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The Originals: The Secret History of the SAS

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Paperback: 352 pages / Publisher: Ebury Press / Published: 7 Sep 2006

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      10.10.2012 16:52
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      The stuff legends are made of.

      The Originals tells the story of the birth of the SAS from a band a misfits in the deserts of North Africa to occupied France, touching briefly on the end of the second world war. This book is unique in that it is told in their own words, or should I say the words of the survivors. Of the "Originals" or the first 100 + a few additions, only 12 would survive the war. By the time this book was written even less were left - although a few new members were drafted into the original circle.

      The SAS was the brain child of David Stirling and Jock Lewes. Stirling a Lieutenant at the time drafted an excellent proposal to use a commando force to take out enemy aircraft. Unfortunately - no one wanted to listen to him - so he more or less broke into a secure area to place his papers before a commanding officer - who decided to hear him out rather than arrest him. Of course some of the men would be arrested. Paddy Mayne was famous for it - and apparently only stayed out of military prison because the higher ups decided he was of more use on the ground than behind bars - and most likely they expected to rid of him soon anyway. Paddy Mayne didn't seem to understand the concept of the word impossible. He is often portrayed as brawler and fair enough he was - David Stirling's only condition for allowing him to join the unit was that he promise to give up battering commanding officers - a sensible move as Paddy's new CO. He is well known for being capped as rugby player for Ireland six times , less known as a champion heavy weight boxer, marksman, and a qualified lawyer and later secretary of the Law Society for Ireland. A man of war, he is depicted in a statue in his birthplace of Newtonards with a book of poetry rather than gun. An Ulster Protestant - Paddy apparently spoke Gaelic as well. He was a well educated man who appeared able to excel in anything he put his mind to. Unfortunately Paddy's words are not in this book. Invincible in battle, he was killed in a traffic accident. But his memory is preserved here through the men who served with him.

      Of course we all have our own favourites and I think I've just made mine obvious - but this book is not about any one man. It is about a small group to be sure, but a band of men that certainly were heroes in their own right, but combined with like minded men were much more. Most of them were misfits, bordering or perhaps frequently crossing the border into criminality - but in a very light hearted matter. Certainly at least one of their exploits in drawing pay from more than one regiment would have qualified as fraud. Things like impersonating officers likely wouldn't have gone down well with the military brass and Stirling's "letter from Curchill" was pure genius. I won't give the detail on that one for fear of spoiling the book - but these are men who made their own rules - and some never forgave for them for that.

      But while the SAS was not well liked by the military establishment - they were simply too good to do away with. During the first two years, their main focus was the German airfields. They simply drove onto military bases well behind the lines and either shot up all the aircraft on the field or blew them up. As if that were not audacious enough, having escaped safely - they sometimes went back just to watch the explosions like boys with a fireworks display.

      This book is quite frankly - one of the very best books I have ever read. If this book were fiction - I would say that they took it too far. There is no way it could be possible for such a small group of men to accomplish so much. The stories in this book are often funny , full of action, and living life to the fullest - but they seem too bold. This is the stuff of a Hollywood action movie ( minus the romance). The brass neck of the men is unbelievable. Come across security on German airfield - Stirling dressed as a German officer rants at them in perfect German that if they don't get away fast - he'll have them all up charges - imagine letting men just wander about an airfield - quite lucky they weren't saboteurs. Paddy on the other hand, not having quite the sames skills in German substituted by screaming Gaelic at Italian soldiers until they backed off long enough for the jeep to race through and open fire. The very idea of a handful of men, driving behind enemy lines and wiping out entire airfields over and over again seems unbelievable. They just went into any place as if they owned it. During their campaign against the Nazi airfields the SAS took out more enemy aircraft than the entire RAF.

      But as much as I loved this book - it took me a long time to read it. At times it just seemed too much. These are men telling their own stories, and they are men of a different generation. They obviously put a brave face on it - but it doesn't always cover up the truth. The absolute horror of warfare sinks in time and time again. This shows the brotherhood of a small band - but what man can casually watch his brother cut to bits? What must it do to man to watch friend after friend die - or in at least one case - kill a comrade yourself to put an end to the suffering? You can feel the officer's grief as men who look to him for leadership are cut down - and keep fighting as they die. The early SAS had not officers who led from behind - they took every risk they asked of their men and not many lived to tell about it. This book completely captures a fear - not for the man's own life but the horror of seeing his own slaughtered and I found the book very difficult to read at this point.

      As the war draws to close, the book loses something. Where before there were deaths, but also excitement and adventure, it seems to become bogged down in horror towards the end of the war. It wouldn't bother me if it were fiction, but of course it is not. The high profile missions were replaced by information gathering, and being used as shock troops - a role which didn't suit the men as well and led to far too many deaths. Then you have the horror of the concentration camps, of German women and children starving to the point that the men handed over there own rations and did without. I am not criticising the book in this - it is after all non fiction and we can't always have happy endings. But the way in which this is told, in the men's own words - it is raw and more realistic than I might like. I am not ashamed to admit the book moved to tears on more than one occasion.

      The book does close on a lighter note though. I had intended to mention a very amusing episode involving the surrender of Colditz Castle, assuming that everyone who would read this type of book would already be familiar with at least part of the story - but after consideration I have edited this section out. I will only say that the book ends with the adventure and excitement back in full swing - at least for a little while.

      This book will not be everyone's cup of tea. It will most likely appeal only to history buffs. But that is a pity. This book captures the magnitude of the human spirit - the very best of men - and at times the worst. It is a story that children should take pride in of the very best of what it means to be British. And at the very least - the memory of these men should never be forgotten.

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