With a benign name and a cult of secrecy, the Special Air Service has for nearly three-quarters of a century been spoken of in whispers, its World War II activities barely known, hardly understood, overshadowed by chronicles of great movements of huge armies across Europe and Africa and of battleships, submarines, and carriers across dangerous seas.
The nature of the clandestine warfare of Britain’s SAS is emerging only now, in large measure because the secret archives of the SAS have been opened to Ben Macintyre, a master storyteller who in “Rogue Heroes’’ recounts one of the most unforgettable tales of World War II: how a small group of men, fired with idealism, inspiration, and ingenuity, transformed sabotage into a deadly form of combat — and helped turn the tide of history even as it redefined the future of warfare.
It is a thrilling saga, breathtakingly told, full of daring and heroes; imaginative, even audacious, tactics; evocative code names; nighttime raids; and explosions across two continents. In small groups, moving quickly and retreating swiftly, oftentimes employing what Macintyre calls “brazen bluff,’’ these men created a marche militaire of movement and deception. Operating behind enemy lines, often in unforgiving environments, they undermined the enemy, disrupted its plans, and blasted and destroyed its implements of war, its sense of confidence, and its strategic imperatives.
This new form of warfare was, in Macintyre’s felicitous phrasing, “so asymmetrical as to be almost lopsided.’’ Its tactics included five-day desert drives and secret missions with explosives going off where the enemy never suspected it was vulnerable. Witness one account:
“A burst from a Tommy-gun swept the [unsuspecting enemy] card players and drinkers at the bar. German drinking songs turned to shouts of horror. Those who weren’t killed or wounded tried to make for the doors or windows. They were mown down before they had gone a yard.’’
Two pages later, Macintyre introduces another SAS exploit: “Suddenly the air was fizzing with bullets.’’ In a two-week period the men destroyed more than 60 German planes. To accomplish their missions they often had to live off the land, perhaps drinking their own urine or eating lizards they found under rocks to survive.
One of the many virtues of this volume, broken into two sections (“War in the Desert’’ and “War in Europe’’), is the surprising small asides tucked into these pages, tiny truths that give the book depth along with derring-do. Here is one: “War is not a science: it frequently fails to achieve the intended result, or finds success by accident; it kills the wrong people and spares those fully ready to die.’’
But between these covers there also is plenty of bang-bang action, testimony to why the unit won the special enmity of Hitler. In one incident, the stalkers, each fitted with 20 bombs, crept onto an airfield, planted explosives beneath Messerschmitts and Stukas, and then, for good measure, tossed a grenade into a guardhouse filled with 20 German soldiers. Before long it was clear that, as Macintyre put it, the SAS was “a small, independent army, capable of fighting a different sort of war.’’
This passage shows one way they did it and how Macintyre relates it:
“Navigating across the desert is not easy at any time. Crossing 70 miles of desert, in the middle of the night, followed by 17 heavily armed jeeps, with no headlights, an ancient map, and an increasingly impatient commanding officer was the sort of task only a navigator who was either supremely gifted, or mad, would have considered undertaking.’’
All in a day’s work. Once the Germans got wise to this new form of warfare they doubled down on security, prompting the SAS to change tactics by massing several jeeps, fitted with machine guns, for its attacks, sometimes advancing in two lines of seven, firing both armor-piercing and incendiary bullets.
Indeed, jeeps often had to be dropped from the sky on large trays, sometimes getting caught in trees in their descent. These vehicles were the key to their operations. Each, equipped with four gas tanks, had a range of a thousand miles and allowed saboteurs to range widely and wisely. Working with the French resistance and even with the US 7th Army, these SAS units sped along back roads, targeting Axis fuel depots and military installations.
Increasingly their activities moved from what Macintyre called the “gentlemanly, jovial, dangerous and exciting’’ to “brutality met by greater brutality.’’ These men were ruthless romantics, but they also were pioneers, and Macintyre argues that as the war wore on, “the need for a specialized and sometimes brutal form of fighting became ever more urgent.’’ Alas, their techniques have not grown out of fashion. They spawned the way we fight today.
The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War
By Ben Macintyre
Crown, 380 pp., illustrated, $28
David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.