Origins – The SAS in World War II
“The British nation has a celebrated tradition of producing extraordinary people in times of national peril, and such a man was a twenty-four year old, Captain David Sterling who in 1941 stormed the British General Headquarters in the Middle-East to gain the commander in chief’s personal permission to form the Special Air Service, against the advice of many of the senior staff.
David Sterling exploited this individualism and collected together a group of soldiers who thought alike in this respect and in this respect only. They were individuals prepared to take extraordinary risks in the course of the war against the Germans in the desert.
The SAS are all individualists they are cool and clear minded in an emergency, but above all they are professionals par excellence always able to think up a new plan, to innovate, to surprise the enemy… always though true to their motto, Who Dares Wins.” (General Sir Peter de la Billiere)
“In 1941 Britain had reached another critical moment, the German war machine was destroying all before her, in Europe Britain stood alone. But in North Africa there was a glimmer of hope with a few victories but that soon receded when the Italian forces were bolstered by the arrival of Rommell and the Africa Corps. Within a short time Rommell had reversed the British bids and the initiative had been lost.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Britain had no Special Forces, but that was soon to change. First came the Army Commandos and then the airborne forces, many resented the creation of such organisations as they grew on scarce resources and the better quality of manpower available. However, Winston Churchill was convinced of the potential of such organisations not only because of the damage they may inflict but also because the British people were desperate to see him strike back. Captain David Sterling, unwittingly, was about to create one of the most dynamic and successful fighting units ever. Sterling, bypassing the normal channels sneaked into GHQ and placed his proposal on OKINLICKS desk, the SAS was born.
He was instructed to recruit four officers and sixty men into a new unit known as The Detachment of the Special Air Service Brigade, at the time no Special Air Service existed but the title had been chosen to convince the enemy that a large formation did exist. Most of the volunteers came from Number 8: Army Commando known as La Force, Sterling’s regiment recently disbanded. Among the first officers were two that would simply become legends Lieutenant Jock Lewis of the Welsh Guards and Lieutenant Paddy Main an ex Irish rugby international, a soldier’s soldier who quickly gained the respect of all ranks. The first intake of non-commissioned ranks included Bob Bennett, Johnny Cooper and Reg Seaking, who was later joined by his brother Bob. The early days were hard the British Army was short of everything so the fledgling unit had to steal or hijack many of the things it needed.”
“We all rolled along to Kabrit, which was a point on the canal that was picked as a camp site and we were on a three tonne truck, we stopped and there was absolutely nothing, no camp, nothing. And David Sterners said, ‘well this is it, your first operation will be to steal a camp’ and that night we drove down about two miles to a Kiwi camp and the Kiwi’s had gone up the desert so the place was empty so we took everything we wanted.”
“We nicked fourteen tents and a piano, we thought it might come in handy but we could never find anybody to play it.”
The initial training was also a selection to weed out those whose motivation may not have been what was required. Most emphasis was placed on physical fitness and stamina and also from an early stage faultless weapon handling was considered absolutely vital. Due to the lack of any parachute instructors, Jock Lewis became the chief instructor of the parachute training.
“We had these big stands that we used to jump off of and roll and we had a little truck on a roller and two people would get on and two more would push it and you had to jump off into the sand. Then someone came up with a crazy idea, they had this 1500 weight truck you’d face the rear, he’d drive up to about 30 mph and you’d just leap off, and there was so many accidents, breaks and sprains that, that stopped on the dot.”
But things did not go well; the only aircraft available was an aged Bristol Bombay that wasn’t properly modified.
“The first training jump we did on the Brit, planes flew over the canal and started dropping, well I was standing with a chap called Kershaw and we saw somebody come out, but we didn’t see a parachute.”
Sterling immediately stopped the training, ascertained the problem and devised a solution, his leadership was instinctive and the next morning he was the first one out of the aircraft.
The SAS’ first operation came in November 1941, they would carry their Lewis bombs (which Lewis designed) and parachute into the two main airfields and blow up as many aircraft as they could. By the time they jumped off an absolute blizzard was blowing, it was a disaster, out of the 65 men who jumped, 22 returned and no German aircraft were destroyed the SAS baptism could not have been worse.
Sterling decided to use the long-range desert group (LRDG) to go there and back.
In December the next raid was mounted, the mission was again to destroy as many aircraft as possible. The raiders were transported to airfields on the coast of the Gulf CERTA by the LRDG. One group could see planes lifting off and landing in the distance so they marched, marched and marched and everyone was getting “pretty browned off”. But then they got to an underground bomb dump, a couple of troops went underground and left two bombs, when they came out they went to the buildings and a trooper called Paddy booted the door open and just opened up. They carried on to the aircraft and left more bombs until they were out, so they started to destroy the control panels, Paddy got into one plane and just ripped a panel out which gives you an idea of the strength of the man.
The concept was taking hold, Sterling was authorised to recruit more men as well as introducing a group of 50 French para troopers, the SAS also took the boat section of La Force under its wing which allowed it to develop an amphibious aspect to its raids.
Sterling went looking for a standard transport vehicle for the SAS, in the case of the Willies Jeep it was just love at first sight, the necessary strings were pulled and the metamorphous began. In from the RAF came the Vickers Kay Guns fitted to the front and back of the jeep, extra jerry cans, water condensers and sun compasses, unparalleled, state of the art mobility. The new jeeps allowed the SAS to adopt new tactics to it raids, no longer would they place charges on stationary planes instead they would speed down lines of parked aircraft and shoot them up, in one mission they destroyed 36 aircraft and lost one man. Rommell wrote in his diary ‘they caused considerable havoc and seriously disquieted the Italians’, Hitler agreed ordering that captured SAS should be handed to the Gestapo for interrogation, the plan was working. However at the peak of their success the SAS suffered a major reverse, David Sterling was captured by German Para-Troopers. By the end of the African campaign the SAS had destroyed over 400 enemy planes on the ground, a significant achievement for such a small group of men, which did not go unnoticed.
THE SAS IN WORLD WAR II
The Information that follows is quoted or para-phrased from:
‘The Story of the SAS‘
The Raiders – The End of World War II
With the North African campaign over the attention of the Allies turned to Sicily and Italy. D squadron and the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) were tasked with coastal raiding in the Mediterranean and then further a-field in the Again. Once there they were assisted by the Greek’s Sacred Squadron. As the allies advanced into Northern Italy the SAS were in constant use, operating with the SBS and the newly formed Special Raiding Squadron in advance of the main invasion forces. Intermittently they were tasked with the more Specialist role of deep penetration raids, hitting railways and German communications behind the lines.
For the raids on France and Western Europe the SAS became a brigade in the Allied Airborne Corps under command of Lieutenant General Boy Browning. The force was now comprised of two British SAS regiments, two French and a Belgian regiment.
The SAS were initially dropped onto the France coastline on the eve of D-Day tasked with mounting diversionary raids in support of a deception plan that was designed to fool the Nazis into moving forces away from the intended location of the main allied landings at Normandy. These raids were followed by squadron groups with their jeeps and armour to establish basses in German occupied territory. From there the SAS could launch more raids on German infrastructure with the co-operation/intelligence of the French Resistance.
In the area of Dijon Operation Houndsworth ran from 6 – 21 June 1944, the German occupying troops were under constant attack and the main railway line was hit 22 times, 70 vehicles were destroyed, 220 enemy personnel, killed or wounded. Other operations weren’t so successful Operation Bullbasket in the area of PUATEA started off successfully however the base area was eventually betrayed by Collaborators the Germans killed several men and captured 33 who were subsequently executed. Towards the end of the European war Brigadier Mad Mike Calvert, himself a distinguished war veteran commanded the SAS Brigade. After the hostilities ended the SAS were used to search for suspected war criminals and bring them to justice, in all the SAS contributed to greatly to the war effort. Not just by destroying large numbers of enemy planes etc, but by tying down enemy troops in diversionary raids, guard duties and security duties. The brigade suffered over 300 casualties from the 2000 men involved.