Thursday, December 28, 2006

"And now for something completely different . . ."A peek into the admittedly weird world of Special Tactics

In the November issue of The New Criterion, an indispensible periodical, there appears an article, In the Empty Quarter, by Ben Downing. Downing's article is also a book review of a biography of a truly great British character, Wilfred Thesiger, entitled Wilfred Thesiger: The Life of the Great Explorer. Thesiger was an accidental anthropologist, entomologist, and author of some truly great books about his experiences among different peoples. Two of his works that stand out are The Marsh Arabs, about the Shi'a tribes of southeastern Iraq, who were so persecuted by Saddam Hussein, whose army drained the marshes in which they lived (the marshes are currently being reclaimed), and his account of his five years spent among the Bedouin tribes of Saudi Arabia's Rub’ al Khali, or empty quarter, entitled Arabian Sands. He was one of the last great Victorian explorers, whose exploits I devoured as young pre-teen and teenager (upon receiving the first volume of William Manchester's two volume biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion for Christmas when I was 23, I shut myself in my room until New Years Day reading it, including New Years Eve).

Thesiger was also an early recruit into the U.K.'s elite SAS, a group of highly trained, courageous, well-educated special operations forces. The SAS, like its U.S. counterpart, the OSS, which formed the basis for the post-war CIA, was formed during World War II in a rather ad hoc manner. One of the pioneers of what became the SAS was Major General Orde Charles Wingate, who is described by Downing in the following passage:

"As luck would have it, he wound up serving under one of the great maverick commanders of the war, Orde Wingate. Famous chiefly for conceiving the Special Night Squads in Palestine and, four years later, the Chindits in Burma, Wingate brought forth between those two a third, lesser known military brainchild: Gideon Force, a small guerrilla outfit that proved instrumental in swiftly driving the Italians from Abyssinia [modern day Ethiopia, which Mussolini invaded in 1935].Wingate, despite belonging to the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren, was less than demure in his bodily habits. A diehard nudist, he often held staff meetings in the buff, and Thesiger reports other forms of unorthodox behavior:

"'He never washed now [and] his only ablutions were to lower his trousers and cool his bottom in the occasional waterholes, from which, incidentally, others would have to drink.' As for Thesiger himself, he was responsible for one of the last triumphs of the short-lived Gideon Force when he obtained the surrender of Fort Agibar and its garrison; on Wingate’s recommendation he was awarded the DSO in 1941.

"Under the auspices of SOE, Thesiger was next sent to help raise the Druze Legion against the Vichy French in Syria, where he based himself in a Saracen castle. In another SOE operation, he then made his way, virtually alone, to the Red Sea Hills in Egypt, where he planned the disruption of German communications in case Rommel should take Cairo and head up the Nile. After Rommel was halted, Thesiger was transferred to the Greek Sacred Squadron of the SAS, formed (as he put it) 'in emulation of the Theban Band of Hellenic times,' with whom he fought proficiently enough to earn from SAS founder David Stirling a priceless compliment: 'Wilfred had a real nostril for desert.' His was, in short, just the sort of war—colorful, wide-ranging, independent—that one would expect from a man of his parts."

For a compelling story of a more recent SAS exploit, written by men who lived it, read Bravo Two Zero by Andy McNab and The Real Bravo Two Zero by Michael Asher. Incidentally, Asher has also written a biography of Thesiger, entitled Thesiger: A Biography.

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