Rogue Heroes by Ben MacIntyre is a fascinating story of the British unit in World War II which created an entirely new way of fighting the Nazis. It reads more like an action novel than a history book, except that all the characters and action sequences really happened.
The SAS (Strategic Air Service) was the brainchild of David Sterling, a young British Lieutenant who was more known for his parties, drinking and lack of discipline than his military skills. He felt that the middle ranks of the British Army had no imagination whatsoever, and were still trying to use tactics from World War I.
Lieutenant Sterling envisioned a small group of highly trained soldiers which would strike the German air bases in North Africa using hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. This concept may seem common-place on today’s battlefields, but at the outset of World War II, this was a brand-new concept. At the time, commanders were still relying solely on full scale frontal assaults. As a result, the traditional Army men were very hostel to Sterling’s concepts.
In fact, Sterling probably never would have gotten a chance to try out his ideas, except for one thing. David Sterling came from a very upper class British family, and in those days, class was still important- even in the Army. Sterling got invited to dinners with various high ranking officers, where he used the opportunity to present his plan to command generals. He was able to skip the middle-rank bureaucracy which normally would have prevented any general from seeing such a wild scheme.
At the time, the war was not going well for the British in North Africa. Rommel was beating back the British forces and it looked like the Germans would soon drive the British out entirely. The British generals sanctioned the SAS and gave Sterling men and equipment. The British high command did not really think the idea would work, but at this point they were willing to try anything that could possibly hurt Rommel. If the SAS worked it would be great. If it did not, then the few men lost (killed) was very considered very minor.
The SAS did succeed beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. The men worked in small teams that lived far out in the desert. The Germans were not expecting attacks to come from the desert since they did not think it was possible for any troops to stay in the desert for long periods of time.
With small teams of men, the SAS was able to sneak onto the German airfields and plant bombs on planes. Over the course of a few months, the SAS has destroyed hundreds of aircraft.
Rogue Heroes gives fascinating details. For example the very name “SAS” had started out as the name of a fictitious unit, long before there was an actual group. A British intelligence officer had been giving the task of creating false intelligence reports to confuse the Germans. He came up with the impressive sounding name “Strategic Air Services”, and started rumors that this was a gigantic force which would be parachuting in to attack Rommel’s men. This larger than life fictitious unit existed long before there were any real soldiers to go along with it. Throughout the war British Intelligence continued to create false reports to make the SAS appear many times larger than it really was.
In fact, the psychological impact of the SAS on the German troops was one of the main successes of the group. The SAS hit and run tactics behind German lines made the German troops worry that they were never safe no matter where they were.
When the war in North Africa was won, the SAS moved to Europe and continued its work. This is where the war became even nastier. They were so successful that Hitler himself had taken notice of them. He issued his infamous “Commando Order”. This directed that anyone found operating behind German front lines was to be immediately executed, even if in uniform and surrendering. In addition, the Gestapo carried out reprisal executions of French civilians every time there was an SAS raid.
There is one shameful period in SAS history that Ben MacIntyre left out of the book. In the 1970s-1980s the British used the SAS in Northern Ireland as murder squads to kill members of the IRA without trial. On the one hand, the British claimed that all people in Northern Ireland were British citizens. However, the SAS was given instructions to “shoot on sight” any leaders of the IRA even if they were unarmed. No capture or trial. On other occasions, the SAS did not do the killings itself, but provided intelligence to Ulster Loyalists who then carried out attacks on Catholic civilians. Even today, this period of SAS history has been conveniently swept under the rug.
Ben MacIntyre is an excellent writer, and makes history come alive. He focuses on the individual men of the SAS and we get to know these unique personalities on a first name basis. Of course, this makes parts of Rogue Heroes very sad. War is not a game, and a high percentage of SAS men were killed due to the large amount of combat they were in. Rogue Heroes is a real tribute to these men. It has the respect to treat these men not as superhuman, but as real people who made extraordinary sacrifices.
We highly recommend Rogue Heroes, and hope you enjoy it as much as we did.