Tom Petch

The author of a new history of the SAS discusses history, his inspiration and his
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Tom Petch, congratulations on the new book. Why write about the SAS?

The story of the origins of the SAS in the Second World War interested me because I knew there was more to the story than David Stirling’s account of his pitch to GHQ Cairo in 1941. I’d been a junior officer in the British Army, and knew that he had to have some help to get in front of the Force Commander (Claude ‘the Auk’ Auchinleck). There was a hint in the earliest book on the SAS – Virginia Cowles’ The Phantom Major, when the Auk shook Stirling’s hand and said “Whatever comes of your project, your presence will greatly relieve Clarke’s burden.” Just that one line – and I thought, who is Clarke?

Can you tell us a little about how you research? Has the process changed over the pandemic?

I’d done some research years ago, but the book was written during the pandemic so the archives were shut. When they opened, they did so on limited hours. My rule was that I wouldn’t take any account on face value. I would go back to the original material; archive and contemporary diaries, and write the story from bottom up. I took tons of digital photographs when the archives opened and ploughed through it later. It paid off. I was surprised by how much I found out, and I think the audience will be. Most people think they know this narrative.

The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?

No, I think it is written by those who write. In the 1950s many wartime accounts were published, such as The Man Who Never Was and I was Monty’s Double, at a time when much of the war record was still an official secret. There was no way to assess these objectively. In fact, The Man Who Never Was (Operation Mincemeat) and I was Monty’s Double were small parts of a huge deception operation run by SAS creator, Dudley Clarke. He is the SAS’s Alan Turing, and I would argue his work was as important as Bletchley Park. But unlike Turing, whose Enigma Code break was declassified in the 1970s, Clarke wanted to write the full history but was prevented from doing so. He wrote his pitch for The Secret War, about his battle with Mussolini and Hitler, but never the book, and so the story vanished.

Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read?

William Shawcross – because I was 23 year-old Army Officer when I landed in Cambodia in 1993 to help the country hold its first elections, and thought what happened here? I bought a copy of Shawcross’s Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and read it in two days (it’s a big book!). That helped a lot. Three in my current period would be ‘The Rommel Papers’ by Erwin Rommel (definitely not a victor), ‘The Desert Generals’ by Correlli Barnett, and ‘G-Patrol’ by Michael Crichton-Stuart. That’s good start.

If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?

Dudley Clarke. I’d take him for lunch at Langham’s Brassiere, order some wine and ask him a million questions, since he didn’t get to answer them while he was alive. Event in history? I witnessed the first election in Cambodia. The Khmer Rogue tried to derail the election, but on the morning of the election thousands of people poured across the dykes of the paddy fields in the rain to vote. Over 90% of the population took part, because no one had ever asked them what they wanted. The Khmer Rouge could do nothing. I’m happy with that. Anyone who says don’t vote I tell them that story.

If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?

My subject would be the contribution of Commonwealth and overseas troops in Britain’s wars. Particularly First and Second. The way it is taught is nonsense given the huge contribution of India in both wars. And Burmese in the second, along with African troops as well, and obviously the ANZAC forces. This has continued to the present day. For example, with the current status of Fijian Veteran’s applying for their families to have leave to stay in the UK. Which given their huge contribution to the SAS has been something I’ve campaigned on.

If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?

Respect the craft. I thought writing was easy when I started, it isn’t, and you only get better by practice. Hemingway was devastated when he lost his suitcase with his first drafts in Paris. It was a British Army Officer, and best friend at the time, Eric Dorman-Smith, who told him not to obsess about the casualties. Good advice.

Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?

A little. It’s a biography, World War Two, about British special forces but from a different angle. Again, one I think no one has heard before. It will only be my second book, but seems my theme: you thought you knew this story, but perhaps you don’t.

Tom Petch is the author of Speed. Aggression. Surprise: The Untold Secret Origins of the SAS.