Monday, 24 July 2017

Another Book!

This is a good book!
The fact that it arrived as a birthday pressie was nothing to do with my comment, free books are better than paid for books but this is indeed a good read.
What this book is not is an entire history of the SAS, I suspect that is unlikely for some years as many operations are still regarded as secret.  It is however an authorised World War Two history compiled by access to diaries and letters and some of the men themselves.  
Ben MacIntyre is a well known military author and some of his books have featured here before.  He offers a gripping but not excitement lead tale of the origins of the SAS after Commando style operations in the Middle East failed and David Stirling came up with the idea of attacking the enemy from behind overland.  
British army officers were like soldiers everywhere reared on discipline and organisation unlikely to be keen on any idea which appeared to offer rogue soldiering which they could not control.  Major wars are of course fought between two organised armies numbering thousands of men, small groups wandering off on their own frightened many staff officers.  David Stirling, the young officer who wished to live outside the hidebound army routine was one they distrusted!  They had reason to distrust him.  
The failure of sea led attacks on German held North African ports gave opportunity for Stirling's small force to take their opportunity.  Parachuting into a storm, the pilots miles of course, many men suffering injury and what was left of the secret assault a failure it appeared life was not going to be kind to this infant group.  
However already operating in the deserts of Egypt and Libya were the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).  These men knew the desert like taxi drivers know their towns and were used for spying on enemy movements.  This led Stirling to make use of their drivers and arrange a small force to attack enemy airfields well behind the lines destroying infastructure and hindering enemy movements.  It also required, as time past, more security and men at airfields and important points.  

Within a short time Stirling had collected an assortment of tough experienced fighters who endured strict training.  Men who could, and did, walk forty miles without drinking from their water bottles in the midday heat, men who could navigate at night, move stealthily near the enemy and when required could be ruthless.  This produced a wide section of men from a variety of nations who proved equal to the task.  Constant attacks on airfields and enemy positions upset enemy morale, especially the Italians, most of them did not wish to be in the war anyway, damaged their materiel and enabled the British and Allied forces to hinder General Rommels attacks and under British  General Montgomery eventually push them back out of north Africa altogether.
This was was considered a 'clean war' against a 'clean enemy 'the Afrika Corps.'  Men fought to the death but acts of needless murder were not encouraged.  Once they moved into Italy via Sicily things were to change.
David Stirling was by this time held as a Prisoner of War, one who constantly attempted escape, and was in the end incarcerated in Colditz Castle where he ended the war.  His force continued, now much more popular with the fighting Generals if not with those back in the far off offices.  Terrific firefights in Italy which cost many lives in horrific situations began to shape a new mentality for the SAS.  As their numbers grew so did the challenges and operating behind the lined in France before D-Day saw several SAS groups deal not just with the German army but also the more deadly SS troops.  They also had to endure the ressistance fighters who continually split into various factions and spent much time arguing with one another.  On occasions spies amongst them led to enemy action that often caught them onthe hop. 
Having gone before the army in the desert, in Italy and now in France the SAS, now featuring French and Belgian battalions and again containing people from many lands led the way into Holland and Germany.  Fierce fighting, with no back up, often occurs.  
Then in April as the war nears it's end they came across Belsen concentration camp.

This book does not glorify the actions of the SAS though it is a gripping read.  The desert tales left me with a comradeship feeling towards these men, one that all soldiers require and one that took them through their war.  I confess I would have failed the entry requirements!  No matter how strog a man considers himself the war has effects he cannot lose.  It was not different for those that survived the struggle.  Many who began in the desert did not see the wars end, others disappeared in the forests in which they hid, still others were captured and shot out of turn according to Hitler's orders to kill all commandos without mercy.  Not all German army officers were willing to give such orders.  
After the war almost all men found routine life boring.  Some settled down others unsettled lives ended in tragedy.  The mental effects of killing and seeing comrades killed has an effect on the toughest.  Some remain alive even today, many from that war remain but surely not for much longer.
The SAS were at first accepted reluctantly, after the war they were quickly disbanded and not long afterwards once again revived.  Special forces were seen as a requirement of warfare in the early 1950's and during the 'Cold War' period.  So effective were the SAS that all countries soon adopted similar groups.  The French and Belgians of course were quick to do so, other nations followed but it took the US until 1977 to for such a force. All were based on David Stirling's idea of a loose group silently and secretively operating behind the lines.  A special type of man, one who does not boast about his achievements, good or bad.
I found this one of those books I could not put down and was rather annoyed it ended.  That does not happen often.  Partly it was the story, war stories are exciting when the bullets are 70 or so years away from me, partly it was the excellent writing, mostly it was the feeling of comradeship that came through, comradeship in fighting a good casue in a dirty war, and in Europe the war was a dirty war, and fighting for a cause with good comrades.  My other books appear tame by comparison.
 David Stirling on right.


the fly in the web said...

I will order this for pick up when I am next in the U.K.

My father fought in the Spanish Civil certainly marked him with a hatred for the Russian Communist Party who preferred to see the Anarchists go down than fight Franco: he knew the chap who became Marshal Tito from that era and kept in touch with him for years afterwards.
He only began to talk about that, and his more conventional wartime activities, when he was very old: it was clear that he was an effective hand to hand killer and equally clear that he had no regrets.

What comes back to me now is his advice when I was leaving home for the university halls of residence - at that time a cross between a convent and Holloway Prison.

I would no doubt meet men at university, not just young lads of my own age. These men might try to take advantage of a young girl.
This is how to kill them.
Not to injure...they might get up and attack you again.
Finish them.

I think I can still do it.

This may make him sound like a monster...but he was a kind, decent, sociable body as were the men of the LRDG and the SAS...once off duty.

Adullamite said...

Fly, Dad had some good ideas, and understood men at universities! If only some would put his advice to use there now! Many men fought in wars because they had to, few would do it again unless it was needful and then would go but most have had enough of that sort of life. No wodner some think the 50's was a time of improvement. It was a good time as the world was a better place then.

the fly in the web said...

I think you are right about the fifties...the world was decent and life was getting better for most people.

I knew an ex SAS man who worked for the housing department of one of the London boroughs in the sixties.
`His` elderly tenants in one area had trouble with yobs hanging about and threatening them in the evenings...his idea was to gather a couple of his ex SAS friends and descend on the yobs, no holds barred.
End of problem.

But can you imagine that today? He would be in the jug in a dose of salts.

Adullamite said...

Fly, The vigilantie is the sure way of ending such behaviour. The police of course would take the kids sides.