My most recent audiobook listen was Ben Macintyre’s new bestseller Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War.
Macintyre has made quite a reputation for himself with vivid narrative histories of some of the lesser-known, behind-the-scenes actions of the Second World War. Now, I must take immediate issue with the “changed the nature of war” business. I get it — it’s a catchy subtitle, and true enough in the context of the Big Wars of the first half of the 20th century. But my premise is that modern special operations forces, of which the British Special Air Service is a leading example, are simply reverting to and modernizing Frontier Partisan warfare — the Ranging Way of War that the British learned in the forests of North America in the French & Indian War and encountered on the veld in the Boer War. Be that as it may…
The weird, wild and colorful history of the British Special Air Service, replete with outlandish characters who were mad, bad and dangerous to know, is a perfect subject for Macintyre’s style of history.
The SAS was formed by a misfit British officer named David Stirling and Jock Lewes to raise hell behind German General Rommel’s lines in North Africa in 1942, and it was in the desert war that the SAS gained its reputation for swashbuckling derring-do in raids on airfields and convoys. Craig Rullman and I listened to most of the book on the long haul back from Arizona, and rolling through the vast Nevada outback formed an ideal setting for these tales. They were also made the more resonant as we were coming off witnessing the most current evolution of the twin-Vickers armed Jeeps the SAS used for their long-range raids.
It’s easy to romanticize and valorize the actions of the SAS as larger-than-life and gentleman-adventurer dashing, but Macintyre is at pains to tell the whole story. And that includes some grotesque cock-ups that cost lives and a level of callous brutality that too often gets glossed over in tales from “The Good War.”
It’s also clear that, while he was a visionary and a brave man, Stirling was not a particularly effective operator. His right-hand man, who would take over leadership of the SAS after Stirling got himself captured, on the other hand, was a first-class badass.
Paddy Mayne was a world-class rugby athlete, an alcoholic, was probably suppressing homosexual tendencies, and had what today might be called serious “anger-management issues.” He frequently got extremely drunk and smashed up everything around him. He was a disturbed individual who never got shut of whatever demons drove him.
He was also a breathtakingly effective commando. He had a genuine lust for combat and in one instance his conduct was so suicidally brave that everyone associated with it recognized that he should have earned the Victoria’s Cross. His fraught relations with the rest of the Army were probably responsible for his citation being knocked down to a third bar on his Distinguished Service Order, which is remarkable enough.
While the North African desert war is what most folks think of when they think of when they think of the SAS, the unit also fought in Italy and Europe. In the Italian campaign they were misused as shock assault troops, and suffered heavy casualties because of it. In Europe they worked with the French Resistance in nerve-wracking sabotage operations and served as Jeep-mounted scouts for the armored columns that penetrated the Reich.
The war in its post-D-Day phase was exceptionally savage and brutal, and the actions of SAS men were not always noble. The strains of three years of intense combat took a toll on the psyche of these men who were exceptional warriors but in no way any kind of “supermen.”
Macintyre himself reads the audiobook, and the sense of immediacy he creates is delightful. While the book is heavily researched and sticks tenaciously to the facts, it reads like a series of war stories.
Find yourself a desert to cross and spin it up.