Good Luck and Bad, Error, Accident and Design

Posted on March 30, 2020 by Cape Rebel

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From SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
by Ben MacIntyre


By mid-July, Stirling had written the outline of a proposal, giving credit to Lewes, and noting that the plan was ‘largely based on Jock’s ideas’.

Stirling’s original memo was handwritten in pencil, and does not survive in the SAS archives. Its outlines were straightforward: Rommel’s eastward advance along the North African coast had swung the battle in favour of the celebrated German commander, but it had also created an opportunity, leaving the enemy supply lines extended and coastal airfields vulnerable to attack. Most were only thinly defended. Some even lacked perimeter fencing. On a moonless night, a small number of highly trained commandos could be dropped by parachute, as close as feasible to enemy airfields; they would then split into small teams, each no more than five strong, which would penetrate the aerodromes under cover of darkness, plant time bombs on as many aircraft as possible, and then retreat back into the desert, where they could be picked up by the Long Range Desert Group – the British reconnaissance unit which, Stirling had learned, was capable of driving deep into the desert. Up to thirty separate attacks might be launched in a single night. To maintain security and secrecy, such an operation would have to be approved by the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East. The new unit would need special status, access to military intelligence and its own secluded training ground. Stirling was suggesting ‘a new type of force, to extract the maximum out of surprise and guile’.

With hindsight, the plan seems obvious. At the time, it was revolutionary.

Many middle-ranking officers in the British army had fought in the First World War, and clung to an old-fashioned, classical conception of warfare: men in uniform clashing on a battlefield, and then fighting until one side emerged victorious. So far, although the battlefront had moved back and forth, the war in North Africa was following this pattern. What Stirling proposed would leapfrog the front line and take the battle directly into the enemy camp. In the eyes of some, this was not only unprecedented, but unsporting, like punching a chap when he’s looking the other way. Blowing up planes in the middle of the night and then running away, some felt, was a job for saboteurs, mercenaries and assassins, not for soldiers of His Majesty’s armed forces. It was not war as they knew it, and it was not cricket. Worse than that, Stirling’s idea represented a threat to the very concept of rank. The chain of command is sacrosanct in every army, but Stirling was proposing to bypass that too, and report only to the most senior commander – in this case General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command. Stirling was a mere lieutenant, and an undistinguished one at that, who was proposing to subvert centuries of military tradition, by speaking directly to the top brass, in order to create and command what looked suspiciously like a private army. To the traditionalists among his superiors, this was more than just impertinent; it was positively insurrectionary.

Stirling had no illusions about how his plan would be received by the staff officers at Middle East Headquarters. He was openly contemptuous of the mid-level military bureaucracy, which he referred to, variously, as a ‘freemasonry of mediocrity’ and ‘layer upon layer of fossilised shit’. If his idea was to have a chance, he would need to get the proposal directly into the hands of the most senior officers, before anyone lower in the hierarchy had a chance to kill it. If it passed through the normal channels, the plan would perish on the desk of the first staff officer who read it. Stirling’s radical approach to the ‘fossilised shit’ was similar to his attitude towards the front line: he did not intend to go through it, but to go around it. How he did so has become the stuff of myth.

British Middle East Headquarters was housed in a large block of commandeered flats surrounded by barbed wire in Cairo’s Garden City. Still on crutches, Stirling hobbled up to the entrance, only to find his way barred by two guards demanding that he show a pass, which he did not have. So, waiting until a moment when the guards were preoccupied, he climbed through a gap in the fence. As he was entering the building, the guards spotted his abandoned crutches and gave chase. Going as fast as his stiff legs would carry him, he flew upstairs and burst into a room marked ‘Adjutant General’. There he found himself confronted by a red-faced major, who just happened to be one of his former instructors at Pirbright. The senior officer remembered Stirling as one of his least attentive students, and swiftly sent him packing: ‘Whatever lunatic idea you have, Stirling, forget it … Now, get out.’

In the corridor, hearing the guards thundering upstairs, he entered the next room, which turned out to contain General Sir Neil Ritchie, the Deputy Chief of Staff. Stirling handed over his proposal, which he had condensed into a short paper. Ritchie leafed through the proposal with, according to Stirling, growing interest. Then he looked up. ‘This may be just the sort of plan we’re looking for.’ The major from the Adjutant General’s office was summoned from next door and instructed, to his astonishment and barely suppressed fury, to give the young officer all the assistance he needed. ‘I don’t like you, and I don’t like this business,’ hissed the major from the Adjutant General’s office, after Richie had left. ‘You will get no favours from me.’ Three days later, Stirling was summoned back to see General Auchinleck.

This is an almost perfect Stirling story, containing the characteristic admixture of self-deprecation, bluff and impudence, describing an act of daring crowned with unlikely success, while taking a swipe at the military bureaucracy he disdained. It has the patina of a tale polished, told and retold after dinner. It might even be true, or partly true.

But there is another, more prosaic explanation for Stirling’s successful attempt to gain access to the top brass. Auchinleck was an old family friend of the Stirlings. Ritchie had been grouse shooting at Keir. Both were Scots, and both had fought in the First World War alongside General Archibald Stirling, David’s father. This was an age when family and class connections counted for much: if there was one junior officer who could get to see a general simply by asking, that was David Stirling. ‘I knew I could argue with a general,’ he later said.

Generals Auchinleck and Ritchie were both present at Stirling’s next interview, along with Major General Eric Dorman-Smith – a man considered by one colleague to be close to lunacy, but one of the few senior officers who appreciated the way war was swiftly evolving, with new technology and motorisation.

The three officers quizzed Stirling closely on his outline proposal, and listened attentively as he laid out his ideas.

Auchinleck, universally known as ‘the Auk’, had only recently taken over as Commander-in-Chief, and was already under intense pressure from Winston Churchill to strike back at Rommel, and reverse the tide of the North African war. A major counter-offensive would be taking place sooner (if Churchill had his way) or later (if Auchinleck had his), and Stirling’s band of raiders might possibly play an important role in hampering enemy airpower at a critical moment. The decision had already been taken to disband Layforce, providing a ready pool of possible recruits, and unlike earlier commando operations, the plan would not require the use of expensive ships and the complexities of naval cooperation. Stirling’s plan was cheap, in terms of manpower and equipment, and it could pay handsome dividends if it worked. And if it didn’t, all that would be lost would be a handful of adventurers. There may have been another reason for the generals’ willingness to listen. All three had been in the thick of battle during the last war: Dorman-Smith had won the Military Cross at Ypres; Ritchie had won the same medal for his ‘coolness, courage and utter disregard of danger’ under fire; Auchinleck had been mentioned in dispatches during the fierce fighting in Mesopotamia. The trio of generals may have heard this twenty-five-year-old soldier explaining how he intended to help win the war by fighting the Germans at close quarters, and seen in him a little of themselves.

At the end of the meeting, Stirling was told that he would be promoted to captain, and authorised to raise an initial force of six officers and sixty men from the remnants of Layforce.

The new unit needed a name. It was provided by a little-known military genius with a unique talent for deception and subterfuge, and a taste for theatricality. Colonel Dudley Wrangel Clarke was responsible for strategic deception in the Middle East, the strange but vital offshoot of military operations dedicated to concealing the truth from the enemy and planting lies in its place. Clarke had emerged as one of the great deceivers of the Second World War: operating from a converted bathroom and then from the basement of a Cairo brothel, he perfected the use of fictional orders of battle, visual deception, double agents, and misinformation to confuse and mislead the enemy. He was flamboyant, charming, and very funny. He was also a bit odd. In October 1941 he would be arrested in Madrid dressed, rather elegantly, as a woman. This incident, never fully explained, caused much sniggering – the Spanish police photographs were sent to Churchill – but it did his career no harm whatever.

One of Clarke’s ruses in the Middle East had been the creation, in January 1941, of a fake paratroop brigade, to try to fool the Italians into fearing that the British might land airborne troops to assist the next attack. The aim was to soak up Italian forces by making them mount defences against a non-existent threat, inflate the apparent size of British forces, and generally corrupt enemy planning. The operation was codenamed Abeam, and the bogus unit was given the invented name ‘First Special Air Service Brigade’. Clarke had planted fake photographs in Egyptian newspapers, showing parachutists near prisoner-of-war camps, and had two men in bogus uniforms wander around Egypt pretending to be SAS paratroopers, convalescing from injuries sustained while parachuting. False documents, identifying the first SAS Brigade, were also planted on known enemy spies, including a Japanese consular official. Captured enemy documents appeared to indicate that Operation Abeam was working, but when Clarke got wind that a real parachute unit was being prepared, he sensed an opportunity to bolster the deception. If Stirling’s small assault team took the same name, Clarke argued, this would surely reinforce the idea, in the mind of the opposition, that a full brigade of paratroopers was preparing for action.

Stirling readily agreed to name his force ‘L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade’. The letter L was selected to imply that detachments A to K were already in existence. Stirling later joked that it stood for ‘Learner’. Clarke was ‘delighted to have some flesh and blood parachutists instead of totally bogus ones’. In return he promised to use his extensive network of contacts to spread the word that Stirling was looking for recruits.

The SAS was formed as part of a larger contingent that did not, in reality, exist – an oddly appropriate start for a unit that had come into being through a most unlikely combination of good luck and bad, error, accident and design.