Your first look at SAS Rogue Heroes – BBC Trailer
It is the show that has added dynamite to Sunday night TV viewing, but the BBC’s SAS Rogue Heroes has drawn battle lines between those who love it and those who do not. History purists have got Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight in their crosshairs for his dramatic portrayal of the birth of the Special Air Service in the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War, complete with a thumping heavy metal and punk rock soundtrack.
Some are unhappy with the “mostly true” disclaimer at the start of each episode when the series is based on the real-life exploits of the SAS founders, however hard to believe.
On the other side are those who decry the glorification of soldiers who ditched military convention to wage guerrilla warfare at a time when Britain was in danger of losing the war. But Lorna Almonds-Windmill, whose father was one of those L Detachment originals whose story is told in the new series, is a fan and says many SAS veterans are too.
Former Army captain Lorna told the Daily Express: “I am not only in touch with the SAS but also with guys who have left the regiment and they are now calling it Khaki Blinders.They are really enjoying it.”
Many were wary when the first episode painted SAS founders David Stirling and Blair “Paddy” Mayne – played by Connor Swindells and Jack O’Connell respectively – as drunken mavericks, but, by the second episode, they were comfortable the series was telling the true story of the regiment’s heroic exploits.
Lorna’s father “Gentleman” Jim Almonds – played on-screen by 29-year-old Corin Silva – was a key member of the early SAS and personally hand-built much of their basic parachute training equipment as well as jumping out of Jeeps at 30mph to practise parachute landings.
He was also the only original who kept a contemporaneous diary, which informed not only Lorna’s biography of her father, Gentleman Jim, but countless other historical accounts of the SAS founders, including Ben Macintyre’s book SAS Rogue Heroes on which the BBC series is based.
Lorna says: “The atmosphere Steven Knight has created is totally authentic, and I say that not only with the benefit of having had my father to talk to until he was 91, but I also talked to and interviewed all of the remaining originals while they were alive.”
Alfie Allen, Connor Swindells and Jack O’Connell in SAS Rogue Heroes
That includes crack-navigator Mike Sadler, played by Tom Glynn-Carney on TV, who transported the SAS originals across vast distances when he was part of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) before he left to join the SAS.
“Ben Macintyre and I sat next to each other at a party for Mike Sadler’s 100th birthday and I still visit Mike once or twice a year,” she says. “Mike is coming up for 103 and I saw him in July. He can’t see now and can’t really hear, so I can’t telephone him anymore, but he still has a razor-sharp brain. I also knew Jock Lewes’ nephew quite well and, from what I know, the actors on screen are all speaking very much in character.”
Her brother, retired Brigadier John Almonds, who served three tours with the SAS and was the regiment’s chief of staff, was among those enjoying the show. But Lorna also admitted a few former members of the SAS and some historians were not entirely happy with Steven Knight’s portrayal.
She said: “It is almost as if they would rather see it treated like a documentary, but it is not a documentary, it is a drama and it is making people aware how crazy and mad the whole scene was in that period.
“You know, Rommel was at the door, the way to India and Asia would be open if North Africa fell and I don’t think people are remembering, or perhaps realising, how desperate we were at that time. My father spoke about the ‘big flap’ when they started burning all of their documents because that’s how close the enemy was.
“There was a lot of ‘off-the-cuffery’, by which I mean everything really was do-it-yourself. They really did go out and raid the New Zealanders, who had everything under the sun including a piano and easy chairs and all that kind of thing while our guys were sleeping on the floor on kit bags.
“The SAS members were picked not only for their physical ability, because obviously they had to have endurance, but for their emotional quotient. Nobody really spoke about it then, but they had to have people who could sustain a mental and emotional effort. Attitude was really important.”
Former SAS Brigadier Jim Almonds is enjoying the show
While the appearance of Sofia Boutella, as a glamorous Algerian-French spy who falls for Stirling, is entirely fictional, Lorna continues: “It’s easy for those of us who know an awful lot about what really happened to wish for every aspect of the series to be strictly accurate, but I think Steven is right to use dramatic licence and the soundtrack matches the mood.”
Music includes tracks from AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, The Clash and The Stranglers.
“I think it would be ridiculous to have the whole of the SAS L Detachment setting out on a raid to the background of Pack Up Your Troubles or White Cliffs of Dover. The heavy rock captures the mood.”
She believes the series captures the essence that the founding of the SAS was about a coming together of ideas.
“The great thing was that without David Stirling, none of it would have happened but, on the other hand, it would not have been a success if there had only been David Stirling because he could pull strings and he had certain clout but, on raids, either he did not have the luck or he did not have Paddy Mayne’s instinct for tactics,” she says.
“Mayne was an absolutely superb soldier but my father said David Stirling was the bravest man he’d ever known – his men would follow him anywhere. He was the first to jump the day after two guys were killed on their first parachute attempt because their parachutes were not hooked on properly and the guys recognised that.
Sofia Boutella as fictional spy Eve Mansour with Dominic West as British spymaster Dudley Clarke
“He wasn’t asking them to do anything he couldn’t do himself and my father jumped straight after Stirling on that occasion.”
Lorna said she is pleased John “Jock” Lewes’s role is also being given prominence in the series as one of the co-founders. Ideas for the SAS came from working with her father and two others operating as a small group – “The Tobruk Four” – on operations but Lewes, played by Alfie Allen, lacked the confidence to relax with his men like Stirling and Mayne.
She continues: “He was a very strange character. My father said he was quite stand-offish and aloof.”
Two aspects of the series Lorna thinks members of the regiment, past and present, might not be happy with are the extent to which spymaster Dudley Clarke (Dominic West) is credited with inventing the SAS and the hint Paddy Mayne was gay.
She said: “My father never saw that. Yes, Paddy Mayne was a misogynist but he had a girlfriend in Ireland before the war and, when he went back, she had married someone else.”
Nor will they be happy with those who claim the series is showing the SAS founders to be “violent thugs”.
The real life SAS hero, Paddy Mayne
“It is very clear from my father’s diaries that he was not a thug. He went after resources at the disposal of the enemy – railway lines, bridges, factories. It was always strategic objective,” says Lorna.
“He was aware that because of trains coming off the tracks because of his sabotage, for example, men would have died, but he told me: ‘I have never seen the face of any man I have killed’ and I thought that was such a blessing.”
She also said she thought the behaviour of some, particularly after the war, owed a lot to post-traumatic stress. Best-selling author Damien Lewis, whose new book SAS Brothers In Arms also tells the story of the founding of the SAS, had access to early memorabilia kept by Paddy Mayne, as well as the soldier’s personal effects.
When he got the opinion of psychotherapist and PTSD expert Ros Townsend, she concluded: “There is no doubt that a ‘perfect storm’ of factors, making rich ground for the development of PTS, came together in terms of the character and experiences of Blair Mayne.”
She added: “If we recap the key predisposing factors for trauma, it’s worth stressing that Mayne ticks pretty much all the boxes.” Others would have been equally likely to have been affected by the frequency of the action and the loss of close friends.
Lorna agrees: “You could tell from my father’s writing after they returned from the raid on the Nofilia aerodrome in Libya, when [spoiler alert] Jock Lewes was killed, that they were all in shock.
“He wrote, ‘I thought of Jock, an officer and a gentleman, lying out there in the desert. No one will ever pass by his grave or lay a wreath to a brave soul’.”
Lorna adds: “There was also the whole aspect of being away from wives, girlfriends, mothers and daughters, and what those at home went through. My father was married to my mother in 1939 and a year later they had my brother John.
“My father left home when John was three months old and didn’t see him again until he was three-and-a-half. Many times my mother was told he had had an accident, and he was presumed killed at Benghazi.
John was also dangerously ill with a mystery illness which he nearly died from and my mother, who was only 19, had to cope with that while my father was helpless, thousands of miles from home.
“I don’t know if any of that is going to be in the series, but I think SAS Rogue Heroes is really going to take off, just like Peaky Blinders.”
Lorna Almonds-Windmill’s sequel to Gentleman Jim, is Escaping The Ordinary: How a founder of the SAS blazed a trail at the end of the empire. SAS Rogue Heroes continues on BBC One at 9pm tomorrow.