The Mammoth Book of Special Forces Training


By Jon E. Lewis

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What does it take, both physically and mentally, to join the world’s most respected — and feared — military units? Lewis looks at the origins, training, tactics, weapons, and achievements of regiments such as Britain’s SAS and Paratroopers, the US Navy SEALS, Delta Force, Army Rangers and Green Berets, Russia’s Spetsnaz, and the Israeli Special Forces, as well as the codes that bind their members together. He looks at training in everything from wilderness survival to hand-to-hand combat.





Of all unlikely places, the Special Air Service – destined to become the world’s most famous Special Forces unit – was conceived in a hospital bed in Egypt. Injured in 1941 while undertaking some unofficial parachute training, David Stirling, a twenty-six-year-old subaltern in No. 8 (Guards) Commando, used his enforced sojourn in 15th Scottish Military Hospital in Cairo to conjure a scheme for hit-and-run operations against the Germans in the North African desert.

On his release from hospital in July, Stirling decided to take his idea to the top. To present the plan through the usual channels would only mean it getting buried in what Stirling thought of as “fossilized shit” – bureaucracy, in other, politer words. Although generals are not, by and large, in the habit of granting interviews to second-lieutenants, Stirling hobbled on crutches to General Headquarters Middle East in Cairo’s leafy Tonbalat Street; after failing to show a pass at the security barrier, he went around the corner, jumped over the fence and careered inside the building, the warden’s bellowed alarms close behind. Up on the third floor, Stirling found his way into the office of Major General Neil Ritchie, Claude Auchinleck’s Deputy Chief of Staff. Stirling breathlessly apologized to the surprised Ritchie for the somewhat unconventional nature of his call, but insisted that he had something of “great operational importance” to show him. He then pulled out the pencilled memo on small-scale desert raiding he had prepared in hospital. “He [Ritchie] was very courteous,” Stirling remembered years later, “and he settled down to read it. About halfway through, he got very engrossed, and had forgotten the rather irregular way it had been presented.” It was Stirling’s turn to be surprised. Looking up, Ritchie said matter-of-factly, “I think this may be the sort of plan we are looking for. I will discuss it with the Commander-in-Chief and let you know our decision in the next day or so.” The Commander-in-Chief was General Claude Auchinleck, new to his post and under immense pressure from Churchill to mount offensive operations. Stirling’s plan was a gift for Auchinleck: it required few resources, it was original, and it dovetailed neatly with Churchill’s own love of commandos. Stirling’s memo went under the cumbersome title of “Case for the retention of a limited number of special service troops, for employment as parachutists”, but there was nothing ungainly about its concept; on the contrary, Stirling understood that in wartime small can be beautifully lethal. The unit Stirling proposed was to operate behind enemy lines and attack vulnerable targets such as supply lines and airfields at night. What is more, the raids were to be carried out by groups of five to ten men, rather than the hundreds of a standard commando force, the very numbers of which made them susceptible to detection by the enemy. Since these special service commandos were to be inserted by air, they had greater range than seaborne troops and did not require costly (and reluctant) Royal Navy support.

While Auchinleck pondered Stirling’s memo, Ritchie looked into David Stirling’s background. He was pleased and displeased in equal measure by what he found. On graduation from the Guards’ depot at Pirbright, David Stirling had been classed as an “irresponsible and unremarkable soldier”. He was dismissive of authority. He overslept so much he was nicknamed “the Great Sloth”. In Egypt his partying had become legendary, and he had more than once revived himself from hangovers by inhaling oxygen begged from nurses at the 15th Scottish Military Hospital.

But it wasn’t all bad. Born in 1915, Stirling came from “good stock”: he was the youngest son of Brigadier Archibald Stirling of Keir; his mother was the daughter of the 16th Baron Lovat. After Ampleforth and three years at Cambridge, Stirling had enthusiastically joined the Scots Guards, before transferring to No. 8 Commando. Like many a commando officer, he was recruited over a pink gin at White’s Club by Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Laycock, 8 Commando’s Commanding Officer. As part of the “Layforce” brigade, No. 8 Commando had been dispatched to North Africa, where its seaborne raids had been embarrassing wash-outs. On the disbandment of Layforce, Stirling had jumped – literally – at the chance of joining an unofficial parachute training session organized by another officer in No. 8 Commando. Many people over the years mistook Stirling’s diffidence, abetted by the slight stoop common to the very tall (Stirling was six feet six inches) for a lack of ambition: on the contrary, Stirling possessed a core of steely resolve. (Churchill, who met Stirling later in the war, borrowed an apposite line from Don Juan for his pen portrait of the SAS leader as “the mildest manner’d man that ever scuttled ship or cut a throat”.) This inner determination was the reason why Stirling participated in the impromptu parachute jumping trials at Fuka: he wanted to get on with the war. Unfortunately, the aircraft used, a lumbering Valencia biplane, was not equipped for parachuting and the men had secured the static lines which opened the silk canopies to seat legs. Stirling’s parachute caught on the door and snagged; he descended far too rapidly and hit the ground so hard that he was temporarily paralysed from the waist down. Thus he had ended up as a bed patient in the Scottish Military Hospital.

Three days after his meeting with Ritchie, Stirling was back at Middle East Headquarters, this time with a pass. Auchinleck saw him in person. Stirling was given permission to recruit a force of sixty officers and men. The unit was to be called “L Detachment, SAS Brigade”. The “SAS” stood for “Special Air Service”, a force that was wholly imaginary and whose nomenclature was devised by Brigadier Dudley Clarke, a staff Intelligence officer, to convince the Germans that Britain had a large airborne force in North Africa. To mark his new appointment as the Commanding Officer of L Detachment, Stirling was promoted to captain. There were two particular officers Stirling wanted for his outfit. The first was John “Jock” Lewes, whom Stirling found at Tobruk, where he was leading raids on the Axis lines. British by birth, Lewes had been brought up in Australia, and was an Oxford rowing “blue” who had led his university eight to a historic win over Cambridge. It had been Lewes who had organized the parachute jump at Fuka during which Stirling had crashed. Lewes’s influence on the formation of the SAS was paramount: on a visit to Stirling in hospital, Lewes had voiced proposals and queries which had done much to further the embryonic idea of a desert raiding force circling around in Stirling’s head.

When Stirling asked Lewes to become the first recruit of “L Detachment”, however, Lewes refused point blank. He did not trust Stirling’s commitment. But Stirling, as everyone agreed, could be very persuasive. Besides, he was displaying more grit than Lewes had seen in the party boy hitherto. After a month of cajoling, Lewes agreed to join. So did Captain R. B. “Paddy” Mayne. Before the war, Mayne had been a rugby player of international rank, capped six times for Ireland and once for the British Lions. He was also a useful boxer and had reached the final of the British Universities’ Championship heavyweight division. Unfortunately, when taken by drink Mayne was not too fussy whom he fought: in June 1941 he’d been returned to unit from 11 Commando for attacking his commanding officer. However, Paddy Mayne was much more than a six-feet-six-inch drinker and brawler. A former law student, he had a “Dr Jekyll” side, and was sensitive, literate, modest and painfully shy. Unquestionably he was brave: he’d won a Mention in Dispatches for his baptismal combat – 1 Commando’s raid on the Litani River in Syria. He would end up as one of the four most decorated British officers of the Second World War, with a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and three Bars. Nevertheless, before accepting Mayne into L Detachment, Stirling extricated a promise that he would not attack his new commanding officer.

Like Lewes and Mayne, most of the rest of the officers and men of L Detachment, who would later be known as “the Originals”, were volunteers recruited from commandos beached at the Infantry Base Depot at Geneifa following the disbandment of Layforce. Selection was based on Stirling’s personal impression of the men at brief interviews. He also told them that if they failed to make the grade in training they would have to return to their units.

By August 1941, Stirling had established a base at Kabrit, 100 miles south of Cairo in the Canal Zone. Equipment was conspicuous by its absence, due to the parsimony of Q Branch. Arriving by truck at Kabrit, Johnny Cooper, recruited from No. 8 Commando, found

only two medium-sized marquees and three 180-lb tents piled up in the middle of the strip of bare desert allocated to us. No camp, none of the usual facilities, not even a flagpole. A wooden sign bearing the words “L Detachment – SAS” was the sole clue that this was base camp.

Being, in his own words, a “cheekie laddie”, Stirling had a plan to secure the necessary equipment to complete the camp, which was to “borrow” it from a New Zealand camp down the road. Thus the first – and highly unofficial – attack of L Detachment was a night raid on the camp of 2nd New Zealand Division. L Detachment’s one and only three-ton truck was filled up with anything useful that could be found, including tents and a piano for the sergeants’ mess. The next day, L Detachment boasted one of the smartest and most luxuriously furnished British camps in the Canal Zone.

Training then began in earnest. From the outset, Stirling insisted on a high standard of discipline, equal to that of the Brigade of Guards. In his opening address to L Detachment on 4 September, he told the men: “We can’t afford to piss about disciplining anyone who is not a hundred per cent devoted to having a crack at the Hun.” L Detachment required a special discipline: self-discipline. Stirling told the L Detachment volunteers that control of self was expected at all times, even on leave: “Get this quite clear. In the SAS, all toughness is reserved exclusively for the enemy.” In return, the usual Army “bullshit” of parades and saluting officers every time they loomed into sight was to be dropped. This informal style was to become a hallmark of the SAS. Stirling expected personal initiative, independence and modesty. Any “passengers” would be returned to their units.

David Stirling also demanded the utmost physical fitness, but it was Jock Lewes who translated the master’s ideas into practicalities. The early L Detachment training devised by Lewes was in essence commando training adapted to desert conditions, especially those encountered at night. The emphasis was on navigation, weapons training, demolition training and punishing physical training sessions. Endurance marches became marathons of up to thirty miles a night, carrying packs crammed with sand or bricks.

Everyone joining the SAS had to be a parachutist, since Stirling envisaged insertion by air for his force. No parachute-training instructors were available (the only British parachute-training schools extant were at Ringway, near Manchester, and Delhi, in India), so the SAS under Jock Lewes developed its own parachute-training techniques. These involved jumping from ever higher scaffold towers and from the tailboard of a 112-pound Bedford truck moving at thirty miles per hour across the desert. More than half “the Originals” of L Detachment sustained injuries launching themselves off the back of the Bedford. After this very basic parachute training, the L Detachment recruits made their first live drop, from a Bristol Bombay aircraft. There were no reserve parachutes. Two men, Ken Warburton and Joseph Duffy, died when the snap-links connecting the strops on their parachutes to the static rail in the Bombay twisted apart. Consequently, when they jumped they were no longer attached to the aircraft – and there was nothing to pull the canopies out. Afterwards, ‘Original’ Bob Bennett recalled:

We went to bed with as many cigarettes as possible, and smoked until morning. Next morning, every man (led by Stirling himself) jumped; no one backed out. It was then that I realized that I was with a great bunch of chaps.

The drop on the morning of 17 October was a key moment in SAS history. Stirling displayed leadership; he took the men through the doubt and the darkness.

To replace the faulty clips on the Bombay had been straightforward; however, another engineering problem facing L Detachment proved harder to solve. What bomb should the patrols carry to blow up German aircraft? The bomb had to be small enough to be easily transportable but powerful enough to do the job of destruction. Most SAS men infiltrating on foot from a drop zone could only be expected to carry two of the widely available five-pound charges, which would only inflict superficial damage. Once again it was Jock Lewes to the rescue. After weeks of experiments in a small hut at Kabrit, Lewes invented the requisite device, henceforth known as the “Lewes bomb”. A mixture of plastic explosive, thermite and aluminium turnings rolled in engine oil, the device was sticky and could quickly be placed onto the side of an aircraft. Just a pound of “Lewes bomb” could annihilate an aircraft, meaning that each trooper could carry the means of dispatching ten.

By the end of August, L Detachment was ready for its final exercise, a dummy attack on the large RAF base at Heliopolis, outside Cairo. Stirling had been bluntly told by an RAF group captain that his plan to sabotage German aircraft on the ground was far-fetched. So far-fetched, indeed, that he bet Stirling £10 that L Detachment could not infiltrate the Heliopolis base and place labels representing bombs on the parked aircraft. Now, Stirling decided, it was time to pay up. The entire orbat (order of battle) of L Detachment, six officers and fifty-five men, trekked ninety miles across the desert from Kabrit over four days, on four pints of water each, and carrying weights to simulate Lewes bombs. Although the RAF knew the SAS were coming, and even set up air patrols, Stirling and his men successfully infiltrated the base on the fourth night and adorned the parked aircraft with sticky labels marked “BOMB”. Stirling collected his £10.

The first operational raid by the SAS, Squatter, was planned for the night of 17 November 1941. Five parties were to be dropped from Bristol Bombays, to attack Axis fighter and bomber strips at Gazala and Timimi. The drop zones were about twelve miles from the objective, and the teams were to spend a day in a lying-up position observing their targets before a night attack with Lewes bombs, to be detonated by time-delay pencils. After the attack, the teams were to rendezvous south of the Trig al’Abd track with a motor patrol of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). Reconnaissance behind enemy lines was the stock-in-trade of the LRDG, which had been founded by Major Ralph Bagnold, an amateur pre-war explorer of the Sahara. Stirling’s attack had a purpose beyond the destruction of enemy aircraft: it was designed to divert enemy attention on the eve of Operation Crusader, Auchinleck’s offensive to push Rommel out of Cyrenaica in North Africa. The same evening would see No. 11 Commando attack Rommel’s house in Beda Littoria (now Al Baydá), a commando raid that, like so many previous, was a seamless disaster resulting in the loss of thirty men for no gain whatsoever: the house raided had never even been used by Rommel.

Not that Stirling’s debut raid garnered a better result, though. Following a Met Office forecast of thirty-knot winds and rain in the target area, Stirling toyed with cancelling the Squatter mission, since airborne operations in anything above fifteen knots invariably ended in the scattering and injuring of the parachutists. On further thought, though, he had decided to go ahead, believing that a cancellation would affect L Detachment’s bubbling-over morale. Moreover, in his sales talk on behalf of his intended parachute force, Stirling had promised general headquarters that the unique quality of his unit was that “the weather would not restrict their operations to the same extent that it had done in the case of seaborne special service troops”. To Stirling’s relief, the officers of L Detachment, assembled ready to go at Baggush airfield, backed his decision to go ahead. So did the enlisted men. “We’ll go because we’ve got to,” Stirling told them. Any man who wanted to could leave. No one did.

Of the fifty-four SAS men who jumped out into the windswept night of 16 November, only twenty-one made the rendezvous with the LRDG. The plane carrying Lieutenant Charles Bonington’s stick (team of parachutists) was hit by flak, after which an Me-109 fighter delivered the coup de grâce; all the SAS men aboard were injured, one fatally. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Eoin McGonigal had been killed on landing, and when his stick set out towards the rendezvous they were captured by an Italian patrol. Nearly every man in Stirling’s, Mayne’s and Lewes’s sticks suffered concussion, sprains or broken bones; Mayne’s troop sergeant, Jock Cheyne, broke his back. Since all their gear had been dropped separately, even the walking able found themselves lacking bombs and fuses. What fuses were recovered were then wrecked by driving rain, the storm of 16 and 17 November 1941 being one of the worst of the war in the Western Desert. Demoralized, the survivors trekked to the rendezvous not through blistering heat, as they had expected, but through mud and floods. Stirling and Bob Tait were among the last to arrive. Waiting for them on the Trig al’Abd was Captain David Lloyd Owen of the LRDG’s Y patrol:

One very interesting thing arose from my meeting with David Stirling that morning. David told me all about the operation and that it had been a total failure. He was a remarkable man. He never gave in to failure and was determined to make the next operation a success. I turned over in my mind, “Why the hell do this ridiculous parachuting, why didn’t they let us take them to where they wanted to go? We could take them like a taxi to do the job. We could push off while they did their task, and then pick them up at an agreed rendezvous.”

The LRDG had just got themselves a job as Stirling’s taxi company.

Although Stirling thought his L Detachment SAS might be killed off as a result of Squatter’s failure, no-one at general headquarters seemed to care much. General headquarters had bigger problems on its mind than the loss of thirty-four parachutists: Rommel was making his famous “dash to the wire” and a counter-thrust was needed. It would help the counter-thrust if the Axis aircraft at Tamet, Sirte, Aghayala and Agedabia aerodromes were destroyed. Stirling was given another chance and he took it with both hands. This time there was to be no parachute drop: the SAS were to be taxied to the target by the LRDG.

On 8 December, Stirling, Mayne and eleven other SAS men departed their temporary headquarters at Jalo oasis accompanied by the LRDG’s Rhodesian patrol under the command of Captain Gus Holliman. Stirling and Mayne were set to raid Sirte and Tamet airfields, which were about 350 miles from Jalo, on the night of 14 December. At the same time, Jock Lewes was to lead a section in an attack on Aghayla. A fourth SAS patrol, comprising four men under Lieutenant Bill Fraser, was to raid Agedabia a week later. Sitting aboard the LRDG’s stripped-down Ford trucks, the SAS men were overcome by the vastness of the Sahara. There was no sign of life, and Stirling found the brooding solitude like being on the high seas. Courtesy of dead-on navigation by the LRDG’s Corporal Mike Sadler, the SAS were just forty miles south of Sirte by noon on 11 December. Then their luck changed: an Italian Ghibli spotter plane appeared out of the haze to strafe and bomb them. Holliman ordered the patrol to make for cover in a thorn scrub two miles back, and there they lay as two more Ghiblis came hunting, but failed to see the patrol. The element of surprise, the sine qua non of the SAS, was lost. Even so, Stirling was determined to press on, and the obliging LRDG dropped the SAS off not at the agreed twenty miles from Sirte, but a mere three miles. Knowing that a reception committee was likely to be waiting, Stirling chose not to risk his whole section but to instead infiltrate the airfield with just one companion, Sergeant Jimmy Brough. The rest of the team, under Mayne, was sent to a satellite airfield five miles away at Wadi Tamet. Unfortunately, during their recce of the airfield Stirling and Brough stumbled over two Italian sentries, one of whom began firing off bullets, causing the SAS men to sprint away into the desert night. Next day, as they lay up near the base, Stirling and Brough watched in bitter frustration as one Italian Caproni bomber after another flew away. Alerted and suspicious, the Italians were evacuating the airfield.

At nightfall, Stirling and Brough tramped in silence to the rendezvous with the LRDG. Once again, an SAS operation had been a wash-out. Stirling knew that unless Mayne and Lewes triumphed, the disbandment of the SAS was likely. Mayne’s attack was to take place at 11 p.m.: the hour came and went, unlit by explosions, and then there was a great whumph and a bolt of flame in the west, followed by explosion upon explosion. The SAS was in the sabotage business. Stirling and Brough almost danced with delight. Jock Lewes had not enjoyed good hunting, but when Bill Fraser’s party reached their rendezvous they reported the most astounding success of all. They had blown up thirty-seven aircraft at Agedabia aerodrome. In this week-long sequence of raids, the SAS had accounted for no less than sixty-one enemy aircraft destroyed, together with petrol, stores and transport.

His tail up, Stirling could not wait to have another go at the enemy. On the presumption that the enemy would not expect another attack so soon, Stirling and Mayne set off from their Jalo desert base on Christmas Day 1941 to revisit Tamet and Sirte. Their second attack was a mirror image of the first. Mayne destroyed twenty-seven aircraft at Tamet; Stirling was unable to reach the airfield because of the crush of German armour and vehicles around it. He was fortunate to escape with his life: an Italian guard tried to shoot him, only to discover he had a faulty round in the barrel of his rifle. Meanwhile, Fraser and Lewes were taken by Lieutenant Morris’s LRDG patrol to raid airstrips at Nofilia and Ras Lanuf. At the latter location, Mussolini had built a grandiose triumphal arch to commemorate his African conquests; to the Tommies it looked similar to the arch at the end of Oxford Street, and “Marble Arch” it became known to one and all throughout the British Army. Lewes had a difficult time at Nofilia when a bomb he was placing on an aircraft exploded prematurely. Withdrawing under heavy fire, he and his party were picked up by their LRDG escort, only to come under attack by Messerschmitts and Stukas in the open desert. Jock Lewes was killed, the survivors scattered.

The death of Lewes was a heavy blow to Stirling, as there was no one else on whom he so heavily relied. There was more bad news: Captain Fraser’s patrol was missing – but to this episode, at least, there was a happy ending. On finding the Marble Arch strip bereft of aircraft, Fraser and his section had waited for Morris’s LRDG patrol. When, after six days, Morris failed to arrive, the SAS men decided to walk the 200 burning miles to Jalo. Their walk, which took eight days, was the first of several epic peregrinations in the SAS annals, to rank alongside that of Trooper Jack Sillito the following year (again, 200 miles in eight days, drinking his own urine for hydration). Fraser’s walk and the unit’s bag of nearly ninety aircraft in a month were an emphatic vindication of Stirling’s concept of small-scale raiding by a volunteer elite.

It was Stirling’s gift as a leader to see the big picture, and where the SAS fitted into it. He was also, due to his social background and boundless confidence, possessed of friends in the highest places. Both attributes came together in early January 1942, when Stirling sought a personal interview with Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief, during which he proposed that L Detachment should switch from striking airfields to ports. Although the Crusader offensive had pushed Rommel westwards, the Afrika Korps remained a potent force, not least because it continued to receive supplies of Panzer tanks through the coastal harbours. Stirling pointed out to Auchinleck that Bouerat would become the likely main supply harbour for the Afrika Korps, and that the fuel dumps there could and should be blown up. Auchinleck agreed. When Stirling asked for men for L Detachment, Auchinleck gave him permission to recruit a further six officers and thirty to forty men, some of whom could be drawn from the Special Boat Section of No. 8 Commando. For good measure, Auchinleck promoted Stirling to major.

There was one final thing: Stirling’s enemies in general headquarters (the kind of literal-minded men who considered irregular forces a diversion from the “real” war) had bluntly informed him that L Detachment, because it was a temporary unit, could not have its own badge. Nonetheless, Stirling brashly wore SAS wings and cap badge to meet the Commander-in-Chief. Stirling had calculated correctly: Auchinleck liked and approved of the badge. The SAS badge was more than a mark of an elite unit – it was a debt Stirling felt he owed Lewes, who had been instrumental in its design. The so-called “Winged Dagger” was modelled by Bob Tait on King Arthur’s sword Excalibur, while the wings were probably taken from an ibis on a fresco in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. The colours of the wings, Oxford blue and Cambridge blue, were selected because Lewes had rowed for Oxford, and Tom Langton, another early L-Detachment officer, for Cambridge. It was Stirling himself who came up with the motto “Who Dares Wins”. The badge was worn on berets, which at first were white, but changed, when these attracted wolf whistles, to a sand colour, which they still are.

On the way back to Jalo, Stirling came across fifty French parachutists at Alexandria who, after some vigorous appeals to the Free French commander in Cairo, General Catroux, Stirling annexed for the SAS. He also recruited Captain Bill Cumper of the Royal Engineers, a Cockney explosives expert who would take on the vacancy of demolitions instructor left open by Lewes’s death. But Cumper could not take on the whole gamut of training the SAS recruits who were now so numerous the camp at Kabrit was overflowing with them; that mantle, Stirling resolved, should be taken by Paddy Mayne. Sitting in his tent, Stirling explained his thinking to Mayne, who accepted with bad grace verging on insubordination. He would only “do his best”, and then only on a temporary basis. Mayne even hinted that Stirling was green-eyed about his success in blowing up aircraft, and pinning him to a desk was a way of stealing the glory.


On Sale
Feb 10, 2015
Page Count
544 pages
Running Press

Jon E. Lewis

About the Author

Jon E. Lewis is a writer and historian. His many previous books include bestsellers The Mammoth Book of the West, The Mammoth Book of True War Stories, and World War II: The Autobiography. He lives in Herefordshire, England.

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