‘This is rock-star history!’ – Antony Beevor on the gung-ho brilliance of SAS Rogue Heroes

The Guardian
The Guardian

I really have to take my hat off to Steven Knight. The writer of Peaky Blinders has adapted Ben Macintyre’s SAS Rogue Heroes , the authorised history of the Special Air Service, and turned it into the best dramatic series the BBC has produced for ages.

The show opens with a huge column of British army trucks crossing the Libyan desert to the stirring sounds of Colonel Bogey marching music. This could be the start of a classic 1950s war movie, but our expectations are soon turned upside down. The junior officer in the lead vehicle, Lieutenant David Stirling of the Scots guards, brings the convoy to a halt. They are on their way to relieve besieged Tobruk but, due to a miscalculation of staggering stupidity, he discovers that they have been given fuel for just 500 kilometres, not the 500 miles required. No more Colonel Bogey. Along with Stirling’s fury, the soundtrack explodes into AC/DC’s If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It). Rogue Heroes, we soon find, is closer to rock-star history – and yet, so enjoyably gung-ho is this adaptation, the anachronism proves irresistible.

Lady Lampson wore thigh-length boots as she thrashed the British ambassador’s buttocks before bed

I had given up hope of ever seeing another second world war series or movie that did not have me grinding my teeth in irritation at unnecessary historical mistakes. Worst of all are the deceitful rewrites, changing characters and events in vital ways yet still claiming some sort of authenticity, such as the unforgivably distorted film The Imitation Game , in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays legendary codebreaker Alan Turing.

Knight has of course taken liberties with the precise record, but they are mainly additions, fleshing out characters and context, not distortions. He invents a love affair between Stirling and a beautiful young French intelligence officer, but it does not jar. In the opening credits, Rogue Heroes proclaims: “Based on a true story, the events depicted which seem most unbelievable … are mostly true.” Although tongue in cheek, this feels necessary, as the origins of this rogue regiment certainly defy belief.
An unholy alliance … Alfie Allen as Jock Lewes, Connor Swindells as David Stirling and Jack O’Connell as Paddy Mayne. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Kudos

Without wasting any time, Knight introduces the three key characters in the creation of the SAS. David Stirling, a tall, polite patrician, has little respect for rank or military discipline, partly because of his own effortless social position, but mainly because of his angry contempt for senior staff officers at General Headquarters back in Cairo.

In sharp contrast to Stirling, Lieutenant Paddy Mayne, a rugger international from Ulster, may be a lover of poetry, but he is better known as an unexploded bomb likely to go off as soon as he has downed more than a bottle of whisky or rum. Mayne is first shown meeting Stirling in a military prison, having beaten up his own commanding officer for interrupting a game of chess, although this is almost certainly SAS myth rather than the truth.

The third officer is Lieutenant Jock Lewes of the Welsh guards, another who cannot forgive the weakness of “gentlemen generals” in north Africa. Lewes is self-driven, a true military obsessive determined to kill as many of the enemy as possible in night-time raids. He is also a bit of a prig, with a romantic vision of knightly duty and in love with an ethereal young woman called Miriam Barford whom he wants to marry.

Several men, including Mayne, may have been suppressing gay instincts as they fought men from other units in Cairo’s red-light district

In the desert, there was little time for snobbery. Right from the start, we see the SAS coming together as an unholy alliance of upper-class thugs, mostly from Guards regiments, along with “pirates” from other backgrounds who are equally violent and determined to fight the advancing Axis forces. In what was almost inevitably a misogynistic environment, men were judged on their courage and stamina. Several of them, including Mayne, may even have been suppressing gay instincts as they fought and drank men from other units into oblivion back in the fleshpots of Cairo’s red-light district. It was Evelyn Waugh, an officer from the Middle East commando unit known as Layforce, who claimed from personal knowledge that most gay men in the armed forces did not conform to popular stereotype. “Buggers were jolly brave in the war,” he wrote later to Lady Diana Cooper.
Invention … Sofia Boutella as French intelligence officer Eve. Photograph: Rory Mulvey/BBC/Kudos

There is, refreshingly and commendably, more than a hint of such sexual ambiguity in Rogue Heroes, with Mayne’s intense relationship with fellow commando Eoin McGonigal. And we first encounter Colonel Dudley Wrangel Clarke, the eccentric spy chief played with such relish by Dominic West, wearing a Chanel dress, makeup, long gloves and dangly earrings. This is a nod, perhaps, to the fact that Clarke was once arrested in Madrid dressed, as Macintyre relates in the source book, rather elegantly as a woman. The much sniggered-about incident was never fully explained and did Clarke’s career no harm whatsoever.

For officers with money and social contacts, such as Stirling, there were civilised distractions in Cairo: drinks on the terrace of Shepheard’s Hotel, swimming in the Lido, or watching horse races at the country club that took up the whole southern end of the city’s central Gezira island. By night, there was dancing on the roof of the Continental Hotel or in a variety of clubs, which are distilled in Rogue Heroes to the Empire, where Cairo high society – Muslim, Jewish and Copt – mixed with the smartly uniformed “staff wallahs” of GHQ, whom desert veterans contemptuously called the “gaberdine swine”.

Stirling and Lewes decide that Rommel’s vulnerable flank in his advance along the Mediterranean coast lies to the south. They want to form a parachute unit but first must see whether dropping into the desert is practisable. Stirling’s parachute rips on the tailplane and he plummets to earth. His disastrous landing appears to have paralysed him from the waist down, but through sheer willpower he eventually recovers. Lewes makes a perfect landing but, possibly because it would slow and confuse the narrative, what we aren’t told is that he was so moved by the experience, he actually composed a poem about the romance of parachuting: “… look up and love the white canopy / Steadfast above you, an angel in panoply / Guarding the skies.”
Arrested in Madrid … Dominic West plays cross-dressing spy chief Dudley Wrangel Clarke. Photograph: Kudos/BBC/PA

After a disastrous operation with massive losses, the parachute option is abandoned and the SAS is instead transported across the Great Sand Sea to enemy airfields in Jeeps. Mayne’s team rapidly proves itself the best destroyer of aircraft on the ground, and his men have no hesitation in massacring the unarmed pilots and ground staff in a hut by the runway. Stirling, leading another team on separate, simultaneous raids, would change tactics to make use of machine-guns mounted on Jeeps. He formed his vehicles into a V-formation and they advanced down the runway pouring a massive volume of fire at aircraft parked on either side.

Knight has a lot of fun with Stirling and Mayne’s competition over whose team destroys the most aircraft, which we see continue as childish and as deadly as ever. Outside observers wrongly believed this rivalry to be an irritating display of amateur gamesmanship, a part of the British refusal to take the war seriously, but Stirling later admitted that he needed it to deal with his own fears, only too conscious of the way that Mayne despised any hint of a desire for self-preservation. No less enjoyable is how the camera revels in the contrast between the harshness of desert campaigning and the luxury of Cairo life for the British proconsular elite based at the embassy. In fact, the latter’s semi-colonial arrogance was breathtaking. In February 1942, the British ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson, had King Farouk’s palace surrounded with armoured cars, forcing him to make a humiliating change of government. Lampson appears to have been a bully with a secret. That great Byzantine scholar Sir Steven Runciman used to recount with glee how, from a block of flats behind the embassy, you could watch through binoculars the much younger Lady Lampson wearing thigh-length boots as she thrashed his buttocks before they went to bed.
Far from the desert campaign … distractions at the Empire Club. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Kudos

The SAS’s early successes opened all the doors Stirling needed. He was allowed to recruit from commando regiments in the Middle East and in September 1942 Operation Bigamy was launched, an unusually large attack on Benghazi. Bigamy proved a disaster because it had become common knowledge in Cairo, and the Axis wasted no time in preparing countermeasures. Although we don’t see this in Rogue Heroes, Stirling warned GHQ that the operation was compromised but this was dismissed as “bazaar gossip” and he was ordered to proceed.

Despite the setback, Stirling was promoted to lieutenant colonel but his luck was bound to run out. The series ends with his wry smile as he is captured in Tunisia, having dared a leap too far. He wanted to be the first officer from Montgomery’s Eighth Army to meet up with the Anglo-American First Army advancing from Morocco, but his group runs straight into a German panzer division from which there is no escape.

Knight has achieved the right balance of irreverence and admiration all the way through with a brilliant contrast in characters. SAS Rogue Heroes is unmissable viewing with a truly refreshing lack of retrospective moralising.

• SAS Rogue Heroes is on iPlayer.

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