Five months before Operation Squatter, a tall, thin soldier lay, grumpy and immobile, in a Cairo hospital bed. The twenty-five-year-old officer had been brought into the Scottish Military Hospital on June 15, 1941, paralyzed from the waist down. A letter to his mother from the War Office stated that he had suffered "a contusion of the back as a result of enemy action."
This was not, strictly speaking, true. The injured soldier had not set eyes on the enemy: he had jumped out of a plane, without a helmet or proper training, ripped his parachute on the tail and plummeted to earth at roughly twice the recommended speed. The impact had knocked him out and badly injured his spine, leaving him temporarily blinded and without feeling in his legs. The doctors feared he would never walk again.
Even before his parachuting accident, the officer's contribution to the war effort had been minimal: he lacked the most basic military discipline, could not march straight, and was so lazy his comrades had nicknamed him "the Giant Sloth." Since being posted to Egypt with the British commando force, he had spent much of his time in Cairo's bars and clubs, or gambling at the racecourse. The nurses at the hospital knew him well, for he frequently popped in during the morning, whey-faced and liverish, to request a blast from the oxygen bottle to cure his hangover. Before his parachute jump landed him in the hospital, he had been under investigation to establish whether he was malingering and ought to be court-martialed. His fellow officers found him charming and entertaining; his senior commanders, for the most part, regarded him as impertinent, incompetent, and profoundly irritating. On completing officer training, he had received a blunt appraisal: "irresponsible and unremarkable."
Lieutenant David Stirling of the Scots Guards was not a conventional soldier.
The writer Evelyn Waugh, a fellow officer in the commando force, came to visit Stirling about three weeks after his admission to the hospital. Waugh had been misinformed by the matron that one of Stirling's legs had already been amputated, and he would likely lose the other. "I can't feel a thing," Stirling told his friend. Embarrassed, as Englishmen tend to be when faced with disability, Waugh kept up a steady stream of meaningless small talk, perched on the edge of the bed, and studiously avoided the subject of his friend's paralysis. Every so often, however, he would sneak a surreptitious glance to where Stirling's remaining leg ought to be, and whenever he did so Stirling, with extreme effort, would wiggle the big toe of his right foot. Finally, Waugh realized he was being teased, and hit Stirling with a pillow.
"You bastard, Stirling, when did it happen?"
"Minutes before you came. It takes a bit of effort, but it's a start."
Stirling was regaining the use of his legs. Others might have cried for joy; for Stirling, however, the first sign of his recovery was an excellent opportunity to play a practical joke on one of Britain's greatest novelists.
It would take two more weeks before Stirling could stand upright, and several more before he was able to hobble about. But during those two months of enforced inaction he did a great deal of thinking—something that, in spite of his reputation as a feckless gadabout, he was rather good at.
The commandos were intended to be Britain's storm troops, volunteers selected and trained to carry out destructive raids against Axis targets. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had decided that the ideal theater in which to deploy the commandos would be North Africa, where they could conduct seaborne raids against enemy bases along the Mediterranean coast.
In Stirling's unsolicited opinion, the concept was not working. Most of the time the commandos were inactive, awaiting the order for a great assault that never came; on the rare occasions when they were deployed, the results had been disappointing. The German and Italian troops fully expected to be attacked from the sea, and were primed and waiting. The commando forces were simply too large and cumbersome to launch an assault without being spotted; the element of surprise was immediately lost.
But what, wondered Stirling, if the combat troops attacked from the opposite direction? To the south, stretching between Egypt and Libya, lay the Great Sand Sea, a vast, waterless expanse of unbroken dunes covering forty-five thousand square miles. One of the most inhospitable environments on earth, the desert was considered by the Germans to be virtually impassable, a natural barrier, and they therefore left it largely unprotected, and entirely unpatrolled. "This was one sea the Hun was not watching," Stirling reflected. If mobile teams of highly trained men, under cover of darkness, could be infiltrated onto the enemy's desert flank, they might be able to sabotage airfields, supply depots, communications links, railways, and roads, and then slip back into the embracing emptiness of the sand sea. A commando force several hundred strong could attack only one target at a time; but a number of smaller units, moving quickly, raiding suddenly and then retreating swiftly, could destroy multiple targets simultaneously. The opportunity to attack the enemy in the rear, when he least expects it, is the pipe dream of every general. The peculiar geography of North Africa offered just such a possibility, reflected Stirling, as he lay half paralyzed in his hospital bed, trying to wiggle his toes.
Stirling's idea was the result of wishful thinking more than expertise; it had emerged not from long hours of reflection and study, but from the acute boredom of convalescence. It was based on intuition, imagination, and self-confidence, of which Stirling had plenty, rather than experience of desert warfare, of which he had none.But it was an inspired idea, and the sort of idea that could only have occurred to someone as strange and remarkable as Archibald David Stirling.
Stirling was one of those people who thrive in war, having failed at peace. In a short life, he had tried his hand at a variety of occupations—artist, architect, cowboy, and mountaineer—and found success in none of them. Privileged by birth and education, intelligent and resourceful, he could have done anything, but had spent the early part of his life doing little of any consequence. The war was his salvation.
The Stirling family was one of the oldest and grandest in Scotland, an aristocratic clan of great distinction, long military traditions, and considerable eccentricity. David Stirling's mother was the daughter of Lord Lovat, the chief of Clan Fraser, with bloodlines stretching back to Charles II. His father, General Archibald Stirling, had been gassed in the First World War, served as an MP, and then retired to Keir, the fifteen thousand-acre Perthshire estate that had been the family's seat for the previous five centuries. The general presided over his sprawling lands and unruly family like some benign but distant chieftain observing a battlefield from a remote hill. David's formidable mother, Margaret, was the more forceful presence: her children were in awe of her. Keir House, where David Stirling was born in 1915, was a vast edifice, freezing cold even at the height of summer, filled with old hunting trophies, noise, and devilment. The Stirling parents drummed good manners into their six children, but otherwise largely left them to get on with their lives. The four Stirling boys, of whom David was the second in age, grew up stalking deer, hunting rabbits, fighting, and competing. One favorite game was a form of sibling duel using air rifles: two brothers would take potshots at each other's backsides in turn, moving closer by a pace after each shot.
Despite this aristocratically spartan start in life, David Stirling was not a hardy child. Dispatched to Ampleforth, a Catholic boarding school, at the age of eight, he caught typhoid fever and was sent home for an extended period of recovery. A speech impediment was eventually cured by surgery. He disliked sports, and did his best to avoid them. He grew at an astonishing rate: by the age of seventeen, he was nearly six feet, six inches tall, a gangly beanpole, willful, reckless, and exceptionally polite. Largely by virtue of his class, he was awarded a place at Cambridge University, where he misbehaved on a lavish scale, spending more time at Newmarket racecourse than he devoted to studying. "If there was a serious side to life it totally escaped me," he later admitted. If he ever opened a book, the event was not recorded. After a year, the master of his college informed him that he was being sent down, read out a list of twenty-three offenses that merited expulsion, and invited him to select the three that he considered "would be least offensive" to his mother.
David Stirling decided he would become an artist, in Paris. He had little talent for painting. But he did have a beret, and a yen for the bohemian life. Some have detected "a strange mixture of beauty and the macabre" in his paintings. His French art tutor, however, did not, and after a year and a half of louche Left Bank life, he was told that while he might one day make a half-decent commercial draftsman, his "painting would never achieve any real merit." Stirling was profoundly upset; his failure as an artist marked him forever, and perhaps explained the consistent ripple of insecurity that lay beneath the carapace of confidence.
He returned to Cambridge to study architecture, but soon dropped out again. A job with an Edinburgh architect was short-lived. His mother now intervened, and told her second son that he must stop drifting and do something with his life. Stirling announced that he intended to become the first person to climb Mount Everest.
Stirling was quite the wrong shape to scramble up rocks. He had little experience of serious climbing. He also suffered from vertigo. Intrepid British mountaineers had been trying to scale the world's highest mountain since 1921; dozens had perished in the attempt. Climbing Everest was an expensive, dangerous, demanding business, and Stirling was broke—none of which dented his determination to succeed where other, qualified, experienced, well-funded mountaineers had failed. He spent a year climbing in the Swiss Alps, bankrolled by his mother, before joining the supplementary reserve of the Scots Guards, his father's regiment, in the hope that part-time army training might bolster his mountaineering quest. He soon drifted out of uniform, repelled by the mind-swamping boredom of the parade ground. In 1938, at the age of twenty-three, he went to the United States with the intention of climbing the Rockies and riding across the Continental Divide. He was south of the Rio Grande, having spent several months herding cattle in the company of a cowboy named Roy "Panhandle" Terrill when he learned that Britain was at war—the run-up to which had, it seems, almost entirely passed him by. His mother sent a telegram: "Return home by the cheapest possible means." Stirling flew to Britain on a first-class ticket, and rushed back into uniform.
The David Stirling who turned up at the Guards Depot in Pirbright in the autumn of 1939 was a strange mixture of parts. Ambitious but unfocused; steeped in soldierly traditions but allergic to military discipline. A boisterous exterior belied a man prone to periodic depressions, whose extreme good manners and social ease masked moments of inner turmoil. Stirling was a romantic, with an innate talent for friendship but little desire or need for physical intimacy. He appears to have lost his virginity in Paris as an art student. With Panhandle Terrill he had enjoyed the company of "some of those dark girls down in Mexico." But his natural shyness coupled with a stern all-male Catholic education seems to have left him in fear of women. "The totally confused, guilt-ridden years of puberty exerted an awful pressure," he once remarked. He spoke of "predatory females"; his few romantic encounters were described as "close escapes," as if he feared entrapment. "Bonds of any sort are a pressure I find very difficult to bear," he admitted. He had many women friends, and according to his biographer was "not unattracted to the opposite sex." Yet he seemed to relax only among men, and "in wide open spaces." Like many convivial people, he was slightly lonely. A warrior monk, he craved action and the company of soldiers, but when the fighting was over, he embraced solitude.
Stirling was also possessed of a profound self-belief, the sort of confidence that comes from high birth and boundless opportunity. He was blithely unconstrained by convention, and regarded rules as nuisances to be ignored, broken, or otherwise overcome. He was elaborately respectful toward his social inferiors, and showed no deference whatever to rank. Strikingly modest, he was repelled by braggarts and loudmouths: "swanks" (swanking) or "pomposo" (pomposity) were his gravest insults. His manner seemed vague and forgetful, but his powers of concentration were phenomenal. Despite an ungainly body and a patchy academic record, he had a stubborn faith in his own abilities, intellectual and physical. Stirling did exactly what he wanted to do, whether or not others thought his aims were sensible or even possible. The SAS came into being, in part, because its founder would not take no for an answer, either from those in authority or from those under his command.
Just as he had been bored by the logistics of mountaineering, so Stirling found the practical preparations for war indescribably tedious. Like many young men, he was hungry for the fight, but instead found himself shackled to a regime of endless marching, kit inspections, weapons drill, and all the other rote elements of military life. So he rebelled. Slipping away from the Guards Depot at Pirbright, he would frequently head to London for a night of drinking, gambling, and billiards at White's club; just as frequently he was caught, and confined to barracks. Stirling was a nightmare recruit: impertinent, indolent, and often half asleep as a result of his carousing the night before. "He was quite, quite irresponsible," recalled Willie (later Viscount) Whitelaw, a fellow trainee officer at Pirbright. "He just couldn't tolerate that we were being trained along the lines of the last major conflict. His reaction was just to ignore everything."
It was at the bar of White's, one of the most exclusive gentleman's clubs in London, that Stirling first learned about a form of soldiering that seemed much closer to the adventure and excitement he had in mind: a crack new commando unit intended to hit important enemy targets with maximum impact. Stirling's cousin, Lord Lovat, had been among the first to volunteer for the commandos.
Formed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Laycock, the force—christened Layforce—would consist of more than 1,500 volunteers formed into three commando regiments, recruited from the Foot Guards (the regular infantry of the Household Division) and other infantry regiments: an elite troop of specialized, highly trained raiders and marauders. Lord Haw-Haw, the British traitor who broadcast radio announcements into England for the Nazis, would describe the commandos as "Churchill's cut-throats."
Stirling immediately volunteered. Soon he found himself stomping through the wilds of western Scotland, familiar boyhood terrain and far from the parade ground he loathed. For weeks the commandos trained in the bogs and bracken of the Isle of Arran: route marches, unarmed combat, endurance, fieldcraft, navigation, and survival techniques. Even at this early stage, some of the other volunteers noticed something different about the tall young officer: Stirling was a natural leader, with an understated but adamant faith in his own decisions, and a gentlemanly insistence on doing everything he asked of his men, and more. On February 1, 1941, Layforce sailed for the Middle East. Finally Stirling was heading into battle, leaving behind a long string of unpaid bills: from his bookmaker, his tailor, his bank manager, and even from a cowboy outfitter in Arizona, seeking payment for a saddle.
Layforce had been deployed to disrupt Axis communication lines in the Mediterranean, and to spearhead the capture of Rhodes. But by the time the commandos arrived in Egypt, the military situation had changed: the arrival in Cyrenaica (eastern coastal Libya) of the Afrika Korps, the German expeditionary force under Erwin Rommel, had transformed the strategic picture. The British were now scrambling to oppose the German advances, and the first stage of the seesaw war in North Africa was under way. Initially deployed to shore up the Italian defense of their North African colonies, the Afrika Korps moved with alarming speed, driving the British back to the Egyptian border with Libya and laying siege to the coastal town of Tobruk. Instead of storming Rhodes, the commandos were split up and variously deployed to garrison Cyprus, cover the evacuation of Crete, reinforce the defense of Tobruk, and carry out raids along the coasts of Cyrenaica and Syria. An assault on the Libyan coastal town of Bardia achieved little, with 67 of the British raiders taken prisoner. Of the 800 commandos sent to cover the evacuation of Crete in May, fewer than 200 managed to escape—among them Evelyn Waugh, who boarded the last ship to leave. In June, the commandos successfully established a bridgehead on the Litani River in Lebanon against Vichy French forces, but lost a quarter of their attacking force.
Stirling, based in Egypt with the Layforce Reserve, was bored and frustrated. He had yet to fire a gun in action. "We were involved in a series of postponements and cancellations, and that was extremely frustrating," he later recalled. Before the departure of the commandos, the director of combined operations had told them they were about to "embark on an enterprise that would stir the world." So far, Stirling had barely stirred. As always when he was underemployed, he turned to revelry. Peter Stirling, David's younger brother, was serving at the British embassy in Cairo, and his comfortable diplomatic flat in the Garden City district became the venue for riotous parties and nocturnal forays into the city's fleshpots.
Stirling began to miss parades, and make excuses. His claims of ill health were not wholly untrue. He was stricken by a nasty bout of dysentery. Then, returning from a night exercise, he tripped over a tent rope and gashed an eyeball, requiring stitches. Stirling found the American hospital particularly comfortable, and began to contrive to spend his days there, claiming to be suffering from fever. "In a sense, I was pretty ill," he later argued. "Because I would go out in the evening, having recovered from the appalling hangover caused by the previous night's activities in Cairo, and re-establish my illness by my activities the following night." Alerted by the hospital matron, Stirling's superiors began to question just how unwell he really was. He was drinking and partying himself into serious trouble when his life was changed by a conversation, in the mess, with Lieutenant Jock Lewes, a fellow officer in the commandos who was as self-disciplined and uptight as Stirling was dissolute and nonchalant.
Lewes told Stirling that he had recently obtained a stock of several dozen parachutes, destined for a paratroop unit operating in India but accidentally shipped to Port Said, where he had appropriated them. Colonel Laycock had given Lewes permission to attempt an experimental parachute jump in the desert. Stirling asked if he could come along, "partly for fun, partly because it would be useful to know how to do it," and mostly because he was very bored. So began an important and unlikely partnership between two men who could hardly have been more different.