The story of the original special forces

special forces

If you find the history of World War II fascinating, you’re likely to feel that Rogue Heroes is endlessly so. In this eminently readable book, British historian Ben MacIntyre relates the story of the Special Air Service, the unit that set the pattern for special forces around the world. From its beginnings in 1941 in the fevered imagination of a rebellious junior officer in the British Army, the SAS has taken on a larger-than-life role in the story of World War II. MacIntyre makes the most of the romance of the tale, but there’s no whitewash here; the violence, the raging fury, the madness, and the evil brought out by the war figure just as prominently in the tale. But Rogue Heroes is not just gripping, it’s also frequently very, very funny.


Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Ben MacIntyre (2016) 400 pages

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The Special Air Service was born in the North African desert, where an insubordinate lieutenant named David Stirling managed to charm his way into British HQ in Cairo and talk a general into accepting a plan that everyone else on the staff thought utterly mad. Stirling’s notion was that a small unit of unusually brave and enterprising men could parachute behind enemy lines and do great damage to the German armed forces. He set out to make Erwin Rommel‘s life miserable, and he nearly succeeded.

A Scottish aristocrat who had failed at everything in civilian life, Stirling had his way at least in part because the commanding general knew his family and had actually visited the ancestral Stirling home. Thus he was authorized to give his idea a try. He began with a handful of men under the arbitrary name L Detachment of the Special Air Service. By the end of the war less than four years later, the SAS had grown into a brigade of 2,500 men consisting of five regiments. Two were British, two French, and one Belgian, but all were under British command. Operating in secrecy during most of the war, the SAS was one of the Allies’ most celebrated fighting units by the time the war ended.

Together, the several thousand men who served in the SAS destroyed huge numbers of German and Italian airplanes, trains, ammunition and fuel depots, and trucks, killed hundreds of enemy soldiers, and took hundreds of prisoners. One SAS unit also opened the eyes of the world to the unspeakable horrors of the now notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In the course of these incomparably eventful four years, a great many men of the SAS died, were wounded, or captured. But the pattern was set. One after another, many of the world’s nations copied the SAS model. In the United States, the first was Delta Force, formed in 1977. Special forces are now an indispensable element of virtually every one of today’s armies.

MacIntyre brings the SAS story vividly to life with special attention to Stirling and a handful of other leaders, not all of them commissioned officers.

About the author

The spies and unconventional warriors of the Second World War star in four out of Ben MacIntyre’s eleven books, all nonfiction. (The others are Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat, Double Cross, and Rogue Heroes. I’ve reviewed all but the first of these.) MacIntyre is an historian and a columnist for The Times of London.

For further reading

I’ve also reviewed several other nonfiction books about the SOE and the French Resistance:

I’ve also read and reviewed three excellent novels about the French Resistance:

You might also be interested in 5 top nonfiction books about World War II and The 10 best novels about World War II. And if you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up).

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