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.