Gordon Book Review Blog

18-Apr-2018 Geoffrey Gordon

Rogue Heroes - the story of the SAS, the first 'special forces"

Rogue Heroes is the non-fiction historical accounting of the development of the world’s first “special forces”, the British SAS (Special Air Services), conceived and developed in the African theatre in World War II, subsequently used effectively in France, Italy and Germany in a variety of tactical needs to securee the Allied victory.    
Chuck led our discussion, and began with some of the characters.  He began with the initial force behind the birth of the SAS, David Stirling.  This aristocratic soldier hadn’t accomplished much in his life until the war.  He was openly contemptuous of mid-level military leaders as he considered different ways of achieving bigger strategic goals.  His aristocratic upbringing helped him make connections to high command from the outset, as the stodgy military command he challenged was still stuck in the Great War.   Many obstacles stood in the way of getting up and running, not least of which was the legacy British sense that this was not the proper way to fight a war.  But the bucking authority theme ran throughout the book: two examples much later in the book were when senior officers disobeyed direct commands to stand down: one “accidentally fell out of a plane" (to join his team on the ground), and another told high Command that he didn’t get the order to stand down until the mission had been underway.  This tendency to think independently and find solutions irrespective of higher military authority became part of the special forces ethos that endures today.   

Paddy Mayne was the other force behind the development of the SAS, and couldn’t be more different from David Stirling.   An Irish rugby player, prone to extreme violence when drinking, and ready to kill people under any circumstances.  Initially he and Stirling competed for control and influence within the SAS, but soon developed a working relationship recognizing each other’s strengths and differences.   About halfway into the book Stirling was taken prisoner and Paddy Mayne became the defacto sole leader of the SAS.

The development of Paddy Mayne reflected the development of many of the soldiers serving in the SAS, veering from asset destruction to assassination. Morality blurs in war.  Early in the war, destruction was the goal; by the end, killing was indiscriminate.  War changes people.   Not that Mayne began as a tender character; author Ben MacIntyre commented that Paddy Mayne had so many demons he could populate his own Hell.

The blurry line between murder and a fair fight was highlighted on several occasions.  We discussed the relative breadth of field tactics that SEALS have compared to other military units.  Chuck cited a New York Times article questioning the accountability of these special forces in the field often unrestrained by rules-of-engagement.  Geoff argued that the purpose of these forces is as psychological as tactical.  Canoeing became the topic of debate between Geoff and Rob.

The brutality of the men in these SAS forces was always underlying their efforts, but the war changed  in the move from Africa to Europe. Even in Africa, the early objective was to destroy materiel, but tactics employed by Germans (Hitler’s Commando Rule: shoot all operators behind the lines), mass killings, civilian killings changed the behavior of Allied forces in Europe dramatically.

The book had so many characters identified by so many stories, our discussions often went from character to character, with some of the crazy events highlighting the men involved.  In this case, the series of short stories kept us all captivated.

On the other hand, the death of so many characters was an insight into the destruction in war, a far cry from movies and history written by the survivors.  Unlike a novel, so many characters play a major role in one operation, then killed in the next. 

We talked another moral question, that of injured soldier Seymour, left behind to be captured by advancing Germans.  He was abandoned by his buddies, so he's feeling betrayed.  His story after the war did not add up, and many asked whether he was one of the sources of so much intelligence on the entire SAS operation including leaders, tactics, supply sources, and on and on.  How much can one ask of a man held captive, subject to torture?

Other characters we discussed were: the captured officer who had dinner with the German general, who told him, we can't guarantee your safety once these (SS) guys take you. Knowing you're going to be shot sharpens the mind: they escaped.

In the desert, Sadler was the navigator, trained in celestial navigation, taking the team dozes of miles from an oasis to an airport.  Incredible talent on display.

We talked about how today's special forces are similar, and how   they are different. They are similar in training intensity and high fall-out rate; physical and psychological fortitude; and the breadth of operational latitude.  The breadth in operational latitude prompted the discussion of how much is too much, reviewed earlier.  What is fair in war?  

The differences are the assets dedicated to supporting these warriors.

The impact on the men who go into special forces is life changing.  Even the survivors of operations become different people because of what they are asked to do.  And their impact, psychologically and militarily, remains over-sized to their footprint.

On a topic that we could only discuss because we have warriors out in the world allowing us to live a life of freedom and independence in an otherwise dangerous world, we will discuss the 12 Rules of Life, by Jordan Peterson.




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