Last of SAS ‘Originals’ Dies

SAS Major Mike Sadler, a distinguished World War II navigator renowned for his skill in leading Britain’s pioneering special forces across the vast, unmarked Sahara Desert in North Africa, passed away in Cambridge, England at the age of 103.

His death, which occurred in a nursing home, was confirmed by John Allcock, secretary of the Special Air Service Regimental Association. This organization supports veterans of the elite British Army unit, a forerunner in guerrilla warfare tactics and an inspiration for the U.S. Army’s Delta Force and the Navy SEALs.

Mr. Sadler was among the earliest recruits and the final surviving member of the S.A.S. from its inception in 1941. Like a maritime navigator, he relied on celestial bodies and navigational instruments to traverse the Libyan Desert, an immense and desolate region comparable in size to India. His expertise in navigating this ever-shifting terrain was crucial to the success of numerous covert operations.

Major Mike Sadler was recruited by David Stirling,
Major Mike Sadler was recruited by David Stirling,

While Mr. Sadler’s role differed from the commandos he led—brave volunteers who covertly infiltrated Nazi airfields, sabotaging aircraft, fuel supplies, and pilot accommodations before escaping under cover of explosions—he was a hero in his own right. Despite possibly never having fired a shot at the enemy in North Africa, his contributions were vital to the success of these perilous missions.

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 ‘Mike Sadler was one of the originals and one of the bravest of the brave and we now no longer have any surviving members of 1 SAS from the war. So this is the passing of a legend, the passing of a generation, the passing of an era. It is immensely tragic because our ability to capture these stories from first hand testimony is becoming so difficult. The lights are going out all over Britain.’ ~ Historian Damien Lewis

However, his guidance was crucial in leading his team both to their objectives and safely back. His expertise was acknowledged as indispensable by his colleagues; without his navigation, the commandos would not have been able to traverse hundreds of miles of desert terrain, locate enemy strongholds along the Mediterranean Coast, and execute their missions. These missions included the destruction of over 325 aircraft, the demolition of ammunition and supply depots, and the elimination of numerous German and Italian soldiers and pilots. It was also thanks to him that they were able to return to their concealed bases successfully.


“His navigating skills were legendary,” wrote Sean Rayment, the author of the book “Tales From the Special Forces Club: Mike Sadler’s Story” (2013). He said Mr. Sadler’s skills had “helped to ensure the success of some of the S.A.S.’s most spectacular missions during the North African campaign.”

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Mr. Sadler, who was raised in England, found himself working on a farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a British colony in southern Africa, when World War II erupted. He enlisted in a Rhodesian regiment and in 1941 was assigned to a British Army anti-tank unit near the Egypt-Libya border, preparing for General Erwin Rommel’s German invasion with the Afrika Korps.

Major Sadler, successfully evaded capture along with another S.A.S. soldier and a Frenchman fluent in Arabic.

During a leave in Cairo, Mr. Sadler encountered members of the Long Range Desert Group, a small team engaged in reconnaissance missions behind enemy lines and training to transport S.A.S. raiders for combat missions. Fascinated by their work, Mr. Sadler successfully requested to join this desert group.

Initially, the S.A.S. had attempted a parachute raid behind enemy lines, but their planes were detected, compromising the element of surprise and leading to a failed mission with significant casualties. However, Lt. Col. David Stirling, the S.A.S. commander, had a different strategy in mind—conducting raids using trucks.

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The war in North Africa was primarily concentrated along the coast, where Axis airfields and bases were situated. Colonel Stirling theorized that a nimble, mobile force emerging from the desert at night could take the enemy by surprise, as Axis defenses were mainly prepared for Allied sea attacks. This plan hinged on the ability to accurately navigate through the desert.

Full of Fascination

Mr. Sadler developed a deep fascination with desert navigation. He once shared with Mr. Rayment his astonishment at how a skilled navigator could accurately determine their location in the immense, unmarked desert. This precision was achievable through the use of a theodolite, an air almanac, navigational tables, and a thorough understanding of the stars.

He dedicated several weeks to mastering navigation techniques, including the use of a theodolite—a telescopic instrument with two perpendicular axes, commonly employed by surveyors for measuring horizontal and vertical angles. This device was somewhat similar to a sextant, which mariners use for sea navigation.

He kept his activities with the Secret Intelligence Service mostly private.

Ben Macintyre, author of “Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War” (2016), observed that Mr. Sadler’s exceptional skills in desert navigation were a blend of science and art. This was particularly challenging due to the need for celestial observations on the irregular desert terrain.

Navigating the Desert

In his book, Macintyre notes, “Navigating the desert, like its maritime counterpart, involves a lot of mathematics and observation. Yet, a proficient navigator also depends on art, intuition, and instinct.” He explains how the uneven terrain affected the sun compass, necessitating adjustments by the navigator. Sadler possessed an extraordinary, almost infallible sense of his location, direction, and estimated time of arrival.

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Major Sadler participated in the final S.A.S. operation of the desert war in January 1943 under the command of Stirling. Their mission was to traverse the Tunisian desert and rendezvous with the British-American 1st Army. However, they encountered a German ambush during the operation.

As a result of this ambush, Stirling was captured and remained a prisoner of war in Colditz for the duration of World War II. Major Sadler, on the other hand, successfully evaded capture along with another S.A.S. soldier and a Frenchman fluent in Arabic.

Disbandment of the S.A.S

He led the small group on a grueling five-day, 100-mile journey through the desert to meet up with the 1st Army, navigating without a map or food supplies. American war correspondent A J Liebling, who observed Mr. Sadler’s arrival from the desert, described him vividly, likening his appearance to a lean and slightly eccentric Paul Verlaine.

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After the war and the disbandment of the S.A.S., Major Sadler left the army and joined the Falkland Islands dependency’s Antarctic survey, earning the Polar Medal for his services. He then worked for two years at the American embassy in London before joining MI6, where he served in a role that allowed him to pursue his passion for sailing. He kept his activities with the Secret Intelligence Service mostly private.

Major Sadler retired in 1984 and spent his later years in a retirement home near Cambridge. His personal life saw him marrying Anne Hetherington after the war, but the marriage ended in two years. In 1958, he married Pat Benson, who passed away in 2001. He is survived by their daughter, Sally.