Caithness Commandos:Special Service Overseas:Part 1
War. It was expected. For 3 years everyone had known with increasing certainty that a major conflict between Nazi Germany and the rest of Europe was inevitable. When the Werhmacht stormed into Poland on 1st September 1939 the die was finally cast. Years of fruitless peace-preserving political chatter evaporated as swiftly as the hapless Polish armies did before Hitler's panzers. Next day, the British triggered their mobilisation plans.
At Howe farm on the Glengolly to Calder road, John Mackay packed his kitbag and prepared to make his way to the train station at Thurso in accordance with his mobilisation notice. A year before, John had enlisted in the local Territorial's, the famous 5th (Caithness and Sutherland) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders. He had given his age as 18, his occupation as kennel-man at Shurrery Lodge. In fact, he was 2 years younger, and he was a farm servant.
On the same day, September 2nd 1939, William Campbell bade farewell to his parents, Robert and Marjory of Janetstown, by Thurso, and went off to join his regiment, the famous Black Watch. Across the county, David Gunn made the short trek from his home at 18 Henrietta Street to Wick railway station where he joined his fellow 5th Seaforths on their way south, every man convinced that within a month he would be marching along a road somewhere in Europe.
January came and with it icy winds, rain and biting hail, all the rigours of a northern winter. At the month's end, the British Expeditionary Force set sail for France. Along with the B.E.F. as part of the 51st (Highland) Division, went two Seaforth battalions. The 5th was not one of them. Instead of the gentle French landscape, the 5th Seaforths were left behind to enjoy the doubtful delights of guarding remote piers in Wester Ross, patrolling lonely Sutherland back roads, or standing sentry at the entrance to an ad hoc airfield that was yet to see an aircraft. As part of the 9th (Scottish) Division, the 5th Seaforths were charged with defending key local installations against possible German invasion. It was boring, monotonous, demoralising. Home duty without home comforts - towns and social events being largely off limits to soldiers. Worse was the knowledge that the 4th and 6th Seaforth battalions were over in France doing some real soldiering.
If there was little to excite the martial appetites of Privates Mackay, Gunn and Campbell there was not much more going on in Europe. The months after Poland's flash bang defeat were strangely quiet. This was the surreal period known as the 'phoney war'. In April things changed dramatically; the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway. Denmark capitulated without a struggle. The Norwegians chose to fight. At the outset of war the British had foreseen a possible invasion of Norway. Accordingly, plans had been made to send aid in the form of a special force of skirmishers, trained to ski and fight harassing actions among the harsh Norwegian mountain terrain. These specialist fighters formed the 5th Scots Guards, the first Special Forces battalion of the war. Unfortunately, the British had perceived Russia to be the immediate threat to Norway. Come the end of the Russian - Finnish war, the 5th Scots Guards were disbanded, too late to reform in time to be any use in stalling the German advance into Norway. Nevertheless, 3,000 volunteers from English based TA units did go to Norway where they crossed swords with their German counterparts, the Mountain Division. Despite typical British heroics, it was a lost cause. The Germans had trained for years in the kind of specialist warfare the British were just beginning to learn. By June 10th, the last British troops had been evacuated from Norway. But Norway was now a minor sideshow; a much more serious disaster was in full swing.
On 10th May 1940 German tanks smashed through the frontiers of France and Belgium. Their tactics stranded in the fortress mentality of the First World War, the French and their British allies were overwhelmed by a super-efficient German fighting machine, years in advance of anything the Allies possessed. Within three weeks it was all over. The German 'blitzkrieg' had delivered a death blow to the French armies, and the B.E.F. were straggling through the Dunkirk surf on their way home to Blighty, an army saved but with its equipment left rusting on the Dunkirk beaches. Abandoned to fight a hopeless rearguard action at St Valery, the gallant Highlanders of the 51st Division had no choice but to surrender to the all conquering Germans. Even courage of the highest order was powerless to stop the Panzer Division.
With all Europe now in Hitler's grasp, Britain stood alone and isolated. Invasion seemed only a matter of time. Desperate days were at hand, desperate measures were demanded. Mindful of his own Boer War experiences, when a handful of trained and determined farmers had for months frustrated the best efforts of British regular troops, Winston Churchill ordered the formation of a Special Services Force. He called it the Commandos, after the Boer units who had led him such a merry dance 50 years before.
Five Special Service companies remained from the Norwegian debacle; another four were to be formed from hand-picked volunteers, mostly men from TA companies. A total commando compliment of some 5,000 specialist fighters was envisaged. Their prime function in the event of a German invasion would be to fight a guerilla war using small unit, hit and run harassing tactics. Should the Germans decide not to invade Britain, then the Commando's training could be adapted to carry the war to occupied Europe.
Word went round the ranks that volunteers were sought for 'special service of an undefined hazardous nature.' Applicants were required to have a high standard of physical fitness, with the ability to swim being mandatory. Training was to be carried out at Inverary, Largs and, for the two (9th & 11th) Scottish and one (8th) English battalions, on the island of Arran. With a victorious enemy only 20 miles or so distant across the English Channel, time was of the essence. But success was the undoing of Hitler's armies. So swift had been their victory over the French, that as yet the German military planners had made no real provision for invading Britain. Their troops untrained in amphibious landing techniques, lacking equipment and an overall strategy, Operation Sealion, Hitler's planned invasion of Britain, turned out to be a giant firework that never went off.
Up in the Far North, near stupefied with boredom through standing guard over installations that no enemy was ever going to attack, William Campbell, John Mackay and David Gunn studied the call for Special Service volunteers with more than a little enthusiasm. No action, or more than enough - it was a plain choice. July found the three Caithness soldiers stepping off a train at Galashields in company with over 500 fellow volunteers. Introductions were brief; their Commanding Officer and his crew of tough-looking instructors told them that, providing the volunteers passed 'the test' they would join the 6th (Seaforth) Troop of the 11th (Scottish) Commando.
Outside Galashields station was a line of trucks. These would accompany the volunteers to Ayr, some 100 distant by road. Any man was free to use the trucks should he so wish. Shouldering their kitbags, the would-be Commandos marched out of Galashields to the skirl of the pipes. A few took up the offer of a ride on one of the trucks; these men were destined never to be numbered among the Elite. Six days of hard marching, camping out under the stars each night, brought them to Ayr Race Course. Next day they boarded a ferry which took them across to Arran, their home for the next six months.
Commando training was organised and co-ordinated by Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, the man responsible for the daring naval raid on Zeebrugge in 1918. Nothing was hard and fast, but Keyes wanted all his Commandos trained in field craft, close quarters combat, navigation and compass reading. His men learned how to place explosive charges, scale fearsome cliffs, leap ashore from landing craft bucking crazily in a heavy sea swell. A Commando must of necessity possess plenty of stamina; he was also required to be intelligent, adept at thinking on his feet, clear headed. Not for him the paternal care of the camp cook and the quartermaster - a Commando had to mind his own kit and be prepared to live off the land. There were no formal training assessments. If a man wasn't up to scratch, the first he knew of it was when he received a Return to Unit travel warrant. He would never make the grade, and there was no appeal procedure. John Mackay, William Campbell and David Gunn were three who did make the grade.
This initial training was based on the assumption that, a German invasion being deemed imminent, the Commandos main task would be to carry out hit and hurt raids behind enemy lines, tying up as many front line troops as possible in rearguard actions. A violent life and a short one. When the German invasion failed to materialise, Churchill was quick to put the Commando's training to profitable use. They became the shock troops of a new assault force designed to take out key installations in Nazi occupied territory.
Pantelleria is a small island half way along the strategic sea route between Tunis in North Africa, and Sicily. In 1940 Pantelleria was an enemy stronghold boasting an airfield complete with underground hangars for 80 warplanes, a network of caves crammed with military stores, guarded by over 80 heavy gun emplacements. A garrison of 11,000 Italians manned this iron-bound Mediterranean knuckle. The Commandos first serious mission was to capture Pantelleria. A thousand men were deemed sufficient. At the very last moment, on 12th December 1940, the operation was cancelled, a wise decision given that when Pantelleria finally succumbed in June 1943, it took six days of intense bombing and an entire Division to persuade its defenders to run up the white flag.
New Year 1941 saw the Commandos celebrating the end of their stint on Arran with a pint of beer, the first alcohol they had tasted since coming there. On the final day of January two under strength Commandos, the 8th & 11th with the newly arrived 7th Commando from Lairgs, scarcely 1,000 men in total, left Arran on three specially converted assault ships, three known as the 'Glens'; 'Glengyle', 'Glenearn' and 'Glenroy.' On board the 'Glens' were several men destined to become famous in the annals of war, among them David Stirling, founder of the SAS. This assembly of fighting men was known as 'Layforce', after its C.O., Robert Laycock.
March 11th 1941, and the 'Layforce' Commandos, John Mackay, William Campbell and David Gunn included, embarked in the Middle East, to where they had been summoned by Field Marshall Wavell, who was anxious to have them capture the Libyan towns of Cyrenaica. Again, the Commando's mission was aborted, as was a similar scheme to use them to capture the strategically important island of Rhodes. This latter plan was thwarted by serious developments in the Mediterranean conflict.
Erwin Rommel arrived in North Africa in March 1941. By 15th April all Libya was in the hands of his famous Afrika Corps. A Commando battalion went from Alexandria to help an Australian division shut up in Tobruk. By the time relief arrived, little remained of the Commandos save the unit's name. Worse was to come. On 20th May the New Zealand soldiers guarding the island of Crete woke up to an unusual sight - thousands of German paratroopers dropping out of a clear blue summer sky. A ferocious struggle now began for mastery of this key island. At once two of the three Commando units were sent post haste to Crete to join the fray. It was too late. Within 11 days Crete had fallen to the Germans, the sole British compensation being the 15,000 fighting men who were evacuated. And the Commandos? They were sacrificed in the gallant rearguard action which bought vital time for the evacuation.
'Layforce' was now down to a single battalion. Up to now none of the planned Commando operations had actually taken place. When would something go right? It was a valid question. When the answer came, it was from an unexpected quarter.
Lebanon and Syria have long been hotbeds of political intrigue. Beneath a lightly fitting lid of Western influence simmers an evil stew, forever susceptible to the stirring of mischief makers of all persuasions. As the German tide flowed ever stronger through the Middle East, pro-Nazi factions in Syria took advantage of Britain's misfortunes to invite into their country an army of German 'technicians' and 'advisers'. Soon German bombers were using Syrian airfields as refuelling stops on their way to bomb British oilfields in Iraq. Retaliation was swift and ruthless. The RAF began bombing Syria, and the fickle Arabs promptly ushered their German 'friends' out of the country. But the lesson was clear - Wavell was ordered to conquer Syria in order to forestall any further trouble.
Both Syria and Lebanon were occupied by an army of Vichy French, allies of the Germans. These reluctant allies were looked upon as poor opposition. Faced with a determined all-sides assault by a force of Australian, Indian and British regulars, instant brown trousers would be the certain response from the French and their Arab minions.
As a preliminary to the main event the 11th (Scottish) Commando were to launch a sea-borne attack. Their objective - to capture and hold a vital bridge over the Litani, a Lebanese river 16 miles from the Palestine border. On June 7th 1941 John Mackay, William Campbell and David Gunn were leaning over the side of the 'Glengyle', watching Cyprus disappear over the wide blue horizon. Flanking the assault craft were three cruisers and eight destroyers of the 15th Cruiser Squadron. With a force such as this, what else could tomorrow's Lebanese landing be but a summer's day picnic?
From the outset things went wrong. The 15th Cruiser Squadron ran into unexpected guests - the Vichy Navy, a formidable fighting force. A drawn out game of cat and mouse ensued, finally ending when the Vichy warships turned tail and withdrew. A success, but a success purchased at the cost of surprise; the Commando's scheduled 0400 landing of June 8th had to be put back 24 hours. At 0500 next morning, the Commandos steeled their nerves and psyched themselves up in readiness to land on the north bank of the Litani. It was broad daylight and the Vichy French were waiting in overwhelming strength. A wry smile passed over John Mackay's face. Today was his 19th birthday. What presents lay in store for him he wondered?
Commando casualties commenced even before the troops got ashore. Vichy artillery and heavy machine guns opened fire with deadly accuracy, killing many Commandos as they charged forward through the Mediterranean surf. By using every trick learned during months of hard training, the Commandos eventually made it to dry land. Now the going really got tough.
A force of Australians was due to rendezvous with them that very day; the Commandos task was to seize the Litani bridge and hold it until the Aussies arrived. This they duly did, only to lose the bridge later to a determined Vichy counterattack. Low on ammunition, the Commandos struggled on desperately against superior numbers, fighting on with captured Vichy guns in a vain attempt to hold on to the bridge. It was all to no avail. Despite universal heroics, the Vichy troops recaptured the bridge. The Australian reinforcements arrived just in time to see the coveted structure crumble into the Litani, dynamited by Vichy engineers. Tomorrow, however, was another day. On 10th June 1941 the combined force of Commandos and Australians captured what was left of the Litani River crossing. Soon pontoon bridges were thrown across the water and the Vichy were in full retreat.
Exhausted by some of the most violent combat any of them had ever engaged in, the Commandos took stock of their situation. Of their number, 125 had been killed, among them William Campbell, late of Janetstown by Thurso, a Caithness boy who had willingly responded to his country's call. Now he had paid the final reckoning. William was buried in a lonely roadside cemetery near to a Lebanese river, a far cry from the cold, fresh northern county of his birth.
Along with William Campbell died 'Layforce'. Without trained reinforcements from Britain to replace those who had fallen in Crete, Tobruk, and now Lebanon, 'Layforce' was all but finished. Was this what the Commandos had spent a gruelling year training for? Many among the Scottish battalion held feelings of bitter resentment against a Command that had sent the finest of British soldiers, by daylight into the jaws of what had been, effectively, an enemy ambush. The Syrian campaign dragged on for another month until the Vichy French signed an armistice favourable to them, a virtual defeat inflicted by an enemy whom the British had confidently expected to surrender at the first shot.
From the ashes of 'Layforce' rose an elite force - the Middle East Commando. Formed in October 1941, this new group included men from No 3 Troop, 11th (Scottish) Commando. On the evening of 13th November 1941, Commandos from No 3 Troop were landed by submarine, west of Apollonia on the Libyan coast. Half of them went astray, lost in the dark African night. This was not good. Any reasonable officer would have aborted the mission then and there. But those in charge of this little band were no ordinary officers. Geoffrey Keyes was in command; his henchman was Robert Laycock. Two famous soldiers, one the son of the man who had overseen the birth of the Special Service Force, the other had lent his name to 'Layforce'. For men such as these there was no such expression as 'turn back.' Just to add a little pepper to things, the Commandos mission was dangerously simple - they were out to kill Erwin Rommel.
Arriving at Rommel's reported HQ on the night of 17th/18th November, Keyes and his men launched a lightning fast attack on the building, shooting any Germans who got in the way. But Rommel was not at home - their information had been defective. So too was explosives they had brought to blow up the German HQ. Undaunted, the Commandos destroyed the building with hand grenades. Geoffrey Keyes was shot dead in the fighting, leaving Laycock to shepherd those who survived back to the coast.
Arriving at the rendezvous the luckless Commandos found no waiting submarine. By now the enemy was aware of their location. It was every man for himself. Just before Christmas 1941 a pair of ragged apparitions arrived at the British lines. It was Colonel Laycock and a fellow Commando, Sergeant Terry. They had been 41 days in the desert. Geoffrey Keyes was awarded a Victoria Cross for courage displayed, not least in leading his men on a glorious, if impossible mission. More than that, Keyes heroic action helped fix a legend in the public mind; a legend based on brave men setting overwhelming odds at nought in a determined bid to succeed - the legend of the SAS and the Long Range Desert Group, immortal combat units destined to be the future homes of John Mackay and David Gunn. Read about their exploits in our next article on the Caithness Commandos.
This story is the culmination of months of patient research. Thanks are due to Jim Patch, "Sassie/Lofty" Carr and Arthur Arger (all Long Range Desert Group), Reg Harmer (11th Scottish Commando), and last but by no means least, Jim Storrie (SAS). All these men were part of the original Special Forces of the British Army. We trust our efforts meet with their approval. Thanks also to Sadie, wife of John Mackay.
The above listing is not exhaustive. There are other Caithness men known to have served in Special Forces.
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