The SAS secret hidden since World War II

The SAS War Diary

A secret World War II diary of the British special forces unit, the SAS, has been kept hidden since it was created in 1946. Now it's being published for the first time to mark the 70th anniversary of the regiment. The BBC has exclusive access to the remarkable piece of history.

It was 1946; World War II was over and so was the Special Air Service, better known as the SAS.

Set up in 1941 by David Stirling, a lieutenant in the Scots Guards at the time, it had changed the way wars were fought, dispensing with standard military tactics and making up its own. But in the new post-war world those in charge no longer saw a need for the regiment. It had been disbanded and there were no plans to revive it.

But for one former SAS soldier it wasn't over. Determined that the regiment's story wouldn't fade away and become a footnote in history, he made it his job to find and preserve whatever documents and photographs he could before they were lost forever. It was his final SAS mission.

The PoW and the Nazi general

Captain Tonkin

Major J Tonkin was captured in France on 3 October 1943. He filed this report after escaping:

At about 1100 hours a corporal brought me water to wash in and said that General Heidrich wanted to see me and that it was his custom to entertain all British paratroop officers whom he captured.

Heidrich was a man of medium size, rather chubby, with light hair and pale eyes of indeterminate colour. He was inclined to be bald, and although pleasant enough, gave one the impression that he could be ruthless.

Topics of conversation were obviously going to be tricky, but he started off with a formal invitation to lunch, and would I like chicken or pork? He added that it was immaterial which one I chose, as it was "borrowed" from the Italians, and of course I would think it looting. Being hungry I hastened to assure him that I called it "living off the land" when I partook of the deed. So chicken it was!

The last subject he talked about was what a beautiful stroke the Termoli landing had been. It had inconvenienced them a great deal and was perfectly timed. Then the German corps commander came in and I was taken away.

The next day I escaped while being moved.

As it turned out the elite force's expertise was still needed and it was resurrected just a year later in 1947. And by then the soldier's personal mission had resulted in something unique - a diary of the SAS in WWII.

Unorthodox from the start, the SAS was conceived as a commando force to operate behind enemy lines in North Africa, where the British were fighting Field Marshall Rommel's highly-skilled Afrika Korps. Their orders were to attack enemy airfields and harass the Germans in any way possible. Over months they repeatedly went into the desert and destroyed German planes, sometimes with bare hands when their bombs ran out.

After the end of the North African campaign, the SAS then served in Italy. It was at the forefront of the action with the Normandy landings in June 1944, again going behind enemy lines in jeeps assisting the French Resistance and providing crucial intelligence for allied forces.

The SAS continued to be at the forefront of operations through Belgium, Holland and Germany until the end of the war in Europe.

Documents in the diary include the top secret order authorising the first SAS operation and rare photographs of the team which carried it out, naming those who died. It also had highly-confidential briefing instructions to kill Rommel in France. He was injured and sent back to Germany before a team of four SAS men reached him. There was confidential correspondence from Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the future of the regiment and the order assigning it regimental status.

It was a huge tome. The soldier had bound everything in a single, leather-clad book which totalled 500 pages. It measured 17in (43cm) by 12in and weighed over 25lb (11.3kg).

But having created something unique, he then stored it away at his home for more than half a century and told no-one about its existence. Coming from a regiment where discretion was part of its ethos, and belonging to a generation of men who were reticent to talk about their war experiences, it would have been the natural thing to do.

Military historian Gordon Stevens takes Robert Hall through the diary

It was only in the late 1990s, shortly before his death, that he took it to the SAS Regimental Association and handed it over. It was then put in the regiment's highly-confidential archives for years, where only a handful of people knew about it.

Its existence was only revealed outside the SAS when documentary maker and writer Gordon Stevens stumbled across it. He had worked closely with the association on several projects and asked to look at photos from its archives. The diary was brought out and it took him just seconds to realise how important it was.

Start Quote

Mike Sadler

I would have done the same thing as that man and put the diary away in a cupboard, I still would today”

End Quote Mike Sadler SAS veteran

"As soon as I saw it I knew it was an incredible document," he says. "The records in it don't exist anywhere else. From its contents to how it was pieced together, it was astonishing."

After two years of negotiation it's now being reproduced and published for the first time to mark the 70th anniversary of the SAS. Limited numbers will go on sale at £975 each, with most of the proceeds going to the association.

Months of work have been put in to include material not available to the soldier in 1946, and now held in the association's archives. The pages have been ordered chronologically and reports, maps and photographs have been added to complete the picture and tell the full story of the wartime SAS.

"The diary is a unique document and going through it is a very humbling experience," says the executive vice-president of the SAS Regimental Association, Col John Crosland, 64. He worked on the project and was one of the few people who knew about the diary's existence at the association.

"It shows how extraordinary these men were. Their deeds were astonishing but they are so matter of fact in their reports. What they did with the little kit they had was phenomenal. Their radios probably weren't very exact and medical recovery would have been non-existent."

Paddy Mayne and his dog Paddy Mayne led 1 SAS after Stirling was captured

Much about the diary still remains a mystery. The regiment is not naming the soldier who put it together and little is known about how he got hold of so much important information. Some have speculated that SAS founder Stirling may have encouraged his men to contribute, but those alive today think it is unlikely.

"I had no idea someone was putting the diary together," says 91-year-old Mike Sadler, who was 21 when he became a member of 1 SAS and Stirling's navigator.

"When the regiment was disbanded after World War II we all went our different ways. Anyway, we never spoke about what we did. We just didn't think that way and still don't.

"I would have done the same thing as that man and put the diary away in a cupboard, I still would today. The thought of publishing the diary would not have crossed our minds."

Its publication is very significant, says military historian Antony Beevor, the author of many books including D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. He says up until now there has been very little material about the birth of the SAS.

SAS founder Colonel David Stirling, speaking in 1985 about the men who served under him in the early days

"That generation of men just didn't talk about their experiences so there is very little information around. They had a huge respect for things like the Official Secrets Act and the SAS were even more security conscious than most.

"The regiment has always fascinated people. It is the most extreme form of military life imaginable."

So why publish it now? Despite the interest in the SAS, talking publicly still doesn't come naturally to those involved with it - past and present. The diary is about celebrating the regiment's 70th anniversary, says Col Crosland. But it is also about educating people - including those in the forces.

"Even within the military, people are ignorant of the part played by the fledgling SAS in World War II. Nearly every allied operation was led by the SAS or the SBS (Special Boat Service). These men were sometimes dropping 500 miles behind enemy lines."

The early SAS

SAS men
  • The SAS began life in 1941, the unorthodox idea of Scots Guards Lieutenant David Stirling
  • In September 1942 it was officially designated 1st SAS Regiment
  • Stirling was captured in January 1943 during SAS operations in southern Tunisia
  • After escaping several times he ended up as a prisoner in Colditz Castle
  • For his distinguished actions while a prisoner he was made an OBE
  • In May 1943, his brother Lieutenant Colonel William Stirling raised a 2nd SAS Regiment
  • Both were disbanded in October 1945
  • The SAS was reformed in July 1947

Source: SAS Regimental Association

There is also an increasing awareness that time is slipping away, with SAS veterans from WWII getting older. According to the association, 143 are still alive today, including veterans from the SBS and other small units that came under the SAS at the time.

"We thought about publishing the diary for the regiment's 75th anniversary, but knew even fewer veterans would be alive," says Col Crosland.

The association's own archivists have been working closely with older members to extract their stories. But even then the accounts are kept very much as private regimental mementos.

For former SAS members like Sadler, this is the right thing to do.

"Even today I think twice when it comes to speaking about my experiences," he says.

But what the regiment does hope is that the diary may prompt other people with documents or photographs to come forward. These can then be added to its archive.

"This will always be a work in progress," says Col Crosland.

And the soldier who started it all?

"Ultimately, the story of the SAS in World War II is about more than just one man," says Stevens. "I think he would have agreed with the decision not to name him."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    48. Ian_Taylor
    So obviously, the contents of this book are less important than the fact the BBC are plugging one of its own programmes. How about putting your cynicism aside for one moment and understanding why the BBC are promoting this? It might have something to do with our history - not selling products!

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    My father served in the Artists Rifles in the 1950s, the territorial regiment of the SAS (now 21 SAS Regt). I recall boyhood stories of them being dropped into Europe behind the lines of the reds or blues to disrupt things - they had a great time, but I think they considered themselves the thoughtful part of the army, rather than the heroic! They were a tight bunch and remained friends for life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.


    I concur

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I had the honour to work with a few of these guys. Once while serving in Oman, later as an Instructor with the Army Cadets !!
    Quiet, unassuming, but 100% professional at all times
    (the typical "grey men"). They never discussed their activities outside the Regiment, and rarely within. They would not publish their own exploits.
    Maximum respect for those who failed to beat the clock at Hereford.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    I would love a copy of this. So many great men and they never looked for credit or fame true heroes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    For me the modern day SAS is represnted by images of the Iranian embassy or the film Who Dares Wins (SAS members abseiled out of the helicopter as stuntmen refused) but to find out the history is really interesting

    The British SAS are the best special forces team in the world and we should be very grateful to them - they are real heroes.

  • Comment number 59.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    A useful source is Fitzroy Maclean's "Eastern Approaches". He knew the Stirling brothers, was recruited by them shortly after the unit was formed and took part in several missions.
    Maclean emphasises the role of the LRDG who would provide intelligence for the mission, guide them to their target and then carry on into the desert for weeks of reconnaissance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    They should post the diary online in abobe so everyone in the world can read about these brave men.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    I was on a course at Catterick in the 60's. Every Monday morning there was a regimental parade. I remember a SAS guy also on a course and he used to casually stroll on to the parade ground and take his place while the RSM waited patiently. That was the respect and awe shown towards these guys and deservedly so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Let’s not use this as another delusional escape into the greatness of British forces! We need to also remember their enormous mistakes, such as the reported capturing of Special Forces carrying bomb making equipment in Iraq! Which, it could be argued, led to a breakdown in relations with the locals and the British army’s withdrawal to Basra airport.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Oooooh! Chocolate hero time yet again.
    All together now, whisper it reverently... S.......A.......S.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I recently read an old but excellent book on the start up of the SAS by Stirling. It goes into detail about Parachute Operation 1 mentioned above and the recruitment of those that took part, as well as many other operations with the LRDG the book is:
    "The Phantom Major" by Virginia Cowles and was published in 1958 by Fontana

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    " a limited number" will be sold. My father-in-law was a member of SAS/SBS - in Africa. He died a couple of years ago but never really talked about his WW2 experiences much. His family would love to have a copy of the book to learn more about his SAS service. It would be good to learn more about how to acquire a copy. Brave, selfless and heroic men - unlike most to whom that label is applied now

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    " Peter_Sym
    I jumped out of plane, over sailsbury plain, at 800 feet, at night. It was bl**dy terrifying & I've still got spinal injuries as a result."

    You were lucky. There are examples in Roy Farran's book where parachutes "roman candled" and the unlucky soldier was killed on landing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    A terrific opportunity to read about a true "band of brothers" that made a disproportionate impact for the size of their unit. Pity about the cost of a copy - even if it could be reduced to £250 - I suspect many more copies would be bought - to the benefit of the association. Similar volumes should follow from the 50/60/70s although more recent information is likely to be classified under OSA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    My father is one of the original SAS members, he went through the entire war and while I always knew he was in the SAS he never spoke about it. When he died he left me a box full of medals, one from the King of Norway and one from the President of Italy and two books about his exploits, 45 missions, a quiet man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    A BBC news story that's really a plug for a BBC program? Whatever next.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Publish! I for one would purchase a full sized copy...

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Having recently visited Normandy and the D-Day beaches.
    These people ARE total heroes
    I Thank them all.


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