From the SAS To The Gurkhas: The Story Of Sir Christopher Lee

This article was originally published in June 2015.

The most prolific actor in motion picture history, the on-screen legend that was Sir Christopher Lee, has passed away in hospital after a lengthy battle with heart problems.

Known and forever remembered as an icon of the silver screen, his past achievements in front of the camera cement his place in Hollywood and British film industry folklore. Some of his greatest accomplishments, however, were collected not on stage, but on the battlefield during World War II.

Young Sir Christopher Lee
Sir Christopher served with distinction throughout WWII

Little-known facts about Sir Christopher Lee's service for the Army and RAF will escape many major news broadcasters and tabloids around the world today, but his distinguished career in the British military and the Special Air Service will be recognised.

"I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let's just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like."

Christopher Lee first enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1940, where he worked as an intelligence officer specializing in decoding German cyphers.

He was then posted to North Africa where he was based with the precursor of the SAS, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).

While leapfrogging from Egypt across Tobruk to Benghazi, Lee moved behind enemy lines from base to base sabotaging Luftwaffe planes and airfields along the way.

After the Axis surrender in 1943, Lee was seconded to the Army during an officer swap scheme, where he officiated the Gurkhas of the 8th Indian Infantry Division during The Battle of Monte Cassino.

Vickers guns-armed Long Range Desert Group trucks
Two Long Range Desert Group trucks, armed with Vickers guns

When pressed by an eager interviewer on his SAS past, he leaned forward and whispered: "Can you keep a secret?"

"Yes!" the interviewer replied, breathless with excitement.

"So can I", replied a smiling Lee, sitting back in his chair.

After working with the LRDG, Lee was assigned to the Special Operations Executive, conducting espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers.

For the final few months of his service Lee, fluent in several languages including French and German, was tasked with tracking down Nazi war criminals alongside the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects. He saw Nazi concentration camps first-hand.

Of his time within the organisation, Lee said "We were given dossiers of what they'd done and told to find them, interrogate them as much as we could and hand them over to the appropriate authority". Lee then retired from the RAF in 1946 with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. 

"I've seen many men die right in front of me - so many in fact that I've become almost hardened to it. Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces by a bomb, you develop a kind of shell. But you had to. You had to. Otherwise we would never have won."

Although his service records remain classified and Lee himself was reluctant to discuss anything about his service, after his retirement he'd been individually decorated for battlefield bravery by the Czech, Yugoslav, British, and Polish governments.

He was also on personal terms with Josip Broz Tito, presumably after their mutual involvement with the Partisan resistance movement (widely cited as the most effective resistance movement in occupied Europe).

Tall and talented: 10 reasons Sir Christopher Lee is a legend:


Sir Christopher Lee as Dracula, 1958
  • Christopher Lee was Ian Fleming's cousin, serving alongside him during the war. 
  • At 6'5'' tall, Sir Christopher's imposing stature made him one of the tallest actors in the world.
  • He was introduced to Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the assassins of Grigori Rasputin, whom Lee was to play many years later.
  • He was fluent in six languages including French and German.
  • He participated in more on-screen sword fights than any actor in history
  • He was a descendant of Charlemagne 
  • Christopher Lee released a heavy metal hardcore symphonic power metal concept album about Charlemagne when he was 88 years old.
  • He volunteered to fight for Finland in the Winter War, prior to WW2.
  • He fixed the image of the fanged vampire in popular culture.
  • Sir Christopher was also an opera singer.

More: Britain's Last Surviving Dambuster Awarded MBE

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