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The madman who founded the SAS

Stirling, right, and other SAS fighters in North Africa, 1943. Capt G Keating/Imperial War Museums/Getty

David Stirling, founder of the SAS, was “quite, quite mad”, says Tom Fordy in The Daily Telegraph. At least, that was the assessment of his military nemesis Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. Bored in Cairo during the Second World War, Stirling jumped out of a plane without proper training, tore his parachute on the tail, and hit the ground so hard he was “temporarily blinded and paralysed”. Shortly after, while still recovering, he broke into the British Middle East HQ using his crutches “as a kind of ladder to get over the wire while the guards weren’t looking”. His purpose? Putting his proposal for a new regiment directly into the hands of the generals.

It worked. As depicted in the new BBC series SAS: Rogue Heroes, Stirling became commander of the newly minted SAS – a swashbuckling gang of rogue soldiers intent on giving the enemy as much of a headache as possible, by any means necessary. After a chaotic, sometimes disastrous start, their clandestine sabotage missions destroyed dozens of enemy aircraft, fuel tankers and trucks, disrupting the German supply lines in North Africa. Their later success was in part down to Winston Churchill, who met Stirling at a dinner and admired him. Churchill gave Stirling an autograph, which Stirling used to forge a document giving the SAS access to whatever they needed. “It was a very useful piece of paper,” said Stirling. “But in a sense it was authentic, because Churchill was terribly pleased with the SAS. We used to chuck his son Randolph out of aircraft, which he thought was immensely good for him.”