War is Hell” said General Sherman years after he had led his army on its brutally destructive march from Atlanta to the sea. But war is also exhilarating, as his soldiers remembered when they sang “Marching Through Georgia”. In this grippingly readable “authorised” (but not “official”) wartime history of the SAS, Ben Macintyre shows us yet again that it is often hellish; yet many found it exhilarating to a degree that is hard for us today to understand.
The SAS was the brainchild and creation of David Stirling, a languid and mild-mannered young Scottish aristocrat whose pre-war life had been wayward. With some difficulty, against opposition, he persuaded General Auchinleck, the 8th Army commander, to approve his plan for a mobile force operating behind enemy lines, disrupting their communications and infiltrating aerodromes to destroy planes on the ground. He gathered a motley crew of volunteers, most of them unsuited to Army discipline. The most remarkable of them was Paddy Mayne, an Irish rugby international, a wild man, given to alcoholic rages, resourceful, fearless and frightening. Macintyre gives character sketches of all the early recruits, and many later ones; all fascinating.
Training was brutally demanding, accidents frequent. Mobility being vital, it was made clear that in certain circumstances, badly wounded men would have to be abandoned. They often were. If destruction of material and disruption of the enemy’s war effort were the SAS’s main purpose, there was also indiscriminate killing, grenades, for instance, being hurled into buildings occupied by unarmed soldiers. Stirling, initially at least, has some qualms about this, but several of his men were happy killers. Macintyre offers a postscript, recounting the life after the war of several SAS survivors. It is astonishing how many of them seem to have settled comfortably and contentedly into civilian life.
Stirling’s wasn’t however quite such an original strategy as Macintyre suggests. There are plenty of precedents for SAS style warfare behind the enemy’s lines: it was Cossack warfare as practised against Napoleon in 1812, by the Boer commandos in the South African War, by TE Lawrence in Arabia, and by the Confederate cavalryman, Colonel Mosby, in the American Civil War. The tactics of “Mosby’s Marauders” were indeed very like Stirling’s, even to the extent of sometimes donning enemy uniforms.
There is no doubt that the SAS was effective. The number of enemy planes destroyed – or claimed as destroyed – is extraordinary. In the desert, in Sicily and mainland Italy, and in France working with the Resistance, the SAS disrupted and hugely hampered the enemy war effort. Its achievement prompted Hitler to issue a notorious order, decreeing that captured SAS men and Commandos should be shot rather than imprisoned. The SAS themselves however did not shrink from killing – murdering – captured enemy soldiers, there being often no means of carrying them into captivity. A unit that recognised the painful necessity of abandoning its own wounded had few scruples in its treatment of the enemy. War is Hell.
There is a dark glamour to the SAS and its achievements were so remarkable that Macintyre sometimes comes close to forgetting that wars aren’t won by daring raiding parties but by armoured troops and the poor bloody infantry who have to take and hold the ground occupied by the enemy. Nevertheless Macintyre tells the extraordinary story of the SAS compellingly. He gives us the glory but does not shrink from the horrors, and we mere civilians can only wonder at the bravery of the men he describes so vividly, and at what they endured and achieved.
A footnote. As I write this, I see that the MoD is investigating “more than 550 allegations of war crimes committed by British troops in Afghanistan”. Truly, we live in another world, one in which men engaged in bloody conflict are judged by the standards of a soft civilian society. A heroic figure like Paddy Mayne would find himself behind bars today. War is Hell, but our judgement of men in war reflects the idea that it should be no different from peace.
*SAS: Rogue Heroes, by Ben Macintyre, Penguin/Viking, 359pp, £25