23 Sep 2011

SAS publishes top secret World War II diary

Kept secret for 65 years, the SAS publishes a diary charting daring missions carried out during its earliest days in World War II, including an operation to capture German commander Erwin Rommel.

SAS War Diary published for the regiment's 70th anniversary by Extraordinary Editions

(Training at RAF Kabrit, Egypt, c.1941)

Marking the 70th anniversary of the Special Air Service (SAS), the tome includes first-hand reports of the unit’s very first mission, a disastrous operation in 1941 from which only 22 of the 65 soldiers who took part returned.

The SAS War Diary 1941-45 also features original orders for the ambitious but unsuccessful mission to “kill, or kidnap and remove to England” German commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in France in 1944.

A former SAS soldier began the diary to preserve records and photographs of the regiment’s incredible wartime exploits after it was disbanded in 1945 at the end of the war. The unit was then reformed after the war.

Picture gallery: SAS war diaries - those who dared

The diary’s very existence was kept a secret even within the SAS for 50 years but, to the delight of historians, it is now being made public for the first time.

The Special Air Service was the brainchild of a young British officer called David Stirling, who realised that small, highly-skilled raiding parties sent deep into enemy territory could help break the impasse in the Western Desert in Libya and Egypt.

The book contains rare photographs and previously undisclosed documents that detail the regiment’s beginnings in North Africa during the Second World War and go on to describe the elite unit’s role in the invasions of Sicily and Italy, as well as in the D-Day landings in France.

David Stirling, founding member of the SAS

Operation Number One: ‘a job for Houdini’

The first mission Mr Stirling (pictured) led – initially called “Operation Squatter” but later simply referred to as “Operation Number One” – was a failure.

Mr Stirling’s men parachuted behind the lines on the night of November 16 1941 with the aim of destroying as many German and Italian aircraft as possible at two airfields in Libya.

The historic operational order noted: “It is most important that the enemy should be unaware of your having landed or of your presence.” But strong winds and heavy rain caused havoc.

One of the planes was shot down with the loss of 15 parachutists and crew, several other men were injured in the drop, the teams became separated on the ground and the explosives were soaked.

One SAS soldier, named as Parachutist Bennett, gave a grimly dry account of the failed operation the next day.

It is most important that the enemy should be unaware of your having landed or of your presence. Operational order

Before setting off, his team was given a meal “fit for a king” that was “just like having whatever you wished before going to the gallows”, he said.

Bennett recalled that the soldiers were “not at all thrilled” when the pilot informed them the wind was getting up, and described his desperate struggle to release the harness of his parachute after landing as “a job for Houdini”.

He buried his parachute, making “enough noise… to awaken the whole of the Afrika Corps”, and then found the rest of his party.

The soldiers only located two of the 11 containers of supplies and weapons that were dropped, and much of the kit they did salvage was swept away in a further downpour.

Realising they could not carry out the planned attack, they marched 36 hours to their rendezvous point, where they were picked up by the British Army’s specialist Long Range Desert Group, which became nicknamed the “Libyan Desert Taxi Service” for its role in transporting the SAS to and from targets.

Rommel mission

A later one-page order, dated July 1944, sets out a request for the SAS to kill or kidnap Field Marshal Rommel or any senior members of his staff while they were in France.

It notes that capturing and transporting the German commander to Britain would have “immense” propaganda value, but adds that it would be easier to kill him.

“Kidnapping would require successful two-way W/T (walkie-talkie) communication and therefore a larger party, while killing could be reported by pigeon,” the order states.

The SAS War Diary is an icon. The fact that its existence has been a secret for over 50 years – even within the regiment – is incredible. Viscount Slim, SAS Regimental Association

It is not known what steps the SAS took in an attempt to carry out the mission. Field Marshal Rommel committed suicide in October 1944 after being implicated in a failed attempt to kill Adolf Hitler.

Breaking SAS cover

Viscount Slim, a former SAS officer and president of the SAS Regimental Association, said: “The SAS War Diary is an icon. The fact that its existence has been a secret for over 50 years – even within the regiment – is incredible.

“I can think of no better way of marking the 70th anniversary of the SAS than allowing it to break cover.”

The book is being published in a series of limited editions, including one set of 100 copies signed by Sergeant Jimmy Storie, the last surviving veteran who took part in Operation Number One.

Prices will range from £975 to £2,500, the book’s publisher Extraordinary Editions told Channel 4 News. The work will go on display around the country over the coming months, with much of the sales proceeds going towards the SAS Regimental Association’s welfare fund.