Everyone has image of the SAS: feats of physical endurance involving over-muscled men yomping across the landscape, soldiers in balaclavas abseiling down the side of the Iranian embassy, news stories of secret soldiers carrying out operations in farflung warzones, long on drama, but usually short on detail.
The true story of the wartime SAS, I discovered, is very different from the myth.
It is an astonishing adventure story, filled with tales of physical endurance, courage and survival. But it is much more than that.
Many books about the SAS have focused on a single individual, consequently downplaying the impact of others; some veer towards the hagiographic; many are somewhat over-muscled, tending to emphasize machismo at the expense of objectivity, physical strength over the psychological stamina that was the hallmark of the organization in its earliest incarnation. While many members of the wartime SAS exhibited extraordinary qualities, they were also human: flawed, occasionally cruel, and capable of making spectacular mistakes. The SAS has become a legend, but the true story contains darkness as well as light, tragedy and evil alongside heroism: it is a tale of unparalleled bravery and ingenuity, interspersed with moments of rank incompetence, raw brutality and touching human frailty.
Bravery sometimes comes in unexpected forms, and in places far from the battlefield. The wartime history of the SAS is a rattling adventure story, but in my book, SAS: ROGUE HEROES, I have also tried to explore the psychology of secret, unconventional warfare, a particular attitude of mind at a crucial moment in history, and the reactions of ordinary people to extraordinary wartime circumstances.
Rather to my surprise, this turned out to a book about the meaning of courage.
Ben Macintyre is the bestselling author of several books including A Spy Among Friends, Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag, which was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Galaxy British Book Award for Biography of the Year 2008. He is a columnist and Associate Editor at The Times.
On Saturday 1 July at 6.45pm, he will be at Chalke Valley History Festival to tell the story of David Stirling, the eccentric young officer who was given permission by Churchill to recruit the most ruthless soldiers he could find, thereby founding the most mysterious military organisation in the world: the SAS.
Tickets are available here.