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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  • Comment number 285.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 284.

    Pround to be British, untold debts will still remain untold - sad for Britain today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 283.

    I bought my copy today as soon as I heard about it. I am lucky enough to work a few tube stops away from the chap taking the sales calls. I paid my dues and collected my copy early this afternoon. He told me I am the first one to get my hands on it! For those of you buying one - be prepared for a bit of a shock. It's rather large! I've been looking through it - an incredible piece of work.

  • Comment number 282.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 281.

    I have waited a long time to hear about Colonel Stirling and team. I would love to know if any remaining members remember my mother who the family thought worked for Colonel Stirling as his secretary. I can only hope the book is taken up by libraries around the country as there won't be many who could afford to buy a copy for themselves. That would be the only way I would be able to read it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 280.

    As one of the earlier contributors emphasized, please comment on THE ARTICLE !! which is concise and reports a 'tiny fraction' of the book and the exploits that went to make the history. As one of those people that have been fortunate to look at this excellent historical document at DSEI (they are copies and the original is still with the association) I wish I had the money! Antony Beevor !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    I have a free/educational lunch-hour boardgame titled 1st Alamein on one of my webpages for anyone to print off, assemble and play. The 10 daily turns start on July 1, 1942, but Luftwaffe Afrika doesn't appear until the 7th day/turn ... thanks to the SAS, historically.

    Lou Coatney

  • rate this

    Comment number 278.

    @ Freedom01
    I joined the British Army at age 16 in the 1970's. Don't recall Boys toys attracting me to the army. I joined to have a job and better myself and give something back to the country I'm proud of. I don't care what rock you crawled from under, Britain has done more for the world than any other nation, we have made a few mistakes along the way. I'm proud of Britain and to be British.

  • rate this

    Comment number 277.

    269. Artemesia
    58 Minutes ago

    Education doesn't end the day we leave School, it is a lifelong process

    Very true and mine started the day I joined the Army. There is nore to an education than achademic stuff like reading 'riting and 'rithmatic. The University of Life I believe they call it - teaches you everything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 276.

    Comment number 271. Trevor_Mallery
    32 Minutes ago

    ..., and taken a chance on not getting a better one instead.

    Not a huge chance of that happening. That is why out off all the plots to assinate Hitler, non were actually carried as it would be best lleaving him where he was. Get rid of him and someone with a better idea of what they were supposed to be doing would take his placce,

  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    Comment number 273. AniaH
    20 Minutes ago

    I'm really struggling to work out what Palestine has to do with the subject in hand. Are the BBC only allowed to publish stories with a historic content on days when there is nothing much happening in relation to contemporary events.

  • Comment number 274.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    Why is this WW2 related report on the same page (same day) when Palestinian President Abbas is on the front page?What is Denise Waterman's intention?What is the agenda?The war on Palestine has to finish and a sneaky article like that,just to bring the WW into mentioning at the same time Palestine is asking for recognition is just very obvious!I am disappointed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    I make no claim they were revolutionary, I maintain, however, that their efforts should not be overlooked. I have every respect for those, both past and present, that, with the protection of their family and friends in mind, took decisions that, in many circumstances, meant the ultimate sacrifice. God rest them all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    @238.Johnn K
    Of course trying to kill Rommel by any means was fair, and so would b any German attempts to kill Monty et al. War is war, dont fight it with one hand behind your back. Whats the phrase "cut off the head and the body dies"? By killing Rommel we could have caused a lesser general to take his place, and taken a chance on not getting a better one instead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    My father was also a dessert rat ,I was so pleased to hear of this book .These men and what they did was never recognised for their
    extreme bravery of which we all should be proud.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    173.The Flyer-"..I'm one of these people who took advantage of the education offered to me. So I cannot possibly imagine risking death for something I either don't understand or with which I disagree with. Nor of killing for it"

    Your word 'so' creates an implication that only the 'uneducated' enter the armed services

    Education doesn't end the day we leave School, it is a lifelong process

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.

    Re-iterate the thoughts of 'mccaff111', to those who have fell, and to those who will, in defense of their loved ones, will do so. God bless you all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    Please the SAS did not change the rules of war. The concept of raiding parties is not new. Planners had become hidebound and that happened on all sides. Front line soldiers in all works of life work out local solutions frequently very sucessfully. The only rule of a war is not to loose and that is the essence of the SAS. My dad was there under WAVELL in the 8th and thought the world of him

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    god bless John McAleese and all before him we shall remember them


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