An Interview with Original SAS Member Mike Sadler

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With the new new drama series from Steven Knight, SAS Rogue Heroes, premiering on 30 October the BBC have shared an interview they did with Mike Sadler, the last surviving member of the original ‘L Detachment’ SAS formed in 1941. Mike began the war as an anti-tank gunner with the Royal Artillery before joining the Long Range Desert Group and subsequently the Special Air Service. During the war Mike was awarded the Military Medal and Military Cross. The interview below Mike Sadler discusses his memories of the SAS with SAS Rogue Heroes producer Stephen Smallwood.

In the new series Mike Sadler is portrayed by actor Tom Glynn-Carney. Check out the interview below and listen to our new episode giving our first thoughts on the series’ first episode here.

What was your attitude to David Stirling? What did you think of him as a man?

I thought David Stirling was a first-class man, highly intelligent, highly motivated, and in many ways the founder of the SAS. He – well there were several people involved in it all – but David was the one who perceived the possibilities and was determined to sell them to people to make the SAS a reality. And he was also the person who managed to recruit about 80 chaps who had, he thought, the requirements he needed. And one of his major requirements was that he wanted people who’d be able to get on with each other in difficult circumstances. He was more interested in that, in a way, than what their qualifications were. And so he looked for people he thought had what he needed, but the ones who took priority were the ones who could get on with each other – and with him as well.

Did they always get on with him?

Well, there were moments when people got fed up when he was not paying attention to the problem of the day, because he was already thinking about what he was going to be doing next time. Or what was wrong with the vehicles, what needed to be improved, or generally planning about things. He became, in a way, less a man of action, and more a man of thought and consideration.

What was your impression of Paddy Mayne?

Paddy Mayne was a different kind of chap. He was an action man, he liked firing weapons and doing fairly aggressive [manoeuvres] but both David Stirling and Paddy Mayne were very quiet people on the whole. They were quite nice, restful chaps. I liked both of them very much, although I must admit I got fed up with them sometimes. Paddy was a great one for a party and he was very inclined to have one pulled out of bed in the middle of the night just to join a party. I found that sort of thing rather maddening, but he was so nice you couldn’t really mind.

Can you tell us how people like David Stirling and Paddy Mayne got on with the military hierarchy?

They had their differences, certainly. David in particular had to battle his way against a lot of opposition in the early days of setting up his SAS. Certainly he had many problems to contend with. 

Can you tell us about navigating? I believe you were an expert.

I wasn’t really an expert at first because I’d never heard of navigating until I met up with a group of LRDG [Long Range Desert Group] people in Cairo. I was at the time being an anti-tank gunner and the LRDG thought they needed an anti-tank gun, and I met up with a party of them in Cairo. In the course of an organised party I told them about all this and they said ‘would you like to join the LRDG as an anti-tank gunner?’, I said I’d love to because I was tired of digging trenches in the sand on the coast of North Africa. They accepted me and I drove down with them in a re-supply lorry to Kufra. On the way to Kufra they were trying to establish where they were by observing the stars, which I found so fascinating that when I got down to Kufra the first thing they asked when I arrived at the patrol was “would you like to be a navigator?”. Without more ado I said I would indeed. That was the point at which I started to learn navigation, I was just so fascinated by the idea that you could look at the stars and find out where you were on the ground. So there we are, that’s what brought me in to the whole thing.

Can you tell us about navigating the desert in the day?

In the day one was pretty well stuck with compass and bearing. We had sun compasses, which had to be adjusted all of the time so that the shadow of the sun fell upon the card from the pin in the top of the compass. With the shadow on a certain part of the compass you could see whether you were staying on that line or whether you were drifting off. So one could, for a time, travel on a straight line by watching the shadow on the sun compass. But gradually the sun was moving around so you had to keep correcting it all the time, and then you could get an idea of the course you were following, I had to keep a record of all that. But after a few minutes you get to somewhere where you’ve got to change course to get around a wadi or something and then you have to start again really – to take a mileage record from the car and write down the compass bearing you were on and then probably change it slightly to enable you to go round an object or all that sort of thing.

Did you have maps?

Yes, but some of the maps where very blank! They were naval charts really with a lot of latitude and longitude lines. I remember I had one which had just a few little speckles of hatched lines on it and a dotted line across it which was labelled ‘suspected camel track’. So therefore one had nothing really to go on – because there were no tracks, no cars, no roads or indications of any kind.

Can you tell us about Jalo?

Jalo was an old fort, really. It was an oasis again, much further to the north and not very far from the coast road. But again it was a similar oasis, they tended to have water just below the surface in some of those places so they were quite soggy. They had palm trees, and water and wells. It was a fairly circular oasis, with the fort more or less in the middle. We once spent an uncomfortable afternoon hiding with our trucks underneath the palm trees round the edge of the oasis while the Messerschmitt or the Heinkel flew round and round above trying to spot us inside, They didn’t find us – that was lucky!

Can you describe the spirit between the members of the SAS – would you say it was close?

Oh yes, it was pretty good. I think on the whole we all got on pretty well. They were a jolly lot, because David Stirling as I mentioned had made a great thing about the importance of people who could get on with each other, and so on the whole they did. Those were the sorts of people he chose for his early efforts.

What was the attitude of the people to death and injury, which must have haunted you all the time?

The most important thing really was having a doctor who was capable of doing their work in an emergency. We did have some good doctors who could perform an operation right there in the sand, and still manage to pull it off.

If you returned from a raid and somebody had been killed, was that discussed?

Oh yes, everybody knew about it. They said what a good chap he was, and how sad. People on the whole didn’t think about being killed or anything, but – well, I must say we all thought someone else would be killed, but not us. I don’t know why it was. I suspect it was self-protection really.

Would you regard what you did as more dangerous than what other members of the military were doing?

Oh no, certainly not. We knew about the tank battles and things like that; they were much worse. We heard about people getting stuck in tanks which had gone on fire. I think we felt we were lucky to be out in these remote parts where there wasn’t too much risk attached to it. Well, of course there was a great deal of risk attached to it, but we didn’t value it too greatly.

A 2016 BBC Newsnight interview with Mike Sadler

Can you tell me if you regarded yourselves as special, as the name Special Air Service indicates?

I think we felt that we were a good lot of chaps together, that’s true, we did feel that. But I don’t know that we felt we were particularly special. Yes, we were pretty unique in one way. We were conscious of being a bit unique, and conscious of doing something different from the regular army.

Can you tell us more about the challenges of operating in the desert?

The problems were knowing where you were, and knowing where you could find some resources in the event of needing them. Such as the places where you could find water on a long journey. One of the main problems was these long journeys in unknown territory over very bad conditions. Sometimes you could get in a lovely flat area where you could drive along at 50, 60 miles an hour if you wanted to. At other times you couldn’t go a mile in an hour because of the terrible conditions, boulders and rocks and stones, getting punctures in tyres endlessly, and damage to vehicles could occur in bad conditions. So it was terribly important to be able to detect decent going, and be able to avoid the bad conditions. But of course until we got to know it a bit we didn’t know where the bad conditions were so that was one of the big problems.

Can you tell us about encountering desert sandstorms?

Very surprisingly there weren’t that many of them, but when there was one it was really horrible. Nothing much you can do about it except try to avoid! The one I remember particularly was when we still had some remnants of tents and things like that, and the only way to survive really seemed to be to get into the tent and wrap it round you, keep it out of your shirt and so on. But the sand just got into everything and everywhere, and you got it in your eyes. The best thing was to try and get shelter of some kind, even under a garment of some kind so you could breathe through the cloth.

Overall I loved the desert, I thought it was absolutely perfect. I was very sorry to leave at the end of the desert war because it was something like being on the sea in a way. You could go in any direction – there was a great sort of freedom attached to being in the desert. There was so much variety of going: beautiful smooth surfaces, sand, and impassable great sand dunes hundreds of feet high. Slowly moving across the desert with the prevailing wind, the sand dunes moving very slowly, perhaps a foot every year or something like that but altering their arrangements quite considerably. Oh yes, I thought the desert was a wonderful place.

The first jeeps that came out had terrible tyres, which burst at the slight sign of a sharp pebble or anything like that. David Stirling eventually said “there goes the last of the mohawks!” as they were thrown away and something better was supplied.

And at the time your operations were in secret, of course…

The whole SAS started out its success by being terrifically secret and confidential. David didn’t want any publicity at all, and [as founding members] we never had any to start with, not until the [1980] raid of the SAS on to the Iranian embassy in Hyde Park, which took place in the presence of the television. 

That was very widely known, but it was completely secret until it happened and was dependent upon not knowing because otherwise it could’ve been easily stopped. The same as our early operations, which were conducted as far as possible in great secrecy. Not so easy in fact, because there was a lot of connection between what was going on and what was happening in Cairo, so that affected the situation quite considerably. People were brought up – we were all brought up to keep the whole thing totally under the hat.

How do you feel that young people can now watch SAS Rogue Heroes and learn about the amazing things you did? Are you excited that people will now find out about that story?

They make for very good stories, no denying, and they were very exciting at the time in some cases – exciting and frightening at the same time. Everyone had to take chances which gave rise to considerable possibilities of risk and danger, but they were all part of the business really, you had to put up with it. It was not something people were enjoying at the time very often – well, it was exciting to be shooting off at things, yes I suppose it was.

Mostly we didn’t remember killing people because, in our case at any rate in the SAS we were mostly shooting in the dark at things, or putting bombs on targets and hoping not to disturb the people who were going to be the recipients of it.

Tom Glynn-Carney plays Mike Sadler in the new series

After leaving the SAS, do you think the Mike Sadler who started was different to the Mike Sadler who left?

Well, Mike Sadler became fairly tired. We got rather tired and our original enthusiasm certainly started to wane a bit. Oddly enough I think Paddy Mayne went on feeling just as keen on the whole business as he started, I think he was on an aggressive – he was a very nice chap, but he had a definite feel of wanting to be aggressive, I can’t say I did. I suppose I did feel a bit aggressive, I did quite enjoy a night firing my twin Vickers Ks at people in the dark.

Did you enjoy a night in Cairo ever?

Yes we had some lively times in Cairo. If anybody had a chance to have a party, everyone wanted to have parties so we all did really. A night in Cairo was most welcome. In fact one Christmas, we had a group of patrols getting together in a place called Wadi Zem Zem, which subsequently became an oil well place, but at the time it was just somewhere in the desert. We had a bit of dried old ancient log, and we used to be issued with rum and a bit of lime for desert journeys, so one always got a bit every evening to cheer us up after a hard day. We were having a party there, with this old log providing a sort of Christmas Eve tree, a basis for the party. There were about twenty of us I should think all sitting around the edge sipping our rum and our lime. My driver, under the influence of all this, went round the group and was just saying “say after me, Mike Sadler is the best navigator in the western desert”. This was a great thing at the time, and I always thought my entire reputation was based upon this jolly party.

Can you tell us about dealing with the heat in the desert?

The heat in the desert, we suffered quite a lot of it. The people who suffered most were the people who drank all their water, because we had a bit of a ration every day, a small amount of water, and if you could last half the day without having any of it then it made life a little bit more hopeful than otherwise. There was quite a lot of suffering particular from those who had failed to reserve their water for later in the day. If you drank it earlier it made you much more thirsty, you could put up with a certain amount of thirst.

How much water would you be given?

We got a water bottle for the day, that held maybe two pints. We’d have a mug of water in the morning, and you’d have another mug for washing in, cleaning your teeth – and shaving if you wanted to shave. We never did shave on the whole, but tooth cleaning was quite essential.

Can you talk about adapting to the desert?

In the desert – depending on the temperature – for much of the day we just wore a pair of shorts and possibly a shirt or something over the top, and headgear. People favoured so-called desert headdress to wrap round their heads, and indeed certainly in a sandstorm you could use it to shelter from the sand to some extent. David Stirling tended to wear just a hat or a cap, or a woolly headdress, he didn’t wear the fancy headdress. I didn’t use it much because I didn’t like it either, I had lots of hair in those days and I used that. It was better to have the breeze blowing through you than to have something wrapped round you which was hot. 

Join us for our thoughts on the first episode of SAS Rogue Heroes here

Matthew Moss

Matthew Moss

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