SAS Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre
Happy New Year!I hope that however you marked the occasion you had lots of fun and that 2023 will be brilliant for you all.
Today's book is a little different to the ones I normally review and there a couple of reasons for this. When I was writing my last post reviewing the books I had read in 2022, I was quite shocked to discover I had only read one non-fiction book. Believe it or not, I do enjoy non-fiction and indeed there are 2 such reads on my all time top 10 books both of which I now want to re-read and review for this blog.
The second reason is even more shocking, namely that my sister has recommended a book to me that I actually loved. As background, my wonderful sister and I have stopped recommending books to each other. I suggested to her the Mitchell and Markby series which for some inexplicable reason made my sister VERY ANGRY! And then she recommended the Discovery of Witches series to me, which, if I am being diplomatic I did not love as much as some related to me by blood. ahem. But I am happy to report we have found a common ground now - namely a good TV series.
My sister watched and enjoyed the BBC series SAS Rogue Heroes based on the book by the same name, and has disappeared down a wormhole of reading more about SAS history. As a family we have form in this as for a long time we did believe my mother ran the SAS following her account when she was a 'scout leader' hiking with a group of scouts in what sounded like a descent into madness in the wilds of Scotland. But I digress. And so, after enjoying the TV series immensely and on the look out for a good non-fiction book, I decided to read this. And I loved it. And so. under pain of death from my Sister who would also like you to know that the 11th January would have been Paddy Mayne's birthday, I bring you my review.
In the Summer of 1941, at the height of the war in the Western Desert, a bored and eccentric young Officer, David Stirling, came up with a plan that was radical and entirely against the rules: a small, undercover unit that would inflict mayhem behind enemy lines.
Despite intense opposition, Winston Churchill personally gave Stirling permission to recruit the toughest, brightest and most ruthless soldiers he could find. So began the most celebrated and mysterious military organisation in the world: the SAS.
It was 75 years later that the SAS finally decided to tell its astonishing story. It opened its secret archives for the first time, granting the acclaimed historian Ben Macintyre full access to a treasure trove of unseen reports, memos, diaries, letters, maps and photographs, as well as free rein to interview surviving Originals and those who knew them.
The result is this universally acclaimed book: an exhilarating tale of fearlessness and heroism, recklessness and tragedy. It's the story of renegade men taking monumental risks.
At the start of each TV programme, there was a disclaimer saying however extraordinary the events may seem, they were true and this is a real theme running through this book. Extraordinary people achieving extraordinary things.
Ben Macintyre is one of the first people to be given access to documents and files relating to the start of the SAS and it is a truly astounding story. Commando David Stirling, recovering from in hospital from a back injury formulates a plan that will come to subvert the very nature of warfare. Becoming frustrated with the campaign in Africa and the under-utilisation of the Commando force, he pitches an idea to an acquaintance of his father. and given access to recruit a group of men of his choosing, and with minimal resources, seeks to subvert the very nature of warfare.
Instead of waging a war based on the 'gentleman's' rules of World War One, Stirling decided to target the resources used by the enemies, planes, fuel and supplies, with small groups of men running incursions, striking hard and deadly. It went against how the war had been fought up to that point breaking all the rules.
Stirling's idea came from a chance meeting with a fellow Commando, Jock Lewes, a talented Welsh Guards soldier, serious and studious, and they begin to recruit a motley group of men of all ages, class, profession and skills. Instead of blindly following orders, the men are encouraged to question, suggest and feedback on orders. Lewes and Stirling's small band of men find its most enigmatic when they recruit Paddy Mayne, a qualified solicitor and British Lions Rugby Player from Northern Ireland, who has trouble with authority but is truly an astonishing soldier.
Their first parachute drop together is an unqualified disaster, taking place during a storm, they lose half of the unit. But as the remaining men, set up camp, train hard using unconventional methods (I, for one, would not be jumping from a vehicle moving at 35mph!) and start their first strikes. It becomes clear this unit is something very special, and has the ability to change the course of warfare for ever.
It reads like a Hollywood movie about renegades, doing extraordinary things, a real tale of derring-do. But Ben Macintyre has made his book intensely personal. We read sketches of each founding member's life. Jim Almonds, has a young child, Seekings and Cooper hated each other until they went into their first battle together, Bill Fraser loved his pet dog Withers, who was adopted by the group and Mike Sadler was the most terrific navigator always knowing exactly where he was, where he was going and when he would get there.
Understandably a lot of the book concentrates on Lewes, Stirling and Paddy Mayne. All are brilliant, rule-breakers and independent thinkers. Jock Lewes invents the Lewes-Bomb which the team use to maximum destruction, Mayne is artistic, poetic, kind to animals and a violent monster when the drink is in him. And Stirling, who by his own admission, has failed at everything he has ever achieved, keeps on going, keeps on fighting and keeps on challenging the status quo.
The men are devoted to these three. Ben Macintyre provides a glimpse into the culture and mindset of these elite soldiers who cope with hellish terrains and deadly situations. Most fascinating was how they dealt with loss of their comrades and the obvious camaraderie that they have for each other. Plus we are provided a glimpse into life after the war for the men and how they adjust to civilian life.
And it is all real, the book contains excerpts from letters, photographs of the men, a campaign history and interviews with the men still alive at the time of writing. This stuff actually happened. These are not Hollywood heroes, we are not reading a script from the latest action movie, instead this is the real men fighting in the war, choosing to be part of something rather special.
This book is anything but dull and dry. It's exciting, and a fitting tribute to a group of truly extraordinary individuals. I'm so please my sister recommended this. And I'm already pleased that my reading year has started off with a 5 Star Read.