David Stirling: the Phoney Major: the life, times and truth about the founder of the SAS


Anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of the SAS may well be familiar with the regiment’s genesis myth: in 1941, a tall Commando called David Stirling, in hospital after a nasty parachute training jump, came up with the idea of a small force of men who could be parachuted deep behind enemy lines in North Africa, attacking airfields, causing havoc, and spreading terror before melting away into the desert.

When sufficiently mobile on crutches, Stirling made his way to General Headquarters (GHQ) to present the plans to his superiors. Denied entry for not having his pass, he ditched the crutches, somehow dragged himself over the barbed wire and, with a sentry in hot pursuit, barged into the office of General Neil Ritchie and breathlessly handed over his memo. Permission quickly followed to form and lead the unit, christened L Detachment, Special Air Service.

It’s a great story. It sets the template for the image of the SAS as skilled, self-sufficient, highly motivated soldiers who overcome all obstacles, beat all the odds, to achieve their goals. But it never happened.

In his excellent new book, David Stirling: the phoney major: the life, times and truth about the founder of the SAS, Gavin Mortimer uses extensive research and impressive access over many years to wartime members of the SAS to tell us the real story of the life of David Stirling and the often troubled infancy of the service.

Born into privilege – his paternal grandfather was a baronet and his mother was a daughter of the 13th Lord Lovat – Stirling followed the usual life of his caste, packed off to board at Ampleforth at a young age. Unlike his two older brothers, who shone academically and on the sports field, Stirling was a loner, a sensitive introvert who made little impact at the school. Surprising material, perhaps, for the man who would become feted as a legendary fighter, striking terror into his enemies.

Another key personality in this book is Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, the other legend of the early SAS. Mayne has had a bit of bad press over the years, largely thanks to David Stirling. He is usually portrayed as a two-dimensional character, superb on the battlefield but a truculent drunk off it. Here, Mortimer rehabilitates Mayne, painting a more rounded picture of a ‘brilliant operational brain’, a born leader, and a fearless, but never pointlessly reckless, warrior. It was raids led by Mayne, not Stirling, that built the unit’s reputation. Without his influence and successes, Mortimer argues, L Detachment would not have survived birth.

Mortimer also reveals the critical influence that David Stirling’s older brother, Bill, had on the formation of the unit. An early recruit to SOE, it was Bill Stirling who first understood the importance of excellent fieldcraft and training for irregular forces. He set up a training school in Scotland where he taught fledgling Commandos – many of whom would go on to be members of the nascent SAS, including David Stirling and Mayne – how to survive and fight behind enemy lines. Contrary to David’s tall tale of breaking into GHQ, it was Bill who ensured the memo proposing the formation of the SAS, which he had composed with David, landed on the right desks.

‘A disruptive influence’

Of David Stirling himself, Mortimer paints a picture of a poor soldier. Drafted into the Scots Guards at the outbreak of the war, he soon wound up at Bill’s Commando training school, where Bill quickly learned ‘what the Guards had known for several months: David Stirling was indolent and temperamental, a disruptive influence’. David was poor with firearms, and his strange decision-making, leading to poor operational outcomes on pointless raids he insisted on carrying out, did not endear him to Mayne and other soldiers under his command. Questionable decisions led directly to his capture, asleep with no sentries posted, by the Germans while on patrol in 1943.

LEFT A heavily armed patrol of L Detachment, Special Air Service troops in North Africa, 1943. David Stirling assiduously (and disingenuously) took credit for the creation of the service.
A heavily armed patrol of L Detachment, Special Air Service troops in North Africa, 1943. David Stirling assiduously (and disingenuously) took credit for the creation of the service. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

What Stirling excelled at was drinking and gambling. He spent much of his time in Cairo, whiling away the time in exclusive clubs and bars. He also had a rare talent for self-promotion, which led to his name becoming familiar to Winston Churchill, after Stirling recruited his son, Randolph, into the SAS. Recruiting from the old boy network brought Stirling men he was comfortable with. Mayne preferred to recruit men who were good fighters; it didn’t matter whether they were born well or dragged up from the gutter.

After his capture, Stirling’s war was over, despite a number of abortive escape attempts, which eventually led him to Colditz. The SAS thrived under Mayne for the rest of the war. Following Mayne’s untimely death in a car crash in 1955, Stirling once again used his powers of self-promotion to create his own myth, appropriating many of Mayne’s qualities and successes along the way.

After the war, Stirling never achieved any real success, other than building his own myth once Mayne was safely out of the way. He got involved in various shady schemes in Africa and other places, often involving former, and sometimes serving, SAS operators, including one to depose the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Mortimer is scathing about how Stirling’s influence in these years ‘corrupted’ the SAS.

The book paints a portrait of a man who was great at coming up with schemes and ideas and charming others into believing, and investing, in them. But Stirling did not have the discipline or talents needed to pull them off. To form the SAS and for it to succeed he needed Bill Stirling and Mayne. Everything he tried before and after the war was unsuccessful because he didn’t have such quality support. He was jealous of Mayne, a far better fighter and leader. His brother, though he never went on an SAS raid, was probably more important in the history of the unit than David ever was.

There are parts of his closely guarded personal life that Mortimer briefly touches on towards the end of the book that help explain Stirling’s unease with himself and why he was such an awkward youth and unfulfilled adult. You can sympathise with why David Stirling so assiduously took most of the credit for the creation of the SAS for himself.

This is an important book that properly explains the early history of the SAS and David Stirling’s true role. It finally gives justified credit to Bill Stirling, Paddy Mayne, and others – not least the influence of the Long Range Desert Group, another one of the ‘private armies’ that sprung up in North Africa. It is a must read for anyone interested in the history of the SAS or the campaign in North Africa.

David Stirling: the Phoney Major the life, times and truth about the founder of the SAS
Gavin Mortimer
Constable, hbk (£25)
ISBN 978-1472134592