The connection between the Commandos, the US Rangers and the SAS

well_chuffed, Going Postal
Two LRDG trucks armed with water cooled Vickers guns
Unknown author / Public domain

Apart from the fact that they are all some kind of special forces, the real connection is that they were all given their names by Dudley Clarke who finished the war as a Brigadier. Who the hell is he you all ask.

As part of my investigations into the North African Campaign, reading a few books on the deceptions involved was time well spent.

On the 18th December 1941 Clarke arrived in Cairo to take charge of deception planning, soon to be known as “A” Force, the “A” was suitably ambiguous and didn’t really stand for anything. Earlier in May 1940 Clarke had put forward ideas for small amphibious raiding parties along the lines of the Boers in South Africa and suggested the name Commandos in honour of the Boers. The idea was suggested to General Dill who passed it on to an enthusiastic Prime Minister who was desperate for some action. Clarke even accompanied the first raid on France on 24 June 1940 but was not allowed ashore. The raid wasn’t a great success but Churchill liked it because it looked like we were taking the fight to the Hun. Commandos it was. Churchill inflated the importance and success of the raids, much like the Imperial Lord Ferg did with the League Cup when manure won it in the absence of any other visible signs of success. He had previously been quite rude about it.

In January 1941 Clarke met Colonel William J Donovan of the US Army. Donovan would go on to be the head of the OSS, the fore-runner of the CIA. Clarke made his Commando suggestion to Donovan but diplomatically suggested the name “Rangers” after Rogers’ Rangers in the film Northwest Passage. In May of the next year, the Rangers were formed.

So that’s two of the three he named, the use of SAS was slightly more involved. Clarke was one of the instigators of inventing fictitious units to encourage the other side to think we were stronger than were really were. The peak of this was FUSAG in 1944, or the First US Army Group, supposedly stationed in South East England and ready to invade the Pas de Calais region after D Day. FUSAG existed in name only, even though it was ostensibly commanded by General Patton, but it helped convince Adolf the Normandy landings were a feint.

Between 1941 and 1945 Clarke invented seven Brigades, thirty two Divisions, ten Corps and three entire Armies. All of these were notional and existed only in the enemy’s imagination and radio transmissions. The reason the Germans didn’t invade Cyprus after taking Crete was because of just such a ruse. In reality Cyprus was defended by little more than two men and a dog. When the Germans discovered there really was an SAS it only served to confirm all their worst suspicions. For an allegedly logical people the Hun can easily be hoodwinked if it is done in a subtle way.

Now to the SAS. The British had become aware from Italian prisoners that they were petrified that the British might use paratroopers like the Germans’ Fallschirmjäger. To stir the pot, Clarke invented a force he christened the Special Air Service. Two years before any British paratroops appeared in the theatre (it would be Operation Torch that introduced them) Clarke invented yet another  imaginary unit. The 1st Battalion of the Special Air Service. The 1st used parachutes and the 2nd and 3rd used gliders, or so he spun the story. They were supposed to be training in Jordan near Amman. Each Battalion consisted of 500 troops in ten platoons (A-K).

On the 2nd February 1941 Parade picture magazine carried a photo of an Abyssinian wrapped in what appeared to be a  parachute in front of a Bristol Bombay aircraft. In reality he was just an Egyptian laundryman. Hints and lies were spread in the right quarters as well as the appearance of a few tight-lipped troops wearing the uniforms and badges of 1 SAS. In June Clarke arranged for the RAF to fly over Helwan and drop dummy paratroopers, they did this a few times. The Axis received information from their spies in Cairo, including one Anwar Sadat, that the men would be dropped with their Bren guns, mortars and explosives behind the lines. Cue some very very wobbly Italians.

In hospital in Fuka was Lieutenant David Stirling, recovering from a training mishap, and he was running the Commando concept through his head. He thought that smaller teams of 4 people would be better than the hundreds in a Commando. He had to push his plans onto the top brass in the Middle East, a procedure he described as going through layer upon layer of fossilised shit. Luckily he persevered and his idea took birth as the SAS. He used Clarke’s SAS name so as to get Clarke’s backing and that backing was considerable. Clarke was able to phone just about anybody to get things moving. This was of course right up Clarke’s street, his purely imaginary SAS would become real and convince the Germans that what they had learned from intelligence was completely true. Stirling settled for “L detachment” SAS, the letters A-K were taken by Clarke’s wholly non existent ten platoons.

And this dear Puffins is how one man managed to name three of the most famous Special Forces Units.

© well_chuffed 2020

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