- - Monday, October 24, 2016


By Ben Macintyre

Crown, $28, 400 pages

They were the pirates of the desert, the mavericks of war who took terrifying risks to infiltrate behind enemy lines — and World War II might not have been won without them.

With this account of the operations of the Special Air Service (SAS), Britain’s secret special forces that cut a swath through the global theater of war, Ben Macintyre has contributed another in his series of stunning insights into crucial battles that remained classified long after hostilities ended. He writes about those who fought in the dark and took appalling risks.

“This is a book about the meaning of courage,” the author writes. He notes that like war itself, battlefield courage took many forms and his topic is a style of warfare that was different and produced “an unexpected species of hero and perhaps a different sort of bravery.”

He explains that the SAS was launched as a raiding force in the North African desert and grew into the most formidable commando unit in the entire war, and was the prototype for special forces like the American Delta Force and the Navy SEALs. The SAS was an experiment that was not popular with the traditionally minded British army because it basically consisted of inserting small groups of highly trained men behind enemy lines, and it specialized in eccentricity. Its members, as one former SAS officer put it, were “the sweepings of the public schools and the prisons,” which was highly unusual in view of the rigid British class system within which species were known to flourish as long as they fitted in.

Mr. Macintyre emphasizes again and again that the SAS was at the sharp end of war’s toughest assignments and inflicted immense damage on enemy forces, both material and psychological, and paid a heavy price in blood and sanity.

“The hallucinatory hell of war echoes through these pages,” he writes, suggesting that the SAS history in wartime explored the psychology of secret unconventional warfare and the reactions of ordinary people in extraordinary wartime circumstances. The book begins with a chilling chapter about the first mission of the fledgling SAS on a night in 1941 when they parachuted by night into the desert behind enemy lines, infiltrated airfields on foot, planted explosives on as many enemy aircraft as they could find and as their pencil bombs exploded behind them, headed back to a rendezvous in the desert. It was believed to be the first time a night parachute assault had been made in the desert and it was to be the first of many.

Before takeoff the men were warned that anyone seriously injured would have to be left behind, and there was, according to the author, “no evidence that any of them found that odd.” It was as though this set the pattern of SAS work.

Appropriately, the founder of SAS was a world-class eccentric. David Stirling proved his brilliance as leader of a group which did not operate by any ordinary rules. Stirling “thrived in war, having failed in peace.” A Scottish aristocrat who survived paralysis from a parachute jump, he went on to even more perilous accomplishments of war.

He didn’t even march the way soldiers were supposed to and was nicknamed The Giant Sloth because of his lackadaisical attitude toward military precision. But what he was plotting from his sick bed was how to smuggle small groups of men into enemy territory and sabotage it before leaving. It was a dangerous strategy that worked in battlefields around the world, as the Nazis discovered. And the range of the SAS was global. As the war moved on, one of their groups was first to come upon the horror of the Nazi death camps at Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald.

As in his previous books on the secrets of espionage, Mr. Macintyre demonstrates superb skill as a journalist and a writer in this riveting book that takes readers into a long-past and still-frightening world of what real war was like.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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