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Posted on Sep 13, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Night Warriors of the Desert

By Wild Bill Wilder

Equipped with special vehicles including heavily armed trucks and jeeps, these men became much feared by the Germans, especially those who worked behind the front lines. The guiding hand of the SAS in North Africa was from a young British officer named David Stirling who earned the name, "The Phantom Major."

David Stirling

He and his men ranged as far as 350 miles behind enemy lines, spending as long as three weeks at a time there. They planted mines along the coast road, blew up gasoline and supply dumps, attacked convoys moving along the main highway and destroyed parked enemy aircraft.


One example was a raid made by Stirling and his men against a German airfield at Benghazi in the late summer of 1941. Approaching silently on a moonless night, they attached timed incendiary bombs to German and Italian planes parked along the runway. Moving to the storage area, they continued to plant more bombs on aircraft under repair. In one hanger, while four German mechanics worked on the center engine of a Ju-52 transport aircraft, the SAS men planted explosive devices on the aircraft.

Knowing that the bombs had a timed fuse of 30 minutes, Stirling gathered his men, waited until just before the detonations began, then kicked in the door of the main barracks, hurling in numerous grenades. One of his men wrote, "We then ran like hell."

The bombs in the hangers and on the parked aircraft went off almost simultaneously with the grenades. As the SAS men departed, they stopped on a nearby ridge to view their handiwork. "One of the 110’s on the field went up, and cannon rounds began to explode from the heat. It was a pretty picture as the JU’s in the hangers began to burn."

On November 17th, 1941, an event that would later be immortalized by the movie, "The Desert Fox" occurred. Just a few hours before the initiation of Operation Crusader in the middle of November 1941, the SAS raided what was presumed to be the headquarters of General Rommel to kill him.

Intelligence reports indicated that he was using a large building at Bed Littoria, some 200 miles from the front lines. Approaching in the veiled blackness, the British were challenged by a German sentry. They replied in fluent German. The sentry then thought they were simply DAK troops lost who had wandered into the complex and did nothing. One of the SAS men drew close and suddenly fired on the sentry with his silenced pistol, killing him instantly.

The group then rushed threw the entire building, kicking open doors, firing their Sten guns, and tossing grenades as they went. As they reached the second floor of the building, they were met at the top of the steps with a vicious volley of German automatic fire. The British officer leading the mission went down, stitched across the middle. The remaining SAS men made a quick retreat and vanished into the darkness.

Four German soldiers, two of them important officers, were killed in the raid. Rommel, however, was not there. He had only recently moved his headquarters to another location and left the building to officers and men of the Quartermaster troops of his Afrika Korps. Once again the Desert Fox had worked his magic and narrowly escaped death.

The operation had been one of many noble efforts of these secretive heroes that were executed by both sides to help steer the course of the war in their favor. These units would continue with their clandestine and often effective operations until the end of the conflict in the west. Some then disappeared in the mists of time. Others, such as the Special Air Service, have continued their exploits until today. They were “warriors of the night,” feared and respected by both sides of the war. They played a most important role during the struggles that took place in North Africa.

About the Author

Wild Bill Wilder, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, was introduced to modern warfare as a tot in World War II when his father and uncle went off to war in the USAAF. It was an experience that influenced him greatly throughout his life. After graduating from Toccoa Falls College in 1962, he spent the next 10 years in public service in various countries in Central America. He then worked in public transportation until his retirement in 1999.

Wild Bill now has even more time to dedicate to his passion – wargaming. In 1997 he formed a group called "Wild Bill’s Raiders." From small beginnings the Raiders expanded into five separate web sites and gave top-notch coverage to a number of popular wargames.

Bill has also been a vital part of the production of 13 different games, including SPWAW, Combat Mission, The Operational Art of War, and John Tiller’s Squad Battles series. He has authored over 1300 scenarios and campaigns for these and other games over the last nine years. At age 68, Bill is also a prolific writer, with his primary focus on warfare of the 20th century. To quote him, "Wargaming is a passion that never dies with the passing of the years. Instead it only intensifies as new and better wargames are produced. It is in military history that one finds often written in blood the glory and the grief of mankind!"

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