The Daily Mail has posted an article from the Mail on Sunday by Gavin Mortimer about his new book The Phoney Major: The Life, Times and Truth about the Founder of the SAS. This is about David Stirling, a WWII “hero” from the North Africa campaign widely credited with the creation and leadership of a formation known as the Special Air Service (SAS). As recounted by Mortimer, it was David’s brother Bill Stirling and a former Irish rugby player, Blair “Paddy” Mayne, who were actually responsible for the establishment and leadership of the SAS. David Stirling’s “contribution” consisted in the command of smaller subunits which engaged in several hare-brained but well-publicized schemes that, according to Mortimer, contributed nothing of military value and were largely a waste of manpower and equipment. They did, however, attract publicity as David chatted them up to the Cairo press corps.
As explained by Mortimer, the SAS was in one sense an answer to Churchill’s need for a British propaganda counterpart to the success of Rommel’s Afrika Korps which had reversed the early British victories in North Africa. It was formed out of the Commando units in which Waugh was serving. According to Mortimer, it:
… was set up at the Commando Special Training Centre at Inverailort House in the remote north of Scotland, and among the first recruits – thanks to Bill’s intervention, and to the relief of the Scots Guards – was [David] Stirling.
Bill quickly discovered what the Guards had known for several months: David Stirling was indolent and temperamental, a disruptive influence. Now it was Bill’s turn to look for a way to offload his wastrel sibling. The man who would, indirectly, prove his salvation was Winston Churchill.
In June 1940, the Prime Minister sent a memorandum to his chiefs of staff instructing them to establish Britain’s first special forces – the Commandos. That November, Stirling was posted to the No 8 Commando unit, alongside author Evelyn Waugh, which was despatched to North Africa under the codename Layforce.
It is not clear from this whether the Stirling brother posted with Waugh to No 8 Commando unit was Bill or David but context and a later reference suggests the latter. David was an instructor in the Commando unit to which Waugh was assigned for training and is mentioned in Waugh’s letters home as a congenial companion on the voyage out to Africa. In early 1943, David was captured by the Germans on one of his poorly planned SAS missions in North Africa and remained in captivity for the remainder of the war (except when he was unsuccessfully attempting to escape). The following reference to Waugh appears at the end of the article, but is misleading as to Waugh’s associations with the two Stirlings:
The SAS had played a small but significant role in the successful invasion of France in 1944, earning praise from Allied supreme commander General Eisenhower for their guerrilla campaign against the Nazis.
[David] Stirling, meanwhile, was increasingly living in a fantasy world. He was a habitue of London’s most exclusive casinos, clubs and restaurants, drinking champagne with Evelyn Waugh – the ‘Giant Sloth’ of the early war years. [The sloth was David’s military colleagues nickname for him, not Waugh.]
Only when Mayne died in 1955 did [David] Stirling finally write his memoir, The Phantom Major, a Hollywood fantasy in which the truth was sacrificed for titillation. He even added an inch and a half to his height, which meant he surpassed Bill’s 6ft 5in. Such minor details mattered to him.
In 2002, 12 years after [David] Stirling’s death, a statue was unveiled near the family plot at Keir. It is right that one of the Stirling boys should have been honoured, but they got the wrong one. Bill Stirling was the intellectual force behind the SAS and Paddy Mayne the physical force. David Stirling was merely its salesman.
These references to Waugh are irrelevant to the story in the Mail and are unhelpful to Waugh’s own war record which doesn’t need any more negative associations. Waugh was, in fact, a friend of both Stirling brothers. The descriptions of his associations with the Stirling brothers in Waugh’s war diaries and biographies, however, relate almost exclusively to Bill Stirling. He ended up as Waugh’s commanding officer after Bob Laycock’s Commando unit left for Italy without him in 1943. It was under Bill Stirling’s command that Waugh did his parachute training in late 1943. He actually spent some time as a guest in Bill Stirling’s home in Perthshire, and Bill was one of his daughter Hetty’s godparents in May 1944. Bill Stirling may have been involved in the approval of Waugh’s leave to write Brideshead Revisited, although he did not sign the order (Diaries 565-66). Waugh seems to have been in occasional contact with David Stirling after the war and he is mentioned briefly in two letters. But Waugh was certainly never as close to David as he was to Bill. The Stirling brothers were, in turn, cousins of Waugh’s nemesis Shimi Lovat, but there seems to have been little love lost between them and Shimi.
It may well be the case that the references to Waugh’s relations with the Stirling brothers are clearer in the context of the book than they are in what were probably extracts used for the Mail on Sunday article. Hopefully, that will prove to be the case. The book was published last week in the UK, and an American edition will be issued in August.
An interview of Gavin Mortimer also appears in the Perthshire paper The Courier. This clarifies that “Great Sloth” was the epithet applied to David Stirling by his fellow soldiers in the Scots Guards before his brother engineered his transfer to the Commandos.