Rogue Warriors: the inspiring, untold story of how the SAS was formed

Ahead of his BBC documentary, historian and presenter Ben Macintyre reveals new truths about the original commandos

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On 15 April 1945, Major John Tonkin led a squadron of SAS soldiers through the gates of Bergen-Belsen – the first Allied troops to enter the notorious Nazi concentration camp. What he saw there haunted him for life, a hellish vision of man’s inhumanity to man.

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“There is no way of describing the horror of that camp. It was totally unbelievable,” said Tonkin, in a tape recording made nearly 40 years later that will be broadcast for the first time in my BBC series about the wartime SAS.

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Original members of the SAS, John Tonkin second from right, 1942

The SAS troop was confronted by what he called “30,000 walking skeletons”. The bodies of prisoners lay scattered around the compound and piled into mass graves. The stench of death hung in the air. But the SS guards, either unconcerned or unaware that the SAS was now inside the camp, continued Nazi business as usual. “They were, just for fun, taking pot shots at the prisoners and nobody was paying any attention. I have never been so angry in my life.”

Tonkin had already experienced the darkest side of war: he had been captured, escaped and narrowly cheated death behind the lines in France when 31 men under his command were caught and executed without trial. He had killed often in battle, without remorse. He was still only 25 years old. It would have been understandable if Tonkin, in his fury, had unleashed the SAS to massacre every SS guard in Belsen.

But he did not. Instead of exacting bloody revenge, Tonkin chose another path. “I got hold of all these SS officers. We lined them up and I said: ‘Unless that shooting stops immediately, you are all going to die very horribly.’ They went out immediately and the shooting stopped.” 

Tonkin saved the lives of many inmates that day; but he also spared their SS tormenters from summary reprisal. It was a rare moment of clemency in the midst of a brutal war, but also symbolic of the wartime SAS itself: highly trained, unconventional, ruthless when necessary, but also highly intelligent, adaptable to circumstance, capable of sensitivity and humanity as well as extreme violence.

The men who founded Britain’s most famous fighting force were a far cry from the over-muscled semi-mythical warriors of the modern SAS. Many of the “Originals” were highly eccentric, rogues and miscreants who did not fit into the ranks of the regular Army. They were, as one officer put it, “the sweepings of the public schools and the prisons”. A few were mentally unstable.

Forged in the North African desert in 1941 to fight behind the enemy lines, the Special Air Service pioneered a form of combat that has since become a central component of modern warfare. It began life as a small raiding force, but grew into the most formidable commando unit of the Second World War and the prototype for special forces across the world, notably the US Delta Force and Navy Seals.

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Military historian and presenter, Ben Macintyre  

The SAS has always closely guarded its secrets, but 75 years after its founding the regiment agreed to allow unprecedented access to its wartime archives – an astonishingly rich trove of material including top-secret reports, memos, private diaries, letters, memoirs, maps, hundreds of hitherto unseen photographs, recordings and film footage.

Among the many remarkable discoveries in the archives is the story of John Tonkin, one of the unsung rogue heroes of the SAS, a man whose grit, cunning and compassion reflect the combination of qualities that made up the SAS. An officer in the Royal Engineers, Tonkin arrived in the Middle East at the moment when David Stirling of the Scots Guards was recruiting men for a new commando unit, the Special Air Service.

Stirling’s original idea for this raiding force was simple and radical: small units of highly trained men would cross the vast expanse of the Libyan desert and attack the Axis airfields strung out along the coast. Stirling was looking for men who were willing to face extreme danger and capable of killing at close quarters. “I didn’t want psychopaths,” he insisted.

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SAS man David Stirling at the wheel of his Blitz Buggy, 1942.

Recruits to what was, in many ways, a ragtag private army needed to be exceptionally brave but just short of irresponsible; disciplined but also independent-minded; uncomplaining, resilient and, when necessary, merciless. They also required a sense of humour.

By the time Tonkin joined the SAS, Stirling’s marauders had already destroyed dozens of planes, planting bombs on the parked aircraft under cover of darkness before slipping back into the embracing desert. Many had perished, for life expectancy on SAS missions was short.

They had also developed the romantic mystique that that still clings to them today: bearded desert pirates, armed to the teeth, operating in secret far behind the lines, carrying out missions others would never have dared attempt. “The boy Stirling is mad. Quite, quite mad,” said General Montgomery. “However, in war there is often a place for mad people.”

With victory in North Africa, the SAS spearheaded the invasion of Sicily, and then fought up through Italy. Tonkin led a forward unit in the assault on the Adriatic port of Termoli. Separated and surrounded by German paratroopers, he was captured and taken to the German divisional headquarters where, to his intense surprise, Tonkin found himself sitting down to dinner with a German general, who plied him with brandy and cigars. While he was being escorted back to his cell after dinner, a German officer warned him that he’d shortly be handed over to the Nazi security service.

“From now on the German army cannot guarantee your life.” Hitler had issued the infamous “Commando Order” that all captured SAS men be shot without trial.

Tonkin realised he “must escape, or die”. The next night, he was ordered into the back of a truck. Somewhere in the hills, the lorry parked for a moment, Tonkin unclipped the canvas at the front, scrambled out and over the driver’s cabin, and sprinted into the darkness. For the next two weeks he walked south until, by pure chance, he stumbled into an advancing British patrol.

On D-Day in 1944, Tonkin parachuted into Nazi-occupied western France to lead Operation Bulbasket, a mission to delay the Panzers heading north to try to repel the Normandy invasion. For weeks, Tonkin and his men hid out in the French forests, mounting sabotage operations, ambushing German convoys, liaising with the French Resistance, and slowing the reinforcements heading north.

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SAS Greek Sacred Squadron sets of ‘up the Blue’ in 1943

Two weeks after D-Day, they were attacked by a large force of Germans: only Tonkin and handful of his men escaped. The rest were captured, and executed in obedience to Hitler’s Commando Order.

John Tonkin is just one of several unexpected heroes to emerge from the secrecy of the SAS archives. Others include Reg Seekings, a foul-mouthed one-eyed boxer from Cambridge with an extraordinary capacity for killing, Johnny Cooper, a grammar schoolboy who went through the war with a broad smile, and Fraser McLuskey, the first SAS chaplain, a gentle, resolute, unarmed warrior known as the “parachute padre”.

Tracing the story of the SAS, from the Sahara to Sicily, from the forests of France to the horrors of Belsen, has provided an opportunity to probe the legend of the SAS. No other fighting force has been the subject of such admiration, speculation and downright fantasy. But from the outset, the regiment was both more complicated in its human makeup, and more interesting, than the macho myth suggests.

While many members of the wartime SAS exhibited extraordinary abilities, they were also human: flawed, occasionally cruel, and capable of making spectacular mistakes. The true story contains darkness as well as light, tragedy and evil alongside heroism: it is a tale of unparalleled bravery and ingenuity, interspersed with moments of rank incompetence, raw brutality and touching human frailty.

“Who Dares Wins” has become the most famous military motto in Britain. SAS: Rogue Warriors is the story of a motley collection of fighters who won, against all the odds, because they dared to be different.  

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SAS: Rogue Warriors is on Monday, 9.00pm, BBC2