~ 11 (SCOTTISH) COMMANDO ~
This is the story of No 11 (Scottish) Commando. It covers the period from its formation in July 1940 through recruitment and training, the periods of disappointment and frustration and the Litani River and Rommel HQ raids in June and November 1941. It includes many personal reminiscences and quotes from the men who were there, a large bibliography, a list of the fallen and associated war cemeteries.
In the desperate days of May 1940, the Germans had invaded Norway and the long expected invasion of France and the Low Countries was in full swing. As resistance by the French and Belgian Armies collapsed, the British Expeditionary Force withdrew to Dunkirk where it was evacuated in the early days of June. Britain was on the defensive but Prime Minister Churchill saw that it was important to introduce an offensive component into the puzzle. On the 3rd of June he wrote to the Chiefs of Staff: The completely defensive habit of mind, which has ruined the French, must not be allowed to ruin all our initiative. It is of the highest consequence to keep the largest numbers of German forces all along the coasts of the countries that have been conquered, and we should immediately set to work to organise raiding forces on these coasts where the populations are friendly. Such forces might be composed by self-contained, thoroughly equipped units of say 1,000 up to not less than 10,000 when combined.
And two days later he elaborated: Enterprises must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror first of all on the 'butcher and bolt' policy. I look to the Chiefs of Staff to propose me measures for a vigorous, enterprising and ceaseless offensive against the whole German occupied coastline.
The name Commando, for these troops, was suggested by Lt. Colonel Dudley Clarke borrowing from the guerrilla fighters of the Boer War. The idea was elaborated by the Director of Military Operations and Plans: The object of forming a Commando is to collect together a number of individuals trained to fight independently as an irregular and not as a formed military unit. The procedure for raising and maintaining Commandos is as follows. One or two officers in each Command will be selected as Commando Leaders. They will each be instructed to select from their own Commands a number of Troop Leaders to serve under them. The Troop Leaders will in turn select the officers and men to form their own troop. While no strengths have yet been decided upon I have in mind Commandos of a strength of something like 10 troops of roughly 50 men each. Each troop will have a commander and one, or possibly two, other officers. [Photo courtesy of Alan H Orton is of No 6 troop in Cyprus as confirmed by Jimmy Storrie who was one of its number].
Once the men have been selected the Commando leader will be given an area (usually a seaside town) where his Commando will live and train while not engaged on operations. The officers and men will receive no Government quarters or rations, but will be given a consolidated money allowance to cover their cost of living. They will live in lodgings, etc., of their own selection in the area allotted to them and parade for training as ordered by their Leaders. They will usually be allowed to make use of a barracks, camp, or other suitable place as a training ground. They will also have an opportunity of practicing with boats on beaches nearby. The Commando organisation is really intended to provide no more than a pool of specialised soldiers from which irregular units, of any size and type, can be very quickly created to undertake any particular task. The main characteristics of a Commando in action are: (a) Capable of operating independently for 24 hours; (b) Capable of very wide dispersion and individual action; (c) Not capable of resisting an attack or overcoming a defence of formed bodies of troops, i.e. specialising in 'tip and run' tactics dependent for their success upon speed, ingenuity and dispersion.
The Commandos came under the province of Combined Operations and in July, Churchill appointed Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Roger Keyes, as Director of Combined Operations. During the first few weeks of July 1940, a number of these new units were raised in different parts of Britain. Nos. 3 and 4 Commandos were formed from Southern Command, Nos. 5 and 6 from Western Command, No. 7 from Eastern Command, No. 8 mainly from the London District and the Household Division and Nos. 9 and 11 from Scottish Command.
The man chosen to lead the 11th (Scottish) Commando was Lt. Colonel Richard R. Pedder (H.L.I.) and he quickly set about the task of putting his unit together. Pedder was described as a no-nonsense officer with a mind of his own who knew exactly what he wanted. Volunteers for special service of an undefined hazardous nature were requested from throughout the Scottish Command. From those who applied, he ruthlessly culled both officers and men he thought to be unsuitable.
Although they were not the first to be raised, the 11th (Scottish) were the first to reach their operational strength. Colonel Pedder set up his headquarters in the Douglas Hotel in Galashiels. He first selected his officers and then interviewed the men. Maj. Geoffrey Keyes, son of Sir Roger Keyes and a young Major in the Royal Scots Greys then in Redford Barracks in Edinburgh, put his name on the list. Ambitious and well disciplined as a professional army officer, he was selected, and with him brought a troop of men from his old regiment to the Commando. Lt. Blair Mayne of the Royal Ulster Rifles volunteered with his friend Eoin McGonigal and was also selected. Although undisciplined, he was tough and developed a close friendship with Keyes.
The men of the 11th Commando came from all over Scotland. Some were regular soldiers but others were conscripts fresh from basic training. Jimmy Lappin had just finished his basic training with the 5th battalion, Cameron Highlanders at Nairn. He was posted to a billet in Wick fish market when he and Hugh Canavan volunteered. After seven day's leave he joined the Commando billeted in the Netherdale Mills in Galashields. John Mackay, William Campbell and David Gunn were serving with the 5th battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, patrolling remote sites in Wester Ross and Sutherland when they joined and headed south. Those selected were put through their paces with a month-long training period. Anyone found lacking was returned to unit (RTU'd). It was the only punishment necessary.
Geoffrey Keyes describes this time on August 18: We have been very busy and energetic and I am just working off my stiffness and getting fit. We march and swim and do other violent things, so one goes to bed very weary and sleeps like a log.
The typical daily routine at that time was reveille at 6:30, training run at 7:00 (about a mile) followed by P.T. breakfast at 8:00, parade at 9:00 and inspection. The morning was completed with a route march of 8-10 miles (with arms, in battle dress) at a fast pace, including cross-country work, map reading, compass work, moving through cover etc. Lunch was at 1:00 and was followed by swimming parade at 2:30 with ninety minutes of swimming, running and exercising. Tea was at 4:30 and was followed by a forty-five minute lecture at 5:00. The evening after 6:00 was free for personal time and company duties.
Towards the end of August the Commando marched through Peebles and over to Ayr. Again, Geoffrey Keyes describes on August 30 from Lamlash: I arrived here rather earlier than I expected as in training I strained my right achilles tendon, and got a 'filled hock'. The first day's walk was rather a shocker, as we started off from scratch with eleven miles non stop in three hours, twenty minutes halt for lunch, then another four miles in one hour. No joke; I finished rather lame as did most of my cavalrymen, but we got a good chit form the C.O. for our spirit. We slept that night under the stars in a wood after a bathe in the Tweed - pretty cold, and, next day I was incredibly stiff. The C.O. sent me on next day to arrange the night's bivouac, despite my efforts to be allowed to march (as it wasn't so far and I think I could have done it). I felt pretty lousy leaving my chaps some of whom were nearly as bad as me. That afternoon when we got into the bivouac I had prepared, I was sent on with the 2nd in Command right down the route.
Walter Marshall remembered: We were raised in Gallashiels and then marched to Ayr. I can remember marching through Muirkirk and Cumnock. The people were gems-especially the girls. It was a wonderful feeling marching through Ayr behind the pipes. In the Town Hall we were given a magnificent meal. After speeches of welcome, Major Pedder, our C.O. told us, the Provost and the councillors, what was expected of us. It was a very stirring speech. That night we bivouacked in Dam Park. I remember swimming nude in the River Ayr.
Jimmy Lappin (Cameron Highlanders) recalled: We marched twenty to thirty miles a day and slept in the hedge-rows. I changed my socks at every stop and washed through the pair I had taken off in a burn. Many of the men developed blisters and when they could not walk any more they got to ride in the transport that carried our kit. I remember them crowing to us as they passed. When we got to Ayr, they were all RTU'd.
The Commando had marched through Ayr on September 4 and on September 6, were sent by special train to Fairlie where they embarked for Lamlash on Arran in the Glen Sannox. At Lamlash they were marched off the pier and divided into groups for billeting in homes in the village. The second in command, Major N. Bruce Ramsay (Camerons) was an enormous, jovial but elderly man who left Geoffrey Keyes in charge of the billeting arrangements. Officers were given a daily allowance of 13/4d while the other ranks (O.R.) were allowed 6/8d. The officers rented the White House from the Duchess of Montrose as an officer's mess. The officers were allowed one day off per week for sport and they also let some of the Duchess of Montrose's shooting.
Keyes records on September 5: I and my two officers live in a charming little cottage not far from the White House, where we are very comfortable. The troops are in the surrounding houses so we are very handy....I now have my N.C.O.s back so I have only one foreign body in the troop, an infanteer batman. The chaps are being looked after very well by all the old bodies here who feed them very well, and it is a superb place. They are enjoying themselves a lot.
Again Jimmy Lappin remembered: In the first billet I was assigned to there was only one double bed for two of us and my billet was changed to Cul-a-Valla with Mary McKechnie. Some of the lads just had a plain tea the first night and had arranged to move out but next day Mary explained that she had to wait for our ration cards. The food was great. She was a great cook and really looked after us, drying our kit and giving us hot baths.
Blair Mayne was billeted at Landour and wrote to his mother: I like this place-we are very comfortable here and the mess is fine. I don't live in the mess as I think I told you. Five of us are in a small parlour house, only for sleeping of course. I prefer it. We keep a fire going, have a gramophone, and there is a pot of tea made in the evening. I think this is the sort of place I'll live in. No women about it, and clothes lying about all over the place, dirty teacups on the floor, wet boots in the oven, a rugby jersey over one armchair and your feet on the fender, a perfect existence. We have lots of labour saving devices also, e.g. the coal is in very large lumps. To split it we just fire a revolver shot into it, it cracks it wonderfully.
Piper James Lawson joined in the Commando on the first Friday in November. He was a piper in the Gordon Highlanders, at that time based in their depot Aberdeen. After arriving in Lamlash on the following Sunday he recalled: I was standing at the window of the digs and was watching a troop marching along the road. They turned down the old pier blowing up their Mae Wests then jumped off the end of the pier and swam ashore. I was convinced I was in a madhouse. Gerald Bryan recalls that it was Blair Mayne's No. 7 troop who were marched off the pier, and the young lieutenant marched in after them. The repercussion was a resounding complaint from the indignant landladies who looked after the men and had to dry their kit!
There were three Commandos training on Arran at the time. The other Scottish unit, the 9th were at Whiting Bay while the 7th were at Lochranza. At times it seemed that the whole island was under invasion. The pace of training was intense.
The troop would rally at the blast of a whistle or horn and come running from their billets. The regimen for training consisted of weapons training, unarmed combat, range practice, the use of explosives, cross-country runs and marches, rock climbing, swimming in full kit, boat handling, map reading, initiative tests and mock operations. All of this was designed to stretch endurance to the limit. Each man carried a flask of whisky and morphia tablets as part of his kit. He also carried a short length of rope with a bight at one end and a toggle at the other. These short lengths of rope could be joined together for climbing cliffs or for making rope bridges, or as safety-lines when fording rivers in spate.
Blair Mayne wrote again to his mother late in 1940 in a letter headed 'Sunday Night, Machrie Bay,' describing the first night of an endurance march: We left Lamlash about two o'clock and walked over here, about seventeen miles. For the first four miles there were odd showers. They didn't hinder us much since we quickly dried, but after it wasn't so good as the final shower lasted for the last thirteen miles, and there was a regular gale blowing off the sea into our faces. I waded through a river the other night and I don't think it was any wetter! This book (the letter was written on blotched sheets torn from a squared notebook) was in my pocket and is still wet. We got in here about seven o'clock and then started to find somewhere to sleep. We were carrying nothing except some food, we would not demean ourselves by carrying blankets. It is a smallish hamlet, eight or nine houses and I started going to them to find somewhere for my twenty-five men to dry their clothes. They were all decent, one old lady reminded me of you. I knocked at the door and the girl who opened it seemed scared. I think at first she thought I was a Jerry parachutist, though Father Christmas would have been more like the thing, what with all the equipment I had on. At any rate, I told her who we were, that we intended sleeping out and wondered if she could get some clothes dried. She rose to her feet. 'You'll not stop outside as long as I've a bed in my house,' she declared, and then went into a huddle with her two daughters and her clatter of children and then announced that she could take six. To cut a long story short, I am sitting in borrowed pyjamas and an overcoat made for a much smaller man than myself, so much so that when one of my lads saw me he said 'Let Burton dress you!'
It was not all work, there were lighter moments too. Some wag shot the weathervane off Lamlash Church! [ Michael Whyte wrote in Sep 08... We holiday in Lamlash most years and I know the church well. So when I read what had happened to the weather vane I wrote to a friend, a member of Lamlash church, who was living there at the time of the incident. He remembered the incident and confirmed that the mark where the vane had been hit was still there. It had been seen recently during restoration work when the weather vane was taken down and stored.]
The village had only one pub for the 500 troops and the landlord would continuously run his two taps into a zinc bath from which he kept up his supply of pints. There were three or four dances a week in the Village Hall and the hall-keeper, John Martin, had to send to Glasgow for records of the St. Bernard's waltz, the slow foxtrot, and the quickstep. A particular favourite was 'The Woodpecker's Song,' then very popular throughout the whole country. Girls came from around the whole island to dance with the troopers.
Colonel Pedder set very high standards and was a difficult man to deal with. However, he was keenly interested in the welfare of his men and spent much time finding out about their backgrounds and reassuring them that they would have an opportunity to fight soon, building up the morale of the unit. This was especially important as some of the regiments from which the men had volunteered were being sent to the only active front; in North Africa.
Some of the older officers, who provided the early logistical support, dropped out to be replaced with younger men who were rapidly gaining experience. As Second in Command, Major Ramsay had acted as a buffer between the outspoken Pedder and Scottish Command and this difficult job was then taken over by Keyes, newly promoted to Captain.
One observer at this time was Admiral Sir Walter Cowan K.C.B., C.B., D.S.O. who had joined the Commando to improve the boat work of the men. He related: Coming back after a night landing and a mountain to climb at speed, they would, at dawn, making for the beaches and breakfast, come in perhaps seven miles with full equipment machine guns and all, averaging five and a half miles an hour without effort, not a man falling out... ...the training of the two Scottish Commandos 9 and 11 in Arran during the autumn and winter of 1940 was the most vigorous and ruthless I have ever seen....the pick of the Scottish regiments, and they laughed at hardship - wet through at least five days out of seven and often up to or over the waist...they practiced landing in merchant ship life boats, heavy and unhandy to a degree. Most of the men had next to no knowledge of boat work, and started learning to pull in these unwieldy craft with heavy oars - it was a wonder it didn't break their hearts. Then someone has a brainwave. They took the paddles from Carley floats and went like the wind with them. The landings were mostly on shelving beaches and because of the tides the boats had to be hauled well up, which meant men being up to their waists in water. To do it in the small landing craft of course was child's play but they were not often allowed them because of the wear and tear and shortage of these craft. Sometimes the weather became very bad before they were ready to re-embark, and one evening it so happened that we might easily have drowned two boatloads in the primitive life boats - unable to make headway and drifting broadside on to the boom at the harbour entrance. I have never forgotten it. In the end, and in the nick of time, a harbour steam launch fetched out and clawed them off but only just.
They must have attacked Clauchlands Point at the end of Lamlash Bay dozens of times that winter. As the landing craft would come into the beach, Keyes and Sir Walter Cowan standing on the beach, would tell them 'Far too much noise-you must do it again' and this they did until they learned to keep 'as quiet as mice.' They learned from experts in rock climbing, unarmed combat and other tricks. The 11th was the first to fire live ammunition over the heads of its troops in training and it conducted live mortar practice on the moor between Sannox and Corrie.
On November 4, Keyes wrote: I am in a beastly fit and hearty state, and we sail over the local hills at great speed. We (that is the troop leaders) fire live rounds at our Soldiery now to impress them the horrors of war, and make them utilize the best cover. Most instructive and effective and brightens training no end. We are just commencing our Aquatic Sports yesterday I bathed my whole troop in the sea with their naval water wings on.
In short, they had become a unit. Morale was high. The 11th (Scottish) Commandos adopted a glengarry as headdress with a distinctive black hackle supported by the badge of the trooper's home regiment. No. 9 Commando, then in training in the South of England also adopted the glengarry with a black hackle but they were not to see action as a unit until much later in the war. Eventually, and despite some opposition from the Army Council, a green beret became standard issue for all Commando forces. However, the 11th Commando retained their glengarrys until disbandment.
Keyes remarked about the head dress on September 29: ...life goes on much the same as usual. The whole outfit is getting together well, and we all look more or less alike now, as we have got standardized equipment. The officers all have, and the men will have bonnets with large black hackles in the side. These are very smart but a bit embarrassing to the Sassenach officers...
The name Commando was, at this point, not really accepted in corridors of Whitehall and in early November the Commandos were reorganized into Special Service Battalions. The 11th Commando was augmented with men from the Independent Companies who had seen action in Norway and was reconstituted as 2 S.S. Battalion based at Whiting Bay under the command of Lt. Col. J. M. Seagert (R.E.). There might well have been difficulties as the new additions had not had the same level of training as the Commandos. However, any problems seem to have been well contained. Nevertheless, the identification with Hitler's SS was inevitable and the proud units fought to retain their identities. The widespread opposition ensured that within a matter of weeks the Commando designation was restored.
The men were ready, the only thing missing was a suitable operation to employ them. During that autumn, as the invasion scare reached a climax, the Commandos took part in various exercises connected with the defence of Britain. They were stationed in Montrose for several weeks and then moved to Brechin. Work for the Commandos was at hand, however. On October 30, Sir Roger Keyes had proposed to the Chiefs of Staff that Special Service troops be used to capture the Italian Island of Pantellaria in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Sicily. This operation, 'Workshop', was postponed because it was believed that the island could not be held without strong air support, which was not available. The opposition from Admiral A. B. Cunnigham, Commander of the Mediterranean, also meant that destroyers would not be available for the action. Nevertheless the plan retained some life, and in December the 11th Commando returned to Arran. There, along with Nos. 3, 7 and 8 Commandos, they embarked on the fast transports Glenroy and Royal Scotsman, converted merchantmen with LCIs and LCMs on their strengthened davits. They lay in Lamlash Bay but, eventually, the revelation that German dive bombers had arrived in Sicily alarmed the planners sufficiently so that the operation was cancelled altogether and the disappointed troops were disembarked.
On November 19, Geoffrey Keyes wrote to his father: ...the men are longing for a show...One troop has gone away for a boating holiday, and the rest are pretty jealous and excited. If we have to wait till January, we will be a flop, for an absolute certainty. Men are asking to go back to their units so that they can go to the Middle East to fight. It is all disappointing, so please fix us up Pop. This leave business has cheered them up for the moment, but they should be exercised on their return, and they'd beat anyone living.
Keyes, left in command while Pedder had a week's leave wrote: ...I was in a complete spin all the time but it went off O.K..... We have been having lousy weather and the hills of our old home were covered with snow, in which we used to crawl about. We are allowed ashore occasionally, and last night we had a colossal party at a local dance...dining with Jean Graham. The dance was a great success, we danced reels and went and cooked eggs and bacon afterwards at Jean's house, about fourteen of us, getting back at all hours...
Blair Mayne also had some high spirited times during this frustrating period. As Gerald Bryan recounts: Blair was a natural soldier, a born fighting man. He never really settled down in the peace. When sober, a gentler, more mild-mannered man you could not wish to meet, but when drunk, or in battle, he was frightening. I'm not saying he was a drunk, but he could drink a bottle of whisky in an evening before he got a glow on. He had great physical strength, and had been both a boxer and a rugby international. He was 6ft 4in tall. One night, when he had been on the bottle, he literally picked me up by the lapels of my uniform, clear of the ground and with one hand while punching me with the other hand, sending me flying. Next day he didn't remember a thing about it. 'Just tell me who did that to you Gerald,' he said. I told him I'd walked into a door. He was a very brave man and I liked him very much.
Fortunately, the Commando were not detained long. The Pantellaria operation was exchanged for an operation on a smaller scale in the Dodecanese - the capture of the Island of Rhodes. The Dodecanese were seen as vital to keep Turkey from entering the war on the Axis side. The tide of battle in the Mediterranean Theatre which, up until that time, had been on the Allied side was beginning to turn. German air support was greatly aiding the Italian army and naval units.
The decision to capture Rhodes meant that the Commando had a well defined operation and it was accordingly dispatched to the Middle East. Force Z, as it was called, was constituted as a Special Service brigade under Lt. Colonel R. E. Laycock who until that time had been in command of 8th Commando. Laycock was appointed to command the force on the day it sailed and it was commented to him the 'You appear to be going to command a force of over 100 officers and 1,500 ORs with one staff officer, a note book and eight wireless sets which nobody can work.' Half of the 11th Commando sailed on the Glenroy, with 8th Commando, and the other half on the Glenearn under Keyes with 7th Commando. One troop of 3rd Commando was also included. The Glengyle followed with some of the officers and regular troops for the Middle East.
The two ships sailed from Arran on January 31, 1941 in company with the cruiser Kenya as part of a larger convoy bound around the Cape. They encountered very bad weather and consequently they made a wide loop out into the Atlantic before turning South. The men carried out P.T. regularly on board. A boxing tournament was organized but, inevitably, card schools provided much of the entertainment. After a brief stop in Freetown where Alex. Aitken remembers the natives came out in canoes yelling things like What about a Glesga tanner? they headed for Capetown. [Photo of HMS Glenroy courtesy of Stewart McLean of the Blair Mayne Association]
The pick of the Heilands and Lowlands and a
And stout-hearted Irish frae mountain and bog
And stout-hearted Irish frae mountain and bog
And gunners and infantry gallant and braw
And noo we're awa, lads, to meet the foe
And noo we're awa, lads, to meet the foe
We'll fight in the desert, the hill and the plain,
And though as yet we've no honours to show,
They'll ken the 'Black Hackle', afore we cam hame.
Force Z, now accompanied by the cruiser Dorsetshire, crossed the line on February 13 and reached Table Bay six days later. Limited shore leave was granted but two days later they set off again. A report of a sighting of the German pocket-battleship Admiral Scheer drew the escorting cruiser two days later and the troopships headed for the safety of Durban. Dorsetshire returned and the voyage continued without entering the port. The cruiser Glasgow replaced Dorsetshire just before the equator was crossed for a second time on February 28.
Force Z arrived at Suez on March 7 and was then named 'Layforce'. For security reasons, the word 'Commando' was not to be used and No. 11 Commando was known as C Battalion. The Commando disembarked on March 10 at Geneifa and began to train for the invasion of Rhodes. However, events overtook the preparations when, on April 6, the Germans invaded Greece and Yugoslavia. In the Western Desert too, Rommel, who had arrived in February, launched an offensive at the end of March that, by early April, had reoccupied Cyrenaica and captured Bardia.
Although parts of Layforce were active, this period was one of frustration with hastily planned operations which were even more hastily cancelled. C Battalion moved from Alexandria to Palestine in mid-April 1941 and at the end of the month sailed from Haifa to Cyprus to bolster the garrison there from the threat of invasion.
The Commando were soon dispersed around the island. Life settled into a regular routine with little to remind the men of war. From the northern part of the island, where 10 Troop was based, Davie Rutherford from Edinburgh would play his guitar over the field telephones and could be heard all over the island until the headquarters found out!
On May 20 the Germans launched an airborne invasion of Crete, and three days later A and D Battalions, of Layforce, were sent to the island. Although the 11th Commando remained in Cyprus, events were coming to a head in the Middle East. In April the Axis had orchestrated a rebel insurrection in Iraq. At the beginning of May Wavell had scraped together sufficient forces to put down the insurrection. It was the promise of German air support that was key to the rebels. It became known to the British authorities that the Vichy Government had sanctioned the use of Syrian airfields for Axis planes in transit to the combat zone. The possibility of a German takeover in Syria was very real. General Dentz, the Vichy High Commissioner and Commander-in-Chief in Syria, was approached by the Allies regarding the action he would take in the event of a attempt by Germany to occupy the country. His reply that 'he would consider any such action contrary to the terms of the German armistice and would resist accordingly' was reassuring but he also indicated that he would obey whatever instructions he would receive from the Vichy Authorities in France.
The decision was made by the Allies to advance into Syria. It was hoped that there would be little resistance. The spearhead would be the 7th Australian Division, which had been in reserve for the defence of Egypt, with the 5th and 21st Indian Brigades, recently returned from fighting in Italian East Africa, together with two brigades of British Cavalry and the Free French Brigade. Against them General Dentz had 53,000 men, about half of them regular French and colonial troops, and the other half irregular units such as the Algerians, Senegales, Spahis and French Foreign Legion. They were well supported with artillery, tanks and armoured cars.
The plan called for the main thrust by the 7th Division along the vital coast road towards Beiruit beginning on the morning of the 8th June. Naval support in the form of the cruisers Ajax, Phoebe, Coventry and Perth, with the destroyers Kandahar, Kimberley, Janus and Jackal, could be called upon. The French had built up a strong defensive position on the line of the Litani River where the vital Quâsmiyeh bridge was known to be mined. The 11th Commando was called upon to land North and South of the river and capture the bridge, intact, to facilitate the progress of the Australian 21st Infantry Brigade who were leading the advance.
On the night of June 3rd, the 11th Commando received a rush order to embark from Famagusta and after midnight the destroyers Hotspur and Ilex arrived to take them to Port Said. Colonel Pedder went to Jerusalem to receive orders while the Commando transferred to Glengyle.
The available intelligence information, in the form of aerial photographs and charts, was incomplete and included little detail about the landing beaches. Consequently, Lieutenant Potter, R.N., who was to serve as beach officer set off to Haifa to find an R.N.V.R. sub-lieutenant by the name of Colenut who had served with the Palestine Police and was familiar with the area.
The attack, by the Commando, was planned to coincide with the main thrust by the Australians along the coastal road. Escorted by the destroyers Hotspur and Isis, Glengyle sailed on June 7 and arrived off Aiteniyé, at the mouth of the Litani river, in brilliant moonlight. There was a heavy swell running which made lowering and unhooking the landing craft very difficult. At this point Lieutenant Potter reached the rendezvous in a patrol boat and indicated that all elements of surprise had been lost. There were enemy patrol boats in the vicinity and much activity on shore. Glengyle had been visible, in the moonlight, while still at least eight miles off. In addition, heavy surf on the beaches, would make landing impossible. Colonel Pedder was willing to attempt a landing as his orders had indicated, that in view of the vital nature of the operation, casualties from such conditions would be acceptable. However, Glengyle's captain was not persuaded and, with great difficulty, he recovered the landing-craft and returned to Port Said.
In the meantime, the Australians had begun their advance into Syria. The Vichy French retired to their defensive points on the Litani river line and they blew up the Quâsmiyeh bridge. No sooner had Glengyle moored at Port Said, in the early hours of June 8, when it was ordered to sail again and carry out the landing operation that night. In light of the developments, Colonel Pedder modified the attack plan so that the whole Commando force would now be landed North of the Litani river at dawn. Major Keyes would lead the main attack with Nos. 2, 3 and 9 Troops. They would land just north of Aiteniyé Farm, and seize the enemy defensive positions overlooking the Litani river from the rear. A smaller party under Captain George More, R.E., with Nos. 4 and 10 Troops were to land about a mile and a half farther up the coast and seize the Kafr Badda bridge which was still intact. They were to disrupt communications, prevent enemy reinforcement and re-supply, and reinforce the centre party. Colonel Pedder's party, with Nos. 1, 7 and 8 Troops, would land in the centre to attack the enemy barracks and act as reserve. Each party was equipped with a portable wireless set, for communications, and a medical orderly. The medical officer was attached to Keyes' party. Nos. 5 and 6 Troops were to be left on board Glengyle as space on the landing craft was limited.
While this attack was progressing from the sea, the Australians, who had reached the Litani defences would, under cover of artillery barrage, build a pontoon bridge. They would then cross the river to advance, with their light armour, through the Commando positions. The password chosen for the operation was "Arran".
Glengyle reached the Syrian coast at 3 a.m. on June 9th just as the moon was setting. Conditions were much calmer and the eleven available landing craft were launched with little difficulty and headed for the shore. The surf was also was also very light and the northern and centre parties landed at about 4.20 a.m. However, the main party to the south went in slowly and did not land until 4.50 a.m.
The northern party, consisting of six officers and ninety-six men in three landing craft, reached the beaches with little opposition. However, the landing-craft carrying Captain More on the final approach, hit a rock which resulted in damage to the wireless sets. However they cleared the beaches quickly and safely and advanced across very flat, open country. The most northerly landing involved Captains Ian Macdonald, and Tommy Macpherson with No. 10 Troop who were detailed to take the Kafr Badda bridge. The enemy had this well defended with four machine-gun posts flanking the bridge approaches and commanding the surrounding area. These were reinforced with armoured cars. An intense action followed.
Private Varney recounted: A bullet cut through the strap of George Dove's steel helmet, went right on through the top of it, and then ricocheted into his seat. He had always talked of showing his scars, and here was one he couldn't show to anybody! Dove continued to fight and carried his bren gun through the action of the day.
Jimmy Lappin recalled: We had just cleared the beach and were lying in scrub grass. It was just after dawn on a beautiful clear morning. The air was still and when I looked over to the next two blokes, MacKay and Hurst, a couple of yards away, they had just lit up cigarettes. I could see two thin columns of blue smoke rising and I thought that I would have a smoke too but, just as I got my cigarettes out, the whistle blew for us to advance. These two blokes never moved, they were both hit, the smoke gave away their position. Cpl. MacKay was killed outright and Hurst died later in the day.
The Kafr Badda bridge was in the hands of No.10 Troop by 6 a.m.. It had not been mined and was captured intact. The position was reinforced against a possible counter-attack and a large number of prisoners was collected and placed, under the charge of No. 4 Troop, in the hills to the east. At this point, around 8 a.m., Captain More could hear shelling in the direction of Aiteniyé and, with no radio communications, left on a motor cycle to try to make contact with the centre party.
In the meantime the expected counter-attack arrived around noon in the form of eight armoured cars. No. 10 Troop held them at bay until about 4 p.m. when a further six armoured cars arrived from the east. These engaged No. 4 Troop and, as a result, some of the prisoners were able to rejoin the action. Around 5.30 p.m., Captain Macdonald and Lieutenant McGonigal began a withdrawal. Captain More then returned and, in the darkness, they attempted to make for the Australian lines. Most of the men of No. 4 Troop, and No. 10 Troop, made their way into the hills to the east. They crossed the swiftly flowing Litani river above the bridge with little further incident. However, a party led by Captain Moore, made for the mouth of the river where they were engaged by the enemy and suffered a number of casualties before surrendering.
The Adjutant Lieutenant McGonigal, OC No 4 Troop reported: We landed in two ALCs - one sub-section under 2Lt Richards and three sub-sections under myself. 2Lt Parnacott was with me. We crossed the beaches with a few stray shots above our heads and no casualties, and made due east to the road. 2Lt Richards' party had not joined us. We crossed the road about 300 yards south of the enemy MT (Motor Transport) whose personnel took no notice of us. Gaining the rising ground, we saw the remaining troops of our fighting party engaging the MT on the road. As long as possible we gave them supporting fire from the rear. Then, when they had captured the trucks, we pushed northwards along the hills towards Kaffa Badr bridge. On the road running east from this bridge we engaged one armoured truck, and an armoured car. The truck we destroyed and the car escaped to the east. Some twenty enemy retiring to the north were engaged by our small arms at 300 yards with good effect, and then 4 Troop combined with Captain More's party in the capture of the French guns and trucks in the long valley which runs due east from the Kaffa Badr bridge.
Capt. More consolidated the position and placed 10 Troop on the high ground above the Kaffa Badr bridge and 4 Troop on the hills overlooking the valley some 500 yards east of 10 Troop. We occupied this position till about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and set up a very temporary RAP (Regimental Aid Post) and had, under our care, a large body of prisoners. During this period we saw small bodies of the enemy to the eastward, all of these retiring northwards, and a French reconnaissance plane made repeated flights over us in the early afternoon. We could hear the sounds of 10 Troop on our left engaging enemy AFVs on the main north road and about four o'clock six armoured cars appeared on the road running to our east about 1400 yards away. These AFVs engaged our area with two pounders or some similar gun, and medium Mgs. They inflicted heavy casualties on our French prisoners. It had been impossible, owing to the flat nature of the ground around the road, to put any anti-AFV obstacle on the road and so, on the approach of the AFV I withdrew my main body, consisting of one section of 4 Troop and some dozen men from Nos. 1, 7 and 10 Troops whom I had formed into another sub-section.
One sub-section and two anti-tank rifles stayed in our area and were driven out by the AFVs some fifteen minutes later. We reformed in the hills and with 3 sub-sections and two anti-tank rifles we moved to the support of 10 Troop. During the action with the AFVs, many French prisoners were killed attempting to disarm our men or escape. One sub-section was now sent to hold a main ridge covering our rear and the main road about 500 yards south of No 10 Troop and with the remainder of the troop I reported to Capt MacDonald and placed myself under his orders, this force being meantime augmented by a section of 8 Troop. Capt More arrived and took command of this fighting party.
Capt More ordered a withdrawal on the Litani River direction, using the ridges as bounds, and 4 Troop and 10 Troop alternated as forward troops. The enemy were bringing heavy but inaccurate fire to bear on us and, as far as can be checked, we suffered no casualties during the withdrawal. Eventually Capt More held a conference and it was decided to try and cross the River where it entered the sea. For this purpose we held a position till an hour after darkness and then it was found that 10 Troop and 4 Troop had retired in the direction of the high ground eastwards. It was by this route that most of 4 Troop got out of the fighting area and crossed the River above the main bridge. The remainder of Capt More's fighting party descended to the beach, where eventually we were caught by enemy MGs and suffered seven casualties, including 2Lt Parnacott killed. We eventually succeeded in surrendering, movement forwards or backwards being impossible. Next morning the French commander handed his post over to Capt More and we rejoined the main body of the Commando under Major Keyes.
The centre party of Nos. 1, 7 and 8 Troops, with eight officers and one hundred and forty-five men in four landing-craft, came under heavy machine-gun fire as they approached the beach. As a consequence, the landing craft went astern almost immediately after grounding and most of the men were landed in water above their waist. However, they struggled ashore and cleared the beaches quickly with only one man killed in Lieutenant Blair Mayne's No. 7 Troop.
The headquarters troop with Colonel Pedder crawled off the beach through a dry stream-bed and crossed the coast road without being detected by the enemy, disrupting communications as they made for the barracks. They reached a valley north of the barracks and captured a number of prisoners who were guarding ammunition stores but came under heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. They were pinned down until the section, under Lieutenant Farmiloe, put these out of action. They moved on to a rise to the north-east of the barracks where they again came under very heavy machine-gun fire, and accurate sniping, which caused a number of casualties. Colonel Pedder ordered a withdrawal to try to contact the main force under Keyes which should have been to the south. They attempted to return to lower ground with better cover but, around 9 a.m., Colonel Pedder was killed and shortly thereafter, Lieutenant Farmiloe was also fatally wounded.
It became apparent that all of the officers of the headquarters party were either killed or seriously wounded and the R.S.M. Tevendale assumed command. He planned a withdrawal in the direction of the Litani river but realized that the enemy activity would make this difficult. The remaining men positioned themselves above the main road to the barracks and consolidated their situation, waiting for an opportunity to withdraw and in the meantime, disrupting enemy communications. The battle was waged, sporadically, all afternoon but around 5 p.m., they were surrounded and captured.
Lt. Gerald Bryan of No. 1 Troop tells: I raced madly up the beach and threw myself into the cover formed by a sand dune. The men behind me were still scrambling out of the landing craft and dashing over the twenty yards of open beach. Away on the right we could hear the rattle of a machine gun and the overhead whine of bullets, but they seemed fairly high. I was just beside a dry stream bed and so started to walk along it, at the same time trying to untie the lifebelt attached to my rifle. Colonel Pedder was shouting to us to push on as quickly as possible. Soon the ditch that I was in became too narrow and there was nothing for it but to climb out into the open. The ground was flat with no cover. The machine guns were now firing fairly continuously but were not very worrying. When I got out into the open - rather like moorland - I started shouting "A Section No. 1 Troop," which represented my command. Before long we were in pretty good formation, with myself, batman and tommy gunner in the centre.
We came to the main road and saw, on the other side, a trench showing clearly in a the white chalk. It was empty, but behind it were two caves in a little cliff. I fired a rifle shot into the left-hand cave. There were sounds of commotion inside. We stood ready with grenades and tommy guns and shouted to them to come out. Seven sleepy French emerged in pyjamas and vests. We had certainly caught them sleeping. My batman remained with them to hand them over to the Colonel who was coming up behind. It was now quite light, the time being about 04:45 hrs. The rest of the section had pushed on, so I followed, and came on a wire running along the ground. This I cut with a pair of wire cutters. I found the section held up and under fire from snipers. Also, which was more to the point, they had found a 75 mm gun. It was about thirty yards away and firing fairly rapidly. We flung some grenades and it stopped. However, we had three casualties, which wasn't so good. A corporal was shot through the wrist and was cursing every Frenchman ever born. As he couldn't use a rifle, I gave him my Colt automatic pistol, and he carried on.
We crawled through some scrub to get closer to the gun. Here we met B Section office Alastair Coade and a few men, also attacking the gun position, so we joined forces. The gun itself was deserted, the crew being in a slit trench. We bunged in a few more grenades and then went in ourselves. It was rather bloody. My section was comprised mostly of RA blokes who knew how to handle the gun, and in a few minutes the sergeant had discovered which fuses to use from one of the original gun crew. This gun was the right hand gun of a battery of four, the others being anything from about 100 yards to 300 yards away. They were still firing. Our gun was pointing away from the battery, so we grabbed the tail piece and heaved it right round so that it was pointing towards the nearest gun.. The Sergeant took over command of the gun, shoved a shell in and sighted over open sights, then fired. The result was amazing. There was one hell of an explosion in the other gun site and the gun was flung up into the air like a toy. We must have hit their ammo dump. No time to waste. The Sergeant traversed onto the next gun, sighted rapidly and fired. There was a pause. Where the devil had the shell gone? Then there was a flash and a puff of smoke in the dome of a chapel about half a mile up the hillside. A thick Scottish voice said, "That'll make the buggers pray!" The Sergeant hurriedly lowered the elevation and fired again, this time a bit low. However, the gun crew started to run away and our Bren opened up and did good work. Just then a runner turned up with orders from the Colonel to report to him with as many men as possible when we had finished off the battery. It did not take long to get a good hit on each of the two remaining guns. The sergeant then broke off the firing pin of our gun with the butt of a rifle.
We had to cross about 300 yards of open ground to reach the Colonel so we just ran like hell, and although there were a few bullets flying around, I don't think we had a single casualty. I arrived at Commando HQ and reported to the Colonel. He explained that he was pushing in some men and wanted our section to support them and pick off snipers. We took up what positions we could but there wasn't much cover. I left the Colonel and went over to a Bren-gun post about fifty yards away but it took me a good ten minutes to get there as I had to crawl the whole way. The French had spotted us and were putting down a lot of small arms fire - very accurate. The whole time bullets spat past my head and sounded very close. It was very unpleasant and hard to think correctly. When I reached the Bren posts, they were stuck. Every time they tried to fire, a MG opened up and they couldn't spot it. Suddenly the B section officer said he had spotted it and grabbed a rifle, but as he was taking aim he was shot in the chest and went down, coughing blood. Then the Sergeant was shot in the shoulder, from a different direction, which meant we were being fired on from two fronts.
I crawled back to Commando HQ but when I was about ten yards away, I heard someone shout, 'The Colonel's hit. Get the medical orderly.' I shouted to the Adjutant and he replied that the Colonel was dead and that he was going to withdraw the attack and try his luck elsewhere. So I shouted to my men to make for some scrub about a hundred yards away and started crawling towards it. All the time bullets were fizzing past much too close for comfort and we kept very low. The Sergeant, who had been wounded, decided to run for it, to catch us up, but a machine gun got him and he fell with his face covered with blood. As I was crawling I suddenly felt a tremendous bang on the head and I knew I had been hit. However, when I opened my eyes I saw that it was in the legs and decided not to die. I dragged myself into a bit of a dip and tried to get fairly comfortable, but every time I moved, they opened up on us. I could hear an NCO yelling to me to keep down or I would be killed. I kept down. After a time (when the initial shock had worn off) the pain in my legs became hellish. My right calf was shot off and was bleeding, but I could do nothing about it, and the left leg had gone rigid. By now the sun was well up and it was very hot lying there. I was damned thirsty but could not get a drink as I had to expose myself to get my water bottle, and each time I tried I got about twenty rounds all to myself, so I put up with the thirst and lay there, hoping I would loose consciousness.
After about two hours, a lot of fire came down and the next thing was twenty-five French advancing out of the scrub with fixed bayonets. The four men left from my section were captured. I raised my arm and one of the French came over and gave me a nasty look. I was carrying a French automatic pistol that my Sergeant had given me in exchange for my rifle. It had jammed at the first shot but like a fool I had held on to it. Anyway, he just looked at me for a while and away he went and I was left alone. I had one hell of a drink and felt better. About half and hour later my four men were back with a stretcher, under a French guard. Both the Colonel and B Section officer were dead, so they got me onto the stretcher and carried me down to a dressing station, where a British medical orderly gave me a shot of morphia. While we were lying there, a machine gun opened up and the French medical fellows dived into a cave, but the bullets were right above our heads and they were obviously firing over us at something else. Some time later an ambulance turned up, and we were taken to a hospital in Beirut. In the ambulance were two wounded French, two Sergeants from our side, and myself. We remained as prisoners of war in Beirut until the British entered the town six weeks later.
Lieutenant Blair Mayne's troop lost one man on landing and another crossing the coast road under heavy machine-gun fire. *His official account of the action is very brief - 0700 Passed Lt. Fraser's section. Took 25 prisoners at French explosive store. (Colonel Pedder's troop had already passed that way and frightened them into staying put.) 0730 Attack on strong mortar post covering river. There was also some form of observations post beside this. Another thirty prisoners taken. 0800 Pinned down by Bren gun fire from Australians on other side of river. No notice taken of white flag. 0900 Had to retreat to obtain cover. 1000 Collected and concentrated all prisoners. 1100 Started to move east from explosive store. 1200 More prisoners, mostly mule drivers taken. [1200 to 1700 not accounted for except by march.] 1700 Reached river after long detour. 1730 Again fired on by Australians, one O.R. killed. 1800 Reached small house beside river - spent the night there. French still sniping. 0430 Crossed pontoon bridge and marched down to Australian camp. Prisoners escorted to Tyre. Signed Lt. R. B. Mayne, R.U.R.
[* Henry More confirms that his father, Captain George More, wrote this account after interviewing 7 Troop, and signed it himself. 'Paddy' Mayne was not available at the time - most likely under arrest for 'decking' Keyes. Henry goes on to say My father was not too surprised that 7 Troop had been fired on (twice) by the Australians. Unfortunately their rank and file did not know about the Commando operation therefore assuming that everyone in front of them was an enemy.]
However, in a letter to his brother dated July 15, Blair Mayne elaborated on the operation: I have left the Scottish Commando now - it was not the same when the CO got written off. Nearly a year I was with it and I liked it well, but I think the Commandos are finished out here. We did a good piece of work when we landed behind the French lines at the Litani river. We were fired on as we landed, but got off the beach with a couple of casualties. Then we saw a lot of men and transport about 600 yards up the road. I couldn't understand it as they seemed to be firing the wrong way, but might have been Aussies. There was quite a lot of cover - kind of hayfield - I crawled up to thirty yards or so and heard them talking French. So I started whaling grenades at them and my men opened fire. After about five minutes, up went a white flag. There were about forty of them - two machine-guns and a mortar - a nice bag to start with.
We had only a couple of men hurt. They had been firing at McGonigal's crowd who had landed further north. We left those prisoners and pushed on. McGunn, a Cameronian, was in charge of my forward section and he got stuck, so we went around him. I had about fifteen men. It got hilly and hard going and Frenchies all over the place. Eventually, we came to a path which we followed and came on a dozen mules and one knew that there must be something somewhere and we came on it just around the corner. About thirty of those fellows sitting thirty yards away. I was round first with my revolver, and the sergeant had a tommy-gun - were they surprised! I called on them to "jettez-vous à la planche" but they seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake. One of them lifted a rifle and I'm afraid he hadn't time to be sorry.
This was a sort of HQ place, typewriters, ammunition, revolvers, bombs and, more to the point, beer and food. We had been going about six hours and we were ready for it. While we were dining the phone rang. We didn't answer but followed the wire and got another bull - four machine-guns, two light machine-guns, two mortars and fifty more prisoners. We lost only two men (sounds like a German communiqué). It was a long time since I had a day like it. Eventually, about eight hours later, we came back through the Aussie lines. We were rather tired so the prisoner laddies kindly carried the booty and equipment. The rest of the story can keep until I see you. I am getting rather tired of this country (Egypt). The job is not bad, but I can't stand the natives!
The four landing craft, containing the main attack party of eight officers and one hundred and thirty two men of Nos. 2, 3, and 9 Troops, had difficulty forming in a line for the final run to the beach and were running half-an-hour behind schedule. Even more to the point, a sand-bar obscured the mouth of the Litani river and they wrongly identified the landing beach. The party cleared the beaches quickly and without loss and in the flat featureless scrub Major Keyes realized that they had in fact landed south of the river. Immediately, they made for the river with No. 2 Troop in the lead. There they found a company of the Australians with collapsible boats ready to cross in support of the commando attack anticipated north of the river.
The position was overlooked by the French who signalled for a heavy and very accurate artillery barrage. The raiders dug in, pinned down by the barrage and accurate sniping, and used whatever cover they could find. Communications were difficult as the radio had been was out of action 'till about 9 a.m. Keyes wrote: We all go to ground, as 75 mm guns, 81 mm mortars, and heavy machine-guns all firing very accurately. George Highland, Davidson and self behind substantial bush and low bank. Extremely unpleasant. Davidson moves about thirty yards to right, but gets pinned behind low bush by snipers in wired post on far side of the river. Very accurate fire. Padbury, Jones, Woodnutt killed, Wilkinson badly wounded. George and Eric [Garland] as cool as cucumbers take most of 3 Troop about sixty yards to right flank. Can get no further, as open ground.
In the action along the river-bank, a number of No. 2 Troop were killed or wounded, among them Lance-Corporal Lang and Seargent Burton. Trooper Norman Wilkinson was severely wounded about this time. He remembered: Ike Cohen, the section first-aid man, saw that Burton was hit and went to try to help him. Burton told him to 'stay where he was', but not Ike, he crawled over and both were killed together.
Keyes continued: Very loath to leave bush for George's (Captain Highland) position, as ground very open and sniped at. Start crawling with Ness level with me down minute fold. Feels like a billiard table, and several bullets very close. Get behind Davidson who says it is completely exposed beyond with a low bank to cross. This has taken about twenty-five minutes, so decided to run for it. Ness and I start running, but I trip up after about three paces as I am very heavily laden. Fall down on bank, and Ness the idiot gets down too, even more exposed. We get badly sniped, so I tell him to run on to George, which he does safely. I give them about ten minutes to forget me and do it in two bursts. Inspect Jones and Woodnutt on the way, both dead.
They remained this way until about 10 a.m. when the two large French destroyers Guerpard and Valmy joined in bombarding the beaches. However, these were soon chased off by British destroyers Janus, Jackal, Hotspur and Isis.
About this time, the Australian artillery began a barrage of the French defences and this allowed the forward units of Nos. 2 and 3 Troops to launch a boat. Captain Eric Garland and six men from No. 3 Troop crossed to the north bank of the river and the boat was returned by two Australians. The enemy barrage and small arms fire continued until about 11.30 a.m., pinning them on the south shore, unable to reinforce the crossing party. During this action, Major Keyes sent a runner to locate No. 9 Troop and bring them forward but it was discovered that they had been ordered to the rear by an Australian brigadier.
In the meantime Captain Garland and his men, on the far bank, were cutting wire and exchanging fire with the French positions less than 100 yards on higher ground. About 11.45 a.m. Captain Highland got across with another boatload and, shortly thereafter, a French officer walked out of the post with a white flag.
In the early afternoon about 1.30 p.m., Major Keyes crossed over to the north bank with two more boatloads and they spent the afternoon consolidating the position for possible counter-attack. The post was well equipped with heavy and light machine-guns. They used a captured 25 mm anti-tank gun to good effect: Too few of us to advance on Aiteniyé, without support of trained troops.... Eric locates flash of 75 mm gun on hillside 1000 yards away which is shelling Australians at River mouth. It does not seem able to shell us, as embrasure does not allow traverse. Gun very well hid, and defiladed from our artillery, which is searching for him. We have brain wave, and pull up 25 mm with prisoners' help. Eric lays, and after three shots ranging puts four through the embrasure. Nice gun and good shooting, settles his hash.
With the enemy guns silenced, the Australians crossed the Litani river on the sand-bar at its mouth and grouped to attack Aiteniyé. The advance began about 9 p.m. but was repulsed in just over an hour. However daylight on June 10th brought an end to the engagement when the French in Aiteniyé surrendered to Captain More. More and a French officer walked through the French defences to reassure the troops that the action was indeed over and they gave up their positions.
The rest of the day was spent tending to the wounded and burying the dead. The toll on the Commando was heavy. Five officers and forty other ranks lay dead with nine missing, presumed dead, and a further three officers and forty seven other ranks wounded. The total of a hundred and four casualties represented over a quarter of the three hundred and ninety-five who took part in the landing.
With Commanding Officer Pedder killed, Keyes and More, the senior officers remaining, reported to Jerusalem and were congratulated on their efforts. Colonel Laycock visited the men and commended their performance. Keyes, at the young age of twenty-four, was appointed acting Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the Commando and prepared them to return to Cyprus where they would guard the dock areas and await new orders.
In fact only a portion of the Commando sailed back to Cyprus. Others were sent to the Commando base at Genifa where they were involved in other work. About ten men, including Jimmy Lappin, were selected to travel, with two horses and four mules, into the mountains of Lebanon. They were to prepare defensive sites for clandestine action against a possible German attack through Turkey. After three weeks they returned to Genifa.
Within a few days towards the end of June, it became apparent that the Commando would be disbanded. Both 7th and 8th Commandos had already suffered that fate. Replacement troops, suitably trained, were difficult to obtain and the resources available at the eastern end of the Mediterranean precluded the type of operations for which the Commando was best suited. With no mission for which to train, the cohesion of the unit disintegrated.
There was friction among some of the officers and dissatisfaction with their new commanding officer. Keyes, with little experience, was over-zealous and combined with grumblings of nepotism, morale dropped. Some of the officers and men returned to their units. Others graduated to the L.R.D.G. (Long Range Desert Group) or the fledgling S.A.S. (Special Air Services) under David Stirling and S.B.S. (Special Boat Service) under Roger Courtney. Both of these officers had originally been part of 8th Commando. One particularly regrettable incident involved Lieutenant Mayne and Keyes. Eoin McGonigal and Blair Mayne were involved in a chess game during mess night. Keyes felt this was inappropriate and when he interrupted the game, he was knocked unconscious by Mayne who was then placed under close arrest. Mayne was "rescued" from detention by David Stirling to form part of L Detatchment S.A.S.
On the 20th of July, Keyes was confirmed as Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of the Commando, back-dated to the time of Colonel Pedder's death. He also received word that both he and Captain More had received the M.C. while Lieutenant Garland was awarded a bar to his M.C. The Commando were relieved from garrison in Cyprus on July 28th and on August 5 they boarded the destroyers Kanadahar and Kimberley for Alexandria.
On September 1, 1941, the order came to disband the 11th Commando. Keyes, writing to his father, lamented that he would loose his command just nine days short of the three months necessary to confirm the benefits of his field promotion. Fortunately for Keyes, the order was put on hold but there appeared to be limited opportunities for action for the men and by mid-September the 11th Commando was down to 9 officers and 250 other ranks. After a meeting with Laycock Keyes asked for volunteers to remain with the Commando. The response was disappointing, only 5 officers and 110 other ranks decided to stay.
By mid-October the special forces in the Middle East were regrouped as a Commando organized with an HQ troop based at Geneifa and five active units consisting of L Detatchment S.A.S. under David Stirling as No. 2 Troop, the 11th Scottish Commando under Geoffrey Keyes as No. 3 Troop, Palestinian (ex 51 Commando formed by Lt. Col. H. J. Cator from Jewish and Arab Palestinian volunteers) as Nos. 4 and 5 Troops and the S.B.S. under Roger Courtney as No. 6 Troop.
There was an important job in the planning stages for No. 3 Troop who insisted on retaining the 11th Scottish Commando as their title. An allied offensive, set for November 18th, was in final stages of preparation. The plan to make use of the Commando was very simple. They would capture Major-General Erwin Rommel from his headquarters in Cyrenica, 250 miles behind enemy lines. They would be landed by submarine, on the largely unguarded shore, and make their way inland to the village of Beda Littoria where the Germans had a headquarters and it where it was reported that Rommel occupied a villa.
In early October, Captain R. T. S. Macpherson was appointed second-in-command of the Commando and planning for operation "Flipper" was put into high gear. Of the original 11th Scottish Commando there remained Captains Glennie and Macpherson and Lieutenant Sutherland, 110 other ranks. A number of other officers and men from the Middle East Commando were added as were two Senussi guides from the Libyan Arab Force. Among the officers was Captain Robin Campbell of No 8 Commando, who spoke German, and Lieutenant Roy Cooke of the Royal West Kent Regiment. Colonel Laycock also insisted on being part of the team.
On October 19th Captain Macpherson and Cpl. Evans embarked on the submarine Talisman for a reconnaissance mission. They were landed near Apollonia on October 26th but failed to make the pre-arranged rendezvous with the submarine and attempted to walk to Tobruk. They were captured on November 3rd. Despite this set-back reliable intelligence on the target was available, provided by Cpt. Haselden who was attached to G.H.Q. of Middle East Command. He had traveled through the area and been brought out by the L.R.D.G.
The mission called for just one troop of the Commando. The second troop was left behind. On November 10, Lt. Col. Keyes, Lt. Cooke and Cpt. Campbell together with 25 other ranks crammed into H.M.S. Torbay while Col. Laycock and Cpt. Glennie and Lt. Sutherland, with a further 25 other ranks, were in H.M.S. Talisman. Each group would be landed in 7 rubber boats and would be accompanied by two S.B.S. folbots. They would be guided into the beach by Cpt. Haselden who had returned to Cyrenica with the help of the L.R.D.G. The plan was revealed to the men while they were underway. The group would split into four. The first detachment, under Keyes, would attack the villa used by Rommel, communications on the road the German H.Q. at Beda Litoria. The second detachment, under Lt. Sutherland, would attack the Italian H.Q. at Cyrene and disrupt communications. The third detachment, under Lt. Chevalier would attack the Italian Intelligence Center at Apollonia and the air field there. The fourth detachment, under Cpt. Haselden would disrupt communications between Faidia and Lamluda.
The submarines arrived off the landing beach on November 13 and the following day preparations were made for the landing. The weather was deteriorating but as soon as it was dark, the captain of Torbay approached the beach. Lieutenant Tommy Langton, who was in a folbot remembers: There was one moment none of us will ever forget. It was as we were closing the beach in Torbay. We were on the forward casing of the submarine, blowing up the dinghies and generally preparing. We could just see the dark coast line ahead. We had been told that Haselden would be there to meet us, but I think no one really believed that he would. He had left Cairo quite three weeks before, and during the interval there had been several changes of plan.... When the darkness was suddenly stabbed by his torch, making the looked for signal, there was a gasp of amazement and relief from everyone - in other circumstances it would undoubtedly have been a spontaneous cheer.
The landing was very difficult. Men and equipment were swept into the sea and dinghies were blown away from the submarine but were retrieved time and again by the folbots. After six hours, all the men from Torbay were on the beach with Haselden. With only three hours until dawn and the weather deteriorating further, Talisman had a more difficult task. On the way to the beach, Talisman grounded and the men and boats were tossed into the water. Most were recovered but Talisman was damaged and had to withdraw. Only four boats from the second submarine, including one with Col. Laycock, made it to the beach.
Col. Laycock, along with two S.B.S. officers, whose folbots had been damaged in the landing, were to remain by the shore to cover the escape route. They hid the rubber boats in a cave near the beach, lit a fire, and tried to dry their clothes and equipment. Captain Campbell relates: Just before first light, Keyes gave the order to assemble the stores and personal kit and to follow him inland to a wadi, which he had previously selected from the map as a good place to lie up in during the following day. The men were dispersed in various old ruined houses and caves all round the bed of the little dry stream, where they huddled together and slept-as cold as charity.
Keyes spent the morning with Laycock modifying his plan. There were to be just two groups rather than the four anticipated with the full attack: No. 1 Detatchment under Keyes to attack the villa used by Rommel and the German H. Q. at Beda Littoria. No. 2 Detatchment under Lt. Cooke to attack the Italian H.Q. at Cyrene. In the afternoon Keyes summoned his men, and after explaining the new plan in outline, supervised the opening, repacking and distribution of the ammunition, explosives and rations. Although his original plan had been very thoroughly upset and his force lacked guides, two, or it may have been three, officers and some twenty men, Keyes gave no sign of being disturbed by this, and none of the men seemed to realise how seriously hampered the operation was from the outset.
During the afternoon the sky had become overcast and some rain fell; it was extremely chilly and cheerless. None of us had seen cloudy skies or rain for many months. We had hoped for the usual dry North African weather, since we would have to spend about six days in the open. Whatever he may have felt like inside himself, Keyes certainly appeared confident and cheerful as we set off at about 8 p.m. He took the lead with the guide and Drori the interpreter, leaving Laycock with a beach party of Pryor, Brittlebank, and two men with Bren guns to guard the stores in the Wadi and keep in touch with the Torbay. The Talisman was to lie off an alternative beach. (This arrangement, however, had been cancelled, and she returned to Alexandria, with seventeen Commandos on board.)
The raiding party reached the top of the first escarpment (which is half a mile inland) about 9.15 after a fairly stiff climb, and all that night we marched inland over extremely difficult going, mostly rock-strewn sheep tracks. Our guide left us about midnight, fearing to go any further in our company. Keyes then had the difficult task of finding the way by the aid of an indifferent Italian map, his compass and an occasional sight of the stars. In spite of this responsibility he kept the heavily laden party going with my help and that of Lieutenant Roy Cooke (an officer of the Royal West Kent Regiment, attached like myself for the operation). Here was another disappointment for Keyes - none of his own officers had been able to land. At the end of the night Keyes was carrying more than his own equipment.
Later, next morning, November 16th, our second day ashore, I awoke in drizzling rain to the sound of excited shouting. Keeping out of sight I crawled over to where Keyes was sitting wrapped in his Arab blanket, to await developments. Presently Drori, the Palestinian interpreter, came running up to Keyes and reported that they were surrounded by armed Arabs. Raising our heads cautiously above the scrub we saw a few rascally-looking Arabs, one or two brandishing short Italian rifles. However, Keyes decided that they did not appear either particularly formidable or implacably hostile, so he gave the order for the chief of the band to be brought to him for a talk. Shortly afterwards a villainous-looking Arab, with a red head cloth wound round his head, was brought up by the Palestinian interpreter and a sentry. Keyes exchanged a few civilities with this seedy brigand, and then began a conversation through the interpreter, asking his help against the hated Italians. He showed him the letter from Seyed Idris, exiled chief of all the Senussi, instructing his subjects, the people of Cyrenaica to render every aid to our friends. Unfortunately, the brigand couldn't read, but Keyes must have managed him very skillfully, for he was soon grinning happily and offering to do anything he could to help.
The Arab made several rather unpractical offers of help and at last Keyes asked him whether he could perhaps manage to get some cigarettes (knowing that the men had brought very few ashore and that most of these had been ruined by sea water). The Arab thought he could if he had some Italian money, which Keyes gave him, asking where they were going to come from. The answer was, from an Italian canteen. The idea appealed to Keyes and all of us as you may imagine. Sure enough, after a couple of hours, an Arab boy returned with packets of Italian cigarettes. After prolonged haggling, he and Awad Mohammed Gibril of the Masamir tribe, a taller, younger, but equally unprepossessing ruffian, agreed to take the raiders to Rommel's Head Quarters, which they knew well, for the sum of a thousand Italian lire. They promised that when night fell they would guide the party to a cave within a few hours march of their objective, and in the meantime, for another thousand lire, offered to prepare a kid for them to eat. This offer was accepted thankfully, as the men had nothing hot to eat or drink since they had landed.
When it grew dark we fell in and marched off in file, with Keyes and the guides and interpreter at the head. We had only one alarm when we heard some shouting, and what sounded like a number of men away on our flank. Keyes sent off a couple of scouts and the rest of us lay on the ground in silence. The scouts reported that they could find nothing alarming; so we resumed our march, and after about two and a half hours came to the cave called Karem Gadeh at Carmel Hassan, described by the Arabs as being about five miles from Sidi Rafa (The Arab name for Beda Littoria). The entrance to the cave went down under a pile of stones and rocks; inside it was fairly roomy and quite dry. Apart from an appalling smell of goats, it was an ideal place to spend the rest of the night and the following day. The roof was blackened by the smoke from generations of goatherds' fires, and the smell of generations of goats clung to the floor and walls. Keyes decided it would be safe to light a fire inside, so that we passed the rest of the night in a dry and warm though smoky cave.
The guides left us there, promising to return before dawn. When they came back they warned us that it would be imprudent to stay in the cave after dawn, as goatherds were in the habit of bringing their flocks there from time to time in bad weather. Keyes enlisted the help of the Arab's boy to spy out the troop disposition in Sidi Raffa. The boy set off, after being given careful instructions from Keyes, who promised him a big reward if he brought back the desired information. This proved a brilliant move on Keyes' part, for when the boy came back a good many hours later, his report enabled Keyes to draw an excellent sketch map, which proved to be extremely accurate and included such details as the outbuildings, and the park for staff cars. He was thus able to give the men a good visual notion of their objective. The boy told him there was a guard-tent in the grounds of the headquarters, but that if it rained the guards would probably all be inside the house.
Meanwhile, however, during the Arab boy's absence the thunderstorm continued and the men returned to the cave for shelter. Every now and then the clouds seemed to open and a deluge of rain fell. The country we had to march over turned to mud before our eyes. Little torrents of muddy water sprang up all over the countryside we could see from the mouth of the cave, and a rivulet ran into the cave which sloped downwards from the opening. Also the roof began to drip. Spirits were sinking - I know mine were - at the prospect of a long, cold, wet and muddy march before we even arrived at the starting point of a hazardous operation.
During the afternoon Keyes held a briefing. The password challenge would be 'Island' to be answered by 'Arran.' About 6 p.m. we changed from our boots into out plimsolls and set off. The going became so bad that we were compelled to go in single file to avoid knocking one another over as we slipped and stumbled through the mud, and it became so dark it was only just possible to see the man in front. We had to hold on to one another's bayonet scabbards in order to keep in touch. Every now and again a man would fall, and the whole column would have to halt while he picked himself up. From time to time the middle of the column would lose touch with the man in front of him, and we would have to stop and sort ourselves out again. We reached the bottom of the escarpment at about 10.30 p.m. without serious mishap. After a short rest we began our climb of about 500 feet of muddy turf with outcropping rocks. About half way up the noise of a man slipping and striking his tommy gun against a rock roused a watch-dog, and a stream of light issued from the door of a hut as it was flung open about a hundred yards away on our flank. As we crouched motionless, hardly breathing, we heard a man shouting at the dog. Finally the door closed, and we resumed our way upward.
At the summit (which is known as Zaidan hill) we found a cart track which the guides said led straight to the back of the German Headquarters. We halted for a rest and Keyes re-formed the men, some twenty-four all told. After this halt we set off down the cart-track, Keyes in the lead with Sergeant Terry, Drori, and the Arabs, while I followed with the main body of the men at an interval of fifty yards. We reached the edge of the village and Lieutenant Cooke's party separated from the main group. Keyes and Sergeant Terry went off to make a preliminary reconnaissance of target. While he was away one of my party tripped over a tin can and roused a dog, which began to bark. An Arab in one of the houses also began to scream. After a minute or two an Italian in uniform and an Arab officer of the Italian Libyan Arab Force emerged from one of the huts and approached us, asking who we were and what we were doing there. Drori replied in German saying, 'We are German troops on patrol. Go away and keep your dog quiet.' Drori repeated this in Arabic, asking them to quiet the man in the hut, and the Arab officer, believing they were Germans, then spoke to the man who was screaming, addressing him by name and told him to be quiet. Bidding us 'Gute Nacht' they disappeared back into their hut apparently satisfied, which the men thought was a great joke.
Just as they did so, Geoffrey and Sergeant Terry came back Keyes then led us through a hedge into the garden, and we found ourselves at the back of the house. He posted Corporal Kearney and Private Hughes at the back door, which he had already tried and found locked. All the ground floor windows were high up and barred with heavy wooden shutters, so it was impossible to get in that way. There was no alternative but to use the front door. We followed him round the building on to a gravel sweep in front of the house. The front door was set back inside a porch, at the top of a flight of stone steps. Keyes ran up the steps. He was carrying a Colt, and I knocked on the door for him, demanding loudly in German to be let in. The door opened on a second pair of glass doors, and we were confronted by a German (officer I think) in a steel helmet and overcoat. Keyes at once closed with him, covering him with his Colt. The man seized the muzzle of Keyes' revolver and tried to wrest it from him. Before I or Terry could get round behind him he retreated, still holding on to Keyes, to a position with his back to the wall, and his either side protected by the first and second pairs of doors at the entrance. He started to shout. Keyes could not draw a knife and neither I nor Terry could get round Keyes, as the doors were in the way, so I shot the man with my .38 revolver, which I thought would make less noise than Keyes' Colt. Keyes then gave the order to use tommy guns and grenades, since we had to presume that my revolver shots had been heard. (Keyes said that his arm had gone numb; perhaps the shots had chipped his elbow, or it may have been the wrestling match with the German had damaged it.)
We found ourselves, when we had time to look round, in a large hall with a stone floor, it had a stone stairway leading to the upper stories on the right. We heard a man in heavy boots clattering down the stairs though we could not see him nor he us, as he was hidden by a right hand turn in the stairway. He was shouting- "What goes on there?" As he came to the turn and his feet came in sight, Sergeant Terry fired a burst with his tommy-gun. The man turned and fled away upstairs. Keyes had been flinging open the doors on either side of the hall. We looked inside and found the rooms were empty. He pointed to a light shining through the crack under the next door and inside were about ten Germans with steel helmets, some sitting and some standing. He fired two or three rounds with his Colt .45 automatic. I said "Wait, I'll throw a grenade in." He slammed the door shut and held it while I got the pin out of the grenade. (Sergeant Terry, who had closed up behind them, afterwards said he could hear the sound of heavy breathing inside the room.) I said "Right" and Keyes opened the door. I threw in the grenade, which I saw roll to the middle of the room, and Sergeant Terry gave a burst with his Tommy-gun. Before Keyes (who said "Well done" as he saw the grenade go in) could shut the door the Germans fired. A bullet struck him just over the heart and he fell unconscious at the feet of myself and Terry.
After the grenade went off, this was followed by complete silence, and we could see that the light in the room had gone out. I decided Keyes had to be moved, in case there was further fighting in the building (and because we intended to blow it up), so between us Sergeant Terry and I carried him outside and laid him on the grass verge to the left of the front door. He must have died as we were carrying him outside, for when I felt his heart it had ceased to beat.
Captain Campbell returned to the house and found Sgt. Terry and informed him that Keyes was dead. They were drawn outside by gunfire and while investigating the rear of the house, was shot in the leg by one of his own men. His leg was broken badly and he could not be moved. He turned over command to Sgt. Terry and, after a shot of morphine was left propped up against a tree.
In the meantime, Sgt. Bruce, Cpl. Kearney and Lt.-Cpl. Coulthread were busy with demolition charges and managed to put the power plant out of action. Sgt. Terry blew the whistle which was the signal to retreat and after regrouping, the raiders began retracing their path to the beach. The quickly became disoriented in the darkness and dreadful weather and had to wait until first light before proceeding. They pressed on all day and reached the beach about 5 p.m. where they met Col. Laycock. The men had a clod meal as they waited for dusk and the rendezvous with the submarine.
Lt. Cooke's party had their own adventures. He related: . . . contrary to the official reports, my party went with Keyes as far as the Headquarters, as numbers were too small to risk sending us off until we had seen the layout. Consequently I was about the place until just before Geoffrey and Robin went in. My party were detailed to watch the main road approaches until the shooting started, and then to get away to our objective. As for the rest of the story, when Keyes went to war, we - self and six - shot off up the road. Unfortunately, with the weather and the late hour, we were unable to get the lift we expected on the road (Long Range Desert Group truck from Slonta), and had to do the whole 15 miles on foot, which, coming on top of the other march, wasn't so good.
We had to drop off two of the boys as they couldn't make it. (One of them had lost his shoes and his feet were in a fearful state.) However, we filled them up with grenades, etc. and told them to muck up any odd transport, or what have you, that they could find, and try to get back. . . . We pushed on and hit the communications pylon about dawn. Unfortunately all matches, etc. for setting off the charges were soaked, even inside the oilskin pouches - it had rained for some sixteen hours very solidly - very worrying, because it was getting light and there were one or two posts around us. I tried a grenade under the charge and then running like hell and falling flat and felt very foolish when it turned out a blind - the second one went off, but the charge didn't. I returned to the boys nearly frantic with wind up and frustration and nerves, cursing pretty profusely. Then a Geordy by the name of Gornall - bless his heart - who had been watching me running about with grenades, trying to strike matches that wouldn't and so on, sort of metaphorically took the straw out of his mouth and said: "I suppose a self-igniting incendiary wouldn't be any good sir, would it?" Of course, it was just the answer to our prayer. We set it off touched off the fuse, and up she went in fine style.
We lay up in an old tomb that day; very cold and wet we were. Pushed off next night to try and get back to the ship. We went very hard and got back to within five miles of the place, but at about 8.30 that morning had to rest, which we did in a cave with some Arabs. We didn't know it, but we had sat down in front of two battalions that were beating the scrub for us and looking in all the caves. The Arabs managed to slip out before we got the troops right on top of us, and tried to divert attention from the cave, by a little shooting on their own account, but no go. Two blokes came down into the cave and we shot them, then they threw down so much stuff at us that the fumes nearly suffocated us, so we called it a day.
Much to their dismay, the group on the beach found that their rubber boats and lifejackets were missing. Towards dusk, Col. Laycock sighted Torbay and began signalling. They sent in a dinghy with lifejackets and food but the weather made attempts to take the men off the beach impossible and they resolved to try again the next night. The rubber boats had been moved to safety by some friendly Arabs and were later recovered but too late to try to reach the submarine.
The men dispersed to wait in the caves which surrounded the beach. However, the attack party had been tracked by some Carabinerri Arabs and in the morning, they were discovered.
Lieutenant Pryor, one of the S.B.S. lieutenants who had remained on the shore recounts: I remember an old chap was ploughing with a very ill-matched team of a donkey and a camel half a mile to the west of us, when 'bang' went a shot from our western sentry, and we ran in a fusillade of pops to action stations in a ruined house on a knoll back of our cave. I saw our chaps from the cave across the stream running out and taking position likewise, facing west, and there in the distance were some Arabs in red turbans crawling towards us.
Everybody fired and they fired back, there were a few bigger bangs that I imagined were from a mortar, and I remember thinking 'our old wall doesn't look a bit bullet proof'. There didn't appear to be many of these native troops as enemy, so we discussed, and thought if we could mop them up, we might still get away in the Torbay that night.... I said to Colonel Laycock: 'Give me a Scotsman with a gun and I'll go and try and get round the seaward side of them'. So we ran out, in a lot of shooting, till we got in the dead ground of the stream. We went on, and came under fire again, and ran on to the cover of a stone or concrete drinking trough. 'Very bad shots they are' I said. 'They'll never hit us.... On to those rocks next ...' and so on by leaps and bounds . . . and there behind the native red turbaned point-section, were about six tin-helmeted Ities, lying leisurely shooting at us.
Behind the next rock we stopped again in our approach - by then about two hundred yards from these chaps - I looked round and saw that my man had managed to get his tommy gun jammed solid. I poked it about a bit and banged it, but couldn't budge it. Rather cross I said 'Well try and clear it for God's sake - I'm going on'- and very foolishly, I went on another fifty yards, bound for another patch of rocks. When I got there I saw there were some more 'Ities' on the hill further west, and there were my six lying there having target practice at me. 'Well John,' thinks I, 'the brave thing to do is to rush them with your pistol and this one grenade . . .' but there were no more rocks between me and them, and as it was a long uphill rush I reckoned and decided I might just as well go back to Bob and tell him what I had seen.
So I up and lopes off back, and a splinter or something hits my right big toe. 'Damn' says I, and runs faster, and past my first intended bound, when bang, something like a horse kicking me up behind bowled me over. I lay there and thought 'Well, I've often hit a rabbit in the back legs, I hope it doesn't hurt more than that, for that was nothing....' I was covered with sand; the bullets kicked up all round me, and 'Hell' I thought, 'that's hardly the game' and crawled to a flat stone which I fitted up as a shield, but they chipped that twice, and thinks I 'if they move a bit they can get me. I must get out,' and found my leg would carry me well,- which it did back to Bob.
'Damn it' says he 'that's no good. We'd better bugger off. Can you walk?' Well I was a bit knocked up, and I dare say looked worse than I was, with a lot of blood about. So he left a very reluctant R.A.M.C. orderly from Manchester to tie me up, and under a storm of excited and inaccurate shots from the Ities, dashed off into the surrounding scrub. I heard later that the tommy gunner was shot point blank when he surrendered next day to an Italian Libyan Arab section, and that another man was also shot and wounded at the same time. While we waited for the victorious Ities to approach the R.A.M.C. orderly said: 'Do you think they'll shoot us, sir?' which seemed a bad way to speak to a wounded chap feeling a bit cold and miserable I thought, and made me laugh to think of it, so it cheered me up actually. 'Yes, I'm sure they will', I said, and his face was a picture. Then the Ities arrived and after order and counter-order and a lot of shouting: 'Portare qui! No, No, Portare quoi!' they eventually put me on a mule and led me off westward about 12 miles to their dirty old H.Q., and a lovely great red-backed shrike sat on a Juniper bush and looked at us going by.
Colonel Laycock's account of the action on November 19 is particularly clear: All was quiet until about mid-day, when a few shots were heard from the direction of the wadi and from the Westernmost sentry-group. At first the only enemy to be observed were Carabinieri Arabs known to be stationed at Hania, about eight miles to the west. This did not worry us unduly since we were confident that we should be able to drive them off until darkness allowed us to retire to the beach for evacuation, which now seemed feasible as wind and sea were rapidly abating. I sent two small parties from the main body to outflank the enemy, but it soon became evident that they were not on a wide enough front or in sufficient numbers, as detachments of Germans now appeared moving south towards us down the Western side of the wadi, whilst further Carabinieri forces came from the West.
Later, what appeared to be a considerable party of Italians showed themselves on the skyline about a mile to our North but took no part in the battle. Fairly accurate fire was brought to bear on us, but we were behind good cover and suffered no casualties, though it was feared that the party in the wadi had been over-run. The detachment sent to outflank the enemy to the East was held up after advancing a few hundred yards, but succeeded in rejoining our position. The detachment to the West advanced about a quarter of a mile before the tommy-gunner's gun jammed and became useless. He and the private with him were pinned to the ground, but Lieutenant Pryor gallantly continued to advance single-handed and, using cover and firing his revolver, he attempted to deceive the enemy into thinking that an outflanking operation was still in progress. He was eventually shot through the thigh, but managed to limp back to the main position.
Although the enemy were not equipped with automatic weapons, they were maintaining a steady advance, and bringing a considerable volume of rifle-fire to bear on and around our position. It was now evident that it would be impossible to hold the beach until dark against such superior forces, and that our only remaining line of retreat would soon be cut off. At about 1400 hours I therefore reluctantly decided to abandon the position and to adopt the alternative plan of hiding in the Jebel until we could rejoin our advancing main forces (the 8thArmy).
Nothing could be seen of our Western detachment whose original position was now occupied by the enemy and, as a runner sent to reconnoitre, returned with negative information, I presumed that they had been killed or driven off Westwards. I ordered the main body to split into parties of not more than three men each, to make a dash across the open, and to retire through our Eastern detachment to whom they were to pass on my orders. They were then to gain the cover of the Jebel and to adopt whichever of the three alternatives seemed most propitious: 1. Under cover of darkness to return later to the alternative beach, off which Talisman would be lying until just before first light on the night of 20/21 November. 2. To make their way to the area of Slonta in which vicinity the Arabs were known to be friendly and where there was a chance of being picked up by Long Range Desert Group. 3. To hide in the wadis north of the Cyrene escarpment until news of our forces was received. Leaving a Medical Orderly with Lieutenant Pryor, whom I feared might otherwise bleed to death, I ordered them to surrender and made good my escape.
On reaching the position originally held by our Eastern detachment, I found Sergeant Terry waiting for me and we set off together. The first half mile of the withdrawal was unpleasant owing to the open nature of the country, but the enemy's marksmanship seems to have been particularly poor, and although we had some close shaves, I do not think we suffered a single casualty since Sergeant Terry and myself would almost certainly have observed any which had occurred. Sergeant Terry and myself attempted to gain the alternative beach on the first and second nights, but were frustrated by the enemy whom we contacted near the original beach and considerably to the Northward. We therefore abandoned the project and retired Eastwards.
We found little difficulty in avoiding search parties since the cover in the Jebel is excellent and, having a good pair of field glasses I could usually spot Germans or Italians at considerable distances. Our greatest fear was being stalked by the Carabinieri Arabs who moved much more cleverly by tracking us, and who got close to us on several occasions during the first few days. Later, however, having made friends with the Senussi tribes we adopted the enjoyable policy of moving each night into the very wadis which the enemy were known to have searched during the day Our greatest problem was the lack of food and, though never desperate, we were forced to subsist for periods which never exceeded two and a half consecutive days on berries only, and we became appreciably weak from want of nourishment. At other times we fed well on goat and Arab bread, but developed a marked craving for sugar. Water never presented a serious problem, as it rained practically continuously. Our failure to obtain reliable information of the advance of the British forces we found aggravating in the extreme.
Sgt. Jack Terry recalled: We had never intended to do much walking and were still wearing plimsolls from the raid. After a few days of walking in the dunes, mine were in tatters and it was like walking on bare feet. I cut the felt covering from my water bottle and used the material to wrap my feet in.
Only Sergeant Terry and Colonel Laycock, after 41 days in the desert, reached the safety of the allied lines. The remainder were killed or captured. For the action at Bede Littoria, Geoffrey Keyes was awarded the V.C.
[On the Operation Flipper page on this website it is recorded that a third participant in the raid made it back to British lines; "Of the entire force Laycock and Terry made it back to British lines after 37 days in the desert and Bombardier John Brittlebank, DCM, 930882 RA, 3 & 8 Cdo & 1 SBS, managed to get back to Allied lines alone. His DCM citation runs, "This NCO had previously taken part in the raid on Rommel's HQ and had succeeded in finding his way back to his unit after being 40 days in the desert behind enemy lines" (Cdo Gallantry Awards P65). The remainder of the force were either taken prisoner or killed by hostile Arabs.
It later transpired that Rommel had used the HQ at Beda Littoria as confirmed in the Rommel Diaries and he had also used the original building at Sidi-Rafa but only as a logistics HQ. In any event he had been in Rome at the time of the raid and did not return to North Africa until the 18th. Jock Haselden and his men completed their demolition tasks and successfully returned to Allied lines courtesy of the Long Range Desert Group. The raid was largely unsuccessful since few of its objectives were achieved and virtually all the men involved from Middle East Commando were lost in action or taken prisoner.]"
Although three German staff officers were killed in the raid, the mission failed to capture Rommel who was not at Beda Littoria at that time. However, the raid did capture the imagination and boosted Allied morale, and it tied up valuable enemy resources by showing that it was possible to raid so deeply into occupied territory.
After the Rommel Raid, what remained of the Commando was again reorganized and gradually absorbed into the S.A.S. and the L.R.D.G.
In Time of War, Alex Aiken, Glasgow, 1980. Rogue Warrior of the SAS, Roy Bradford and Martin Dillon, John Murray, London, 1987. Five Ventures, Christopher Buckley, H.M.S.O., London, 1954. The Commandos of World War II, Hodding Carter, Random House, New York, 1966. Army Commandos 1940-1945, Mike Chappell, Osprey, London, 1996. One of the Originals, Johnny Cooper, Pan Books, London, 1991. SBS in World War Two, G. B. Courtney, Robert Hale, London, 1983. The Phantom Major, Virginia Cowles, Wm Collins, London, 1958. Commando, John Durnford-Slater, William Kimber, London, 1953. The Keyes Papers, Volume III, 1939-1945, Paul G. Halpern (Ed.), The Navy Records Society, London, 1981. The SAS at War, Anthony Kemp, John Murray, London, 1991. Geoffrey Keyes, VC, Elizabeth Keyes, George Newnes, London, 1956. Amphibious Warfare and Combined Operations, The Lord Keyes, Macmillan, Cambridge, 1943. Commandos and Rangers, James D. Ladd, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1978. Battle of the Wine Dark Sea, Lew Lind, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, 1994. The Filibusters, John Lodwick, Methuen, London, 1947. Greece, Crete and Syria: Australia in the War of 1939 - 1945, Gavin Long, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1953. La Légion au Combat, J. Mabire (Ed.) Editions Atlas, Paris, 1990. Colonel Paddy, Patrick Marrinan, The Ulster Press, Newtonards, 1960. The Commandos, Herbert Molloy Mason, Meredith Press, New York, 1966. The Commandos 1940-1946, Charles Messenger, William Kimber, London, 1985. The Middle East Commandos, Charles Messenger, William Kimber, London 1988. The Raiders, Robin Niellands, Weidenfield and Nicholson, London, 1989. Special Boat Squadron, Barrie Pitt, Century Publishing, London, 1983. The Green Beret, Hilary St.George Saunders, Michael Joseph, London, 1949.Iraq and Syria 1941, Geoffrey Warner, Purnell Books, London. Combined Operations, anon., Macmillan, New York, 1943.
From the "Litani Raid"
ALAMEIN MEMORIAL (Egypt) BARRAND, Lance Corporal, Peter Charles, 6971182. Rifle Brigade. 14th November 1941. Age 22. CHEYNE, Sergeant John, 2876138. Gordon Highlanders. 16th November-27th December 1941. Age 25. KEITH, Private, Douglas, 2882330. Gordon Highlanders. 9th December 1941. Age 22. KING, Lance Corporal, Ernest Taylor, 4803483. 6th Bn. Lincolnshire Regiment. 9th June 1941. Age 20. McAULEY, Lance Corporal, Michael, 2986292. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 23. McGONIGAL, Lieutenant, Eoin Christopher, 97290. Royal Ulster Rifles. 18th November 1941. Age 20. PARNACOTT, Lieutenant Geoffrey Alfred Henry, 105607. York and Lancaster Regiment. 10th June 1941. Age 21. STEVENSON, Corporal, Thomas, 2977763. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 31. THOMPSON, Private, Royce, 2984367. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 21. WALLACE, Corporal, Hugh, 3130762. Royal Scots Fusiliers. 5th December 1941. Age 20.
KHAYAT BEACH WAR CEMETERY (Israel) HAMILTON, Private, Robert Scott, 3323516. Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment). 10th June 1941. Age 27. ROBB, Private, Leslie, 5570437. Wiltshire Regiment. 11th June 1941. Age 22.
RAMLEH WAR CEMETERY (Israel) OLIPHANT, Lance Bombardier, Archibald Johnston. 894985. Royal Artillery. 16th June 1941. Age 2 1. ROBERTSON, Gunner, Andrew, 958993. Royal Artillery. 2nd July 1941. Age 22.
BEIRUT WAR CEMETERY (Lebanese Republic) TIE, Corporal, James John William, 2989781. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 9th June 194 1. Age 26. COOKE, Lance Bombardier, John, 4690225. Royal Artillery, 9th June 194 1. Age 22. CRAIG, Lance Corporal, James Cross, 2763490. Black Watch (Royal Highlanders). 11th June 1941. Age 29. DINSDALE, Private, Henry, 4750212. 6th Bn. York and Lancaster Regiment. 9th June 1941. Age 24. FARMILOE, Captain, William Arthur, 96878. Rifle Brigade. 9th June 1941. Age 28. McGUIRE, Corporal, John, 2934163. Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 24. O'SULLIVAN, Sergeant William Martin, 4803368. 6th Bn. Lincolnshire Regiment. 9th June 1941. Age 20. PLUNKETT, Fusilier, John, 3773880. Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. 9th June 1941. Age 22.
SIDON WAR CEMETERY (Lebanese Republic) ADAMS, Private, Jack, 2758154. Black Watch ' (Royal Highlanders). 9th June 1941. Age 22. AINSLIE, Lance Corporal, William Robson Milne, 329331. Royal Armoured Corps. 9th June 1941. Age 28. BAILLIE, Lance Corporal, Alexander Charles, 2885492. Gordon Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 28. BEST, Private, George, 2883741. Gordon Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 22. BURROWS, Gunner, Charles William, 872276. Royal Artillery. 9th June 1941. Age 21. BURTON, Sergeant, Kenneth Harwood, 404001. Royal Armoured Corps. 9th June 1941. Age 29. CAMPBELL, Private, William, 2763471. Black Watch (Royal Highlanders). 9th June 1941. Age 28. CHANTRELL, Private, William, 7379892. Royal Army Medical Corps. 9th June 1941. Age 21. CHISHOLM, Sergeant, James Alexander, 2929812. Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 21. COHEN, Corporal, Aaron Harry, 2760335. Black Watch (Royal Highlanders). 9th June 1941. Age 30. COODE, Lieutenant, Donald Alastair, 91438. Royal Engineers. 9th June 1941. Age 23. DIBB, Corporal, Edgar, 746439. Black Watch (Royal Highlanders). 9th June 1941. Age 35. EARDLEY, Lance Corporal, Albert William, 2072050. Royal Engineers. 9th June 1941. Age 20. GALLAGHER, Private, Denis, 2989639. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 27. GIBBS, Gunner, William Gore, 879745. Royal Artillery. 9th June 1941. Age 22. GREIG, Corporal, Robert, 2881454. Gordon Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 24. HAMILTON, Driver, Alexander, 2576082. Royal Corps of Signals. 9th June 1941. Age 19. HARLAND, Edwin, 2882955. Gordon Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 20. HURST, Private, Ben, 3715891. King's Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). 9th June 1941. Age 26. JONES, Corporal. HAROLD, 550620. Royal Armoured Corps. 9th June 1941. Age 32. KINGHORN, Private, Robert, 2884403. Gordon Highlanders. 9th June 1941. LANG, Lance Corporal, John, 326577. Royal Armoured Corps. 9th June 1941. Age 20. LISTER, Private, Richard, 3319075. Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment). 9th June 1941. Age 23. MACARTHUR, Lance Bombardier, Robert, 1455543. Royal Artillery. 9th June 1941. Age 20. McKAY, Corporal, Robert, 2928972. 2nd Bn. Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 28. McKEOWN, Private, John, 2760779. Black Watch (Royal Highlanders). 9th June 1941. Age 19. MULLEN, Private, James Cassidy, 3325329. Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment). 9th June 1941. Age 27. MURPHY, Private, James, 2981807. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 24. PADBURY, Corporal, John, 320986. Royal Armoured Corps . 9th June 1941. Age 27. PEDDER, Lieutenant Colonel, Richard Robert Newsham, 31724. Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment). 9th June 1941. Age 36. PURSE, Lance Corporal, Jack, 2987094. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 11th June 1941. Age 24. RICHARDS, Second Lieutenant, Charles Geoffrey, 126476. Wiltshire Regiment. 9th June 1941. Age 28. ROONEY, Private, Lawrence, 4534896. 2nd Bn. West Yorkshire Regt. (Prince of Wales's Own). 9th June 1941. Age 27. SMITH, Sergeant, John Rolland, 2986958. Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. 9th June 1941. Age 21. STYLES, Signalman, Alexander Mundie, 2584344. Royal Corps of Signals. 9th June 1941. Age 22. TITTERTON, Lance Corporal, Cyril Arthur, 3604006. 9th Bn. Border Regiment. 9th June 1941. Age 26. WOODNUTT, Sapper, Desmond, 1894107. Royal Engineers. 9th June 1941. Age 28.
BROOKWOOD MEMORIAL (Surrey) SEVERN, Lance Corporal, Clive, Mentioned in Despatches, 5887258. 'Northamptonshire Regiment. 20th January 1942. Age 22.
From the "Rommel Raid"
BENGHAZI WAR CEMETERY (Libya) KEYES, Lieutenant Colonel, Geoffrey Charles Tasker, VC, MC, 71081. Royal Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons), R.A.C. 18th November 1941. Age 24. Awarded Croix de Guerre.
ENFIDAVILLE WAR CEMETERY (Tunisia) BROWN, Corporal. Leslie Jock, 5437777. Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. 15th-18th January 1943. Age 26. NIXON, Private, Malvern, 3056939. Royal Scots. 15th-18th January 1943. Age 23.
More comment on the fallen contributed by Steve Hamilton.
BARRAND PC. Raid on Rommel's HQ?
CHEYNE J Raid on Rommel's HQ?
KEITH D Sinking of Sebastiano Venier, PoW ship.
KING E T. On
McGONIGAL E C. Raid on Rommel's HQ.
Hadra CWGC Egypt HUGHES L/c A E. Wiltshire Regt 13.2.43
Fayid CWGC Egypt DUFFY Pte J A. Seaforth Highlanders 16.10.41. WARBURTON Pte K. Seaforth Highlanders 16 10 41.
MacQUARRIE L/c D M. Gordons 31 Dec 1941. Probably taken PoW during raid
on Rommel's HQ.
More comment on the fallen contributed by Alan Orton.
CHEYNE J. (John 2876138 Sgt. Gordon Highlanders). Posted missing in action after the Gazala / Timini raid by L Detachment S.A.S. It was thought that either his parachute failed to open or he was dragged away into the desert by the high winds. McGONICAL EC (Eion Christopher 97290 Lt. Royal Ulster Rifles) Also from the above raid. KEITH D. (Douglas 2882330 Pte. Gordon Highlanders) Taken prisoner on the same raid. Incidentally my father may also have been on the ship.
Fayid Memorial DUFFY J.A. (Joseph Aloysuis 3318385 Pte Seaforth Highlanders). WARBURTON K. (Kenneth 2821591 Pte Seaforth Highlanders). They were the two unfortunate troopers whose parachutes failed to open during training.
See Bibliography above.
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Noble Goulding Sproule grew up in Port Credit, Ontario, Canada and joined the Manchester Regt. before the war at age 17. From there he joined the Commandos. He may have been the only Canadian in the unit. His Scottish military heritage includes a Napoleonic era Cameron highlander who settled in Canada in the 1820s. (Photo; N G Sproule in North Africa).
Just you and I, and its intended to be a purely ‘semi-military’ report since I landed in England.
First saw Blighty (England) at Liverpool, sailed up the Manchester Ship Canal to Solford docks where the recruiting sergeant was waiting to take us to Manchester. As I was too young to join, they let me stay at Ladysmith Barracks, Ashton-on-Tyne (Manchester Regiment) for some time. Here I finally joined. Real old time ‘Square Bashing’ – 6 months of intensive hell. The squad sergeant was ex-Boer war and WW1 with a saber-slashed face and the heart of a killer.
From there we passed out (graduated), sent to 2nd Battalion at Aldershot and was put on as ‘B’ Company runner. War broke out (sent to action) in ’39 and I pleaded to go with the boys. No dice. Got a job as officers’ batman so could manage to wangle across to France and being the dope, got posted back to Lancashire, to Mossley. Then sent down to Nether Avon in southern England near Salisbury to the famous machine gun school where we set an unbroken British Army record with the machine gun for a machine gun platoon getting into action and marksmanship. I was no. 1 on the no. 1 gun. Made a few machine gun training films. Came on leave Dec. ’39.
Dunkirk came along and when I saw the wrecks that came back, bomb-happy, seared fellows, no clothes, no arms, no hope even, thought I would like to move, so volunteered for the first of the Commandos. Got sent off to Scotland. Cold, wet and terrible. Training always at the double, up and down snow-capped mountains.
Transferred from 9 Scottish Commando 2nd Special Service Brigade to 11 Scottish Commando and sailed on Feb. 1st 1941 for Mid-East. Touched Freetown and had a few glorious days in Capetown, then on to the Red Sea and Port Suez. Was chased into Durban harbour by the Jerry raider Scharnhorst, I think it was. Sunk by our escort the ‘Coventry’ and ‘Cambridgeshire’. We had 3 Commando ‘mother-ships’, the Glen Gyle, Glen Irin, Glen Roy, all gone now. I was on the Gyle.
Sailed up the ‘Canal’ to Ismalia (half way) and went into camp at Genifia. Hard rough desert training, then up and did a small raid at Derna. No casualties on our side. It was supposed to be a training scheme with live ammo. The buggers didn’t tell us that Jerry was to be there, also using ‘live’.
Went back near Alexandria after a short spell of Tobruk during the siege of ’41 where the ‘Aussies’ did their stand. Then back up to the ‘Blue’ in time to do patrols, then when Crete and Greece went under, our Commando was put on the island of Cyprus (3 men to a mile of coast). When the people of Cyprus said the ‘Boche (Germans)’ would walk over the island, they were told we were Commandos, and that made it O.K. It got so bad we were adopted by the people, had free everything, and the other 2 Battalions of infantry on the island got nothing. They paid 1 shilling 6 pence for a bottle of 3-star brandy and we got the same for 6 pence (usually nothing).
Brit. invaded Syria in June ’41 and the Aussie division was held up by a mountain torrent called the Litani. They put 500 of us in 3 miles behind the French lines up against 2 Battalion of Algerian Regiment (1 Battalion French Foreign Legion, 1 Battalion of Spahis cavalry and a mobile force of French 75 MMs and armoured cars and 1 troop light tanks. They had 10 troops of 50 Commandos per troop on that job, and 1 troop to stay on board the ship, and to do Anti Aircraft and Levis gun on the Landing Craft Auxiliary’s. (One bloke offered me a month’s pay to change places.) We were lucky and 11 troop was to hold the hills inland farthest from our own lines.
Those darn frogs threw everything but the kitchen sink at us. Boy oh boy what a barney! Still scared thinking about it – 4 large French Battalion and a mobile armoured force up against 500 Bren and Tommy guns, and we walked through them. Only 8 of us got onto our ridge and then the Spahis came in with cavalry. We had 8 machine guns. My pal Jack Gregory (Manchester Regiment) and I sitting down to it with 50 cal. French mg’s. Boy oh boy it was duck soup. They had 200 yards of open flat plain.
Stayed on that ridge ‘till the French sent out 3 large cruisers from Beirut and they put down heavy stuff. Moved back and linked up with the remnants of 2 other troops. Stayed with them for 2 days and 60 of us were told to get out via the beach. 1
Got ambushed and only 4 got away. I took to the sea; lost my pen and pencil there with my shirt in the wire and the razor you gave me. Cried like a kid about that. Swam it for 4 hours ‘till I couldn’t go it anymore and landed luckily just by an Aussie forward position. No clothes and my wallet under my tin hat. The machine gun sniped the 4 of us all the time – 2 wounded, 1 drowned. 2
Taken to Haifa and onto parade formed up as right marker for our troop, and nobody fell in beside me. Only one of 11 troop to get out. The senior officer was a Captain. The C.O. and all his staff went. I got ordered to go to O.C.T.U. Was told when the general asked me if it was my own wish and if I volunteered, I was to say "Yes, Sir’.
Only saw the famous Nov. ’41 push from the rear of the O.C.T.U. in Cairo 3 of us went from our Commando unit after Syria. Then to HQ Cairo for a month after Commission but got sent up the Blue (Mediterranean) for crashing a 15 cwt. truck into the Provost Marshal’s veranda. Was he ever livid!
Trained with Special Air Service paratroops for a short time but never did an operation. Then sent up to Gazala line to do battle patrols for my Battalion (the 4th Green Howard’s’ 150 Brigade 50th (the famous Monty (British General Montgomery)) Division.
Used to do night patrols and prisoner snatching. Rommel (German General) did his big push and put us all ‘in the bag’. Some fool put me up for a ‘gong’. Got the MID (Mention in Dispatches), for the Lord knows what. 3 Was taken by the Bosche (Germans) to Benghasi, handed to the Wops (Italians) and taken to Italy. Got away and was recaptured. Sent to a special punishment camp for 2 months. Used to get 30 days solitary every quarter regular as clockwork. Got away on the Italian armistice and was partisan for 4 months. Did some exciting work with them. Got bronchitis so was copped 3 days before Christmas ’43. Knew I was a partisan so plunked me up against a lovely grey stonewall. It was in the Gothic line they got me. Stonewall was in the civilian jail in Florence. Had 2 hours of standing looking at a squad of 12 Waffen SS blokes with awfully dangerous looking rifles. Didn’t know exactly who I was, or what I was, so it all was stopped after 2 hours of chatter and screaming back and forth of several interpreters. Must say I was rather glad. 4
Then by boxcar in the snow minus blankets or coat to Paduova, that is after spending the best Christmas ever on a slice of bread and water. That is not sarcasm. It was a wonderful Christmas, on the day before I was ‘stood up’. Incidentally went very, very bald over it. Ann only found out last week so even then doesn’t know the half of it. Spent a lovely snowy few days in a boxcar in the Brenner Pass near Innsbruck, which was getting it from the U.S.A.A.F. Liberators (type of aircraft)! It was flat. The SS guards wanted to shoot us there. Went on to Moosburg in Austria, saw thousands of Russian soldiers dying, and the guards turning the dogs on them. There was cannibalism in that camp.
Sent to Poland, got out for a few hours via a tunnel, in a French co-worker’s uniform but got beaten by the snow and dogs. Then to Morish Franbau in Silesia. That was a good camp with Red Cross parcels. Spent a spell in hospital, lungs again and bugs in the head, but the Red Cross food saved me, no doubt and I put on weight.
We were shipped via our palatial boxcar in handcuffs minus boots, belts or braces (suspenders), 20 to 2/5 of a car, with 8 SS guards with machine guns and grenades and a barbed wire wall between us. No straw, no place to relieve yourself, but plenty of grub. Got to Brunswick south of Hamburg, (near the Elbe river) smack in the centre of several airdromes, ammo dumps, main roadways, 3 railways and a town. The R.A.F and U.S.A.A.C blew the town to hell; we lost quite a number from the overs. (5 big ones in our camp and hundreds of anti-personnel.) Rather nerve-wracking hearing our own bombs screaming down and trying to hide, and no air raid shelters for us of any kind.
Red Cross food stopped, no smokes. Used to smoke the straw mattress and old much-used tealeaves. Several officers shot by the guards. The entertainment, even though conditions were so bad, was excellent. The officers put on many shows when the roof was blown off and it was terribly cold. 5
Anyway, we ate the cat in the end, and when things were very very black the Yanks rolled in. That’s a sight I’ll never forget! At about 8 or 8:30 a.m. on April 12th, 1945. What a day! We were flown out by Dakotas 2 weeks after. On getting captured I was just 200 lbs. On April 12th I was 130 lbs.
Came down at Brussels and were treated like kings. Had an old last-war sergeant put me in the bath, washed me and then dried me. If ever a man treated me like a mother, he was it. He was blubbering like a baby. On we went to Ostend and across the channel via boat and landed in England at Tilbury docks, London, in a snowstorm. Got issued with a foot-high pile of Army forms and sent on home to Ann. That was May 1st, 1945.
Have been in England roaming the countryside, getting things straight in my mind, picking up many loose ends and learning to know each other all over again. It’s been a great experience, but I’m so awfully glad to have it over.
I dunno. I met good Jerries, good French and Wops and yet some bloody bad ones. They all can’t beat a Briton, so help me. Oh we want to go home to Canada. I’ll do my share, or what I can if there’s another ‘do’.
Footnotes by David Spoule (the author's younger brother).
1 This action written up on pages 166 – 167, "Geoffrey Keyes V.C. of the Rommel Raid", by Elizabeth Keyes, Published by George Newnes, London, 1956.
2 Noble mentioned to me that a bullet penetrated his helmet but glanced off his wallet.
3 MID was for bravery in the face of an enemy in a particular action. It is a bronze oak leaf worn on the ribbon of the particular campaign medal. Nobby got this for the Litani River action.
4 Nobby attempted to tell the Germans that he was a British officer and as such protected under the Geneva Convention. It took the Germans time to verify his story.
5 Story of life in this particular POW camp is documented in a book entitled "For You the War is Over."
Albert Edward Spring. My late father, Albert Edward Spring, was in 11 (Scottish) Commando and did his training on the Isle of Arran. He took part in the Litani River raid and spoke of people such as Colonel Pedder, Paddy Mayne, Colonel Laycock, David Stirling and Geoffrey Keyes. He was in the group sent to capture Rommel but did not get ashore.
As we know it he went on to serve with, or in, the Long Range Desert Group again where he knew Paddy Mayne. He then became a founding member of the 10th Battalion The Parachute Regiment and served in Egypt, Italy and at Arnhem after which he served in the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. I think he was demobbed in 1946.
He was very modest saying that he was just an ordinary man doing his best but, given the company he kept, we think there maybe was a bit more to it. My three brothers and I are very proud of him but it is so difficult to find out much about our father and I wonder if you, or any of your visitors to the Combined Ops website, have come across him as we would love to know more.
I will be visiting the Isle of Arran in September to try and find out more about the Commandos and their time there and maybe find a mention of my Dad. We understand he was promoted to Corporal on Arran by Colonel Pedder for killing 6 rabbits one after another with his stick when they were out shooting. Father was real country boy who had his own ferret when he was 7 and he was literally poacher turned gamekeeper having written three books on the latter!
The account of No 11 (Scottish) Commando by Graham Lappin was originally written for a few veterans but is now made available to a wider audience. It is a substantial and comprehensive
document of 20,000 words. Also on this page is a 1945 letter from a young Commando to
his father in which he comments upon his wartime experiences with No 11
Commando and his capture and detention by the enemy.