BBC WWII Commando Series

The BBC has scheduled the broadcast of a 6-part docudrama series on the WWII Commandos. This will focus on the SAS, which was the brainchild of Commando David Stirling with whom Waugh was serving in 8 Commando in 1941. Here are excerpts of the story from the Daily Telegraph:

When Steven Knight decided to create his latest TV show SAS Rogue Heroes he pledged to honour the history of how the Special Air Service was born, rather than making it “try to fit fiction”.

Yet as Mr Knight, the Peaky Blinders creator, delved deeper into the history of this elite regiment that was formed in the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War, he discovered true stories that were so outlandish he had to change the narrative in order to make them seem plausible.

And so the six-part BBC series begins with the disclaimer that while the following is “based on a true story” the events shown “which seem most unbelievable… are mostly true”. […]

Mr Knight confirmed that “the regiment itself has given us a nod of approval” for the series.

It comes after the BBC placed a “trigger” warning for moderate violence on the show’s one-minute trailer which features explosions and a soldier being jokingly pushed out of the back of a lorry.

The programme is based on the book by journalist and historian Ben MacIntyre, which he wrote after gaining access to previously classified SAS documents and diaries.

It explores how a group of fearless soldiers and officers came together to form a new unit, which was built around Stirling’s idea of parachuting into the desert.

However, Stirling’s first experiment with the parachute was a flop, as Knight explained there was lots of “failure and disaster” in the early days of the regiment’s formation.

Yet, it was their curiosity that made them so unique in their ability to continue in the face of adversity.

“It seems to me that soldiers obey orders mostly and don’t know why they are doing it, but what was different about the SAS was they said to ask why, question the order and had their own ideas,” Knight added.

One of the most pertinent elements Mr Knight took away from his research on Stirling, who died in 1990, was how he and his fellow men did not fear death.

He explained that the secretary who worked with Stirling for 30 years told him that when Stirling used to leave the office in the 1970s, he would close his eyes when he crossed the main road. “He’s in his early 60s and he still wants the possibility of death,” Mr Knight said.

He added that he hoped the series inspires people “who feel they are excluded and not right for society and that kind of thing”.

Mr Knight described the founding members of the SAS as being the “people who stepped up”, adding “this is a tribute to them”.

The BBC’s History Magazine has also reposted a 2016 story about David Stirling’s efforts to create the smaller SAS squads out of the larger Commando units. This explains:

Among Stirling’s fellow commando officers were the novelist Evelyn Waugh and Randolph Churchill, the Prime Minister’s son. Shipped to the Middle East in early 1941, the Commandos spent several frustrating months launching a series of largely unsuccessful seaborne raids against German and Italian targets in Libya, Syria and Crete.

Waugh was still in 8 Commando when he was serving in Crete during 1941 and remained in some version of that unit until later in 1943 when they shipped out to the Mediterranean without him.  The embarkation coincided with his father’s death. Bob Laycock, who was his commanding officer, refused to approve Waugh’s rejoining the unit overseas after his bereavement leave (although in some reports Laycock had already decided to leave Waugh behind when the unit departed).  Waugh then ran up against commanding officers in the UK who were less forgiving of his faults than Laycock.  He resigned from the Commandos in July 1943 after having been ordered to report for basic training by Shimi Lovat.

He drifted around Windsor with the Royal Horse Guards but contacted Bill Stirling (brother of David) seeking a position in the SAS. He had met Bill in Scotland during his earlier Commando training. Bill Stirling had Waugh assigned to an SAS unit with Christopher Sykes in late 1943. While doing parachute training in that unit, he injured his leg (cracked fibula). While he was recuperating, he decided that he could better spend his time writing the novel he had been contemplating than pursuing his flagging military career. His superiors were only too happy to comply. Just as he was delivering the text of the novel (Brideshead Revisited) to the publisher, Randolph Churchill invited him to join a special mission to Yugoslavia which he readily accepted.

It is not entirely clear what Waugh’s service in the SAS would have entailed had he not suffered the injury during parachute training. But according to the reports of the BBC series, the SAS were active in France during and after the Normandy Landings, particularly in disrupting German supply lines which often involved parachute drops behind German lines. In his war memoirs (Four Studies in Loyalty, London, 1946), Christopher Sykes describes parachuting into the Vosges Mountains in northeastern France with his SAS unit in late August 1944. This was in advance of the Allied invasion of that area (expected during September) and was intended to allow the SAS to make contact with the local French resistance to aid that invasion.

This invasion was unexpectedly delayed until November and during their time behind the lines, the SAS unit, although supported by the local Maquis, was frustrated in its efforts to organize an offensive operation while remaining under cover in the forests. By mid-October the Germans had discovered enough about their whereabouts and activities to render them useless, and, according to Sykes, they were ordered to retreat back across the American lines. In the course of that action, their 92-man unit lost one killed in action and 29 taken prisoner, of whom all but one were killed in captivity. Just as well Waugh fractured his leg a year earlier and was dispatched to Yugoslavia.

A recent book entitled David Stirling: The Phoney Major by Gavin Mortimer has developed the idea that it was David’s brother Bill Stirling and his colleague Paddy Mayne who were the brains beyond the successful creation and operation of David’s  SAS concept of smaller hit-and-run units. This is described in greater detail in a previous post. Indeed, David was a POW from early in 1943 until the end of the war so was unavailable to contribute to later iterations of the SAS that saw action in the invasions of Italy and France. The conclusions of Mortimer’s book seem to run counter to the descriptions of the BBC series’ plot, but it is mentioned in the History Magazine posting. The hardcover version of Mortimer’s book had its UK release in June and will be published in the US on 22 November (a Kindle version was released in June in both the US and UK). Link to US edition here.

The BBC One series SAS Rogue Heroes will be broadcast beginning Sunday, 30 October at 9pm. All episodes will be available immediately thereafter for streaming on BBC iPlayer with a UK internet connection. Here’s the conclusion from an advance review of the series in the Financial Times:

The series will undoubtedly further fuel our nostalgic nation’s propensity for turning the second world war into the stuff of legend. It might elicit eye-rolls for its use of brash gimmicks. But the show’s spirit of adventure proves hard to resist, and there have been few scenes on TV this year as jolting and immersive as the mission sequence which opens the third episode.

Ultimately, SAS Rogue Heroes has the makings of another hit for Knight and the BBC. Don’t be surprised to see men trading in their Blinders flat caps for military berets before too long.


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