Friday, 4 November 2022

Britain salutes its last remaining ‘SAS Rogue Hero’, Mike Sadler

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Mike, who is now 102 years old, was born, Willis Michael Sadler, early in 1920, in Kensington, London. He was nineteen when the Second World War broke out in September 1939 and working on a farm in Rhodesia and downed tools and signed up to 4 the Rhodesian Anti-Tank Battery 
and later said : "I didn't want to miss anything. And some people are like that at that age. I certainly was".

In 1940 he was back in Britain and transferred to the Royal Artillery. In North Africa Italy, which had declared war on Britain in June 1940 had a huge army in Libya which threatened the Suez Canal in British-occupied Egypt and Britain's communication with British-controlled India. The Libyan Desert protected Italian forces and posed a challenge to both sides with its vast sand dunes making it all but impossible for large forces to penetrate inland. 

It was now that Major Ralph Bagnold of the Royal Signals, who had spent much of the 1920s and 1930s exploring the desert, suggested to General Sir Archibald Wavell, 'Commander-in-Chief Middle East', that he formed a desert scouting force, a small body of motor  commandos, never more than 350 strong, known as the 'Long Range Desert Group'. Wavell readily agreed, and the LRDG began operations in September with Mike on board as one of the recruits.


There was no shortage of volunteers, but what Bagnold wanted first and foremost, were navigators and it was Mike 'Lofty' Carr who fulfilled that role. They were told by Captain Pat McCraith that all men in the Group were : "Bagnold's blue-eyed boys" and they should "forget everything we had learnt up to now because we were no longer regular army". They then signed a document which as 'Lofty' said : "Was our oath that we would never, for the whole of our lives, reveal what we had been up to in the LRDG". (link)

For navigation in the desert by day, Bagnold had invented a 'sun compass', which was a reliable, but rough indicator which was of no use by night. The theodolite, with its astral fixes, reduced the chance of error dramatically and 'Lofty' said that, in terms of accuracy : “In the desert I was down to 200m".

When Lieutenant David Stirling formed the SAS to launch night-time raids against Axis airfields in Libya the LRDG loaned him Mike as a navigator and would have taken Lofty, but he declined to join and instead taught his navigation skills to the Unit. Lofty later recalled that he had taught Mike : "The rudiments of astro-navigation and how to use a theodolite" and that Mike had proved to be a quick learner. Like the LRDG, the SAS was a secretive unit, which also went deep behind enemy lines and, as to his role, Mike would have agreed with 'Lofty' when he said : “Being a navigator was extremely challenging. One minor fault or miscalculation could have tragic consequences".

Steven Knight is the writer of the new BBC TV series, 'SAS 'Rogue Heroes'. 
based on the book by journalist Ben Macintyre, which tells the story of how the SAS was formed and operated during the Second World War. He said : "When I started to research the true story, it was so amazing, so compelling, so it’s sort of unbelievable. I just thought, this story has to be told". (link) 

He praised the men who were part of the SAS for being "self-motivated" and people who "broke the rules" with "initiative", given that their lives were in constant jeopardy and they "depended on each other" to survive. 

Of Mike, the last surviving member of that band of warriors he said : "
He had what others thought of as a supernatural ability to actually navigate his way through the desert, to know where he was, where he was going. He used the stars, he used a lot of equipment but, a lot of the time, apparently, he just used instinct". He also said that without him, the men in the SAS would have gone in somewhere and not been able to find their way out and it was Mike’s ability to "think on his feet" that saw them through. 

The actor Tom Glynn-Carney, who plays Mike in the series and was filmed for 'The One Show', in Mike's living room told him what a ‘privilege’ it was to be sitting with him and said afterwards : "Mike is blind now, but his memories are sharp". He told Mike :  "Having played your role and having to look like I was an expert navigator through the desert, now no matter how hard I tried, I could not do it. How do you do that?" To which Mike replied with a laugh : "I think you just have to learn it. I expect you could, if you really tried. It’s not that difficult". (link)


Within the context of the War, these were desperate times. With the exception of Britain, Europe had fallen to the Germans and in North Africa, General Rommel's Afrika Korps was on the move from Libya to Egypt where it would threaten Britain's vital control of the Suez Canal. Clearly, something different had to be tried to break the enemy's momentum in the desert or the Allies would face inevitable defeat. What Stirling, along with fellow SAS pioneer Jock Lewes proposed, was to accept that the Germans were masters of Libya's Mediterranean coastline and all attempts from the sea to disrupt and dislodge them had failed. So why not come at them from the rear, from where they least expected it. Across the Great Sand Sea, 30,000 square miles of desolate desert dunes?

The first SAS mission, carried out in a ferocious desert storm, was a disaster. One plane was shot down, and several parachutists were killed on landing. Of the sixty-six men in the raiding party, only twenty-two returned. It was then that Stirling turned to the LRDG, which, nicknamed “the desert taxi service”, agreed to transport the SAS at night to specific targets by Jeep and truck, and pick them up after they had planted time-bombs on parked planes.

In 2014 Lieutenant-General Sir Cedric Delves, President of the SAS Regimental Association, said : “The Long Range Desert Group is very dear to the SAS. It goes back to the beginning, when David Stirling turned to them for help. They showed us how to work in the desert. They got us going. They were there for us at the outset, and I am deeply proud that the regiment can acknowledge what is owed”.

In December 1941, Mike, now on loan from the LRDG, took part in the first successful SAS raid, led by Lieutenant Blair “Paddy” Mayne, a former Irish rugby international who would go on to become one of Britain’s most decorated soldiers. Mike dropped Mayne and five men three miles south of Wadi Tamet airfield and in the space of 15 minutes, the team destroyed 24 planes and a fuel dump. Mike, awaiting the returning raiders, watched the explosions light up the desert and recalled : “We saw the flashes in the sky. It was quite dramatic”.

Mike later reflected on his role as a navigator and said : "One of the essential things was not to let doubt creep into your mind. You had to be confident because it was awfully easy, especially at night, to start to feel you were going wrong and you should be further to left or right. It was rather easy to give way to that feeling if you weren’t confident. It was a challenge, navigating, but I liked the challenge. I was young and you don’t really think about pressure at twenty-one". 

With Mayne and his men on board, Mike drove back into the desert, but as the sun came up they came under attack from Italian bombers. He said : “We were dodging across the desert. I was navigating and they were flying over. You could see the bombs leaving the planes, and we would get out of the way by making an immediate right turn. I suppose it was quite alarming”. He led the convoy back to Jalo Oasis, where the salty waters seemed the height of luxury after that more than a week in the parched desert.

The following year, on the night of July 26, 1942, Mike, without headlights or a map, guided 18 jeeps filled with twin Vickers K machine guns, along 70 miles of desert to within 200 feet of Sidi Haneish Airfield. "Where are we now ?" demanded Stirling as he peered into the gloom to which Mike replied : "By my reckoning we're less than a mile short of the field. It's right in front of us". The SAS then opened fire as they drove between planes, wrecking at least 37 aircraft. (link)

In the raid the Germans struck the two-jeep convoy with Mike returning fire, allowing the other jeep to flee before escaping himself and as 'Corporal Willis Sadler' was later awarded the 'Military Medal'One of the jeep drivers was shot through the head during the attack and buried in the sand. Still on loan from the LRDG, Mike was to be considered an 'Honorary' member of the SAS by 'The Originals'. 

Mike, now a 'lieutenant', was also one of the officers to follow Stirling on the last SAS operation in January 1943. He recalled that Stirling : "I
ntended to get into southern Tunisia and do an operation, possibly on the way to joining up with the First Army and the second SAS, which had both landed there. So we then planned this operation, which involved a long desert journey along the inside of Libya to the south of Tunisia". Mike recalled The SAS team hid during the day and travelled at night. One afternoon, hidden in a dried out riverbed or wadi, Mike said : "Johnny Cooper and I were in sleeping bags and, first thing I knew, I was being kicked by somebody. I looked up and there was an Afrika Korps fellow poking me with his Schmeisser". (link)

A German armoured personnel carrier was blocking the entrance to the wadi and the SAS team was trapped. Mike believed that spies had tipped off the Germans. He concluded :  “The only thing to do was to leg it”. Along with Johnny Cooper and an Arabic-speaking Frenchman called Freddie Taxis, they ran for about 400 yards up the steep side of the wadi and hurled themselves into a small gully. The Germans combed the area but, by good fortune, an Arab herder arrived with a herd of goats, which milled around helping to conceal them. The rest of the contingent was captured, including David Stirling, who spent the rest of the war in captivity.

That night, the three men agreed they would try to reach the 1st Army, still more than 100 miles away, on foot. Mike recalled : “I knew the lay of the land. I had no compass or maps, but I knew that to the west along the edge of the salt lakes there was Tozeur, which ought to have been in the hands of the Allies, with any luck. So we set off”. A group of Berbers gave them some dates and a goatskin, which they sewed together with bootlaces to create a makeshift water container.

After walking further they were surrounded by menacing Arabs who began hurling rocks. Taxis translated : “They are saying we should give them our clothes because they are going to kill us anyway.” Johnny Cooper was struck on the head and temporarily blinded by pouring blood and Mike and Freddie, taking one arm each, dragged him across a wide expanse of loose rock, which the barefoot Arabs could not cross. 

After four days and nearing collapse, Freddie asked to be left behind, but was persuaded by Mike and Johnny to struggle on. Mike said : “It turned out he had six toes on each foot, which made walking painful”. "We walked more than 100 miles and, of course, our shoes fell to bits. We arrived, staggering the last few steps towards the palm trees, and some  African native troops came out and captured us". They were in fact Nearing Tozeur, and the soldiers were Free French forces, part of the 1st Army. Mike said : “The French gave us a great reception. They had jerrycans full of Algerian wine, which was pretty popular.” They then were handed over to the Americans, who promptly put them under guard. 

From the American press, the New Yorker's celebrated war correspondent A J Liebling, who had been hanging around Gafsa for days waiting for a scoop, saw Mike as he arrived from the desert said Mike looked like Robinson Crusoe when he arrived and wrote : ‘The eyes of this fellow were round and sky blue and his hair and whiskers were very fair. His beard began well under his chin, giving him the air of an emaciated and slightly dotty Paul Verlaine'. Mike told Liebling that the odyssey had been : “Very interesting . . . some of it was a lot of fun”.

Liebling wrote : 'Mr Stirling is convinced that units run 'traditionally' are ineffective and so creates a plan that goes against every accepted rule of modern warfare. He fights to recruit the best, toughest, and strongest soldiers as the show goes on, to make a small undercover unit. It is set to create pandemonium behind enemy lines and he creates a team who are both reckless and brave'.

As to Stirling, Mike said : "David was captured, but managed to escape. I think he escaped in the early days. We were always told that the best chance of escaping was as soon as possible after you’ve been captured. Unfortunately, having escaped, he was recaptured. I think he then spent time in a prison camp in Italy before eventually ending up in Colditz".

When Mike was asked : "What did you think of David Stirling as a man?" He said : "He was a first-class man, highly intelligent, highly motivated, and in many ways the founder of the SAS. David was the one who perceived the possibilities and was determined to make the SAS a reality. He managed to recruit about 80 chaps who had, he thought, the requirements he needed. He wanted people who could get on with each other and him in difficult circumstances. He was more interested in that than their qualifications".

Mike, now a fully paid-up member of the SAS, now fought in Italy and France following his time in the Desert War. On August 7, 1944, he was dropped by parachute into the Loire as part of 'Operation Houndsworth'. The aim was to reach SAS squadrons behind the lines and help destroy fuel depots, encourage local resistance and prevent Panzer divisions heading north. In March 1945 he was awarded the 'Military Cross' for 'Exemplary gallantry against the enemy'. 




Mike went on to set up the 'SAS Intelligence Unit'. Reflecting on his time in Africa he said : "Overall, I loved the desert, I thought it was perfect. I was very sorry to leave at the end of the Desert War. It was like being on the sea in a way. You could go in any direction. There was a great sort of freedom attached to being in the desert. There was so much variety – beautiful smooth surfaces, sand, and impassable great sand dunes hundreds of feet high –slowly moving across the desert with the prevailing wind, the sand dunes moving very, very slowly, perhaps a foot every year, but altering their arrangements quite considerably". (link)

"Oh yes, I thought the desert was a wonderful place".

In 2018, at the age of ninety-eight, Mike was awarded the 'Legion D'honneur
for parachuting into a German-occupied France, where Hitler had given instructions for any captured parachutists to be executed. 


The French Defence Attaché, Colonel Antoine de Loustal, who presented the red-ribboned medal an
paid tribute to Mike's dedication and determination during the liberation of France : “For which you were prepared to risk your life”.

"We shall not forget. We will never forget".
Mike said : 

"I do remember the people who didn’t survive and who didn’t have  the chance to receive this great honour". 

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