Dramatic secret of the war, the existence of a unit of British parachutists who penetrate enemy territory, raid airfields, destroy planes on the ground, upset communications and ambush transport columns, was revealed when the story of the Special Air Service (S.A.S.) was officially released after the liberation of Paris. It was the S.A.S., which had been in action first in Africa and later in Italy, that was largely responsible for the swift Allied advance in France that thrilled and astonished the world. These small groups of specialists caused chaos and panic deep behind the enemy lines and disorganized resistance long before the break-through of the main Allied armies.
The S.A.S. was created by two young officers, Lt. (later Col.) David Stirling of the Scots Guards and Commandos, and Lt. Jock Lewis of the Welsh Guards and Commandos. Their theory was that small groups of hand-picked specialists could operate with great effect behind enemy lines, specially to deal with the menace of the Me.109s which were able to harass unchecked convoys and troops in the darkest days of the African campaign.
Those two officers were given permission to start a school in the desert, called “Stirling's Rest Camp”, where the first 73 volunteers from the 8th and 11th Commandos were put through a training devised by Lt. Lewis which applied to officers and men alike. Each recruit had to be a parachutist; he had to be an expert in the use of small arms and in close combat, and he had to be tough enough to endure a 100-mile march with a heavy pack.
The first operation of the S.A.S. in Africa was carried out on November 18, 1941, in a 30 m.p.h. wind against a German aerodrome; it ended in disaster and the S.A.S. lost about half of their numbers. The second attempt was in December 1941, when men of the S.A.S. flew to Galio, 90 miles south of Benghazi, surrounded the aerodromes and attacked aircraft and Luftwaffe personnel with success beyond their most ambitious dreams. They were taken close to their objectives by the Long Range Desert Group with whom henceforth they were to collaborate closely. The success of those marauding parties increased with experience. In 1942 they tried the experiment of travelling in jeeps, each mounted with two twin-sets of Vickers aerial M.G.s and one single Vickers.
As a result the jeep was officially adopted as ideal for S.A.S. work. Fed and equipped by secret Long Range Desert Group patrols, S.A.S. would stay behind the German lines, sometimes for two months at a time, causing havoc among enemy military concentrations.
By September 1942 the unit, still shrouded in secrecy, had grown to 300 strong. Except for 30 Frenchmen it was entirely British, with a ratio of officers to men of about 1 to 10. During the famous 8th Army push, the S.A.S. were operating behind the German lines all the way; they were the first to effect the link-up of the 1st and 8th Armies in the last stages of the Tunisian campaign. It was during this operation that Col. Stirling was captured. As Lieut. Lewis had been killed in an earlier raid, Lieut.-Col. R. B. Mayne now took commando of the unit.
His task was to start the invasion of Sicily and to eliminate the coastal batteries; S.A.S. destroyed four of them and took over 500 prisoners. Four days later they were landed farther up the coast to storm Fort Augusta, and after another re-embarkation made a new landing at Bagnara, where they took the first German prisoners of the campaign.
The effectiveness of these operations called for expansion, and early in 1943 further units of the S.A.S. were formed from the nucleus of a small force which had been used to raid the coast of France. Operations were undertaken in North Africa and Sicily, but the real chance came when Italy was invaded. Now Col. Stirling's ideas came into full effect in the mountainous country.
The first task of the detachment was to act as reconnaissance for the Airborne Division which landed at Taranto, and at Termoli they helped a Special Reserve Brigade to fend off the first serious German counter-attack. During the advance, the emphasis on initiative and independence which marked the training of the S.A.S. paid high dividends. Led by a young cavalry officer who had escaped from Greece, they harried the enemy ceaselessly. A member of the expedition described their progress as a stalking match which was won by the quickest man on the draw.
S.A.S. parties had special success in a kind of Robin Hood system of operations against the German and Italian Fascists. They captured a Carabinieri barracks, and commandeered one of the King of Italy's cars and 3,000 gallons of petrol. On another occasion they surprised a German unit preparing an ambush for them. It so happened that the ambush was ambushed! A French Squadron commandeered an Italian train and drove it through enemy country to a concentration camp where they captured the guards, released the prisoners and brought the whole party, including the Italian colonel commandant, back by train.
Another exploit was the destruction of an important railway bridge. After being landed by the Royal Navy, a small S.A.S. party mined the bridge and then lured the carabinieri, who should have been guarding it, on to it just in time for the bridge to be blown up – together with the guards. During many of these operations the S.A.S. received valuable help from the Italian Navy.
Recently a SHAEF communiqué referred for the first time to the S.A.S. by name and to the manner of work they were doing behind enemy lines in France. But not until the war is over will it be possible to do full justice to their exploits; these stories will add honour to their regimental badge, a winged dagger bearing the words. “Who Dares Wins.”