Benghazi cock-up: fourth time unlucky for the SAS

The SAS in North Africa in 1942, Libya

If only William Hague knew his history: you don't send the SAS to Benghazi

LAST UPDATED AT 18:06 ON Tue 8 Mar 2011

Whoever planned the recent Special Air Service's mission to Benghazi clearly wasn't well-versed in the regiment's history; if they had been they would have known that if there's one place you don't send the SAS it's Benghazi.

The Libyan port has long been a source of trouble for the world's most famous special forces unit, ever since the regiment's founder – David Stirling – first raided Benghazi in May 1942.

Six months earlier Stirling, then a 25-year-old lieutenant, had founded the SAS on what he described as the "principle of the fullest exploitation of surprise and of making the minimum demands on manpower and equipment".

It was Stirling's belief that small units of well-trained soldiers – no more than five or six men - could inflict as much damage to enemy targets as a large force of 200 commandos.

It was innovative and, in the eyes of many British officers, incorrect, but Stirling was given the authorisation by General Claude Auchinleck, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North Africa, to recruit 66 officers and men to what initially was called 'L' Detachment of the Special Air Service Brigade.

David Stirling's new form of combat – guerrilla warfare to all intents and purposes – might have offended the sensibilities of a minority of the British top brass, who still believed war was all about dashing cavalry charges, but it proved devastatingly successful in the space of a few weeks.

In early December 1941 a nine-man SAS team raided the German airfield at Sirte [the port where six months later one Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi would be born] and destroyed 24 aircraft.

A fortnight later another SAS raiding party blew up 37 Italian planes parked on the runway at Agedabia airfield. Then the SAS decided to attack Benghazi, a strategically important port that had changed hands several times as the tide of the Desert war ebbed to and fro across Libya.

On March 25 1942 Stirling and six men slipped into the port carrying a rucksack full of limpet mines and a folding canoe. The aim was to paddle out to the Italian warships at anchor in the harbour and blow them sky high. The plan was audacious, but the canoe atrocious, and when it was finally assembled by the quayside it was found to be unseaworthy.

Two months later Stirling returned for a second crack at Benghazi. This time he had with him five men, including Randolph Churchill, son of the Prime Minister and an appalling special forces' soldier. He was in the SAS only because Stirling knew he sang the unit's praises in the letters he wrote to his father.

The plan was the same as it had been two months earlier, to blow up enemy shipping, but this time the SAS had brought along two rubber dinghies. Alas the SAS couldn't even blow up their dinghies as both had sprung leaks on the long and bumpy trek across the desert in the back of a truck.

Two attempts on Benghazi, two embarrassing failures, yet elsewhere in Libya the SAS continued to cause mayhem. In July 1942 they destroyed 86 enemy aircraft and 45 motorised vehicles. So back Stirling went to Benghazi in September, hoping it would be third time lucky. It wasn't.

This time the SAS didn't even reach the port but instead were ambushed on an approach road. Forced to withdraw with several casualties, the SAS gave up on Benghazi and returned to attacking airfields and supply trucks.

When the SAS's involvement in the war in North Africa ended in February 1943 they had destroyed nearly 350 enemy aircraft, prompting Erwin Rommel to comment they had "caused us more damage than any other British unit of equal size".

Only in Benghazi had the SAS been foiled. Three missions and three failures. Now we can make that four. · 

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