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Who dares sometimes wins

Despite my general antipathy towards technology over time I am pleased to report that I have mastered the rudiments of being able to record television programmes before they are aired – or alternatively go back and watch those I have missed via a ‘catch up’ facility –  on my cable TV system. This, of course, is something of a triumph for someone in their seventh decade yet probably the sort of thing that a modern child probably learns to do before he or she has finished breast-feeding.

Over the weekend I also managed an accidental variant of the above.

SAS6Noticing in the TV listing for the coming week that the second episode of a three-part documentary series on the early history of the SAS (SAS: Rogue Warriors, presented by Ben Macintyre, author of the well-received authorised wartime history SAS: Rogue Heroes (2016), Viking, £25) was being broadcast at 9.00pm on Monday evening, I proceeded to arranged to record it via my normal practice, viz. go to the future listings in my cable system, highlight said programme and press the ‘record’ button on my TV zapper.

As per normal, it then offered me three options, one of which was to select a ‘series link’. This I duly selected, reasoning that – although I had already missed the first episode, which had gone out the previous week – by this route I might at least be able also to record next week’s (the third and final episode) in advance.

Dear reader, a while later, when by chance I went to check my list of ‘upcoming’ recordings, I discovered that – Lo and Behold! – my cable system had very cleverly, and without any expectation on my part this was going to happen, not only set itself to record Monday evening’s (second) episode as I had requested, but somehow – having apparently automatically searched the title of the series within its database – had also ‘gone back and pulled out from the archive’ the first episode and placed in in my ‘TV recordings’ in box for my future viewing!

That’s a shaggy dog story version of how this week I came – by my own choice – to watch the first episode of SAS: Rogue Warriors on Monday evening … and then the second episode last night, the night after it had been broadcast.

Although my era of special interest in military history is WW1 I have a basic knowledge of WW2 via television documentaries and military history books though – unlike with WW1, whose battlefields in France, Belgium and Gallipoli I have visited either as part of guided tours or my own expeditions – I have never visited any of the even easily-accessible WW2 battlefields (e.g. those in Normandy). That is, if you don’t count firstly, one fleeting trip to the site of the Dunkirk retreat during which my brother and I parked up overlooking the harbour and spent half an hour looking at nothing in particular on a decidedly unremarkable beach landscape – and secondly, a memorable expedition to the scene of a disastrous SAS action behind enemy lines south of Poitiers in France in July 1944 to which I was invited by a friend and former work colleague on its seventieth anniversary three years ago.

BulbasketSaid action was the infamous Operation Bulbasket, in which some fifty-plus SAS men were parachuted into Occupied France with the intent of generally disrupting as many lines of German reinforcement and supply to the Normandy area in the aftermath of the D-Day Landings in June 1944. Although they normally operated in teams of four, on this occasion the SAS got rather carried away and set up a huge camp in a forest from which they set about bombing railways lines and anything else that took their fancy – sometimes exactly the same ones several times – in the cause of confusing and disturbing the enemy. It didn’t take too long for the Germans to work out what was going on and they surrounded and attacked the SAS’s forest hideout. Many French resistance fighters and SAS (including my pal’s 23 year old uncle) were killed in the resulting action – some twenty others were captured and a few days later summarily shot in a field – and just a handful managed to escape.

But I digress. Let me go back to my viewing the first two episodes of Ben Macintyre’s documentary this week.

First, having worked in television myself I have a few small niggles or general comments.

SAS5All of the above are – of course – clever devices designed to ‘fill in screen time’ (in order to justify the hour long duration of the programmes) which sometimes do their job very well indeed … but sometimes distracted this onlooker from the tale at hand because their artifice was so transparent.

For example, the same footage – of a large army truck coming around a corner towards the camera – was used to illustrate two quite different occasions and incidents from episodes 1 and 2. It’s a small point, but noticeable.

Furthermore – and this sometimes occurs in television deliberately because the programme makers assume that some of their viewers will have missed previous episodes in a series – in episode 2 of SAS: Rogue Warriors, there were a total of about two minutes’ worth of re-hashing things already told in episode 1. Again, this is not a total bummer, but – to the weathered eye like mine – it comes across as more ‘filler’ material.

However, all the above aside, I am thoroughly enjoying this series and would recommend the third and final episode – to be aired at 9.00pm on BBC1 next Monday (20th February) – to Rust readers.

I shall not spoil things for any of you by re-hashing the origins of the SAS here.

Suffice it for me to comment that Ben Macintyre’s documentary series has underscored for me just how remarkable – and oddball – the tale (and some of the characters involved) were, not least David Stirling himself.

stiringStirling was a maverick of the first order, regarded by his senior and peers as a poor soldier. But somehow – sometimes by sheer bull-headed confidence and trickery or deceit – he obtained permission, or simply pretended that he had, to set up his ‘secret’ unit of daredevils.

My favourite story was of how Stirling, aged just 26, was summoned to dinner with Winston Churchill and senior generals in Cairo in order to explain his unit’s exploits. As they were leaving after the meal he asked Churchill and the top general there to sign a blank sheet of paper “as a souvenir of the occasion”. He then typed above their signatures a fraudulent letter stating the equivalent of “Whatever this officer asks for, give it to him …” which thereafter he used whenever he needed more supplies, or jeeps, or armaments. [As this story illustrates, in extreme times, one might argue, you need extreme people who are prepared to think outside the box and ignore all the normal protocols. All I know is that – if I had been around in WW2 – I wouldn’t have been one of them …]

Most of them were misfits and generally resentful of authority, i.e. the type of soldier that would be of zero use to the British army in peacetime but – happily for them and us – turned out by accident to be a little bit of just what was required in wartime, and especially in desperate wartime at that because, before the advent of America into the conflict after Pearl Harbour in December 1941, of course Britain was on the back foot and barely holding on.

L Detachment SAS group 1942; right, Capt. David Stirling; 2nd riThe SAS ‘originals’ were basically brigands, pirates and outcasts. They were fully aware that their early missions – disappearing off into the deserts of North Africa for a month or so at a time to blow up German airfields – were to all intents and purposes suicide missions. Yet they went anyway.

Macintyre makes excellent use of interviews with some of the survivors, including David Stirling, recorded in 1987. I could not but be impressed to the point of awe by the consistently understated and matter-of-fact ‘talking heads’, by then into their seventies or beyond, recounting their extraordinary exploits and the difficulties they faced – not least the antipathy of the senior British army ‘top brass’ to their very existence, never mind their antics.

One of their common traits was their desire to win the war, or even bring it to an early end. It was chilling to listen to one of their number telling how – on one raid that went badly wrong – it was his job to go round telling his wounded comrades which of them would be escaping with those who were still fully fit … and which of them (too badly wounded to be anything but a hindrance in desert conditions) were going to have to be left behind to die.

“It was my job” he explained. If things had been different, he’d have been one of those left behind. They weren’t, so he wasn’t. They all knew the score – and that was all there was to it it, really.

Here’s a link to a brief extract from the second episode of – SAS: ROGUE WARRIORS