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SAS: WWII’s Secret Heroes

How Britain’s daring commandos brought down Hitler’s empire
RAID AND EVADE The SAS was initially formed to operate behind enemy lines in the desert, but members were soon being deployed to German-occupied Europe to take part in guerilla warfare
ILLUSTRATION: © KURT MILLER/SALZMANART.COM, ARCANGEL IMAGES X1, GETTY X1

It was only fitting that a unit that would finish World War II as a byword for boldness began its life with an act of audacity.

In July 1941, a tall, slender Scots Guards officer limped up to the front gate of Middle East Headquarters (MEHQ) in Cairo. Lieutenant David Stirling wasn’t long out of hospital, and he still carried the scars of a parachute accident the previous month. "The 25-year-old officer had spent his convalescence working on an idea that he now intended to present to General Claude Auchinleck, commander-inchief of the Middle East Forces.

"The trouble was that Stirling didn’t have a pass to present to the sentries stationed outside the entrance to MEHQ. And no pass meant no entry. Having failed to sweet-talk his way past the guards, Stirling shuffled away in dejection, but then something caught his eye. A flap of the wire fence that encircled the headquarters was loose. Was it big enough to squeeze through? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, thought Stirling, and in an instant he was through the flap and making his way as fast as he could into MEHQ.

PITCHING IN

Once inside, Stirling located the office of General Neil Ritchie, the deputy chief of staff and a family friend of long-standing. The breathless young officer saluted, handed Ritchie the memo, and briefly explained its contents. The General ran an eye over the memo, then over Stirling, and said he would show it to Auchinleck.

CHUTE ‘EM UP

World War II was the first time that parachutes were used on a large scale, and Britain’s first airborne assault was carried out by the SAS in 1941.

Three days later, Stirling was summoned to MEHQ. This time he did have a pass, and an appointment with General Auchinleck. He wanted to know more, so Stirling elaborated on his idea. “I argued the advantages of establishing a unit based on the principle of the fullest exploitation of surprise and of making the minimum demands on manpower and equipment,” he wrote shortly after the war had finished. “I sought to prove that, if an aerodrome or transport park was the objective of an operation, then the destruction of 50 aircraft or units of transport was more easily accomplished by a sub-unit of five men than a force of 200.”

PREPARE FOR WAR FAR LEFT: General Auchinleck in the generals’ quarters, MEHQ LEFT: The SAS were the pioneers of parachuting among British special forces THIS IMAGE: The SAS practising jumps in North Africa
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The SAS in World War II, Athens vs Persia, Jack the Ripper and the tragedy of the forgotten queen in this month's issue