The Elite

The Elite

Ranulph Fiennes
ARRSE Rating
2.5 Mushroom Heads
The Elite by Ranulph Fiennes examines the history of Special Forces from the Spartans through to modern times with a look forward into the future.

Fiennes, in addition to being a highly prolific explorer, marathon runner and a cracking public speaker (I recommend it if you get the chance to hear him), is also something of an author. I’ve read a number of his books and have always enjoyed them, finding them informative, often exciting and well-researched. Thus, I’m sad to say that The Elite is not one of his best.

In must be said that the author has done a good job assembling a wide range of subjects for his book, neatly links one chapter to the next as he moves from unit to unit and writes about them in a useful chronological manner. Some of the more obvious units are covered (eg the SAS, US Navy SEALS, the Commandos) as are some of the less well-known, such as the Assassins, the Ninja and the Spartans. Fiennes also throws in other forces who would not necessarily leap to mind as Special Forces, for instance the Mamluks, the Dutch Marine Corps and the Varangian Guard.

He does a good job of placing each force in the context of their times. What would be regarded as an elite in times gone by such as the Knights Templar, the Ottoman Janissaries and Cromwell’s New Model Army, would by any modern measure be well-trained, conventional forces. Fiennes explains how and why these soldiers were the special forces of their time, be it using new technology effectively, being tactically novel or just having a supreme effect on the battlefield.

That said, the book disappointed me. There are a number of simple factual errors. Examples include the SAS being disbanded in 1945 although Fiennes stated that they were retained and the Parachute Regiment did not capture the Merville Bridge on D-Day but the author allows this to be inferred. Other facts are omitted - not mentioning radar (even in one sentence) as being key to the defence of the UK in the Battle of Britain struck me as being pretty big! It may be that I’m being a nit-picker but there are enough moments like this (and which good editing should have picked up) to take away from the main story. There are also too many sweeping generalisations and a lack of detail – the involvement of the Praetorian Guard in Ancient Rome’s imperial politics is covered quite briefly and skips over what could have been a fascinating story.

Additionally, there is too much focus on the leadership rather than the soldiers. For the older units (like the Ancient Greeks and the Romans), this is understandable as contemporary writes, and thus historians, focussed on them. For the more modern units, it’s less excusable; I wanted to know less about Admiral Canaris’ anti-Nazism and more about the Brandenburgers and less about Cromwell and more about the New Model Army. Additionally, he makes a personal comment in every chapter, relating it back to his own life and experiences. Some may find this fascinating; I began to find it annoying.

It depends what you want from this book. If you want a gateway to the subject that encourages you to further reading of known and less well-known elites, then this is a good way of getting started. If you want anything more on the subject, I’d go elsewhere. For Fiennes at his best, don’t start here: pick up a copy of Captain Scott or Cold.

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