An interview with ex-SAS soldier Pete Scholey, author of the new book SAS Heroes: Remarkable Soldiers, Extraordinary Men.
Q. When did you join the army?
A. 1955, after failing to get into the RAF – twice!
Q. Why the army?
A. As I said, I tried the RAF first. The first time I tried to sign up for twelve years, as air crew. At RAF Cosford they told me that my maths was not good enough; the same thing happened when I tried to sign up the second time. It was not until many years later that I was diagnosed with dyscalculia, or figure blindness. This was not a problem when it came to joining the Army, however; at that time you could get in with one eye and one leg!
Q. Why did you apply to join the SAS?
A. I applied to join the SAS mainly because I wanted to prove something to myself. At school, because of my figure-blindness, I had always been considered a dunce. This feeling of being a bit of a failure followed me for a good while, when I was applying for the RAF and through my early Army career. But I refused to let it destroy me completely. As an adult I needed to prove my own self-esteem. Getting through Selection would do that for me, once and for all, so I applied.
Q. The SAS recruitment process is notoriously difficult. Can you tell me what it was like when you applied, how tough it really was and how it has changed since then?
A. Recruitment is based solely on Selection. Selection sets the standard; it is not the case that there will be a set number of passes for each Selection course. This has not changed and ensures that those who pass have the best chance of becoming successful members of the Regiment. As to how difficult it was, it is the nature of Selection to be difficult. Many are called, few are chosen. Many give in themselves. I take my hat off to anyone who attempts Selection, I have seen a good few succeed, but have never heard anyone say it was easy. In the introduction to SAS Heroes, I give a full account of my own Selection.
Q. In virtually every book on the SAS, it is said that the recruitment and training is 50% physical and 50% psychological. Would you agree with this?
A. I would say that the actual selection course itself, to me, is more like 70% sheer physical endurance and stamina. You have to be a little bit mad to be there in the first place! I have seen the super-fit fail, I have seen the less physical succeed; that’s when the psychological strengths kick in. Many people fail because the mind gives in to protect the body. If you can overcome this, the body will go that little bit further than the mind expects.
Q. You have served in countries that most of us will never visit – which made the most lasting impression on you?
A. It's not so much the country but the people that had a profound and everlasting effect on me. For example, I found Ireland to be a fantastically beautiful place and the people were both kind and friendly. In Borneo, deep in the jungle, while carrying out 'hearts and minds' operations in the kampongs (villages), the indigenous people were some of the friendliest and generous people I have ever had the good fortune of spend time with. They live in harmony with the jungle, surviving on only what their local environment provides. They are a happy people who, without question or expectation, will share the very little they have with you, asking nothing in return but your friendship.
Q. Army rations – what were they like?
A. No problem – soldiers will eat anything when they’re hungry!
Q. When you are away from home, is there anything that you miss?
A. Family. Full stop.
Q. How did you unwind with your fellow soldiers?
A. I didn’t – I wound them up instead! Seriously though, we would, security and time permitting, drink together, play sports against each other or other units. Just everything that normal people would do really.
Q. How did you cope with the long periods away from home?
A. This is not something that we would dwell on in general. Mail from home always helps morale, but mostly we would, on operations, be too busy working to allow it to affect us.
Q. Your latest book is about your personal SAS heroes. What do you feel makes someone a hero?
A. To me, a hero is someone who puts the safety and welfare of others before that of himself. That’s what these men are, this is what they do.
Q. Do you have any tips for people who have an interest in joining the SAS?
A. First of all, you need to get your navigation skills up to standard – this is a must. Train hard, start off hill walking with a Bergen (rucksack) of about 20kg, building up over a period of months. Don’t expect your own unit to give you time off to train. Your training for selection is in addition to your work within your unit, not instead of. On a number of occasions, I’ve sat in a NAAFI, listening to tales of woe, as soldiers told me how they never had time to train, despite wanting to join the SAS. More often than not, these statements were made while pouring another pint of lager down their necks, settling down to another sociable evening. If you want to join the SAS, don’t be one of these. Be honest with yourself.
Q. What do you feel you have gained most from being a part of the SAS?
A. A vast experience and some knowledge of different cultures and an appreciation of the value of life.
We have a few questions sent in to us by readers of our blog (www.ospreyblog.com)
Q. From Geoff - You've served in some really tough places - which was the hardest posting and why?
A. To Geoff – no posting is easy in the SAS, it is the nature of the beast. One of the toughest operational theatres was the Radfan mountains of Aden. It can reach 120 °F in the shade during the day, with freezing nights to follow. We each carried two one gallon (4.5 litre) cans of water, in addition to four water bottles, our rations for up to ten days or so, along with all operational kit, weaponry and ammunition. Not easy when you sometimes had to climb at night!
Q. From Xeoran - Of all the places you've served, which do you think were worthwhile either politically, personally or morally?
A. To Xeoran – I’ve always believed that each operation I carried out was for a free and just cause.
Q. From Gene - In choosing your equipment for your operations, were you restricted to what was only available for the British Army, or did you have some liberty to obtain items from other sources like mail order catalogues?
A. To Gene – The 'Ops'. Research department (see my story of Steve Callan in the forthcoming book), carried out extensive testing and evaluation of equipment, assessing suitablility for specific tasks. There was no real need to go out and get your own kit. The right equipment would be supplied for each operation.
We are also running a Question and Answer section for authors in our blog, could you answer these (slightly less serious) questions to keep us happy?
Q. What are you doing at the moment?
A. If I told you – I’d have to kill you! Seriously though, I’m still keeping busy. I give presentations and talks throughout the UK and abroad. I’m also involved with a company called Team Dynamics, instructing on team building courses. There’s also the family – they look after me!
Q. When did you get hooked on history and why?
A. Since I became part of it! In WWII I was bombed out (as a very small child) in Brighton, lying under the rubble for a couple of hours. Even at a young age, you begin to ask the question – why?
A. I may have been a soldier, but I was never a bloodthirsty man. There is no glory in war, only death, destruction, broken bodies and disturbed minds. Soldiering is much more than being a warrior.
Q. What is your favourite war film?
A. All Quiet on the Western Front. This gives a vivid account of the futility of war and shows the reality of the horrors that a soldier may have to endure.
Q. Why do you think military history is important?
A. To inform future generations that we must never let war be the only answer. The horrors of two World Wars should never be forgotten, or repeated.
Q. What is your favourite quotation from history?
A. 'Give us the tools and we will finish the job', part of Winston Churchill’s speech to the Americans in WWII.
Q. If you could fly any plane or drive any tank from history, which would it be?
A. Spitfire. Why? Because we share the same birthday– August 1936.
Q. Best military cock-up in history?
A. There is no such thing as a best military 'cock-up'. These cost lives and so must be avoided at all times.
Q. Who is your military hero?
A. Winston Churchill.
Q. If you could pit two armies from history against each other, which two would you pick, and why?
A. See Answer to Q. If you were any warrior from history who would you be?
Q. Favourite Michael Caine quote?
A. “You’re only supposed to blow off the bloody doors!” Not quite Michael Caine (Charlie Crocker), but it was he who said it!
Q. What is your favourite war comic?
A. Never read one!
Q. Spartan or Roman?
A. Roman – I’m of Italian descent!
Q. What is your favourite Osprey book?
A. SAS Heroes by Pete Scholey – gotcha there didn’t I!