Spying is a dirty game, yet I’m fascinated by spy stories, whether fictional or the factual ones by Ben MacIntyre, all of which I’ve enjoyed. I found myself in different territory with his book about the SAS. Reading about spies, you know that their activities lead to deaths but it all happens offstage as it were; here, the deaths are all too real and make painful reading.
I’ll say straight away that this is a brilliant book. Although MacIntyre has researched just about everything to do with special forces, he makes it clear from the start that the book is for the general reader and explains what he’s left out and why. David Stirling is usually credited with having the idea of small groups of highly trained men operating behind enemy lines, disrupting supply lines and destroying weapons. All rather T E Lawrence. This was exactly the sort of operation which the generals hated (the men would not be under their control) and romantic Churchill loved. Churchill got his way and, after training, the first groups began operating in the desert; suffering appalling hardship but doing a lot of damage. Later, some of the men involved looked back on those days in the desert as ‘a clean war’, which their later missions in Italy and Normandy were not. I found a lot of this hard reading because it so blurred the line between war and murder. A pacifist would of course say that all war is murder but from the point of view of the soldier, there’s a difference between ‘a fair fight’ and execution. There was too much execution for my liking. Incidentally, the chaplain attached to the group MacIntyre concentrates on refused to carry a gun.
In Margery Allingham’s brilliant 1952 novel The Tiger in the Smoke, it’s obvious that the villain must have been in some sort of special forces operation during the war and that he was good at the job because he had nerves of steel and positively enjoyed killing. That’s exactly my problem with some of the soldiers in the SAS. Margery Allingham spent the war quietly in the country doing the kind of war work suitable for a middle-aged lady. So I find it remarkably perceptive of her to have picked out the very personality traits which might make a man an effective soldier but a criminal civilian. Not surprisingly, few of the surviving men whom MacIntyre writes about were able to settle down quietly after the war.
I’m not at all happy about the ‘legendary’ status accorded to the SAS and the SBS, no matter what they achieved (and their bravery is astonishing). The novels of ‘Andy McNab’ (which I haven’t read), the male fantasies about being in the SAS or actually lying about having been – I find all this extremely unhealthy.