A Special Air Service jeep patrol is greeted by its commander, Colonel David Stirling, on its return from the desert. 18 January 1943.

The early members of the Special Air Service were currently known as L Detachment, SAS Brigade and would not be designated the SAS Regiment until September 1942. The original name was intended to cause confusion amongst the Germans about the nature and strength of these unconventional forces – suggesting that it was just a small part of a large parachute Brigade.

The purpose of the SAS was to mount raids behind enemy lines – in the desert they arrived by truck or jeep, rather than parachute. Their early raids had been costly affairs where they sustained heavy casualties. But on the night of 26th July they mounted one of their most successful raids ever. They had driven for days across the desert, guided by men from the Long Range Desert Group, until they were well behind enemy lines. The men at the target German airfield at Fuka were caught completely off guard. Carol Mather was one of the officers on the raid, which was led by the SAS’s founding officer, Colonel David Stirling:

We left the escarpment RV at last light and climbed up the rocky cliff in our two columns. There was a full moon and so driving was comparatively easy. David led off at a terrific speed and it was not long before we were suffering from punctures. We had fifteen before we reached our objective, and for each one a halt of five minutes had to be made.

One jeep and its crew had to be abandoned on the way owing to a cracked sump, and at this halt David gave us our final instructions.

“Right lads, we haven’t got much time. At the edge of the aerodrome form a line abreast and all guns spray the area. When I advance follow me in your two columns and on my green Very light open fire, outwards at the aircraft – follow exactly in each other’s tracks, 5 yards apart – speed not more than 4 mph. Return to the RV independently moving only by night.”

He spoke casually as if putting us into our butts for a grouse drive.

….

We descended across an old battlefield, where some of our corpses were lying still unburied, in the full moonlight. The burnt-out tanks and corpses looked cold and comfortless, and I took another swig of rum.

Then we heard an aircraft overhead – it was circling low. Suddenly all the aerodrome landing lights were switched on and we saw our target perfectly illuminated, and the German bomber came in to land. The noise of its engines drowned our own.

A hundred yards more to the aerodrome edge and we formed line abreast, halted and suddenly fired our sixty guns. A minute’s fire to spray the defences and then we followed David in our two columns.

In one minute we were amongst the parked aircraft – Messerschmitts, Stukas, Junkers and Heinkels lay all around us. The green Very light went up and we wound slowly like a snake, firing at the aircraft as we went.

Clouds obscured the moon, and one after another the planes burst into flames, but not a gun was fired on us. We fired into their huts and tents, and we could see one or two figures running helplessly about. Some of the aircraft would only be fifteen yards away, and as I passed them at the end of the column they would glow red and explode with a deafening “phut” and there would be great heat.

We had passed through the dispersal area, and were swinging round for a second visit, when an Ack Ack gun some 300 yards away opened up on us wildly. Our port-side guns returned the fire, but the gunner had hit one of our jeeps in the centre of the column as we drew away, the shots passing over our heads.

See Sir Carol Mather: When the Grass Stops Growing: A Memoir of the Second World War.

Portrait of Lt Col Robert Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, SAS, in the desert near Kabrit, 1942.

As we moved off the aerodrome Paddy Mayne spotted an untouched bomber and, jumping from his jeep with a bomb in his hand, ran up to it and, placing the bomb in its engine, ran back and caught us up.

We had burnt thirty aircraft, damaged more, and lost one jeep and one man, a Frenchman, killed. The whole thing had taken fifteen minutes. Then we melted into the desert in two’s and three’s, as arranged.

{ 13 comments }

Jul

25

1942

‘Routine’ mining flight off the French Coast


25th July1942: ‘Routine’ mining flight off the French Coast

We were on the target now and I could hear the Navigator counting the seconds as the Bombardier released the mines. “One, two, three”. As the third mine left the aircraft a load of hell was hurled up at us from another flak ship, which according to the direction of the fire, was directly beneath us.

Before we had chance to avoid this second lot, we were hit all along the fuselage. Flames started to shoot past both sides of my turret. I immediately called up the pilot, but I received no reply.

Then suddenly to my horror, I realized the inter-com was dead, this being the only means of connecting me to the rest of my crew. From now on it meant that I had to work on my own initiative. I tried to rotate my turret but the hydraulics had been shot away. So I tried operating it manually.

Jul

24

1942

Air attack on the Eastern Front trenches


24th July 1942: Air attack on the Eastern Front trenches

The light singing transforms into a rattling howl, which now fills the air for hours. Each night is the same awe-inspiring picture; hundreds of lightning flashes burst into the air. Shades of white, green, and red splatter the sky; long yellow-orange streaks shoot into the air, and are accompanied by the hard knocking of 2cm anti-aircraft artillery.

Jul

23

1942

The ‘Gross Aktion’ begins in the Warsaw Ghetto


23rd July 1942:The ‘Gross Aktion’ begins in the Warsaw Ghetto

Everyone suddenly became eager for work. Everyone is prepared to give up hot meals and a comfortable bed at home to go and live in barracks, if only to stay put. To be deported means to prepare for death, and it is a lingering death which is the hardest kind of all.

The deportees are, to begin with, taken for killing. They are not qualified for work. And as to food, even if a crust of bread were available, would the Nazis give it to them? It has become known that the Nazis flay their corpses, remove the fat, and incinerate the bodies.

This accords with a prestated plan: The strength of the healthy and productive is to be exploited for the needs of the German army; the weak, the crippled, and the aged are to go to eternal rest.

Such a plan could have been invented only by Satan.

Jul

22

1942

A narrow escape in the Desert


22nd July 1942: A narrow escape in the Desert

The Aucklanders and my own H.Q. crew were hard at work, scraping shallow foxholes in the silt of the depression, and the battle looked like pausing until first light. Might as well rest a bit, ready for the day ahead; so I got down on the old bed-roll and “died”, leaving Crowley to dig in the Div. wireless set against possible trouble.

Forty minutes later, Cliff George woke me up, reporting his safe arrival. I told him what the plan would be at first light, and to rest his men until we could see enough to put them at it. The hour was probably about a quarter to five. He disappeared into the dark and I started putting my boots on.

Then hell broke loose. An Auckland carrier came dashing in across the depression, yelling “Stand to! Tanks! Lots of the bastards”. But that was obvious. A deluge of “golden rain” fell on us from the northern edge of the depression about four hundred yards away.

Jul

21

1942

Churchill: “severe, ruthless bombing of Germany” needed


21st July 1942: Churchill: severe, ruthless bombing of Germany needed

We must regard the Bomber offensive against Germany at least as a feature in breaking her war-will, second only to the largest military operations which can be conducted on the Continent until that war-will is broken. Renewed, intense efforts should be made by the Allies to develop during the winter and onwards ever-growing, ever more accurate and ever more far-ranging Bomber attacks on Germany.

Jul

20

1942

British and American military argue over strategy


20th July 1942: British and American military argue over strategy

At 12.30 we went round to 12 Downing Street to meet American Chiefs of Staff with PM! We had originally intended to meet them at 10 am ‘off the record’ for a private talk, but PM very suspicious and had informed me at Chequers that Marshall trying to assume powers of C-in-C of American troops which was (constitutionally) President’s prerogative!

After lunch at 3 pm we met [General] Marshall and [Admiral] King and had long argument with them. Found both of them still hankering after an attack across Channel this year to take pressure off Russia. They failed to realize that such an action could only lead to the loss of some 6 divisions without achieving any results!

Jul

19

1942

Scots Guards take the El Taqa Plateau, El Alamein


19th July 1942: Scots Guards take the El Taqa Plateau, El Alamein

On the third day, 19 July, around noon, we received an order to proceed south to the El Taqa Plateau. One of our carriers was trapped and we had to try to rescue the crew. We reverted to an infantry section and manoeuvred our truck to a sand dune near where they were trapped. I had a wee look over the sand dune to assess the situation before taking the section any further. I observed a plateau about 40 feet high with soft sand nearly up to the top and a little escarpment at the top of 4-5 feet. On the right was a soft sand track leading to the top.

The carrier was halted half way down the track and it looked as if it had been trying to get to the top of the plateau. It had then been hit by a small anti-tank gun and had reversed back down the track. I could see the officer, Lt Hunt, hanging over the left side of the carrier, but no sign of the crew by the vehicle. Up above though, sheltering under the low escarpment, was a sergeant with a section, but they couldn’t move because the enemy was delivering concentrated fire from a Spandau machine gun.

Jul

18

1942

HMS Unbroken navigates a minefield


18th July 1942: HMS Unbroken navigates a minefield in the Mediterranean

The distance of the run was sixty miles – fifteen hours of it at four knots. The thought of QBB 255 gave us all the jitters. The sense of helplessness…. The fact that you cannot hit back but are permanently on the defensive, listening, waiting, magnifying every jolt and movement…. You speak in whispers as though loudness of voice will, in some indeterminable way, add to the hazards, and you are reluctant to make any but the most necessary gestures or movements. It is a nerve-racking business.

Inside the minefield I had the mine-detecting unit – a refinement of the Asdic – switched on in an effort to plot the pattern of the mines and sail between them. A regrettable action. We plotted mines right enough-ahead, to starboard, to port, above, below – everywhere! Cryer’s eyes popped from his head as he reported each new echo, and a few wild expressions and quivering lips were to be seen in the control-room.

Jul

17

1942

Auschwitz – the sudden death of Yankel Meisel


17th July 1942: Auschwitz – the sudden death of Yankel Meisel

In the tenth row outside our Block, the Block Senior found Yankel Meisel without his full quota of tunic buttons.

It took some seconds for the enormity of the crime to sink in. Then he felled him with a blow. An uneasy shuffling whispered through the ranks. I could see the S.S. men exchange taut glances and then I saw the Block Senior, with two of his helpers, hauling Yankel inside the barrack block.

Out of sight, they acted like men who have been shamed and betrayed will act. They beat and kicked the life out of him. They pummelled him swiftly, frantically, trying to blot him out, to sponge him from the scene and from their minds; and Yankel, who had forgotten to sew his buttons on, had not even the good grace to die quickly and quietly.