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Historical Notes: `Private armies' without `proper soldiers'?

THE SECOND World War has been described as "The Golden Age" of Special Forces. Never before or since have so many "private armies" flourished in the British armed forces or received so much adulation in the press. Despite this publicity, or perhaps because of it, Special Forces were not universally admired. Field Marshal Slim condemned "private armies" as "expensive, wasteful and unnecessary, while conceding:

There is, however, one kind of special unit which should be retained - that designed to be employed in small parties, usually behind the enemy, on tasks beyond the normal scope of warfare in the field.

Others were far more hostile. Another general remarked:

They [Special Forces] contributed nothing to Allied victory. All they did was to offer a too easy, because romanticised, form of gallantry to a few antisocial irresponsible individualists, who sought a more personal satisfaction from the war than of standing their chance, like "proper soldiers", of being bayoneted in a slit trench or burnt alive in a tank.

Of the myriad special force units, perhaps the most cost- effective was the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), brainchild of Major Bagnold, who with a group of like-minded officers spent time pre-war exploring the Western Desert in Egypt. He also illegally entered the then Italian Colony of Cyrenaica, where he met Count Ladislas de Almasy, the real "English Patient". During the desert war, the LRDG penetrated thousands of miles behind enemy lines, and, as well as raiding, garnered priceless information. Later, still calling themselves the LRDG, they operated in Yugoslavia, Albania, the Aegean and Italy.

Field Marshal Slim's condemnation of special forces was probably made with Wingate's Chindits in mind. Wingate having made a name for himself in Palestine before the Second World War, and in Abyssinia in 1941, led an expedition into Burma, to attack the Japanese lines of communications. Casualties were heavy for little return. Out of some 3,200 who marched into Burma on 2 February, 182 had returned four months later. Of the 1,000 or so missing, about 450 were battle casualties, the remainder were sick or starved on the inadequate rations. Many fell into enemy hands. Very few of those who did return were fit for active service again.

When Wingate emerged from Burma, he thought he would be court-martialled for incompetence. But, to his surprise, there were banner headlines in the British press about his exploits. He recovered his aplomb and his skill at "creative" writing, and crafted a report which, as well as showing his exploits in the best possible light, called for a repeat performance on a vastly greater scale. Again few of those who survived were fit for further active duty, and the returns were questionable, set against the effort involved.

It would be insulting the thousands who volunteered, or were volunteered, for "hazardous service" in the multifarious special units - Chindits, LRDG, SAS, SBS, Jedboroughs, V Force, Popski's Private Army, to name but some - to suggest that they were seeking the easy way out. Most were very young, and brimming with energy; the majority civilians who had joined, or been conscripted, to fight in the war. From the wealth of talent, skills, intellect and entrepreneurial spririt in the armed forces of the nation in arms, some remarkable units were formed; of whom some achieved spectacular results.

Julian Thompson is the author of `War Behind Enemy Lines' (Pan, pounds 10)