Monday, February 6, 2012

The Last of the 'Original' SAS Passes On

Sergeant James (or ‘Jimmy’) Storie, the last of the original members of what became the fabled Special Air Service of the United Kingdom – among if not the best of the world’s special forces units – died on 8 January 2012 near Aberdeen, at the age of 92.

 Storie (right) with Webley revolver, in the Libyan desert in 1942

Born in 1919 in Ayr, Scotland, he was a young tile layer at the outbreak of the official British entry into World War II.  He immediately joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers (other records say the Seaforth Highlanders as well, some have both), but soon transferred to 11 (Scottish) Commandos.  The Commandos were an idea of Winston Churchill, impressed by the original Dutch Commandos of the Boer War, and he sought to have them implemented early on in the staggering preparation for the inevitable war with Germany.  British military history, though, is replete with stories of hide-bound bureaucracy that stifles innovation (as is our own), and the army staff disbanded the Commandos to place the soldiers in conventional units which were scrambling for men.  Storie was soon transferred to North Africa, where the British were desperately fighting the German Afrika Korps in 1941.

Storie’s brief experience in 11 Commando served him well in the eyes of Major David Stirling of the Scots Guards and the also-defunct 8 Commandos, who was determined to form Commando units despite the willful ignorance of the higher command.  Stirling, eccentrically unconventional, knew that passing his ideas up through the chain of command would be self-defeating.  Lightly injured from a parachute accident and hobbling about on crutches while convalescing at headquarters in Cairo, Stirling late one evening snuck up as best he could to the barriers surrounding the Middle East Headquarters.  He used a crutch to scale the fence, and was discovered almost immediately by the guard force (his 6’6” frame made lurking difficult).  Chased by the guards into the Headquarters building, he first burst mistakenly into the office of an officer with whom he had already had a falling out.  Now pursued by that officer and the guards, he then was able to reach the office of General Ritchie, Deputy Commander.  He somehow convinced the general, on the spot, of the value of forming Commando units for strike operations behind enemy lines, and the general walked immediately into the office of Field Marshall Auchinleck next door to convince him of the same.  Stirling was granted permission to form his unit.

Storie was recruited into Stirling’s 66-man unit designated as L Detachment of the Special Air Services Brigade (L probably from Layforce, and earlier attempt at forming Commando units).  In keeping with the brilliant deception operations that the British ran throughout the war, there were no other detachments, A through K especially (though a non-existent K Detachment was bandied about in communications in a separate deception op).  Indeed, at the time there was no brigade.  Since the bureaucracy was still irked and typically distrustful of anything outside the norm, the detachment was given no initial support, so they set about to provide their own.  Their first operation was to divert attention while they robbed – or ‘appropriated’ to be more genteel – the supplies of a New Zealand battalion that was at the front, including tents, folding chairs, a piano, and a bar.

Their first operation against the enemy, though, was an unmitigated disaster.  In November 1941, they were to parachute behind the lines to attack German airfields at Gazala and Tmimi in support of a larger operation.  It quickly became apparent that adverse weather conditions would postpone the jump.  Stirling knew that if L Detachment couldn’t perform the mission, this would affect the overall success of the operation and likely lead to the disbanding of the unit.  He told his men as much and asked if they were willing to risk it.  All of them agreed to have a go with what was sure to be a very dangerous mission from the start.  They were wrong only in degree – they flew into the worst storm to hit the area in over 30 years.  Those who were able to jump from aircraft that hadn’t crashed were scattered, and most were killed, wounded or captured.  As they were trying to assemble on the ground as best they could, one of the men was found with a broken back.  They left him with a bottle of water and a revolver – nothing else could be done for him.  Only 22 survivors – the ‘Originals’ – made it back to their rendezvous with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).  Storie was among them.

After returning to base with the survivors, Stirling performed two quick actions that steadied the men.  While the general staff was pondering the fate of their unit, Stirling attacked another airfield over 100 miles away – one of his own; administratively, of course (a technique used as a teaching opportunity well into my own career, I can assure you).  After they cut the wire and snuck past the guards, they plastered cards labelled ‘blown up’ on all the aircraft, various hangers and buildings, and the officers’ mess.

While the ME General Staff was now trying to assimilate the ultimately positive lessons from this exercise, Stirling, having now decided (like the Germans after Crete) that parachuting added an unacceptable risk to already-risky operations, utilized the LRDG to insert his team again behind enemy lines – apparently without authorization – in attacks on three Libyan airfields, destroying 60 aircraft.  This began a series of steadily increasing successes which led to the growth of the unit, including acquiring their own vehicles.

It was the early exploits perhaps as much as their subsequent spectacular raids against the Germans and Italians which led Sterling to set the phrase "Who Dares Wins" as the motto of the fledgling group, proclaimed on a banner of the unit crest under what is popularly called a winged dagger, but which is actually a flaming Sword of Damocles.  The unit's lightning raids and ability to hide in plain sight applied the classic sense of keeping the enemy off-balance, or attacking him in various places and times so as to always keep him on the defensive and make him react in a way that benefits the overall plan of attack.  This idea is today contained in the hopelessly wonkish phrase of "getting inside the enemy's OODA loop", referring to the decision cycle of Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action.  Sterling (and others in history) mastered this technique well before the Pentagon Whiz Kids of the later part of the twentieth century tried to re-package that ancient wisdom.  It is one thing to get inside the OODA loop of your enemy; it is quite another to get inside the OODA loop of your own army.

By September 1942, they were part of the 1st SAS Regiment (a real one this time), consisting of four British squadrons, a Free French squadron, a Greek squadron, and a Special Boat Section (later to develop into the Special Boat Service of the Royal Marines), which operated throughout North Africa and the Aegean Sea.  By 1944, the SAS Brigade was organized and was composed of the British 1st and 2nd SAS, the Free French 3rd and 4th SAS, and the Belgian 5th SAS, with operations in Italy, France and finally Germany itself.

Lt Col David Sterling with Lt MacDonald and his mounted patrol of SAS

Storie early on is credited with assisting Lieutenant Jock Lewes with developing the Lewes bomb, an incendiary device for disabling aircraft.  This was used to great effect in such raids as one on a German airfield where they crept in and mined all the aircraft, then set explosives around a hanger full of Junkers Ju-88s.  The charges were initiated after the door of the guardhouse was blown in and grenades tossed inside.

Lieut Jock Lewes, L Detachment

Lewes partnered with Sterling in setting up L Detachment, and Sterling later said of Lewes that "Jock could far more genuinely claim to be the founder of the SAS than I."  Lewes was killed just as the detachment was starting to see some success, from a strafing attack by a Messerschmitt during a patrol, and he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Libyan desert.  It is believed that his remains may have been located recently and efforts are underway to return them to Britain for internment with full honors.

Often using bluff and the language skills of some of the men to slip past enemy checkpoints, L Detachment was able to attack air fields and port areas almost at will until the Germans began instituting counter-reconnaissance patrols to intercept them beyond the wire.  At this point, in July 1942, the unit changed tactics at Sidi Haneish, instead assaulting on line in their jeeps, amply fitted out with machine guns.  Storie succinctly explained the first such attack:
The planes were all parked up on either side of the field.  We drove our Jeeps in a line and went in with guns blazing.  Each of us singled out an aircraft, brewed it up and then we swung around and went down the other side.
‘Brewing up’ referred to nailing the engine blocks and the rest of the main features of the aircraft with direct fire from their many and varied mounted machine guns, foregoing the Lewes bombs for the sake of time.  It was later estimated that the patrol was firing at a combined rate of 90,000 rounds a minute.

One example of close calls that challenged them found Storie as part of a seven-man patrol at night, trying to navigate past German lines.  The only light was from the fires, over the horizon, from an airfield they had lit up the night before.  The unit was stopped at a checkpoint by a German NCO with a lantern, who asked for the password.  One of the SAS started chewing out the sentry in fluent and colloquial German, complaining that they hadn’t time for formalities after six weeks of patrolling in the desert, all the while with the patrol approaching the sentry in the darkness.  Storie, along with the famous Paddy Mayne (who succeeded as commander of the brigade after Stirling’s capture by the Germans in January 1943), both cocked their pistols.  The sentry heard and realised that he was being passed by a British patrol.  By then, it was too late for him to sound the alarm, otherwise he would have been shot.

Major Paddy Mayne

In 1943, Storie was travelling through enemy territory in one of their vehicles when it was attacked by a Stuka dive-bomber.  With the vehicle destroyed and two men dead, he and another survivor trekked across miles of desert to their forward operating base, only to find it abandoned.  They then made for the front lines but were captured by an enemy patrol.  He eventually ended up in a Luftstalag in Czechoslovakia for the remainder of the war, having fortunately convinced the Germans that he was an air crewman.  Otherwise, following directives from Hitler himself regarding the Commandos, the Germans would have likely shot him on the spot.

(In the case of Stirling, he managed four escape attempts, finally caught by the Italians – much to their delight at the expense of the Germans.  He ended up in Colditz castle, reserved for POWs who were adept at escaping.)

The SAS was disbanded in September 1945, but it was re-established in 1947 based on the needs of the developing Cold War, as the SAS assumed the role of deep penetration into the Soviet-occupied Eastern Bloc for organizing partisan warfare in much the same way as the then still-nascent US Army Special Forces.  Today, 22 SAS – with 21 SAS (Artists Rifles) and 23 SAS in the Territorial Army (or the reserves) – is perhaps the premier special forces unit in the world.

Stirling went on to form companies such as Watchguard to provide security in areas such as the Persian Gulf, as well as trying to put together back-room groups (such as Great Britain 75 – “an organisation of apprehensive patriots”) as a hedge against the increasing civil unrest and trade unionism of the 1970s, tackled with some modest degree of success by Margaret Thatcher.  He developed the Capricorn Africa Society to try to ease former colonies into a benign post-racial society, but it proved ineffective.  One area of success was in forming Television International Enterprises, which was instrumental in bringing Sesame Street, the Muppet Show, Thomas the Tank Engine, and Bob the Builder to British screens.  He was knighted in 1990, just prior to his death.

Storie was repatriated at the end of the war and immediately married the girl he left behind.  Paddy Mayne tried to have him re-enlist and set it up on two occasions, but the Recruiting Officer found him somehow unqualified.  Storie walked out of the office as a result, apparently not parting on good terms.  Two days later, officers came round to pick him up on charges of desertion, but Storie pointed out that he had never signed any papers.  Storie became a warder (corrections officer) at Glasgow’s Barlinnie Prison, and ultimately returned in semi-retirement to his first vocation as a tiler.  He was said to be a voracious reader and loved reciting poetry, particularly Scottish.

Storie is laid to rest near Aberdeen, where he joins at last that remarkable band of brothers who can justly say
We are the Pilgrims, master, we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea . . .
Update:  Thanks to Jeremy Swanson for his contribution.

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