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)

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate