In Episode 3 of "SAS: Rogue Heroes", L Detachment attack some Axis airfields in North Africa. The stated intent of the mission is to sabotage planes, trucks, etc., with explosives.

During this mission, the (fictionalised) Paddy Mayne and others gun down apparently unarmed (and moderately drunk) German and Italian airmen and engineers in their mess hall. They're enemy combatants in an active war zone, so on one hand it would seem justified. But on the other hand, they're unarmed, and were given no opportunity to surrender.

Note: I'm putting aside questions of whether it really happened as depicted. That's a question for Movies & TV Stack Exchange.

My question is this: under the laws of warfare in effect at the time (i.e. the North Africa campaign of WW2) were these actions legal, or would they count as a war crime?

1 Answer 1


That an enemy combatant does not have their weapon on them right now does not render them a non-combatant. If the Axis soldiers had been unconscious, it would have been a different story, but "mildly drunk and gun out of reach" isn't enough.

It is forbidden have "no quarter given" as a policy, but that doesn't mean that an enemy has to be given an explicit chance to surrender, that just means that if the enemy does indeed surrender, that surrender can not just be denied. Most casualties in war happen due to artillery anyway, so a requirement to give the opportunity to surrender would be kinda meaningless.

Where such a situation gets messy is if some of the Axis soldiers had tried to surrender on the spot. The SAS would then be expected to try and shoot only the non-surrendering soldiers. If everyone surrenders, and the SAS kills them anyway because they don't have the ability to take prisoners, that's a clear warcrime.

Sources: https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule46


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    Does this indeed meet the " the laws of warfare in effect at the time " part of the question? Geneva Convention was post-WW2, after all...
    – AakashM
    Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 14:45
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    @AakashM: The Geneva Convention (as we refer to it nowadays) was from 1949, but it's actually an update on a pair of treaties from 1929 (all of them part of a group of such treaties collectively known as the Geneva Conventions), and there were other active Geneva Conventions (and protocols, and the Hague Conventions as well) that all were in place during WWII. Not sure which of these rules were inherited from the 1929 conventions, but odds are there were similar rules in place. Commented Nov 11, 2022 at 15:35

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