The Special Air Service (SAS), was the vanguard for a type of asymmetric
warfare that has become a feature of modern combat. In 1941, it became the model for
special forces across the world, including the U.S Delta Force and the Navy SEAL’s. It
grew from a small raiding party, led by a bunch of aristocratic, eccentrics, bored with
mundane, desert soldiering.
A descendant of Scottish aristocrats and the son of a brigadier general, Archibald
David Stirling was serving as a colonel with the Scots Guards when the war broke out.
With the British locked in combat in North Africa against Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s
Afrika Corps and its Italian allies, he took on the military bureaucracy and gained
permission, through his connections, to form ‘a special outfit.’
He soon found six like minded officers and they took 60 noncommissioned
volunteers to build their “army within an army.” The concept of operations would be
night time raids, operating deep behind German and Italian lines to blow up planes,
vehicles and supply dumps. The successful Long-Range Desert Patrol Group who had
formed in Egypt a year earlier had been conducting, deep penetration, covert
reconnaissance patrols and intelligence missions from behind Italian lines, their
expertise in desert navigation would make them ideal candidates for an additional role
of ‘desert taxi service’ for the SAS a sort of 1940’s Uber!
Stirling designated the new outfit, ‘L Detachment Special Air Service Brigade’.
He divided the unit into One and Two Troops, and put with a young Welsh Guards
Lieutenant, John “Jock’ Lewes in charge of the former and Lieutenant Paddy Mayne a
boxer, professional rugby player and commando in charge of the latter.
Stirling found a home in the wilderness at an oasis. Kabrit lay 90 miles east of
Cairo on the edge of the Great Bitter Lake. It was an ideal place in which to locate a
training camp for a new unit because there was little else to do other than train and
prepare for war. Stirling recalled in his memoir. “A Commando unit, having once
selected from a batch of volunteers, were committed to those men and had to nurse
them up to the required standard. L Detachment, on the other hand, had set a minimum
standard to which all ranks had to attain and we had to be most firm in returning to their
units those were unable to reach that standard.”
Lewes oversaw most of this unit’s early training. Teaching them that the desert
should be respected and not feared. They spent hours on desert camouflage
techniques, navigation by the stars, practicing moving at night with minimum noise.
They trained their bodies to accept paltry amounts of hydration. The men respected the focussed and determined Lewes above all other officers, earning the respect of the men
because he never asked them to do something, he could not do himself.
Lewes noticed the weaknesses of other blast and incendiary devices they were being
issued. They were heavy, unreliable and failed to totally destroy planes when set on
them. The most effective method against a parked aircraft was a device that would both
explode and ignite, setting the fuel on fire. The current ‘two bomb’ device, consisted of
a one pound charge and gasoline, using two delayed fuses and a clock timer. The
result was a device weighing 5 pounds which took 30 minutes to prime!
Patrols transported their explosives unarmed. The fuses and detonators were
carried separately from the explosive devices to prevent accidental detonation. Even
the standard British grenade, the Mills bomb, with the exception of a few needed for
emergencies, was often carried with the fuses removed. When crossing the harsh
desert terrain patrols often faced more dangers from shifting primed explosives than
Lewes spent weeks in a tent in the Libyan desert, a man with no chemistry
background , determined to experiment with gelignite, ammonal, gun cotton and various
fuel mixtures. and find a better solution for his raiding parties. Lewes finally came up
with an effective, alternative. It consisted of a pound of Nobel 808 plastic explosive,
motor oil and a quarter pound of thermite all rolled together, the size of a tennis ball and
into which he inserted a 2-ounce dry guncotton primer, and a pencil detonator.
Depending upon thickness of the copper wire in the detonator, this could be set for
between 12 seconds and up to two hours.
The container for the explosive began life as a simple bag, which could be placed
on the target aircraft or vehicle or if coated in birdlime, stuck to it. Birdlime was made in
various ways from fruits of the desert, chewed until sticky and then rolled between the
hands and coated on the outside of the container, in exactly the same way as the locals
coated branches to catch birds. The bomb was usually placed in a cockpit or near the
fuel tanks and not thrown. The preferred location of placement was where the wing met
the fuselage as aircraft often had their fuel cells in the wings.
One of their transplanted commandos, Londoner Jeff Du Vivier, describes the
device in his diary: “It was plastic explosive and thermite and we rolled the whole lot
together with motor car oil. It was a stodgy lump and then you had a No.27 detonator,
an instantaneous fuse and a time pencil. The time pencil looked a bit like a ‘biro’ pen. It
was a glass tube with a spring-loaded striker held in place by a strip of copper wire. At
the top was a glass phial containing acid which you squeezed gently to break. The acid
would then eat through the wire and release the striker. Obviously the thicker the wire
the longer the delay before the striker was triggered [the pencils were color coded
according to the length of fuse]. It was all put into a small cotton bag and it proved to be
crude, but very effective. The thermite caused a flash that ignited the petrol, not just
blowing the wing off but sending the whole plane up”.
It was an ongoing process of trial and error. Several raids failed when their
pencil-detonators were rendered unusable by heavy rain. The timing of the detonators
could also be affected by the desert heat. The troopers of the SAS learned from every
raid. They began using the Lewes bomb in conjunction with the Mills grenade and
another device developed in the field by a British Parachute Officer, the No. 82,
Gammon Bomb. He called it his ‘hand artillery.’ An explosive charge was wrapped in
fabric and sewn to an impact fuse that detonated on sharp contact. The beauty of this
device was you could fill it with as much or as little explosive as you needed depending
upon the size of the target. This “improvised, generally hand-thrown bomb, was later
used by the British Home Guard, the Resistance forces in Europe as well as the SAS.
However in the desert in a cloak and dagger operation, placing all three together was
especially suitable for the destruction of large aircraft or vehicles.
Having blown up so many German planes, it was a cruel irony that he would
eventually be killed by one. Jock Lewes was killed in action in December 1941. He
was returning from a raid on German airfields using his eponymous bomb, when the
Long Range Desert Group truck, which had picked him up was attacked by a
lone Meschersmitt 110 fighter. Lewes was fatally wounded in the thigh by a 20 mm
round from the fighter and bled to death in about four minutes.
If Sir David Stirling ‘the Phantom Major’ was the backbone of the SAS and boxer
Paddy Mayne the brawn, it was Jock Lewes who was the brains of the outfit! Stirling
said of Lewes: “Jock could far more genuinely claim to be founder of the SAS than I.”