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00:02: Welcome to the History Extra Podcast, fascinating historical conversations from BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed.
00:18: The SAS or Special Air Service is Britain's elite special forces unit. Founded in the deserts
00:26: of North Africa during the Second World War, it's become famous across the globe for
00:31: the physical and mental toughness of its recruits.
00:35: But who was responsible for its creation?
00:38: What was its original purpose?
00:40: And what impact did a parachuting padray have on the morale of its members in the aftermath of D-Day?
00:47: The author and broadcaster Joshua Levine has written an authorised history of the SAS during its formative years.
00:54: And for today's everything you want to know episode, he answered your questions on SAS activity during the Second World War.
01:02: In conversation with John Borgham.
01:04: So Joshua, a big thank you for joining me on the pod today.
01:07: Absolutely pleasure.
01:08: I love you being here.
01:09: Now we've got a lot of questions to get through, but let's start with a relatively straightforward
01:13: one, which has been submitted by Haley Hales on Instagram.
01:17: And that is, how was the SAS formed?
01:21: Maybe speak forward, but it's quite a big question because there's a tendency in the
01:26: story like this to oversimplify and say, well, it was one person.
01:31: Of course, that's not the case with this as with so many things.
01:35: It was a lot of influences.
01:36: A lot goes into the DNA of the wartime SAS.
01:41: So you can look back to, for example, T. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.
01:46: And he was carrying out sabotage behind enemy lines in the First World War.
01:51: He was described somewhere as drifting about like a shapeless gas somewhere in the silent desert.
01:58: So clearly you can see how he would have been an inspiration to what the SAS later became.
02:04: After Lawrence you had the long-range desert group.
02:07: This was a unit founded by Michael Ralph Bagnold.
02:10: He was between the wars, a signals officer in Egypt.
02:17: He became a desert explorer.
02:19: And he invented all kinds of different ways of kind of driving through the desert, of surviving in the desert.
02:25: And then he founded this long-range desert group, the LRDG, which was a very sort of meritocratic
02:32: reconnaissance unit of tough guys who went out into the desert to find out information and also to carry out raids.
02:38: So that's another big strand, a direct strand of DNA.
02:43: You've got the commandos and the early officers and men of the Waterms S.S. came from Leiforce,
02:50: which is a commando unit, a composite commando unit, which was sent out to the Middle East,
02:56: but then achieved very little and left all these people with basically nowhere to go,
03:01: nothing to do, except to be sent back to their units.
03:04: And they became the nucleus of the Waterms S.A.S.
03:07: But there you've got the less direct parts of the story.
03:10: There were some of them.
03:11: More immediately, you've got a man called Dudley Clark, who's actually become quite well-known
03:16: in recent years and features in a lot of different media accounts.
03:21: But he was the man who basically created the idea of strategic deception during the Second
03:27: World War, and he created a fake unit known as the First S. S. Brigade.
03:34: his reasoning was they captured an Italian officer whose diary said that the British have
03:41: parachute troops here in the Middle East. Now Clark realized that by creating a fake
03:47: parachute unit to convince the enemy he was pushing it in open door. They already believed
03:51: it that it wouldn't take much to really reinforce that belief. So what he did was to create
03:57: this fake, he called it the Special Air Service Brigade, Special Air Service Battalion.
04:04: And one of the things, one of the major strands of this deception, was to take a couple
04:08: of ordinary soldiers from a young re-regiment in Palestine to bring them to Cairo, to put
04:16: them basically in fake uniforms, fastuned with parachutes, and to give them a script to
04:21: deliver, to send them into cafes, into restaurants, to the zoo, to the pyramids, to cabareys,
04:27: all around with this story that they were members of parachute-uniquely the SAS.
04:33: Now it was a really difficult acting job actually because what they had to do was to basically
04:39: people were coming up to them the whole time and saying, you know, what do you, you parachute,
04:43: you know, didn't know we had any parachute troops.
04:46: And they would have to, first of all, push these people away.
04:48: So I'm sorry, I really can't say anything at all.
04:51: And then maybe I can say something.
04:54: And you know, sort of drip feed the story of the SAS to these curious people.
05:00: idea was that this story would then kind of get out because people spoke to each
05:04: other and it would get out to any agency, it would get out to the enemy. So that
05:09: was a particular strand of this story. Now while I was writing this book, I went
05:14: into the National Archives to find the the file relating to this deception called
05:19: Operation a Beam and I found the two men, pictures of the two men in Cairo, and
05:26: their names, one was called Smith, I was never gonna find him. The other was
05:29: called German, GRMIN, which is quite a distinctive name.
05:34: And he came from Wolverhampton.
05:35: So it's not really detective working, you know,
05:38: just went on the internet to look for German,
05:42: And lo and behold, there's a taxi firm run by Michael German in Wolverhampton.
05:46: So I phoned up on the off-chance.
05:49: I got through to Michael David German, who thought I was
05:51: phoning for a taxi, but I wasn't.
05:53: I was phoning to ask him strange questions about his father in the Middle East.
05:57: And it turned out his father had been in the Middle East during the war, and he was the same man.
06:03: But what he told me was that his father had been a member of the real SAS.
06:09: And so just digging deeper what I found was that German had been sent to do this deception job.
06:16: He'd done it so well, so successfully that he'd been singled out for a promotion, he'd
06:20: been commissioned, he'd gone into the commandos, and then in 42 become a member of the real
06:26: S.S. So he joined all the sort of legends like Sterling and Maine, none of whom ever knew
06:34: that he had been a member of the S.S. before they had. The fake S.S. before they had. So
06:39: then, as it's always been said, is that Sterling set up the S.S. Basically, Lafors failed,
06:47: that commandos failed various members who were, you know, these people with a lot of initiative,
06:52: a lot of drive, a lot of energy. They tried to get other things off the ground. Other sort of
06:58: commando style units. One of the men was Jacques Louis, who tried to form a parachute unit in the
07:05: desert. His effort, Storl, wasn't taken up. But one of the men who jumped with him was David Sterling,
07:13: and who kind of renewed the effort to get this parachute unit going. And so along with his brother,
07:18: who was close to Orkinleck, the commander-in-chief, he streamlined it into a small group
07:26: who would be dropped by parachute at night and would approach a target and strike very quickly,
07:31: hard and quickly, and then kind of sneak away back into the desert nights. And he had to get,
07:39: Sterling had to get the support of the higher-ups and what he was was like a persuader, a schmoozer.
07:43: He was a charm who was also very well connected, had a lot of people.
07:48: And he got the go ahead, he brought Jacques Lewis, who had had the original unit back into the
07:54: fold to become training officer. And the two of them kind of worked together to set up this SAS,
08:00: sterling to the outside work, the political work, using his connections, using his persuasion,
08:06: Lewis did the kind of practical day-to-day military organization, the training, the setting it up.
08:11: He later said, actually, in interview, I think he said,
08:13: I fashioned the SES from the inside, David from the outside.
08:17: I mean, beginning to see, there were a lot of different people
08:20: involved in different ways in getting the SES off the ground.
08:23: So how has the SES formed?
08:26: There's an answer, other kind, and there's a lot of information in there.
08:29: But clearly, it wasn't just a simple one man had an idea,
08:35: and two days later, it was sent to load of parachutes.
08:38: It wasn't that simple.
08:39: Fantastic, that's an excellent summary. Now, SAS stands for Special Air Service. What made the SAS special?
08:47: I suppose there's two ways of looking at this. I mean, first of all, you know, strictly speaking in terms of terminology,
08:54: the word special was already being used. I mean, from late 1940, Commando battalions were known as Special Service battalions.
09:03: So the word special, you know, wasn't particularly applied to the SAS.
09:08: It wasn't Dudley Clark's idea that then David Sterling decided, yes, we are special.
09:13: It was a word that was around.
09:15: But beyond that, the fact was that the SAS did do a very distinct job,
09:20: a very specialized sabotage unit with distinctive skills.
09:25: So I don't think it's too much of a stretch or too much of a misnomer
09:31: to say that the SAS deserve the title, Special Air Service.
09:36: So what was the SAS's first mission?
09:39: Actually, you could look at this a couple of ways.
09:42: I mean, in some ways, the SAS first mission
09:45: was actually a raid on a British airfield called Heliopolis, while they were still training.
09:50: Because David Sterling, while they were training,
09:53: had taken up this 10-pound bet with our air officer,
09:57: his men couldn't sneak onto an airfield
09:59: and plant fake bomb stickers on British airplanes and then get away and do it without the centuries catching them.
10:06: And he took up this bit and so his men basically traipsed across the desert and then laid
10:12: up and then actually did manage to get onto the airfield and did manage to put the sticker.
10:17: So he won his bet.
10:18: And it was also extremely good pre-operational training for the SES, except one person
10:25: man called Owen McGonagall, who instead of marching his men across the desert for four days,
10:32: what he did was basically to hold up a train. He shot a torch at the train driver,
10:36: held up the train, train stopped, and took his men very quickly down the line where they then stole
10:44: an army vehicle and took them the rest of the way. So in most other units, I think he'd have been
10:49: in a lot of trouble for doing that, for basically cheating, completely cheating on the task.
10:53: But if you think about the sort of unit the SAS was, you know, he showed immense initiative.
10:58: So, you know, he wasn't actually going to be reprimanded.
11:00: He was probably going to be congratulated.
11:02: So this raid, this training raid was a success.
11:07: And that led to the first real raid,
11:09: the first real mission known as Operation Squatter, which was against two Axis-held airfields.
11:16: One was called Casala, one was Tamiimi,
11:19: and the truth is it was a complete disaster.
11:20: Total and utter disaster.
11:23: 216 Squadron, these five Bristol Bombays of 216 Squadron, carried the men, they parachuted
11:30: out, you know, as was the plan, as was the idea of the Special Air Service, and they got caught
11:36: basically in free weather conditions. It was the heaviest storm that the area had seen for many,
11:42: many years. And so it was a total disaster, not a single party even made it to their target.
11:51: The men were killed, men were captured, and barely two dozen of the men who set off actually even made it back safely.
11:59: Well, it looked in the aftermath of that as though the SAS would simply be disbanded before it had even begun.
12:06: So David Sterling had to be very careful to, well, two things really, to keep the SAS out of the way.
12:12: He took it off to a quiet place where basically it wouldn't get the attention of anybody who could disband it.
12:19: But beyond that, on the way back, he also started to question whether it should be parachuted
12:26: in, whether the desert was really the right place for parachuting into position, and whether
12:31: in fact it wouldn't be better to enlist the help of the long-range desert group.
12:36: I mean, long-range desert group had picked them up from the meeting point to take them away.
12:40: Why not get the long-range desert group also to drive them in to a point from which they
12:45: could make their way on foot and then wait and then attack and then be waiting for them
12:51: when they came out from the attack again. So that's really what was learned from that
12:56: first disastrous raid. Indeed and that ties really neatly into this next question from
13:02: WaterFist on Instagram which is what impacted the long range desert group have on the effectiveness
13:07: of the early SAS. I've already talked a bit about the long range desert group and how
13:13: it was kind of in the in the SAS DNA already. To boil that down a bit more, I think it was in terms
13:20: of methods very important. So the SAS, you know, would end up using its own vehicles and it was using
13:27: methods like the sun compass and the sandmatch and the sand channels and the clothes and the
13:33: rations, all the things that had sort of originally been worked out for the desert by the Long Range
13:37: Shes a group. I think you can also say it took its discipline almost, its style of discipline
13:43: from the Long Range Shes a group. It was very, both a very meritocratic
13:47: organizations, whether it was a quietly understood discipline, rather than a sort of loud imposed
13:53: discipline. The first names might be used, where anybody could offer a solution to a problem,
13:58: didn't matter who you were, you could pipe up and say, look, I think it should be done this way,
14:03: and you'd be listened to. People almost lived in the desert as equals really.
14:11: The SS, it's disciplined when it was at its base, was perhaps a little bit more, but when it was
14:17: out in the desert, it was very meritocratic. In terms of raids, I mean, the LRDG was mainly a
14:23: reconnaissance unit, but it also did carry out raids and the SS then did that clearly at the
14:29: beginning and for quite a while the LRDG was the SAS's taxi service.
14:35: You know, it took them to rage and it brought them back from rage and it was only after a while.
14:40: The SS decided, you know, he wanted to be able to drive itself.
14:44: And then in terms of personnel, probably the most successful and gifted of the SAS navigators,
14:52: doesn't navigate as a man called Mike Sadler, who's still alive, aged 103, you know,
14:57: I've been to see many times now and is absolutely fantastic company.
15:02: He was practically poached by David Sterling from the LRDG.
15:06: He was an Englishman, but he'd gone out not much more than the boy to work in Rhodesia
15:10: where he became a farmer, then joined Rhodesian Army and the artillery, joined the LRDG,
15:17: met some LRDG men in a bar, and from there he was navigating the SAS and doing other
15:25: work but also sometimes navigating the SAS and sterling and the others were so
15:30: impressed with them that they basically nabbed it. He said there was never a
15:33: point when he joined the SAS it just sort of happened because if sterling
15:37: wanted something he tended to get it. So they really are very very tightly linked
15:44: to the point that when I'll come to this later but when a few SAS men including
15:49: Sadler gave a gave an interview to the New Yorker magazine in early 1943 about
15:55: what they did. One of them, Johnny Cooper, actually said, and there's also an organization called
16:00: the Long Range Desert Group. You actually just mentioned it because to him it naturally came
16:06: almost in the same breath as the SAS. Fantastic. Now we've been in North Africa,
16:12: let's go to Europe. What role did the SAS play during the Italian campaign?
16:17: So the SAS reorganised itself after it had been in the desert and in Tunisia. It changed itself
16:24: quite significantly. One arm of the now first Special Air Service Regiment became known as
16:30: the Special Rating Squadron, the SRS. So in July 1943 it was basically sent in advance of the
16:40: main invading force to be used as an old-style commando unit, basically as shock troops thrown
16:48: at the enemy to knock them off their defenses. It's basically knockout artillery before the arrival
16:54: of the main invading force. And insistently and Italy, that's what this special
16:58: rating squadron did. They jumped ashore and stormed enemy positions and they carried out
17:05: street fighting. You know, they did all the kinds of things, all the kind of commando actions
17:11: that David Sterling was really trying to get the SAS away from. I mean, that was the commando's
17:17: jobs. And yet it was never meant to be the SAS's jobs. But to keep it going, to find a role
17:23: for it, Paddy Main, who was then in charge of the SRS, basically had to agree that that's
17:28: what it would do. And actually, Paddy Main was keen to get in a fight. So I'm not sure
17:32: he really minded particularly that if he was seeing action, his memory was seeing action,
17:37: you know, that was something. But it was basically the only way to keep the SAS going was to agree
17:42: to that. And there was a second SAS regimen, which was commanded by David Sterling's brother.
17:49: and that did carry on doing more sabotage-style roles and not always initially with a great deal of success.
18:00: But mainly, on Sicily and in Italy, it was really a kind of commando unit.
18:06: And as I say, not particularly what they've been, assess, been trained for.
18:10: train for, but also one of these actions,
18:15: termally, was probably the fiercest fighting the SAS ever experienced during the entire war.
18:21: And this was when they were fighting.
18:22: This was after the Italians had surrendered, and basically Germany, the Germans, moved to occupy the country.
18:29: And so the German resistance was kind of immensely fierce.
18:34: So this was really hard fighting, really hard
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19:46: we have D-Day. What role did the SAS play then? The SAS in France basically reverted to
19:53: something much closer to its original role, the role that Sterling had set it up to do.
20:00: The idea was that it would be parachuted behind enemy lines where it would set up bases
20:07: and it would attempt to stop the German or to slow the German move towards Normandy
20:15: where it would relieve the forces fighting in Normandy.
20:20: So that was the basic idea.
20:22: I mean, you know, beyond that sort of specific, you would also just cause as much difficulty,
20:27: much damage to the German war machine behind the lines as it possibly could.
20:31: So Operation Titanic was a plan to drop people on D-Day itself, and these men were going
20:38: to be dropped with dummies known as Ruputs, and they were going to simulate basically parachute
20:44: troops coming in in large numbers in areas other than the areas where the real parachute
20:48: troops were to be dropping to make the Germans think that the attack had begun already, and
20:54: these dummies, we're sure, smaller than real people would also have lots of explosives
21:01: attached so that when they landed, they would make the noise of paratroopers who were attacking.
21:07: So that was one thing.
21:08: But the idea also was to drop people further inland, to set up various bases.
21:13: The idea was to start sabotage almost immediately, to stop other troops, German troops, to
21:20: arriving to help out those already in Normandy.
21:23: So there was a lot that was going on and it was a kind of reversion to the original idea
21:30: of the SAS as a sabotage unit, as a unit that actually would work behind the lines to really get at them.
21:40: And then how did the SAS come to be involved in the liberation of Balson?
21:45: So the SAS were moving through Germany.
21:48: They were in the belly of the beast, if you like.
21:51: they were simply the first ones there and what they found was basically horror
21:56: beyond description, horror beyond understanding. I mean, some did try to describe it and did
22:03: as well as they possibly could. One man, John Tonkin, who was there, I mean, there's
22:08: some dispute and debate about who was actually first there, but it really doesn't
22:16: particularly matter. It was the fact is the essay us were there. And John Tonkin arrived,
22:21: and as far as he was concerned, and I got pictures, he took at the time in the book, he was arriving
22:30: at a, what seemed like a very, you know, nicely maintained military camp. And he got there,
22:37: and there was a German guard outside who smiled at him and he smiled back. He just thought he'd
22:42: arrived at a some camp. And then when he got in, he couldn't believe what he was seeing. The horror
22:49: just, just, you know, he'd been minutes before he'd been smiling with a guard outside. And now he was,
22:56: he was in the jaws of hell, he was in some kind of gahana. And they did. I mean, people did
23:03: describe what he saw. Well, this is something that Tonkin actually wrote himself. He can
23:07: better than I, he says it than I say it. He says the place was guarded by Romanian Nazi troops
23:14: and while we were there they were still just shooting prisoners and we got hold of all these
23:19: officers and we line them up and I said unless that shooting stops immediately you're all going
23:23: to die very horribly and the shooting stopped and that was the only way to deal with it. And what,
23:29: you know, one person with him saw was, for example, was a female prisoner reach under offense to get
23:36: get hold of a rotten turnip and this is in front of the SAS.
23:40: They were just watching the guard saw the woman doing this
23:43: and just shot her in the head.
23:45: And so it was though the place was so
23:49: inured to this kind of behavior that nobody there even
23:55: noticed that it was wrong or there was any problem with it.
23:59: And they were greeted by Joseph Kramer,
24:04: Beast of Belson, the man in charge, a common debt.
24:07: And by Erma Greese, who was the female common debt.
24:10: And again, you know, Kramer just sort of greeted them in a very friendly fashion.
24:15: And more or less said, oh, you know, it's not very nice here, but
24:19: not much I can do about it. So it's extraordinary brutal.
24:23: And bear in mind, these were SIS men, who these were the toughest people you can imagine.
24:28: I mean, you know, they had the things they had already been through.
24:33: and they were shocked, they were wholly shocked by horrified by what they saw.
24:38: I've got a question here from Suzy 1340 on Twitter and this concerns training.
24:45: How highly trained did they have to be for the missions they were sent on?
24:48: The SS training is very, very interesting from the beginning.
24:51: You know, they had to do parachute training, even when they weren't parachuting for,
24:56: you know, much of the desert contest, they still trained. In fact, you know, the first two men
25:01: died when we're called Duffy and Warburton, and they died in a parachute accident while training.
25:07: So the parachute had to be done, and also, you know, this was all set up. The training originally
25:12: was set up by Jacques Louis, and you know, he didn't really know what he was doing. He had to
25:17: create his own training regime. So people jumped from large platforms that have been built by
25:24: one of the men. They jumped off the back of trucks. You know, these trucks would be going at 30
25:29: miles now and they jumped backwards off the trucks and there was one man who read his account
25:35: and said, I was so pleased when I didn't have to jump backwards off the back of a truck anymore,
25:40: because I really thought this was going to kill me before I ever got into action. It was that
25:43: dangerous. They did long marches with very little water in the desert, with very heavy packs,
25:49: and you know, anybody who couldn't keep up or anybody who tried to steal somebody else's water,
25:54: they were out immediately. They did initiative tests, memory tests, one man remembers sitting at a table
26:01: of objects for 30 seconds and trying to remember as many of those objects as he could and then
26:07: you know and he was taken out and had to list what they were, it's almost a game show. They had to be
26:13: a what was known as S-minded, sabotage-minded. So in other words they would be able to
26:20: and I don't know, look at a bridge and know immediately.
26:23: Instead of looking at that bridge and thinking,
26:25: that's very nice, that's very well interestingly built, know immediately how to destroy it,
26:30: sort of instinctively, the best way to destroy that,
26:32: and the best way to put aircraft out of action,
26:35: the best places to sabotage rail lines, all this kind of thing.
26:39: So there was a great deal of very distinctive training
26:44: that went in, and that was, you know,
26:46: so a lot of it was, was, you know, to do with endurance,
26:49: Lot of it was to do with weaponry, but a lot of it was also initiative and very specific to the role.
26:59: Now, this might sound like a slightly odd question, but did every member of the SAS actually fight?
27:05: No, no, no.
27:08: People assume that the SAS was a fighting unit and the SAS was a fighting unit, absolutely,
27:13: but certainly not the case that every member of the SAS fought.
27:17: The fact is that I can think immediately of three, well, two and a half, incredibly important
27:24: members of the SAS, who weren't there to fight.
27:27: Now why say half?
27:28: Because the navigator, Mike Sadler, actually did fight.
27:32: He did quite a lot of fighting.
27:33: But his primary role wasn't to fight.
27:34: His primary role was to get people, navigate them to the raid, to where they actually had
27:40: to fight, and then bring them back.
27:42: They simply couldn't do their job without him doing his job superbly well.
27:48: You had the SAS doctors, the medical officers, the first one was Malcolm Playdel, who actually
27:56: wrote a book and left diaries behind and lots of different accounts which are in the Imperial
28:02: War Museum.
28:04: And he is a fascinating man because he really, you know, he had a fascinating view of the
28:10: say, yes, and he would basically be taken on the raid and then he would wait at the assembly
28:16: point and wait and people would be brought back and they would be wounded, some badly, some
28:21: not so, and he would have to deal with them. And you can see what's in common is that these people
28:26: were immensely respected, even almost sort of worshipped by the fighting men because they simply
28:33: couldn't do their jobs without them. And the one who's most striking to me is the Padre,
28:39: Michael Fraser Maclusky, the chaplain. Now he was parachuted into France with other members
28:45: of the SAS on two Operation Houndsworth. He parachuted in. Now before he went, he was really
28:52: nervous because he couldn't imagine what he would do, what he would do, what possible
28:57: use he would be, you know, in a camp behind the lines when all these people were fighting
29:01: for their survival. What could he, you know, what could he add to it? Surely they would,
29:06: And these were not religious men, by the way.
29:07: They were just tended not to be religious men.
29:09: So surely he'd just get in the way.
29:11: I mean, he was parachuteed in.
29:15: And he caught in the upper branches of a tree.
29:18: And he parachuteed in.
29:19: He had with him hymn books.
29:22: He had a large cross.
29:23: He had sort of all the paraphernalia to hold a service.
29:27: A lot of different stuff.
29:29: He caught in the upper branch of a tree
29:31: and basically then fell 40 feet down to the bottom of the tree
29:34: and knocked himself out and he woke up and was sick.
29:36: And so that was a great start.
29:38: I mean, very nearly killed.
29:40: Then, you know, once he was there,
29:41: he started giving these open air services.
29:44: Very nervous that no one would want to do it
29:46: and they would just be a pain.
29:48: And what he found was that people really wanted to go.
29:50: People loved him, absolutely loved him.
29:53: To the point where he considered carrying a gun,
29:55: but people said, no, no, no, you must, and the fighter said, please don't,
29:59: because they basically wanted him to be a reminder of why they were doing it.
30:04: He was a man of peace. He was a reminder of home, a reminder of what they were going back to a reminder.
30:10: And he also, you know, in these situations people become religious.
30:15: You know, people have no interest in religion, suddenly latch on to religion. I mean, that's a known thing.
30:20: And here he was, sharing the same risks that they were sharing,
30:24: and holding these outdoor services going around the different camps.
30:29: And they loved him for it. You know, he became immensely important.
30:34: So in the same way that the navigator and the same way that the doctor allowed them to go about their business
30:39: So the Padre allowed them to go gave them the freedom to fight for whatever it was worth fighting for
30:47: So these people were immensely important and they haven't really I think got their due in the past because
30:54: They were you know as important as the fighting men obviously the fighting men
30:57: You know that the sharp end was the point of the essayist, but these
31:02: These were, these support staff, if you like, were immensely important.
31:06: Absolutely fascinating.
31:07: I had a question here from Andresito 83 on Instagram and that is how secretive were the
31:16: They obviously were very secretive in the sense that to go about their business, they
31:20: had to be totally secretive and that nobody could know what they were doing.
31:24: I mean, they were, they were, as Lawrence was, this gas, you know, blowing about in
31:30: the desert and had to arrive unannounced. And an element of that secrecy, or rather
31:36: a consequence of that secrecy, was that they were feared, terribly feared, because they
31:42: were attacking all of these aerodromes along the coast, and because they were more successful,
31:48: when the backstacks was moving forward, they left a far longer trail behind them, a supply trail.
31:55: And so the SAS had this, you know, all of these different targets that they could go for.
32:00: And the Axis troops were very, very nervous. They didn't know where they were going to strike next.
32:05: So they had to be secretive in that sense, but also they had to be known about for the enemy to fear them.
32:12: So, you know, it's a kind of, yes, they had to be secretive, but they also had to be known about.
32:16: So one time when it went too far, the SAS were basically about to carry out a whole series of
32:22: The biggest raids they've ever carried out on a whole series of airfields along the Mediterranean
32:28: coast because there was going to be an attempt to send ships to relieve Malta and these ships
32:35: would be attacked by airplanes from these bases along the Mediterranean coast. So the SAS was
32:43: going to go ahead and advance attack these bases and try and put all the aircraft out of action.
32:48: Now, the fact that these SAS raids were about to be carried out was sent back as a message
32:56: by the American military attaché, back to basically President Roosevelt, back in Washington.
33:02: The American military attaché, a man called Bonne Fellas, was getting almost complete information from the British.
33:10: And he was sending it back to Roosevelt, who was absolutely fascinated with what was going on.
33:16: back a message saying that the sabotage troops are going to raid lots of airfields.
33:22: And unfortunately, and what wasn't known was that his messages, his code had been cracked
33:32: by the enemy and his messages were being read by the Germans.
33:35: So Rommel would know by lunchtime the next day whatever had been sent back.
33:40: So he knew that these raids were going to be carried out.
33:43: And so these raids were compromised and a lot of them were dealt, even though it didn't
33:47: say exactly where they were coming, were basically the enemy were waiting for them.
33:53: Now clearly that's the kind of secrecy that had to be maintained.
34:00: But there's sort of wider secrecy, the fact that the SS, in fact, you know, really early
34:04: on, even a few days before the SS's first rage, before Operation Squatter, a Pathane
34:10: newsreel team went and recorded films on the SAS in training.
34:18: And it was shown back at home to British audiences.
34:23: Now they weren't called the SAS.
34:25: But of course, it had come out of the SAS that come out of Dudley-Claught's reception.
34:30: So they wanted it known.
34:32: They actually wanted it known that parachute troops were in the area.
34:37: So, you know, it's a balance, isn't it?
34:40: On the one hand, yes, absolutely.
34:41: They have to be well known.
34:42: On the other hand, they have to be a secret organization.
34:45: It's not straightforward.
34:46: Alex Plotkin on Facebook asks, were there any foreign SAS units?
34:51: And what were their greatest achievements?
34:53: Yes, there absolutely were some very, very effective foreign SAS units.
34:59: So for example, there were French SAS regiments.
35:01: There was a Belgian SAS regimen.
35:04: There was a Greek sacred squadron.
35:06: And there were lots of individuals within the SAS
35:10: who were veterans of the Spanish Civil War.
35:15: In fact, two men with Spanish names, Spanish men tried to change their names.
35:21: One tried to change it to Francis Drake.
35:24: And he was told by the war officer
35:25: that he couldn't change his name to Francis Drake, because that was ridiculous.
35:30: So the work, quite a large number of foreign units
35:35: and foreign individuals. In fact, there were even German soldiers. Well, there was first
35:40: of all a group of Jewish German troops who had already spent time basically dressed in
35:47: German uniformed behind German lines doing sabotage, doing reconnaissance. And then they
35:52: were sort of taken on by the SAS to do a series of particular raids and they were joined
35:57: by two German POWs. So two people who had been fighting with the WAM Act until very, very
36:04: recently, it had been decided in POW camp that both of them could be now trusted.
36:08: And so they were sent out with these Germans, used to carry out sabotage in the Middle
36:13: East on particular airfields.
36:16: And one of these men, once he got to the basically main gate of the airfield, went up to the
36:24: office and went in and said, look, I'm a German.
36:28: I, the only way I could get my freedom was to join the British Army.
36:32: I'm here with a bunch of sabotage troops and we're about to go in and so please can you
36:37: send your men out and surround these trucks?
36:41: And at first he wasn't believed and then he really went on and they did.
36:45: And lots of men were killed and that particular raid was betrayed and that man was given a medal by Rommel.
36:51: I mean, there's a lot of different stories.
36:54: Yes, the SAS did have all kinds of foreigners, including Germans.
37:00: Now we're getting towards the end of the list, Joshua. One of the last questions I had was,
37:04: why was the SAS disbanded after World War II? The SAS disbanded at the end of the war very simply
37:11: because it was felt that they'd said their purpose. But it's arguable, the SAS wasn't really
37:16: ever disbanded after the war because little strands of the SAS actually did continue. So there was
37:22: a war crimes investigation team led by man called Bill Barkworth, which carried on its work
37:32: after the main body of the SS was disbanded. Other SS mobile teams were sent in degrees to
37:38: investigate the role of civilians, local people who rescued Allied servicemen. And these all,
37:46: you know, kept going. And then in 1947, the SS name and the SS idea was resurrected with the
37:52: the formation of the 21st SAS regimen.
37:55: So, I mean, you could say that, I mean, yes,
38:01: yes, it is banded, but perhaps you could also argue
38:03: that reports of the SAS's death were slightly exaggerated.
38:08: Now, I have quite an interesting question here,
38:10: which is, who deserves the praise for the formation, development, and progress of the SAS?
38:16: It's been submitted by an account
38:17: set up in tribute to Paddy May on Twitter.
38:20: So I think they may already have an answer in mind.
38:23: Well, would it be easier if I just said Paddy Main?
38:25: Well, as I suggested before, it's not straightforward.
38:29: Lots of people do.
38:30: You can go all the way back to, you can say,
38:33: Dudley Clark deserves some.
38:34: You can say Bill Sterling deserves some.
38:37: You can say David Sterling and Jacques Lewis.
38:41: That's the formation for the development.
38:45: I mean, I think Sterling and Lewis,
38:49: had the qualities that the other didn't have. So Sterling was a persuader, a politician,
38:55: a man who could, you know, with connections, who could get the SAS off the ground in that
38:59: sense. Lewis was a technician, a man who could train people up, who could improvise to train
39:05: people up, who could get the SAS off the ground as a working entity. Then in terms of progress,
39:14: I think absolutely Paddy Main was just a tremendous inspiration.
39:20: First of all, he was a great fighter himself, but he was an inspiration to the people around him.
39:26: And you got endless accounts from other members of the SASU who basically talk about the
39:31: fact they had to live up to Paddy Main.
39:35: So much what they did was an attempt to show him that they could begin to do what he could do.
39:42: So he was immense inspiration to the point that when David Sterling sort of turned him into
39:48: or tried to make him into the training officer,
39:50: the job Lewis was killed in 41 and Sterling tried to replace him as training officer with
39:57: Paddy Main, you know, Sterling immediately realized he'd made a terrible mistake
40:01: in his argument, but he actually did it in order to because he had a kind of rivalry going with
40:05: Main. Main was getting a lot more obvious success than he was on the on the raids and you know,
40:11: maybe there was an element of jealousy and sort of trying to sideline him as training officer.
40:16: But anyway, it certainly wasn't a good idea because he was the person that everybody wanted
40:22: to emulate. Good him just telling people what to do. He had to lead from the front.
40:27: So in terms of the development, I think Maine was arguably the most important. But these are
40:34: are three different things, formation, development and progress. And there are so many answers,
40:43: names that could be answered to those questions.
40:48: Yeah, I mean, out of interest, you talked about the sort of the differences between David
40:53: Sterling and Paddy Mayna's people. I mean, how did their lives before the war shape their military
40:58: careers? Oh, this is a very interesting question, because David Sterling had spent part in 1930s
41:03: trying to succeed as an artist in Paris. He had wanted to be kind, gone to the left
41:12: bank and lived as a, you know, that sort of struggling artist life. He had quite a lot
41:17: of money, but he'd lived that life and he'd tried to become really wanted to. I mean, this
41:21: wasn't just a fad. This was his, you know, his dream in life was to do this. And he failed
41:29: because he was told basically by the person who had taken him under his wing there that he
41:35: just simply didn't have the artistic ability. He had imagination, he had creativity, he had all the
41:43: things that went alongside, but what he didn't have was just the basic talent, the basic draft
41:49: and skills. And it devastated him. He said it was the biggest disappointment of his life.
41:54: And he reacted to it by kind of going the other way. He went to try and conquer ever us.
41:59: He wanted to be the first mountaineer to climb Everest.
42:02: So he threw himself into this sort of immensely physical activity
42:07: as almost to go the other way.
42:10: And he was doing that when Warbroke out
42:12: and that kind of led to it very indirectly
42:15: to his role in the SIS, but this kind of physical life that he'd now chosen for himself.
42:21: So you had that.
42:22: You had the fact that Paddy Main was a frustrated writer.
42:26: Now, Maine, if you look through all the different accounts and people made loved poetry,
42:33: at any gathering, the poetry would come out,
42:36: songs would come out, Irish, romantic poetry,
42:40: all kinds of things, you're always reading.
42:42: So you see accounts of people,
42:44: if he'd got back from a raid earlier,
42:45: he was lying around, he always had a paperback with him.
42:50: People played eldest, mentioned in passing,
42:52: he was reading Joyce at one point,
42:55: He's reading all these sort of interwar novels.
43:00: He's a voracious reader, and he wanted to be a writer.
43:03: That's what he wanted to be.
43:05: We know that because there was this one extraordinary night when the two men sterling and main basically got drunk together.
43:13: This was after Sterling had come back from a raid and Main had been back at the base
43:17: and Main was incredibly frustrated that he hadn't, he wasn't out there, that he'd been
43:22: sideline like this and they got drunk together. And what might normally be expected to happen
43:27: was a fight, but it didn't want to fight. What happened was the two of them started talking about
43:31: their frustration and not being one of them an artist and the other one a writer. And they found
43:36: they really had this in common. And obviously it's a bit simplistic to say that these frustrations
43:44: led directly to the formation of the SS. But the fact is, certainly two of the men,
43:50: most responsible for, you know, the SAS is legend and, you know, both of them were frustrated artists.
44:00: And it's, you know, I don't think it's a coincidence. Fascinating. And finally,
44:06: what are the biggest misconceptions about the SAS during World War II, do you think?
44:11: Okay, so one, we've already talked about the fact that, you know, this idea, they were all fighters,
44:16: to be in the SAS, you had to be fighting Superman.
44:20: And clearly, we've talked about the other kinds of people,
44:22: the people who made it possible for the fighters to do their fighting.
44:26: I think that another misconception is that the SAS were kind of,
44:31: well, it weren't superman, we were invincible.
44:34: And there were plenty of failed operations and failed raids and mistakes that were made.
44:41: And I think actually, coming to think of it,
44:44: They had misconceptions about themselves. I mean, I found this one great story
44:49: told by Fitzroy McLean, who's a character who appears in so many different elements,
44:54: you know, around the Middle East, you know, around this time. But he says that he was basically
45:00: in the desert behind enemy lines in 42 in a car with sterling and they were zipping along.
45:06: and they saw a truck in the distance and they immediately, you know, the truck
45:13: raced away from us. So they assumed it was a, you know, this is the enemy and they've
45:17: seen us and they're going back to one that we were around. So they chased, gave
45:22: chase and because they were quicker they caught up with the truck and two men
45:27: got out of this truck and they came across and sterling us, you know, who are
45:32: you. And one of the men in a foreign accident said, we're members of the SAS, and Sterling
45:38: was delighted because, or if it's going to be court, but second of all, how famous
45:44: was his unit that the enemy are now pretending to be us. That's how great we are, that the
45:52: enemy's pretending to be us, because we are the epitome of all that they would want to
45:57: be. And not only are they pretending, they're doing it to me, to the man who created the
46:03: SAS, the beautiful irony of this. Anyway, they really were from the SAS, from the South African
46:09: Survey. This was a unit that was out in the desert, sort of basically mapping the desert,
46:15: and they would behind enemy lines, and they were doing their job. So it's a great story
46:19: because it represents a kind of hubris. You know, the SAS were doing what they were doing,
46:24: But they weren't necessarily the only or even the first SAS in the desert.
46:32: So yeah, I'd say maybe you could say they even, at times, had misconceptions about themselves.
46:38: So yeah, it's an interesting story, it's a complicated story.
46:41: Joshua, I think that's all we've got time for today.
46:44: Again, a very big thanks for coming on and getting through so many questions.
46:48: I'm sure our listeners will be really grateful.
46:50: Oh, it's lovely.
46:51: Thank you very much for having me on.
46:54: That was Joshua Levine.
46:56: His new book, SAS, The Illustrated History of the SAS, is published by William Collins.
47:02: Joshua has also written an article about the SAS
47:05: in the Second World War for the July issue of BBC History magazine.
47:10: You can find that on our website, historyextra.com, by searching for SAS.
47:15: Thanks for listening to the History Extra podcast.
47:19: This podcast was produced by Sam Leal Green.
47:26: Thanks for listening.
47:27: We hope you enjoyed today's podcast.
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