We Happy Few: Damien Lewis, interviewed by Special Project Warrant Officer Paul Hughes

The author talks about his latest book, SAS Band of Brothers.
Home » Author interviews » We Happy Few: Damien Lewis, interviewed by Special Project Warrant Officer Paul Hughes

Damien Lewis is a former war reporter and was described as one of the nation’s ‘twenty favourite authors’ by the Quick Reads initiative. He has written more than 15 books, published in over 30 languages, including SAS Ghost Patrol and SAS Nazi Hunters. His latest, SAS Band of Brothers, has just been published. Interview by Special Project Warrant Officer Paul Hughes.

Having read SAS Band of Brothers in a personal best record-breaking time, I have found that the lasting emotion it has left me with is an immense gratitude for the superhuman, incomprehensible efforts of the SAS and SOE operators during World War Two. The sheer courage and, for some, their ultimate sacrifice is simply inconceivable to a layman. How did you discover such an awe-inspiring story?

Quite by accident. A former British services guy called James Irvine reached out to me via social media, and remarked that his grandfather, Trooper Leslie Packman, had served in the SAS in World War Two and soldiered on Operation Gain, an incredibly successful post-D-Day mission, but one on which those few SAS men captured by the enemy had suffered a terrible fate. James Irvine’s grandfather had been one of those – he was sadly executed by the Gestapo/SS. I then began to research the story in a little more detail and realised that some of those captured on Op Gain had escaped the Nazi death squads and gone on to help hunt down their would-be executioners and to see them stand trial in 1947 for war crimes.

Personally, I would say that the unrelenting and intrepid mission focus of Captain Garstin and his men (SABU-70) throughout SAS Band of Brothers is echoed in The Regiment’s adopted poem ‘The Golden Road to Samarkand’ by James Elroy Flecker, ‘We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go always a little further…’ Would you say that members of the SAS are made, or simply and intrinsically migrate to their true vocation within the elite Regiment?

In World War Two certainly the SAS and related special forces – SBS, Commandos, SOE, OSS and similar units – had a way of finding those recruits who were innately suited to their unit’s esprit de corps. So, as an example, when the SAS was finally recalled to the UK for the preparation for D-Day missions, it was a hugely eclectic, polyglot force – a ‘motley piratical collection’ as many described it. Having been formed in North Africa and having soldiered for years across that terrain, and then across the Mediterranean and into southern Europe, the SAS had never been based out of the UK and had attained something of a reputation of being a private army. Men had been recruited from all walks of life and all nationalities, no matter what. So, there were Russians, former French Foreign Legionnaires, Spanish Civil War veterans and many other nationalities within the ranks, including not a few Germans and Austrians. The latter were mostly Jews who had seen terrible horrors visited on their families and loved ones in Germany and had every reason to burn to hit back hard against the Nazi enemy. Many had ended up in North Africa and had been recruited into the Middle East Commando and from there into the SAS and would go on to be some of the most highly decorated members of the unit. Of course, their fluent German allowed them to yell out ‘orders’ in German during raids, so confusing and confounding enemy troops – which proved very useful indeed!

The unbreakable camaraderie between the SABU-70 ‘stick’ headed by Garstin is clear from the offset. However, do you agree that the relationships between the officers and the troopers within the SAS brethren are different to any other fighting force?

Absolutely. David Stirling, the founder of the SAS, had averred from the start that there was ‘no room for class’ in the unit. Merit was prized above ranks. Respect had to be earned. It was not simply conferred by rank alone. There needed to be a command and control system in place, but when serving in very small units, deep behind enemy lines over long periods, you clearly needed to respect those with whom you were deployed and to use your own initiative and self-reliance wherever necessary. That was a key tenet of the unit. If a four-man patrol deployed on a sabotage mission, Stirling insisted that even the lowest rank could continue with and execute the mission, even if all the others were killed or captured. That was a key tenet.

Whilst reading the book, the multinational ‘foreign legion’ flavour of The Regiment after the Africa campaign becomes very apparent! Was the SAS already globally reported as the battle-hardy band of brothers, who didn’t ordinarily ‘fit the mould’ of a conventional soldier during World War Two?

Capt Pat Garstin

It was. In Garstin’s patrol, you had under his direct command five men – one of whom, Corporal Serge Vaculik, was a Free French member of the SAS and originally of Czech origin, and four Irishmen under them – Lance-Corporal Howard Lutton, plus Troopers Tot ‘Paddy’ Barker, Joe Walker and Billy Young. This was Garstin’s ‘Irish patrol’. And Garstin’s second-in-command was a Lieutenant John ‘Rex’ Wiehe, who hailed from Mauritius, the Indian Ocean island nation, which was both a British and French colony in its time. Incidentally, Wiehe and Vaculik were both fluent French speakers, which would prove key for the missions on the ground, which involved linking up with the French Resistance to better wage offensive operations – sabotaging Hitler’s armour, to prevent the Panzer divisions from reaching the D-Day beachheads and driving the Allies back into the sea.

You quote Henry David Thoreau in SAS Band of Brothers; ‘The hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men’, but in your experience of having interviewed many former and serving members of The Regiment, have you found that adage to still be true today?

It is surprising how often the least-expected individual steps forward to undertake the most daring and dangerous of missions, when the chips are down. That was the case in World War Two and does seem to remain so today.

The swarms of opportunist attacks by the SAS deep behind enemy lines in France, saw the troopers hit and run, before blending into their surroundings; the ability to tolerate uncertainty, cope with it and make use of it appears to me to be the cornerstone of their skills formulated by The Regiment’s extraordinary resource and training that was refined by Lt Col Paddy Mayne. Can you give an example of such training in the UK during wartime?

Lt Col Paddy Mayne

Mayne – the commander of the SAS for most of World War Two, after Stirling was captured by the enemy in 1943 – was the master of inculcating such an esprit de corps. When the SAS was called back to the UK, in early 1944, in preparation for D-Day, it was ordered to increase its numbers to around 2,000 men-at-arms. New recruits were set the ‘around Britain challenge’ – to travel from one corner of the country to the other and back, with no money or provisions, save their clothes, and weapons. The aim was to simulate conditions they might experience in the field, deep behind hostile lines. They were urged to beg, borrow or steal whatever was required to complete the journey – and they were charged to do so in competition with other small bands of SAS men, to see who would be the first to make it back to base. They had to sign in at town halls or hotels on route, to prove they had been there, and they had a hunter force of Home Guard and police on their tail. The lengths men went to, in order to complete the epic journeys and get back to base without being captured beggared belief – many are told in SAS Band of Brothers. When Mayne himself had enraged Military Police turn up on his doorstep with charge sheets, seeking to arrest some of his men, he would turn all away. A man of his rank, stature, battle experience and decorations, and with the mystique of the SAS behind him, he shielded all from such predations. For Mayne, all was fair in war.

Would you say that although Lt Col David Stirling founded and formulated the initial set-up of the SAS, it was Lt Col Paddy Mayne who refined The Regiment into the most respected Special Forces outfit in the world?

To a degree, yes. Stirling was captured in January 1943, having been nicknamed ‘The Phantom Major’ by the enemy. Rommel had vowed to capture him, and despite numerous subsequent escape attempts Stirling remained in captivity to war’s end. In that sense, Mayne did command and hone the regiment for the majority of the war years.

We live in a time of information warfare where leaders are predisposed to wait for information rather than take resolute action. Therefore, a military force that was designed to be fast can become ponderous whilst awaiting the key intelligence. Imagine the consequences for the men of SABU-70 should such standard ‘information heavy’ operating procedures have been the norm during Op Gain. Do you think that modern day conventional forces regardless of service or branch could learn from the multi-skilled ‘above and beyond’ approach adhered to by SAS Troopers and their corresponding mindset?

Yes, obviously. The codename for the patrol was SABU-70, and this was also its radio call-sign. SABU seems to have stood for Safe All Business as Usual, and/or it may have been adopted from the popular actor at the time, Sabu Dagastir, who starred in the movie The Jungle Book. But making radio contact from the field was a very limited affair for units, once they had parachuted into hostile territory. Often, conditions precluded such contact, and any time spent transmitting signals risked falling victim to being ‘DF’d’ – direction finding – by the enemy. The enemy used stationary and mobile detector vans to triangulate Allied radio signals, in an effort to capture those sending them. As a consequence, commanders on the ground, like Captain Garstin, had a great degree of independence of action – very seldom did they seek guidance or intel from headquarters. Their self-reliance and independence led to a speed of decision-making, thought and command that proved invaluable on the ground, when faced with fast-moving combat scenarios.

Damien Lewis

Damien Lewis

The battle damage assessments recorded from the disparate missions of Op Gain, which ‘SABU-70’ was part, show the huge kinetic effect of having Special Forces wreaking havoc behind enemy lines. However, would you say that an equally sized effect was the negative thoughts planted in the head of the enemy? Is war first and foremost won and lost in the mind?

Yes. The founding of special forces in World War Two introduced the concept of the ‘force multiplier’ – that a small body of highly-trained and highly-motivated men, dropped deep behind enemy lines, could effectively tie down and seriously discomfit thousands of enemy troops. Moreover, the SAS had perfected what they termed ‘cutting the head off the Nazi snake.’ They deliberately targeted senior enemy officers for attacks, knowing that in doing so, it would strike terror into the rank and file. The reasons why are obvious – if not even your senior commanders can be protected from a hidden enemy, imagine the fear that strikes into the heart of the rank and file.

Whilst remaining mindful of not giving away any of the storyline to any great extent, the betrayal of the SAS and the action of Hitler’s Commando Order are indeed harrowing, but the inexplicable twist of double agents at the high levels of power and the veil of secrecy that is still extant today, caused me the greatest concern. Why would the UK Government still prevent the disclosure of World War Two documentation today? How have you got around ‘closed’ documentation in the annals of national records?

It’s hard to say. Files from World War Two can be closed under any number of secrecy rules. Many were closed for 75 years, which means they are only being opened today. But others are closed for even longer periods – 80, or 100 years or more. However, you can always ask for files to be opened early, and I have always been successful when doing so in getting at least a partially redacted – censored – version opened. The thrill of being the first to see such files since they were closed under intense secrecy laws is very real of course, and the contents have often proven hugely important for the book I was working on at the time.