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Ben Macintyre’s Rogue Heroes is a gripping account of the inception of the British SAS, or Special Air Service, during World War II, which became the forerunner to modern military special forces.
In mid-1941, the Axis attack on Europe and North Africa knocked Great Britain onto the ropes. Facing the brilliant German general Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” British forces in North Africa were fighting a losing campaign.
An iconoclastic young officer named David Stirling conceived an entirely new form of warfare, based on daring attacks by small groups of highly trained soldiers on large strategic targets, striking deep from behind enemy lines. This revolutionary unit became the SAS and changed the nature of warfare itself.
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Summary and Analysis of Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain's Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War
Based on the Book by Ben Macintyre
By Worth Books
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Prologue: Into the Dark
In November 1941, "L Detachment" of the Special Air Service, the SAS, was on its first mission, known as Operation Squatter. Fifty-five soldiers of a new kind of military unit, a motley, patchwork crew, prepared to parachute at night into the Libyan desert with the goal of infiltrating five enemy airfields, planting explosives on as many German and Italian planes as possible, and then fading away toward a rendezvous point in the deep desert.
The weather for this mission was awful. Anti-aircraft batteries saw them coming and opened fire. The pilots lost sight of the drop zone. One by one they hurled themselves into the unknown.
Need to Know: It's going to be a dark, stormy ride.
Part I: War in the Desert
Chapter 1: Cowboy Soldier
In 1941, five months before Operation Squatter, Lieutenant David Stirling was in a Cairo hospital, paralyzed from the waist down by a botched parachute jump. While he regained the use of his legs, he had a lot of time to think about how poorly the war in North Africa was going for the Allies, and to imagine ways that he could improve the situation.
Stirling was known as a wastrel, a man who "misbehaved on a lavish scale." He failed out of Cambridge twice, dreamed of climbing Mount Everest, and even went to America in 1938 to become a cowboy. When Britain went to war, he answered the call, but this did not increase his respect for convention. He "regarded rules as nuisances to be ignored, broken, or otherwise overcome," and showed no deference to rank or tolerance for braggarts. Nevertheless, he possessed prodigious self-confidence. It was largely this self-confidence that inspired the formation of the SAS. He was a natural leader with unswerving faith in his own decisions.
In February 1941, he joined a unit of commandos called Layforce, and was sent to Scotland, and eventually Egypt. Stirling was eager for combat, but quickly tired of the tedium of training and preparation. He wanted in the fight, and he wanted it right now.
In the midst of a boredom-assuaging revelry in June, he had a conversation with Lieutenant Jock Lewes, a fellow officer "who was as self-disciplined and uptight as Stirling was dissolute and nonchalant." Lewes had recently gotten hold of a stock of parachutes, and permission for an experimental jump in the desert. Mostly out of boredom, Stirling asked Lewes to show him how to parachute.
Need to Know: David Stirling was hardly a conventional soldier, but it was these traits that were perfect for his vision of a new kind of unit. Meeting Jock Lewes was the catalyst that made the formation of the SAS, and Operation Squatter, possible.
Chapter 2: L Detachment
Lieutenant Jock Lewes was the perfect soldier, the epitome of military virtue; an austere, rigid man, athletic and patriotic with dashing good looks. For a short time, Lewes flirted with Nazism, impressed by its organization, until Kristallnacht exposed the true nature of the regime. He felt personally duped, and swore to take up arms against facism. He and Stirling were polar opposites in almost every way, except in their desire for substantive action.
There were no instructors on their parachute jump, only a handful of men with the desire to try it out and a woefully unsuitable biplane. On his jump, Stirling's parachute ripped open on the plane's tail. He hit the ground extra hard, resulting in the paralyzing spinal injury that would affect him the rest of his life. Nevertheless, it was during his recovery that he conceived a new kind of military unit, although he credited Lewes with much of the thinking.
As Stirling convalesced, he envisioned small teams of highly trained men hitting vulnerable supply lines and airfields and fading quickly away again, doing maximum damage with minimum resources. To maintain secrecy, the unit would need access to intelligence, autonomy, and its own secluded training ground.
He initially met significant resistance to this revolutionary idea. Bypassing the chain-of-command, Stirling challenged the very concept of rank. Through sheer audacity, he circumvented channels, went straight to the top brass, and placed his plan in the hands of a general who saw merit in it.
When command gave the go ahead, the fledgling unit needed a name. The British army had been developing a fake unit of paratroopers to fool the Italians in Egypt. Stirling loved the idea of secretly assuming the name of a bogus unit, and thus "L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade" was born.
Need to Know: Persevering through grievous personal injury, Stirling's combination of modesty, ingenuity, and audacity paid off. The SAS was born.
Chapter 3: Recruits
In July 1941, Stirling's first order of business was to draft the hard-charging Jock Lewes, an effort that, due to their diametrically opposed temperaments, was not a sure thing. When Lewes finally agreed, their task was to recruit the kind of men who would fit into the nature of their mission.
Stirling interviewed every recruit himself. He was looking for exceptional bravery, men who were disciplined but independent-minded, uncomplaining, unconventional, and merciless when necessary. The first was an American named Pat Riley, a rock-solid buffalo of a man. Riley brought along the soft-spoken and sensible veteran, Jim Almonds, known as "Gentleman Jim." Riley and Almonds, two veteran noncommissioned officers, later became the bedrock of the unit. Johnny Cooper, the youngest recruit, "was made of some light but tough material that seemed able to endure any kind of stress without breaking." Reg Seekings was an amateur boxing champion with a massive chip on his shoulder, a difficult person, but "hard, in the way that very few people are truly hard." These were the men that accomplished L Detachment's first mission: acquiring the equipment to operate. In a bold midnight raid, they carted off equipment from the nearby camp of a New Zealand regiment.
Stirling's job became recruitment and organization, Lewes's became training the men in parachuting, desert operations, and demolitions. Lewes's methods were as extreme as possible, involving extensive marches without vehicles or radio backup, and men jumping off the back of moving jeeps to simulate a parachute jump.
Stirling recruited five junior officers. Bill Fraser was a combat veteran who "seemed slightly baffled by life, too delicate for soldiering"; nevertheless he was an excellent leader. Paddy Mayne was an international rugby player, a dedicated brawler, "240 pounds of highly volatile human explosive." Quietly ruthless when sober, brazenly violent and ferocious when drunk, which he often was, Mayne contained a deep reservoir of anger. One of the other recruits was Mayne's closest friend, Eoin McGonigal.
Training commenced in earnest, with two deaths on their first parachute run, and as it went on, attrition continued due to injuries, illness, and rejection. But what emerged was the clear sense that this was an elite unit of fewer than a hundred men. They could be harnessed, but not controlled. Personalities gelled and chafed as the group bonded. Paddy Mayne began to emerge as a natural leader.
Their goal was to sneak into aerodromes and destroy airplanes, but to do that they had to develop small, portable explosives with timed detonators. The result was the "Lewes bomb," a one-pound block of plastic explosive, rolled with thermite and motor oil. Lewes bombs were equipped with timed "pencil detonators," small glass tubes that could time a detonation between two minutes and two hours.
L Detachment's first mission was to be Operation Squatter on November 17, 1941. According to the plan, five parachute teams of eleven men each would attack five airfields, using Lewes bombs to blow up three hundred airplanes, then march fifty miles into the desert to a rendezvous point. If it worked, it would create a serious setback for enemy fighters at a critical time. If it didn't, only a few dozen men would be lost.
Need to Know: Stirling and Lewes had their recruits, trained and ready for anything. All that remained was to set them loose on a target. The Lewes bomb would become a permanent fixture of the British military arsenal, and the first customized weapon developed by and for the SAS.
Chapter 4: Into the Desert
The weather forecast for Operation Squatter was terrible, predicting severe winds and heavy rain. Stirling, however, fearing that his brainchild would be curtailed if he didn't produce results, decided to go ahead anyway. The result was a fiasco.
Winds were even stronger than expected. Stirling was injured again in the landing, and his team was scattered over miles. Nearly all of their equipment was lost, save for revolvers and a handful of grenades, rendering the team useless. Three of the other teams fared little better. Eoin McGonigal, Paddy Mayne's close friend, was killed on landing. One of the planes went down, and the troops were either killed or captured. Paddy Mayne's team recovered some of their canisters containing explosives and water, and although they had to leave two men behind (and lost one on impact), they decided to carry on with the mission.
Jock Lewes's team was the only one mostly intact, landing with some of the Lewes bombs undamaged. They set off in what they hoped was the direction of the airfields. The two teams led by Lewes and Mayne marched north, but torrential rains turned the desert into raging floods.
Paddy Mayne tried to continue the mission, but his supplies and equipment were ruined by the rain. He finally gave up.
The surviving teams limped to the desert rendezvous point on November 19, having attacked nothing, and worse, the Germans now knew there was a sabotage force nearby. The men were deeply demoralized. They had all lost friends. Eoin McGonigal's death caused something in Paddy Mayne to break.
Need to Know: Operation Squatter, L Detachment's first mission, was "an unmitigated disaster." Of fifty-five men, only twenty-one returned. After this, the SAS seemed likely to be disbanded.
Chapter 5: The Long Range Desert Group
The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was a British reconnaissance and raiding unit founded in Egypt in 1940. Experts in desert navigation and operations, they became instrumental in helping L Detachment salvage its operations. The LRDG became, in effect, L Detachment's transport service, as their vehicles were well suited for desert travel and far safer and more reliable than parachuting. The LRDG retrieved the remnants of Operation Squatter, and thus began one of the most successful partnerships of the war.
Stirling had feared that the failure of their first operation would be the end of L Detachment, but luckily for Stirling and his men, the British army had bigger fish to fry. The German commander, Field Marshal Rommel, was wiping up the desert with British forces, but Stirling's superiors believed the L Detachment was perfect for attack on the panzer divisions' vulnerable supply lines, clearing the way for ground troops.
L Detachment took up residence at Jalo Oasis on December 5, 150 miles from the coast in the Libyan desert, a location of vital strategic importance. Stirling gathered his troops to plan for the next SAS operation, knowing that if it failed, it could easily be the last.
Need to Know: L Detachment received a new lease on life, despite their initial failure. With a new partnership with the LRDG in place, they were itching to redeem themselves.
Chapter 6: Devil Country
L Detachment quickly learned how inhospitable the Libyan desert was. Traveling hundreds of miles, day and night, in the backs of trucks was an exercise in masochism. They called it "Devil Country."
In advance of a larger British assault, Stirling launched a three-pronged attack on a string of poorly defended airfields along the Libyan coast. Stirling and Mayne would attack Sirte on December 14, while Lewes struck Agheila in the south simultaneously. On December 21, Bill Fraser's team would attack Agedabia in the east, clearing the way for ground troops.
Having been spotted from the air by Italian planes, Stirling's unit had given up the element of surprise, and divided into two groups. During the infiltration of Sirte, the largest of the airfields, Stirling inadvertently stepped on a sleeping Italian soldier whose scream alerted the camp. Eventually that mistake led to evacuation of all the planes on the airfield.
Paddy Mayne's team was much more successful, although they strayed from the plan. Hearing "merriment" from a mess hall, and with surprise on his side, Mayne and his men gunned down roughly thirty German officers and pilots, in cold blood. Within thirty minutes, his team planted all their Lewes bombs, and damaged or destroyed twenty-four planes.
The third unit, led by Jock Lewes, captured an Italian lorry and used it as camouflage to infiltrate the Agheila airfield. But when they arrived, they found no airplanes, so they used their explosives to destroy telegraph lines and dozens of vehicles before attacking a roadhouse full of Italian soldiers, emerging narrowly victorious from a blazing firefight.
Bill Fraser's attack on the Agedabia airfield was the most crucial of the raids. If not destroyed, the planes there would wreak severe damage on the incoming British forces, already en route. Fraser's infiltration and attack was a stunning success. They planted Lewes bombs on thirty-seven planes, destroying all of them. Two of the remaining bombs were planted in a "bomb dump" which went up "with a blood-curdling roar."
Need to Know: L Detachment proved that a small team could destroy an entire airfield in a matter of minutes. Their first series of successes racked up more than fifty enemies killed or wounded, and the destruction of sixty enemy planes, dozens of vehicles, communication lines, and more, without suffering a single casualty. The SAS was just getting started.
Chapter 7: A Party of Ghosts
On Christmas Eve, L Detachment launched another series of attacks at Arco dei Fileni and Nofilia, and a repeat attack at Tamet and Sirte. Once again, Stirling's team was forced to call off their attack. They couldn't approach without being spotted, and when they arrived, they found fresh defenses around Sirte. There would be no way to cut through them and destroy the planes before the determined rendezvous time. On the way back to their camp, however, he took the opportunity to destroy a dozen supply trucks in a convoy. Stirling remained the only officer to have inflicted almost no damage to the enemy.
On December 27, Jock Lewes's team set out for Nofilia. Early in the day, the airfield had been full of German fighter planes, but after nightfall, when they planned to attack, most of the planes were gone. They destroyed the two they found, but on their long drive back to Jalo Oasis, their convoy was spotted by a German fighter plane, which promptly called in two more. Lewes's unit hunkered down, but the fighter planes maintained their onslaught for eight hours, during which time Lewes was killed. When it was over, his comrades buried him in the desert and hurried back to base. His grave was never found.
Bill Fraser's four-man team, meanwhile, had missed its rendezvous and was now stranded in the desert two hundred miles from Jalo Oasis with only half a pint of water each, some bully beef, and two days' worth of biscuits. They had no choice but to march back. The travails of that nine-day, 150-mile journey until they were picked up by British forces — drinking their own urine, enduring sandstorms, encountering enemies, and dodging minefields — scarred Fraser forever.
Need to Know: The war took its toll in blood at every turn. The loss of Jock Lewes was a devastating blow to L Detachment and to Stirling in particular.
Chapter 8: Blitz Buggy
L Detachment's growing list of achievements and demonstrable contributions to the war effort gained the favor of the top brass, resulting in medals and promotions for Stirling, Mayne, and Fraser, in addition to authorization for six more officers and forty more men. Stirling reported only to General Auchinleck, the officer who had greenlighted L Detachment. The unit was becoming more official, and in spite of its secrecy, more well known. Stirling chose the unit's new motto, "Who Dares Wins." Jock Lewes had designed their operational wings: the wings of a scarab beetle and parachute.
A group of French parachutists joined the fight, wanting to fight Germans and willing to do it with the British under Stirling's command. The small teams, however, would consist of countrymen only — the French with the French, the British with the British.
Figuring that supplies would need to be shipped in by boat, Stirling had plans for the unit's first amphibious assault on Rommel's supply ships in the port of Bouerat. The operation was scheduled for January 23, 1942. From the beginning, the attack went poorly, suffering from punctured rafts and encounters with enemy troops, but Stirling's men nevertheless managed to destroy the wireless station and a fleet of petrol trucks, as well as disable the harbor.
Excerpted from Summary and Analysis of Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain's Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Worth Books. Copyright © 2017 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
Cast of Characters,
What's That Word?,
About Ben Macintyre,
For Your Information,