SAS Brothers in Arms, by Damien Lewis

Stirling and Mayne are to the fore in this extraordinary story.
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SAS Brothers in Arms is a fascinating character study of the men who founded the SAS and the desert war they fought during WW II. Lewis follows the development of the SAS from a parachute unit to its adoption of vehicles to take them to their targets. Developing ‘butcher and bolt’ raids on enemy airfields which forged their reputation, striking from the great sand sea to cause mayhem behind enemy lines. When the fuses for their explosives failed, they adapted their tactics using ‘gangster style’ drive by shootings to attack enemy aircraft. Lewis vividly describes these raids that helped to swing air superiority in the Allies favour. He expertly weaves together firsthand accounts and documentary sources to convey the camaraderie and valour of the SAS and the dangers they overcame. There are also interesting accounts of the stool pigeons and traitors the Axis forces used to counter the SAS.

For me the heart of the book is the relationship between the founder of the SAS, David Stirling, and his second in command Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne. The two men complemented each other; both were courageous leaders who disregarded authority. Stirling was an aristocratic adventurer and dreamer, with a fertile mind that regularly produced “flashes of brilliance.” Mayne was a grammar schoolboy and rugby international, an instinctive doer who made Stirling’s ideas happen. Lloyd Owen, the commander of the LRDG said their combined personalities were almost terrifying in their effect.

The book primarily focuses on Mayne and Lewis draws on new research material from the Mayne family. Mayne is usually portrayed as a hard drinking, cold blooded killer. One veteran described Mayne as having “a twist about him.” The example normally given to illustrate this was a raid on Tamet airfield, when Mayne shot a number of German pilots in their mess. Lewis suggests this was a result of the ruthless logic of war in the dark days of 1941, when Britain had its back to the wall. Shooting pilots was just as effective as destroying their aircraft, arguably more so. It took two years to train a fighter pilot, three times as long as it took to build a ME 109. This was very much part of the ethos of the Commandos, following Churchill’s order on their formation to leave a trail of German dead.

Mayne is something of an enigmatic figure, a poet warrior, who hated profanity, cared for the men in his charge and loved his family. A larger than life character who the French SAS referred to as l’armoire – the wardrobe, after a game of rugby and le grand tueur – the Great Killer because of his fighting abilities.

Lewis states that Mayne had an unconventional mind set, that was truly engendered to think the unthinkable. Mayne had to be ruthless to survive and there is little doubt that his experiences in the Commandos, before he was recruited by Stirling, changed him. Ultimately Lewis leaves it to the reader to make their own mind up about this remarkable man.

Damien Lewis’ SAS Brother in Arms is out now. Alan Bardos is a novelist and author of the Rising Tide.