Ben Macintyre’s Rogue Heroes

In late April of 1980, six armed men, members of an Arab nationalist group, stormed the Iranian embassy in London and barricaded themselves inside, taking 26 hostages as leverage for their demands: the release of Arab prisoners held in Iran, and their own safe passage out of England. After six days of back-and-forth negotiating, and the Thatcher government’s refusal to accede to their demands, the militants killed their first hostage, and tossed his body from the embassy. That action triggered an elevation in the British response: the Special Air Services (SAS) were given the go-ahead to conduct an assault on the embassy. In under 20 minutes, two SAS teams breached the embassy, killed five of the six militants and saved the lives of all but one of the hostages. And because of the high-profile nature of the incident, and the presence of so many journalists and cameramen on the scene, parts of these actions were caught on video and broadcast to the world. It was the coming out party for the SAS, a group which had been operating for the better part of four decades, conducting daring raids behind enemy lines since the Second World War, but which had managed, until then, to keep its low profile.

Rogue Heroes tells the story of the founding of the SAS during World War II, when the group was dreamed up by a daring and eccentric mountaineer-turned-soldier, David Stirling, as a small, mobile fighting force capable of conducting stealth missions behind enemy lines in the North African theatre, destroying oil reserves or planting explosives on German airplanes before escaping into the desert. These tactics, at the time, were not just unconventional but unheard of, and many in the British officer class were openly disdainful of Stirling’s methods, which they viewed as ungentlemanly. Stirling, for his part, returned the disdain, referring to the British military bureaucracy as a “freemasonry of mediocrity,” and “layer upon layer of fossilized shit.” He therefore contrived to circumvent the military hierarchy altogether, and pitched his vision of the SAS directly to the military leadership, ignoring the rigid army chain of command. In the early days, their assent to Stirling’s vision was less than enthusiastic, and the SAS were left to scrounge – or rather steal – their own equipment and rations, but Stirling was nonetheless given permission to recruit, train and command his own fighting force. Scrutinize closely the faces on the book’s cover image and you may get a sense of what kind of person he sought out: the daring, the adventurous, the independent-minded, the rebellious – in other words, exactly the sort of people the military previously found no use for, or sought to break into conformity. Stirling gave these men a purpose, and the wide (sometimes too wide) latitude to operate according to their best instincts and judgments in a cut-throat war of winner-take-all, in a desert climate already hostile to human life.

The story of the SAS is intrinsically interesting, of course, but journalist, author and amateur historian Ben Macintyre polishes the details into a narrative worthy of Hollywood. He was spurred to the telling by the release, in 2011, of the SAS War Diary, a five-hundred page compilation of letters, diaries, original documents and correspondence kept secret by the British military for nearly 70 years. With access to this trove of information, and supplemented by his own prodigious research, Macintyre paints in vivid and often horrifying detail the contributions made by the SAS, beginning in North Africa – in the war against Hitler’s infamous Afrika Korps, led by one of the war’s most gifted generals, Erwin Rommel – on to the pivotal role they played spearheading the Allied invasions of Italy and occupied France. Leaning heavily on diaries, letters and even some first-hand testimony provided by surviving members of the outfit, Macintyre not only tells the story of these brave men but offers us compelling profiles of who they were and what motivated them, how they saw themselves and how they looked upon each other.

It was a cheering thing, in these trying times, to read about these men and the adversity they faced, with characteristic British resolve and good cheer. Rogue Heroes is a powerful reminder, for all of us who need reminding, that we have faced worse odds and greater adversity before, and may do so again, if we can summon the resolve.