Aviation History

ANGELS FROM ABOVE

SPECIAL FORCES CAME OF AGE DURING WORLD WAR II. From Merrill’s Marauders in the U.S. Army to the British Special Air Service (SAS) and Germany’s Fallschirmjäger, all the major combatants exploited the great technological innovations of the interwar years in communications, weapons and transport to develop specialized units—“private armies” in WWII parlance—capable of fighting deep inside enemy territory. Some senior Allied commanders regarded special forces as renegades, fighting an irregular warfare unbecoming of their nation’s proud military history, but in fact these private armies were pioneers, not just in waging a new form of warfare, but also in the treatment of their wounded.

The inaugural SAS operation in November 1941 was a disaster. Of the 55 men who parachuted into Axis-held Libya, only 21 returned. The rest were killed or captured, victims of a freak desert storm that coincided with their mission against enemy airfields. Several men were badly injured on landing and had to be left by their comrades, who faced a long trek across the desert to reach their rendezvous point. “Sergeant Jock Cheyne was my best friend and he broke his back,” remembered Jimmy Storie, one of the survivors from that operation. “We had to leave him with a bottle of water and a revolver. We had been told that if you broke a leg and couldn’t make it, you just had to crawl to the nearest roadside and hope. But there’s nothing there in the desert.”

To abandon a comrade, no matter how pragmatic the decision, is a violation of the soldier’s code of honor. It was demoralizing, particularly in a tight-knit special force. But commanders soon realized that if

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