REVIEW BY DAVID FLINTHAM
Sequels can often be disappointing: they put additional pressure on the author to come up with something as good as the original, and create a sense of expectation among the readership which can be hard to live up to. In SAS Great Escapes Two, author Damien Lewis has bitten this particular bullet. As the title suggests, the book recounts six remarkable tales of survival by members of the Special Air Service during the Second World War. The first dates from the early days of the service in December 1941, when a seven-man unit crossed the Libyan Desert, returning to their base nine weeks after they had been listed as ‘Missing in Action’ and to all intents and purposes left for dead. The second story is from Crete in June 1942, after one member of an SAS unit landed on the island to raid the German aerodrome at Heraklion.
The action moves back to North Africa for the third account, and is centred around Operation Bigamy in September 1942, which aimed to destroy the Axis-held harbour at Benghazi and raid the Libyan airfield of Benina. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, one of the founders of the service, the operation was a disastrous failure, with medics forced to abandon some of the wounded soldiers where they lay. The next story describes the capture and subsequent escape of Stirling himself five months later. Recent study suggests that Stirling was less the ‘Phantom Major’ than a ‘Phoney Major’, and that he was partially to blame for getting himself and his men caught in the first place. Ultimately, just three of his 24-man patrol got free.
The final accounts are both from France in the summer of 1944. The first follows Operation Bulbasket, which aimed to block German reinforcements heading to Normandy in June – a partial success story that cost the lives of more than 30 SAS agents. The final account follows the escape of one member of SABU-70, a 12-man SAS raiding party that had parachuted into France that same month, an incident the author has covered before. What is immediately apparent is just how different the fighting in North Africa was from that in France: the obvious differences in geography and climate aside, the war in France was far more brutal than it was in North Africa.
The author is a marvellous storyteller, although very occasionally maintains his fast-paced narrative at the cost of overlooking some finer detail. During the ‘Last Stand at Heraklion’, for example, the author depicts ‘a figure dressed in Feldgrau – the distinctive grey-green uniform of the German military’, while two chapters later, during Stirling’s capture in Tunisia in January 1943, ‘jackboots thundered up the length and breadth of the wadi, as hundreds of figures in Feldgrau flooded it…’. These are evocative portrayals, but are they accurate for German troops in the Mediterranean or North Africa?
The public’s appetite for books about the wartime exploits of the SAS seems to be insatiable, something publishers and television producers are keen to exploit. So numerous are the titles that the challenge for authors is to come up with genuinely fresh angles each time. The stories told here have rarely been heard before, perhaps as a result of the author’s obviously extensive research. There is a real sense that he has relied more on the personal collections of the family members of those portrayed than the contents of the public archives.
Acknowledging his readers, Damien Lewis hopes that he has delivered ‘an enjoyable, rewarding, illuminating read’. He has definitely succeeded. Despite my initial hesitation, this book is enthralling, packed with tales of derring-do, survival against the odds, betrayal, revenge, sacrifice, and human endeavour.
Damien Lewis Quercus (hbk), £22