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Book review: 'Rogue Heroes' details exciting history of Britain's SAS

Posted June 27

"ROGUE HEROES: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War" by Ben Macintyre, read by the author, Random House Audio, $23.95; 13 hours, 1 minute (nf)

War, Ben Macintyre’s book “Rogue Heroes” reminds us, is comprised of a series of tiny moments that mean the difference between a grieving or a grateful family.

He recounts one such incident in his compelling history of Britain’s SAS, or Secret Special Forces Unit. As SAS men descended on an Italian airbase deep in the Northern Africa desert on a midnight raid, one British soldier happened upon a group of unaware Italian sentries. Silently, he pulled out a grenade, his hand on the pin, ready to lob the weapon into their circle. But, for a reason he never explains, the SAS man paused and slipped the grenade back into his pocket, keeping the pin in place.

Dr. Malcolm Pleydell, an SAS medic, later wrote, “But for a kind thought … three or four Italians would now be buried under the sand of Fuka, three or four families would have been bereaved.”

These split-second decisions that determined life or death saturate the pages of Macintyre’s book, although sadly, more often than not, many of the soldiers’ choices led to grisly deaths — theirs or someone else's.

Macintyre has made a living writing intelligent, readable and scrupulously researched true spy tales of derring-do and infamy. Much in the vein of his best-seller “Double Cross," "Rogue Heroes" is packed with fascinating characters and memorable tales. In fact, the stories are so adventurous and thrilling that it can be hard while listening to the book to remember they actually happened. When you do, the stories become more sobering than simply entertaining.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t plenty in this book that entertains. Macintyre has an eye for small details that enrich a history, and "Rogue Heroes" is full of heart-pounding stories and eccentric characters (they were British, after all), but essentially, this book is a history of a war unit rather than the story of any one individual.

The SAS was born in 1941 from the mind of a young aristocratic soldier named David Stirling, who had had enough of marching and orders. As World War II was heating up, Stirling grew increasingly unimpressed with Britain’s commando units, which, he felt, were too cumbersome to do any real damage. Thanks to a botched parachuting attempt — parachutes were still fairly new at the outset of World War II, and the risks soldiers took as they tried to figure them out will make listeners wince — Stirling had some thinking time.

The more he thought, the more he realized that if he could get a small, highly trained group of soldiers into the expanse of desert between Tunisia and Egypt, they could destroy Axis planes and airbases and do enough damage to significantly undermine Axis troops.

As he put it, the desert was “one sea the Hun was not watching.”

Thanks to his social connections, Stirling had access to the highest-ranking members of the British army, but it helped that Stirling was charming and knew how to get what he wanted, and it didn't take long before he was leading men on raids and missions.

America has its own military histories, peculiar to its culture and national temperament. The rogue heroes of Macintyre’s book sometimes feel straight out of a Monty Python film. The aforementioned medic, Playdell, said when he joined the SAS that he felt "like he’d joined a particularly jolly beachfront house party. With bombs."

All of which makes for highly engaging listening. "Rogue Heroes" is read by the author, whose British accent does good justice to the many characters who come in and out of the story. Listeners may find it difficult to remember who is who, but should keep in mind that this is a story of an organization, so keeping track of exact names isn't as important as getting swept along by these remarkable — and sometime terrible — tales.

"Rogue Heroes" can be found on Audible, Overdrive, Audiobooks.com and other places where you listen to audiobooks.

Content advisory: "Rogue Heroes" contains descriptions of warfare and the tragic things humans do to each other in times of war.

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