Who Was David Stirling, Mastermind of the SAS?

History Hit Podcast with Ben MacIntyre

3 mins

02 Jun 2018

This article is an edited transcript of SAS: Rogue Heroes with Ben Macintyre on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 12 June 2017. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

In many ways, the formation of the SAS was an accident. It was the brainchild of one officer, a man called David Stirling, who was a commander in the Middle East in 1940.

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

The parachute experiment

Stirling was bored to death in the Middle East. He found that he wasn’t getting the action and adventure he signed up for. So, he took matters into his own hands and stole a bunch of parachutes from the dock in Suez and launched his own parachute experiment.

It was a ludicrous idea. Stirling simply strapped the parachute on, tied the ripcord to the leg of a chair in a completely inappropriate plane, then jumped out of the door. The parachute snagged on the plane’s tail fin and he plummeted to earth, very nearly killing himself.

The ill-advised parachute experiment damaged Stirling’s back very badly. It was while he was lying in a Cairo hospital recovering from the accident that he began to think about how parachutes might be used in the desert war.

David Stirling with an SAS jeep patrol in North Africa.

He came up with an idea that may now seem very simple but which was extremely radical in 1940: if you could parachute into the deep desert, way behind the German lines, you could then creep up behind the airfields that were strung out all along the North African coast and launch hit-and-run raids. Then you could simply retreat back into the desert.

Today, these kinds of special operations seem sort of normal – it’s how war is very often fought these days. But at the time it was radical enough to trouble a lot of people at the Middle East HQ.

Mike Sadler is one of a handful of surviving original SAS men. Major Sadler, 93, was the navigator for the regiment’s founder David Stirling, guiding raiding columns for hundreds of miles behind enemy lines in North Africa.Listen Now

A lot of the middle-ranking officers in the British Army had fought in World War One and had a very static idea of how war was conducted: one army approaches the other on a fairly level battlefield and they duke it out until one gives up.

A powerful advocate

The ideas that fed into the creation of the SAS did have one very powerful advocate, however. Winston Churchill became a keen supporter of Stirling’s ideas. Indeed, the kind of asymmetrical warfare that the SAS is aligned with was very much Churchill’s baby.

Randolph Churchill’s account of his experience during an early SAS operation fired his father’s imagination.

Churchill’s involvement is one of the more extraordinary aspects of the formation of the SAS. It came through his son, Randolph Churchill, who was a journalist. Though Randolph wasn’t a very good soldier he signed up for the commanders, where he became a friend of Stirling.

Randolph was invited to go on what turned out to be a spectacularly unsuccessful SAS raid.

Stirling hoped that if he could enthuse Randolph then he might report it back to his father. Which is exactly what happened.

While recovering in a hospital bed after one of Stirling’s abortive attempts to attack Benghazi, Randolph wrote a series of effusive letters to his father describing the single SAS operation. Churchill’s imagination was fired and, from that moment on, the future of the SAS was assured.

Tags: