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