They came from the great sand sea, wreaked havoc amongst the enemy, and melted away into the shadows as quickly as they arrived. David Stirling’s band of piratical raiders struck fear into the hearts of the enemy. With their dusty mismatched uniforms and straggly beards they looked like a ragged collection of misfits and vagabonds; in truth they were an elite fighting force the likes of which the world had never seen before.
David Stirling was not exactly the 1940’s British Army Officer type. Partial to a little too much socialising and probably a little work shy, he was malingering in a military hospital after injuring himself in a parachute jump, when he came up with the idea for a special raiding force that would carry out lightning raids on enemy installations in North Africa. Britain already had a Commando force that carried out raids from the Sea; but the Germans expected seaborne operations and coastlines tended to be well defended; what they never expected was that the enemy would attack from the vast expanse of the North African Desert; the great sand sea.
Stirling’s idea involved small groups of heavily armed and highly trained commandos, attacking the lightly defended axis airfields from the desert, and then melting away into the night. To Stirling the idea of lightning night time raids promised adventure, and the opportunity to significantly disrupt the enemy’s operations.
Jock Lewes was Stirling’s polar opposite. Disciplined, fit, and dedicated to soldiering Lewes was the archetypal British military officer. The differences between the two men were as day and night, yet between them they recruited and trained a group of men that would become regarded as the finest special forces unit in the world.
Getting the idea through the chain of command would not be easy however. The Army’s doctrine had changed little since the Great War; new and somewhat radical ideas were seen as a threat to the traditions of the Army. Sneaking around at night blowing up aircraft and then retreating into the darkness was simply not the done thing. Stirling knew that only a General would even give consideration to an idea like this, but getting an audience with the top brass in the middle of a war would be a near impossible task. Undeterred, Sterling, who was still in crutches following his accident, made his was to Middle East Headquarters, ditched his crutches and proceeded to climb a wall and break in.
The guards were quickly alerted to Stirling’s break in by his abandoned crutches and promptly raised the alarm. Stirling made a dash for the nearest office marked ‘adjutant general’. The office was occupied by none other than one of Stirling’s former instructors, a red faced Major who thought little of Stirling as a student and promptly threw him out. Stirling had more luck in the next office, which was occupied by the Deputy Chief of Staff, General Sir Neil Ritchie. Stirling handed his proposal to Ritchie who was interested enough to order the Major in the next office, the very same former instructor who threw Stirling out of his office, to offer him every assistance in bringing his plan to fruition.
And so the Special Air Service was born. Over the next 12 months this band of highly armed desert raiders crept up to enemy bases in the dead of night, and destroyed everything they could lay explosives on, blowing up, and shooting up aircraft, petrol tankers and supply vehicles, then making good their escape across the desert, before their enemy knew what had hit them.
After the war the SAS was disbanded, but later reformed in 1947. The regiment survives to this day, and from its humble beginnings in North Africa, remains one of, if not the finest fighting force on the planet.