By Pierre Kosmidis
Exhausted and filthy, the soldiers of the newly-formed SAS stand side-by-side in the desert.
Hours earlier, an abortive raid had seen more than half their comrades either killed or captured, but the men of the soon-to-be-famous force still manage to raise a grin.
The newly-discovered photograph from 1941 is the only known picture of the elite unit’s first ever raid, carried out by founder members known as the Originals.
This extraordinary historical document has been discovered as part of research which has also determined the founding date of the secretive unit as August 28, 1941 – 75 years ago today.
Men of the Long Range Desert Group returning from a 3-month trip behind enemy lines during war in North Africa
A wealth of detail of the early days of the Special Air Service (SAS) has been disclosed in a recently completed 13-year-project to commemorate every member of the regiment killed in the Second World War.
The 800-page roll of honour for the SAS and its forerunner, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), contains the stories of 374 men who died during the conflict.
Published for the 75th anniversary of the SAS’s founding, the three-volume memorial has been compiled from an exhaustive trawl of service records, operational reports, medal citations, memoirs, diaries and letters from next of kin.
Its author, a former soldier who uses the pen name Ex-Lance-Corporal X, has shed light on the earliest chapters of the regiment and saved stories that risked being lost as veterans died out.
The pictures were published for the 75th anniversary of the SAS’s founding
In the photograph of the survivors of the first ever SAS operation are some of the regiment’s most famous figures.
The picture was taken by then Capt ‘Jake’ Easonsmith, who at the time was an officer in the LRDG, and shows the aftermath the SAS’s disastrous first raid, codenamed Operation Squatter.
Only a few months earlier, a young Scots Guards officer called Lt David Stirling had proposed creating a force of raiders to operate deep behind enemy lines, attacking air fields, supply trains and ammunition dumps.
On its first mission, the newly-formed unit parachuted deep into enemy territory to destroy aircraft at Axis airfields, in preparation for a major British offensive to relieve the siege of Tobruk.
The raid on the night of November 16-17 had been meant to demonstrate the effectiveness of Stirling’s new force, but proved to be a costly failure.
Planes took off from Kabrit in Egypt, to deliver the parachuting raiding party to airfields at Tmimi and Gazala, West of Tobruk in Libya.
The operational order noted: “It is most important that the enemy should be unaware of your having landed or of your presence.”
But one plane was shot down with the loss of 13 parachutists and crew and the others jumped into heavy rain and a gale. Containers of equipment were blown away and parachutists were badly injured as they landed on rough ground in high winds.
Widely dispersed, the assault force was in no position to mount an attack and decided to trek the 36 hours back to the rendezvous point to be collected by their “taxi service” of LRDG trucks.
By the end of the operation, 32 of the 53 “operatives” had either been lost, killed or captured.
A 1943 file marked ‘most secret’ concluded that after the first operation it was “found inadvisable to carry out any more parachute operations in Western Desert. Long range operations proved much more successful.”
Difficulties of parachuting in the desert included “changeable weather, difficulties of accurate navigation owing to lack of landmarks, casualties on landing owing to rough country”.
Capt Easonsmith took the picture as he commanded the LRDG patrol that drove behind enemy lines to pick up the survivors. Standing next to then Capt Stirling, who is seen wearing sunglasses, is another key SAS figure Blair “Paddy” Mayne, who took over as leader of the SAS later in the war when Stirling was captured in 1943.
The research has also uncovered more detail of what happened to some of those lost on the raid CREDIT: THE FAMILY OF THE LATE LT-COL ‘JAKE’ EASONSMITH, DSO, MC (LRDG)
Mayne, a lieutenant at the time of the raid, had been an Irish rugby international before the war and went on to become one of the most decorated officers of the conflict, winning four Distinguished Service Orders, the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.
Several of the survivors from Operation Squatter went on to be killed in missions later in the war.
Capt Easonsmith himself was killed in 1943 in an ambush on the Greek island of Leros and the photo – showing in the foreground his silhouette holding the camera – remained with his family, who had no idea it showed the first SAS raid.
The research has also uncovered more detail of what happened to some of those lost on the raid, such as Pte Douglas Keith.
He is often recorded as dying from his wounds soon after the raid, but in fact the soldier had been made prisoner by the Italians and the following month was put on a transport ship from Benghazi across the Mediterranean, along with other PoWs.
The author’s painstaking research has also for the first time found the date of the founding of the SAS CREDIT: THE FAMILY OF THE LATE LT-COL ‘JAKE’ EASONSMITH, DSO, MC (LRDG)
On December 9 the SS Sebastiano Venier was attacked by a British submarine, HMS Porpoise, that was unaware its prey was carrying 2,000 prisoners in its hold.
Pte Keith’s family were later told the Italians had declared their son missing after the vessel was sunk.
The author’s painstaking research has also for the first time found the date of the founding of what was then known as L Detachment, SAS Brigade.
It has generally been accepted that Stirling came up with the idea sometime in July 1941, though the actual founding date has remained unknown.
But documents recovered by the author and service records show the first detachment was formed on August 28 – the day The Originals first assembled at their makeshift camp at Kabrit in Egypt.
The roll of honour has also confirmed the identities and details of six soldiers from the SAS and seven from the LRDG who were either unknown, or until now had only been suspected of being members.
Poor paperwork, secrecy, spelling mistakes and wartime confusion meant that some casualties were only recorded according to their parent unit, with no mention of them being attached to the SAS.
In some cases the research has put names to casualties described in operational reports, but whose identities were not known.
As a result some new names have already been added to the SAS official memorials in Hereford and Stirling.
The author said his research had also recognised 21 French and Greek nationals killed while officially attached to the British SAS.
“This is the first time that illustrated biographical entries have been written for each wartime casualty of the SAS and LRDG, with new casualties having been identified,” the author told the Sunday Telegraph.
“Not only are their stories engagingly human but they underline the commitment made by those who died in the course of their duty, many in horrific circumstance, and the courage they displayed in meeting their deaths.”
Much of the information has come from next of kin contacted by the author.
Alex van Straubenzee, whose uncle Maj Ian Fenwick of D Squadron, 1st SAS, was killed in action in August 1944 whilst behind the lines in France, said: “It’s an absolutely stunning piece of work. The author has done it so meticulously and it’s beautifully written.”
Profits from The SAS and LRDG Roll of Honour 1941-47 will go to Combat Stress.
The elite troops who became part of the regiment’s early history
Corporal Jeff du Vivier
Jeffrey Du Vivier, from Troon, Scotland, won the Military Medal having been promoted to sergeant in charge of training at the Special Raiding Squadron in Egypt.
He was wounded in battle days before the end of the war and later worked as a porter at the Prestwick Airport Hotel, Greater Glasgow, before dying in 2010 aged 94.
PCT Johnny Cooper
Johnny Cooper, of Oadby, Leicestershire, was later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and awarded a DCM.
He was also given an MBE after being stationed with the 22 SAS in Malaysia and is reported to have also worked in the Oman-Yemen conflict before retiring to Portugal.
Captain Jake Easonsmith
John Richard Easonsmith, of Bristol, England, reached Lieutenant Colonel rank in 1943, having been awarded the Military Cross and a DSO.
After assuming command of the Long Range Desert Group, he was later killed on Leros, aged 34.
Lieutenant William (Bill) Fraser
Lieutenant Fraser later became Captain and led the SAS’s Operation Houndsworth on June 10th 1944.
Winning the the Military Cross and bar, and the Croix de Guerre with Palm, Fraser retired from service after the Second World War.
Captain David Stirling
After founding the SAS, Stirling became a colonel, and later founded the Capricorn Africa Society – a society for promoting an Africa free from racial discrimination.
Stirling was knighted in 1990 – having been awarded a DSO and OBE – and died later that year aged 74.
Lieutenant Paddy Mayne
Robert Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, of County Down, Ireland, served until 1945, receiving a DSO with three bars and a Legion D’honneur and Croix de Guerre.
After a short period in the Falkland Islands with the British Antarctic Survey, Mayne became a solicitor, and then Secretary to the Law Society of Northern Ireland, before dying in 1955 after a reported car crash aged 40.