Tuesday, February 06, 2007

From Out Of The Archives ...

Sitting in a kitchen, the other night, I strained to hear a British radio station crackle and fizz on the transistor radio. The signal dipped and rose with an erratic swell. With a small child recently put to bed in an adjoining room, I stooped my head towards the speaker as announcer read-in the title of the next programme. It was lucky dip time and I had no idea what was coming up. A programme for women maybe? Question time for keen gardeners? A political review? The radio hissed and popped as the following announcement was read out: "And next, on Radio 4, something from our archives. SAS - The Originals".

I have been fascinated in 'modern' history for years: World Wars 1 and 2, for instance. It is not an unnatural interest, nor has it lead to an unhealthy collection of wall posters, or to dressing up on the weekends nor annual trips out with like-minded societies. I just like to read, or in this case, listen. First-hand accounts of historical events are certainly preferable to some 3rd-hand author's account.

Some years ago, it became trendy for former SAS members to spill the beans with their 'publish and be damned' accounts of daring rescues and fire-fights. Since Andy McNab penned 'Bravo Two Zero', I have never been tempted to buy such accounts. I simply can't be bothered with all this derring-do; cover to cover displays of highly-trained yet hair-trigger testosterone, bludgeoning and killing a path across the world's battlefields. The book version of the radio show now on air, however, is certainly one which I would happily entertain sitting in my bookshelf.

Twenty years ago a British author, Gordon Stevens, was tasked with making a documentary about the founding members of this elite fighting force. He dug up not only the man who's idea it all was, Colonel Sir Archibald David Sterling OBE DSO, but also a number of the first men who served under him back in 1941. The documentary was never completed and, according to Stevens, the rolls of film were 'locked away'. Years later, the audio tracks of the interviews were made into a 50-minute wireless treat. With gentle guidance from Sterling's official biographer, Alan Hoe, the radio documentary followed Sir David's childhood, his joining the Scot's Guards, the parachute accident (which led to having a leg amputated), the drafting of a paper outlining this 'special' force and the disastrous first outing for L Detachment, the earliest given name of the SAS.

I was 19 years old when London's Iranian Embassy siege took place. The building was successfully stormed by a group of alien undercover men using high explosives and wearing gas masks. The papers of the day, along with copious reels of TV footage, brought these men in back, these black knights, to the forefront. Britain was captivated by their appearance, delighted with the outcome and even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher thanked "her boys", personally but privately. This photograph shows 3 of the armed troopers involved in the successful raid on the Embassy with a jubilant (and equally armed with a handbag) Mrs Thatcher during her visit to their HQ. The negative was supposed to have been destroyed but, like all things 'secret', it managed to find it's way into the public domain.

Since then, it's all gone tits-up for the modern Special Air Service. Books, films, accounts, interviews and general unmasking. It's rather like a Magic Circle whistle-blower: take away the myth, reveal once heavily guarded secrets, and all you're left with is a bare-arsed individual running through a crowd. The cloak-and-dagger world has attracted many to dream of living the life of an SAS soldier. In 1995, for example, Christopher Reynolds was fined £250 for impersonating an SAS officer and giving a talk to army recruits and since 1997, all former SAS members who have published books have been banned from entering the SAS Headquarters.

"SAS - The Originals" follows the first men to go deep undercover in the deserts, when the world was in black and white. Sent into battle without Bond-like gadgets, without today's technology-lead trickery, just honest-to-goodness balls, grey matter and equipped with (unlike today's modern arsenal) the bare essentials. I have no idea how long BBC Radio 4 will keep this fascinating story online in their 'listen again' section but if you get the chance, go and find it before it goes back down, deep into the hidden world of the radio archives once again.



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