Cairo, Egypt July 1, 1941

During World War II Great Britain excelled in creating multi­ple net­works of secret oper­a­tives. Perhaps the most famous set of secret agents worked for the Special Oper­a­tions Exec­u­tive. Offi­cially formed on July 22, 1940, to “set Europe ablaze,” as Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill expressed it, the SOE was specif­i­cally tasked with con­ducting espi­o­nage, sabo­tage, and recon­nais­sance in Axis-occupied—less rarely in neu­tral—Euro­pean coun­tries, and to assist local resis­tance move­ments in haras­sing and expel­ling the enemy occu­piers. Among the SOE’s nick­names were “Chur­chill’s Secret Army” and the “Minis­try of Ungentle­manly War­fare.” An amal­gam of several secret depart­ments or sec­tions, the SOE super­vised a mixture of covert armed forces person­nel and civil­ians who eventually totaled 13,000 employees of various nationalities.

Less well known was another covert organi­za­tion, smaller and purely mili­tary, the Spe­cial Air Ser­vice. It was created on this date, July 1, 1941. The SAS was brain­child of 2nd Lt. David A. Ster­ling of the Scots Guards, sta­tioned in Egypt. Ster­ling (1915–1990) presented his idea to Gen. Claude Auchin­leck, com­man­der in chief of the British Middle East Com­mand, who at the moment was under enor­mous pres­sure from Chur­chill to strike against Axis forces in North Africa with more vigor and imag­ina­tion. Auchin­leck glommed onto Stir­ling’s unortho­dox plan of creating multi­ple four-member units, each com­prising a spe­cial­ist in wea­pons, another in explo­sives, a third in signals and com­mun­i­ca­tions, and a fourth in navi­ga­tion. These tiny teams would do their part in setting ablaze German and Ital­ian sup­plies lines, air­fields, out­posts, and ammu­ni­tion and fuel dumps, among other enemy objec­tives. Promoted to cap­tain and ordered to recruit a force of 6 other officers and 60 enlisted men, Stir­ling’s SAS would become one of the most elite and effective special forces in World War II.

By August 1941 Stirling’s little hit-and-run, hide-and-seek com­mando force was ready for action behind enemy lines, but like the rest of the British Army in North Africa was short on equip­ment. Their first action—unoffi­cial of course—was a raid on a well-equipped New Zea­lander’s camp for equip­ment. Their first offi­cial com­bat foray (Oper­a­tion Squatter, Novem­ber 16/17, 1941), a night­time para­chute drop sup­porting Auchin­leck’s Oper­a­tion Crusa­der, turned into a fiasco (for one thing, the men lacked para­chute training!), so Stir­ling settled on over­land oper­a­tions as a way of getting his troops back into the busi­ness fighting Germans and Ital­ians. Numbering almost 400 men in late 1942, SAS’s free­booting patrols destroyed an estimated 400 Axis airplanes on the ground, severed Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel’s Afrika Korps fuel-and-ammu­ni­tion rail­way lines multi­ple times, blew up numerous supply and bomb dumps, and made almost 50 assaults against key German posi­tions. By the time the Western Desert cam­paign ended (June 1940 to Febru­ary 1943), Stirling’s irreg­u­lars had been offi­cially designated a British Army regiment, the 1st SAS. In 1943 a second SAS regi­ment was raised under Stir­ling’s brother; it served with the Gen. Ber­nard Law Mont­gom­ery’s British First Army in Tunisia.

In March 1944 the SAS Brigade of the British Army Air Corps was formed from 1st through 5th SAS regi­ments and an F Squadron respon­sible for bri­gade signals and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Oper­ating behind enemy lines, SAS men found ser­vice in North Africa, the Greek Islands, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium, Nether­lands, and Germany. In Oper­a­tion Hounds­worth, one of the most suc­cess­ful and longest (3 months, from June 6 to Septem­ber 6, 1944) clan­des­tine oper­a­tions, 144 men of 1st SAS were air-dropped into German-occu­pied France where they blew up the main rail­way line between Dijon and Normandy 22 times, picked out 30 prime bombing targets for British Royal Air Force fighter pilots, destroyed an enemy oil refin­ery, and sabo­taged a num­ber of smaller targets. 1st SAS sus­tained 18 casu­alties versus 350‑plus German casu­alties. By Septem­ber Allied armies had forced the Wehr­macht to retreat eastwards toward the German border and Houndsworth was shut down.

Audacious Operators: Men of Britian’s Special Air Service

Special Air Service: David Stirling and "The Originals" in Jeeps, North Africa, 1942Special Air Service: "The Originals," desert training 1941

Left: Captain David Stirling standing next to three Jeep-loads of “The Origi­nals,” as the ear­liest recruits were known. Bearded, dis­heveled, and wearing Arab head­gear, Stirling’s SAS com­mandos drove thou­sands of miles across end­less North African dunes, wadis, and scrub-dotted wastes. Their trans­por­tat­ion ranged from four-wheel-drive Chev­ro­let trucks, Bentley touring cars, to (later on) Jeeps. SAS men typi­cally ladened their Jeeps with Vickers or Browning machine guns, small arms, Lewes bombs (named after its inven­tor, the devices con­sisted of diesel oil and plastic explo­sives), Jerry cans, and water con­den­sers. They subsisted on a make­shift diet of rock-hard Army bis­cuits, corned beef, choco­late rations, marma­lade, tea, dates, tea, snails, onions, tur­nips, and what­ever else they could find in oases and Arab villages. When their water cans ran dry, these irregulars resorted to brackish water from wells.

Right: Training at Kabrit (Kibrit) camp 20 miles north of Suez, whence SAS launched Oper­a­tion Squatter. Among SAS’s ranks were British and Common­wealth sol­diers, Free French para­troopers, Greeks, Bel­gians, and anti-Nazi Germans. A month after their cala­mi­tous Squatter mission in mid-Novem­ber 1941, SAS com­man­dos enjoyed their first suc­cess. A hand­ful of Libyan air­fields near the Medi­ter­ranean coast were tar­geted. This time the men were trans­ported to their objec­tive by truck. The men sneaked onto the run­ways and planted time-delayed explo­sives on the parked air­craft before getting away as fast as pos­si­ble, suf­fering not a single casual­ty by one account or two men and three Jeeps by another account. Over time Rommel grew impressed with the SAS’s effi­ciency while Adolf Hitler became more and more incensed—enough to issue his Com­man­do Order of Octo­ber 18, 1942, which meant that SAS oper­a­tives were to be sum­marily exe­cuted if cap­tured. Following Oper­a­tion Bul­basket, which was meant to hamper German rein­force­ments heading towards the Normandy beach­heads, 34 cap­tured 1st SAS com­man­dos and 7 French resis­tance fighters (maqui­sards) were sum­marily exe­cuted by the Germans in July 1944. Three months later in the after­math of Oper­a­tion Loyton, again in France, the Sicher­heits­dienst (SD) of the Nazi Party’s para­mili­tary Schutz­staffel (SS) executed 31 cap­tured SAS com­mandos and dis­patched 210 French civil­ians to con­cen­tration camps where 140 died.

Special Air Service: Heavily armed men and Jeep, n.d.Erwin Rommel inspecting Atlantic Wall, April 1944

Left: In uniform and wearing their distinc­tive emblem of flaming sword and “Who Dares Wins” motto on their caps, these SAS com­man­dos pack their Jeep with guns, ammo, and fuel cans for their next oper­a­tion. No date or place. The SAS was offi­cially dis­banded in October 1945 only to be reformed as a Terri­torial Army regi­ment, which then led to the formation of the regular army’s 22nd SAS Regi­ment. Today’s SAS is widely recog­nized as one of the finest and best-trained spe­cial forces unit in the world; it specializes in counter­terrorism, hostage rescue, direct action, and covert recon­nais­sance. SAS per­son­nel reportedly have worked with local fighters around the Ukrai­nian capital of Kyiv, playing a pivo­tal role in equip­ping and training forces with next gene­ra­tion light anti­tank wea­pons (NLAWs) to repel Russia’s inva­sion of its western neighbor. Together with the Spe­cial Recon­nais­sance Regi­ment and the Spe­cial Boat Service, the SAS forms the United Kingdom Special Forces.

Right: On January 15, 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel assumed oper­a­tional com­mand of Army Group B, com­prising Seventh and Fif­teenth Armies sta­tioned in North­western France. In this photo likely taken on April 18, 1944, Rommel and his senior officers inspect Atlan­tic Wall defenses around Calais. The Pas de Calais was where the German High Com­mand expected the West­ern Allies were most likely to land should they invade the conti­nent because of its short supply line and air routes to England and its relatively direct distance straight into Germany. A month and a half after the Allies had indeed breached the Atlantic Wall on June 6, 1944 (D-Day), in Normandy, not Calais, six SAS derring-do para­chuted into France on July 25, 1944, with a single mission: capture or prefer­ably kill Rommel at his French head­quarters, a secluded chateau above the sloping northern bank of the Seine in the village of La Roche-Guyon, population 540. Unbe­known to the SAS men, Rommel had been seriously injured when his staff car was strafed by a fighter plane and crashed south­east of Caen in Normandy over a week earlier, on July 17. Thus, Rommel was beyond reach con­va­lescing in a hos­pital. Rather than simply return to base, the com­man­dos elected to ambush trains and attack German troops on route to meeting up with U.S. forces. They ulti­mately reached safety behind friendly lines on August 12. As for Rommel, instead of becoming a victim of the SAS, he became a victim of Hitler, who demanded Rommel’s sui­cide owing to his sus­pected con­nec­tion with the July 20th attempt on the German leader’s life.

Story of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS): The Originals

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