SAS: Men in the Making

Peter Davis MC (edited by Paul Davis)
4 Mushroom Heads
Do not be put off by the title: this is not a “tuff” sub-Andy-NcNab account of derring-do in Iraq or Helmand. The title was chosen by the author’s son, Paul Davis, who edited the book for posthumous publication; we do not know what the author, Peter Davis, intended to call it.

This is a fascinating first-hand historical account. Peter Davis was the youngest officer to serve in the original SAS Regiment (“SAS Mark1”, which was disbanded in 1945) during the Second World War. During his SAS service, he kept a diary – in defiance of instructions – and soon after the war, demobbed and waiting to begin his studies at Cambridge, he wrote it up into a book that was never published during his lifetime.

Original SAS memoirs are few and far between. Roy Farran’s, Mike Calvert’s and David Stirling’s writings immediately come to mind, but not many others. It is likely that Peter Davis’s SAS will prove to be the very last first-hand account of the wartime SAS, its camaraderie and hair-raising operations, ever to be published. It follows that this book is a godsend to the researcher with an interest in SAS Mark 1 and in the Italian Campaign in which Davis served and won the Military Cross. As a bonus, the numerous illustrations are contemporary photos taken by Davis in the course of his campaigns, so we know exactly what he and his comrades looked like, what they wore and where they lived.

It is not only researchers who will wish to read this book, however. Peter Davis, while not a literary giant, has an easy and readable style. One would have liked to have known him: he comes across as modest, commonsensical and honest. He does not go in for macho posturing; in fact, he admits the fairly numerous occasions when, as a rookie on a steep learning curve, he made silly mistakes. It is equally clear that Davis later became a skilful and resourceful leader, who earned his men’s trust.

SAS Mark 1 was founded in 1941. It grew out of the Army Commandos and developed in response to the threat posed to Egypt, then part of the “informal British Empire”, by the then Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel in the Western Desert. The desert was its birthplace. Its four co-founders, the Stirling brothers, “Jock” Lewes and Robert Blair “Paddy” Mayne were by any standards remarkable men. Peter Davis joined the SAS at about the time that David Stirling was captured by the Germans; his Commander was therefore the legendary Paddy Mayne, whom he was able to observe at close quarters.

Mayne was a terrifying man: fifteen stone of solid muscle and about six feet, three inches tall. A famous rugby player, who had played for both Ireland and the British Lions and who had boxed for the Irish Universities, he could be kindly and friendly when sober. Under the influence of drink or strong emotion, he became a ferocious “Mr Hyde”, who would beat a man to pulp for little or no reason. On one drunken evening Mayne almost killed “Mad Mike” Calvert; himself no mean boxer and unarmed combatant. Often irrational, unreasonable and drunk, Mayne was nevertheless a born leader, whose men would follow him anywhere. As one of them said: “No matter how bad things were, when Paddy appeared, it was magic!” This book would be worth buying just for its insightful study of Paddy Mayne and the art of leadership.

Sadly, Peter Davis is not alive to enjoy the acclaim that his book will undoubtedly bring him. He was murdered on his farm in South Africa in 1994. This remains an unsolved crime.
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