BOOK REVIEW / A place for mad people: 'David Stirling' - Alan Hoe: Little, Brown, 17.50

NO FIGURE in Britain's recent military history could quite match the achievements and nerve of David Stirling. As a young lieutenant he smuggled himself into a General's office, disobeying orders that he should not do so, to convince the senior officer that the Army should agree to the formation of the Special Air Service.

In the two years which followed the unit's birth in 1941, it mounted devastatingly successful operations behind Axis lines in the north African desert, destroying 400 aircraft as well as countless fuel dumps, command posts and vehicles. During the same period, Lieutenant Stirling was promoted three times, becoming a Lieutenant-Colonel at the age of 25.

Despite this catalogue of success and extraordinary testimonials of the senior brass, David Stirling received few decorations. The Army's failure to give him the Victoria Cross was an indictment of both the organisation and the order.

Stirling commanded many missions in person, returning from the desert to deal with the paperwork and fight off the staff officers in HQ whom he described as 'fossilised shit'. Eventually, though, the SAS founder was caught behind enemy lines and spent nearly two years in prison camps. It was from this point that his life began to travel in the only direction possible from the dizzy summit he had reached at such a young age.

In November 1942 General Montgomery said 'the Boy Stirling is mad. Quite, quite mad. However, in war there is often a place for mad people'. What do they do, though, when the war is over?

Following his release from Colditz, Stirling meandered through a series of ventures which, he was to conclude shortly before his death in 1990, achieved little. He started the Capricorn Africa Society, a worthy but ultimately forlorn attempt to check the forces of racism and nationalism in that region. He dipped into the world of private mercenary operations, becoming an occasional annoyance to HMG and sometimes operating outside the law. His life post-SAS became an unfortunate series of unfinished businesses born of a butterfly mind driven by huge energy.

Stirling's temperament ruled out staying in the Army and matching the feat of Michael Carver who, having reached Lieutenant-Colonel at a similar age in the western desert, went on to become a Field Marshal and Chief of the Defence Staff. But Stirling also failed to emulate the feats of other war heroes like Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC, who committed their lives to great endeavours outside the military.

Alan Hoe was chosen by Stirling himself to write this authorised biography. Having read of the SAS founder's adventures as a teenager, Hoe managed to join the regiment as a trooper. Twenty years in the SAS transformed his life. Hoe begins this book as a young man contemplating his future as a labourer in Devon and ends it as an SAS Major, taken into the confidence of his aristocratic hero and making passing reference to his London club.

It is highly unlikely that the task of writing an authorised biography of Sir David - he was knighted shortly before his death - would ever have been given to anybody outside the SAS family. The long tape-recorded interviews with him, often quoted at length, are undoubtedly the best thing about the book. In them, Stirling rakes over everything from the tortured sexuality of a young Catholic blue blood in the 1930s to how confinement in prison camps made him fearful of forming any permanent bonds, so contributing to his later failures.

It was not just this access which made Alan Hoe's own SAS background an asset. He writes of desert soldiering, for example, with the confidence of somebody who has experienced it for himself. But there are problems arising from Hoe's closeness to his subject, particularly in the accounts of Stirling's later life. Many documents relating to Stirling's business and right-wing political ventures are reproduced at tedious length. They would have been better confined to appendices, with Hoe quoting from them more selectively.

More importantly, in his own writing, Alan Hoe never seems to get to grips with the sense that Stirling's life after his twenties was wasted. It is quite clear from the taped interviews that Sir David felt this in part himself. But the author, apart from some criticism of his subject's skills as a business manager, defends him to the bitter end.

Whereas Stirling admitted that, in hindsight, his involvement with GB-75, a private organisation intended to thwart any general strike in the 1970s, was 'ill-advised', Hoe writes positively of the validity of the venture. In later chapters much space is given to rubbishing the newspapers which portrayed Stirling as a rightist 'Colonel Blimp' and to cryptic rebuttals of other critics, including former members of the SAS and business partners. Yet it is apparent that Stirling gained such a high profile as a loose cannon of the right that his association with various political causes became a liability to them.

Writing more frankly about Stirling's later years would have made the book a better read and would not, I believe, have involved Hoe in any disloyalty to the man who transformed his own life so completely. Hoe extols the achievements of Stirling's post- war efforts, but surely no sensible person would suggest that this biography would have been written on the basis of those largely unsuccessful schemes alone. There is no shame in admitting that the formation of the SAS and its successes during the Second World War made Stirling special. The rest was largely disappointment.

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