Stories

The Long Range Desert Group – Piracy on the High Desert

Posted on March 31, 2020 by Cape Rebel

Click on the image to listen to the podcast

From SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
by Ben MacIntyre

 

It may have been during the two-hundred-mile journey back to Jaghbub Oasis, the Eighth Army’s forward base, that inspiration struck David Stirling. Riley claimed that the idea came to Stirling while they were lying under a tarpaulin with Jock Lewes on the night they reached the desert rendezvous. Seekings insisted that Stirling’s eureka moment came while they were scouring the horizon for stragglers. The most likely source of inspiration was David Lloyd Owen, a highly intelligent officer who would go on to command the Long Range Desert Group. But the most extraordinary aspect of this idea is that it seems, in retrospect, so blindingly obvious: if the Long Range Desert Group (‘the LRDG’) could get the SAS out of the desert without difficulty, then the reconnaissance unit could surely drive them in as well, thus cutting out all the danger and uncertainty involved in jumping out of aeroplanes in the dark. Quite why this glaringly good idea had not occurred to anyone before is one of the enduring mysteries of the SAS story.

The Long Range Desert Group was the brainchild of Ralph Alger Bagnold, soldier, explorer, scientist, archaeologist, sedimentologist, geomorphologist, and the world’s greatest living expert on sand. Bagnold was the brother of Enid Bagnold, author of the novel National Velvet; his own, less popular but no less durable contribution to world literature wasThe Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes, first published in 1941, and today still influencing NASA’s ongoing research into sand dunes on Mars. A veteran of the Somme and Ypres, a pioneer in desert exploration, inquisitive and indestructible, Bagnold spent much of 1930 driving a Model A Ford around the vast desert between Cairo and Ain Dalla in search of the mythical city of Zerzura. He made the first east-west crossing of the Libyan desert in 1932, driving more than 3,000 miles and winning a medal from the Royal Geography Society. He then drove through the Mourdi Depression of north-eastern Chad and back to Libya. He worked out that reduced tyre pressure and wider tyres increased speed across desert terrain. He invented a condenser that could be attached to a car radiator to prevent it from boiling over, and steel channels for unsticking vehicles bogged down in soft sand. He developed ‘Bagnold’s sun compass’ which, unlike the traditional magnetic compass, was unaffected by desert iron-ore deposits and was also impervious, in Bagnold’s words, to ‘changes in the positions of magnetically uncertain spare parts carried in the vehicles’.

He spent so long being battered by the desert wind that his nose achieved a permanent roseate hue. ‘Never in our peacetime travels had we imagined that war could ever reach the enormous empty solitudes of the inner desert, walled off by sheer distance, lack of water, and impassable seas of sand dunes’, Bagnold wrote. ‘Little did we dream that any of the special equipment and techniques we had evolved for very long-distance travel, and for navigation, would ever be put to serious use.’ But that, of course, is what happened. Nine months after the outbreak of war, Major Bagnold was given permission to form and command a mobile desert scouting force to operate behind the Italian lines. Thus the Long Range Patrol, later the Long Range Desert Group, was born in Egypt in July 1940, to commit ‘piracy on the high desert’.

The Libyan desert covers well over a million square miles of the earth’s surface, an area roughly the size of India. Stretching 1,000 miles south from the Mediterranean and 1,200 miles from the Nile Valley to the mountains of Tunisia and Algeria, it is one of the most inhospitable places on earth and, in terms of humanity, one of the emptiest. Most of the North African war, so far, had been fought on a narrow coastal strip, along which a single paved road hugged the edge of the Mediterranean. Only a few ancient trading tracks traversed the interior. In daytime, the temperature could soar to 60 °C, and then plummet below freezing at night. The only water was to be found in a handful of small oases. It was not an easy place to live, and it was a very easy place to die, but it offered an opportunity for warfare of a most unconventional and uncomfortable sort. In theory, this mighty desert was enemy-held territory. In reality, Bagnold calculated, the Italians and Germans had ‘only enough motor transport for a radius of action of a paltry 100 miles’. The rest was his. So far from being an impassable, hostile wilderness, the desert was a place that men, with the right training and equipment, could cross and re-cross, navigate, watch, hide in and survive in, indefinitely. To the uninitiated, the landscape appears bleak and monotonous; but the apparently flat expanse hid myriad dips and depressions, rocky patches, shelves and escarpments, as well as treacherous seas of soft sand. There were points to navigate by, if one knew how to see them.

The broad purpose of the LRDG was to carry out reconnaissance and raiding, to find out what the enemy was doing where, and from time to time, to attack him. Initially, Bagnold recruited New Zealand farmers, leathery outdoorsmen used to surviving for long periods in harsh terrain; gradually, as the unit expanded, volunteers came in from Rhodesian and British regiments. After long weeks in the desert, the sand buccaneers had developed a distinctly piratical look, sporting Arab headdresses, sandals in place of boots, and bushy beards. Equipped with adapted, lightweight, heavily armed vehicles, the LRDG carried out deep penetration and covert missions behind the lines, moving undetected across huge swathes of territory and perfecting the art of desert camoflage and evasion. LRDG units became adept at slipping unseen up to the coastal road itself, and observing the movements of enemy troops. These ‘road-watching’ operations provided some of the most important military intelligence of the war. Axis forces never adapted to the challenges of the desert in the same way. At the time when Stirling first encountered them, the LRDG were masters of their terrain: ‘There seemed to be nothing they did not know about the desert’.

Siwa oasis in Egypt, about 30 miles from the Libyan border, was the operational headquarters and forward base of the LRDG, under the command of Colonel Guy Prendergast, another desert explorer who had travelled with Bagnold before the war. Waiting in Siwa for a plane to take him back to Cairo, Stirling asked Prendergast if the LRDG might be prepared to act as a transport service for the SAS to and from coastal targets. Prendergast said this would be perfectly possible, so long as the task did not interfere with that unit’s primary reconnaissance role. Thus began one of the most fruitful partnerships in wartime history, bringing together the fighters of the SAS with the expert desert navigators of the LRDG.

The SAS would come to refer to the LRDG, with deep admiration, as the ‘Libyan Taxi Service’. The hairy, hardened, experienced men of the LRDG were cab drivers unlike any others.

Die Long Range Desert Group – Seerowery op die ope woestyn

Posted on March 31, 2020 by Cape Rebel

Klik op die beeld om na die podgooi te luister

Uit SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
deur Ben MacIntyre

 

Dit mag gedurende die tweehondred-myl reis terug na Jaghbub-oase, die Agste Weermag se voorste basis, gewees het dat David Stirling skielik inspirasie gekry het. Riley het beweer dat, op die aand toe hulle die woestyn-rendezvous bereik het en saam met Jock Lewes onder ’n dekseil gelê het, die idee by Stirling opgekom het. Seekings hou vol dat Stirling se eureka-oomblik gekom het terwyl hulle die horison vir afgedwaaldes gefynkam het. Die moontlikste bron van inspirasie was David Lloyd Owen, ’n hoogs intelligente offisier wat later die bevelvoerder van die Long Range Desert Group sou word. Maar in retrospek is die buitengewoondste aspek van hierdie idee die feit dat dit so verstommend voor die hand liggend was: as die LRDG die SAS sonder ’n probleem uit die woestyn kon kry, kon die verkenningseenheid hulle sekerlik ook na binne vervoer, en sό die gevaar en onsekerheid daarvan om in die donker by ’n vliegtuig uit te spring, uitskakel. Presies waarom hierdie skitterende goeie idee nie voorheen by iemand opgekom het nie, is een van die blywende raaisels van die SAS-storie.

Die Long Range Desert Group was die geesteskind van Ralph Alger Bagnold, soldaat, verkenner, wetenskaplike, argeoloog, sedimentoloog, geomorfoloog en die wêreld se grootste lewende deskundige op sand. Bagnold was die broer van Enid Bagnold, die skrywer van die roman National Velvet. Sy eie, minder gewilde, maar nie minder waardevolle bydrae tot die wêreldletterkunde nie, was The Physics of Blown Sand, wat aanvanklik in 1941 gepubliseer is en wat deesdae NASA se voortgesette navorsing oor sandduine op Mars nog steeds beïnvloed. Bagnold was ’n veteraan van die Somme en Ypres, ’n pionier in woestynnavorsing, nuuskierig en onverganklik. In 1930 het hy in ’n Model-A Ford in die wyd uitgestrekte groot woestyn tussen Kaïro en Ain Dalla eindeloos rondgery op soek na die mitiese stad van Zerzura. In 1932 was hy die eerste persoon wat die Libiese Woestyn van oos na wes oorkruis het. Hy het meer as 3,000 myl bestuur en is daarna ’n medalje van die Royal Geography Society toegeken. Toe het hy deur die Mourdi-laagte van Noord-Tsjad en terug na Libië gery. Hy het uitgewerk dat ’n verminderde banddruk en wyer bande die spoed oor die woestynterrein vermeerder het. Hy het ’n kondensator ontwerp wat aan ’n kar se verkoeler gekoppel kon word om te verhoed dat dit oorkook, asook staalgeute om voertuie wat in sagte sand vasgeval het, los te kry. Hy het “Bagnold se sonkompas” ontwerp, wat nie soos die tradisionele magnetiese kompas was nie, en wat nie deur deposito’s van woestynystererts beinvloed was nie en wat verder ook nie geraak was deur, in Bagnold se woorde, “veranderings in die posisies van magneties onsekere onderdele in die voertuie” nie.

Hy was so lank deur die woestynwind toegetakel, dat sy neus ’n permanente rooskleurige tint gehad het. “Nooit in ons vredetydse reise kon ons ons voorstel dat oorlog ooit die enorme leë verlatenheid van die binneste woestyn sou bereik nie, ommuur deur niks anders nie as afstand, gebrek aan water en ontoeganklike seë van sandduine”, het Bagnold geskryf. “Ons sou nooit kon droom het dat enige van die spesiale toerusting en tegnieke wat ons ontwikkel het vir langafstandreise en navigasie, ooit vir ernstige gebruik aangewend sou word nie.” Maar dit is natuurlik wat gebeur het. Nege maande ná die uitbreek van die oorlog, is toestemming aan majoor Bagnold gegee om ’n mobiele woestynverkenningsmag te vorm en as bevelvoerder op te tree. Hulle taak was om agter die Italiaanse linies te opereer: Die Long Range Patrol, later die Long Range Desert Group, is in Julie 1940 in Egipte gebore, om “seerowery op die ope woestyn” te beoefen.

Die Libiese woestyn beslaan heel meer as ’n miljoen vierkante myl van die aarde se oppervlakte, ’n area omtrent die grootte van Indië. Dit strek ’n duisend myl suid van die Middellandse see, en een-duisend-twee-honderd myl vanaf die Nylvallei tot by die berge van Tunisië en Algerië. Dit is een van die onherbergsaamste plekke op aarde en, in terme van die mensdom, een van die leegste. Die grootste deel van die oorlog in Noord-Afrika het tot op daardie stadium op ’n smal kusstrook plaasgevind, langs ’n enkel geplaveide pad digby die Middellandse see. Slegs ’n paar antieke handelspaadjies het die binneland deurkruis. Gedurende die dag kon die temperatuur sestig grade celcius bereik, en gedurende die nag tot onder vriespunt val. Die enigste water kon net in ’n paar klein oases gevind word. Dit was ’n moeilike plek om in te lewe en ’n baie maklike plek om in te sterf, maar dit het die geleentheid verskaf om oorlog op die onkonvensioneelste en ongemaklikste soort van manier te voer. In teorie was hierdie magtige woestyn ’n gebied wat aan die vyand behoort het, maar Bagnold het inderwaarheid uitgewerk dat die Italianers en Duitsers “net genoeg motortransport gehad het vir ’n radius van aksie vir ’n niksbeduidende honderd myl”. Wat oorgebly het, was Bagnold s’n. Ver van die gedagte dat die woestyn ’n onbegaanbare, vyandige wildernis was, kon die manne, met die regte opleiding en toerusting, dit oorsteek, herhaaldelik deurkruis, navigeer, verken, weggekruip, en vir ’n onbepaalde tyd in oorleef. Vir die oningewydes kom die landskap as onherbergsaam en eentonig voor, maar die skynbare plat uitgestrektheid versteek tallose laagtes, rotsagtige stroke, kranse en eskarpemente, sowel as die verraderlike seë van sagte sand. Daar was plekke wat gebruik kon word om te navigeer, as mens hulle kon raaksien.

Die algemene doel van die LRDG was om te verken, om strooptogte uit te voer, om te bepaal wat en waar die vyand aan die doen was, en om af en toe aan te val. Aanvanklik het Bagnold Nieu-Seelandse boere gewerf. Hulle was geharde buitelugmanne wat daaraan gewoond was om oor langdurige periodes in strawwe terreine te werk. Stadigaan soos die eenheid groter geword het, het vrywilligers van die Rhodesiese en Britse regimente aangesluit. Ná weke in die woestyn het die sandboekaniers onmiskenbaar roofagtig begin lyk, sportiewe Arabiese hooftooisels gedra, sandale in plaas van stewels, en bosse baarde gekweek. Toegerus met omgeboude, liggewig en swaargewapende voertuie, het die LRDG diep die woestyn ingegaan en geheime sendings agter die linies uitgevoer. Hulle het onopgemerk oor groot landstreke beweeg en die kuns van woestynkamoeflering en ontwyking vervolmaak. Die LRDG-eenhede het bedrewe daarin geword om ongesiens tot by die kuspad te glip en die bewegings van die vyandelike troepe dop te hou. Hierdie pad-dophou-maneuvers het van die belangrikste geheime militêre inligting van die oorlog verskaf. Die vyand se magte het nooit op dieselfde manier by die uitdagings van die woestyn aangepas nie. Toe Stirling die LRDG vir die eerste keer ontmoet het, was hulle die heersers van die terrein: “Dit het gelyk asof daar van die woestyn niks was wat hulle nie geweet het nie”.

Die operasionele hoofkwartier en voorste basis van die LRDG, was die Siwa-oase in Egipte, omtrent dertig myl van die Libiese grens af. Dit was onder bevel van kolonel Guy Prendergast, nog ’n woestynverkenner wat voor die oorlog saam met Bagnold rondgereis het. Terwyl hy in Siwa op ’n vliegtuig gewag het om hom terug Kaïro toe te vat, het Stirling vir Prendergast gevra of die LRDG bereid sou wees om as ’n transportdiens vir die SAS na en van die kusteikens te dien. Prendergast het gesê dat dit heeltemal moontlik was, solank die taak nie met die eenheid se primêre verkenningsrol sou inmeng nie. En so het een van die lonendste vennootskappe in oorlogsgeskiedenis ontstaan. Dit het die vegters van die SAS en die deskundige woestynnavigators van die LRDG byeengebring.

Met diepe bewondering het dit gebeur dat die SAS na die LRDG verwys het as die “Libiese Taxi-diens”. Die harige, geharde, ervare manne van die LRDG was taxi-bestuurders soos geen ander nie.

 

Into the Dark

Posted on March 31, 2020 by Cape Rebel

Click on the image to listen to the podcast

From SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
by Ben MacIntyre

 

On a November evening in 1941, five elderly Bristol Bombay transport aircraft lumbered along the runway of Bagush airport on the Egyptian coast, and then wheeled into the darkening Mediterranean haze. Each aircraft carried a ‘stick’ of eleven British parachutists, some fifty-five soldiers in all, almost the entire strength of the new, experimental and intensely secret combat unit: L Detachment of the Special Air Service. The SAS.

As the planes rumbled north-west, the wind began to pick up, bringing the electric inklings of a brewing storm. The temperature inside dropped quickly as the sun slipped below the desert horizon. It was suddenly intensely cold.

The fledgling SAS was on its first mission. Codenamed Operation Squatter, it ran as follows: to parachute at night into the Libyan desert behind the enemy lines, infiltrate five airfields on foot, plant explosives on as many German and Italian aircraft as they could find and then, as the bombs exploded, head south to a rendezvous point deep in the desert, where they would be picked up and brought back to safety.

Some of the men strapped in and shivering in the rushing darkness at 18,000 feet were regular soldiers, but others were not: their number included a hotel porter, an ice-cream maker, a Scottish aristocrat, and an Irish rugby international. Some were natural warriors, nerveless and calm, and a few were touched by a sort of martial madness; most were silently petrified, and determined not to show it. None could claim to have been fully prepared for what they were about to do, for the simple reason that no one had ever before attempted a night-time parachute assault in the North African desert. But a peculiar camaraderie had already taken root, a strange esprit compounded in equal parts of ruthlessness, guile, competitiveness and collective determination. Before take-off, the men had been informed that anyone seriously injured on landing would have to be left behind. There is no evidence that any of them found this odd.

The wind had reached gale force by the time the bucking Bombays neared the Libyan coast, two-and-a half hours after take-off. Storm-driven sand and pelting rain completely obscured the flares on the ground, laid down by the Royal Air Force to guide the planes to the drop zone, twelve miles inland. The pilots could not even make out the shape of the shoreline. German searchlights on the coast picked up the incoming planes, and flak began exploding around them in blinding flashes. A shell ripped through the floor of one plane and missed the auxiliary fuel tank by inches. One of the sergeants made a joke, which no one could hear, although everyone grinned.

The pilots indicated that the parachutists should prepare to jump – although, in truth, they were now flying blind, navigating by guesswork. The parachute cannisters containing explosives, tommy guns, ammunition, food, water, maps, blankets and medical supplies, were tossed out first.

Then, one by one, the men hurled themselves into the seething darkness.

~

Two hours before take-off, the RAF had laid on what was, by wartime standards, a banquet. There was as much food as the men of L Detachment could eat, and a bottle of beer each. It was even served by RAF officers. This ‘dinner fit for a king’ was intended as a tribute to the departing parachutists, but some detected a melancholy aspect to the elaborate send-off: ‘We were treated like men going to the gallows.’ A small flicker of anxiety, like the rising wind off the desert, wafted through the RAF mess tent at Bagush airfield as the men ate their meal, and with good reason: Operation Squatter ought never to have taken place.

The weather forecast was atrocious. Winds of at least 30 knots were predicted, twice the maximum speed for safe parachuting, with heavy rain. Whirling sand could create serious navigation problems for the pilots, while the gusting wind would probably blow the parachutists, and the cannisters containing their equipment, far off course. Visibility on this moonless night would be limited anyway, but in the midst of a desert storm, regrouping on the ground would be a severe challenge. Brigadier Galloway of the General Staff advised calling off the operation, but the final decision was left to Stirling. He consulted his officers. There was no question of postponement, since the main English army offensive would be taking place the following day, whatever the weather: the parachute drop would either have to go ahead or be cancelled. The men had signed up because they were frustrated by the endless delays that had plagued Layforce; and the effect of another cancellation on morale might be terminal. Stirling feared that his enemies at Middle East HQ might take the opportunity to disband his detachment altogether. He would later frame the decision as one in which the very future of the unit was at stake, although he cannot have been certain of this at the time. At the back of his mind must have been the knowledge that his own leadership status would suffer badly if he pulled the plug. ‘I swore when I started SAS that if we undertook to take on a target on a particular night, we would do it utterly regardless,’ he told his biographer. ‘It seemed to me that we had to take the risk.’ Jock Lewes and Paddy Mayne agreed; the decision was popular with the men. Stirling’s choice was prompted by conviction, audacity and hope; it was a brave decision, but the wrong one.

~

David Stirling hit the desert floor with such force that he blacked out. Just a few minutes earlier, the pilot of the plane, unable to navigate accurately in the storm, asked if he should abort the jump. ‘No, certainly not,’ said Stirling. Then he jumped. When he came to, he found that he was being dragged along by his parachute ‘like a kite’ in a 40-mile-an-hour wind, whipped and grated across sharp gravel and rocks. After a struggle, he managed to twist the clip of his parachute release, and the canopy flapped away into the storm. Stirling staggered to his feet in the darkness, covered in lacerations and pouring blood but otherwise unharmed.

~

The following morning, before the rest of the camp was awake, David Lloyd Owen of the Long Range Desert Group was brewing up his tea when a tall figure emerged out of the dawn gloom. ‘My name is Stirling,’ the man said. ‘Have you seen any of my chaps?’ Lloyd Owen had not, of course, for all of the other chaps on Stirling’s team had been captured. Under Sergeant Yates, they had taken a wrong turn, and stumbled into an Italian patrol. Stirling and Sergeant Tait had managed to reach the coastal escarpment, locating the coastal road but not the airfield, before turning back and trudging 50 miles through the rain to the rendezvous. They were the only members of their stick to make it back.

Stirling remained at the desert rendezvous for two more days, scanning the horizon in the hope that other stragglers might eventually emerge. None did.

~

Stirling pointed out that he had personally reached the coastal road and seen the sea, having approached from the desert, which proved that ‘given the right conditions, what I had thought of was possible’. The men had performed admirably, under appalling conditions. ‘The whole section behaved extremely well,’ wrote Paddy Mayne, ‘and although lacerated and bruised in varying degrees by their landing, and wet and numb with cold, remained cheerful.’ Cooper was philosophical: ‘OK, we’ve had a beating. It’s been a fiasco, but the weather did it all. The general plan was alright.’ Seekings, as usual, struck an uncompromising pose: ‘You can’t sit around thinking about casualties. We joined to fight a war. We knew what it was about.’ But behind the bravado, even Seekings was rattled.

There was no disguising the grim truth: Operation Squatter had been an unmitigated disaster. Of the fifty-five men who parachuted into the gale on 16 November, just twenty-one had returned. The rest were dead or injured, missing or captured. L Detachment had lost most of its strength without firing a shot, attacking the enemy or detonating a single bomb. They had been defeated, not by force of arms, but by wind and rain. The mission had done nothing to support Operation Crusader. Worse than that, the failed operation had alerted the enemy that the British were conducting active sabotage behind the lines. Bonington’s party, shot down and captured, was under orders to reveal only name, rank and serial number to their German captors. But someone had blabbed.

~

The men were deeply demoralised. Everyone had lost a close friend. Jock Cheyne, left in the desert with a broken back, had been a particular chum of Pat Riley. Jim Almonds learned of the loss of Bonington’s unit with a stab of guilt. ‘I should have been on that plane,’ he reflected. ‘The terms of fate are past all understanding.’ Though he never spoke of it, the loss of Eoin McGonigal devastated Paddy Mayne. ‘Eoin McGonigal was the one person who liked Paddy before he became a hero,’ said one who knew them both. One of Mayne’s biographers goes further: ‘If there was a real love in [Mayne’s] life, it was his friend Eoin McGonigal.’ Something snapped in Mayne when McGonigal died.

What should have been a triumphant first mission, Stirling conceded, had been ‘a complete failure’. He had feared that cancelling the operation might jeopardise the future of the SAS; by pushing ahead, he had very nearly destroyed it. ‘It was tragic … so much talent in those we lost,’ he reflected. The reduced detachment seemed likely to be disbanded.

But in disaster, as so often, lay the germ of salvation.

Die duisternis in

Posted on March 31, 2020 by Cape Rebel

Klik op die beeld om na die podgooi te luister

Uit SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
deur Ben MacIntyre

 

Op ’n Novemberaand in 1941, het vyf Bristol Bombay-transportvliegtuie op die aanloopbaan van Bagush-lughawe aan die Egiptiese kus aangerol, en toe in die duisternis van die Middelandse dynserigheid die lug ingeklim. Elke vliegtuig het elf Britse valskermspringers gedra: Omtrent vyf en vyftig soldate – amper die volledige krag van die nuwe, eksperimentele en intensiewe geheime gevegseenheid, “L Detachment” van die “Special Air Service”. Die SAS.

Terwyl die vliegtuie in ’n noord-westelike rigting voortgedreun het, het die wind in sterkte toegeneem en die elektriese wenk van ’n naderende storm aangedra. Soos die son agter die woestynhorison weggesink het, het die temperatuur binne-in vinnig gedaal. Skielik was dit bitterkoud.

Die beginner-SAS was op sy eerste sending. Kodegenaamd “Operation Squatter”, die plan was as volg: Om in die nag met ’n valskerm in die Libiese woestyn agter die vyandelike linies te land, om die vyf lughawens te voet te infiltreer, bomme op soveel as moontlik van die Duitse en Italiaanse vliegtuie as wat hulle kon vind, te plant, en terwyl die bomme ontplof, suidwaarts terug te keer na ’n rendezvous-punt diep in die woestyn, waar hulle opgetel en na veiligheid teruggebring sou word.

Party van die vasgegespede manne wat in die vinnig toenemende donkerte op 18,000 voet gesit en bewe het, was gewone soldate, maar daar was ook ander: Onder hulle was ’n hotelportier, ’n roomysmaker, ’n Skotse aristokraat en ’n Ierse internasionale rugbyspeler. Party van hulle was van nature begaafde soldate, vreesloos en kalm, en ’n paar was deur ’n soort van krygshaftige waansin aangeraak. Die meeste was stil en angsbevange, maar vasberade om dit nie te wys nie. Daar was niemand wat aanspraak daarop kon maak dat hy deeglik voorbereid was oor wat gedoen moes word nie, om die eenvoudige rede dat nog niemand tevore ’n nagtelike valskermaanval in die woestyn van Noord-Afrika aangedurf het nie. Maar ’n eienaardige kameraadskap het reeds begin posvat, ’n vreemde esprit de corps saamgestel uit gelyke dele van meedoënloosheid, deurtraptheid, mededinging en gemeenskaplike vasberadenheid. Voor hulle opgestyg het, was die manne in kennis gestel dat enigeen wat met sy grondvat ernstig beseer sou word, daar agtergelaat sou word. Daar is geen blyke daarvan dat enigeen van hulle dit snaaks gevind het nie.

Teen die tyd wat die kaperjollende Bombays nader aan die Libiese kus gekom het, het die wind stormsterkte bereik. Dit was twee ure na die opstyging. Stormaangedrewe sand en stortende reën het die geflikker van ligfakkels op die grond heeltemal verdonker. Dit was deur die RAF twaalf myl die binneland in gelê om die vliegtuie na die springstrook te lei. Die loodse kon nie eers die vorm van die kuslyn uitmaak nie. Duitse soekligte het die aankomende vliegtuie opgepik en lugafweervuur het rondom hulle met verblindende flitse begin ontplof. ’n Koeël het deur die vloer van een van die vliegtuie geklief en die reserwebrandstoftenk met duime gemis. Een van die sersante het ’n grap gemaak wat niemand kon hoor nie, hoewel almal maar gegrinnik het.

Die loodse het aangedui dat die valskermspringers moes regmaak om te spring – hoewel hulle inderwaarheid toe blind gevlieg het en navigasie maar net raaiwerk was. Die valskermhouers wat plofstowwe, handmasjiengewere, ammunisie, kos, water, landkaarte, komberse en mediese voorrade bevat het, is eerste uitgegooi.

En toe, een na die ander, het die manne hulself in die siedende duisternis uitgewerp.

~

Twee ure voor opstygtyd, het die RAF ’n maal, wat gedurende oorlogstye ’n banket was, voorgesit. Daar was soveel kos as wat die manne van L Detachment kon eet, en ’n bottel bier vir elkeen. Dit was selfs deur RAF-offisiere bedien. Hierdie ete “goed genoeg vir ’n koning” was bedoel as ’n huldeblyk aan die vertrekkende valskermspringers, maar sommiges het iets melankolies saam met die opgesmukte totsiensgeleentheid gevoel: “Ons is behandel soos manne oppad galg toe.” ’n Klein flikkering van angs, soos die stygende woestynwind, het deur die RAF-menasietent by Bagush-lughawe gewaai toe die manne hul maal genuttig het, en met goeie rede: “Operasion Squatter” moes nooit plaasgevind het nie.

Die weervoorspelling was verskriklik. Winde van ten minste 30 knope is voorspel, tweemaal die maksimum spoed vir ’n veilige valskermsprong, met swaar reën. Warrelende sand kon ernstige navigasieprobleme vir die loodse skep, terwyl rukwinde die valskermers, en die houers wat al die voorrade bevat het, ver van hul koers af kon waai. Sigbaarheid op hierdie donkermaannag sou in elk geval beperk wees, maar te midde van ’n woestynstorm sou hergroepering uiters uitdagend wees. Deur brigadier Galloway van die Algemene Staf is daar aangeraai om die operasie te staak, maar die finale besluit is aan Stirling oorgelaat. Hy het sy offisiere geraadpleeg. Daar was geen moontlikheid om dit uit te stel nie, aangesien die belangrikste Engelse weermagoffensief die volgende dag sou plaasvind, wat ookal die weer. Die valskermoperasie sou όf voortgaan όf gekanselleer word. Die manne het aangesluit, want hulle was gefrustreerd deur die nimmereindigende vertragings wat Layforce verpes het. Die effek op moraal as gevolg van nog ’n kansellasie, kon ongeneeslik gewees het. Stirling was bevrees dat sy vyande by die Midde-Ooste se hoofkwartier dit as ’n geleentheid sou beskou om sy eenheid heeltemal te ontbind. Hy sou later die besluit formuleer as een waarop die algehele toekoms van die eenheid afhanklik sou wees, hoewel hy op daardie geleentheid nie so seker daarvan kon gewees het nie. Agter in sy kop moes hy geweet het dat sy eie status as leier erg daaronder skade sou ly as hy tou opgooi. “Toe ek die SAS begin het, het ek gesweer dat, as ons sou onderneem om ’n projek op ’n spesifieke tyd aan te pak, ons dit onvoorwaardelik sou doen,” het hy aan sy biograaf vertel. “Dit het vir my gelyk of ons die risiko moes neem.” Jock Lewes en Paddy Mayne het saamgestem. Die besluit was gewild by die manne. Stirling se keuse is aangespoor deur oortuiging, waagmoed en hoop. Dit was ’n dapper besluit, maar dit was die verkeerde een.

~

David Stirling het die woestynsand met soveel geweld getref, dat hy sy bewussyn verloor het. Net ’n paar minute vroeër het die loods van die vliegtuig, wat hy nie doeltreffend in die storm kon navigeer nie, gevra of hy die valskermsprong moes aborteer. “Nee, definitief nee,” het Stirling gesê. Toe het hy gespring. Toe hy sy bewussyn herwin het, het hy agtergekom dat hy deur sy valskerm in die 40 myl per uur wind voortgesleep is “soos ’n vlieër”, en hard oor die skerp klipgruis en rotse gegesel en gesleep is. Ná ’n gestoei het hy daarin geslaag om die knip op die valskerm te draai om los te kom, en die draagdoek het in die storm weggeflapper. Stirling het in die donker al waggelend op sy voete gekom, oortrek van skeurwonde en bloed wat van hom afgestroom het, maar verder ongedeerd.

~

Die volgende oggend, voor die res van die kamp wakker geword het, was David Lloyd Owen van die Long Range Desert Group besig om vir homself tee te maak, toe ’n lang figuur uit die oggend mistigheid opgedoem het. “My naam is Stirling,” het die man gesê. “Het jy enige van my kêrels dalk gesien? Lloyd Owen het natuurlik nie, want al die ander kêrels in Stirling se span was gevange geneem. Onder sersant Yates het hulle ’n verkeerde draai gevat en in ’n Italiaanse patrollie vasgeloop. Stirling en sersant Tait het daarin geslaag om die eskarpement by die kus te bereik, waar hulle die kuspad raakgeloop het, maar nie die lughawe nie. Daarna het hulle omgedraai en vyftig myl terug deur die reën gestrompel na die rendezvous. Hulle was die enigste lede van hulle groepie wat daarin geslaag het om terug te kom.

Stirling het vir twee dae langer by die woestyn-rendezvous gebly, en die horison noukeurig bespied met die hoop dat ander afgedwaaldes uiteindelik te voorskyn sou kom. Niemand het nie.

~

Stirling het vertel dat hy die kuspad bereik het en die see gesien het. Die feit dat hy dit vanuit die woestyn benader het, het bewys dat “gegewe die regte omstandighede, dit waaraan ek gedink het, moontlik was”. Onder verskriklike omstandighede het die manne bewonderenswaardig gedoen. “Die hele afdeling het besonder goed opgetree,” het Paddy Mayne geskryf, “en hoewel hulle verskillende soorte wonde opgedoen het en gekneus was soos hulle geval het, en nat en koud was, het hulle opgewek gebly.” Cooper was filosofies: “OK, ons het ’n pak slae gekry. Dit was ’n fiasko, maar die weer het dit alles veroorsaak. Die plan was oor die algemeen goed.” Seekings het soos gewoonlik ’n onbuigsame houding ingeneem: “Jy kan nie net rondsit en dink aan die ongevalle nie. Ons het aangesluit om ’n oorlog te veg. Ons het geweet waaroor dit gegaan het.” Maar agter die bravado, was Seekings onthuts.

Die hartverskeurende waarheid was nie te verbloem nie: “Operation Squatter” was deur en deur ’n ramp. Van die vyf en vyftig manne wat op 16 November met valskerms in die stormwind geland het, het net een en twintig teruggekeer. Die res was dood of beseer, vermis of gevange geneem. L Detachment het die meeste van sy krag verloor sonder om ’n skoot af te vuur, en die vyand aangeval sonder om ’n enkele bom te laat ontplof. Hulle is verslaan, nie deur die krag van wapens nie, maar deur die wind en reën. Die sending het niks bygedra om “Operation Crusader” te ondersteun nie. Wat nog erger was, die mislukte operasie het die vyand gewaarsku dat die Britte besig was met sabotasie agter hulle linies. Bonington se span op wie eers geskiet is en toe gevange geneem is, se bevele was om net hulle name, rang en serienommers aan hulle Duitse gevangenemers bekend te maak. Maar iemand het die aap uit die mou gelaat.

~

Die manne was uiters gedemolariseerd. Almal het ’n intieme vriend verloor. Jock Cheyne wat in die woestyn agtergelaat was met ’n gebreekte rug, was ’n besonderse maat van Pat Riley. Jim Almonds het pynlike skuld ervaar toe hy gehoor het van Bonington se eenheid. “Ek moes op daardie vliegtuig gewees het,” het hy later gedink. “Die voorwaardes van die noodlot is onverstaanbaar.” Hoewel hy nooit daaroor gepraat het nie, het die verlies van Eoin McGonigal vir Paddy Mayne platgeslaan. “Eoin McGonigal was die een persoon wat van Paddy gehou het voor hy ’n held geword het,” het iemand wat hulle albei geken het, gesê. Een van Mayne se lewensbeskrywers het verder gesê: “As daar ooit ’n ware liefde in sy (Mayne se) lewe was, was dit sy vriend Eoin McGonigal.” Iets in Mayne het saam met sy vriend gesterf.

Wat veronderstel was om ’n triomfantelike eerste sending te gewees het, het Stirling toegegee, was ’n “algehele mislukking”. Hy was bevrees dat die afstelling van die operasie die toekoms van die SAS in gevaar sou stel, maar deur daarmee voort te gaan, het hy dit amper vernietig. “Dit was tragies … soveel talent in dié wat ons verloor het,” het hy daarna gepeins. Dit het gelyk of die verkleinde “detachment” ontbind sou word.

Maar soos dikwels, lê daar in die rampspoed, die saad van heil.

Recruiting

Posted on March 30, 2020 by Cape Rebel

Click on the image to listen to the podcast

From SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
by Ben MacIntyre

 

Stirling was an officer different to any other. A stooped, lanky figure, an unlikely pioneer of a regiment that would become famed for physical strength, he limped around the camp, making a point of getting to know each of the men. Most of the recruits were used to being disdained by their officers, bullied by their NCOs, and generally treated as a lower life-form. Stirling was exquisitely polite to all. ‘He did not bark orders,’ marvelled Johnny Cooper. ‘He asked people to do things.’ While many officers existed in a state of permanent choleric meltdown, Stirling never raised his voice. Riley found him ‘a very quiet chap, very shy’. Most of his recruits had never come across an officer who not only tolerated alternative views, but encouraged them.

Other elements of Stirling’s peculiar character seeped into the unit, including his natural modesty and his talent for extreme understatement. From the earliest days, he insisted that there should be ‘no bragging or swanking’. The members of L Detachment would be carrying out secret, perilous tasks that might well impress other soldiers and civilians, but they should never speak about them outside their own ranks. This was sound military policy, but it also reflected Stirling’s personal allergy to boasting. The men of the SAS were expected to maintain a discreet silence about their activities.

As the mini-camp took shape, Jock Lewes set about devising a training programme of spartan rigour, a regime so severe that many came close to quitting – which was, of course, exactly what Lewes wanted quitters to do.

~

Lieutenant Bill Fraser seemed slightly baffled by life, too delicate for soldiering – but he had seen some hard fighting. Some of the soldiers considered him ‘a bit strange’, code for homosexual, and nicknamed him ‘Skin Fraser’. He may well have been gay, but it is noticeable that, at a time of intense homophobia in army ranks, most of his comrades in arms (with some notable exceptions) could not have cared less. Fraser was a superb leader.

~

Stirling’s final choice of junior officer was both inspired and quite odd: inspired because the officer in question would set an unparalleled standard for courage and leadership in the SAS; and odd because he was also given to volcanic explosions of temper and sometimes violent insubordination. He was truculent, troubled and dangerously unpredictable, particularly when drunk, which was often. A celebrated international rugby player, a frustrated poet, and a bar-room brawler, this man was seventeen stone of highly volatile human explosive. At the time when Stirling set out to recruit him, he was also allegedly in prison for thumping his commanding officer.

Robert Blair Mayne, known by all as Paddy, was one of seven children of a prosperous Protestant family from Northern Ireland. Born in Newtownards in County Down in 1915, he had excelled at rugby as a schoolboy, and went on to read law at Queens University, Belfast, where he won the Ireland universities heavyweight boxing championship. Over six feet tall, broad-shouldered and swift, he first played for Ireland’s national rugby team, in the position of lock forward, against Wales in 1937, and went on to represent Ireland on five subsequent occasions. In 1938, he was one of eight Irishmen chosen to take part in the Lions’ tour of South Africa. One reporter noted his ‘quiet, almost ruthless efficiency’. The war interrupted what had seemed destined to be a great rugby career. He signed up with the Royal Ulster Rifles, and then the commandos. After the Battle of Litani River in June 1941, he was mentioned in dispatches for the impressive way he had commanded his troops, achieving his objectives and bringing back a large clutch of prisoners.

All of which makes Paddy Mayne sound like some plastic model of academic, athletic and military virtue. Which he most emphatically was not.

Mayne struck many, on first meeting, as a subdued, almost shy man. After a few drinks, he became boisterous; after a few more, he became argumentative and challenging; quite soon after that, it was time to get out of the bar.

His conduct during the Lions’ tour of South Africa broke all records for drunken misbehaviour, in a sport not noted for sobriety and tranquillity off the field. He repeatedly broke into his teammates’ rooms after midnight and smashed all the furniture to splinters; in the company of Welsh hooker ‘Bunner’ Travers, he headed down to the Durban docks to get plastered and pick fights with the longshoremen; he argued with the team manager, and then disappeared on a three-day bender. One night he found a team of convicts chained up beneath Ellis Park stadium, where they were being put to work erecting stands. This he considered barbaric, so he returned the following night with bolt-cutters and set free at least one, and possibly all of them. In an attempt to impose some restraint on Mayne, he was made to share a hotel room with the fly-half George Cromey, a Presbyterian minister. One night, after an official dinner, Mayne vanished. Cromey was still waiting for him at 3 a.m. when Mayne, in bedraggled evening dress, burst in and announced, ‘I’ve just shot a springbok,’ before dumping a very bloody, very dead South African antelope on the floor. He had run into some hunters in a bar, and gone off for a little midnight game hunting.

This was Mayne the amusing drunk. Mayne the vicious, fighting drunk was a different proposition altogether. In the latter state, he was liable to pick up people who had annoyed him and hurl them quite considerable distances, or simply beat them senseless. He never remembered what he had done the next morning. As one of his closest friends put it, Mayne was ‘a very nice and kind fellow, most of the time, although he could be roused to something else … once he had gone beyond a certain point, drinking, he became somebody quite different.’ Inside Paddy Mayne there was a deep reservoir of anger that welled up in violence; it had found one channel on the rugby field, and another in alcoholic post-match mayhem. On the battlefield, it would produce heroics; off it, Paddy Mayne’s destructive demon could erupt without warning, and with terrifying force.

What was the source of Mayne’s inner fury? He may have been subconsciously rebelling against a rigidly strait-laced Protestant upbringing. He had a strong aversion to the use of foul language. The only person he feared, it is said, was his mother – who was, admittedly, petrifying. Mayne was a deeply literate man, with a particular liking for the darker poetry of A. E. Housman, and he may have harboured dreams of becoming a writer; some have seen frustrated creativity as the root of his anger. There have also been suggestions that he had homosexual inclinations. Certainly, his relations with women were strained, and he never established a long-term heterosexual relationship. ‘How could any woman love a big, ugly man like me?’ he once said to his brother. Male sexual banter on the subject of women could send him into a rage. He was intensely secretive about his emotional life, as he was about much else. Mayne’s sexuality has no bearing whatever on his qualities as a soldier, except to the extent that the repression of his feelings may have contributed to an inner turmoil that made him a most complicated and angry man, but a very remarkable soldier.

Mayne was said to have been in prison, for striking a superior officer, in the late summer of 1941. The story is told that he was playing chess with Eoin McGonigal, his closest friend, when they were interrupted by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, an upper class Old Etonian and the son of Sir Roger Keyes, the Director of Combined Operations. Keyes was a brave man (he would die just a few months later in an abortive attempt to kidnap Rommel, winning a posthumous VC), but he had the voice of Bertie Wooster and exactly the sort of patrician manner that lit Mayne’s very short fuse. A row ensued, Mayne pushed Keyes, who fell over and cut himself on the edge of a table. According to some accounts, the confrontation ended with Mayne running Keyes out of the mess tent on the point of a bayonet. Soon afterwards, Mayne applied to be transferred to the Far East. If he was arrested, there is no supporting evidence in the archives. Stirling, however, told and retold the story of how he had discovered Paddy in prison, and arranged for the charges to be dropped in order to get him into L Detachment. Mayne never denied it.

Mayne did not like posh people. As a militant Ulster Unionist, he was instinctively anti-Catholic. He despised the way certain officers seemed to gain preferment through social connections. So the first meeting between Mayne and David Stirling – an upper-cass, Catholic officer with unrivalled access to the old-boy network – was never going to be easy. According to Stirling, Mayne eyed him with dark suspicion as he laid out his plans and asked the Irishman if he would like to come aboard. Mayne listened, and then began asking questions in a ‘gentle, slightly mocking voice’, with his light Ulster twang.

Finally Mayne leaned back: ‘I can’t see any real prospect of fighting in this scheme of yours.’

Stirling was quick in response. ‘There isn’t any … except against the enemy.’

Mayne laughed. He was hooked. But, before they shook on it, Stirling had one condition: ‘This is one commanding officer you will never hit, and I want your promise on that.’

‘You have it,’ said Mayne.

Stirling was only half joking. He would always remain wary of Mayne’s ‘vicious temper, at times unnatural in its ferocity’. Recruiting Mayne was like adopting a wolf: exciting, certain to instil fear, but not necessarily sensible.

Werwing

Posted on March 30, 2020 by Cape Rebel

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Uit SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
deur Ben MacIntyre



Stirling was anders as enige ander offisier. ’n Krom figuur, lank en skraal, ’n onwaarskynlike pionier van ’n regiment wat beroemd sou word vir fisiese krag. Hy het mank in die kamp rondgeloop, en ’n punt daarvan gemaak om elkeen van die manne te leer ken. Die meeste van die rekrute was gewoond daaraan om deur die offisiere met minagting bejeën te word, om afgeknou te word deur hulle onderoffisiere, en om oor die algemeen as ’n laer lewensvorm behandel te word. Stirling was besonder hoflik teenoor almal. “Hy het nie bevele uitgeblaf nie,” het Johnny Cooper verwonderd gesê. “Hy het mense gevra om dinge te doen.” Terwyl baie offisiere in ’n staat van permanente opvlieënde katastrofes gelewe het, het Stirling nooit sy stem verhef nie. Riley het hom “as ’n baie stil kêrel, baie skaam”, ervaar. Die meeste van sy rekrute het nog nooit ’n offisier raakgeloop wat nie net alternatiewe sienings verdra het nie, maar hulle selfs aangemoedig het.

Ander elemente in Stirling se buitengewone karakter het in die eenheid deurgesyfer, sowel as sy natuurlike nederigheid en sy talent vir uiterste onderbeklemtoning. Sedert sy vroegste dae het hy daarop aangedring dat daar “geen spoggery of grootdoenery” moes wees nie. Die lede van L Detachment sou geheime, lewensgevaarlike take uitvoer wat ander soldate en burgerlikes kon beïndruk, maar hulle moes nooit buite hulle eie geledere daarvan praat nie. Dit was gesonde militêre beleid, maar dit het ook Stirling se persoonlike allergie vir spoggery gereflekteer. Daar was van die manne van die SAS verwag om ’n bedagsame stilte oor hulle aktiwiteite te handhaaf.

Terwyl die mini-kamp vorm aangeneem het, het Jock Lewes begin om ’n opleidingskamp van spartaanse kastyding te ontwerp, ’n stelsel so gedug dat heelwat amper handdoek ingegooi het – wat natuurlik presies was wat Lewes die hensoppers wou laat doen het.

~

Dit het gelyk of luitenant Bill Fraser so ietwat verbyster was deur die lewe, te delikaat vir ’n soldaat – maar hy was al in hewige gevegte betrokke. Party soldate het hom as “’n bietjie snaaks” beskou, ’n kode vir homoseksueel, en hom die bynaam “Skin Fraser” gegee. Dit kon so wees dat hy gay was, maar dit was opmerksaam dat, in ’n tyd wat daar intense homofobië in die weermag was, dit die meeste gewapende kamerade (daar was merkbare uitsonderings) koud gelaat het. Fraser was ’n uitstaande leier.

~

Stirling se finale keuse vir junioroffisier was beide geïnspireerd en nogal snaaks: geïnspireerd, want die betrokke offisier sou ’n ongeëwenaarde standaard daar stel vir moed en leierskap in die SAS; en koddig, want hy was geneig tot woeste vulkaniese uitbarstings van humeur en soms gruwelike insubordinasie. Hy was veglustig, onrustig en gevaarlik onvoorspelbaar, veral wanneer hy dronk was, wat nogal baie gebeur het. ’n Gevierde internasionale rugbyspeler, ’n gefrustreede digter, ’n kroegbakleier – hierdie man was 108 kg van hoogs onstabiele menslike plofstof. Gedurende die tyd toe Stirling daarop uit was om hom te werf, was hy ook na bewering in die tronk omdat hy ’n bevelvoerder opgedons het.

Robert Blair Mayne, aan almal bekend as Paddy, was een van sewe kinders van ’n welvarende protestandse familie uit Noord-Ierland. Gebore in Newtownards in County Down in 1915, het hy as ’n skoolseun uitgeblink in rugby, en daarna het hy by Queens Universiteit in Belfast regte gaan studeer, waar hy die Ierse universiteite se swaargewigbokskampioenskap gewen het. Oor die ses voet lank met breë skouers en spoed, het hy eerstens vir Ierland se nasionale rugbyspan gespeel as ’n slot teen Wallis in 1937. Daarna het hy Ierland in vyf daaropvolgende geleenthede verteenwoordig. In 1938 was hy een van agt Iere wat gekies was om deel te wees van die Leeus se toer van Suid-Afrika. Een verslaggewer het sy “stil, amper meedoënlose effektiwiteit” opgemerk. Wat gelyk het na ’n grootse rugbyloopbaan is deur die oorlog onderbreek. Hy het by die Royal Ulster Rifles aangesluit, en daarna by die kommando’s. Ná die Slag van Litani River in Junie 1941, is sy naam in amptelike verslae genoem vir die indrukwekkende manier waarop hy bevel gevoer het oor sy troepe, waardeur hy sy doelwit bereik en ’n groot klomp gevangenes terug gebring het.

Dit alles laat Paddy Mayne klink na een of ander plastiese model van akademiese, atletiese en militêre voortreflikheid – wat hy vir seker empaties nie was nie.

Op die eerste kennismaking met Mayne, het hy voorgekom as ’n stil en gelate, amper ’n skaam man. Ná ’n paar drankies, het hy luidrugtig geword; en ná nog ’n paar het hy skoorsoekerig en uitdagend geword. Gou daarna het dit tyd geword om uit die kroeg uit pad te gee.

Sy gedrag tydens die Leeus se toer van Suid-Afrika het alle rekords vir besope wangedrag gebreek – in ’n sport wat nie bekend staan vir soberheid en rustigheid van die veld af. Hy het herhaaldelik ná middernag by sy spanmaats se kamers ingebreek en al die meubels aan skerwe geslaan; in die geselskap van die Wallise haker, “Bunner” Travers, het hulle pad gevat na Durban se dokke toe om daar geswael te raak en bakleiery met die dokwerkers te gaan soek; hy het met die spanbestuurder geargumenteer, en toe vir ’n drie-daagse gesuipery verdwyn. Een aand het hy op ’n span bandiete afgekom wat met kettings onder die stadium by Ellis Park vasgemaak was – hulle werk was om die sitplekstellasies op te rig. Hy het dit as barbaars beskou, en het die daaropvolgende nag teruggekeer met ’n boutknipper en het ten minste een van hulle vry laat wegkom, en moontlik hulle almal. In ’n poging om Mayne in toom te hou, was hy verplig om ’n kamer met die losskakel, George Cromey, ’n Presbiteriaanse predikant, te deel. Een aand ná ’n amptelike dinee, het Mayne verdwyn. Toe Cromey nog teen drie uur die oggend op Mayne se terugkeer gewag het, het ’n gehawende Mayne in aanddrag ingebars en aangekondig: “Ek het nou net ’n springbok geskiet,” voordat hy die baie bebloede en baie dooie Suid-Afrikaanse wildsbok op die vloer laat val het. Hy het ’n paar jagters in ’n kroeg raakgeloop, en hulle het toe saam laat spat op ’n middernagtelike wildsjagtog.

Dit was Mayne die vermaaklike beskonkende. Mayne die boosaardige, veglustige dronkgat was heeltemal ’n ander persoon. Op ’n latere stadium kon hy iemand wat hom kwaad gemaak het, optel en ’n hele ent vêr wegsmyt, of hom eenvoudig sinneloos opneuk. Die oggend daarna kon hy nooit onthou wat hy gedoen het nie. Soos een van sy beste vriende gesê het, Mayne was “die meeste van die tyd ’n baie aangename en goedhartige kêrel, hoewel hy opgesweep kon word tot iets heel anders ... as hy eers ’n punt bereik het waar hy te veel gedrink het, het hy iemand heeltemal anders geword.” In Paddy se binneste was daar ’n diep bron van woede wat opgewel het in geweld. Een kanaal het hy op die rugbyveld gevind, en ’n ander in alkoholiese gewelddadigheid ná ’n wedstryd. Op die slagveld het dit heroïse dade tot gevolg gehad. Paddy Mayne se verwoestende demoon kon sonder vooraf waarskuwing uitbars – met skrikwekkende geweld.

Wat was die oorsprong van Mayne se innerlike toorn? Dit mag wees dat hy in sy onderbewussyn teen sy onbuigsame nougesette Protestantse opvoeding gerebelleer het. Hy het ’n sterk afkeer aan die gebruik van vuiltaal gehad. Al persoon vir wie hy bang was, was sy moeder – wat weliswaar skrikaanjaend was. Mayne was besonderd geletterd, met ’n besondere voorkeur vir die sombere gedigte van A.E. Housman, en dit kon wees dat hy gedroom het om ’n skrywer te word; die gefrustreerde skeppingsdrang is deur sommiges beskou as die wortel van die kwaad. Daar was ook die gedagte dat hy homoseksuele neigings gehad het. Sy verhouding met vrouens was verseker gespanne, en hy het nooit langdurige heteroseksuele verhoudings gehad nie. “Hoe kan enige vrou so ’n groot, lelike man soos ek liefhê?” het hy op ’n slag aan sy broer gesê. Seksuele gekskeerdery oor vrouens kon hom rasend van woede maak. Hy was geweldig geslote oor sy emosionele lewe, net soos met baie ander dinge. Mayne se seksualiteit het glad geen verband met die kwaliteit van sy krygsmanskap gehad nie, behalwe tot die mate dat die onderdrukking van sy gevoelens tot sy innerlike onrus kon bydra, wat hom die gekompliseerdste en grimmigste man kon maak, maar ’n baie merkwaardige soldaat.

Daar is gesê dat Mayne aan die einde van die somer van 1941, in die tronk was omdat hy ’n senior offisier aangerand het. Die storie lui dat hy skaak met Eoin McGonigal, sy beste vriend, gespeel het, toe hulle deur sy bevelvoerende offisier, luitenant-kolonel Geoffrey Keyes, van ’n adelliker stand, oudleerling van Eton en die seun van sir Roger Keyes, die Direkteur van Gekombineerde Operasies, in die rede geval en gesteur is. Keyes was ’n dapper man (hy het ’n paar maande later in ’n mislukte poging om Rommel te ontvoer, gesterf, en daarmee die VC postuum ontvang), maar hy het die stem van Bertie Wooster gehad en presies die soort van patrisiese houding wat Mayne se baie kort lont ontsteek het. Dit het ’n twis tot gevolg gehad. Mayne het Keyes gestoot wat hom laat struikel het en waarop hy homself aan die kant van die tafel stukkend gesny het. Sommige weergawes verloop dat die konfrontasie beëindig is toe Keyes met ’n bajonet by die tent uitgejaag is. Kort daarna het Mayne aansoek gedoen om na die Verre Ooste verplaas te word. Daar is geen aanduiding of hy gearresteer was nie. Stirling het egter herhaaldelik die storie vertel hoe hy vir Paddy in die tronk ontdek het, en gereël het vir die aanklagtes om teruggetrek te word sodat hy in L Detachnment opgeneem kon word. Mayne het dit nooit ontken nie.

Mayne het nie van deftige mense van hoë status gehou nie. As ’n militante Ulster Unionis, was hy instinkmatig anti-katoliek. Hy het die manier waarop sekere offisiere bevordering deur sosiale konneksies verkry het, verfoei. Dus, die eerste ontmoeting tussen Mayne en Stirling – uit die hoër stand, katolieke offisier met weergalose toegang tot die oudleerlingnetwerk – sou nooit maklik gewees het nie. Volgens Stirling, het Mayne hom met agterdog aangekyk toe hy sy planne voorgelê het en die Ier gevra het of hy by hulle wou aansluit. Mayne het geluister en toe op “’n kalm en bedaarde, maar ietwat spottende stemtoon” vrae begin vra op sy ligte Ulster-nasale tongval.

Uiteindelik het Mayne teruggeleun: “Ek kan glad nie ’n geveg in hierdie skema van jou sien nie”.

Stirling was gou reg met ’n antwoord. “Daar is nie so iets nie ... behalwe teen die vyand”.

Mayne het gelag. Hy was gevang. Maar voor hulle daarop handgeskud het, het Stirling een voorwaarde gestel: “Ek is een bevelvoerder aan wie jy nooit gaan slaan nie, en dit moet jy my belowe.”

“Nou maar goed so,” het Mayne gesê.

Stirling het maar net so half en half ’n grap gemaak. Hy sou altyd versigtig wees vir Mayne se “boosaardige humeur, ten tye onnatuurlik in felheid”. Om Mayne te kon werf, was soos om ’n wolf aan te neem: opwindend, gewis sal dit vrees inboesem, maar nie noodwendig verstandig nie.

Good Luck and Bad, Error, Accident and Design

Posted on March 30, 2020 by Cape Rebel

Click on the image to listen to the podcast

From SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
by Ben MacIntyre

 

By mid-July, Stirling had written the outline of a proposal, giving credit to Lewes, and noting that the plan was ‘largely based on Jock’s ideas’.

Stirling’s original memo was handwritten in pencil, and does not survive in the SAS archives. Its outlines were straightforward: Rommel’s eastward advance along the North African coast had swung the battle in favour of the celebrated German commander, but it had also created an opportunity, leaving the enemy supply lines extended and coastal airfields vulnerable to attack. Most were only thinly defended. Some even lacked perimeter fencing. On a moonless night, a small number of highly trained commandos could be dropped by parachute, as close as feasible to enemy airfields; they would then split into small teams, each no more than five strong, which would penetrate the aerodromes under cover of darkness, plant time bombs on as many aircraft as possible, and then retreat back into the desert, where they could be picked up by the Long Range Desert Group – the British reconnaissance unit which, Stirling had learned, was capable of driving deep into the desert. Up to thirty separate attacks might be launched in a single night. To maintain security and secrecy, such an operation would have to be approved by the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East. The new unit would need special status, access to military intelligence and its own secluded training ground. Stirling was suggesting ‘a new type of force, to extract the maximum out of surprise and guile’.

With hindsight, the plan seems obvious. At the time, it was revolutionary.

Many middle-ranking officers in the British army had fought in the First World War, and clung to an old-fashioned, classical conception of warfare: men in uniform clashing on a battlefield, and then fighting until one side emerged victorious. So far, although the battlefront had moved back and forth, the war in North Africa was following this pattern. What Stirling proposed would leapfrog the front line and take the battle directly into the enemy camp. In the eyes of some, this was not only unprecedented, but unsporting, like punching a chap when he’s looking the other way. Blowing up planes in the middle of the night and then running away, some felt, was a job for saboteurs, mercenaries and assassins, not for soldiers of His Majesty’s armed forces. It was not war as they knew it, and it was not cricket. Worse than that, Stirling’s idea represented a threat to the very concept of rank. The chain of command is sacrosanct in every army, but Stirling was proposing to bypass that too, and report only to the most senior commander – in this case General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of Middle East Command. Stirling was a mere lieutenant, and an undistinguished one at that, who was proposing to subvert centuries of military tradition, by speaking directly to the top brass, in order to create and command what looked suspiciously like a private army. To the traditionalists among his superiors, this was more than just impertinent; it was positively insurrectionary.

Stirling had no illusions about how his plan would be received by the staff officers at Middle East Headquarters. He was openly contemptuous of the mid-level military bureaucracy, which he referred to, variously, as a ‘freemasonry of mediocrity’ and ‘layer upon layer of fossilised shit’. If his idea was to have a chance, he would need to get the proposal directly into the hands of the most senior officers, before anyone lower in the hierarchy had a chance to kill it. If it passed through the normal channels, the plan would perish on the desk of the first staff officer who read it. Stirling’s radical approach to the ‘fossilised shit’ was similar to his attitude towards the front line: he did not intend to go through it, but to go around it. How he did so has become the stuff of myth.

British Middle East Headquarters was housed in a large block of commandeered flats surrounded by barbed wire in Cairo’s Garden City. Still on crutches, Stirling hobbled up to the entrance, only to find his way barred by two guards demanding that he show a pass, which he did not have. So, waiting until a moment when the guards were preoccupied, he climbed through a gap in the fence. As he was entering the building, the guards spotted his abandoned crutches and gave chase. Going as fast as his stiff legs would carry him, he flew upstairs and burst into a room marked ‘Adjutant General’. There he found himself confronted by a red-faced major, who just happened to be one of his former instructors at Pirbright. The senior officer remembered Stirling as one of his least attentive students, and swiftly sent him packing: ‘Whatever lunatic idea you have, Stirling, forget it … Now, get out.’

In the corridor, hearing the guards thundering upstairs, he entered the next room, which turned out to contain General Sir Neil Ritchie, the Deputy Chief of Staff. Stirling handed over his proposal, which he had condensed into a short paper. Ritchie leafed through the proposal with, according to Stirling, growing interest. Then he looked up. ‘This may be just the sort of plan we’re looking for.’ The major from the Adjutant General’s office was summoned from next door and instructed, to his astonishment and barely suppressed fury, to give the young officer all the assistance he needed. ‘I don’t like you, and I don’t like this business,’ hissed the major from the Adjutant General’s office, after Richie had left. ‘You will get no favours from me.’ Three days later, Stirling was summoned back to see General Auchinleck.

This is an almost perfect Stirling story, containing the characteristic admixture of self-deprecation, bluff and impudence, describing an act of daring crowned with unlikely success, while taking a swipe at the military bureaucracy he disdained. It has the patina of a tale polished, told and retold after dinner. It might even be true, or partly true.

But there is another, more prosaic explanation for Stirling’s successful attempt to gain access to the top brass. Auchinleck was an old family friend of the Stirlings. Ritchie had been grouse shooting at Keir. Both were Scots, and both had fought in the First World War alongside General Archibald Stirling, David’s father. This was an age when family and class connections counted for much: if there was one junior officer who could get to see a general simply by asking, that was David Stirling. ‘I knew I could argue with a general,’ he later said.

Generals Auchinleck and Ritchie were both present at Stirling’s next interview, along with Major General Eric Dorman-Smith – a man considered by one colleague to be close to lunacy, but one of the few senior officers who appreciated the way war was swiftly evolving, with new technology and motorisation.

The three officers quizzed Stirling closely on his outline proposal, and listened attentively as he laid out his ideas.

Auchinleck, universally known as ‘the Auk’, had only recently taken over as Commander-in-Chief, and was already under intense pressure from Winston Churchill to strike back at Rommel, and reverse the tide of the North African war. A major counter-offensive would be taking place sooner (if Churchill had his way) or later (if Auchinleck had his), and Stirling’s band of raiders might possibly play an important role in hampering enemy airpower at a critical moment. The decision had already been taken to disband Layforce, providing a ready pool of possible recruits, and unlike earlier commando operations, the plan would not require the use of expensive ships and the complexities of naval cooperation. Stirling’s plan was cheap, in terms of manpower and equipment, and it could pay handsome dividends if it worked. And if it didn’t, all that would be lost would be a handful of adventurers. There may have been another reason for the generals’ willingness to listen. All three had been in the thick of battle during the last war: Dorman-Smith had won the Military Cross at Ypres; Ritchie had won the same medal for his ‘coolness, courage and utter disregard of danger’ under fire; Auchinleck had been mentioned in dispatches during the fierce fighting in Mesopotamia. The trio of generals may have heard this twenty-five-year-old soldier explaining how he intended to help win the war by fighting the Germans at close quarters, and seen in him a little of themselves.

At the end of the meeting, Stirling was told that he would be promoted to captain, and authorised to raise an initial force of six officers and sixty men from the remnants of Layforce.

The new unit needed a name. It was provided by a little-known military genius with a unique talent for deception and subterfuge, and a taste for theatricality. Colonel Dudley Wrangel Clarke was responsible for strategic deception in the Middle East, the strange but vital offshoot of military operations dedicated to concealing the truth from the enemy and planting lies in its place. Clarke had emerged as one of the great deceivers of the Second World War: operating from a converted bathroom and then from the basement of a Cairo brothel, he perfected the use of fictional orders of battle, visual deception, double agents, and misinformation to confuse and mislead the enemy. He was flamboyant, charming, and very funny. He was also a bit odd. In October 1941 he would be arrested in Madrid dressed, rather elegantly, as a woman. This incident, never fully explained, caused much sniggering – the Spanish police photographs were sent to Churchill – but it did his career no harm whatever.

One of Clarke’s ruses in the Middle East had been the creation, in January 1941, of a fake paratroop brigade, to try to fool the Italians into fearing that the British might land airborne troops to assist the next attack. The aim was to soak up Italian forces by making them mount defences against a non-existent threat, inflate the apparent size of British forces, and generally corrupt enemy planning. The operation was codenamed Abeam, and the bogus unit was given the invented name ‘First Special Air Service Brigade’. Clarke had planted fake photographs in Egyptian newspapers, showing parachutists near prisoner-of-war camps, and had two men in bogus uniforms wander around Egypt pretending to be SAS paratroopers, convalescing from injuries sustained while parachuting. False documents, identifying the first SAS Brigade, were also planted on known enemy spies, including a Japanese consular official. Captured enemy documents appeared to indicate that Operation Abeam was working, but when Clarke got wind that a real parachute unit was being prepared, he sensed an opportunity to bolster the deception. If Stirling’s small assault team took the same name, Clarke argued, this would surely reinforce the idea, in the mind of the opposition, that a full brigade of paratroopers was preparing for action.

Stirling readily agreed to name his force ‘L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade’. The letter L was selected to imply that detachments A to K were already in existence. Stirling later joked that it stood for ‘Learner’. Clarke was ‘delighted to have some flesh and blood parachutists instead of totally bogus ones’. In return he promised to use his extensive network of contacts to spread the word that Stirling was looking for recruits.

The SAS was formed as part of a larger contingent that did not, in reality, exist – an oddly appropriate start for a unit that had come into being through a most unlikely combination of good luck and bad, error, accident and design.

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