Stirling joined the British army as a junior officer and served a short stint in the Scots Guards before joining "Layforce," founded by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Laycock, whose commandos were soon dispersed as reinforcements. Stirling deployed to the Middle East with Number 3 Commando. Hospitalized for several months following his injury in a parachute training jump, Stirling formalized plans for a special raiding group. Still on crutches, in July 1941 he secured approval from his commander in chief, General Claude Auchinleck, for the plan. Auchinleck designated 66 men of Layforce as L-Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade, under Stirling's command. The unit designation implied the presence of a large formation. The men were to mount parachute operations against Axis airfields in Libya.
This was the beginning of the elite SAS, which grew to regimental size. The first attack encountered high winds and sandstorms, and only 22 men of the force survived. Stirling then switched to specially equipped ground vehicles of the Long Range Desert Group. His tactics were to make the final approach on foot, strike the target, and then move by vehicle deeper into enemy territory. In 18 months, his SAS destroyed 350 Axis aircraft and also blew up ammunition dumps, supply depots, and trains. These raids forced the Axis powers to divert frontline troops to provide rear-area security. The Germans came to know Stirling as "the Phantom Major." Captured in Tunisia on 10 January 1943, Stirling escaped four times, but he was recaptured thanks in large part to his 6-foot 5-inch height. He ended the war imprisoned at Colditz Castle, a maximum-security prison near Leipzig.
Stirling's force expanded into three regiments and remained in existence for the remainder of the war. Today, the SAS Stirling founded is recognized as one of the world's premier counterinsurgency forces. Following his release at the end of the war, Stirling settled in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He returned to the United Kingdom in 1961, where he became involved in numerous security-related ventures. Stirling died in London on 4 November 1990, having been knighted that year.
Robert B. Martyn
Davies, Barry. The Complete Encyclopedia of the SAS. London: Virgin Publishing, 1998.; James, Malcomb. Born of the Desert. London: Greenhill, 1991.; Lewes, John. Jock Lewes: Co-Founder of the SAS. London: Leo Cooper, 2001.