SAS Veteran Mike Sadler Recalls a Remarkable World War Two Operation in North Africa

History Hit Podcast with Mike Sadler

5 mins

26 Sep 2018

This article is an edited transcript of World War Two SAS Veteran with Mike Sadler on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 21 May 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

I met up with SAS founder David Stirling in Cairo. He intended to get into southern Tunisia and do an operation, possibly on the way to joining up with the First Army and the second SAS, which had both landed there.

We joined up with the Americans and the French – General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque and his division – who were coming out from Lake Chad.

David Stirling’s brother was in the embassy in Cairo, and he had a flat that David tended to use as his unofficial headquarters. He asked for me to go there to help with the planning of this operation.

Halfway through the meeting, he said, “Mike, I need you as an officer”.

SAS founder David Stirling.

So we then planned this operation, which involved a long desert journey along the inside of Libya to the south of Tunisia. We then had to go through a narrow gap between the sea and a big salt lake, the Gabes Gap, which was only a few miles wide and was a sort of holding point for a possible front line.

We would then join up with David’s brother and give them the benefit of our experience.

Travelling through enemy territory

It was a long journey. In order to get there we had to take some extra Jeeps loaded with petrol cans and then leave them in the desert having removed any useful bits.

We were to meet up with the French SAS unit south of the Gabes Gap.

We drove through the Gabes Gap at night time, which was a nightmare. We suddenly found aeroplanes appearing around us – we were driving across an airfield that we didn’t even know existed.

Then, early next morning, at first light, we drove through a German unit that was gathering its wits by the roadside. We wanted to get to our destination so we just whizzed past.

We knew there was a coastal road, and we knew that there was a route along the south side of the lakes. We kept on driving towards some nice hills in the distance as the sun rose, and we drove across all sorts of scrubby desert fields, thinking we would find shelter of some kind in those hills.

Sherman tanks advance through the Gabes Gap, where the operation started to get hairy.

Finally we found a lovely wadi. I was in the first vehicle navigating and drove up the wadi as far as possible and we stopped there. And then the rest of them stopped all the way down the wadi.

We were absolutely dead because of the long journey and a hard, sleepless night, so we fell asleep.

A narrow escape

Johnny Cooper and I were in sleeping bags and, first thing I knew, I was being kicked by somebody. I looked up and there was an Afrika Korps fellow poking me with his Schmeisser.

We couldn’t reach anything and we had no weapons with us so, in an instantaneous decision, we decided we had to make a break for it – so we did. It was that or end up in a POW camp.

Johnny and I and a Frenchman we’d been allotted from the Lake Chad party scarpered up the hillside. We got to the ridge more dead than alive and managed to hide in a little narrow wadi. Luckily a goat herder came around and shielded us with his goats.

I think they must have looked for us because they knew we’d got away. In fact, oddly enough, a little while ago, I got an account from somebody from a German unit who claimed to have been involved in capturing David. And in it, there was a little description from the chap who wrote it of kicking a man in a sleeping bag and poking him in the ribs with his gun. I think it was me.

We only had what we jumped out of our sleeping bags with, which was nothing. But we did have our boots on. Luckily, we hadn’t removed them.

It was wintertime, so we had some rudiments of military clothing, battledress top and probably a pair of shorts.

We had to wait until sunset, until it got dark, then started moving on.

I knew that if we got about 100 miles along to the west to Tozeur, it might, with luck, be in French hands. We had a long walk but we did eventually manage to get out.

Along the way we met bad Arabs and good Arabs. We were stoned by the bad ones but the good ones gave us an old goatskin full of water. We had to tie up holes in the sides.

We had that leaking goatskin and we had a few dates that they gave us.

“Have these men covered”

We walked more than 100 miles and, of course, our shoes fell to bits.

Forget Stalingrad, the real turning point of World War Two was fought in the desert sands of North Africa, at the two battles of El Alamein in 1942.Watch Now

We arrived, staggering the last few steps towards the palm trees, and some African native troops came out and captured us. And there we were, in Tozeur.

The French were there and they had jerrycans full of Algerian wine, so we had a fairly good welcome!

But they couldn’t keep us because we were in the American zone and they wouldn’t accept responsibility for us. So, later that same night we were carted off and surrendered to the Americans.

That was a funny occasion, too. There was an American war reporter at the local headquarters, and he spoke French. So, when the French people explained our situation, he went up to get the local commander from upstairs and he came down.

We were still clutching my goatskin bag and were really tattered beyond belief. When the commander came in he said, “Have these men covered.”

But he decided we couldn’t stay. It was such a heavy responsibility. So he loaded us into an ambulance and sent us off that very same night to the American headquarters in north Tunisia.

David Stirling, the founder of the SAS, with an SAS jeep patrol in North Africa.

We were followed by this correspondent, who has written a little description of our arrival in a book of his. There was one Jeep full of correspondents, including this chap, and another Jeep full of armed Americans, in case we tried to escape.

Because the area was about 100 miles away from the British or from the Eighth Army, which was the other side of the Gabes Gap, he thought we must be German spies or something.

I was then sent to the headquarters of General Bernard Freyberg and the New Zealand division, which was leading the march on Gabes. I was sent to see him because, having beaten through the country, I knew it well. So I had a couple of days with him. And that was the end of North Africa for me.

In this fascinating documentary, Clare Mulley reports on the unveiling of the new sculpture and reflects on the Kindertransport as an extraordinary moment in British history, questioning how we can learn from our past when faced with the refugee crisis of today.Watch Now

We heard that the Germans had bottled up the party in the wadi. David was captured, but managed to escape. I think he escaped in the early days. We were always told that the best chance of escaping was as soon as possible after you’ve been captured.

Unfortunately, having escaped, he was recaptured. I think he then spent time in a prison camp in Italy before eventually ending up in Colditz.