Why another book about the Special Air Service? This was my first reaction on seeing Damien Lewis’s latest work. There is no shortage of titles about the best-known of all British special forces (the author, an acknowledged expert on the SAS, has written several), but given readers’ apparent insatiable appetite for the subject, it is no surprise that they keep coming.
Yet, from the outset, this is a history with a difference. Set in the aftermath of D-Day, it concerns SABU-70, a 12-man SAS raiding party. Following an aborted attempt two days previously, the raiders were landed on 16 June 1944 at La Ferté-Alais, south-east of Paris, and went on successfully to attack the railway and munition dumps at Dourdan.
The author also discusses the role of 190 and 620 Squadrons, flying four-engine Short Stirling bombers which, although obsolete as heavy bombers, performed superbly in their new role of dropping special forces and agents behind enemy lines, and undertaking airdrops to resistance groups. The skill of pilots and crews is highlighted, culminating in the audacious extraction of SABU-70 from Étampes aerodrome by a C47 – truly the stuff of Hollywood.
The drama and excitement of the first ten chapters is followed by something altogether more sinister and tragic. As a result of the Germans’ Funkspiel (‘radio game’), SABU-70’s next raid was a disaster, and they were ambushed at their drop zone. Two died, three managed to escape, and seven fell into the hands of the Gestapo.
Following time in hospital, the captives were moved to the notorious Gestapo headquarters at Avenue Foch in Paris, then on to Noailles Wood, some 50 miles north of the city, to face execution on the orders of Hitler. His infamous Das Kommandobefehl (‘Commando Order’) of 18 October 1942 resulted in the murders of more than 250 British commandos, paratroops, and special forces.
But six SABU-70 raiders survived the ambush, the deliberate neglect in hospital, the torture, and execution. When the last of them had reached home, it was time to bring the culprits to justice. The hunt for the killers forms the last part of the book, the author going beyond those directly involved in the execution of the SABU-70 raiders (of the 100 or so SAS raiders captured after D-Day, only a handful survived the war) and looks at the SAS’s own War Crimes Investigation Team (WCIT).
Surviving the disbandment of the SAS in September 1945, the WCIT continued to operate secretly alongside the War Office’s own war-crimes investigation unit and brought to trial the six men responsible for the execution of the members of SABU-70. All six were found guilty – three were executed, two were imprisoned, and one was returned to the French for a further trial.
However, the senior SS officer escaped prosecution, as his knowledge of Soviet agents was just too tempting for British intelligence to ignore. So, despite his role in the liquidation of Allied agents, he was later recruited by British intelligence. Another person to escape prosecution was a SOE double-agent who participated in Funkspiel from Avenue Foch.
Despite my initial reservations, this book is an enthralling read, with excitement, suspense, intrigue, and tragedy in equal measure.
Review by David Flintham
This is an article from the February/March 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.