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The Regiment by Michael Asher

Extract 2 from The Regiment by Michael Asher, published by Viking.

The Creation of the SAS, Egypt, July 1941

In July 1941, the British in Cairo felt they had been granted a reprieve. The summer season was as gay as ever. Officers in starched khaki drill rubbed shoulders over cocktails in the Continental and at the Long Bar at Shepheard's, tucked into dinners of roast pigeon at the Roof Garden, and packed the belly-dancing cabarets in Ezbekiyya Square. Enlisted men queued to watch talkies at the metro, quaffed beer and tea in Groppi's, the Tipperary, or Forest Hills Tennis Club, argued with vendors in the Muski, or played football and cricket on vacant lots near the waterfront, where urchins yelled 'Sieg heil' at them and ran away. In the bars there was talk of the attempted suicide of Major Orde Wingate, victor of the Gideon Mission in Ethiopia, who had shut himself in his room at the Continental, and slit his own throat with a bowie knife.

Middle East Headquarters was sited at 10 Tonbalat Street in the leafy district of Garden City, amid palaces and villas. The mood there was sombre but optimistic. Back in April General Rommel's Afrika Korps had been expected at the pyramids any day, but the immediate threat had evaporated - Rommel had baulked at invading Eygpt. Then, in June, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union the eye of the storm shifted abruptly away from the Mediterranean. Back in London, Winston Churchill was rubbing his hands and urging General Sir Claude - 'the Auk' Auchinleck to hit Rommel while his divisions had no chance of reinforcement. Auchinleck, refused to budge until he was fully prepared. On 15 July he sent along cable to Churchill.

While he was dictating that cable there was a scuffle outside Headquarters. A tall young subaltern in battledress, wearing the Scots Guards badge on his field-service cap, approached the security barrier on crutches. When the military warden demanded his pass, the officer failed to produce it. Sent packing, he dumped his crutches outside the barbed wire, jumped over the fence, and sprinted to the door with a bawling warden in hot pursuit.

Outrunning the guard, the officer made his way up to the third floor and barged his way into the office of Major General Neil Ritchie, Auchinleck's Deputy Chief of General Staff. The subaltern fumbled a salute, stammered apologies for bursting in and held out a paper for Ritchie to read. Ritchie settled down to read it and "about half way through he got very engrossed and had forgotten the rather irregular way it had been presented".

When he had finished he glanced at the lieutenant and said, "I think this may be the sort of plan we are looking for, I will discuss it with General Auchinleck and let you know our deicion in the next day or so."

The subaltern could hardly contain his excitement. He had entered the office of the third most senior man in the British army in Egypt, without an appointment or even a pass, and had induced him to read a proposal for a new concept in warfare, badly scrawled in pencil. His name was David Stirling and he was twenty-six years old. He had just taken the first step in the creation of the SAS.

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