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From SAS: Rogue Heroes, The Authorised Wartime History
by Ben MacIntyre
Stirling was one of those people who thrive in war, having failed at peace. In a short life, he had tried his hand at a variety of occupations – artist, architect, cowboy and mountaineer – and found success in none of them. Privileged by birth and education, intelligent and resourceful, he could have done anything, but had spent the early part of his life doing little of any consequence. The war was his salvation.
The Stirling family was one of the oldest and grandest in Scotland, an aristocratic clan of great distinction, long military traditions and considerable eccentricity. David Stirling’s mother was the daughter of Lord Lovat, the chief of Clan Fraser, with bloodlines stretching back to Charles II. His father, General Archibald Stirling, had been gassed in the First World War, served as an MP and then retired to Keir, the 15,000 acre Perthshire estate that had been the family’s seat for the previous five centuries. The general presided over his sprawling lands and unruly family like some benign but distant chieftain observing a battlefield from a remote hill. David’s formidible mother Margaret was the more forceful presence: her children were in awe of her. Keir House, where David Stirling was born in 1915, was a vast edifice, freezing cold even at the height of summer, filled with old hunting trophies, noise and devilment. The Stirling parents drummed good manners into their six children, but otherwise largely left them to get on with their lives. The four Stirling boys, of whom David was the second in age, grew up stalking deer, hunting rabbits, fighting and competing. One favourite game was a form of sibling duel using air rifles: two brothers would take pot shots at each other’s backsides in turn, moving closer by a pace after each shot.
Despite this aristocratically spartan start in life, David Stirling was not a hardy child. Dispatched to Ampleforth, the Catholic boarding school, at the age of eight, he caught typhoid fever and was sent home for an extended period of recovery. A speech impediment was eventually cured by surgery. He disliked sport, and did his best to avoid it. He grew at an astonishing rate: by the age of seventeen, he was nearly six feet six inches tall, a gangly beanpole, wilful, reckless and exceptionally polite. Largely by virtue of his class, he was awarded a place at Cambridge University, where he misbehaved on a lavish scale, spending more time at Newmarket racecourse than he devoted to studying. ‘If there was a serious side to life, it totally escaped me,’ he later admitted. If he ever opened a book, the event was not recorded. After a year, the master of his college informed him that he was being sent down, read out a list of twenty-three offences that merited expulsion, and invited him to select the three which he considered ‘would be least offensive’ to his mother.
The David Stirling who turned up at the Guards Depot in Pirbright in the autumn of 1939 was a strange mixture of parts. Ambitious but unfocused; steeped in soldierly traditions, but allergic to military discipline. A boisterous exterior belied a man prone to periodic depressions, whose extreme good manners and social ease masked moments of inner turmoil. Stirling was a romantic, with an innate talent for friendship, but little desire or need for physical intimacy.
He had many women friends, and according to his biographer was ‘not unattracted to the opposite sex’. Yet he seemed to relax only among men, and ‘in wide open spaces’. Like many convivial people, he was slightly lonely. A warrior monk, he craved action and the company of soldiers, but when the fighting was over, he embraced solitude.
Stirling was also possessed of a profound self-belief, the sort of confidence that comes from high birth and boundless opportunity. He was blithely unconstrained by convention, and regarded rules as nuisances to be ignored, broken, or otherwise overcome. He was elaborately respectful towards his social inferiors, and showed no deference whatsoever to rank. Strikingly modest, he was repelled by braggards and loudmouths: ‘swanks’ (swanking) or ‘pomposo’ (pomposity) were his gravest insults. His manner seemed vague and forgetful, but his powers of concentration were phenomenal. Despite an ungainly body and a patchy academic record, he had a stubborn faith in his own abilities, intellectual and physical. Stirling did exactly what he wanted to do, whether or not others thought his aims were sensible or even possible. The SAS came into being, in part, because its founder would not take ‘no’ for an answer, either from those in authority or from those under his command.
Slipping away from the Guards Depot at Pirbright, he would frequently head to London for a night of drinking, gambling and billiards at White’s Club; just as frequently, he was caught and confined to barracks. Stirling was a nightmare recruit: impertinent, indolent and often half asleep as a result of his carousing the night before. ‘He was quite, quite irresponsible,’ recalled Willie (later Viscount) Whitelaw, a fellow trainee officer at Pirbright. ‘He just couldn’t tolerate that we were being trained along the lines of the last major conflict. His reaction was just to ignore everything.’
It was at the bar of White’s Club, one of the most exclusive gentleman’s clubs in London, that Stirling first learned about a form of soldiering that seemed much closer to the adventure and excitement he had in mind: a crack new commando unit intended to hit important enemy targets with maximum impact. Stirling’s cousin, Lord Lovat, had been among the first to volunteer for the commandos.
Stirling immediately volunteered. Soon he found himself stomping through the wilds of western Scotland, familiar boyhood terrain and far from the parade ground he loathed. For weeks the commandos trained in the bogs and bracken of the Isle of Arran: route marches, unarmed combat, endurance, fieldcraft, navigation and survival techniques. Even at this early stage, some of the other volunteers noticed something different about the tall young officer. Stirling was a natural leader, with an understated but adamant faith in his own decisions, and a gentlemanly insistence on doing everything he asked of his men, and more.