumstances, they would have had to absorb a full-on counter attack that would have included German tanks, vehicles, and infantry. There was little doubt that the SAS operators would have been annihilated and that their effect on the landing would have been almost nil, which was the conclusion Bill Stirling came to when he got wind of the plans.
In response, a livid “Colonel Bill” penned a pointed objection to the plan and a scathing rebuke to the generals who devised it, going so far as to call them and their plan stupid. This did not sit well with supreme allied command and they asked Bill to rescind his letter and fall in line, but Bill refused. Like his brother David, Bill had little use for narrow-minded military brass and did not like the idea of sending the men he trained thrown into a pointless task that would have surely failed. A better use of his men would have been causing even more mayhem further inland away from the attack, taking out strategic transit points, supply dumps, rail lines, and tunnels. Bill in the end was forced to resign.
So devoted to Bill were his officers, that several volunteered to resign as well. Reg Seekings, one of the heroes of the SAS, has since said that he would have followed Colonel Bill anywhere, and that he completely trusted Bill and his analysis. Bill counseled his officers to stay put and to be there to help run 2SAS when their eventual new commanding officer was assigned.
Although Bill’s resignation was a bad blow to 2SAS, Bill’s standing in the face of his superiors did much for the future of the Regiment as it was coming to be called. It forced home the idea that SAS operators were more than just highly trained commandos led by people named “Stirling”, but were instead an altogether different type of force, with a culture unlike any other. It also represented a passing-of-the-torch in terms of leadership. For the short-term worse but long-term better, after Bill resigned the SAS entered a new phase in its existence. The Stirling boys were no longer involved in SAS leadership. Mayne was still around, and in many ways he took on the role as the unit’s standard-bearer, but even with that the change was profound, and one that in retrospect was essential.
The war in France was far more complicated than it was for the SAS in Africa or the Mediterranean. Unlike the desert and Italy for the SAS, or even for the Special Boat Squadron in Greece, France required a far greater degree of diplomacy and on-the-ground quick assessment of allies than there had been in the other theaters. The various French resistance or maquis groups couldn’t be relied on to act in the interests of the SAS or even in the interests of the Allied armies. There were long-running blood feuds between some, which often complicated matters on the ground. Aside from communist French resistance fighters bickering with republic-leaning resistance members, there were often factions within these factions whose political disagreements predated the war. Additionally a significant number of French actually supported their German occupiers. These were French fascists and they could move easily amongst the maquis groups while feeding intelligence to the German Gestapo. Several SAS operators lost their lives because of these spies.
Over time, however, some operators became a little too comfortable in their surroundings, even going so far as to regularly dine in restaurants in nearby small towns, out in the open, with little worry of Germans or traitorous French maquis.
A typical deployment in France consisted of 3 to 5 SAS operators dropped into areas of the country where they could count on local resistance support. Sometimes they were deployed with a team from the Signals Corps (radio communications teams — back then you needed specially trained soldiers to operate the equipment). Sometimes they were dropped in as part of a “Jedburgh” team, which was the name of the overall operation to work with and inspire clandestine groups within countries to harass the Germans. These usually included a signal team from the Phantom Signals Regiment (an elite British unit of radio operators) and often an American from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS — forerunner to the present-day Central Intelligence Agency or CIA).
In France, 2SAS soldiers often operated in civilian clothes, hiking to remote locations to perform sabotage operations and gather intelligence. Whenever you watch old WWII movies where they discuss reports on troop movements, and other intelligence, much of it came from ULTRA (the code-breakers at Bletchley Park), a lot also came from spies, while a more than significant amount came from SAS operators on the ground sending their reports back via pigeon, radio, or on foot.
The SAS would also often deploy their iconic machine-gun jeeps to conduct raids against German installations, and quick hit-and-run incursions. This allowed them to do armed recon missions as well and in several instances managed to fool the Germans into thinking that they were part of a bigger allied force that had broken through the front lines.
Some of the stories and scenarios to come out of these missions of 2SAS in France seem too fantastic for even the most intense action movies but are indeed true. There were numerous narrow escapes, betrayals, and gunfights in distant and unremarkable towns.
Operation Wallace and Hardy
The German army began retreating from Normandy over the summer of 1944. To further harass their retreat and to wipe away any remaining pockets of resistance, about 60 soldiers from 2SAS led by SAS great Roy Farran were dropped into the Loire Valley. Initially, the soldiers were separated into two groups, thus the two operations names, but they quickly merged together and hooked up with French resistance forces that were weeding out the Germans. With 20 or so heavily armed jeeps, Farran and his men travelled about 200 miles behind enemy lines lighting up whatever German strongholds they could find. In one particularly brazen strike, Farran’s men along with a French resistance group made an attack on the German area headquarters at Châtillon-sur-Seine. In the seven-hour battle, the soldiers of 2SAS ripped through the German position before they withdrew. This greatly weakened the German presence in the area and compelled the German army to expend more resources to control what should have been a behind-the-lines location. In what could be considered a fine example of the type of mind that Farran as an SAS operator brought to the table, he intentionally left behind one of his dead in full SAS uniform for the Germans to find. Not because he wanted them to know the SAS was operating there, but so that the Germans wouldn’t blame local resistance groups and therefore take revenge on area civilians.
After a few more ambushes, the missions came to an end when they linked up with forward elements of the U.S. Army, which had been kicking the Germans back from Normandy. Over the course of their mission from July 27 to September 19, the operators from 2SAS killed several hundred Germans, took out almost a hundred German vehicles, and blew up close to 100,000 gallons of fuel, at a cost of a few killed, a few more casualties, 2 captured who later escaped, a and more than a dozen jeeps.
After the allied breakout in Normandy, U.S. Third Army under General George S. Patton began moving across France toward the German border. But before they would be able to reach Germany, the army would have to go through Vosges, which was difficult terrain to negotiate especially with Germans shooting at them. Located in the country’s northeastern area, the landscape was one with rolling wooded hills and valleys, with small villages and a low population density. To help harass the retreating German troops and to prevent a full-on defense from being mustered, Operation Loyton was devised where a force from 2SAS would be dropped into the region to cause problems for the retreating Germans. This was another one of the more unit-defining operations ever performed by the SAS, but one that ended up costing them the lives of many operators.
The mission involved upwards fo 82 operators from 2SAS along with some phantom signals teams and other clandestine operators and Jedburghs who were all dropped into Vosges. The characteristics of the area that made it difficult for Third Army, were perfect for a unit like 2SAS — Vosges was isolated enough to use as a base of operations but close enough to the Germans for the SAS to cause some useful havoc, at least in theory.
An advance party of 14 operators parachuted into Vosges near Baccarat on August 13, 1944. Led by Captain Henry Druce, the landing was difficult and costly. Druce ended up getting a concussion on landing, and one other operator hurt his knee badly, which made hiking the nine miles they needed to traverse to get to their camp very difficult. What didn’t help matters either was that several Maquis or French resistance fighters made off with some of the SAS guys’ equipment.
The next day the men realized that they were in a difficult position in the region as they observed a significant force of German soldiers moving east through the area. To put some distance between themselves and the Germans, the SAS group decided to seek a new camp area in the forest. Druce divided his force into two and they both set about looking for a suitable place for their camp.
The first patrol, which was led by an operator named Robert Lodge carefully made their way through the woods before they were surprised by German gunfire that erupted from no more than 30 yards away. All the operators hit the ground, with several killed right away. As they attempted to fight their way out, Lodge was shot in the head. At the same time the second team with Druce in command had also been ambushed. As they tried to withdraw Druce got separated from some of his men, one of whom was a member of the Phantom Signal Corps named Gerald Davis. Davis sought refuge in a nearby church hoping to get help there. The priest in charge told Davis that he would go and bring resistance fighters back with him, but instead the priest came back with some German soldiers who promptly shot the unfortunate signaler.
By August 26, Druce was reunited with all his surviving men and were looking forward to receiving a reinforcement of 10 operators. Unfortunately, those operators — likely due to the inept or possibly conniving Maquis — were dropped 25 miles from their landing zone and were not able to help the situation in Vosges. Meanwhile, a German division had been sent to the area to quell any more resistance or SAS activity. What with the difficulties of the Loyton team and the apparent ineptitude of the Maquis, and the fact that there were several thousand Germans looking for the team in Vosges, the head of 2SAS Lt. Colonel Brian Franks decided to get involved personally. He decided to drop into Vosges to see out the mission himself. But even his drop wouldn’t go easily.
Franks dropped into Vosges on August 30 with about 23 other men. Soon after he landed the bad luck that plagued the entire mission thus far came on in full-view. A tremendous series of explosions and shots rang out soon after landing. One of the supply canisters the operator brought with them exploded causing a racket that could be heard for miles. Soon after the noise settled, machine gun fire erupted from a German sympathizer who had infiltrated the Maquis. He tried to get away but he was eventually shot. Meanwhile, another Maquisard nearby was dying a very loud and painful death. While trying to steal items from a British supply canister, he found a chunk of plastic explosives, and thinking it was cheese, the idiot ate the plastic explosive, which contained arsenic thus killing him.
As the days went on, Third Army was halted briefly due to a lack of supplies, which gave the Germans time to dig in 15 miles to the west of Franks and his unlucky band. More men were dropped into Vosges along with several jeeps with machine guns, which allowed the operators to conduct actual raids and to hit German targets in force. But as October rolled around, Franks could see clearly that the mission was all but done — the Americans were again halted, and Franks’ group was running low on supplies. It was decided that they would break up into small groups and make their own ways west across enemy lines to the Americans. Franks and many others made it to safety, although many others were killed. In all, of the 91 British 2SAS members and signalers, 34 were killed, along with upwards of 200 French sympathizers who were punished by the Germans most brutally for aiding the British. Many of the atrocities committed by the Germans during this mission would serve as the impetus for what would later be the last mission ever conducted by 2SAS.
One of the more notorious 2SAS operations was a mission to kill German general Field Marshal Irwin Rommel who was in charge of Germany’s “West Wall” defenses. One of the finest military leaders of his time, and a popular figure as well, killing or capturing Rommel would have been a strategic and morale-boosting event.
The British army had tried to do this once before in North Africa. In November 1941, a group of just under 60 commandos led by Robert Laycock (of “Layforce” fame) tried to land on a beach in Libya near Beda Littoria near what they thought was Rommel’s headquarters. Because of inclement weather, only half the force landed, and in the ensuing engagements, most of the men were either killed or captured. A few others who had taken out a communications facility nearby were picked up by the LRDG, while Laycock himself along with two others made their way through the desert back to friendly lines after surviving in the desert for several weeks. Rommel wasn’t even in Libya during the raid. He was in Italy lobbying for more soldiers to replace the many who had been killed when British planes sank several troop transport boats that were bound for North Africa.
Gaff was British Army’s the latest try at taking out Rommel. The order for the assassination suggested that the soldiers assigned to the task try to kidnap the general since it would have been a huge propaganda win for the Allies. A six-man assassination team from 2SAS was assembled for the task. They were led by one of the most colorful and dangerous SAS operators in the Regiment, Captain “Jack William Raymond Lee”. A French national, Lee was not his real name. His real name was Raymond Couraud.
Born in France in 1920, Couraud was serving in the French Foreign Legion when the war broke out. His unit was sent to Norway in 1940 to help shore up their defenses against the invading German army, but after the successful German takeover, he was sent back to France. A few months later Couraud found himself in one of the last units in Southern France near Marseille resisting the German invasion. After the unit’s quick defeat, he tried to escape to England, but was caught and sent to prison. He was later released by the Vichy government in December 1940 after being acquitted by a military court. Making his way back to Marseille, Couraud became a black marketeer and gangster moving banned goods and people. He also hooked up with a group that helped artists and Jewish intellectuals escape to North Africa and Spain before they were rounded up by the Nazis. Couraud himself escaped to Spain in April 1941 where he was arrested by Spanish officials for his illegal smuggling activities and was held for several months. Upon release, he finally made his way to England where he joined the Free French Forces, before being assigned to British special operations. Couraud officially joined the British army as a second lieutenant and changed his name to Jack William Raymond Lee. After serving as part of the commando force that raided St. Nazaire, and several other operations, Couraud found himself in Bill Stirling’s commando unit. When Bill was given the go-ahead to form 2SAS in North Africa, he brought Couraud in. Given Couraud’s special operations training, experience, and native knowledge of France, he was the perfect guy for the job.
The team was dropped into France near Orléans on July 25, 1944, and quickly made contact with local French resistance fighters. Three days later unfortunately, they learned that their mission was no longer necessary. Rommel’s limousine about two weeks before had been straffed by British fighter planes as it was driving along, causing the car to veer off the road nearly killing the General. His injuries were serious but not fatal, and he was sent back to Germany to convalesce.
Instead of killing Rommel, the 2SAS team took it upon themselves to conduct various sabotage missions in the area. They blew up several rail lines, took out a bunch of German vehicles, a staff car, and killed about 30 German soldiers before making their way over to the American front line. Ultimately, the mission was a failure in that it didn’t complete its assassination task, but the unit was able to cause a significant amount of trouble for the German army at any rate.
Couraud left the British army several months later after France was fully liberated and joined the French army to help it see the war out.
As the allies in the west pushed into Germany, the SAS mission changed from working with resistance groups to harassing Germans in retreat and hunting down Nazi leaders. All six SAS regiments were involved in the final push. The fighting they were doing changed however as they went from being behind-the-lines guerrilla warriors to hunter/killer teams rooting out German holdouts.
Allied forces had entered the western reaches of Germany by the end of 1944. The next major push involved crossing the Rhine River, which was a wide navigable river with a current. The overall name for the operation was Plunder, the objective of which was to secure a beachhead across the Rhine and to capture any major crossings to allow Allied soldiers to go pouring deeper into Germany. Operation Varsity was the name given to the airborne portion of this offensive. It began on March 24, 1945, when more than 16,000 American and British paratroopers dropped into an area over the Rhine just to the west of Wessel.
The first SAS units from 1 and 2 crossed over the Rhine on March 25. They were not part of the initial assault force but were ferried over after a relatively secure beachhead was established Once they they entered German territory, 2SAS split off from 1SAS and were attached to a British 6th Independent Guards Armored Brigade, where they served as the forward reconnaissance. Everywhere they went, they ran into determined German resistance. According to Charlie Hackney of 2SAS, “We kept encountering these pockets of SS soldiers concealed by the roadside who were quite happy to fight and die”. Much of the fighting was in close quarters as the Germans holed up in houses in small villages. The SAS guys would drive up, rip through the buildings with their jeep-mounted twin machine guns, then finish off the survivors inside with gunfire and grenades. “We never took prisoners on those occasions,” Hackney recalled.6
As the British Army pushed further into Germany, the SAS was already operating miles ahead of them, scouting out terrain, weeding out pockets of Germans, and in the case of 1SAS, caught up in several hard-fought engagements. 2SAS pushed their way toward Nienburg, and then toward Celle by April 12. It was in Celle that the men of 2SAS were told of a “Konzentration Lager” and some of the bad casualties located there. When they finally made their way over to the camp, the operators were overwhelmed by the stench of death. By then, many behind-the-lines operators were aware of the concentration camps, although the extent of their inhumanity was not common knowledge. According to the 2SAS medical officer Captain Joe Patterson, he said, “Some straw had been spread over the thick manure and there half buried in the manure were ten creatures with life in them, not much, but a little…the staring eyes gleaming out of the slaty skeletons faces in the filth made an impression it is impossible to describe.”
As bad as it was, the camp was only a subsidiary to the notorious Belsen camp, which was several miles to the north. That one, 1SAS was the unit that ended up liberating it.
By this point, the German army was all but broken. One and 2SAS were encountering less resistance, except for some Hitler Youth “soldiers” scattered about who usually gave up quickly. Much of their work by then was focused on finding war criminals, recovering any intelligence they could for post-war use, and generally trying not to get killed before the eventual armistice. One bit of good news that had reached both 1 and 2SAS was of David Stirling being freed from his POW camp on April 20.
Toward the end of the campaign in Germany, 2SAS was bolstered by the arrival of 118 men who had been previously assigned to link up with French SAS to take a series of bridge crossings in Holland. Their mission was cancelled because of a variety of factors, and then found themselves in Germany with the rest of 2SAS crossing the Elbe River. By that point, news had reached them that Adolf Hitler was dead (April 30) and that most of the major fighting on the Western Front had fizzled out. The SAS as a whole were almost 2/3 the way across Germany, still fighting scattered pockets of resistance and still taking casualties when the war in Europe ended on May 8.
After Germany’s surrender, 2SAS was tasked with disarming the remaining German units in Norway. There were still about 300,000 German soldiers stationed in there who had surrendered but they needed to be disarmed and processed. So 2SAS was sent to do the job. For them, these were good days filled with football matches and fun with the locals. There was little threat of anything save the possibility of a sudden Soviet incursion, but the overall Norwegian population was friendly and welcoming. The late spring and summer of 1945 left such an impression that the SAS post-war Regimental Association would hold reunions in Norway in the decades following the war’s end.
Meanwhile, the rest of the SAS with David Stirling back in charge began making preparations for operations against the Japanese in the Pacific theater. Before they could be deployed, however, Japan surrendered and the war in the Pacific ended before the SAS could be deployed. For the first time since their inception, there was no mission for the SAS or for most of the Allied armies for that matter. In what could be described as either a reasonable disarming and a pivot toward a post-war world, or a stunningly short-sighted measure, the British 1st and 2nd Special Air Service regiments were disbanded on October 8, 1945.
It was felt within the British military establishment that there would be no further need for a special operations force like the SAS once the war was over. In addition, there were still a great many generals and other officers who believed the SAS was a rough unsoldierly group whose usefulness had passed. Coupled with this ridiculous belief, which was based more on jealousy and a lack of foresight more than anything else, the atomic age blew in with a pair of devices exploded over Japan, there was a growing feeling that all future wars would be determined not with soldiers but with plutonium devices.
So with little fanfare or full public acknowledgment of the extraordinary things they did during the war, both 1SAS and 2SAS were disbanded on October 8, 1945. The British army’s lack of foresight, however, didn’t last long.
The British government quickly realized their mistake as the cold war began and the need for a commando unit like the SAS was needed for anti-communist and covert actions. So the SAS was reformed in 1947 as a territorial or reserve unit. Under new British army regulations, new units had to be formed under an existing one, so the unit chosen was one known as the “Artist Rifles”. The Artists were originally established in 1860 and were chosen to become the new SAS unit. It was named 21 SAS, which was a combination of 1SAS and 2SAS7.
In 1950, another SAS territorial unit was raised to be deployed in the Korean War, however the war there was drawing to a close and their services were suddenly needed elsewhere. They were instead sent to Malaya to aid local units in their fight against communist guerrillas in a conflict known as the Malayan Emergency. Those SAS men upon arriving in Malaya became known as “B squadron, Malayan Scouts”. They were joined by A squadron, which was mostly SAS veterans and Chindits from WWII. There was also C squadron, which was made up of Rhodesian volunteers. And finally there was D squadron, raised in 1956 that was made up of selected soldiers from the Parachute Regiment.
By 1956, the Malayan scouts and D squadron were officially designated in the regular army rolls as 22 SAS. This was a significant event in British military history as 22 SAS was the first territorial unit to be elevated to regular army. It was also the final evolution of 22 SAS, which had become the professional special operations force that we know of today. The final piece to the contemporary SAS family was the formation of 23 SAS in 1959. It was formed as a territorial unit.
Today the SAS of WWII lives on as 22 SAS. The other two units, 21 and 23, are SAS reserves or SASR, but when you think of the highly trained, “Tier 1 counter-terrorism”9 unit, you’re thinking of 22 SAS.10 Britain also has its SBS (Special Boat Service)11, and the newer SRR (Special Reconnaissance Regiment)12, together they handle all sorts of special operations from direct conventional intervention, to surveillance, counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, to all the other clandestine operations such forces handle. Today in general it is 22 SAS and the SBS that are the standards by which all others are judged.
Almost every country with any type of military presence has an elite section of troops, from the U.S. Military’s Delta Force and DevGRU, French 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, the Dutch Anti-Terrorist Task Force, Australian SAS, New Zealand SAS, and the German GSG 9 — all of which owe their existences to the British Special Air Service.
People often have an impression that these operators are superhuman. But just like the “originals” of L-Detachment right on through to today, SAS operators come from all walks of life — broken homes, happy homes, poor, middle-class, wealthy. Some are big, some are small, some have a college education, some don’t. What connects all of them is their collective ability to see possibilities where others don’t and to push themselves further than the person next to them. It’s as simple as that. Some may say that physical fitness is foremost, but in reality, physical fitness and the level it takes to be in SAS is the by-product of the determination to win the day. In some ways, the mindset of marathon runners seems to be a decent comparison — like marathon runners, SAS operators have to push their bodies and minds to ignore the pain they’re feeling or the fatigue that’s setting in, and will themselves toward achieve their goals even though their bodies and most of their brains are telling them to stop. “Who Dares Wins” isn’t just a motto, it’s a state of mind.
Probably the closest comparable units to 22 SAS today in terms of training and mission are the U.S. forces known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) otherwise known as as SEAL Team 613, 1st U.S. Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta (SFOD-D), otherwise known as Delta Force14, and in the British armed forces, there is also the Special Boat Service (SBS). All are trained to work in similar settings, using similar tactics, to perform similar missions. In fact in Delta Force’s case, the entire reason for its existence was because there were some in the U.S. military saw that the U.S. needed a force like the SAS. When it came to training the new force, Delta’s were originally trained by SAS operators particularly in the SAS jungle school.
In a sense all these top-tier units are the same, but there are also some subtle differences. U.S. Deltas and Seal Team 6 will engage the enemy, hit their target, then call in the helicopters to get extracted. The next day, they would fly in, hit their target, call in the helicopters, and get out. They can do this night after night. The SAS (and SBS) on the other hand, may hit the enemy, hole up somewhere for the night, then resume operations the next day, hole up somewhere else, get resupplied, then hit again. This is a minor difference operationally, but a major difference culturally. It is more an SAS thing to remain in the field and linger, and more of an American special forces strategy to hit the target, hit it hard, and get out before the enemy knows what hit it, relying on their firepower, training, and superior logistics. To be clear, this is a big generalization15 of units most of whose missions are classified, and there are many examples that may run counter to that generalization, but different special force groups have tendencies that are the results of experience, the types of missions they are sent on, history, and (despite how the movies depict special operations forces) budgets.
One of the historic truths of the SAS is that it has always been a small unit with few resources. From its very beginnings when Stirling and his men raided a New Zealand camp to get their tents and kit for their new desert training camp, to the contemporary SAS who have largely had to rely on U.S. JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) operators for resupply in war zones, the SAS has always been run on a shoestring budget. This isn’t only true of the SAS — take a walk around U.S. Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and you’ll find a number of U.S. marines who would say the same thing. But overall the U.S. military has more money than any other country to devote toward its soldiers, providing a high level of (although not a complete amount of) support to their special forces with helicopters, equipment, and other expensive resources. This makes U.S. special operations forces more robust and capable, however, SAS guys make up for it in the breadth of their training, which puts them in a slightly better position to deal with a wider array of circumstances. Does that make them better as a force? Not so much. It all depends on the situation, the necessity, and even the whim of military commanders. As things are, most people will never know what these men have done or even what they’re capable of, but whatever they do, they owe much of what they are today to not L-Detachment, but to 2SAS.
The second regiment of the SAS is seldom ever set apart from other SAS units, but it existed as a unique entity within a unique entity. It didn’t have the storied beginnings of 1SAS with its leader breaking into the headquarters of the theater commander. It came into being with a few strokes of a pen. It didn’t have the great David Stirling riding point in his jeep onto German airfields. It had his brother Bill back at headquarters fighting the British general staff. It didn’t have its stolen yet smart camp on the Sinai. It had a malaria-ridden shithole in Algeria. It didn’t have the freedom and openness of the desert. It had the confined and confused theaters of Italy and France. The one thing 2SAS did have however was operational maturity, a wealth of lessons learned from L-Detachment, a leader who knew how to fit into a military structure, which altogether made 2SAS into a replicable formula for future SAS units that didn’t rely on a few personalities, but rather on a collective culture that had matured beyond the freewheeling days of L-Detachment. In all, a 22 SAS operator today would recognize the life of an SAS operator in 2SAS more so than in 1SAS, and that is a significant thing.
As unceremonious and hasty as their disbandment was, the 2nd SAS Regiment was proof that the overall SAS could have and should have gone on. When 22 SAS was formed, it was 2SAS that was the blueprint, and since then, every generation of SAS soldier has learned from the previous, added to and improved upon on the skills passed down to them, and they in turn pass their knowledge on to the next generation. Somewhere in that tradition of skills lies the DNA of Stirling, Mayne, and Lewes, as well as the DNA of the “other” Stirling, Challenor, and Greville-Bell among many others. From its humble its beginnings to its unceremonious disbandment, 2SAS showed the world what a modern and lasting special operations force could and should be.