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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.