daughter, looking at the front cover of this book.
Well, not quite, but the SAS now have a reputation just as formidable.
Michael Asher’s latest book is
probably the best researched and most accurately portrayed story of
the birth of a regiment and of the determination, optimism and self
sacrifices that brought it into being.
The opening pages describe the Iranian
Embassy siege in 1980. The SAS rescued 19 hostages in a blaze of televised
publicity which established their heroic status and gained them worldwide
The SAS story begins in North Africa
in 1941, a time when hostile forces were threatening the British-occupied
Egypt and the Suez. Various military units started enterprising schemes
for demoralising the enemy. Among them was the redoubtable Colonel
‘Popski’ Peniakoff, and Colonel Ralph Bagnold’s
reconnaissance team, the Long Range Desert Group, (LRDG).
And in 1941 there was David Stirling’s
unique raiding patrols, the Special Air Service, now known worldwide
as the SAS. Stirling, ex-Scots Guards, was described unkindly as an
‘unremarkable’ soldier. His new regiment, too, made an
On the first operational parachute
jump, ill-advisedly ignoring storm warnings, 33 men were lost. This
represented over half the force. Essential equipment vanished, some
dragged for miles by unprecedented desert winds. Bombs exploded dangerously
on impact, time-fuses got wet, ammunition was lost and the whole raid
had to be aborted. The despondent survivors returned to base, bowed
Stirling’s star quality revealed
itself at this darkest time, and under his leadership the show survived.
Accompanied by two star supporters, Jock Lewis and Paddy Mayne, a
faltering start moulded the birth of a highly effective group. Throughout
1941 their unstoppable raiding patrols became the terror of the Axis
Using the desert to its advantage,
and supported by the LRDG, units of the embryonic force would march,
parachute, stalk, bluff and harry the enemy at every turn. They blew
up aircraft, detonated fuel dumps, mined roads, disabled armouries
and caused the enemy to divert much needed troops to reinforce their
Stirling became known to the Germans
as the ‘Phantom Major’, and in the words of Field Marshall
Rommel, ‘he caused us more trouble than any British unit of
Stirling injected the group with his
infectious brand of humour, bravery and discipline. He trusted his
soldiers and expected much of them. He was bold, daring, courageous
and occasionally reckless. His strength lay in the outstanding qualities
of his team who answered his expectations with initiative, valour
Those early days reveal brutal accounts
of nerve-racking deeds. The successes were spectacular but the risks
were high and many good men lost their lives.
What is fascinating about Michael Asher’s
book is the detailed research that accompanies every page. An ex SAS
man himself, Asher has recorded every detail with chilling accuracy.
He doesn’t pull his punches and some events reveal the stresses
accompanying this high profile environment. All this makes for an
exciting read, well backed by historical fact.
The key to the SAS success story is
Stirling’s proven concept of ‘small team, deep penetration’,
a formula which proved so successful in North Africa. They perhaps
became a victim of their own success when ordered later into large
scale mobilisation under infantry structure, something the SAS had
never trained for.
After the Allied success in North Africa
the force took part in a number of difficult and dangerous offensives
in Italy. By now Stirling was imprisoned at Colditz, Jock Lewis was
dead and Paddy Mayne was the much respected mainstay of the regiment.
He became one of the most highly decorated soldiers of the day.
While other desert units were disbanded
about this time the SAS went on to achieve much in their specialist
work behind enemy lines in France in 1945. The stories of grit, determination
and barefaced cheek in pursuit of the enemy is brought to life by
a succession of Asher’s descriptive slang. Lines like…
‘shells blatted, whooshed and crumped…’ brings an
excitement to the text that engages the senses and we can almost smell
After the war in Europe the SAS were
laid off and then resurrected in a succession of military ‘U’
turns. A small unit was then sent to Malaya in the 1950’s where
they distinguished themselves with newly learned skills. They proved
they could now operate successfully in a totally different fighting
environment, so far removed from their desert origins.
Under occasionally questionable and
sometimes inspired leadership, the unit grew in skills and discipline.
Each member of a patrol could take over any other’s role. They
parachuted into jungle canopies, roped themselves down to the desert
floor, 200ft below, learned tracking skills from the natives, supported
locals with medical care and hunted down communist infiltrators. In
true style they excelled in the most technically and environmentally
demanding work and proved to the military hierarchy that they should
be maintained on strength as a special services force.
After that they became involved in
every military conflict, but their success came at a high price. During
an unwelcome posting to Northern Ireland, an SAS patrol was arrested
for border infringement, and at another time some innocent men were
shot dead. Later an SAS patrol was to be branded ‘members of
an unholy priesthood of violence’. This is the price to be paid
for carrying arms and confronting ruthless terrorists in public places.
Other achievements during this time included successful deployment
in Borneo, Aden and Oman.
In 1982 the Falklands conflict started
with a bold SAS espionage sortie on mainland Argentina. The plan failed.
Recriminations were made and regimental discipline questioned. Worse
was to come when a Sea King helicopter crashed in the Atlantic, killing
20 experienced SAS men, including 8 senior NCOs.
Nine years later the Gulf war erupted
and the SAS found themselves back in the desert, 40 years on. Although
the hi-tech environment was changing the way wars were now fought,
and changing the people who fought them, they distinguished themselves
in action but sustained unacceptable casualties.
The book is a vibrant tale tracing
contemporary military history through the eyes of the SAS. It records
the changing face of modern warfare, the rise of urban terrorism and
the attendant demands on special forces. It is a thrilling tale of
achievement and sacrifice, bravery and valour. Read it !
Asher – ‘The Regiment’ –
‘The real story of the SAS – The first 50 years’
Hardback, Pages : 624 Isbn: 9780670916337 Published : 01 Nov 2007