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Colonel David Stirling; how great was he?

by Hannes Wessels 

Recently I received an angry message from an English gentleman who, having read one of my books about the Rhodesian SAS, either ‘A Handful of Hard Men’ which I wrote much about Captain Darrell Watt, or ‘We Dared to Win’ which I wrote with and about Lieutenant Andre Scheepers. He referred to the book as ‘racist nonsense’ and suggested Colonel David Stirling would be turning in his grave if he knew what had become of his beloved SAS.

My immediate reaction was one of anger and irritation but then I calmed down a little when I reminded myself that people very often play the racist card when they have no other way of mounting an attack on someone, and clearly I had annoyed him and this pleased me.

Mulling over this, and having just read my friend Steve Lunderstedt’s  piece about the great ‘Sailor’ Malan, who played such a pivotal role in planning and fighting the Battle of Britain, I was left wondering how many British people have ever heard of the man who did so much to save them from a German invasion. And how many have ever heard about St. John Pattle; another South African, who shot down more German aircraft than any other Royal Air Force fighter pilot before being shot down and killed over Greece in June 1941.  This reminded me that the British have been very effective in the way they propagate their military history and do so in such a way as to lionise their own while scratching the erstwhile Colonials from the history books, which brings me back to David Stirling.

After WW II, Colonel Stirling spent a great deal of time in southern Africa where he formed the Capricorn Society, enlightening the white natives on the joys of majority rule and the need to speed up the process of transferring power. Interestingly, Stirling’s political model was well received by the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress.

I don’t know if my father actually met him, but I do remember him talking about him and being less than impressed with his utterances while alluding to the fact that he was a homosexual. Being young at the time, and the product of a conservative upbringing and culture which considered homosexuality a deviation from the norm and behaviour to be avoided, I was shocked and disappointed; this was, after all, the legendary founder of the SAS and one of the heroes of the last war.

Having now had the opportunity to read more about the war in the Western Desert and about Stirling I am not so sure he is fully deserving of the ‘legendary’ status he now enjoys and I think I know why.

It appears the real brains behind the tactics that are now associated with Stirling was Major Ralph Bagnold, a surveyor by trade who, before the war had mapped parts of the desert, and learned how to travel, navigate and communicate in the vast remoteness of the Sahara. Under his direction and with his unique expertise mobile fighting teams were recruited to strike behind the German lines and this unit, which was formed officially in June 1940, became known as the Long Range Desert Group. Looking for hardy outdoorsmen who could operate far from home for extended periods of time, the ranks soon filled with Rhodesians and New Zealanders who almost immediately took the Germans by surprise, hitting airfields and strategic installations the enemy thought were secure.

It was into this fray that Stirling entered. A Scottish aristocrat who had dropped out of Cambridge and struggled as an artist he had joined the army and was commissioned into the Scots Guards. There he did not cover himself in glory and was known by some as the ‘Giant Sloth’. Posted to Egypt with the British Commandos he spent much of his time gambling and drinking before injuring himself making an unauthorised parachute jump.

As legend has it, it was while recuperating in hospital that he was seized by the novel idea of airborne raiding parties being deployed to harass and attack the Germans. While still on crutches, he managed to persuade the Commander in Chief, General Claude Auchinleck, to approve his plan and recruitment commenced.

Despite reservations expressed by the experienced men of the LRDG who believed parachute drops involved unnecessary risks, Stirling was adamant he would proceed. Brave Stirling certainly was, but maybe also foolhardy. Of the 55 men who jumped into a sandstorm on the 16th November 1941 only 21 returned. The rest were dead, injured or missing and the enemy never fired a shot. Those that made it to safety were rescued by the men of the LRDG. The airborne option was abandoned.

Thereafter, it appears, the LRDG continued doing what it had always done but under the aegis of what was now known as the SAS, with Stirling the leading personality and a British stamp firmly affixed to the future operations. I have no way of knowing, but I’m sure this came as a relief to the mandarins of the War Office and ‘the Establishment’ who had probably been looking on in dismay as Rhodesian and New Zealanders stole the British thunder with their hard-hitting motorised raids. Stirling was captured in January 1943 and spent the rest of the war in captivity so his time in the theatre of war was limited.

He would live to see the Rhodesians of the LRDG who fought with such tenacity and courage for Britain, banned from parading on Armistice Day alongside their former British and Commonwealth brothers in arms.

Just whether or not his performance as a soldier is the stuff of legend or not, I’m not certain. But what I do know is, if it is, then Darrell Watt and Andre Scheepers, share similar status. But being Rhodesians, few will know about them.

 

44 thoughts on “Colonel David Stirling; how great was he?

  1. Hi Angus,

    I met Mr. Farran for the first time in London in what I thought was 1989. I now know it was probably earlier because by 1989 Jake had already left for Mozambique. He was a very down to earth human being, and made one feel included in every conversation. I mentioned to him that I wanted to emigrate to Canada in 1990, and he offered to help in any way he could.

    In July 1989 I made a trip to Calgary to visit cousins. I called Mr. Farran to let him know I was in town. Immediately he sent a chauffeur to pick me up for lunch at his offices at the Calgary Racing Commission, of which he was Chairman. Mr. Farran was actively involved in conservative politics and served in regional cabinets in Alberta throughout the years.

    We met three more times during my stay, during which time he secured me a promise of employment from the RCMP, which I needed to apply for landed immigrant status, since my previous professional back home did not count towards the experience and skills Canada was seeking at the time. The letter of recommendation he wrote on my behalf brought me to tears.

    Mr. Farran discussed at great length his, Col. Sterling’s, and other actors’ efforts in Umtali/Mutare to promoting racial equality, tolerance, and understanding. through the Capricorn Africa Society, whose founders are listed as Col. David Sterling and N.H. Wilson. I have not done extensive research to validate his claims (although I have no reason to doubt their veracity), and have not seen his name in what limited research into Capricon Africa Society I HAVE done. Hannes, you grew up in Mutare. Perhaps your Dad or relatives had knowledge of this group? Knowing Mr. Farran, I would hazard a guess that although he may have been involved at the very top of this organization, he would not have wanted the spotlight to be on him, so he may have reverted to what he was best known for, being effective from the shadows.

    What a privilege to have met both men and to have called Mr. Farran a friend of my family.

    1. Yes Sinclair, as mentioned, my Dad certainly met Roy Farran and in the light of your recollections, I’m now certain he would have met David Stirling too. Both men were probably well intentioned but I know my father was irked; he felt people like Stirling did not know enough about the complexities of the problems besetting Rhodesians to be delivering solutions. As it turned out, these gentlemen were followed by a legions of Englishmen who had all the answers, ignored what they did not want to hear, and sowed the seeds of the country’s destruction.

  2. Hi Sinclair, How did you find Major Roy Farran? Never had that pleasure. Remarkable soldier/officer. Particularly his alleged exploits in Palestine post-1945. My old man served with the 6th Airborne Division in that theatre only to be severely wounded by one of the Jewish terrorist gangs. So much so he was invalided out of the army with a ridiculous pension. However, he mentioned the nocturnal exploits of his unit during this period. The British never messed about. Neither did Roy Farran.

  3. Thanks for another interesting article.
    I think the English Gentleman and the Brits in general should be reminded of the part played by Rhodesians during the second world war. I have copied a portion of a letter which should have caused the brits should hang their collective heads in shame. The question is, is it too late for them to rectify this abhorrent decision made by the British Government ?

    Letter to the ‘Times’ – Peter ‘PB’ Petter-Bowyer

    “On Remembrance Sunday we repeat our promise, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning – WE WILL REMEMBER THEM”. Yet, since 1965, the British government has banned Rhodesian veterans from remembering their own fallen comrades in the Cenotaph parade. Rhodesia’s small white population provided, per capita, the highest number of servicemen and suffered the highest percentage losses of any national group that participated in WWII. In 1940 the Rhodesian Government had to stop many volunteers leaving so as to maintain vital services inside Rhodesia.

  4. Hannes,

    I was wondering whether, with your encyclopaedic knowledge of historical events in Southern Africa, you would consider writing a historical/fictional novel in the mold of Wilbur Smith? I am confident that with the meticulous historical research, for which you are well known, it would be an international bestseller.

    1. You flatter me Sinclair; I think I better stick to the knitting as they say! But thanks.

    2. Hannes, I agree with Sinclair, you have the gift of writing well and great insight along with an expansive knowledge of the continent. That’s the wool and the knitting needles, the pattern us up to you. You have your knitting, get busy!

  5. Greetings Don. I have to disagree with your comment “They are nothing to worry about.” Collectively, these type of people have caused immesurable harm and destruction across the world for decades causing misery to millions of people. They are human wrecking balls and are not to be underestimated in their endeavours. They learn nothing, cannot be reasoned with, are tenacious, and are 100% dedicated to their cause and have been used as Communist/Marxist pawns for decades. I have a cousin who was raised on a dairy farm outside Bulawayo. Like most of us raised in Rhodesia in the 1960’s, it was a very privileged upbringing in general producing balanced, decent, patriotic, family-loving and God-fearing people. This person went to South Africa to train as a nurse and did very well in this profession and ended up as an assistant nurse to Professor Barnard in his early days of heart surgery. During this time, something went haywire between her ears and she became involved in the Black Sash movement down there. Long story short, she subsequently moved to Phoenix Arizona where she has lived ever since and from her privileged position over there she, to this day, says that all whites who live in Africa are automatically racists. In spite of all the carnage inflicted on Zimbabwe for forty years this person is still out with the fairies claiming the situation is caused by ‘racism’ (white racism) and it is precisely this kind of person that makes up the Demonrat party in America. All one has to do is listen to those Demonrats and their policy statements to see what America is in for if they take over and this is what Trump has been up against for the last four years. Full blown Communism will be result if Trump does not get back in. I find it very troubling to see how many people are brow beaten and succumb to this ‘racist’ garbage. When all other means of defence has failed, many black and white people come out with the race card and because of the sheer terror of being labelled a ‘racist’ that is usually the end of it.

  6. Hi Hannes thanks for another excellent article. I have enjoyed all your books so far.! Just on the racist stuff, my younger brother’s wife , her family live in Liverpool , and they believe all Rhodesians and South Africans are racist , same here in Oz there is also quite a few think we racist. They are nothing to worry about , I hope you do some more books in the future , I could suggest more on our amazing soldiers ,air force , sanctions busters, police SB maybe traitors if you can.? Thank you merry xmas and happy prosperous new year to you and family plus all the other readers.

    1. Thanks for your interest and support Don. I’ll keep on writing in the hope I can make a small contribution towards trying to set the record straight. A Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    1. I understood that ‘pommies’ were English Phil, thanks for putting me right…

  7. Yes indeed, Hannes. It seems the goal of any discussion/argument is to denigrate and malign the person and not his/her point of view. I too was attacked as a racist and white supremacist for my opinions of what happened in Rhodesia and South Africa, and my support of the racist ideals of the governments there, by my service in the armed forces! I have subsequently distanced myself from several acquaintances for just this reason, for they will never have a mind open enough to see a different point of view. Thank you as always, Sir.

    1. Thanks Simon I too am learning to avoid the company of people who I feel will never listen and my time is wasted on trying.

  8. Reading the above with fascination, Duncan Roberts sent me a newspaper clipping from the 1978 Herald 31st January which said…

    The Rhodesian Army is the most professional and battleworthy in the world today, according to a British general recently back from a visit to the Operational area.
    General Sir Walter Walker says in a letter the Times: “Their army cannot be defeated in the field either by terrorists or even much more sophisticated enemy
    “in my professional judgement based on more than 20 years’ experience, from Lieutenant to general, of counter insurgency and guerrilla type operations, there is no doubt that the Rhodesian no have the most professional and battleworthy army in the world today for this particular type of warfare.
    “Here is a breed of men the like of which has not been seen for many a long age. It made one feel almost ashamed to be British in these squalid and shameful times in which we live As for Dr Owen and his travelling circus, they are held in utter contempt” he said

    I think that this “English Gentleman” needs to broaden his reading skills before he criticises a very well written and researched book. But he is of course is entitled to his opinion which counts for naught at the end of the day

  9. Hannes,

    Whatever anyone thinks of Colonel Sir David Sterling or his lifestyle, one cannot deny that he founded one of the finest fighting forces the world has ever known. I met Col. Stirling in London in 1988 in a small upstairs office on Abingdon Road, Kensington. I was accompanied by Mike Crafter, Head of Counter-Intelligence Zimbabwe, and Jake Harper-Ronald, Head of Special Projects. I headed the DPRK (North Korean) Desk, an appointment fraught with political landmines as that country was our most favored nation diplomatically.

    Robert Mugabe and Kim Il Sung were best buddies and my honest intelligence findings of the huge harm they were perpetrating against Zimbabwe in particular, and Africa in general on more than one occasion brought me VERY close to being detained incognito in the dungeons of the infamous Goromonzi prison, just as my colleague Jake Harper-Ronald had been some years earlier.

    The operation we collaborated on was designed to identify and prosecute Africa’s most dangerous elephant and rhino poachers. It spanned Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa. Namibia was not included. During what turned out to be a 16-month operation, we had many successes and many failures, mostly brought about by deliberate lapses in security among cooperating security forces who were in the pay of these overlords and had their loyalty paid for.

    I was disappointed that after our hard work with ex-SAS operatives whos risked their lives daily in hostile territory, politics prevented us from prosecuting a man who has perhaps been responsible for the majority of the world’s ivory and rhino horn poaching. While I am not at liberty to say his name, he was a Chinese national located in Pretoria. from Pretoria and he was in possession of several tons of both contraband/CITES banned items at the time of the operation. As far as I know, he was never prosecuted.

    At dinner a week later I was honored to meet Major Roy Alexander Farran DSO, MC an ex SAS officer who formed Capricorn of Africa with Sir David in Mutare. Mr. Farran was instrumental in securing me employment with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police while he was President of the Calgary Racing Commission. I did not pursue that job, choosing to move to the USA instead due to the warm climate in Southern Califonia.

    I think that instead of demonizing Col Stirling for his perceived shortcomings, as a soldier, and as a private citizen, we should remember the column of strength that was his brainchild. The SAS. The FBI in the US was elevated to its current level of excellence by a paranoid, closeted homosexual in the form of J Edgar Hoover. While his methods of getting dirt on everyone who could potentially cause him harm or expose his crime as it was at that time, were deplorable, he built the Bureau into one of the finest investigative forces in the world.

    Thank you for your insightful books and articles. Although I do not always agree with you, your contribution to Southern African history is unarguably invaluable.

    1. Thanks Sinclair. This is very interesting. I know my father met Roy Farran so now I’m pretty sure he did meet David Stirling. I think my Dad was mayor at the time? I didn’t wish to demonise him but I was suggesting maybe he received more accolades than he was due. I just mentioned his alleged sexual proclivities in the context of the time and then it was quite a shock to me; not anymore. Really appreciate hearing from you and thanks for your interest and kind words.

      1. Hi Hannes,

        I appreciate your response and wish you and your family all the best for the coming amended festive season. One of my dreams is to fill my bookshelves in our retirement home with thousands of African and especially Southern African publications, and I will definitely add your collection to it. Take care.

        1. Thanks so much Sinclair I really appreciate your thoughtful contributions and wish you and your family well. Actually I’m finding current events so disturbing I too am spending more time reaching back into the past for reading pleasure. I hope I can add to your bookshelf in the not too distant future.

    2. Thanks for that balanced commentary Sinclair, I agree with you. Certainly Colonel Stirling’s achievements outweigh any shortcomings he may have had, he was as you suggest, an inspirational leader who steered a pretty perilous course in political terms both within and without his military career.

      Stirling’s success had a good deal to do with his background, his aristocratic Scottish roots and his family’s military heritage allowed him to get sponsorship he otherwise might not have got. Churchill’s endorsement being one of these. Hanging about in Cairo nightclubs doubtless helped him come into contact with contemporary movers and shakers, and was a useful arena to recruit fellow, like minded officers.

      Whilst the LRDG played a vital role in the Regiment’s success, and Bagnold et al were responsible for that which was built on their remarkable skills set, in was essentially a strategic reconnaissance force. It was Stirling, Jock Lewes, Blair Mayne and other early volunteers who shifted the focus to strategic strike, now of course both are bedrock mission roles for special forces.

      Finally I must take some small issue with reference to the use of any person’s sexual orientation in any argument of this nature. Military history is littered with those who ‘deviated’ from the contemporary societal norms (think of those poor heterosexuals in Sparta’s army) and special forces are no exception to this.

      Now all that remains is for me to decide whether to check the box marked ‘notify me of follow-up comments by email’ …

      PM

      1. Peter McDonald, thanks for your kind words and for your very interesting history lesson.

        I agree that sexual orientation does not have a place in an argument of this sort, but I believe Hannes clarified his statement by saying that “at that moment” he was shocked but no longer holds that view. I believe that in the very macho society we all grew up in back home, this was the norm rather than the exception; and I have had to, over the years express my sincere apologies to friends whom I grew up with suffering the teasing and puerile comments we made when we were growing up.

        I wish you and your family a safe and memorable festive season. 2020 is certainly one for the ages.

        1. Thanks Sinclair, that sums it up. For better or worse it is where we found ourselves as youngsters.

        2. Thanks for your festive good wishes Sinclair, please accept ours in return.

          As the product of a similar system I must admit to having also felt compelled to apologise to a few fellow boarders, especially Tarlton (sorry again, if you’re out there).

          Lastly please accept my apologies for the background history, as a former academic specialising in defence related matters, I am apt to forget myself on occasion.

  10. Great research and well-written article Hannes. It is wonderful to see that you are open to criticism, but also that it spurs you on to digging deeper and posting your findings, no matter how unpopular and against mainstream opinion they may be. I thank and commend you, as well as your enlightening article.

    1. Thanks Simon. Actually I love a god argument; just hate it when it get’s personal as so often happens and am so damn tired of being called a ‘racist’. I firmly believe there are answers to our problems out there but we will only find them through frank and honest discussion.

  11. Another great article which, being as well-researched and written with such articulation as all previous ones, will no doubt spark more angry emails from more ill-informed Englishmen!

    I really enjoy your articles – please keep us updated on the situation in Australia? All the very best for the coming year – it can only get better, we pray!

  12. Again great insight and opinion I can follow.

    I do think there is a disconnect between “British” perception of success and the reality of it. But as you correctly elude, posturing appears to be the new Fight or flight response and Racism, of course, covers many bases.

  13. Hannes – I trust you will write back to this idiot – mentioning among other things that C Squadron SAS is honoured and respected in Hereford to this very day

  14. Interesting you wrote this Hannes as fairly recently I was browsing on the internet and extracted the following about Stirling:-

    Free and Equal. The society’s real aim is refurbishing ideas. It was founded in 1949 by Colonel David Stirling, 40, a hard-driving bachelor who led a commando unit in daring raids against Rommel behind German lines in the western desert. Settling in Rhodesia after the war, Scottish-born Stirling was shocked by the rising racial hatred he saw everywhere. He decided to do something about it “before total catastrophe overtakes both white and non-white societies.” His plan: a society of all Africans, regardless of color, in which each would have equal rights and–as he fulfilled certain requirements–a basic vote. Today, Capricorn’s 5,000 members–about equally divided between colored and white–confine their work to the British lands between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn (the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland, Kenya and Tanganyika).* But they have designs on the whole continent.

    See:-

    https://www.britishempire.co.uk/maproom/rhodesia/davidstirling.htm

    Another article I read stated that Stirling left Rhodesia because of the ‘Racist Rhodesians’ or words to that effect I thought it quite interesting how the liberal poison of ‘racism’ was seeping into people’s brains even in those days and from the most unlikely sources. Well, all I can say is I am pleased the liberal do-gooder David Stirling never settled here. Your liberal, ‘racist nonsense’ detractor from Mud Island has no doubt had his mind poisoned by the liberal mantra of ‘racism’ – the most henious and evil crime imaginable – according to their twisted reasoning. I have said for a long time liberals cannot be reasoned with.

    And on the subject of fighter pilots from Southern Africa who flew for the RAF in the Second World War, one could add my father’s first cousin Squadron Leader Caesar Hull (https://warriorsofthesky.co.za/flight-lieutenant-caesar-barrand-b-hull/) who was an RAF Hurricane Ace who commanded No. 43 Squadron and was killed in action in the Battle of Britain where he, and eight other Hurricanes took on well over a hundred Luftwaffe bombers and fighters. Caesar, born on Leachdale farm in Shangani in 1913 paid the ultimate price for a country that ultimately betrayed his countrymen and his country and I wonder what your ‘racist nonsense’ Pom would have to say about Rhodesians like this, not to mention all the other Rhodesians who flocked to defend those people and paid the ultimate price? Maybe in his delusional thinking he thinks people like ‘Sailor’ Malan, St John Pattle, Caesar Hull and many, many others are not also ‘turning in their graves’ because of British treachery. What an irredeemable nutcase.

    1. Yes Al, if anyone is turning in his grave it must be Caesar Hull! Died fighting to make the world safe for a lot of fools!

  15. Hannes, you cast pearls before the swine. I have often branded the over correction of perceived wrongs on a modern woke generation but it seems ambiguities have their roots deep in an older generation that are so blind they cannot see the wood for trees. This could be construed as vague naivety save for the fact that, in this age of fake news there is also a more sinister war game afoot, the false dissemination of military information so as to malign and bring an enemy into disrepute. One only has to look at China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao posting computer-generated images on Twitter on Monday, writing: ‘Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, and call for holding them accountable.’ to realise the sinister motives behind this, in line with Chinas growing machinations at world dominance.
    But this is China and somewhat understandable or obvious to those following their strategy from its onset infection of world economies with covid19. What puzzles me are the motivations of an allied Brit in espousing such views and his negative drivel?

  16. Reg Seekings who knew and served with Stirling, during WW2, and who was one of my PATU instructors, told me many stories of his escapades with the LRDG and the SAS – I clearly recall Reg telling me that Stirling was “an arsehole” and a queer!!!
    So don’t take too much heed from that “English Gentleman”, who is probably more of a prick than Stirling…….

    1. No evidence exists of Stirling being gay. Have asked around my British ex-SAS mates in recent days. Not one has any knowledge of this. Paddy Mayne was more than likely. Not sure anyone really cares though.

  17. A very good piece of history. So sad that the South African and Rhodesian heroes of WWII are somewhat down played by the establishment[although few they are] on the little island.

  18. Interesting comments Hannes. We see the story of the SAS on film here from time to time and what you about Stirling seems to tie in with ther film. TV runs a programme with ex SAS training would be SASers from civvy street.
    My interest in this is that having become bored with the Intelligence Corps in Malaysia I appliued for SAS and was sent back to Hereford. I failed selection but was still on site in their OPs Room when UDI was declared. Having seen large maps of Rhodesia and Bechuanaland I was naturally curious.
    We were called into the Main Hall by Wingate-Grey the Co and given a lecture on loyalty to the Crown as Wilson was thinking of sending British troops to put down the rebellion. Fortunately he was disssuaded by senior British personnel.
    Like most serving soldiers then and now I knew nothing of politics (unlike now) but was suspicious.
    Unfortunately human failings are exploited by corrupt politicians, acting upon influences which have corrupted them. Having seen the plentiful graves of British soldiers buried in Aden I bought myself out.

    I doubt if most UK (sic) SAS understand that they are simply tools of corrupt politicians but their desire to prove themselves manly is expolited to the full. I saw a photo of some troopers standing laughing by a disembowelled Arab and was disgusted. But then I knew nothing of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, as I do now.
    Readers might like to visit UK Column News and see the courageous Vanessa Beeley where recent broadcasts confirm the corrupt practices of the BBC (what’s new?) in relation to misreporting on Syria as the British Foreignn Office engages in atrtempting yet another regime change – having had plenty of practice since the 1960s!!

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