On the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, Captain John Tonkin and Lieutenant Richard Crisp parachuted into occupied France at the helm of an SAS troop tasked with preventing German reinforcements from being brought to the Normandy beachheads. Despite initial successes, Operation Bulbasket was ultimately a failure: ambushed by the SS, the men involved were captured and executed under Hitler’s Kommandobefehl, which dictated that all Allied special forces in Europe and Africa should be killed immediately without trial. Cawthorne’s book — the first in the ‘Who Dares Wins’ series — does not end on that sombre note, but goes on to tell the story of the more successful follow-up operation, Houndsworth, led by Lieutenants Ian Stewart and Ian Wellsted.
There is no shortage of books about the exploits of the Special Air Service since its inception in 1941, but this one is unique because it strikes a balance between action-packed yarn and scholarly non-fiction. Personally, I find the author’s narrative-led approach refreshing. He does not pause to analyse or paint vivid battle scenes, but simply presents the story as he discovered it: stage by stage, mission by mission. In a sense, it is so packed with action and adventure that there is no need for dramatisation. All the ingredients are there already: interrogation, sabotage, surprise attacks, dramatic explosions, stiff-upper-lip British bravado, and a suspenseful mix of tragedy and success. On the other hand, for the adrenaline-junky, the author’s under-stated prose would likely not cut it.
The fifth chapter adopts a darker tone as it recounts the events that followed the troop’s capture by the SS, culminating in their execution by firing squad. Their extraordinary talent and single-mindedness made their deaths all the more tragic. From commandeering nearby oxen with which to tug their jeep out a bank, to blackening their hands and face with dirt upon hearing the distant murmur of an enemy vehicle, their quick-thinking is evident throughout the book, leaving small wonder as to why they were given the label ‘special forces’. As Cawthorne points out, even many Germans recognised their exceptional worth — General Gallenkamp, for instance, was astonished that his men had actually carried out the execution.
Cawthorne has shown that the repository of flag-waving tales of wartime derring-do has not yet been exhausted. At the same time, he does not shy away from disaster and tragedy. Through his faithful and attentive portrayal of the two operations, he makes it clear that, alongside their tremendous successes, the SAS has faced major set-backs; thirty-four out of the forty men in B Squadron were killed during Operation Bulbasket, while Houndsworth did not exactly go smoothly. Nor does the author brush over the moral dimension to the story. Every time the SAS sabotaged German infrastructure, savage reprisals against French civilians would follow, so the potential rewards of the mission had to be weighed up against the human cost it would inevitably entail.
If you would like a straight-forward, readable and gripping account of two of the regiment’s most extraordinary operations, Behind Enemy Lines will prove a more than worthwhile read.