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Caithness Commandos:From the Snow to the Sand 

2nd Sept 1939 brought about the mobilisation of the Territorial Army and the following day, the declaration of war against Germany, the start of the Second World War. A war that would last nearly six years. Like their fathers before them the Terriers left their home and loved ones behind, to their front, they faced an unsure future, some would not see their homes again. This story is about a few men / boys who went in search of adventure, an adventure that would take them from the Highlands of Scotland, to the island of Arran, to great sand deserts of North Africa, then the barren rocky Greek Islands. This the story of a few who went of to war as ordinary soldiers and who were to end up as part of the elite.

This story has taken months of research to put together and thanks must go to Jim Patch (LRDG), "Sassie / Lofty" Carr (LRDG), Reg Harmer (11th Scottish Commando), Arthur Arger (LRDG) and last but not least Jim Storrie (SAS), all part of the original Special Forces. Thank to all of the above for their enthusiasm and help in putting this story together. We hope it meets their expectations.

John Mackay, Shurrery Lodge, William Campbell, Janetstown, Thurso and David Gunn, Henrietta St, Wick all were mobilised on the 2nd Sept 1939 and with the rest of the 5th (Caithness & Sutherland) Seaforth Highlanders, made their way to the train stations with their kit bags over their shoulders. Each one had apprehension in their hearts but also a sense of pride, this is what they were waiting for, they were going to war, but the 5th Seaforths war would have to wait. The 5th Seaforths were not destined to go to war for another 3 years, their job was until 1942, guarding key installations around the North of Scotland. Unlike her sister battalions, the 4th & 6th Seaforths who were part of the famous 51st (Highland) Division, the 5th Seaforths became part of the 9th (Scottish) Division a Second Line Division, who’s roll was to stay in Scotland and defend against an invasion.

As their for-fathers the 5th Seaforths first job was to defend the Cromarty area. From the Sept 1939 till summer 1940, they were pasted to various places from Dingwall to Wick. It does not take much to imagine what the boys of the 5th Seaforths thought about the continuous training and the guarding of "key" installations, piers, airfields, roads and the such like, standing their in the freezing cold of a Northern winter, trying to make their necks disappear into their trench-coats to get a little warmth from the cold rains of January and February. To make matters worse was the fact that the 4th & 6th Seaforths went to France with the BEF in late January, to do the real soldiering and better weather. With the coming of Spring 1940 things started to feel a bit better, but it was still the same old boring job of guarding places that they knew the Germans would not dare invade. They were wasted, they should be over in France with the rest of the HD, as they had in the last war.

In May 1940 the Germans invaded Belgium and with it came the Blitzkrieg (Lightning War). At this time the 2nd & 4th Seaforths were with the 51st (H) Div, while the 6th Seaforths were with the 5th Div. The 6th Seaforths were soon fighting a desperate rearguard action back to Dunkirk and were evacuated to return to Britain on the 1st June 1940, having lost most of it’s equipment. Meanwhile the 51st (H) Div had just arrived near Abbeville on the Somme, where they tried to fight off the Germans until they surrendered at St Valery on the 12th June. The 2nd & 4th Seaforths only existed on paper and the 6th Seaforths was a battalion without kit.

After nearly a year of patrolling, guarding, exercising, everything but fighting, brought John, William & David to the brink of boredom. This was worse than anything, the shear monotony of standing guarding "key" installations was starting to get them down. The only break came from moving from place to place, even then, they were more than not, kept from the towns and the night life, what little there was. Also about this time came the end of the "Phony War".

9th of April 1940 the Germans invaded Norway and Denmark. The Danes gave up without a fight, the Norwegians on the other hand were going to fight it out. The British had been ready, or so they thought, to send aid to Norway in such an emergency, they had formed the first Special Forces battalion of the war, the 5th Scots Guards. The 5/ SG was formed from volunteers who were to learn to ski and fight in the harsh mountain climates. Word went out in Jan 1940 for volunteers and by March they were sent to the French Alps to train, but they were disbanded soon after when the Russian - Finnish war ended. As usual the Top Brass got it wrong, they had seen the Russian as the treat to Norway not the Germans. When the Germans invaded the 5/ SG were disbanded and the men sent back to their units and could not be reformed in time to be of any use. Even if they could get the men, their equipment had been sent back to depot. It was to be their sister battalion the 1st who were to fight in Norway.

What the War Office decided to do was to form a special force of 3,000 volunteers into ten independent companies to fight in Norway. These men were to come from the TA Divisions training in England, Scotland was not included as their could be a threat of invasion from the North. The idea was for these companies to fight skirmishes, not battles, which would slow the Germans down until they finally stoped and then the Army could defeat them. A sound idea but with not time to train in this new form of warfare and very little special equipment, it was doomed to fail. The first British troops landed in Norway on the 15th by the 18th four brigades were landed. Five of the independent companies set sail from the Clyde at the beginning of May and on the 9th they were landed at Bodo. By this time two of the brigades to the south had been evacuated. The special forces were blooded on the 10th by their counterparts the German their Mountain Division. Unlike the British, Germany was well prepared for this kind of warfare and had been training for years. It was a lost cause from the beginning, but the five independent companies put up a spirited fight by 10th June the last of the British were evacuated. Meanwhile the other five independent companies were training near Glasgow, their time was not lost, for they were to be the next Special Forces.

On 10th May 1940 the Germans attacked all along the French and Belgium front, the French and British Armies should have stopped them as the did in the last war. But the British & French had done nothing to upgrade their fighting abilities and still adopted the same tactics as in 1919. The Germans on the other hand had not only come from the ashes, they had upgraded and improved the fighting machines decades ahead of most other countries, they also introduce new tactics for their new machines. The new tactics were the "Blitzkrieg" the Lightning War, they had learnt from their mistakes, for which the Allies were going to learn to their cost. By the 1st of June Dunkirk was over the British had managed to save their Army, but not their equipment, the equipment was left on the beaches of Dunkirk to rust, as most of it did, the Germans had no place for their old equipment in their new army. The 51st (Highland) Div was left alone to try to fight a rear-guard action towards Brittany, but by the 12th June it was over, they surrendered at St Valery, even they could not out run the Germans new Panzer Divisions.

With both Norway and France defeated, Britain now stood alone. It looked like they were next. Churchill had seen that with a little more training these independent companies could do more damage to the Germans than the standard set piece battles. By the beginning of June a plan was put together to form Special Service Battalions from the Independent Companies (IC). Churchill nick-named them Commandos after the Boer Commandos, who had tied the British Army up for 4 years in South Africa. The legend was born.

The five Norwegian and the five other IC’s were to form nine Special Service Battalions, each of about 500-600 men, 1st Bn were formed from the IC’s, 3 & 4 Bns from Southern Cmd, 5 & 6 Bns from Western Cmd, 7 & 8 Bns from London and Eastern Cmds and 9 & 11 Bns from Scottish Cmd again the majority of the volunteers were from the TA. The word was soon spread for volunteers "for special service of an undefined hazardous nature" with a high standard of physical fitness, ability to swim. Their mission was to be two fold, first if the Germans did invade a Troop (60 men) would be able to work independently to harass the Germans, i.e., fight a Guerrilla War, second if the Germans did not invade they were to be used to take the war to the Germans and "set the coast ablaze". For the second a 11th IC was formed and stationed on the Isle of Wight and they carried out the first cross channel raid on the 23rd June. The Commando Battalions were to be trained in Scotland at Inverary, Lairgs 7th and for the 8th, 9th & 11th (Scottish) Commando the Island of Arran. By mid July 1940 Hitler ordered a directive for the invasion of Britain, Operation "Seelowe" (Sealion), but the Germans had made a fatal mistake in their New Army, they had not trained, did not have the equipment nor did they have plans for an Invasion of Britain.

While the whole of Britain was preparing for the invasion, John Mackay, William Campbell and David Gunn decided to volunteer for this "hazardous service", they had their fill of "preparing for the invasion". By mid July they found themselves with over 500 other volunteers getting off a train at Galashields and being met by their Commanding Officer, and the instructors. They, if they passed the "test", would become part of the 6th (Seaforth) Troop in the 11th (Scottish) Commando, destination unknown. When they came out of the train station they were lined up in front of some trucks. They were told that they were going to Ayr and at anytime they were free to use the trucks. But if they did, they were out of this new formation, as they were going to march, a distance by today’s roads of 84 miles, but probably over 100 miles in 1940. Also they could take what ever they wanted with them, but they would have to carry their kit. With bagpipes playing and their kitbags over their shoulders the 500 volunteers set off, leaving the train station behind and a pile of suddenly unwanted equipment. Their was those who dropped out and were never seen again. At this our three warriors must have had second thoughts about this adventure, but they must have completed the first "test". After six days and five night under the stars, they spent the sixth night camped in Ayr Race Course and the following day they were put on a ferry, which landed them on Arran. This was to be their home for the next 6 months.

On Arran the island was split into three parts with the 8th, 9th & 11th Commandos taking over a third each for training, the 11th taking the middle. Training at this time was not as organised as in later years when the Commandos were set up at Spean Bridge. The training was set by each Battalion Commander and then by each Troop Commander. The co-ordinating and directing of the Commandos was down to Admiral of the Fleet Sir Rodger Keyes, who was the brains behind the Zeebrugge raid in Apr 1918. The majority of training and how it was carried out was up to the Commanders as no detailed training program existed at that time, other than general instructions issued by Admiral Keyes. Keyes wanted every man trained in field craft, close combat, navigation, the use of a compass, explosives, assault landing, cliff-scaling etc. They did not just want stamina, they also wanted intelligent men, men who could think for themselves. These new men were to be trained way passed basic Officer standards. Also each man was expected to look after his own personal admin, no NCO’s to tell them when to clean their kit. The only way they would know if they were not up to scratch was when they received a travel warrant Returning to Unit (RTU), this was them being sent back to their parent Regiment, the "sack".

This early training centred around small scale hit and run tactics, this was to be their aim should the Germans invade. They would not face them in large scale battles, but come down from the hills, hit them where it hurt, preferably behind their front lines and then disappear back to the hills to return somewhere else and repeat this process until they were captured or killed. The idea was to tie up as many front line units in guarding their rear. Their life expectancy was expected to be very short and their end very violent. How long they expected to last was anyone’s guess, but they all expected to die, at best being captured. Keyes and Churchill were also looking to the future and what they could do if the Germans never came, new equipment was being fitted out for this special soldiers, they saw that if the Germans did not come they could use the Commandos as assault troop to hit the enemy across the water.

Three ships were being converted into assault ships or LSI (L) Landing Ship Infantry (Large), these were the famous Glen Line ships, Glenearn, Glengyle and Glenroy, all new being built in 1938-39. Each were heavily armed for that time, each armed with eight twin 2 pdr Pompoms, four 2 pdr guns and eight 20 mm Oerlikons. All carried three LCM (Landing Craft Mechanised), twenty-four LCA/LCS (M) (Landing Craft Assault / Landing Craft Support (Medium) and capable of carrying between 708 to 1,089 troops. When in Oct Operation Sealion, the invasion of Britain was cancelled the Commandos started training for the assault landing from the "Glens". The training was now to hit a beach assault the defences and hold their ground for the next twenty-four hours until support could be brought to them. Or to take a beach and then fight inland and take whatever key position, hold it or destroy it and then move back to their landing place and depart to fight another day. The missions and possibilities were endless, they trained for scenario after scenario.

Their real first mission, Operation "Workshop", was to take and hold the Mediterranean Island of Pantelleria, an island about 10 miles long and 5 miles wide. The Arran Commandos were picked for this island as they were training on an island and were best suited to this mission. Pantelleria is situated between Tunis and Sicily and as such commanded the vital Gibraltar - Malta - Alexandria convoy route. The island was heavily defended, it had its own airfield, with underground hangers for 80 aircraft, numerous caves which were converted into refuelling and resupplying bays which were used for the U-boats and a flotilla of E-boats to boot. Also there was 80 gun positions dotted around the island with over 11,000 Italians prepared to hold the island. If it could be taken the Allies could give some air protection to the convoy passing the Tunis - Sicily straits and also hamper the resupplying of the Axis Forces in North Africa. At the last minutes, on 12th Dec, the operation was cancelled. Which in hindsight possibly was correct as even if the island could be taken, they would have been subject to murderous air attacks from Tunis and Sicily and would like Malta also have to be supplied by convoys. The island was eventually taken on 11th June 1943, a month before the invasion of Sicily, it was taken after being bombarded from the sea for over a month, 9th May - 11th June. Even then the Air Forces of the Middle East subjected the island to 6 days of intensive bombing, which they dropped 4,119 tons (14,203 bombs) onto the defences and only damaged 53 of the 80 guns. Only then, when seeing the whole of the 1st British Division about to land, were the Italians ready to surrender. What 1,000 Commandos could have achieved, even if they got close enough to land, I will leave to the imagination. Now without a mission they settled down to further training.

New Year 1941 saw their first drink on the island, a pint of beer and also the ending of their training. Wavell in command of North Africa heard about these Special Service Troops and sent for them, he had a mission for them, the capture of Cyrenaica, Lybia. For the first time all three Commandos formed together, this was to board the Glen ships, the "Glengyle" for the 11th (Scottish) Commando, which would take them via the Cape to the Middle East. Included in this assembly included some very famous names, some who would go down in history , none more so than, David Stirling the founder of the SAS who was with the 8th Commando. On 31st Jan 1941, two (8th & 11th) of the three under strength Commandos, none of which were over 380 men each, left their island home for the first and last time. On 11th March they arrived in the Middle East and assumed a new name "Layforce" after their Commanding Officer Col Robert Laycock, who commanded the 7th, 8th & 11th Commando. The Commandos became A, B & C Commando Battalions respectively, though they still preferred using their original numbers. Their mission for Cyrenaica was cancelled as it had taken it between Dec 1941 and Feb 1942, but Wavell came up with another mission, Rhodes needed to be captured and all available shipping was to form in Alexandria for this operation. Here they settled down to all the usual ailments that went with Egypt and its intolerable flies which descended on everything in seconds. Once they had got accustomed to the flies, guppy tummy, the sun, the sand and the sunburn. They were ready of Rhodes, they were sent to Cyprus to prepare.

In Oct 1940 Mussolini decided to invade Greece via Albania, by March 1941 the Italian had been pushed back and the Greeks now occupied half of Albania, the Italians were in trouble they needed help. Their help came from the Germans who invaded Greece and Yugoslavia on 6th April 1941 and Yugoslavia surrendered on the 17th. By now Greece was struggling to survive, the British sent what men they had available to try to stem the assault, but by the 28th it was over, Greece was now part of the German occupation. 43,000 Allied men were evacuated before Greece fell and sent to Crete. The "Glens" were used during the evacuation, which also helped to postponed the invasion of Rhodes.

By this time "Layforce" had two new battalions on their strength, the 50th,& 52nd Middle Commandos, who had been formed in the Middle East in 1940 and who had just arrived back from fighting in Somaliland and Ethiopia. They became D Battalion in "Layforce". There was also another Commando the 51st which was formed from Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, which were independent from "Layforce". Now the assault on Rhodes was certainly cancelled, as the British had to fight the newly arrived Rommel and his Afrika Corps. Rommel attacked on 24th March and by 15th April all of Lybia was in his hands. Tobruk was under siege and the 9th Australian Division were putting up stubborn resistance against German attacks. The 8th Commando were sent to help the Australians and by the time Tobruk was relived in November they were a unit by name only.

On 20th May the Germans airborne assault on Crete began. At once the two Commando battalions were sent to help, the 7th, 50th and 52nd were sent to try to stem the tide. On 31st May all of Crete was captured and over 15,000 men were evacuated, some on "Glengyle" which had landed the two Commandos, but the 7th 50th & 52nd Commando were sacrificed, fighting a rearguard action against the Germans, now "Layforce" was now down to one battalion, the 11th (Scottish) Commando.

Things were not looking good for the Commandos, life was very short indeed, they knew their turn was coming but when ?. They did not have to wait long, their enemy was not to be the Germans or the Italians, it was to be the French, to be exact the Vichy French in Lebanon. In May the Iraqis, fuelled by the Nazis, revolted against the British garrisons, but this was soon put down by British troops from India and Palestine and an armistice was signed the day Crete fell the 31st May. Syria was strictly neutral, but there was pro Nazi Syrians and the Germans had organised a Arab Youth along the Nazi lines, with more German "tourists" with even more German "technicians" arriving each day, something had to be done and soon. In early May the Germans started to use Syrian airfields to refuel their bomber before bombing Mosul in Iraq. Soon the RAF began bombing Syrian airfields and by the end of May, with the Iraq armistice, the German Tourists and technicians left Syria. Pressure was put on Wavell to take Syria, though Wavell did not have the resources to take on the superior number of Vichy French. Everything was in the Vichy Frenches favour they had a terrain which was better suited to defence. It was decided to attack Lebanon and Syria from all sides the 7th Australian Div into Lebanon from Palestine in the south, Habforce from Iraq into Southern Syria, 10th Indian Div from Iraq into Northern Syria and the Free French Div to attack Syria from the South-West. The 11th (Scottish) Commando were to attack from the sea and wait for the Australians to relive them. It was felt that the risk of the Arabs and Vichy French fighting back was slim, especialy as the British and Free French had garantted their independence for both countries. It was to be the second full scale Commando assault of the war.

The Scottish Commando sailed from Cyprus on the "Glengyle" on 7th July their destination was the northern bank of the Litani River about 16 miles from the Palestine border. They were to capture and hold the river bridge until relived by the Australians. The assault landing was to go in at 0400 on the 8th but the Vichy’s Navy intercepted the 15th Cruiser Squadron which comprised three cruisers, eight destroyers and the "Glengyle". The operation had to be postponed until the next morning until the Vichy were chased off. The assault went in on the 9th June 1941, John Mackay’s 19th birthday, his 21st as far as the Army were concerned. At 0500, daylight, the landing craft started heading towards the river mouth, but by this time the Vichy were waiting for them, as with later landings the death started before they "hit the beach". They met very heavy resistance from the outset, but they made it ashore and captured the bridge, but to only lose it again when they started to run out of ammunition. They even started to use captured weapons on the Vichy, the Artillery Troop using captured Guns to try to keep the Vichy attack at bay. Eventually they were forced back from the bridge and when the Australian arrived the bridge was blown. The Commandos with fresh ammo rallied after attacks and counterattacks trying to defend what they had captured, eventually the Commandos and Australians broke the Vichy and took the destroyed bridge on the 10th and soon pontoon bridges were thrown across the river, but not before over 125 Commandos were casualties, of which William Campbell was one. His final resting place is the lonely Sidon War Cemetery beside the road. The campaign in Syria lasted until 14th July when the Vichy signed an armistice, in their favour. This was probably some of the most visious fighting the Commandos ever saw during the war. Not only was it the death of William but it was also the death of Layforce. With not replacement coming from the UK the numbers were too few to keep going and it was doomed. By the end of the month the Commandos were looking for employment. Within four months the 7th, 8th & 11th Commando were destroyed and none had survived a second engagement, but the lessons for later Commandos were learnt from these three Commandos. Was it worth it all ? The Historians can and are still debating that question. The Scottish Commandos held a deep and bitter grudge about the Syrian Operation, the waste of many find soldiers, which really depended on the Vichy French seeing that they were going to be attacked by the Allies and laying down their arms. Then also the fact that when the advantage of surprise had been lost, not only had they still went ahead with the attack, but they attacked in the exact same place and in daylight, a recipe for a disaster. These men were willing to fight against the odds, that was their job, but some thought "Layforce" had been sacrificed for nothing. Nearly a years training, of probably some of the best soldiers Britian had, all for what ? The Commandos were proud of what they had achived and of their Elite band, but the last few months still left a bitter taste in their mouths.

With "Layforce" destroyed a new Middle East Commando was formed out of what was left. In Oct 1941, "L" detachment SAS, 51st Commando, SBS & No 3 Troop (11th Scottish Commando) formed the Middle East Commando. The Middle East Commando was disbanded in Aug 1942, when the SAS took what was left over. No 3 Troops end came in the attempt to kill or capture Rommel and his HQ. The 59 survivors of 3 Troop were to landed by two submarines (Torbay and Talisman) west of Apollonia on the night of the 13th Nov 1941. Only 35 men managed to make it ashore. Col Geoffrey Keyes, Admiral Roberts Keyes son, with Col Laycock as an observer, decided to continue with the mission, though now he only had about half his men. The attack took place on the night of the 17th / 18th, from the start things went wrong and they lost the eliment of supprise and also Rommel was not there. During the fighting Col Keyes was killed by a bullet. Even when they had finaly defeated any resistance their explosives would not work and they had to settle with using grenades. After destroying what they could the Commandos made their way back to their pick-up point. When they tried to signal the submarine to come in and pick them up no the 19th failed, they moved a short distance and hid in a wadi. Later in the day they were discovered by Italians and Arabs, who were both driven off, but now enemy knew where they were. Col Laycock told the Commandos they had three options, head inland with the hope of being picked up by the LRDG, stay at the beach and hopefully be picked up by the Submarine, or head East and try to make it to the British lines. The Commandos split up and tried to make their own way to safety. Only Col Lackock and Sgt Terry made it back to the British lines after 41 days, the rest were captured.

Not only was it the end for "Layforce" but it was coming near the end for Admiral Keyes, who was replaced by Mountbatten in 1942 as the head of Combined Operations. The only survivor of the Arran Commandos was the "Glen" ships which survived to take part in further operations, especially in the Malta runs. The "Glens" were also used at Dieppe and other operations, they all survived the war.

With the end of "Layforce", what John & David did not know at that time, was that others were also looking for them to employ. These were name that will also live on in military history forever, they were the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and the Special Air Service (SAS).

Thanks also goes to John Mackay’s wife "Sadie" for all her help.


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David Bews 1999
Steven Cashmore 1999

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