British officer David Stirling was no ones idea of a good soldier, yet as Ben Macintyres latest book reveals, Stirling was an inspired strategist, even while hospitalized.”>
Five months before Operation Squatter, a tall, thin soldier lay grumpy and immobile in a Cairo hospital bed. The 25-year-old officer had been brought into the Scottish Military Hospital on June 15, 1941, paralyzed from the waist down. A letter to his mother from the War Office stated that he had suffered a contusion of the back as a result of enemy action.
This was not, strictly speaking, true. The injured soldier had not set eyes on the enemy: he had jumped out of a plane, without a helmet or proper training, ripped his parachute on the tail and plummeted to earth at roughly twice the recommended speed. The impact had knocked him out and badly injured his spine, leaving him temporarily blinded and without feeling in his legs. The doctors feared he would never walk again.
Even before his parachuting accident, the officers contribution to the war effort had been minimal: he lacked the most basic military discipline, could not march straight, and was so lazy his comrades had nicknamed him the Giant Sloth. Since being posted to Egypt with the British commando force, he had spent much of his time in Cairos bars and clubs, or gambling at the racecourse. The nurses at the hospital knew him well, for he frequently popped in during the morning, whey-faced and liverish, to request a blast from the oxygen bottle to cure his hangover. Before his parachute jump landed him in the hospital, he had been under investigation to establish whether he was malingering and ought to be court-martialed. His fellow officers found him charming and entertaining; his senior commanders, for the most part, regarded him as impertinent, incompetent, and profoundly irritating. On completing officer training, he had received a blunt appraisal: irresponsible and unremarkable.
Lieutenant David Stirling of the Scots Guards was not a conventional soldier.
The writer Evelyn Waugh, a fellow officer in the commando force, came to visit Stirling about three weeks after his admission to the hospital. Waugh had been misinformed by the matron that one of Stirlings legs had already been amputated, and he would likely lose the other. I cant feel a thing, Stirling told his friend. Embarrassed, as Englishmen tend to be when faced with disability, Waugh kept up a steady stream of meaningless small talk, perched on the edge of the bed, and studiously avoided the subject of his friends paralysis. Every so often, however, he would sneak a surreptitious glance to where Stirlings remaining leg ought to be, and whenever he did so Stirling, with extreme effort, would wiggle the big toe of his right foot. Finally, Waugh realized he was being teased, and hit Stirling with a pillow.
You bastard, Stirling, when did it happen?
Minutes before you came. It takes a bit of effort, but its a start.
Stirling was regaining the use of his legs. Others might have cried for joy; for Stirling, however, the first sign of his recovery was an excellent opportunity to play a practical joke on one of Britains greatest novelists.