Brian Franks

Of all those who have, since the reforming of the SAS after the 1939-45 war, been involved in the building of the present SAS, no man did more than he. Without his wisdom, his charm, his drive and vitality, there would be no SAS today. We owe him almost everything.      

Col Brian Franks D.S.O. M.C. T.D.

Sir David Stirling D.S.O. might have founded the Special Air Service Regiment with the support of High Command in the Western Desert. Other officers such as Jock Lewes and Blair Mayne D.S.O. were also crucial in the history of the organisation.

There was, however, another man’s energy and connections that truly kept the idea of this type of special force going beyond the end of the Second World War. Colonel B. M. F. Franks, D.S.O., M.C. T.D. was, undoubtedly, the founding father of today’s Regiment. He was commissioned to the Middlesex Yeomanry in 1939. Seeing wartime service with special forces such as Phantom, the Commandos and the S.A.S. Brigade. Following the war, he became the first Commanding Officer of the newly reformed Artists Rifles which was re-roled as an S.A.S. Regiment.

As well as having a successful civilian career, Colonel B. M. F. Franks became the Chairman of the S.A.S. Association and was later appointed the S.A.S. Colonel Commandant between 1950 and 1973. Beyond the Artists Rifles Association and other organisations, it is believed that he is not as well-known as other S.A.S. personalities. There is no biographical monograph about the service and personal life of Franks. Significantly, it must be recognised that without this fascinating personality, the S.A.S. is unlikely to exist today. This is a biographical introduction to a somewhat neglected, courageous, and outstanding military personality.

Brian Morton Forster Franks was born on 12 September 1910. He was the only son of Lt.-Col. George Despard Franks C.M.G., D.S.O. and May Geraldine Morton. His mother was the daughter of Lt-Gen Sir G. de C. Morton, K.C.I.E., C.B., C.V.O. His father, George Franks was commissioned to the 19th (Queen Alexandra’s Own Royal) Hussars from Royal Military College on 7 March 1894. He saw active service in the South African war. During the First World War, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order on 1 January 1917. Sadly, Lt Col G.D. Franks C.M.G., D.S.O. did not survive the war and was killed in action during the last charge at Premont on 8 October 1918. Later his widow became Lady Elles when she married Sir Hugh Jameson Elles K.C.M.G., C.B., D.S.O.

Brian Franks, followed his maternal grandfather and was educated at Eton College between 1923 and 1929. He was active in the Junior Division Officer Training Corps, gaining the rank of Cadet Serjeant and made an impression on the playing fields.

The film actor David Niven had a lifelong friendship with Brian Franks. Niven’s autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon reveals an interesting side to a young Franks as quite a trickster and appears to have been quite a handful for his mother. While Niven became a soldier and commissioned to the Highland Light Infantry, Franks remained a civilian and discovered employment in the Hotel business starting at the Dorchester Hotel. Niven recalls in his memoirs of the organisation by Franks of a “riotous dinner” at the Mayfair Hotel for David Niven and his comrades. He was also a member of Boodle’s the famous Private Members’ Club. This must be highlighted as the membership counts many British aristocrats, senior members of the Armed Forces and notable politicians. Franks met Miss Zoe Quilter and they married at St. Clement Danes on the Strand in 1937 and spent their honeymoon in France.

With the rumblings of war, Brian Franks was commissioned to the Middlesex Yeomanry, Royal Corps of Signals on 10 June 1939. He joined 1st Cavalry Divisional Signals and this was commanded by Lt Col L. F. Messel. 2nd/Lt B.M.F. Franks formed ‘L’ Troop 1st Cavalry Divisional Signals on 27 November 1939. This was composed of personnel of 3 Squadron 1st (Middlesex Yeomanry) Armoured Division Signals and moved to join the 6th Cavalry Brigade at Welbeck to provide Signals. The Troop eventually arrived in the Nazareth area in Palestine where the Brigade conducted internal security until 5 October 1940.

The ‘L’ Troop conducted Brigade training in the Nablus area between 5 October and 2 December 1940. During the first fortnight of December the 6th Cav. The Brigade had extensive manoeuvres in the Jordan Valley and Transjordan area, and were particularly commended by both Brigade Commander and Divisional Commander for their excellent work. Conditions were very difficult but communications were reported to have never failed. The 1st Cavalry Division Signals was re-roled to 6th Division Signals and moved location to Tahag March 1941. Franks arrived with Maj. Prideaux on attachment to 2nd Armoured Divisional Signals (Middlesex Yeomanry) on 20 February 1941. 

Lt. Franks was appointed OC Bde Signal Officer for Layforce at Kabrit, on 18 March 1941. Layforce was newly created as a composite Commando Brigade, commanded by Eton educated Regular Army Officer Lt Col. Robert Laycock and consisted of four battalions: ‘A’ Bn (No.7 Commando); ‘B’ Bn (No.8 Commando); ‘C’ Bn (No.11 Commando); ‘D’ Battalion (No.s 50 & 52 ME Commandos). Late March and early April 1941, Layforce began to conduct training for Operation CORDITE, the codename for the capture of Rhodes. An outline of Rhodes and coast was created in the desert. Layforce was tasked to make the initial assault on the town itself. Following the German Invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia, the operation was postponed on 6 April 1941 and later cancelled.

Col. Laycock received orders on the 11 April 1941 to prepare for amphibious raids in parties of 200 men along the Libyan Coast. The following day Layforce moved to Alexandria to be close to the Mediterranean Fleet for these raids. Laycock was given more specific orders on 15 April 1941 for raids against Bardia and the coast road near Bomba. ‘A’ Battalion was ordered to take part in the raid against Bardia and embarked in the Glengyle and carried out a raid on 19/20 April. Franks would have been responsible for signals plans and communications during the raid. Unfortunately, there was poor intelligence with specifics poorly identified, one troop landed on the wrong beach and taken prisoner and there was a negligent discharge by a commando which resulted in the death of an officer.

On 20 May 1941, the Germans launched an airborne assault on the island of Crete. Layforce was alerted at midnight 22/23 April that its services might be needed to assist in defending the island. ‘A’ and ‘D’ Battalions with the HQ. They would come under command of General Freyberg and have the mission to conduct raids on German held air bases. As OC Bde Signals Officer, Brian Franks would have assisted with the signals planning and organised the communications. This would certainly have been quite an introduction to a full-scale battle and he was fortunate to be among those who avoided capture. The battle for Crete was the ultimate baptism of fire for Layforce and also its later disbandment.

Following the evacuation, Brian Franks attended an I.W.O.S. course at the Middle East Signal School. He joined an unusual newly formed organisation G.H.Q. Liaison Regiment or Phantom with a fellow officer of Middlesex Yeomanry Maj. George Grant. It was connected with a regimental HQ based in Richmond and they were members of Middle East or ‘H’ Squadron. The point of Phantom was to provide battlefield information for High Command using secure and fast means in order that Reserves could be supplied when needed to win the battle. Sadly, the original Squadron Officer in Command, Maj. Miles Reid MC and the majority of his detachment had been captured in Greece.

Now the Squadron was being reenforced by unemployed personnel like Franks and those sent from the UK. Before long, Franks was returned to UK due to illness. Following recovery, Franks joined GHQ Liaison Regiment (Home Forces) and was appointed second in command ‘E’ Squadron (SCOTCO) on 22 December 1941. Franks was soon appointed OC of the Squadron in February 1942.

Franks left Phantom and joined Commando H.Q. as G.S.O. II in June 1942. Brigadier Laycock newly appointed, soon returned with his Special Service Brigade Headquarters in 1943 to take charge of the four Commandos involved in the invasion of Italy. This included Brian Franks. Laycock himself was to go to Salerno with Nos.2 and 41(RM) Commandos, while a second Brigade HQ was formed under John Durnford-Slater for the other two commandos and the S.R.S. commanded by Lt Col Mayne. Franks was Brigade Major of this headquarters. It was while serving at Termoli during Operation DEVON in early October 1943 that Franks had an active and important role throughout the operation. For his gallant and distinguished service between 3 and 7 October 1943, he was awarded the Military Cross. Roy Farran, who served with 2nd S.A.S. during the operation, later pointed out that in his opinion the Brigade held thanks to men like Franks.

TNA WO 373 series


Brigadier Laycock was promoted and replaced by Brigadier Churchill; following this Franks requested a home posting. The first three month posting was as a Military Liaison Officer to small boat units and underwater swimmers. It was after this point, Franks was appointed second-in-command of the 2nd S.A.S. Regt as part of the newly formed S.A.S. Brigade. There was a clash of strategy with High Command over the proposed role of the S.A.S. Brigade and this resulted in the the C.O. of 2nd S.A.S., Lt Col. Bill Stirling standing down. Franks was appointed Commanding Officer 2nd S.A.S. Regt in May 1944.

1st S.A.S. Regt commanded by Lt Col Blair Mayne D.S.O. was first into action. Lt Col Franks’s regiment was understrength and low in morale in comparison to Mayne’s Regiment. Franks would be responsible for improving the situation and preparing his men for operations in the German Occupied Territories. He had to recruit suitable officers and men for parachute insertion and jeeping operations. Franks had a wide ranging network of potential recruits. He was also highly sensitive of the sort of personnel he needed to recruit for these special operations.

Charlie Radford, a young recruit understood that the men possessed “self-discipline” in fear of R.T.U. Franks was also admired by his men and many of the old hands had either seen him in action during Operation DEVON or heard of other activities. Roy Farran came under command of Brian Franks and witnessed first hand his bravery under fire. One issue that Radford reminds us is that Franks and his officers needed to keep the morale high in the run up to their deployment. This was crucial after it was known that 1st S.A.S. Regt had begun their work in German occupied France.

The training package for the regiments included weapons handling, ambush drills, signals, patrolling, parachute drops, and demolition practice. Franks was fortunate with his Intelligence Officer, Eric Barksworth who as a civilian was a journalist. Barksworth was highly skilled at briefing and preparing 2nd S.A.S. Regiment for operations. The QM Tom Burt later pointed out that though his role was important in providing the correct equipment, Franks was well connected with the War Office in acquiring it. Franks had known the Astor family since Eton and was readily supplied with excellent signallers from Phantom and necessary training with the new equipment for operations in France. The young intelligent Peter Johnsen who had also been to Eton was attached to Franks’s command. His Phantom patrol went on DUNHILL, LOYTON and later operations in Germany and Norway. 

There were also complicated issues dealing with the S.F.H.Q. and planning for Operations. During the planning for one operation codenamed RUPERT, it seemed Franks had various issues with S.O.E. area commander Boddington before he could deploy his men by parachute. RUPERT was an early tragedy for Franks as the aircraft carrying the recce group from ‘G’ Squadron crashed on 23 July 1944. The planning for LOYTON in the Vosges and the issues with the recce parties and the Marquis caused operational problems for his leadership.

One of the main issues of operations in France and beyond, was the problem of communications. Due to German capability of detecting W/T communications, the SAS and other organisations had to be extremely careful in how they sent messages back to the UK. Once an SAS party was deployed there was often a chance that the operational command would be lost.

After the recce parties of LOYTON lost contact, Franks personally led the main party for the operation that dropped by parachute in the Vosges on the 31 August 1944. It was a challenging environment in which to operate and his men had to keep on the move constantly due to German forces in the area and weak friendly forces. The operation was seen a success as it had tied down two German Divisions but Franks lost two men killed in action and 31 captured and later murdered by the enemy. Franks himself was severely wounded in the leg by machine gun fire whilst exfiltrating through enemy lines. When it was later revealed how his men were murdered, Franks began his plans to ensure that war criminals saw justice. 

TNA WO 373 series

While Franks sent a 2nd S.A.S. Regt detachment to Italy, he began preparing two strong squadrons from the British S.A.S. Regiments known as FRANKFORCE for the final campaign of the war. This operation was to be given the codename ARCHWAY.  This S.A.S. composite force acting as recce troops fought numerous actions in conjunction with armour and infantry against German rearguards, reaching Kiel on 3 May 1945. S.A.S. skills with their firepower and mobility contributed much to the rapid advance of British 21st Army Group to the Baltic. Following the end of hostilities, the S.A.S. Brigade now commanded by Brig Calvert moved to Norway to carry out occupation duties.

His officers and men of 2nd S.A.S. Regt never forgot their Commanding Officer’s kindness and generosity. Each member of the Regiment had a particular memory of an officer who took care to truly know each man under his command. Something that is carried on in the current Regiment. Before disbandment, one soldier remembered how a soldier was about to get married but was in a panic about the price of accommodation in London for his honeymoon. Franks heard of this issue. He kindly explained how he had some contacts in London. When the soldier returned from the honeymoon, he was overwhelmed with the kind gesture that his Commanding Officer arranged for him to stay in the Bridal Suite in the Hyde Park Hotel.

It was decided that the S.A.S. Brigade was to be disbanded following the war. Along with other war raised organisations such as Phantom and the L.R.D.G. Many of the S.A.S. Veterans did not leave the British Army straight away and were transferred to their parent units. Major Alastair McGregor of 2nd S.A.S. Regt and one of the “S.A.S. originals” of 1st S.A.S. Regt S.S.M. Bob Bennett were recruited to train the Greek S.A.S. Regt. They wore their S.A.S. insignia with pride and it seems were heavily involved in the fighting in the Greek civil war against the communists alongside their counterparts. Bennett was awarded the Greek War Cross. Other S.A.S. Veterans such as Bryce and Waidman were employed by the Allied Screening Commission, Greece. Largely seen as a front for British involvement in the war.  

Following LOYTON, Franks was keen to find out what happened to his men and discovered more about Hitler’s Commando Order. This was the decision made by the enemy, that any S.A.S. or Commandos would be murdered. This had been brutally carried out. Men from the S.A.S. Brigade were missing in the aftermath of the Second World War. Franks was a man that cared about justice for the men who served with him.

Intelligence Officer Barkworth commanded the small team and assisted by SSM Fred “Dusty” Rhodes to locate the missing S.A.S. men. It included signallers to aid communications from UK and wide reach of the investigation. Freddie Oakes was one of the Signallers who remembered the graphic information which was sent by Barkworth’s team to London. Disturbing for him as he knew many of these men personally. The War Office permitted and paid for the activity to continue after the official disbandment. These personnel continued to wear S.A.S. insignia.   

From the end of the war and official disbandment of the wartime S.A.S. Brigade, Franks was in constant negotiation with the War Office for ensuring that the effective capability of an S.A.S. Regiment would not disappear. Not everyone felt that special forces had a place in the future or really played a useful role during the war. There was high level debate in Whitehall about the need for the S.A.S. in peace.

Fortunately, a compromise was finally met. The Artists Rifles would lose its wartime role as an O.C.T.U. and its pre war status as an Officer Producing Unit. It was re-roled as a Special Air Service Regiment. This meant special forces had a place in the Territorial Army and more importantly the British Armed Forces.

Franks was appointed C.O. 21 S.A.S. Regiment on 1 May 1947. Officially he was permitted to recruit from former personnel from Parachute Regiment and the Rifle Brigade. Immediately he recruited men from his wide-ranging network of contacts. His second-in-command was Maj. L.E.O.T. Hart who had served with HQ S.A.S. Troops.

Franks recruited from the SAS Association as well as the special duties community. Men who had served in wartime with MI6, Special Operations Executive, and other special forces. Ex S.O.E. Gilhespie B.E.M. was one of first signallers in the new Regiment.

The Regiment had it seems the Artists Rifles tradition firmly established in the “HQ” Squadron with pre war Artists such as Maj. E.H. Owen as O.C. The first or “A” Squadron had the highly experienced wartime S.A.S. officer commanding Maj. G. St. J. Hibbert D.S.O., Capt. Greville-Bell D.S.O. was appointed OC 1 Troop. Capt. J. M. Wiseman MC was the Administrative Officer for this Squadron.

Franks also intended for the regiment to have a Special Boat (or S.B.S.) capability and this is why Lt Col Lapraik D.S.O., Maj. Macbeth and Maj. Livingstone were also recruited to help form the first boat troop. This later became “B” Squadron. Recruits to this new Regiment gave up their honorary commissions to serve.

Nevertheless, personnel were to be trained in the tradition of the wartime S.A.S. in how to operate as small parties behind the enemy lines. Using the special weapons such as the .45 Colt automatic, the .300 carbine, the Vickers K and the .500 Browning. The Artists Rifles Association kindly provided the funds to acquire specialist signals equipment used by the S.A.S. and personnel for communications.

After raising 21st S.A.S. Regt (Artists) T.A., the main objective was to prepare the T.A. Regiment for any special duties abroad and at least one Squadron would be prepared for deployment or provide small parties on operations in Greece and beyond. He was a visionary in his leadership of Regiment and was dogged in his determination to ensure that the Regular Army had a full time Regiment. He intended that the Regiment would be an important operational capability of British defence and foreign policy.

Eventually Franks passed over command to St. Nazaire hero Lt Col Newman VC on 1 May 1950. This officer was an excellent choice to continue the bold vision of the first Commanding Officer of 21st S.A.S. Regiment.

Ellery Anderson MC ex 1st S.A.S. Regt discovered that there were plans to send an active Squadron commanded by Maj. McGregor D.S.O. to serve in the Korean War. However, the War Office decided against this. Eventually, 21 S.A.S. Regiment personnel would be used in Malaya. The success of the deployment of S.A.S. troops including those from the Territorial Army were crucial in founding a Regular Regiment.

When it was decided to form a Regular Regiment, it was again, Colonel Franks though technically a civilian who actively supported its formation and made it fully equipped for its operational service. He was still highly connected with all sorts of personalities to ensure its success.

Brian Franks died in his sleep on 6 May 1982. His Memorial Service gives some indication of his importance in special forces history and his genuine legacy. Undoubtedly, he was the founding father of today’s S.A.S. Regiment. Those who served with him, would not forget his contribution. It is hoped that this introduction helps stress his crucial role.  

© Asher C J Pirt 2021