My rating: 5 of 5 stars
79 years ago this month, Nazi troops faked an attack on a German Radio station. The attack was supposed to have come from Polish forces conducting a surprise attack on the Reich. Soon the valiant Poles were falling back under the onslaught of superior German forces. Within a week the United Kingdom had issued an ultimatum to Germany to stop military operations. The Nazi’s let the ultimatum expire and the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and New Zealand declared war on Germany. They were followed soon after by South Africa and Canada. While many historians debate the exact date – some claiming the earlier date of the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937, some the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in 1935 and some the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 – it cannot be denied that by the end of September 1939 the world was in the grips of a second world war.
With the war raging and the United States not yet involved, the United Kingdom fought on by itself after the defeat at Dunkirk. Prime Minister Winston Churchill set several departments and organizations in motion that arguable helped to win the war. They were also highly influential in the future of warfare, intelligence, and special operations. These included the creation of MD1 – Ministry of Defense 1, referred to as Churchill’s Toyshop, in 1939 which created the sticky bomb and limpet mine. Also, the Twenty Committee or the Double Cross System in 1940 for running double agents against the Nazi’s. Probably most famously the Special Operations Executive (SOE) on 22 July 1940 to set Europe ablaze with sabotage operations. Last but not least, the brain child of a misfit British Army officer in the desert of North Africa, the Special Air Service (SAS) in the summer of 1941. This last has been the model for special operations ever since and has had a direct influence on other national military units including the American Delta Force.
Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War, is the fourth book I have read by Ben Macintyre. The others have included A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Agent Zigzag, and Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. Both A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal and Agent Zigzag were able to focus on a single, primary protagonist and primary story. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies was able to focus on a primary story point, the D-Day landings and their impact. The greatest difference and difficulty with Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War is the sprawling history that Ben Macintyre has been allowed access to and the huge rogues gallery of fascinating characters that are involved with these stories throughout the course of the entire war.
I was first introduced to Ben Macintyre not through his writing, but through his television work. In an effort to fill airtime with interesting stories, the BBC his turned a number of Ben Macintyre’s books into documentaries. It was through, I believe, Operation Mincemeat – the story of how the British government used a dead body to deceive the Germans about the landings in Sicily that I first discovered Ben Macintyre. I have since been lucky to actually attend a book launch of Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War in England and meet Ben Macintyre. In fact my copy of the book was signed by the author.
Back to the review however…
I don’t mean to suggest that the BBC used Operation Mincemeat, or any of the other documentaries, as filler. By no means could anyone ever accuse them of that. Ben Macintyre takes a very storytelling aspect to relating history. As a trained journalist, he attempts to find the hook. The thread of the personnel to pull the reader in and wrap them up in the narrative. He is exceedingly good at this and in my estimation creates some of the most involved narrative in history that is available today.
The difficulty with Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War, as I previously mentioned, is the sheer amount of characters and story he has to tell. The story starts with the back story of David Stirling, the founder of SAS, and follows the organization throughout the war in Africa, over to the invasion of Italy, into the fields of France then across the Rhine and past the end of the war. This is a phenomenal amount of time. During that time the organization grows from a small tight knit band to a full size regiment. Later it gets renamed, re-purposed, purposed back and given its original name back. Also, its founder spends most of the war in Colditz prison as a prisoner of war and others have to take command of the various units within the regiment.
For any author this would be a challenge. Even Ben Macintyre struggles a bit. The story is not quite as personable as it would be say for A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. It is also not so easily confined in scope as Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. The very nature of the subject matter works against being able to tell a coherent story. Yet somehow, Ben Macintyre is able to keep the narrative thread together. We move, relatively seamlessly, with only a few bumps, between the theater of operations and the theater of characters he conveys. The characters manage to keep their humanity and don’t fall into tropes or pure hero worship.
These are soldiers, enduring difficult and challenging times. Sometimes they are able to succeed and be the hero’s we hope they will be and sometimes they get tarnished. But always they remain real and they remain human. I have been fortunate enough in my day to meet members of various special forces from various branches and services and nations. The one thing they all have in common, the one thing the have in common with their forebears is that they are human. The are flawed. And we owe them even more for the hardships and challenges they have faced because of that.
While this is not the best work I have seen from Ben Macintyre, it is still a worthy effort. He does still manage to create a compelling story and helps us to understand the trials and struggles of a unique bunch of misfits. A unique bunch of misfits that helped to shorten the war and had an effect on unconventional military operations to this day. Despite of, or perhaps because of the difficulties of this story, it is understandable that there are shortcomings. It may not be Agent Zigzag but Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War is well worth the read and still one of the best histories of the era there is.