SAS Rogue Heroes

The SAS was the brainchild of David Stirling, a languid young Scottish aristocrat. With difficulty he persuaded General Claude Auchinleck, the 8th Army commander in WW 2, to approve a mobile force operating behind enemy lines. The plan was to disrupt communications and infiltrate aerodromes to destroy planes on the ground. He gathered a motley crew of volunteers, most of them unsuited to Army discipline. The most remarkable of them was Paddy Mayne, an Irish rugby international, a wild man, given to alcoholic rages, resourceful, fearless and frightening.


Ben Macintyre gives character sketches to many of the recruits to this derring-do band. Training was brutally demanding, accidents frequent. Mobility being vital, it was made clear that in certain circumstances, badly wounded men would have to be abandoned. If destruction of material and disruption of the enemy’s war effort were the SAS’s main purpose, there was also indiscriminate killing. Grenades, for example, were hurled into buildings occupied by unarmed soldiers. Stirling, had some qualms about this, but several of his men were happy killers. Macintyre offers a postscript, recounting the life after the war of several SAS survivors. It is remarkable how many of them seem to have settled comfortably into civilian life.


There were actually precedents for SAS style warfare behind the enemy lines. There was Cossack warfare as practised against Napoleon in 1812, Boer commandos in the South African War, TE Lawrence in Arabia, and Confederate cavalryman, Colonel Mosby, in the American Civil War. The tactics of “Mosby’s Marauders” were indeed very like Stirling’s, even to the extent of sometimes donning enemy uniforms. There is no doubt that the SAS was effective. The number of enemy planes destroyed – or claimed as destroyed – is impressive. In the desert, in Sicily, mainland Italy, and in France working with the Resistance, the SAS disrupted and hugely hampered the enemy war effort. Its achievement prompted Hitler to issue a notorious order, decreeing that captured SAS men and Commandos should be shot rather than imprisoned. SAS men themselves never shrank from murdering captured enemy soldiers, there being often no means of carrying them into captivity.


War is Hell and the glamour of the SAS can never be disentangled from the darkness which is violent conflict. Ben Macintyre manages to tell the story without shrinking from the horror, and we can only wonder at the bravery of the men he describes so vividly. If you prefer your derring-do served up with a well researched historical narrative – this is the book for you.


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384 pages in Viking

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0241186626


Ben Macintyre

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