Busting the myth of the Phantom Major

Thread by thread, Mortimer unpicks the lies of David Stirling’s life


This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In January 1943 Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, founder of the SAS, was flown to Rome for interrogation. He had been captured by the Italians on his “most hare-brained scheme yet” — leading a small raiding party deep into enemy territory in Tunisia to attack lines of communication, reconnoitre the terrain and become the first Eighth Army unit to link up with the First Army advancing from the west. 

David Stirling: The Phoney Major: The Life, Times and Truth about the Founder of the SAS, Gavin Mortimer (Constable, £25)

Cautious when speaking to the Italians, he was “vain and voluble” in conversation with a fellow “captive”, Captain John Richards. Unbeknown to Stirling, Richards was an Anglo-Swiss stool pigeon, Theodore Schurch, who had deserted from the British army and was working for fascist intelligence.

Prior to Schurch’s court-martial for treachery in late 1945, Stirling denied he had revealed any sensitive information. If he had, it was inaccurate and “designed to deceive”. This was a lie, told to protect Stirling’s reputation. In fact, as the British authorities knew all too well from intercepted signals, Stirling had told Richards vital details about current SAS operations, including the location of patrols and their orders. He had even given them the name of his probable replacement as SAS commander: Paddy Mayne.

The story of Stirling’s unfortunate encounter with Schurch has been told before, notably by Ben Macintyre in his bestselling SAS: Rogue Heroes. But Macintyre underplays Stirling’s indiscretion and fails to link it to the many other examples of the SAS commander’s recklessness and poor judgement of character. For Gavin Mortimer, on the other hand, both the capture and loose talk were typical of a man who was “imaginative, immature, immoderate and ill-disciplined”. Small wonder that even his own brother Bill thought he would be better off in a prisoner-of-war camp. 

The subtitle of Mortimer’s book — a carefully researched and impeccably sourced take-down of the legendary special forces pioneer — is a corrective to the flattering but inaccurate nickname that was first coined for Stirling by British tabloids during the Second World War. “When word reached Cairo of the Phantom Major moniker,” writes Mortimer, “it must have sparked a mix of hilarity and indignation. All the falsehoods and fabrications would have been harmless enough had Stirling not stolen the valour of his comrades.”

Thread by thread, Mortimer unpicks the myth of Stirling’s life and war service that the subject and his fawning admirers had so carefully constructed, both during and after the war. Stirling was not training in North America for an attempt on Mount Everest’s summit when war broke out in 1939, as he later claimed, but rather working as a ranch hand because his exasperated family hoped it might give the feckless youth some focus and direction. 

He joined the Scots Guards and then the Commandos, but was a conspicuous failure at both as he displayed his idleness and irresponsibility (his nickname was the “Giant Sloth”). His elder brother Bill, on the other hand, had founded the original Commando training centre at Lochailort and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), set up by Churchill to coordinate resistance in occupied Europe. 

Stirling’s first parachute attempt was a disaster

David Stirling would later insist that he came up with the idea of creating a small raiding unit to parachute behind enemy lines in the Middle East in the summer of 1941. In fact, writes Mortimer, it was the brainchild of his former commanding officer, Robert “Lucky” Laycock, and was adopted by another Commando officer, Jock Lewes. Only now did Stirling ask to join the experiment. “He persuaded me to let him in on it in the last days,” wrote Lewes to his father, “when all arrangements were made. I let him come reluctantly … I resented the strength of his persuasion and despised a little his colossal confidence.”

Herein lies the secret to Stirling’s success: an ability to bend more talented people than himself to his will. It helped, too, that he was born into Scottish upper-class privilege and extremely well connected. His first parachute attempt was a disaster and he badly injured his back. Following his convalescence, he wrote later, he broke into the GHQ in Cairo in July 1941 to deliver a memorandum about his parachute raiding force that eventually led to the formation of the SAS. 

In fact, it was Bill Stirling, working in Cairo at the time, who wrote much of the memo and made sure it was read by senior officers. Mortimer notes: 

David and Bill Stirling created the idea for a parachute unit to operate in the desert, attacking enemy airfields and coastal installations. The thinking was Bill’s and David would put the idea into practice. But then on 3 November [1941] Bill was recalled to Britain and without his big brother David was lost because he was neither a visionary nor a genius; he was a gifted salesman and then, after the war, a plagiarist who stole Bill’s ideas and passed them off as his own.

The other key player in the early SAS, who was never given the credit he deserved, says Mortimer, was Paddy Mayne. Why? Because Stirling feared and envied the talented Ulsterman in “equal measure”. Mayne was one of the few men who had seen through Stirling and recognised him for what he was: an incompetent egomaniac. 

Mayne’s death in a car crash in 1955 gave Stirling the opportunity to “return from his self-imposed exile [in Africa] and stake his claim to be the father of British special forces”. He did this by proposing a biography by the popular socialite author, Virginia Cowles. Called The Phantom Major, it was full of inaccuracies, half-truths and downright lies, and “would transform Stirling into a dashing guerrilla legend and Mayne into a dark, intemperate Irishman”.

 The legend continues to this day. In 1984, when Stirling gave the address at the opening of the new SAS base in Hereford — predictably named Stirling Lines — he repeated many of the myths and failed to mention either his brother or another early pioneer, Bill Fraser. Mayne was at least name-checked as one of five “co-founders” of the SAS. Interestingly, Mortimer suggests Fraser was omitted because he was “gay and a constant reminder to Stirling of his own great secret”.

 The SBS, the lesser-known maritime version of the SAS, writes in its handbook: “Some units like to make a noise about their activities. We take a more discreet approach. While some prefer the limelight, we prefer the twilight.” This essential difference in ethos is, I would suggest, partly down to Stirling and his character flaws which have been exposed, for all to see, in Mortimer’s excellent myth-busting biography.

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