Who Deceives Wins

Even relatively recent history is fake and gay. The great hero of the SAS was a complete fictional construct:

In 1942, a downtrodden Britain desperately needed a hero. The widespread respect – even grudgingly – enjoyed in Britain by charismatic General Erwin Rommel, the commander of Hitler’s Afrika Korps, was a source of particular frustration to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Rommel’s capture of the Libyan port of Tobruk that June, leading to the surrender of 34,000 men to his German-Italian troops, was one of the worst moments not just of the western desert campaign but of Britain’s entire war.

What was required, in Churchill’s mind, was a counter to the adulation of Rommel. A soldier who was not just Rommel’s match but who was his superior in guile and courage. A warrior of whom the British could be proud.

That September, newspapers carried a scoop: the tale of the ‘Phantom Major’, a military mastermind whose covert team of guerrilla soldiers was striking terror into the hearts of Rommel and his men.

The major in question was David Stirling, and his new elite fighting squad the Special Air Service, or SAS, would become one of the most celebrated units of the British Army with its fearless motto Who Dares Wins.

Stirling was described as ‘the newest terror of the desert’ who, ‘towering 6ft 4in, is as lithe as a panther, a former boxing champion, one of the finest horsemen in the Army’. He was fluent in German, capable of fooling his way through enemy checkpoints and was, they claimed, a veritable ‘Robin Hood in battledress’.

In the space of a year, Stirling had risen from a humble lieutenant to a major with a Distinguished Service Order – a truly startling ascent. For, in reality, David Stirling was a man of limited capacity with a troubling, error-strewn history.

He might have been the Phantom Major to the British tabloids but to his soldiers, Stirling was a liability who had repeatedly gambled with their lives in his pursuit of glory. His languor and fondness for drinking and gambling in the clubs of Cairo, meanwhile, had earned him the nickname ‘the Giant Sloth’.

Born to a wealthy aristocratic family whose ancestral home was Keir House in Perthshire, Stirling, the fourth of six siblings, had underwhelmed since childhood, overshadowed academically and in charm by his older brothers Bill and Peter. His mother Margaret Fraser was also a force of nature whose father, the 13th Lord Lovat, had been aide- de-camp to Queen Victoria.

When war broke out, Stirling joined the Scots Guards but struggled from the start. He lacked the discipline to knuckle down and submit to the drudgery of drilling. Meanwhile Bill, who had also trained with the Scots Guards, submitted proposals to the War Office to develop a guerrilla warfare training programme to prepare troops for special missions.

This 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 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.

Keep this little historical detail in mind if you’re ever tempted to fall for the grand heroics of the Navy SEALs or any other brave and daring special forces that are publicized for the benefit of the public. Remember, the Official Story is always false in at least some important detail.