The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War
Crown Publishing, New York, 2016, 400 pages
Book Review published on: May 25, 2017
Ben MacIntyre, author and writer at large for The Times in London, has delivered another outstanding book with Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War. MacIntyre describes how Lieutenants David Stirling and John Steele Lewes paired to create Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) during World War II. This elite commando unit would become the prototype for a new kind of warfare and the model for special operations forces worldwide.
Rogue Heroes consists of two parts: “War in the Desert” and “War in Europe.” “War in the Desert” describes the visionary genius of Stirling and the professionalism of Lewes in assembling a group of nonconformists, eccentrics, rogues, and English society elites. Sterling, a Scottish aristocrat, uses his family connections to gain approval from senior leaders to create a commando unit. Senior British Army leaders in North Africa quickly approve Stirling’s request, as Allied fortunes were fading. Stirling realized the value of using his SAS teams to infiltrate and attack Axis airfields, depots, and supply lines. Stirling’s view of the desert as an ocean reflects his genius, as SAS teams attacked targets throughout the Axis battlespace. Success of SAS activities quickly gained the attention of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel who immediately ordered Axis countermeasures against the SAS. Interrogation of several capture SAS troopers and utilization of a British soldier turned spy enable the Germans to capture Stirling and his detachment in January 1943.
“War in Europe” opens as the 1st SAS temporarily reorganizes into a Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and Special Raiding Squadron (SRS). Just prior to D-Day, the SRS reverts back to the 1st SAS as part of a newly formed SAS Brigade that included 2nd SAS, two French SAS regiments, and a Belgian contingent. Descriptions of the missions on the European continent reflect the imagination and daring of Allied leaders in attacking strategic targets throughout Europe. SAS teams are credited with training and equipping thousands of French Resistance fighters, cutting railway lines, attacking factories, destroying thousands of gallons of fuel, and conducting valuable intelligence missions for the Allies at a cost of seventeen SAS troopers and sixteen jeeps. SAS activities were successful in forcing the Axis to expend critical resources and manpower to find them.
The strength of Rogue Heroes is the candid accounts of failure and instances of undisciplined behavior. MacIntyre recounts the disaster of SAS’s first mission, Operation Squatter, an airborne mission to destroy five German airfields in North Africa in November 1942. Stirling made the decision to execute the airborne drop in spite of forty-mile-per-hour winds and an inability of flight crews to accurately navigate to the drop zones; only twenty-one of the fifty-five returned. The rest were dead or injured, missing, or captured. MacIntyre describes several instances of undisciplined behavior, most notably near Verrières, France, in June 1944, when security lapses result in the German capture of twenty-eight SAS troops and one American pilot.
The author also describes how the SAS teams found themselves battling not only Axis forces but also hostile environment conditions, so-called friendly partisan groups possessing various levels of loyalty, and misuse by some senior officers lacking an appreciation for their unique capabilities and limitations. The book includes a chapter that provides information of several SAS members following the war, a list of SAS missions during World War II, and a roster of SAS members.
Rogue Heroes has two glaring weaknesses. The first is the lack of connecting individual SAS activities to larger Allied war efforts. MacIntyre infers that Stirling inserted SAS activities into Allied operations with little or no formal coordination or direction from higher. The second weakness is the book’s lack of a discussion regarding SAS selection and training criteria beyond Stirling’s initial recruitment of SAS personnel.
Rogue Heroes is more than the story of Britain’s SAS. It is the story of how two lieutenants created an elite special operations unit that contributed significantly to Allied victories in North Africa and Europe. Stirling and Lewes richly deserve the honors bestowed on them in creating a new form of warfighting and modern special operations. Both scholar and student will enjoy MacIntyre’s illustration of this very unique group of men. It is a must addition for any special operations or World War II collection.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas