By Gordon Stevens, Author of The Originals: The Secret History of the Birth of the SAS
On the night of November 17th, 1941, in the desert war of North Africa, 65 men parachuted deep behind the lines to destroy enemy aircraft which threatened a forthcoming Allied advance.
The mission was code-named Squatter. The unit was new. This was their first ever operation.
Squatter was a disaster. A storm blew up, and the men, and their officers, faced a decision. Go, and chances were that many would not survive. Not go, and their infant unit would be killed off before it had begun. They went.
Of the 65 men, only 25 made it to the RV with the Long Range Desert Group. The rest were killed or captured or simply disappeared. In this way was born the SAS. “Forged in Hell,” in the words of David Stirling, the man who led them.
In 1984, the surviving members of that incredible group of men spent two days in a hotel in the New Forest to put their incredible story on record. They had never before told their story.
It was the only interview the founder of the SAS, David Stirling, ever gave.
For many years those interviews were locked in the archives; only a few people knew they even existed.
The Originals, to use Stirling’s description, were a bunch of vagabonds. Among those who spoke in 1984 were:
Stirling himself, aristocrat and gambler.
“Gentleman” Jim Almonds, a former policeman who got in trouble for poaching.
Reg Seekings, a boxing champion who forged his CO’s signature to get into Special Duties.
Cockney Bob Bonnet, a Guardsman threatened with court martial for volunteering for too many dangerous assignments.
Dave Kershaw, a committed Socialist who fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Pat Riley, who was half-American and had to fiddle his papers.
Johnny Cooper, too young to sign up, so he bribed a recruitment officer.
There were also two “Honorary Originals” interviewed in 1984:
Mike Sadler, desert navigator supreme, recruited from the LRDG.
Reverend Fraser McLuskey who parachuted into Occupied France with the SAS.
Their personal stories are at the centre of the history of the wartime SAS. That history provides a framework for their own, personal stories.
They were on the first operation, in November 1941 and fought through the desert war, at first taken in to their targets by the Long Range Desert group, sometimes walking in the last 30 miles.
They were there when SAS got its own jeeps, and went independent – the classic image of the SAS at war: bearded, scruffy, dirty.
They were there when Stirling changed tactics – mass jeep attacks on enemy airfields.
In August, 1942, one of The Originals, Gentleman Jim Almonds, was captured and sent to the PoW camps, but it wasn’t the end of his story.
In January, 1943, David Stirling was captured trying to link the Eighth Army in the desert to the First Army in the North after the Torch landings. Two of The Originals, Cooper and Sadler – with only a compass and no food, their boots worn out and their clothes in tatters - made an epic march to complete Stirling’s mission. The Americans didn't believe them and arrested them as spies.
In July 1943, The Originals were at the forefront of the invasion of Sicily and Italy, taking out enemy coastal guns which might threaten the Allied invasion fleet.
In June 1944 they parachuted behind the lines on D Day.
Gentleman Jim Almonds had, by now, escaped from a PoW camp, got back to the UK, and was posted with his parent regiment to guard the prime minister at Chequers, his duty done and his war over.
But Jim was an Original; he went to Paddy Mayne (who had taken over after Stirling’s capture) – and parachuted into France for D Day.
In spring 1945 The Originals were ahead of the push into Germany.
In June 1945, hours before Germany’s surrender, they almost met their end. They were sent to check out the harbour at Kiel and began a small party.
Then they received a radio message from Mayne: “The SS don’t know the war is over. Get out now or you won’t get out.” They got out.
Stirling, meanwhile, had made a series of escape attempts, even trying to set up a resistance movement in Eastern Europe. He was at Colditz the day it was liberated.
In November 1945 the wartime SAS was disbanded and The Originals paraded for the last time. The night before, they held their last party – and phoned Downing Street and threatened the Prime Minister if he didn’t re-instate the Regiment.
Which was not the done thing.
But that was The Originals.
The Originals: The Secret History of the Birth of the SAS by Gordon Stevens (Ebury Press £7.99) is available now