Historical Heroes: The Special Air Service

Damien Lewis

The SAS was created in WWII, and brought an unorthodox approach to fighting the enemy using audacious bluff and nerve.
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In Sicily, on the 10 February 1941, thirty-six British raiders parachuted into the night skies above Fascist Italy to undertake a mission of breath-taking daring: to blow up the Aqueduct Pugliese, source of the fresh-water for the cities in the south of the country and the key ports used by the Italian armed forces. Codenamed Operation Colossus, this was the first ever Allied airborne operation, and it was carried out by 11 Special Air Service Brigade, the forerunner of David Stirling’s soon-to-be-legendary SAS. According to the raider’s commanding officer, Major ‘Tag’ Pritchard, his force would be ‘pioneers or guinea pigs, whichever way you prefer to look at it.’

Operation Colossus was an utterly audacious and daring undertaking, but not everything went to plan that night. One of the Whitley warplanes carrying the team of Royal Engineer sappers went missing, along with the bulk of the explosives. Plus the mission briefings proved woefuly wrong, mistakenly reporting the piers of the aqueduct to be constructed of brickwork, instead of reinforced concrete – which would take far more explosive power to destroy.

Everything now relied upon the genius and nerve of the one remaining sapper in Pritchard’s team – Canadian Lieutenant George Robert Paterson. A tough resolute giant of a man known, Paterson decided there was only one option: to pack all the crates of explosives around the one pier and hope for the best. Have lit the fuse, and after a thunderous roar, Paterson and his fellow raiders witnessed a fabulous sight: the Aqueduct Pugliese was cut in two, its precious water cascading into the valley below.

The raiders split up into three parties, one led by Paterson, seeking to make their escape across the Apennine Mountains, heading for Italy’s the western shore, where the British submarine HMS Triumph should be waiting to rescue them. Frozen, exhausted and hampered by ankle-deep freezing mud, on the second night Paterson decided to risk taking by road, or they would never make the rendezvous in time. But at a crossroads, they fail to see the heavily armed Carabinieri lying in wait.

Captured and transported to a Naples military prison, Paterson was interrogated by the Questura – Mussolini’s secret police – but refused to talk. To his relief, threats of execution proved hollow. Instead, as British prisoners of war they transferred to a remote POW camp in the mountains around Sulmona, in south-central Italy.

Right away Paterson and his fellow captives set about masterminding a series of ingenious escape attempts – digging a tunnel leading from a broom cupboard to beyond the perimeter fence; chiselling through a bricked-up passageway, and more. But one by one their escape attempts were foiled. All except for one of the Colossus team.

Pritchard’s second-in-command, Lt Anthony Deane-Drummond, faked an ear infection and with breath-taking cunning and nerve, sneaked past his guards and made it to the Swiss border, and from there back to Allied lines. But Deane-Drummond’s escape resulted in the other raiders being transferred the Gavi POW camp, an ancient fortress and said to be escape-proof.

After long months of incarceration, Paterson felt his hopes ebbing away. Then, in September 1943, Italy’s leaders signed an armistice with the Allies. With German troops taking over the Gavi fortress, the prisoners were told to prepare to be moved. Herded onto a train, all feared a one-way journey to Germany, and Paterson in particular sensed this was his last chance to escape. Utterly determined, he and others burrowed a small hole in the carriage’s wooden side. By midnight, it was big enough for a man to squeeze through. As the train slowed, Paterson look a leap into the darkness, his large frame crashing onto the gravel embankment below.

After a rattle of semi-automatic gunfire, Paterson took his chance and made a run for it, getting clean away. In a hazardous journey through hostile country, Paterson marched day and night across wild, rugged hills with little food and drinking from streams. On the point of total exhaustion, he reached the town of Brescia where his dishevelled appearance turned heads. But a local man realised Paterson was on the run, introducing him to another English escapee, Corporal Jack Harris.

Harris and Paterson were taken to meet a well-connected figure, Signor Rossi, based in Milan. The pro-British Rossi had already helped many POWs to escae across the border into Switzerland. Some, however, preferred to stay in the Italian countryside,  sheltering with local families. With the Gestapo hunting for such escapees, Rossi persuaded both Harris and Paterson to join his escape network, for there was much work to be done.

Over the proceeding months Paterson and Harris tracked down dozens of POWs, but found many were reluctant to risk breaking cover, believing that the Allies were about to liberate Italy. Paterson warned them that was unlikely for a year: they must escape while they had the chance. Perhaps Paterson should have heeded his own advice.

On a journey to aid one such escapee, Paterson was seized by the Voluntary Militia for National Security –  the Blackshirts – and locked up in the notorious San Vittore prison, an escape-proof building in central Milan. Hauled off for relentless interrogation by the Gestapo, Paterson knew that should he crack, all in the Italian escape network would pay with their lives.

Despite threats that he would be shot as a spy, he held out. Adjusting to captivity once more was harsh, and made even more so by the brutality of two senior SS officers: Sergeant Major Schwarz and his assistant Corporal Franz, who relished causing pain and humiliation to any who stepped out of line.

Among the prisoners, Paterson was shocked to discover families of men, women and children – Jews, being prepared for transportation to Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria. Deeply moved by their plight, he shared what food he could while risking a few words of encouragement. The thought of their dark fate strengthened his resolve to escape once more.

With winter 1943 becoming early summer ‘44, Paterson spotted a familiar face in the prison that filled him with despair: Signor Rossi, his friend and mastermind of the Milan escape network, was thrown into an isolation cell. Desperate to speak with him, Paterson had almost lost hope, when one morning Signor Rossi reappeared. The two POWs managed a quick exchange of words. The Gestapo had gleaned nothing from Signor Rossi, barring a list showing the number of Allied POWs he had helped escape – nearly 3000. Paterson feared his friend would surely be shot, and warned him as much.

‘There is always a way out if you have money, George,’ Rossi countered.

He warned Paterson that one of the warders was being bribed to help him escape. He wanted Paterson to join him. If everything went to plan they would be out in a week’s time. Paterson was speechless but thrilled.

The big day arrived and Paterson dressed in some civilian clothes, with prison overalls pulled over them. Using his prison duties as cover, he grabbed a pile of dirty blankets and set off for the perimeter wall, which lay across a wide courtyard. His heart pounding, but keeping his steps measured, he made it across under the watchful gaze of the guards.

Slipping through a gate, he was now on the gravel road between the two perimeter walls. Fifty yards to his right lay a shed. Following Signor Rossi’s instructions, he slipped inside, removed his prison overalls, reshaped the fedora hat he had hidden under his arm and prepared for the final breakout. Exiting, he headed for the door in the outer wall – one that was always kept locked. But a duplicate key had been made by the warder that Signor Rossi had bribed. Turning the handle, to Paterson’s relief is slid wide open. As an approaching tram bell jangled, freedom beckoned.

About to step forward, Paterson froze. Coming around the corner was the familiar figure of one of Corporal Franz’s henchmen, Paterson’s only choice was to brazen it out. Pulling his hat brim low, he strode purposefully ahead and slipped around the corner. Without hesitation he headed for the tram and within moments he had dived aboard and was gone.

Heading straight for a trusted contact in Milan, he was told that Signor Rossi had escaped and was heading for Switzerland. Paterson should do the same. After three and a half years on the run and in captivity, Paterson set out on the same journey to freedom that he had made possible for so many others.  But his adventures were far from over.

Having reached Switzerland safely, Paterson would be recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), Churchill’s ‘Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare’, as an agent. He would return to Italy under a false identity, to help the Italian partisans rise up against the enemy. But in a brutal and bloody battle the Partisans’ senior commanders would be shot dead, and Paterson, injured, would be taken captive once more and returned to the dreaded San Vittore prison.

Surviving the terrible experience, he made one last attempt to escape, in April 1945, even as the Allies drew close to Milan. Mounting an extraordinary breakout with his fellow prisoners, they overpowered the guards and stormed through the gates to final freedom.

For his incredible exploits in Italy, George Robert Paterson would later be promoted to captain and awarded the Military Cross with two bars – the equivalent of the Military Cross three times.

Vosges Mountains, France, July 1944

Following the Normandy landings in June 1944, Allied forces thrust south and east, determined to drive all opposition before them. But in the Vosges Mountains, on the French border with Germany, Hitler ordered his senior commander to make a desperate stand. No effort was to be spared to prevent the Allies from marching into the Fatherland.

On 28 July 1944, a total of 1,142 RAF bombers set off from bases across Britain, with a mission to hit Nazi Germany’s key infrastructure. Among the thousands of brave Allied bomber crew was twenty-seven-year-old Canadian flying officer Ronald Lewis ‘Lew’ Fiddick, part of a seven-man crew tasked to destroy Stuttgart’s main rail hub.

Fiddick, that night’s bomb-aimer, lay prone on the floor of the nose of the Lancaster – L-7567, nicknamed ‘K for King’ – which was about to complete its ninety-ninth sortie.

As the dense forests of the Vosges Mountains came into view, the rear gunner was the first to spot a German Junkers Ju 88 night-fighter in hot pursuit. The Lancaster pilot threw the aircraft into a corkscrew descent, diving to escape the enemy fire, but a burst of tracer ripped into the rear of the Lancaster’s fuselage destroying the tail controls.

As the Lancaster was raked by further bursts of fire, it was time to bail out. Fiddick was determined to stay and help the rest of the aircrew, but moments later, an almighty jolt catapulted him straight through the escape hatch set in the aircraft’s nose. Triggering his parachute, Fiddick landed in thick forest and slithered to the ground.

Alone, unarmed and in hostile territory he was so stunned at what had transpired, he remained where he was until morning, when he discovered that one of his knees was injured and that he’d lost his boots in the fall.

Making his way barefoot through the trees, Fiddick hid for two days, before finding shelter in a barn. But the following day local villagers discovered him. Luckily, they were friendly to the Allied cause. They alerted the Resistance, who helped Fiddick reach their headquarters, set deep in the forest.

On the 13 August 1944, Fiddick learned that British paratroopers had landed nearby. It turned out to be an advance party of the SAS, engaged on reconnaissance for a far large mission, codenamed Operation Loyton. This was a major SAS undertaking, which aimed to hit enemy road and rail communications deep behind the lines, so giving the impression that Allied forces were breaking through the Vosges defences.

Fiddick was introduced to twenty-three-year-old Captain Henry Druce, the commander of the advance party. Previously seconded to the SOE, Druce had assisted downed Allied airmen in Nazi-occupied-Europe, until his cover was blown, forcing him to cross hundreds of miles of hostile territory to reach England. There, he met by chance senior SAS commander, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Franks, who asked him to join their ranks.

Druce recognized a like-minded soul in the gutsy Canadian airman, and invited him to join the SAS patrol – at that moment just 12-strong. If nothing else, his help should prove invaluable in forging a good relationship with the Resistance.

Shortly, Druce and his men were alerted to the presence of thousands of German troops, including Gestapo and Einsatzgruppen – paramilitary ‘death squads’ – combing the surrounding forests, in an effort to find the ‘British parachutists’ and wipe them out.

With the enemy drawing close, Druce ordered everyone to move out. After hours of hard marching, the SAS stumbled upon a German patrol taking a rest break, which led to a fierce firefight. As enemy machine guns chewed their way through vegetation, an SAS trooper returned fire with his Sten, but was immediately cut down. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, Druce ordered his men to split up and head for an agreed emergency rendezvous.

Five days later, Druce tallied the losses: two dead and the survivors left without radios, ammo, explosives and food. A desperate situation was turned around on 1 September 1944, when Colonel Franks himself parachuted in with reinforcements, and supplies. On meeting the Canadian airman serving with Druce, Franks, who had led specialist reconnaissance operations in the Middle East earlier in the war, formally invited Fiddick into the ranks of the SAS.

With Franks at the helm, and with a force of eighty SAS on the ground, a new basecamp was established high in the mountains. From there, the Op Loyton raiders launched bold hit-and-run missions, creating mayhem among enemy forces, while at the same time gathering intelligence from the locals. Franks split his men into smaller groups, sticking to the wild off-beaten tracks, as the hunt intensified. Icy rain and a lack of cold weather gear added to their difficulties, but with the enemy on their tail they were forced to keep moving.

At this point, Franks decided it was time to draw on the SAS’s reputation for audacious nerve. The prior success of the SAS across the Middle East had been down to fast, ‘shoot and scoot’ operations executed in heavily-armed Willys Jeeps. If those vehicles could be parachuted into the Vosges, the men could ambush German staff cars and their high-ranking officers, and ‘cut the head off the Nazi snake’.

With six jeeps dropped in, Franks led a force of twenty-one fighters on the first raid on 22 September 1944. Among others, Fiddick and Druce lay in wait, their vehicles bristling with Vickers machine guns. Their patience was rewarded. Around the distant bend, not one but three gleaming Wehrmacht staff cars emerged, followed by a three-tonne German Army truck full of escorting soldiers.

Holding their fire until the very last moment, the twin-muzzles of the Vickers ripped through the sleek bodywork of the staff cars before targeting the truck. As more of the convoy emerged, the SAS broke off the attack, the unwieldy trucks being no match for the nimble jeeps.

Stunned by the attack, the enemy set out for revenge. Failing to find the SAS raiders, they accused the villagers of Moussey of assisting them. Some 210 men aged sixteen to sixty were deported to the concentration camps. Only a few dozen survivors would ever return. Despite this, members of the Resistance continued to risk their lives to bring the SAS vital intelligence.

Due to their efforts, Colonel Franks obtained priceless documents, delineating the 21st Panzer Division’s order of battle and positions. In the right hands, such intelligence would give the Allies the chance to hit Nazi Germany’s key defences here in the Vosges. Franks had to get these to US General George Patton’s forces, who were even then preparing a fresh assault on the enemy in the Vosges.

To do so would entail crossing the heavily defended German and Allied lines – a daunting proposition. Fortunately, Franks knew just the man for the job: Captain Henry Carey Druce. Requesting a volunteer, Canadian flier and honorary SAS man Lew Fiddick offered to accompany him.

On 29 September, the two men set off across enemy territory to reach American lines. The following evening, they arrived on the outskirts of the village of Saint-Prayel, location of the only bridge over the River Meurthe, on the far side of which lay the frontline. Waiting for darkness and using the cover of buildings and trees, they stole through village but were challenged by members of the French Fascist militia – the Milice Francaise. But upon seeing the two SAS fugitives Tommy guns and their resolve, the militiamen backed off, leaving Druce and Fiddick free to continue their journey.

Before long they found themselves in a dark German trench with patrols on every side. Making their way to the last trench they came to a barren stretch of terrain ripped apart by explosions. Fearful of being spotted by the enemy or accidentally denotating a landmine, they crawled across the blasted earth.

At first light, they discovered they’d reached a section of Allied front held by the 1st Spahis, part of the Free French forces under General de Gaulle. With identities confirmed, Druce and Fiddick were taken to American HQ where Druce finally handed over the precious documents.

With Fiddick’s epic escape, his behind-the-lines adventures had come to an end, but not so Druce. Armed with the knowledge of General Patton’s impending offensive, Druce set off back along the perilous journey to re-join Colonel Franks. When he arrived, he found the SAS camp deserted and Moussey village swarming with German troops.

A Resistance member warned Druce that following an attack by the enemy, Franks and his group had split into small parties, to make their way back to Allied lines. Druce had no option but to follow their example. For the third time, he crossed back through enemy lines, bringing more intelligence to Allied forces.

Druce would be awarded a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his extraordinary achievements, while Fiddick would spend the rest of the war training new bomber crews before returning to civilian life in Canada.

Two stories of the enduring qualities of the WWII SAS great escapers, from the early stages and latter chapters of the war, each of which embodies the spirit of never giving up and the desire to escape, evade and survive come what may – epitomising the founding principles of the SAS regiment. While the weaponry, vehicles, insertion techniques and escape and evasion kit might have changed greatly, the basic tenets of the SAS remain the same today as they were in WWII – proving absolutely that ‘who dares wins’.

Damien Lewis is a writer and broadcaster and author of a number of books on the SAS during World War Two, including SAS Band of Brothers, SAS Nazi Hunters, SAS Great Escapes and his latest account of an operation during the Gulf War, written with SAS veteran Des Powell, SAS Bravo Three Zero.