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The Elite
The Story of Special Forces From Ancient Sparta to the War on Terror
by Ranulph Fiennes

If you read this book, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a Fiennes family history so often does the author refer to his ancestors fighting in some elite fighting force in some far-off campaign. Even when a distinguished ancestor hasn’t rallied to the flag, Fiennes finds a reason to refer to his own exploits as in his chapter on the Spartans. Still, there’s little point in being churlish about a book which is fun, informative, well researched and written by a man who, if not quite a national treasure, commands a good deal of respect and admiration.

The book covers elite fighting forces from The Immortals in 539 BC to today’s US Navy Seals. I would challenge his use of the word elite, the title of the book, as many of the elites were just bloodthirsty sociopaths and opportunists who were a lot better paid than normal soldiers. Many were just plain mercenaries. Even the Praetorian Guard, created by the Emperor Augustus in 27 BC, would receive several years’ pay on a new emperor’s succession to guarantee their loyalty.

For those of a bloodthirsty disposition with a desire to learn about innovative ways of dispatching the vanquished, the chapters on the Mongols and the Varangians (Vikings) offer a riveting read. Any prisoner taller than a wheel wagon was beheaded by the Mongols which, even given the relative height of men in AD 1162, made slinking quietly off the battlefield difficult. Mind you, the Knights Templar on the Crusades were barely more humane. Needless to say, Ranulph’s ancestors,  John Fiennes, Sir Ingelram Fiennes and Tougebrand Fiennes were in the thick of the Crusades.

There are enjoyable passages on tactics. The use of the Spartan Phalanx, the Viking Boar Snout and the use of the pike block formation by the Landsknechts (Swiss Pikemen) and the extraordinary discipline of the Ottoman Janissaries show that not all the elites relied upon brute force, fear and unrestrained violence. Amusingly the Landsknechts’ descendants now guard the Pope at the Vatican some five hundred years after acting as mercenaries to Charles of Burgundy.

It’s unclear as to why the author considers some military formations to be elite. Cromwell’s new model army were certainly well trained and ruthless in their puritanical beliefs, but never caught the public imagination or affection unlike Prince Rupert of Hentzau and his dashing cavaliers. The fact that William Fiennes was Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire with all three of his sons becoming Roundhead generals must have swayed the author’s judgement.

One elite does standout, however, and that is the Ninja, the special forces of feudal Japan 1562-1662. They reputably crept up on their enemies hiding in plain view moving ‘like ballet stars’ and dispatched their foe with stealth such as a few drops of poison to the top of a rope as it trickled down into the mouth of the sleeping victim, a technique Bond aficionados may recall from the film Octopussy.

There are, to use an overused phrase, three enduring ‘brands’ in the British Army: The Household Division, The Parachute Regiment and The Rifles. It is only right that Fiennes looks at the development of the British Light Infantry, the father of The Rifles, under the remarkable Sir John Moore in the Peninsular campaign. Skirmishing, fieldcraft, lethal marksmanship and individual initiative were all hallmarks of Sir John Moore’s training and remain characteristics of the many British Infantry Regiments, brilliantly rebranded in 2007 as The Rifles.

Interestingly, Fiennes includes a chapter on the RAF in the Battle of Britain. True, it was a sublime performance by the few. Sailor Malan’s ‘Ten Rules of Air Fighting’ are a compelling read and almost applicable to any form of fighting, eg ‘Go in quickly, punch hard, get out!’ They were of course also brilliantly led by Keith Park, Trafford Leigh Mallory and Dowding whose brilliant defensive system was so instrumental in winning the air war.

The Commandos, The Parachute Regiment and The SAS get due recognition and here the author is on pretty safe ground as he served with the SAS until his appetite for high jinks put paid to his career. His account of SAS training, tactics and discipline makes for vivid and informative reading.
There are one or two startling omissions. First, the Waffen-SS deserve a chapter as they demonstrated time and time again, whether in Normandy or Russia, why they were regarded as ‘Hitler’s Firemen’ with an offensive spirit and discipline that struck fear into anyone that was unfortunate enough to face them in battle. Another oversight, and one that is hotly current today, is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, in particular The Quds Force under the late and brilliant general, Qassim Soleimani.

Fiennes’s final chapter is on the US Navy SEALS where he writes they have become ‘the standard bearer of elite military units. This is premature. In 2019, three senior leaders were fired by Naval Special Warfare Command and Edward Gallagher, a special operations chief, was acquitted for shooting unarmed civilians and stabbing a wounded captive to death. ‘Ethical adherence is equally important to tactical proficiency’ remarked the head of the US Navy.

Fiennes’s father was Colonel ‘Lugs’ Fiennes, a legendary commanding officer of the glorious Scots Greys. ‘Lugs’ was killed in action in the Italian campaign. They were never to meet. ‘Lugs’ would have been proud of his son and, in a sense, Ranulph Fiennes has spent his entire life trying to live up to his father.

Paul de Zulueta



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