REVIEW – The Elite: the story of special forces – from Ancient Sparta to the War on Terror

3 mins read
Ranulph Fiennes
Simon & Schuster, £20 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1471156618

Sir Ranulph Fiennes is, perhaps, Britain’s most celebrated adventurer – the oldest Briton to summit Everest, the only holder of two clasps to the Polar Medal, and a man who famously amputated his own frost-bitten fingers with a hacksaw in a garden shed.

This book, however, is inspired by an eight-year military career that included service with the Royal Scots Greys (RSG), the SAS, and the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces (SAF). Fiennes’ inspiration and style very much resemble the works of the late G.A. Henty, with a dash of Boy’s Own Magazine, interspersed with numerous autobiographical anecdotes from his own military and polar exploits.

Charmingly honest, it is clear that Fiennes’ earlier military career was not without incident. On one occasion, while serving with the RSG in the late 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, he managed to paralyse the entire Kiel Canal system for five hours when an unruly corporal under his command fired a magnesium flare that hit a Russian/Soviet tanker.

In the excitement, Fiennes’ men inadvertently left an RSG beret at the
scene of the crime, thus leading to eventual discovery and punishment. Undeterred, Fiennes progressed via the gruelling selection process to the SAS, where again the goddess Fortuna deserted him.

In an incident in which he was dubbed the ‘Baronet Bomber’ by the press, he was to be ‘Returned To Unit’ (RTU) by the SAS for ‘misuse’ of plastic explosives, in an abortive plot to demolish the film set of Doctor Dolittle, then located in the rural idyll of Castle Combe. By his own frank admission, Fiennes was fortunate to avoid a custodial sentence.

Indomitable to the last, Fiennes then headed for the Arabian desert and service with the SAF, an epiphany in his life, and one from which he has drawn the inspiration for this splendid book.

Fiennes had picked his moment well. Ever since the dramatic Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980, the press, and to some degree the public, have been obsessed by the idea of special forces. This obsession has risen to a veritable crescendo since the events of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror.

This obsession is to some extent nurtured by the aura of mystery that surrounds special forces – though the miasma of secrecy was fatally punctured by the publication of the frankly astonishing and disgraceful revelations of a former commanding officer of the SAS, General Peter de la Billière.

The fetish for special forces was not without its critics: another British general (who shall remain nameless) having the audacity to describe the hallowed SAS as ‘dustbin men who think they are brain surgeons’.


For Fiennes, the words ‘elite’ and ‘special forces’ appear interchangeable. This may confuse some readers, as it juxtaposes enormous forces – such as the Spartan Army of Ancient Greece, of say 10,000 men – with the minuscule SAS, of perhaps 400-600 men.

However, this is a story of élan, panache, and sheer professionalism that carries us from the Persian Immortals of the 6th century BC to the modern day.

It is, as is to be expected, a very Western view of military elites, a meagre six of the 25 chapters being devoted to non-European/-American formations. Of these six, the homicidal Assassins are the most engaging, with their propensity for ultra high-profile political murder, regardless of the personal cost.

An SAS patrol in North Africa during WWII. Established in 1941, this special unit of the British Army has contributed to the obsession with the idea of special forces.

It is curious to note that, although Fiennes avoids the point, modern Islamic terrorist groups have not thought to emulate the illustrious deeds of their forebears, who sought to slaughter the mighty yet spared the weak and innocent. Had they done so, we might view them in a very different light.

Notable omissions include the Zulus, the Gurkhas, and the Kamikaze – and these are just a few that immediately occur to me.

Turning to the modern world (post-1500), it was surprising to find the Dutch Marines (c .1650), the British Light Infantry (c .1800), and the RAF of the Battle of Britain (sic) included, but not the Spanish tercios of Charles V and Philip II, the 16th-century Polish ‘Winged’ Hussars of Stephen Báthory, Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, and Hitler’s Waffen SS.

Contemporary ‘elites’, covering four chapters, also exclude any mention of Israeli special forces/Mossad – surely among the finest and most successful in the world today. Former Soviet (now Russian) special forces are also conspicuous by their absence.

Despite these reservations, this is a wonderfully eclectic book that should have opened with the words arma virumque cano (‘I sing of arms and a man’: the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid). Packed with intriguing minutiae, it fully reflects the author’s predisposition for a life of turmoil and adventure, which, combined with his fascination for military elites, makes for a most entertaining read. It also acts as a fitting tribute to a life of courage in adversity, and to an indomitable, if sometimes reckless, spirit.

Review by Mark Corby

This article was published in the April 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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