Sunday, 24 March 2013

A very British hero

I took a walk from Bridge of Allan up to the Stirling monument, which looks out towards the Highlands from a ridge on the Doune Road and commemorates Sir David Stirling, founder of the SAS and a very British hero. The land it stands on is part of the Keir estate his family once owned, but later sold to a Saudi Arabian sheikh.

The walk wasn't a familiar route, but took me round the estate walls on the Carse of Lecropt and then up through broken farm and woodland to the Doune-Bridge of Allan road. I saw a couple of healthy looking deer, a few buzzards and a beautiful red kite. There were also, despite the freezing weather and intermittent snow flocks of Yellowhammers and Chaffinches in the hedgerows.

The monument is an impressive bronze that stands nine foot tall on top of a stone plinth and the subject wears an army duffel coat and has binoculars hanging on his chest, but Stirling's true memorial is the unit he founded in 1941. L Detachment Special Air Service bore little resemblance to the elite SAS squadrons we know today. Stirling was the kind of Walter Raleigh swashbuckler who was probably born a hundred years after his time. He'd been commissioned into the Scots Guards, but wangled himself a transfer to 8 Commando because he wanted to see some action. Operations in North Africa convinced him that the Commandos were too large and cumbersome for the kind of raiding that was required. He managed to convince General Claude Auchinleck that a 'special force' could do the job better and was given permission to recruit six officers and sixty men.

Initial operations were unsuccessful, even disastrous. On the first raid, Operation Crusader, he lost 42 of his 61 men after the air drop went wrong scattering men all over the desert. Only the strength of will of its charismatic commander saved the SAS. From now on they would go in by land. Stirling often led the hit and run operations personally, planting bombs on enemy warplanes and raiding supply convoys. His luck ran out in January 1943 when he was captured by the Germans and eventually ended up in Colditz Castle. In the 15 months since he had founded the SAS his men had destroyed two hundred and fifty enemy aircraft, blown up dozens of supply dumps and wrecked railways. Field Marshal Montgomery described him as 'mad, quite mad' but acknowledged his worth as a soldier.

After the war, Stirling's reputation was undermined by becoming involved in mercenary groups and shadowy organisations aimed at undermining the trade union movement. An inveterate gambler who once lost £150,000 in one night, his biggest gamble was probably his plan to stage a coup as Britain drifted what he believed was too far to the left in 1975. Fortunately for his country and his memory he was less successful as a coup leader than he was at organising raids against the Nazi supply lines and the attempt fizzled out.

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