For me it happened on Friday when I went onto Facebook and found a post from my sister telling us that she had seen a photo of our Dad on TV. Channel 5 had used it to illustrate a programme about young men who had lied about their age to join the army during World War II. The programme was called Child Soldiers of World War II and is still available on Channel 5’s catch up service if you want to take a look.
The photo was of a group of young soldiers returning from the raid on Dieppe in 1942. There they were, smiling and
laughing and making rude gestures at the camera, my Dad centre stage making a V sign. They were just glad to still be alive after taking part in one of the most ill-conceived operations of the war. The photo had been chosen because the programme featured two of my Dad’s old comrades in Number 3 Commando, Fred Walker and Stan Scott, known as Scotty, who were both underage soldiers and both in the photo. They were both still underage when the Dieppe raid took place.
unexpected tear to the eye as half-forgotten memories come flooding back. Scotty died just over two weeks ago and had been at my Dad’s funeral. I saw him later that year at the National Arboretum when we took my mother up to see the
memorial to the Army Commandos that stands there amongst all the other regimental memorials. It was Armed Forces Day and he and some other old soldiers led the march past riding on their mobility scooters. I cried that day too, though I hid it well. My Dad would have wanted to be there but now he would never go there again.
What was it like growing up as the son of a Commando? Well my Dad, like so many of his generation, didn’t talk about it
much. It was mentioned at family get-togethers, but usually involved tales of misadventure while training in Scotland or on nights out in Brighton or other coastal towns. Commandos were very popular with the ladies and wearing a green beret was virtually guaranteed to get you a dancing partner.
Actual combat was hardly even mentioned. In those days there wasn’t any money for Dad to attend reunions. That came later. The first time I heard any story about Dad actually being in combat was at his funeral when Scotty told the story of an attack by German soldiers in the aftermath of D Day. Again the only story my Dad had told about that day was how
he had lost his folding bike while struggling ashore from his landing craft.
What was he doing with a folding bike? Well, that’s another story. OK, I’ll tell it. His unit was tasked with making a forced
march from Sword Beach to relieve the paratroops at Pegasus Bridge. To help them in that they were all issued with these bikes. My Dad, weighed down with his equipment, plus spare batteries for the troop radio and loads of extra
ammunition, managed to lose his bike in the sea and had to walk the several miles to the bridge.
The only other story I can remember him telling me, and it was very late in his life, was about the raid on the Norwegian Fjord of Vaagso and the town of maloy on 27th December 1941 (no quiet Christmas for the Commandos that year). Combined operations were still in their infancy at that time and there were no specialist landing craft. They crossed the North Sea in a mixture of commandeered fishing trawlers, with a Royal Navy escort. Due to some sort of mistake the RAF
mis-identified the flotilla as being German and attacked it with Blenheim light bombers. Dad received a minor wound caused by burning phosphorous. Once ashore it was decided he wasn’t fit to fight, so he and some other minor casualties
were left in the only cover available, half in and half out of the freezing Vaagso fjord.
After a short while Dad’s nearest companion noticed smoke emanating from the pack strapped to Dad’s chest. The following conversation is alleged to have taken place:
“’Ere Bob, your pack’s smoking.”
“Oh yeah, so it is.”
“What’s in it?”
“No idea. The Sergeant gave it to me and told me to hang onto it until he needed it.”
“I think you better take a look and see what’s in it.”
So after some fumbling with the straps of the pack Dad took a look inside to find it was full of……. Explosives. The pack was hurriedly removed and thrown into the waters of the fjord. If that had been Hollywood then no doubt there would have been a large explosion followed by a spout of water drenching everyone nearby. But it was real life so the pack just
sank to the bottom of the fjord where it is probably still lying.
In later life, when money was more plentiful, Dad did start to attend the reunions, especially the annual trip to Dieppe where numbers 3 and 4 commandos played such a big part in silencing the German artillery positions, but still he didn’t really tell the stories of what he had done and what he had seen. Those were kept between himself and his old
comrades. It was their shared history and to tell the stories as some sort of entertainment just didn’t seem right to him.
It was while at Brighton railway station, waiting to join the party for the reunion trip to Dieppe, that Dad had his medals
stolen. No doubt the green beret he was wearing marked him out as a potential target and some scum bag distracted him while another scum bag grabbed the medal case from his luggage. That’s how we treat our heroes these days, it
Most of what I learnt about my Dad’s war I have had to find out from books. There are several telling the stories of the Army commando units. They were all volunteers and the attrition rate during training was high. Scotty tells that he was one of 74 that started their commando training in the Scottish Highlands, of which only 17 passed the course. The
remainder were sent back to their original units.
Of course my father’s story is no different from hundreds of thousands of others. Hundreds of thousands never came back to tell their stories at all. It makes me so sad to see the way we have squandered their legacy. There are still dictators making life miserable for the people they rule. There is still persecution of minorities. There is still war and
there are still politicians fomenting war. It could be argued that nothing has really changed since 1945 and it would be difficult at times to disagree with that argument. Politicians still send young men off to war and some politicians have even been known to lie about why they’re sending them. If it weren’t for our libel laws I would name some names.
Every time I hear a politician suggest that the army should be sent to sort out this problem or that problem I feel like
grabbing him (it’s usually a him) by the throat, putting a rifle in his hand and throwing him out of a helicopter to put his own life on the line instead, but of course that never happens. Politicians are only too happy to risk the lives of other people’s children and never risk their own lives in the same way.
It could be argued that young men don’t have to join the army and put their own lives at risk and that’s true. But for some
it’s the only escape. Scotty was one of 8 children from a mother that was quick to use her fists to maintain household discipline. Fred Walker came from the slums of Kings Cross and joining the army allowed him to escape from his
miserable existence. They knew what they were likely to encounter because Britain was already at war when they lied about their ages so they could join up.
Scotty actually joined up twice. First he volunteered for the Royal West Kent Regiment, but his mother wrote to his
Commanding Officer to tell him Scotty’s real age and he was kicked out. Undeterred Scotty went to the recruiting station the very next day and signed up again, this time with the Suffolk Regiment. This time his mother didn’t bother to write to his CO.
My Dad had joined the army under a boy entrant scheme, before war broke out. He came from a very big family in Fulham, one of the poorest areas in London back in the 1930s. He was in a low paid boring job and the army offered him a career and adventure. It’s probable that he thought he was in for a jolly bit of peacetime soldiering in some of the more pleasant parts of the British Empire. Boy was he wrong. But in 1940 he volunteered for the commandos because he wanted more adventure than his unit, the Middlesex Regiment, could offer him after the evacuation from Dunkirk
(which he had missed because he was still underage for foreign service).
The fact that we have an army is not a reason to use it. It exists as a deterrent. It shows the people that would harm us that we’re prepared to defend ourselves. It is not there to be used for the personal advancement of politicians who want to make a name for themselves or to do favours for the politicians of other countries. If the stories of my Dad, Fred Walker, Scotty and all the others don’t remind our politicians of the dangers that are faced by going to war then we have a real problem. If we don’t learn from history then history is bound to repeat itself.
I don’t know if Scotty was the last of No 3 Commando to pass away. He was, as already mentioned, one of the youngest so it is possible that there are no more of them left alive. Scotty’s funeral is on 11th July. If you have a moment free that day please raise a glass to his memory and to all the others of No 3 Commando, especially those who never made it back to Britain to tell their stories. Vaagso alone accounted for 17 of them.
If you ever drive through the Scottish Highlands on the A82, travelling north from Fort William to Fort Augustus, keep a look out for the Commando Memorial statue. It’s at the top of the hill just after the village of Spean Bridge. You can hardly miss it as its thirty feet high. Close by is a little garden of remembrance where we scattered my Dad’s ashes. Also
remembered in the garden are the Royal Marine Commandos who have died in more recent wars. See, we just don’t learn, do we? Also, in the Spean Bridge Hotel, is a small museum dedicated to the commandos who trained at nearby Achnacarry House.
For more information on the Army Commandos please go to http://www.commandoveterans.org/and to watch The Child Soldiers of World War II go to http://www.channel5.com/shows/child-soldiers-of-ww2 For more information on the National Arboretum please go to http://www.thenma.org.uk/
Next week, something a little bit lighter perhaps.