BOOK REVIEW – George Jellicoe: SAS and SBS Commander

Nicholas Jellicoe, George Jellicoe: SAS and SBS Commander. Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2021. 336 pp.

Review by Dr. Frank Sobchk, PhD

George Jellicoe: SAS and SBS Commander, offers a biographical narrative of a leader that, while he is not as widely recognized as David Stirling or David Lloyd Owen, played an equally important role in the development of British special operations forces. Jellicoe was the son of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, who commanded the Grand Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and later became the First Sea Lord. George Jellicoe’s original plans to serve in the British Foreign Office were interrupted by World War II, and he quickly found his way to British elite forces, first the Commandos and then later as second in command of David Stirling’s legendary Special Air Service (SAS) during the North Africa campaign. The book details the organization’s early days especially well, providing new perspectives on Stirling and the SAS’s symbiotic relationship with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), with the former unit providing long range transport and the SAS providing a dismounted raiding capability against Axis airfields.  

The work’s real strength, however, is of Jellicoe’s role in the early days of the Special Boat Service (SBS). As the desert campaign wound down, the SAS was cleaved in two, with its former maritime element forming the basis for the SBS under the command of Jellicoe. The new unit was assigned the task of stirring up trouble in the Aegean and Adriatic, both towards its own end as well as to assist in a larger deception effort to draw German forces away from the Allies’ next objective: Italy. Shifting its headquarters to Mandatory Palestine, the SBS trained, planned, and prepared extensively before conducting incessant littoral raids as well as deeper forays into enemy territory. Years of conflict are presented, enumerating successes, stalemates, and disasters. When victory in Europe is finally apparent, Jellicoe and many of the SBS were drafted into trying to prevent the immediate ignition of a Greek Civil war between communist and non-communist elements. After the war, Jellicoe was able to live out his dream of working in the Foreign Service before having significant political and business careers.   

Authored by Nicholas Jellicoe, George’s son, the book is well written, interesting, and entertaining. Nicholas is honest about his father’s strengths, weaknesses, and foibles, which provides strength to the narrative and historical veracity. His examination was founded on countless cross-checked interviews (and he indicates where there are disagreements) as well as research of archival sources and individual documents. Maps are particularly well placed and numerous, and the author makes good use of summary boxes for areas where busier readers might be less interested in background details.  

The book also offers interesting historical reminders on the proper employment of special operations forces and insight into the development of their doctrine. With British elite forces, especially the Special Air Service, venerated by their American cousins, the book indirectly provides a window into how some of their practices were transferred to U.S. special operations units. For both the SAS and SBS, Jellicoe’s recounting provides numerous examples of headquarters that ill understood the capabilities of the elite units and, as a result, misused them. Lacking the imagination to understand the potential operational or strategic impacts the forces could have, a series of conventional commanders employed them more as raiders or elite infantry, unsurprisingly only producing marginal tactical results.  

Other commanders, such as General Bernard Montgomery, simply did not like the elite forces, seeing them as ill-disciplined and a drain of resources. Echoing lessons that American special operations forces would learn decades later, if not for the intervention of powerful patrons-often elected political leaders-the very survival of such units hung in the balance. In the case of the prolific British special forces units, such as the SAS, SBS, Long Range Desert Group, Special Operations Executive, and even the colorfully named Popski’s Private Army, such organizations earned the support of Prime Minister Winston Churchill because of his inclination towards the indirect approach and desire to avoid a horrific repeat of World War I.

Altogether, George Jellicoe SAS and SBS Commander, is an excellent addition for the bookshelves of those interested in the first generation of modern special operations leaders and organizations. Not only is Jellicoe’s story well told and enjoyable to read, but it also provides applicable historical lessons for modern military leaders. In an era of compressed schedules and information limited to a set number of characters, its in depth study is well worth the time of both academics and practitioners.

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 

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