The Birth of the SAS in WW2

The genesis of the SAS was a cancelled operation to capture the island of Rhodes in 1941.
Officers David Stirling (left) and Blair 'Paddy' Mayne, 1942.
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The Dawn of the SAS in WW2

Eighty years ago, on the night of January 31/February 1 1941, three troopships sailed from the Firth of Clyde. The ships, the Glengyle, the Glenearn and the Glenroy, carried nearly two thousand soldiers, most of them commandos. Only a handful of officers knew they were bound for North Africa.

Cabins designed for two passengers contained three officers and the men were in hammocks in overcrowded mess decks. The trio of troopships encountered a gale as they emerged from the Firth, and for three days the wind blew and the men wretched. It was an ominous beginning to their new venture.

But anything, surely, was preferable to the frustration and ennui that had bedevilled the commandos in the previous six months. Responding to Winston Churchill’s initiative for a ‘butcher and bolt’ raiding force to attack German targets in Occupied Europe, young men from all corners of the United Kingdom had volunteered for the nascent unit subsequently designated the Commandos.

Endurance Training

They trained in England and then Scotland, pushing themselves to, and then past, their limits of endurance. They climbed mountains, landed on beaches, swam lochs, scaled cliffs, ran and marched for hours on end and became skilled in close-quarter combat. They did everything, in fact, except go into action. The big raid they had been promised – the capture of the Italian island of Pantellaria in the Mediterranean – was cancelled when the Navy was unable to provide an escort of destroyers.

The Pantellaria fiasco was the tipping point. It was decided to despatch three Commando units – Numbers 7,8 and 11 – to the Middle East as ‘Layforce’ (named after their commander, Lt-Col Bob Laycock), where the plan was to capture the island of Rhodes.

Operation Cancelled

That never happened. Cancelled. ‘Never in the history of human endeavour have so few been so buggered about by so many,’ scrawled one of the despondent commandos on the deck of the Glengyle.

Before the summer was out Layforce had been disbanded leaving many of the commandos demoralised. Some returned to their parent unit but others, toughened mentally as well as physically by their experience, sought to put what they had learned to good use. Among these intrepid and innovative men were some who, more than three quarters of a century later, remain revered figures within British special forces.

Stirling, Mayne and the innovators

They had little in common. Some, like David Stirling – who, along with his brother, Bill – founded the S.A.S, and George Jellicoe, who commanded the S.B.S, were aristocrats. Others, like Roger Courtney, creator of the S.B.S, had a working-class background. There were sportsmen – Jock Lewes (S.A.S), an Oxford rowing Blue and Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne (S.A.S), an Ireland and British Lions second-row forward – and intellectuals such as Robin Campbell and Tommy Macpherson, both members of Operation Flipper, the ill-fated raid on Rommel’s Libyan HQ.

The one similarity they shared, however, was the key to their success as guerrilla fighters: they were not professional soldiers. Stirling was ranching in America when war was declared, Mayne was a solicitor, Campbell a journalist, Jellicoe and Macpherson students and Courtney an adventurer. They brought to the war a fresh way of thinking, as well as energy, initiative and an independence of thought. They railed against the rigid and staid mindset they encountered among the preponderance of middle-aged staff officers, a breed David Stirling described as “fossilised layers of shit”.

They were men of their time, young, dynamic and fearless. Exploiting the inter-war advances in transport, communications and weapons, they created a new way of waging war, derisively dismissed by some professional officers as ‘private armies’. But their functions of offensive action, intelligence gathering and organising and co-operating with native resistance networks is a model still used by Britain’s special forces in the 21st Century.

Gavin Mortimer’s biography of David Stirling will be published later this year by Constable. He is the author of The Men Who Made the SAS: The History of the Long Range Desert Group about the SAS in WW2.