Britain got its first glimpse of the Special Air Service in the spring of 1944. Nearly three years earlier the special forces unit had been raised in Egypt, the brainchild of Lt David Stirling, and in the interim the SAS had grown from a force comprising six officers and sixty other ranks to a brigade encompassing two British regiments, 1SAS and 2SAS, two French regiments, 3SAS and 4SAS, and a company of Belgians.
F Squadron, GHQ Liaison Regiment Phantom, was attached to the brigade to make up for the shortfall in skilled signallers, increasing the brigade’s strength to 2,500 men. Most were seasoned troops who hadn’t seen Britain for years when they returned from the Mediterranean in early 1944, and nor had they seen much in the way of ‘regimental soldiering’ since volunteering for the SAS.
So it was a shock to the system when they discovered they now belonged to the SAS Brigade, a component of 1 Airborne Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, with Brigadier Roderick McLeod in charge of the SAS.
From pigsticking to guerrillas
Roderick William McLeod was not by nature a guerrilla soldier. Commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1925, he saw service on the North-West Frontier of India in the early 1930s and, as he himself admitted, up until he joined the Airborne Forces in 1943 his army career had consisted mainly of “hunting, polo, pigsticking…followed by staff college”.
Temperamentally and strategically, McLeod was unsuited to command the SAS. But then who was in the spring of 1944? (Mike Calvert, who made his name fighting with the Chindits, would succeed McLeod as brigadier in early 1945, but in the spring of 1944 he was in Burma). As it transpired, McLeod was a deft choice as brigadier, an officer who, as Calvert later acknowledged, skilfully and diplomatically welded the disparate regiments into a well-administered brigade.
All the same, the appointment came as a surprise to McLeod. In an article written for Mars and Minerva, the Regimental Journal of the SAS, some years after the war, he admitted his “shock” on learning he was no longer Deputy Commander of the 1st Parachute Brigade but brigadier of the SAS. He had fleetingly encountered the SAS in Italy at the tail end of 1943, describing them as “colourful and curiously dressed ruffians”, and like everyone in the British army he had heard of their legendary commander, Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne.
When Stirling had been captured in January 1943, the SAS teetered on the brink of extinction, but Mayne, assisted by Captain Lord George Jellicoe, the son of the famous admiral, had persuaded Middle East HQ of the need for the retention of the special forces unit once the Desert War was over.
An unnecessary evil
By the time Mayne returned to Britain in January 1944 he was a half-colonel with a DSO and bar, and a reputation as a guerrilla fighter par excellence. But there was another side to Mayne that he chose to reveal only to his small inner circle. “Paddy had controlled recklessness,” remembers Mike Sadler, who served with Mayne from 1941 to 1945. “He wasn’t the hard-drinking, fearless, mad Irishman of popular myth. He was intelligent, sensitive and warm underneath.”
Mayne was not only sensitive, but he was shy, and he lacked the social skill of David Stirling. These traits, combined with his rugby forward’s physique, meant he could be intimidating to subordinates and enigmatic to superiors – as McLeod soon discovered. “Mayne and the 1st SAS were straightforward,” he reflected. “They said ‘yes’ to everything they were asked to do (or not to do), they never bellyached, they were always cheerful and welcoming, and they regarded my H.Q as an unnecessary evil who should be humoured providing it did not interfere with what the Regiment thought should be done.”
The SAS didn’t appreciate Browning’s instruction in spring 1944 to replace their sand-coloured beret with the red one worn by airborne troops. Several desert veterans followed the example of Mayne and ignored the order. “I began to find that my previous experience had not prepared me for the problems of command over such unorthodox units,” remarked McLeod
McLeod also discovered that what the SAS wanted, the SAS usually got, particularly when it came to equipment. “With two years of the Desert and Italy behind then, and being accustomed to looking after themselves…the ‘G.S’ [Get Stuffed] attitude of Q [uartermaster], Staffs and Ordnance depots in England came as a shock,” said McLeod. “I hasten to say that the shock did not in any way deter the Regiment from obtaining equipment by the most unorthodox methods and then expecting my A/Q [Assistant Quartermaster] to pacify the authorities concerned.”
Little French fraternity
The arrival of the SAS in Britain brought other challenges for McLeod. There was little warmth between 1SAS, who had fought with the Eighth Army in North Africa, and 2SAS, who hailed predominantly from the First Army. That ill-feeling, however, was benign compared to the antipathy that existed between the two French regiments. 4SAS was composed of men who had been fighting the Germans since May 1940, while 3SAS was formed after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and some of its soldiers had served with the Vichy French forces. “Not only did [they] not speak to each other, but they actively fought,” remembered McLeod.
When they weren’t at each other’s throats, the French were upsetting the locals near their base, east of Ayr in Scotland. “It was difficult to persuade these splendid characters that the local salmon river should not be used as a grenade range,” said McLeod, who also had to smooth ruffled feathers after the French demolished a section of the railway line in the course of practising their sabotage skills with plastic explosives.
The only SAS soldiers who didn’t cause McLeod sleepless nights were the Belgians. “They did what they were told, their discipline was admirable and my staff loved them,” he said.
Hell of a rumpus
Frenchmen reducing salmon stocks and Irishmen wearing the wrong berets were soon the least of McLeod’s worries. On March 29, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force [SHAEF] issued the SAS Brigade with its operational instructions for the impending invasion of France. The SAS was to parachute into France the night before D-Day (D-1), outside the eastern extremity of the landing beaches, and “delay reinforcements into Normandy”.
SAS officers were aghast at the order. They were not trained to fight as a large infantry force; their expertise was operating in small parties behind the main battle area, disrupting the enemy’s communication and attacking appropriate targets. “There has been a hell of a rumpus between SAS and Airborne,” wrote Captain Sandy Scratchley, an experienced SAS officer, at the time. “No one on the Airborne planning staff has had any experience in our type of work.”
Bill Stirling, brother of David and commanding officer of 2SAS, already disenchanted with the way his regiment had been misused in Italy over the winter, was so enraged that he sent a letter to SHAEF in which he made clear his opposition to the order. When he was asked to withdraw his criticism, Stirling refused and he was relieved of his command [some sources say Stirling resigned, but in his letter Scratchley wrote of his “dismissal”].
Stirling’s sacrifice was appreciated by his men. “We were in absolutely agreement with his decision because of that thick-headed idiot ‘Boy’ Browning,” said Captain Tony Greville-Bell, a 2SAS officer. “In fact the senior officers, of whom I was one then, were inclined to resign as well but Bill told us not to.”
Lt-Colonel Brian Franks replaced Stirling as commanding officer of 2SAS, but the latter’s stance hadn’t been in vain. On May 17 SHAEF cancelled its operational instructions of March 29 and it was agreed that small parties of SAS men would parachute deep inside France and work with local Resistance groups to disrupt enemy communications and attack transport heading north towards the Normandy beachhead.
For Roderick McLeod, the days of hunting and pigsticking on the north-west frontier must have felt like an idyll in contrast to the complexities of commanding the Special Air Service in the spring of 1944. “I and my H.Q were regarded initially as an entirely unnecessary evil,” he wrote in Mars and Minerva. “I like to think that eventually and rather reluctantly we became accepted, as a necessary evil, but an evil we remained.”
Gavin Mortimer has written wartime histories of the SAS, SBS and LRDG and will be at Chalke Valley History Festival 2019 to speak about THE SAS IN FRANCE 1944.
Tickets are available here.