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The Phantom Major: The Story of David…

The Phantom Major: The Story of David Stirling and the SAS Regiment (1958)

by Virginia Cowles

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The Phantom Major (1958) is by Virginia Cowles one of the great female journalists of her era - she was a friend of Ernest Hemingway having spent time with him in Spain during the Civil War. This lively account of the SAS in Africa in 1942-43 was written about 15 years after the events it describes based on extensive first-person interviews with David Stirling and others. A more recent popular history of the SAS was published this year called Rogue Heroes, but I think this one is an excellent introduction and close to the people and spirit of the times. It sometimes felt a bit Hogan's Heroes with bumbling Germans and school-boy antic British commandos, but the cliche exists for a reason. They didn't treat death too seriously, life was cheap and easy. It's remarkable to watch a new form of warfare being made up on the fly, the birth of the modern Special Forces. ( )
  Stbalbach | Dec 20, 2016 |
The Special Air Service, SAS, was the brilliant idea of David Stirling. In 1941 with the rank of Lieutenant he talked himself into a job leading a new detachment. Noting that airfields were poorly guarded, he realized that small groups of his men could attack and get away under the cover of darkness. A group of five men attached bombs to enemy aircraft. Stirling even had a hand in developing the bomb used, a hand-held combination of explosive and incendiary, weighing about one pound. The result did more damage that RAF bombers in the area prompting Rommel to refer to him as the Phantom Major. In fifteen months he destroyed over two hundred and fifty aircraft, dozens of supply dumps, and hundreds of vehicles. All this with an astonishingly small loss of life. Eventually the regiment was created from the group, and Stirling promoted to Colonel - although it took time to win over traditional army brass who were wary of anyone operating outside their methods.

Stirling had the support of all his men. He never ordered them to do anything, but instead would suggest "wouldn't it be fun to..." He was tall, athletic and had a charming personality that won over many. In 1948 he formed the Capricorn Africa Society that promoted an Africa where all races, colours, and creeds might live in harmony.

Cowles' book, written from SAS notes and interviews with the group describes a charming, appealing adventurer that conjures up a cross between Action Man and James Bond. She created an exciting story that has not faded in the intervening decades since it was written. ( )
1 vote VivienneR | Apr 4, 2016 |
Excellent account of a fascinating portion of the Second World War. Virginia Cowles is a solid writer and the subject material is better than fiction. Leaving aside the combat and shooting, just getting across the Sahara and back was a trick. ( )
  Whiskey3pa | Feb 9, 2014 |
This reads like an adventure novel, but claims to be the true account of David Sterling and the origins and activities of the SAS, a British Special Forces regiment in the African desert. Their methods include driving hundreds of miles around the flank of the German Afrika Korps and attacking airfields, supply dumps, petrol trucks, supply transport and warehouses during the night to be followed by a mad dash back to a hiding place in the desert. Eventually, General Rommel had to assign a special unit to track them down plus more men to guard airfields and supply installations, men he desperately needed at the front. One interesting fact is that Stirling's group destroyed more aircraft then any RAF squadron. Cowles gathered her information from the diaries and interviews of survivors. ( )
  lamour | Jan 25, 2010 |
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In the dark and uncertain days of 1941 and 1942, when Rommel's tanks were sweeping towards Suez, a handful of daring raiders were making history for the Allies. They operated deep behind the German lines, often driving hundreds of miles through the deserts of North Africa. They hid by day and struck by night, destroying aircraft, blowing up ammunition dumps, derailing trains, and killing many times their own number. These were the SAS, Stirling's desert raiders, the brainchild of a deceptively mild-mannered man with a brilliant idea. Small teams of resourceful, highly trained men would penetrate beyond the front lines of the opposing armies and wreak havoc where the Germans least expected it.… (more)

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