Home Page

This Page

Classic Cars

Contact Me

Last Page

The war in North Africa 1940 - 1943 gave many Europeans experience of the Sahara.
The story of the SAS, 'The Regiment', will be of interest to military historians
as well as to contemporary desert travellers.

Michael Asher - 'The Regiment’ Viking, £20.00
Reviewed by Kit Constable Maxwell

“Aliens…?” enquired my grand-
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 recognition.
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 unremarkable start.
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 but unbeaten.
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 forces.
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 supply lines.
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 comparable size’.
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 and loyalty.
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 the gunpowder.
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 !
Michael Asher – ‘The Regiment’ –
‘The real story of the SAS – The first 50 years’ Viking, £20.00
Hardback, Pages : 624 Isbn: 9780670916337 Published : 01 Nov 2007

Kit Constable Maxwell FRGS ARPS
Email : kx@kitmax.com - www.kitmax.com

Kit Constable-Maxwell, ex Scots Guards, photographer and desert traveller,
recently undertook a crossing of the Calansho and Ribiana sands in Libya.
The expedition retraced the steps of the Long Range Desert Group’s
wartime raid on Fort Murzuq, Libya.
This event was the subject of a lecture at the Victory Services Club, London, April 2007