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11 August 2010

The Creation of Special Air Service by Col David Stirling: just luck, misconduct or mastery of operational art?

Introduction
There are numerous great military leaders in history that have significant influences to the development of operational art. Most often we tend to talk about generals and marshals as great leaders, leading campaigns and battles, and the reason is self-explanatory – their footprint in history is easy to observe. They have caused significant changes in political systems and have empowered states, meanwhile causing adversaries to fall or at least have them learn painful lessons.
In that essay I would like to take a closer look at operational art with a different approach. My case study will show that more than operations against an enemy, sometimes visionary leaders have to fight hard in “friendly fronts” as well. That has been particularly the case with Special Operations Forces (SOF) for their beginnings, survival and constant fight for their right to exist.
Very likely the visionaries and advocates of that service had the toughest campaigns and battles throughout history within their own armed forces. Once they succeeded and became operational, they proved their effectiveness and remarkable influence in campaigns; but, despite success and significant contribution, most of conventional leaders still do not feel comfortable with Special Operations Forces.
In the case study I will take a closer look at the U.K. Special Air Service’s (SAS) struggle for existence in early days; their godfather and original visionary, David Stirling’s activities in that fight; and some remarkable success stories in combat that proved the cost-effectiveness of that service. In that kind of operations “the adversary” is the higher leaders’ uncomfortable feeling on something that they thoroughly don’t understand, can not completely control or may believe they are being threatened in the way that fades their glory. That type of operational art has guided many other SOF visionaries to create and develop their respective forces around the world.
This paper is structured into two major chapters: first, describing David Stirling’s actions to ensure the birth of SAS, and some operations in WWII. The second chapter describes the situation “behind the scenes” during and after the war.
The main sources used for this paper are books where stories are told by first hand witnesses, by the individuals involved in the story or other researcher’s discoveries. 

 

Accidental birth of SAS and performance during WWII

David Stirling was born on November 15, 1915 in a Scottish clan. After his childhood he went to different colleges but never found his true passion. Being a gambler and true enjoyer of nightlife, he was forced to quit college in Cambridge, after which he tried some art studies in Paris that also did not turn out well.[1]
Looking for his space in life he enlisted in the Supplementary Reserve of the Scots Guard. Despite being a gambler and party animal, he found the true patriotism and abilities within himself as he volunteered for sergeant; later on he became a second lieutenant. After joining a new commando unit during WWII he was sent to Egypt, where Stirling was frustrated because his unit would not accept any risky missions. Inactivity led Stirling, who was still an adventure seeker in essence, to look for some other challenges. One of these was to organise and participate in an illegal parachute jump with the Royal Air Force. That event particularly changed the life and future for Stirling.[2]     
Something went wrong and Stirling hurt himself so badly that he was in the hospital for a while. In hospital bed, unable to move around, he started to analyze all the missions his unit had planned that were eventually cancelled. He asked himself how one could carry out the role at one the hundredth of the cost. And having realized what was required, he formulated the lines and hard principles for future SAS.[3]
The principles were some what different than what Stirling and his mates had experienced so far in his commando unit. Firstly, the operational units had to be small in size, maximum 4-man teams. That made it possible to achieve the next principle – surprise, which was most likely to be better achieved by a small footprint. Additionally, these small units had to be capable of operating at night, approaching targets by land, sea or air, but most importantly, every team member had to have the ability to lead the unit. That last one was unseen so far in British units. Traditionally there had to be a clear leader up front and others would just follow and obey.[4]
Action-eager Stirling realized that in order to capture the imagination of the top command, he also had to relate his idea to an operation. That had to be something important enough to make them even pay a glance to some second lieutenant. Fortunately, at that time there was one major problem to be solved at a higher level – the German air force. The Germans had the control of the air at the time and Stirling’s proposition was to knock out the entire German fighter force in one night.[5]
Unfortunately, Stirling had no pass to the headquarters installation and he could not request that formally because that would have spoilt the effort. So he did something that normal officers don’t do – he used his crutches to climb over the fence of the headquarters and run the gauntlet of security guards before presenting his plans to General Neil Ritchie. He succeeded, in the last minute though. If he had no success in avoiding the Military Police who were already after him, he could end up in prison for unauthorized access to the headquarters area.[6]
Stirling got the attention of the General in his pencil-scribbled proposals for small raiding groups, independent of the traditional military, which would operate deep behind enemy lines, destroying aircraft and supply links. Instead of being thrown into prison for unauthorized access to a secure area, Stirling was promoted to captain and ordered to start raising the force with an initial 65 men the next day. It was the spring of 1941 and that was the beginning of SAS.[7]
That very first SAS “operation” above conducted by Stirling can be considered a masterpiece of operational art. He realized the big picture, that by going via normal chain of command with his ideas he was never to succeed. Thereby, with a strategic goal in mind (establishment of force) he conducted an extremely risky tactical move (raided the headquarters) that could be considered a first operational leap along the path of determined strategy, according to one of the theories of operational art.[8]   From the start the SAS role was strategic and not tactical. First, concept included raids in depth behind enemy lines, attacking HQ nerve centres, landing grounds, supply lines, etc; secondly, the concept entailed the mounting of sustained strategic offensive activity from several bases within hostile territory and, if opportunity existed, recruiting, training, arming and coordinating local guerrilla elements.[9]  
Stirling argued that in contrast of sending a large force of commandos to attack one objective, which spoiled the surprise, a group of 200 could launch simultaneous attacks on twenty, thirty or even forty targets. Such attacks could have twofold effects – firstly, that would disrupt the targets themselves and secondly, they would the force enemy’s battle-troops to withdraw to guard the installations, thus rendering the front-line forces more vulnerable to conventional attacks.[10]
Unluckily, the very first mission in November 1941 of the freshly formed SAS “L” Detachment turned into a total disaster. They were parachuting behind the lines to the Western Desert prior to the British offensive to attack the German airfields with the intention to remove enemy air power.[11] Due to a storm, more than half of the raiding force got killed, captured or went missing, and only one detachment of five could actually carry out the mission.[12] After “crawling” back with remnants, Stirling did something unorthodox again. Instead of reporting his failure to headquarters, he reinforced his unit and went to repeat the mission again. This time he used the help of the Long Range Desert Group, who taxied them on their vehicles close to the objectives, and SAS still carried out its mission.[13]
Since then, raiding German airfields became the primary mission for SAS in that theatre and arguably they destroyed more enemy aircraft than Royal Air Force.[14]
As the war moved on, SAS operated behind enemy lines in the Mediterranean, Italy and northern Europe. In France their primary role was to train and assist French resistance operations behind the lines, causing significant interruption to the Germans.[15] The last SAS operation in the Second World War, to disarm the German garrison in Norway, was conducted on 25 August 1945, ten days after the formal end of the war.[16]

 

Struggle for survival during and after WWII

Despite the fact that Stirling enjoyed the support of Generals Richie and Auchinleck[17] and later even Winston Churchill[18] SAS faced a major confrontation from higher headquarters’ officers and even Field Marshal Montgomery throughout the war. Those very conventional officers could not believe the effectiveness of small forces. In their dogmatic minds they tended to trade the element of surprise for mass. That led to a lack of manpower and equipment for SAS.
Therefore, recruitment was difficult, due to resistance of unit commanders, who were mostly thinking of their own interests.[19] A very honest illustration to conventional thinking was Montgomery’s expression to Stirling. He believed that the commandos and most of special operations forces not only drew away promising material from the conventional forces, but investment in a special capability was not worth the return: “You want only my best men; my most experienced and dependable men … What, Colonel Stirling, makes you assume that you can handle those men to greater advantage than myself?”[20]
Despite that, Stirling was able to recruit more men than initially was promised. Still, they needed to pass the rough training, and men who could not cope with that were returned to their units (RTU). Stirling smartly understood that they could not damage the feelings of anyone who had been RTUed.[21] He realized that the men who were sent back to their units could help them create a better recruiting field, as they had been treated fairly.   
Since the beginning, Stirling was convinced that SAS must be independent as much as possible. That created probably the greatest friction with higher command. Stirling was constantly “operating” outside the normal chain of command, which created frustration in the headquarters, but meanwhile that ensured the protection and development the unit. Shortly after Stirling’s dinner with Churchill in September 1942, General Alexander’s Chief of Staff wrote his superior:
“The personality of the present commander, L Detachment SAS Brigade, is such that he be given command of the whole force with appropriate rank. In view of this I make the following suggestion. That L Detachment SAS Brigade, 1 SS Regiment, Special Boat section, should all be amalgamated under L detachment SAS Brigade and commanded by major D Stirling with the rank of lieutenant colonel.”[22]
On September 28, 1942, a little over a year after David Stirling had used his crutches to climb over the fence of Middle East Headquarters, Operational Instruction No. 14,521 confirmed the raising of the SAS to full regimental status within the British Army, to be called 1 SAS Regiment.[23] However, that success was about to change.  
Stirling was captured by Germans in January 1943 and that was a most damaging blow to the SAS during the war.[24]  
The situation after Stirling’s capture could not be better described than when Stevens quotes Cooper, one of the Stirling’s original team mate’s: “They (higher headquarters) wanted to disband us, or they wanted to take, not part of our glory, but they wanted to get rid of this small band of people who were doing so much damage to their pride because they hadn’t been able to do it themselves.”[25]
Luckily Stirling had set the SAS on a strong path of success, so total dismantling of the Regiment was impossible. His followers managed to keep up the spirit in his absence in that hostile environment throughout rest of the war. There were fights and men lost, then again new victories were achieved and men were recruited. In May of 1945, Stirling was freed and immediately he was up to his old tricks in London.[26]
Unfortunately, after Norway there was nothing left for the SAS to do. At that time there were still a lot of people who didn’t like the Regiment, so almost everyone was sent back to their parent regiments. The SAS was disbanded.[27]
This was not the end of the SAS, of course. New leaders of the cannibalized unit, following the ideas and principles of Stirling, managed to sell their expertise in different ways. Firstly, right after the war they were hunting war criminals in France[28] and later, in 1948, they became valuable experts in the Malaya rebellion. When the situation began to turn into a prolonged colonial war in 1950, the Special Air Service, disbanded five years before, was resurrected and put back in the true fight again.[29]
Since then the SAS has been proven its values and professionalism in most conflicts where the UK has participated, and today it is considered the most prestigious and elite unit of the UK armed forces.

 

Conclusion

The birth and survival of the SAS can be considered as a truly great campaign, started by Stirling who broke all the rules to ensure that his vision would come true. His actions with higher echelons, and the recognition and recruitment of men who understood the concept and supported him, have ultimately made the Regiment the cutting edge and role model of Special Operation Forces worldwide. Stirling’s actions can surely be considered a masterpiece, a true operational art. As Clausewitz noted, quoted by John English and paraphrased: he drafted the plan of the war (sustainable elite unit), and the aim determined the series of actions intended to achieve it: he was, in fact, shaping the individual campaigns and, within these, decided on the individual engagements.[30]
Being a father of the SAS, in June of 1984, he was asked to give his name to the Regiment’s headquarters in Hereford. The headquarters has since moved, but retains the name.[31]  
To summarize Stirling’s personality and achievements, Stevens undoubtedly worded it best: “David Stirling did many things, and was misunderstood and attacked for some of those by many people. He was a fervent believer in the SAS, where it should go and the sort of organization it should be. But he was something else. He was painter, a thinker, and an inspirer of men. He was a visionary and a believer of mankind. Above all, David Stirling was a patriot. That should never be forgotten.”[32]
Rene Toomse, September 2009.
[1] Stevens, Gordon, The Originals: the Secret History of the Birth of the SAS in Their Own Words (Ebury Press, 2005), pp. 3, 4.
[2] Ibid, pp. 4-15.
[3] Ibid, p. 16.
[4] Ibid, pp. 16-17.
[5] Ibid, pp. 18-19.
[6] Williams, David (2008), SAS founder broke into army HQ on crutches to persuade generals they needed crack unit, at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-517254/SAS-founder-broke-army-HQ-crutches-persuade-generals-needed-crack-unit.html#comments, accessed on 3 September 2009; Stevens (2005), pp. 19, 20.
[7] Stevens, Gordon, The Originals: the Secret History of the Birth of the SAS in Their Own Words (Ebury Press, 2005), pp. 20, 21.
[8] Hennessy, McKercher, ed., The operational art: developments in the theories of war (Praeger Publishers, 1996), p. 13.
[9] Connor, Ken, Ghost Force: the Secret History of the SAS (Cassell Military Paperbacks, 1998), p. 11.
[10] Ibid, p. 12.
[11] Stevens, Gordon, The Originals: the Secret History of the Birth of the SAS in Their Own Words (Ebury Press, 2005), p. 59.
[12] Jones, Tim, SAS Zero Hour. The Secret Origins of the Special Air Service (Creative Print and Design, 2006), pp. 198, 199.
[13] Stevens, Gordon, The Originals: the Secret History of the Birth of the SAS in Their Own Words (Ebury Press, 2005), pp. 75-79.
[14] Connor, Ken, Ghost Force: the Secret History of the SAS (Cassell Military Paperbacks, 1998), p. 12.
[15] Stevens, Gordon, The Originals: the Secret History of the Birth of the SAS in Their Own Words (Ebury Press, 2005), pp. 267-279.
[16] Connor, Ken, Ghost Force: the Secret History of the SAS (Cassell Military Paperbacks, 1998), p. 12.
[17] Jones, Tim, SAS Zero Hour. The Secret Origins of the Special Air Service (Creative Print and Design, 2006), p. 209.
[18] Stevens, Gordon, The Originals: the Secret History of the Birth of the SAS in Their Own Words (Ebury Press, 2005), p. 154.
[19] Ibid, p. 104.
[20] Kiras, James D., Special Operations and Strategy from World War II to the War on Terrorism (Routledge, 2006), p. 90.
[21] Stevens, Gordon, The Originals: the Secret History of the Birth of the SAS in Their Own Words (Ebury Press, 2005), p. 92.
[22] Ibid. , p. 165.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Kiras, James D., Special Operations and Strategy from World War II to the War on Terrorism (Routledge, 2006), p. 89.
[25] Stevens, Gordon (2005), The Originals: the Secret History of the Birth of the SAS in Their Own Words (Ebury Press), p. 186.
[26] Ibid., pp. 313-315.
[27] Ibid, pp. 319-322.
[28] Ibid, p. 323.
[29] Connor, Ken, Ghost Force: the Secret History of the SAS (Cassell Military Paperbacks, 1998), p. 21.
[30] Hennessy, McKercher, ed., The operational art: developments in the theories of war (Praeger Publishers, 1998), p. 8.
[31] Stevens, Gordon, The Originals: the Secret History of the Birth of the SAS in Their Own Words (Ebury Press, 2005), p. 333.
[32] Ibid, p. x.