Were the SAS Rogue Heroes?

Tom Petch

Mayne and Stirling were the forerunners, but was Dudley Clarke the real 'Rogue Hero'?
Blair 'Paddy' Mayne & David Stirling
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Were the SAS Rogue Heroes?

The early Special Air Service kept virtually no records which, coupled with the secrecy surrounding the Regiment, has left the field wide open to pundits. 2022 has been a record year for new releases about the SAS, in both literature and TV, and my book Speed. Aggression. Surprise, has now entered this zeitgeist.

The early SAS war diary, unlike the legally required record of British Army units, was not a daily record of their activity but a retrospective written in 1946. From this SAS record the heart of the SAS myth is that on a dark night in Libya, troop leader, Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne went into a hut on Tamet airfield and gunned down enemy aircrew. It was said that it was this raid, ‘rogue’ both in its inception and execution, that started the SAS.

The contemporaneous diary of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), with whom most of the SAS’s early operations were carried out, is more detailed and informative. The SAS had not gone rogue, it was on a mission to destroy enemy aircraft, not personnel. 8th Army had thrown enormous resources at the operation – a whole LRDG Squadron had been diverted from attacking Rommel to support the SAS. When the SAS regrouped to review their operation there was a documented argument between SAS founder, David Stirling, and Mayne. The explanation that this was because Stirling thought Mayne had overstepped in gunning down aircrew doesn’t stand up. Chivalry belongs in the minds of those who have never set foot on a battlefield, and there was no more chivalry in the western desert in 1941 than in any other conflict.

Dudley Clarke, by Patrick Phillips

Stirling’s ire was likely caused because Mayne’s attack had compromised the best chance of the unit’s success, and thereby Stirling’s chance of establishing a new unit. Mayne’s team expended 42 bombs in the firefight in his attack on the hut, leaving only 14 to destroy aircraft. With this, and the failure of Stirling and troop leaders Jock Lewes and William Fraser to find any aircraft to destroy, the whole operation was a wash out. But during the operation the LRDG discovered where the enemy had moved most of their aircraft. And Stirling ordered former corporal, William Fraser, to take out that airfield.

Fraser led his four man team onto the air base, planted 37 bombs and left, leaving the enemy none the wiser. The defenders thought they had been hit from the air. Rommel recorded in his diary that he had lost his air support. Fraser was a humble man and his own estimate of 37 was low, as it was impossible to count them on the flaming airfield. When news of this raid reached 8th Army, SAS sponsors Sandy Galloway and General Neil Ritchie were impressed. Force Commander, General Claude ‘Auk’ Auchinleck recognised the SAS as a useful asset, and used them in all his subsequent operations. David Stirling recorded Fraser’s as the most ‘useful’ of their early raids.

Mayne did not hesitate to kill the aircrew in the hut, armed or unarmed. And in same period another special forces team, 11 Commando, was ordered to ‘Kill or Capture’ General Rommel. This controversy over the role of special forces as killing machine or master of stealth has continued to the modern age. US Seal Team 6 pulled the body of Osama Bin Laden out of a compound inside Pakistan. Today, SAS members are likely to stand trial for their actions in Afghanistan. But ‘Kill or Capture’ is a euphemism – you can order a team to do one, or the other. And in 1941 special forces could kill, or use its stealth, depending on their orders.

Actor Dominic West stole the show in the recent BBC SAS series, appearing as Dudley Clarke (pictured). Clarke, the mastermind of British special forces, had no qualms about killing. Three weeks after Dunkirk he accompanied his first special forces team across the Channel where they lobbed grenades into a hotel full of dining Germans. He envisaged something that he called his ‘Subliminal Methods’. That his special forces would place fear in the mind of the enemy, to make them act in the way he wanted. Clarke would have loved the mythology of the SAS. But to understand the real history of the SAS is to understand Dudley Clarke. Clarke created the Commandos, the US Rangers and the SAS. His conversations with US Colonel William J. Donovan led to the OSS which led to the CIA. And his is a far more complex narrative than kicking in doors and shooting people.

Tom Petch is the author of Speed. Aggression. Surprise: The Untold Secret Origins of the SAS.

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