In the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, sits a memorial that reads “Stele SAS” or SAS Memorial.
The memorial is secluded from the rest of the world by hundreds of fir trees. Unknown to many, this location is the location of a heinous war crime.
October 1944, members of the Special Air Service were captured by Germans while they were engaging in Operation Loyton, the operation sent the SAS deep into occupied France. The SAS men were stripped of all their clothing, forced to line up beside a ditch, and were shot. The SAS had parachuted into enemy territory and they fought in their uniforms against the German military targets. They should have had the protection of the Geneva Convention when they were taken as prisoners of War. Adolf Hitler had other ideas. Under his commando order, he ordered his men to kill any special forces troops once they gathered any intelligent information that they could. Men of the SAS had spread out across France after D-Day so that they could prepare a way for Allied advances. If only they knew that surrender was not a viable option.
The piper’s lament plays in the background while two dozen men, some as old as 80, pay their respects to the fallen SAS troops. The men wear a beige beret of the regiment, legacy of its birthplace–the Western Desert.
“Father in heaven, we commend to thy care and keeping comrades we now commemorate,” says the senior retired officer present, reciting the regimental prayer for the fallen. “At every remembrance of their courage and their friendship we give humble and heartfelt thanks.”
The men remove their berets as a sign of respect during the memorial service. When the bugler plays the last post, the men replace their berets. The regiment has fulfilled its promise to those whose names mark the stone–Sgts Ralph Hay and Walter Nevill, L/Cpl George Robinson and Ptes Frederick Austin, James Bennett, Reginald Church, Peter McGovern and Edwin Weaver. The promise was that at least once every five years, every known SAS memorial int he world, regardless of its location, is visited by at least one member of the regiment–be they active duty or retired. At the memorial, a wreath of dark and light blue flowers (the regiments colors) are placed. This tradition is not advertised to the public in order to keep to its clandestine role.
“We are notably close knit,” says Lt Gen Sir Cedric Delves, president of the SAS Association. “All good regiments will acknowledge the importance of the man, the individual. We feel this keenly, intimately. The other thing is that we engage our nation’s enemies by employing small teams, wherever the enemy might be found to be most vulnerable. So, for us, there are very many individual actions, spread far and wide.”
Operation Loyton was one of f54 operations that was carried out in late 1944 by the men of the SAS Brigade. This brigade was comprised of three British regiments, one French, and one Belgian. They were sent to disrupt German communications in France. Loyton had achieved some success but it cam with a considerable cost. Thirty-one SAS members were noted as missing after the SAS party withdrew to Allied lines. Those who were missing were discovered to have been executed after their capture. The residents of Moussey also suffered at the hands of the Germans because they helped the British. Nearly 140 men were arrested by the Nazis and they never returned home. That shared loss is remembered every time the SAS visit. The village of Moussey always welcomes the guests with food, wine, and speeches that express their gratitude and solidarity. The bugler who sounded the Last Post is a French soldier, not British.
One of the last survivors of the post D-Day operations in France is Alex Robertson, 89 years old. He’s a member of 2 SAS and he owed his memberhip to David Stirling’s band of outlaws partly to color blindness. Roberton was born in Dumfries and was recruited to the Royal Armored Corp in 1942. He grew bored of hanging around the camps in northern England, so he applied to train as a glider pilor. He wasn’t accepted because of his eyesight; however he was offered an alternative.
“The chap said that there was this regiment forming which needed recruits,” he recalls over lunch laid on by the SAS regimental association for the commune of Moussey. “He said to me, ‘We think it’s air supply because it’s called the Special Air Service’. I was there about a week before I realised what it was about.”
When Robertson was 19, he was a part of the regiment’s D Squadron. Unlike the men who participated in Loyton who parachuted their way into enemy territory, , the D Squadron simply drove their jeeps through enemy lines in complete darkness while the Battle of Normandy surged on around them. For 250 miles they traveled in full British uniform through enemy territory–often times in broad daylight.
“We started at night but it was too slow,” remembers Mr Robertson. “You can imagine it: pitch black, no lights, following the pinpoint red light on the back of the Jeep in front. It was hell for the drivers.”
One occasion they drove straight past an enemy convoy.
“They were all asleep. I just carried on, no problem. Sometimes, I think I dreamt it. I wake up and think, ‘Did that really happen?’ ”
With the threat of ambush and sudden death, the question was asked if he was afraid. Robertson tells the Telegraph: “When you are 19 it somehow doesn’t seem to worry you very much. You are always doing something, so there isn’t time to think.”
Robertson’s squadron suffered a loss of seven men who were killed during the three weeks they were behind enemy lines. They managed to kill 500 Germans. One of the seven men who were killed was David Leigh.
There was an ambush and David was very badly wounded,” says Mr Robertson. “He was taken to a doctor working for the Resistance and was given a bed by the lady who owned the local cheese factory. He died there. I remember his feet, still in boots, sticking out of the bottom of the bed. It’s a weird thing to think about – the size of his feet. Why do I think of that?”
The local populace decided that Leigh should be given a funeral befitting a soldier. While Leigh’s body was laid to rest, men were posted along the roads to watch for Germans lest the approach. More than five decades later, Leigh’s widow joins him in the grave.
“We achieved what we set out to do, which was to disrupt communications and lower German morale,” says Mr Robertson. “When you are a German coming back from Normandy having suffered a pasting and you think you are in a nice easy area and all of a sudden you are getting a dozen Vickers machine guns blasting at you – it doesn’t do your morale any good.”
The entire history of the SAS during the Second World War is documented in the regiment’s war diary. It consists of first-hand accounts of the operations that began with attacks on Axis airfields in North Africa and ends in 1945 with the reconnaissance patrolling in a defeated Nazi Germany. The diary also contain a small account of the small SAS war crimes unit what continued to investigate and search for the Germans who were responsible for the murders of SAS personnel–even after the temporary disbandment of the regiment after the end of the war. Because of those efforts, a number of SS and other German officers were tried for murder and were executed.
During the five-year remembrance cycle, the regiment lays 371 wreaths at memorials and individual graves in 20 countries. These acts are to commemorate the 493 lives lost during WWII and post-war operations. Nearly 100 casualties are commemorated in France and monuments are located in remote places as far as Sarawak and the Silent Valley of South Yemen.
One of the attending at Moussey is David “Joe” Seeney. He served in the regular and territorial regiments of the SAS for 29 years.
“As ‘regulars’, we couldn’t get on this trip because we were too busy,” he says. “It’s nice to know now that we are honouring men who built the tradition of the SAS. The British Army is built on tradition. It means that you don’t let your fellow soldiers down – because you don’t do that in the regiment.
“The reason the SAS is so good is that we never sit back on our laurels and say, ‘We’re the greatest’. In the regiment we say, ‘How could we have done better on that one? Let’s look at it and tweak it.’ ”
One of the memorials is that of 29-year-old Captain Gavin Hamilton. In 1982 toward the end of the Falklands War, he and four men were stationed at a post that looks over a small settlement of Port Howard. Here, they caught by the Argentine garrison. Though he was badly wounded, Hamilton continued to fight. He held off the advancing enemy to allow his radio operator escape before being killed. The commander of the Argentine troops at Port Howard described the former Green Howard as :the most courageous man I have ever seen.” Hamilton’s bravery earned him a posthumous Military Cross. Though he lies 8,000 miles from home, he is far from forgotten. The wreath of dark and light blue flowers will be renewed.
“We are determined that none be overlooked,” says Lt Gen Delves, “for each is of the whole.”
Robertson returned to civilian life after the war ended. He never lost touch with his comrades though. They would meet in a pub near the Waterloo station in London.
“Lots of people think SAS people are 6ft 5in, stone-age killers,” he says. “But it isn’t like that. I had the privilege of going to Hereford to give a talk at a passing-out parade about four years ago. They were just the same as the men I had known – it could have been wartime.”
What is it about them?
“Difficult to explain. You think to yourself, ‘I wouldn’t mind having that bloke on my side.’ If you can’t depend on someone, you don’t want them.”
Mr Robertson will keep going, standing to attention at gravesides in obscure places, revisiting the resting places of men who, in most cases, never saw their thirties, and some of whom he knew.
“The Regiment has to be represented,” he says, “and if I’m the last one standing I shall carry on doing it.”