In the summer of 1941, with the British army still reeling from German victories in France, Belgium, and Greece, enlisted men and officers began experimenting with new tactics and survival techniques in the deserts of northern Africa. Colonel David Stirling's Special Air Service (SAS)--a combat arms detachment still in use today--represents one of the most durable contributions to that legacy of experimentation. In Stirling's Men, Gavin Mortimer uses interviews with SAS veterans to depict the lives of the soldiers that joined Stirling's unit in the summer of 1941, and stayed together for the remainder of the Second World War. The SAS got off to a rough start. In one of their first parachute training exercises, a sergeant accidentally throws two of his men out the aircraft door without proper rigging; their death on impact leads to the first casualties in SAS history. Shortly thereafter, the first SAS combat mission ends with only a handful of men making it back to British lines. The unit eventually manages to string together a number of successful raids, ultimately destroying over a hundred German aircraft with homemade "Lewes bombs" and the liberal use of machine guns. The destruction of German aircraft, however, came at a heavy cost. Out of the seven officers Stirling initially recruited to the ranks of the SAS only two survived the campaign in North Africa. Most died from either extreme exposure to the elements, or shot to pieces when caught in the open beneath the vengeful cannons of a German fighter aircraft. The North Africa campaign ends shortly after the German soldiers capture David Stirling at gun point, and the remainder of the book covers the campaigns his men undertook in Sicily, Italy, France, and Germany. The SAS continued to play a supporting role as the British and their allies fought their way through Italy, across France, and into Germany.
Mortimer never breaks the book into patterns of behavior, and the book sometimes reads as a quote-filled chronology of SAS actions during the war. The author never formulates an explicit argument, except perhaps a bland tip-of-the-hat to military heroes. Nevertheless, distinct patterns emerge from the book. The men who joined the SAS did so voluntarily, often with the stated motivation of escaping from the line infantry. Many volunteers cited the dangerous, behind-the-lines actions of the SAS as the lesser of two evils compared with soldiering with the British infantry. In an age of concentrated heavy artillery, aerial bombardment, and motorized tanks, it seems that some British officers and soldiers preferred taking their chances behind enemy lines, even though this preference frequently led to death. Mortimer never explicitly draws out the these patterns, but they seem crucial to understanding the psychological motivations of soldiers who volunteered for the SAS. Mortimer personally interviewed many SAS veterans at the end of their lives, and for that reason alone his book makes a welcome contribution to the literature on special operations.