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Who Dares Wins - RIP Mike Sadler, 103, the oldest survivor of the early SAS, who fought his way through the unforgiving deserts of North Africa

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SAS in North Africa, 1943 (Imperial War Museum)

Mike Sadler, 103, the oldest survivor of the early SAS, who fought his way through the unforgiving deserts of North Africa, has sadly died

I was born in London in 1920, while my family was passing through the city.

Two weeks later, with me a babe in arms, we moved to Gloucestershire, where life was hard – but we didn’t see it that way.


Mike Sadler


Today, of course, everyone’s lives are so different, but one thing remains similar. People have always had dreams of one kind or another; from a very young age, mine was to have an interesting life and see the world. I was looking for adventure.

When I was 15, I cycled around Germany with a friend, staying in youth hostels. We visited little cafés; in one, the waitresses discovered we were English and they thought it was a great joke to stand around saying ‘Heil Hitler’ to us, laughing. They paid no mind to our startled faces.

There were clear signs of what was going on: our youth hostels had ‘Jews not welcome here’ signs. And out in the countryside we saw young people working on the land, marching together with their spades over their shoulders in a militaristic way.

We were struck by the level of organisation. People seemed to know what they were doing and where they were going. It was a stark contrast with Britain at that time.

None of us knew what the forthcoming war would bring. But long before that, in 1937, when I was just 17, I boarded a ship and set out for Rhodesia, where I worked on a farm. I joined the Rhodesian artillery when the war began and became an anti-tank gunner in the Western Desert.

On leave in Cairo, I met some members of the Long Range Desert Group, who asked me if I would be willing to join them. That was how I learned the magic art of navigation and began working with the SAS.

The SAS was born in the hot and unforgiving deserts of North Africa. On the basis of a simple yet revolutionary idea that small groups of highly trained and determined men operating deep behind enemy lines could wreak untold damage on the enemy, the SAS were to prove themselves time and again one of the most potent pound-for-pound forces throughout the rest of the war.

Nowadays the SAS has a fearsome reputation, but I don’t remember ever wanting to kill anybody. However, I found a life in the SAS that suited me. I got a bit of an education – albeit an unorthodox one. I enjoyed the organisation’s unusual kind of discipline. And I became friendly with all sorts of people from all manner of backgrounds.

In fact, in central Libya we captured a few Italian prisoners who were agreeable chaps. They became, in a way, friends – so that when a German aircraft came over, they hurried to help us get out mountings for our guns.

When we got back to Cairo, we took them for a drink in one of the bars before handing them over. It was quite difficult to see these Italians as being on the other side, but they knew very well that we would have shot them had they tried to escape.

Of course, the technical context then was quite different. We had no support from satellites or other wonders of communication that people take for granted today. We were wholly dependent on one another and on our mental and physical resources and aptitudes.

Looking back, I suppose the war in the desert was quite different from the war in Italy and France. Once we were in France, we were fully aware of the Nazi evil and the Gestapo-style grip on German behaviour. Hitler had issued his instructions that people like us were to be shot.

Our attitudes changed. And I ended up investigating the murders of friends in France. This wasn’t a good time as far as I was concerned.

Much has been written about the early formative years of the SAS – and I still remember them clearly – but now, for the first time, an illustrated history provides a compelling photographic record of that period.

Drawing on previously unpublished material from the SAS regimental archives, these pictures of the SAS fighting across North Africa, up into Italy and through Western Europe tell their own captivating story.

I can no longer see but I know these pictures would bring back memories of hardship, danger, sacrifice and loss, as well as great friendships and much laughter.

I hope they serve as an interesting and illuminating reminder of a small group of young men who, by daring to win all, played their small part in defeating the tyranny of Nazi Germany.

Who dares wins.

This piece is from the foreword of Joshua Levine’s SAS: The Illustrated History of the SAS (William Collins,


This story was from Spring 2023 issue. Subscribe Now