The remarkable story behind the fighting force. With the tragic loss of Jock Lewes, Stirling's second in command is now Captain Paddy Mayne, an unpredictable and dangerous officer.
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Close to midnight on July 26, 1942,
a convoy of heavily armed jeeps rumbled across the pitch-black of
the North African desert.
'Their mission was to destroy one of the Nazis most highly prized airfields
'on the Egyptian coast.'
'The jeep force was massively outnumbered.
'Their vehicles un-armoured.
'Only surprise was on their side.
'Success would make these men legends.
'Failure would mean the death of their highly secret and radical new combat unit.
'The convoy stormed onto the airfield.'
This was the most daring mission yet for the men of the SAS.
By 1942, Hitler had dominated Europe,
and was seeking to conquer North Africa.
Armed with superior air power, his star general, Erwin Rommel,
had launched a lightning strike,
driving the British back to their last stronghold - Egypt...
..and to the brink of disaster.
Egypt had to be held at all costs.
David Stirling had created the SAS to attack the enemy from deep behind their lines,
but now his missions would have to grow ever more ambitious
With unprecedented access to the secret SAS files,
unseen archive footage...
..and exclusive interviews with its founder members.
This series tells the remarkable story behind the world's most
extraordinary fighting force.
They would have been Viking raiders, without a doubt, I think, most of them.
He said, "I'm sorry.
"You've had it, you're just numbers."
My own assessment,
I thought, this is the end of us.
In early June, 1942,
a nervous young army doctor reported for duty at a remote camp in the
North African desert.
27-year-old Malcolm Pleydell had been assigned to a highly secret unit
and had absolutely no idea what he was letting himself in for.
All he knew was that the force was hidden deep in the desert,
far from British HQ, and commanded by a young daredevil officer.
The newly promoted Major David Stirling.
Stirling greeted him warmly, shook his hand,
and then there was a series of deafening explosions.
Stirling was apologetic and remarkably polite.
The men, he explained, would shortly be going out on a party.
And all those horrible bangs were in preparation for a series of night
attacks on enemy airfields.
"And by the way," Stirling asked, "have you had lunch?"
Pleydell had been expecting a man of blood and steel,
a ruthless trained killer.
Instead, he had been made to feel as if he'd been invited to a
particularly jolly beach party.
Malcolm Pleydell decided he was going to enjoy being part of L Detachment, SAS.
The original men of the SAS have long since passed away.
But in 1987 a handful of them told their story on film.
57, take one.
At the heart of this unique collection is an interview with their leader,
David Stirling, on whose philosophy the unit was based.
First was the exploitation of surprise
to the greatest degree.
A form of technique that would kick the Germans from behind.
Our proposition was the effect that
we could knock out the entire
German fighter force.
Because they had control of the air at that time.
The SAS was formed by David Stirling in 1941 as a crack commando force to
attack aircraft deep behind enemy lines.
The work was hard, dirty and dangerous.
And Stirling came to realise that he needed a medical officer.
By extreme good fortune, he was allocated Malcolm James Pleydell.
Pleydell was a gentle soul, earnest, sensitive, and a little solemn.
Like all the best doctors,
Pleydell was a keen student of human nature and would emerge as the most
astute observer and chronicler of the SAS.
Scribbled in pencil between missions,
Pleydell's notes survive as a powerful eyewitness account of the desert war
and the SAS men who fought in it.
It did no take Pleydell long to realise he'd joined a most peculiar outfit.
There was none of the spit and polish he'd encountered in the regular army.
This, he wrote, was a ruffianly bearded, unkempt and ill-clothed mob.
My father was a young man hungry for adventure.
And I think he felt that every young man should do what they could
for their country.
And I think he was quite surprised when he found himself surrounded by
a very motley crew, I think you could probably describe them.
I think he found it quite difficult because he was way out of his environment.
And there were a lot of very tough guys who'd been doing a lot of training.
13, take one.
those surviving ruffians of the SAS also gave their unique testimony.
They would have been Viking raiders, without a doubt, I think, most of them.
Drink and be merry boys, and so on,
was very typical of the attitude on which the Vikings sailed across the
North Sea to ravage the coasts of Britain and Europe.
I hated the existence of too much polly on your boots...
..and being turned out impeccable.
I liked a bit of fun.
I liked the booze.
Don't forget, there's a war on,
and that's what you went into the Army for.
Only one man gave Pleydell pause.
The new second-in-command, Captain Paddy Mayne, a hulking, brooding figure,
and a prodigious drinker, who always seem to want to pick a fight.
Mayne was the unit's best warrior,
with the biggest tally of destroyed enemy aircraft to his name.
But his methods were brutal, even by the standards of the SAS.
Mayne's execution in cold blood of 30 of the enemy during a desert raid
had established him as a man without mercy.
In his diary, Pleydell wrote, fighting was in Mayne's blood.
For him, there were no rules.
Paddy Mayne, who my father always said rather affectionately was
was somebody who was just going to go out and fight the war,
whatever it took and however you did it.
I don't think nerves or self-preservation ever came into it.
Medically, he would have done what he was told,
to a certain extent,
if it suited him.
Pleydell quickly learned that this hand-picked band of unconventional
fighters was a lethal force,
with an ability to think and act independently.
It perfectly suited their commander's vision for a new kind of war.
The men held David Stirling in the highest regard.
"There was about him a charm which it would be impossible to describe,"
noted Pleydell, "and this made him very difficult to deny."
One of the great things about David was he never sat still,
he always had a project on some kind.
He was always trying to make something happen or to further something,
or to put his ideas into practice.
David, being as he was, dyslexic, he looked at things differently.
He had a vision of what he wanted to do.
Everything that happened was David's plan.
He clearly believed in what he was trying to do, and, you know,
that's very beguiling.
Stirling had founded the SAS on the principles of independence.
A fighting force free to attack whenever and wherever they wanted.
But to get to the targets, Stirling still had to rely
on the trucks of the Long Range Desert Group, or LRDG,
an Army unit expert in navigation deep in the desert
which had ferried his men to and from their missions.
Stirling decided it was a very good idea to do our own transport.
So he had heard...
there was some Jeeps coming to the Middle East.
to use a word, "borrowed" some.
Meet the Jeep. Smooth, easy riding on this kind of service is one thing.
But this is quite a different story.
Britain's American allies were now supporting the war effort,
including the supply of a brand-new utility vehicle,
the rugged Willys Jeep.
The Jeep might well be called a motorised terrier.
As the first Jeeps arrived in North Africa,
Stirling persuaded high command to give him a few
and began the transformation of his unit.
SAS engineers installed water condensers to aid engine cooling,
added extra fuel tanks to increase the range, and, crucially,
armed the vehicles with machine guns capable of firing up to 1,200 rounds per minute.
The firepower coming from that troop was terrific, absolutely terrific.
Now Stirling's men could stay behind enemy lines for weeks, even months,
driving themselves straight to the enemy airfields to strike harder and
faster than ever before.
The hugely valuable partnership with the LRDG was now nearing an end.
With their own fleet of Jeeps, the SAS now needed their own navigators.
One of their best navigators, Corporal Mike Sadler,
had proved vital in guiding the SAS to their targets.
Now aged 96,
he is the last man alive to remember Stirling's missions in the desert.
You had joined the LRDG,
but then you transferred to the SAS.
-Tell us how that happened.
David Stirling had had limited experience of me as a navigator,
I suppose, so he got hold of me from the LRDG,
and the machinery was put into motion
for transferring me into the SAS.
Stirling appointed Sadler the unit's senior navigator.
And, without any official authorisation, promoted him.
"Mike, I want you to be an officer.
"Go down to the bazaar and yourself some pips."
Which I did.
Sadler was, sartorially at least, transformed into a Lieutenant.
I got back to Cairo some long time later,
and I don't think the paperwork had been attended to,
and the military secretary sent for me and said,
"I hear you've been masquerading as an officer."
But he... But somehow, they sorted it all out,
and I was lucky enough to be promoted at that stage.
Armed with his new Jeep force and expert navigation,
it was time for Stirling to go hunting.
Rommel's advance into Egypt was supported by fighters and bombers
operating from airfields along the Egyptian and Libyan coasts.
Stirling's mission was to drive his entire force deep behind enemy lines
and launch lightning raids on Rommel's airfields before disappearing
to a secret camp deep in the desert.
On July 4th, the convoy passed through the front line of the Eighth Army
at El Alamein, and headed into the no-man's-land beyond,
with no plans to come back for at least a month.
Pleydell sensed the importance of their mission.
In his diary he wrote,
"The line holding Rommel in check before the very gates of Alexandria looked so frail and thin."
Night after night,
Stirling's men attacked completely unsuspecting enemy airfields
all along the coast.
They planted time bombs on every plane they could find.
Then ran for the darkness of the desert.
Knowing that, at first light, the enemy would give chase.
Getting out, you had to clear the fighters zone.
Put your foot down and make sure you got out of fighter range, at least.
As dawn broke, the sky filled with squadrons of aircraft
hunting the desert.
Any Jeep caught out in the open faced a battle to survive.
Fighters could only make about one pass at you and they'd got to return to base to refuel.
If you saw a little bit more of one wing than the other,
you knew he was going right or he was going left,
and you knew exactly where the fire was going.
If you saw a full width of wing,
equal width of wing each side of the fuselage,
you knew that you'd had your chips.
'The records of those first Jeep missions are contained in the secret War diary,
'a unique collection of combat reports,
'compiled by the men themselves.
'The diary lists the extraordinary destruction Stirling's Raiders caused.
'In one week alone, they destroyed over 100 enemy aircraft.
'But while the tally mounted,
'so did the toll of SAS men killed by enemy fire.'
Pleydell tended to the wounded at the desert hideout,
quietly noting the names of those who hadn't returned.
"How strange the desert war seemed," wrote Pleydell.
"The way we travelled over vast tracts of wilderness in order to search out
"and kill one another."
'The men almost never talked about the dead comrades.
'He noted, "To suggest a person was worried in the slightest degree was
"equivalent to the vilest form of abuse."
To turn around and say, "I'm going to get the chop."
Sure as hell, you'll get the chop.
You're wishing it upon yourself.
You forget that side.
That's a risk that you accept as a soldier, that's what it should be.
I mean, we joined to fight a war.
We knew what it was about.
If your name's on the bullet, you'll get it.
That's all rubbish, that is.
We'd been given a job to do.
And we simply did it.
Between missions, the men would spend their nights by the campfire
in their remote desert hideout.
In his diary, Pleydell noted, "As it grew darker, the men began to sing.
"At first, slightly shy and self-conscious but growing in confidence as the songs spread."
SINGING IN BACKGROUND
# Darling I remember
# The way you used to wait
# 'Twas there that you whispered tenderly
# That you loved me
# You'd always be
# My Lili of... #
"The bigger and burlier the singer," he noted,
"the more passionate and heartfelt the singing."
"There was something special about that night," Pleydell wrote.
"An expression of feeling that defied the vastness of the desert."
I always remember him saying that when the boys had been out on operation,
it was always a huge relief when everybody got back safely.
They cared a lot for each other, and I think they all became,
naturally, quite close.
GERMAN ANNOUNCER ON RADIO
Tales of the SAS had begun to spread on both sides of the front line.
It was said that German radio had even bestowed a nickname on their shadowy commander.
"The Phantom Major."
Rommel had been bitten hard.
"These commandos have caused considerable havoc," he wrote.
But notoriety came at a price.
The Germans had to increase their security.
Well, to begin with, they started putting one man on every plane
or three men on every plane.
And then, of course, they started
putting certain wire barriers
around the outside and putting defences.
So we had to change our tactics.
Otherwise we would have taken a lot of casualties.
In the summer of 1942,
military intelligence alerted Stirling to a major new target.
Rommel's front lines were being supplied by transport planes
from Sidi Haneish airbase.
Consequently, it was one of the most heavily guarded airfields of the Nazi war effort.
Sneaking up to the airfields and bombing the planes on foot was no longer an option.
This time, Stirling proposed to go in with all guns blazing.
18 Jeeps in two columns would storm the airfield and shoot up the aircraft.
Stirling was confident that the wall of fire from his 68 guns
would destroy everything before the enemy had time to react.
This would be a high speed, hit-and-run attack.
On the night of July 26, 1942,
Stirling and his mass Jeep force set out on their mission.
They would need to approach Sidi Haneish as stealthily as possible and, so,
rode across the desert by the light of the moon, guided by the stars.
Crossing a vast desert in the middle of the night with no headlights and
no reliable map was the sort of task that only a navigator who was either
brilliant or mad would have undertaken.
Navigator Mike Sadler was tasked with getting them to the target on time
but Stirling was becoming impatient.
He thought that we should be there.
I think he basically felt we should have arrived.
So, on the last occasion, he came to ask me where it was.
I said, "I think it should be about a mile ahead."
Just at that moment,
they switched on the landing lights and they stretched right across the
front of us, just about a mile ahead.
That was a very exciting moment.
It really gave one quite a boost.
The convoys smashed through the perimeter,
sending the defenders scrambling.
The first plane exploded with such ferocious heat,
the men felt their eyelashes and beards singe.
The defenders had been taken by surprise but soon they were fighting back.
Johnny Cooper was in the lead Jeep with David Stirling.
Suddenly, there was a hell of an explosion and we stopped.
Stirling said, "Why won't it go? Why won't it go?"
Ridge said, "Well, don't get out and look but we haven't got an engine."
Of six on either side, we were in the centre,
we were the only ones to be hit but, fortunately, we weren't hit.
But it was an act of God perhaps that we were missed.
Picked up by another Jeep,
Stirling and his men hurtled for a gap in the barbed wire,
leaving behind 18 enemy aircraft destroyed and many more severely damaged.
At a time when Rommel threatened to dominate the battlefield,
Stirling's raiders added a dash of exotic adventure.
Like Lawrence of Arabia,
they were playing the part of swashbuckling desert fighters.
Stirling returned to Cairo the master of hit-and-run.
Pleydell reflected that he'd never been so content.
"I fell asleep," he wrote,
"wondering if I should ever be able to grow a decent beard...
"..like some of the other chaps."
News of Stirling's triumph was not greeted warmly by everybody at HQ.
There were many who saw the SAS as little more than a thuggish private army.
There was a core of mediocrity which wanted to defend itself
against having to make things more difficult.
And anything as unconventional as L Detachment,
which came out of no textbook,
they really got together in disliking.
They wanted to disband us or they wanted to take...
not part of our glory, but they wanted to get rid of this small band
of people which are doing so much damage to their pride because they
hadn't been able to do it themselves.
On August 8th, David Stirling shaved, bathed,
climbed into a borrowed dinner jacket
and prepared to mount an operation of a different sort.
A charm offensive against Winston Churchill.
News of Stirling's exploits had reached the Prime Minister
and he was keen to learn more about the famed desert warrior.
In the space of a few days,
David Stirling had gone from blowing up planes in the desert
with machine guns
to dining with prime ministers and generals in evening dress.
It was a strange war.
At a table set with silver and laden with the best food,
David Stirling dazzled the Prime Minister with his tales of
near-death escapes, fast cars, and derring-do.
Churchill, dressed in his evening boiler suit,
pink faced and ruddy and holding forth,
and he described David when he went.
He said, "The mildest mannered man who ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat."
That, in fact, was from Lord Byron's Don Juan.
Before leaving, Stirling asked Churchill and the generals to sign a
piece of paper as a souvenir of the evening.
For Stirling, the dinner party had been a complete success.
And he'd obtained a blank sheet of paper with the autographs of three
of the most powerful people in the war.
On it he would type, "Please give the bearer every possible assistance."
Stirling had no qualms whatever about this blatant forgery.
"Churchill had become a staunch supporter of the unit," he explained,
"and, so, in a sense, it was authentic."
The SAS had pioneered a new sort of war based on stealth and economy.
Small groups of men achieving disproportionate results.
But the next mission would force Stirling to compromise the founding
ideals of the SAS and place the very future of the unit in jeopardy.
On August 13th, Churchill appointed General Bernard Montgomery
to plan an attack of such scale
that it could turn the tide of the desert war.
To punch Rommel where it would hurt most,
Stirling was ordered to capture his biggest port of supply -
Benghazi in Libya.
This time, instead of a stealthy night attack,
he would be leading an army of more than 200 men
in a convoy of 80 vehicles,
including two tanks.
Stirling claimed to have had deep misgivings about the operation from
the start but he made no official objection.
An added incentive may have been the suggestion
that the unit would be expanded if the raid proved a success.
There was a lot of controversy about this
because it was an operation on such a large scale
for the main party, going into Benghazi.
It was more like a... You know, a...
regimental or brigade attack sort of thing,
and a lot of people disagreed with it.
But the thing was, we had a job to do.
In early September, 1942,
Stirling's force of 200 men, trucks,
tanks and 40 Jeeps set out.
The group was in good spirits.
Pleydell was told that, within a week,
he'd be running the hospital in Benghazi.
But in almost no time, the tanks were stuck in the sand.
The convoy hit mines hidden in the desert tracks,
and reports were coming in from spies in Benghazi
warning that the date of the attack was being freely mentioned.
Stirling sent a wireless message to headquarters
warning that the mission might have been compromised.
He was ordered to ignore such gossip.
The operation would go ahead.
They even felt that they'd been deliberately leaked,
which I don't think for one minute it had,
but it certainly appeared to the ordinary soldier that something had.
The main raiding party descended the escarpment
and trundled along the road into Benghazi.
At the head of the convoy was the SAS sergeant Jim Almonds,
affectionately known as Gentleman Jim.
When we finally arrived at Benghazi,
it was getting dangerously close to dawn.
And we arrived at this...
..laneway leading up from the desert into the town,
and then it became barbed wired either side,
so you couldn't turn off the lane.
And eventually we came up to
a road barrier.
I suppose I got to within about 40-50 paces of this...
..when the firing started.
They had driven straight into an ambush.
Almonds and his gunner were stranded when their vehicle was hit.
They could hear the enemy troops approaching.
Within moments, they would be surrounded.
I said to Fletcher, "Well, if they catch us like this,
"we're going to be shot", and I said
"The only chance is for me to stand up,
"if you're agreeable, and say, 'Right, we're here.'
"And we'll see what happens."
And I stood up and they closed in.
We were in the bag.
For the rest of the men, the ordeal had just begun.
For the next two days, the force was mercilessly attacked from the air.
Between attacks, Pleydell desperately tried
to save the wounded.
He later noted that "Many were far beyond any crude help I could give."
I remember him saying that it was really...
..horrible having to do
a major operation in those conditions -
ie, I'm talking about amputating half a leg or something like that -
when everything was very primitive.
With most of the vehicles destroyed by the enemy,
only a few of the wounded could be transported home.
Reg Seekings, a former boxer and one of the toughest men in the unit,
took a typically brutal line.
I had to turn round and make the hardest little speech
I'd ever made in my life.
I said, "I'm sorry, you've had it, you're just numbers."
I said, "I've got 12, 14 men there.
"They're fit and they're ready to fight another day.
"If I can get them clear, they can carry on fighting.
"You can't." I said, "I'm sorry."
I hated doing it.
Absolutely hated it. But it was my job.
It's got to be. You've got to.
If you're doing a hard job and a tough job,
you've got to be hard and tough yourself.
You've got to make yourself callous,
otherwise you're not going to survive.
You can't survive. You'd go round the bend.
After all, what's it all about? Winning a war, isn't it?
So, you've got to do these sorts of things.
Against his better judgment,
Stirling had led a massed raiding force head on into Benghazi.
He returned having lost more than a quarter of his men.
None of the wounded left behind survived.
A few months earlier, such a failure might have spelt doom for the SAS,
but there was little appetite to give Stirling the blame.
He now had friends in very high places.
These are Stirling's top-secret messages to Winston Churchill,
outlining the thoughts he had shared with the Prime Minister over dinner.
"I venture to submit the following proposals.
"The scope of the SAS should be extended
"to cover all functions of special services
"in the Middle East.
"Control to rest with the officer commanding L Detachment,
"and not with any other outside body."
Stirling's proposal amounted to nothing less than a power grab.
And Churchill was happy to oblige.
On his return to Cairo, Stirling was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel,
and told that the unit was being granted
exactly what he had always dreamt for it.
Proudly displayed in the war diary
is order number 14521,
granting L Detachment full regimental status.
"The unit has had conspicuous success,"
it says, "and morale is high."
At the age of 26,
Stirling had become the first man to create his own new regiment
since the Boer War.
With over 600 men now under his command,
he could launch more of his lightning raids than ever before.
But, as Stirling celebrated,
Rommel was getting ever closer to identifying the Phantom Major.
After being captured in Benghazi,
Gentleman Jim Almonds had been dragged through the streets,
spat at and abused.
Now in a military jail,
Almonds was being pumped for information by the enemy.
We were chained up. Two hands chained down to one foot,
which is an awkward position,
either sitting or anything else,
and there we were interrogated.
Their method of interrogation, it varied enormously.
Sometimes you were browbeaten and bullied and threatened, and so on.
And another time they laid on a bath
and gave me a fine meal and everything.
A packet of cigarettes,
and all sorts of luxuries of that sort.
Although they didn't get what they want,
I got a jolly good meal out of it.
And later on we were taken down and put in the prison camp.
Almonds discovered he was sharing a cell with another British prisoner
who identified himself as Captain John Richards.
Richards claimed he'd been captured while escaping across the desert.
But Almonds observed that he didn't seem tired,
and he was wearing a brand-new pair of Italian boots.
Captain Richards was not the British officer he appeared to be.
He was a stool pigeon.
One of the oldest and nastiest species of spy.
His real name was Theodore John William Schurch,
a defector from the British Army and a committed fascist.
His job was to prowl the prisoner of war camps
impersonating a friendly officer
and gaining vital information about the SAS.
Almonds gave nothing away, but other prisoners were less cautious.
Slowly, German intelligence was putting together an accurate picture
of the strength, organisation, and leadership of the SAS.
Rommel sent out specialised troops to hunt them down.
The greatest threat to Stirling's units now came from a spy
who looked and sounded like a British officer.
On October the 23rd,
Montgomery launched his great counterattack at El Alamein,
hurling nearly 200,000 men and 1,000 tanks
at Rommel's Panzer Army.
As the British pursued Rommel from the east,
a new battlefront was opened up in the west.
On the 8th of November, Anglo-US forces landed
in North West Africa, driving the Nazis into Tunisia.
Rommel was trapped in a vice that would soon close
with crushing force.
The final chapter of the desert war was about to open,
and Stirling was determined to write himself into it.
Stirling proposed to use the SAS to harry the retreating Germans,
but for himself he had a more dramatic role in mind.
He planned to drive through the German lines
and become the first desert rat to greet the advancing Americans.
But in between the two allied armies
lay largely uncharted desert,
a huge force of axis troops,
and an enormous, impassable salt marsh.
Success might yield further expansion of the regiment,
perhaps to brigade status.
In Stirling's imagination, the SAS might even swell
to three separate regiments,
operating in the Eastern Mediterranean,
Italy, and into Northern Europe.
But the SAS doctor, Malcolm Pleydell,
was deeply concerned about Stirling leading the mission.
To his trained eye, Stirling looked far from strong.
He had migraines. He had this blacking out.
And at one stage, he was covered in desert sores.
And he should never have gone out.
He'd just had sulphur tablets, and this...
No proper medication.
He wouldn't see doctors, he wouldn't go to hospital,
and then he'd go out again.
Pleydell was in no doubt.
Stirling was no longer fighting fit
and his plan was nothing short of madness.
This unique footage shows the men of the SAS preparing for action.
Ahead of them lay 300 miles of largely uncharted territory,
a distance that far exceeded the range of the Jeeps.
Stirling turned to his senior navigator, Mike Sadler,
for a solution.
We couldn't cover the journey except by
sacrificing a certain number of vehicles.
This was loading a certain number of Jeeps up...
..completely with petrol,
with a view to dumping them once their petrol could be transferred
onto other ones. And just leaving them in the desert.
On January the 16th, 1943,
Stirling's column of five Jeeps split away from the main force
and set off into the unknown.
To get into Tunisia, we had to go through the Gabes Gap.
We didn't have much information about that gap.
Sharing navigational duties was SAS original Johnny Cooper.
You've got the salt marsh almost up to the main road,
and from the main road to the sea, you've only got another 500 yards.
So, it's a very narrow gap.
Going through there, we found ourselves
driving across an airfield, which we didn't know existed.
And, at dawn, we motored down the main road, the metal road,
through the German armed division all getting out of bed.
And David said, "Well, we've got to get off the road."
And we went off to the left, into these very deep ravines.
And we split up, and we put one Jeep down this wadi,
one Jeep down that wadi.
After we'd done all the camouflage and the rest of it,
we mistakenly thought we were well concealed.
Exhausted after 36 hours driving,
the men settled down to sleep.
Before turning in, Sadler and Cooper were sent to scout the area.
We looked down, and there were lots of troops getting out of vehicles,
and we thought they were all getting out just to have a pee
and they would get back in again. And we stayed there for some time.
And we were so damn tired that we didn't think.
Cooper and Sadler reported back that there was nothing to fear.
They had no idea that Rommel's units were out hunting them.
The next thing that I knew, I was in my sleeping bag,
and heard some footsteps.
Looked up, and there were two German parachutists.
There was nothing much one could do because our guns
were all camouflaged underneath the netting
and the tarpaulins, and so on.
And so we were really stuck.
The Germans made a gesture to us to
keep on lying there
and moved on down the wadi.
David said, "Now, every man for himself."
Mike and I ran up the wadi.
David went the other way.
Stirling and most of the men had made the wrong choice.
They ran headlong into more than 500 enemy troops.
Sadler, Cooper, and an SAS sergeant were the only ones not caught
in the Nazis snare.
I've never run so hard or so long,
until I just couldn't go any further.
And we then got down into a little wadi.
The sound of gunfire echoed up the valley.
Cooper and Sadler believed their comrades had already been shot.
They were certain they would be next.
I said, "What's the word for surrender?"
And we were saying it's "Kamerad", or whatever it was. And, um...
A flock of goats came round our little hole.
Whether an Arab was grazing his sheep up there,
and whether it was intentional, or whether it was
the sheep's inclination to stand around us, I don't know,
but they gave us a degree of protection.
We heard a lot of shooting, we heard all of vehicles started up,
we heard the evacuation,
the German paratroopers came right through the area.
And we waited until night.
At dawn, alone in the vast desert,
the remaining SAS men would have to use all their training to survive.
We decided that the only thing to do was to set out
for where we hoped...
we might find the Americans, which was in Tozeur,
about 100 miles to the west of where we were,
along the edge of the great salt lakes.
We had a one-in-a-million map, and a compass.
No water, no food, no arms.
From dusk to daybreak,
they trudged across mile upon mile of featureless desert.
They were brutally attacked by tribesmen,
their clothing torn to rags.
Salt water, drunk from a marsh, threatened delirium.
By the fourth day, they were nearing collapse.
In the sleepy outpost of Gafsa,
the forward point of the American advance,
a journalist gazed out over the desert, hoping for a scoop.
AJ Liebling, the celebrated war correspondent for
The New Yorker magazine,
thought this was the most likely place for the two Allied armies
to connect, a moment he wanted to witness.
The story did not arrive in the form he'd expected.
The great event occurred when an officer of the French Foreign Legion
arrived, followed by a trio of tramps.
"Their shoes were wrapped in rags," wrote Liebling.
"Their feet must be a mass of blisters.
"All three were wearing khaki battle dress
"from which great swatches of material were missing,
"evidently to make bandages.
"And their eyes seemed preternaturally large.
"And, in one case, really protuberant."
Liebling was incredulous.
So were the American generals.
"Are you REALLY from the Eighth Army?"
He didn't like the look of us cos we'd been walking, then,
for three days and nights,
and crawling over the salt lake and avoiding Arabs and so on,
and we were in a very poor way.
But he thought we looked suspicious.
I don't think they really understood what we were doing,
or how we went about it.
They were mesmerised, and they just didn't believe us for a long,
long time until the signal came from Cairo saying,
"Yes. Yes, they're all right."
Linking up with the Americans after such a heroic feat of endurance,
and then being celebrated in The New Yorker,
would have delighted David Stirling, if he'd been around to see it.
As Liebling's interview drew to a close, Cooper's face suddenly fell.
"Big Dave must have been killed."
Stirling had not been killed, although he'd come very close.
Left with no option but to surrender,
he was bound and taken under heavy guard to the Italian headquarters.
There he was interrogated
by an Italian military intelligence officer,
but refused to give anything away.
A few hours later, David Stirling was marched onto an aircraft
and flown to Sicily. At last, Rommel had caught the Phantom Major.
He wanted to be swapped into Italy, or wherever he was,
and given a free rein,
whether it took us weeks or months, to get him out.
So, he fought and fought for this.
But somewhere along the line,
most probably some people wanted to see Colonel David where he was,
most probably. I don't know.
There was the whole symbol...
And, of course, it had left everybody worried -
"What is going to happen?"
My own assessment, David's loss, I thought, "This is the end of us."
After so many months of frenetic activity,
Stirling found the inertia of prison life indescribably boring.
But, among his fellow prisoners, he discovered a kindred spirit.
The man in the next cell introduced himself
as Captain John Richards.
Teddy Schurch had been flown to Rome with orders
to obtain all the information he could get
from this most important prisoner.
Stirling later claimed that he'd known all along
that Captain Richards was a fraud.
But Schurch remembered their conversation rather differently.
"I was told to obtain the name of Stirling's successor.
"This I found to be Captain Paddy Mayne."
With Stirling a prisoner of the Nazis,
leadership of the SAS was handed to his second-in-command,
the fiery, inspiring and occasionally violent
Northern Irishman, Captain Paddy Mayne.
He was beloved and respected for his fearless command in combat
but bravery is only one aspect of leadership.
Baffled and bored by paperwork and prone to drunken rages,
Mayne lacked Stirling's willingness to charm the top brass,
many of whom believed the SAS had outlived its usefulness.
Paddy was a brilliant officer.
But I think Paddy always needed an eye on him
and Colonel Dave was a man
that kept an eye on him and kept him...
on the ball.
He was physically terribly tough,
and a very nice and kind fellow, most of the time.
Once he'd gone beyond a certain point...
drinking, he became somebody quite different.
We wondered whether Paddy had got the right connections.
I mean, he'd certainly ruffled a lot of feathers.
We wondered whether he could weather the storm.
The SAS had been forged in the heat of the desert
by a maverick young soldier who had challenged
conventional military thinking and proven it wrong.
In a little over a year,
David Stirling and the SAS had destroyed 324 axis aircraft,
terrorised the enemy and helped the Allies to defeat Rommel.
But as the SAS prepared to fight Hitler in Europe,
they would be without the leadership of the man who had created them.
Stirling would spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Nazis,
powerless to stop those in British high command who wanted to see
his renegade unit disbanded.
..regarded it as an opportunity, I think, of...
reeling the troublesome SAS in...
..and regularising it.
And for a time, they apparently succeeded but they didn't...
..appreciate the heavy metal
that Paddy and his boys represented.
There was no way they were going to win.
With the future of the SAS uncertain,
Malcolm Pleydell took a new posting at the General Hospital in Cairo.
"Without Stirling", Pleydell lamented, "this ship has no rudder."
The day that he had to leave the SAS was one of regret
because I think they'd all become quite close.
And I think to leave...
people that you'd spent 24 hours a day with
must be very difficult.
Pleydell had fallen in love with a regiment that broke all the rules.
He left them with a hymn of love to the desert.
"Here in these little cliffs and caves
"that had been our hiding places,
"we had left our mark.
"We had matured, we had discovered our fears
"and our reactions to danger,
"and had tried to overcome them.
"This was the bequest of the desert.
"Our time had not been wasted."
He was very proud to have been in that unit.
He thought that those people were
They were a really special,
special group of men.
They was no way any ordinary
individual in the army...
Any ordinary, well-qualified commanding officer
could command those blokes. I mean, it was impossible.
Because they were past responding to the...
the old type of regulations.
With the tragic loss of Jock Lewes, Stirling's second in command is now the newly promoted Captain Paddy Mayne - an officer as unpredictable and dangerous as the new phase of war that is about to begin. Unknown to David Stirling, the Germans are training special units to track, intercept and kill the marauding SAS. The hunters soon become the hunted. The SAS has to adapt if it is going to survive. Disaster strikes when Stirling is captured by the Germans. As the SAS prepare to fight Hitler in Europe, they are without the inspirational leadership of the man who created them.