The Bizarre Origins of the British Special Air Service (SAS)

British commandos on an assault course.

Comprised of individualized commando units, the “Special Service Brigade” expanded rapidly when volunteers flocked to join their ranks. This included a tall, gawky, officer with a less than promising reputation. An athletic man, Lieutenant David Stirling envisioned himself an adventurer, and he’d trained to climb Mt. Everest prior to World War II’s outbreak. His military career, however, included raising laziness to a form of high art, and little else. Nicknamed the “Giant Sloth,” Stirling wasn’t a model officer in 1940, but the new commando units fascinated him, and fanned the young man’s dreams of glory.

Stirling’s unit, No. 8 Commando, fought at the Battle of Crete and the Battle of the Litani River in 1941, but their heavy casualties resulted in disbandment. Stirling believed the losses stemmed from a conceptual failure. The commando units were too large and insufficiently mobile, he argued, to attack distant enemy objectives. Small groups of elite paratroopers, however, could use surprise to their advantage, dropping into the enemy’s rear areas under the cover of night. They would function as hit and run raiders, Stirling reasoned, devastating multiple enemy targets in a single operation.

Paratroopers were the key to convincing his superiors. Germany had used paratroopers in several engagements, but the concept remained a novel one to the British, and Stirling hoped the idea would capture high command’s interest. This was a problem for the lieutenant, however, as Stirling had no experience in leaping out of a plane. He resolved this by “acquiring” a shipment of parachutes (the details are unclear as to how), and performing a jump, along with several “mates,” with no training whatsoever. Stirling injured his legs, but the test convinced him, if no one else, of his idea’s feasibility.

Suspecting that using official channels would only end in rejection, Stirling elected to use the unorthodox, and normally ill-advised, approach of speaking to his commanding general directly. According to Stirling, this involved slipping into the Army’s Middle East headquarters in Cairo while still recovering from his parachuting injuries. Hampered by crutches, guards denied Stirling entry at the main gate. Stirling responded by locating an unguarded section of the wall, and using his crutches to form a makeshift ladder.

Successful, but now hobbled, Stirling limped into the building. Suspecting the guards noticed him, Stirling entered the first available office. Unfortunately, the office belonged to a general he’d crossed paths with before… and one who held a low opinion of Stirling. Stirling retreated hastily, and entered the deputy chief of staff General Ritchie’s office. Ritchie, for unknown reasons, allowed the unknown, trespassing, lieutenant to lay out his idea. Stirling’s concept impressed the general, and Ritchie sold the idea to Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Auchinleck. Permission to form a new special forces unit soon followed.