A history of the 11th Commando by Jim Henderson
‘Lest we forget’
In the second part of Jim Henderson’s history, we learn about Churchill’s orders, early combat and the start of the 11 Commando
Winston Churchill ordered the formation of the Commando following the disaster of Dunkirk in 1940. They proved to be very effective and their exploits were such a challenge and annoyance to the enemy that Hitler issued orders for all Commandos to be executed, regardless of whether they were in military dress or had surrendered. Hitler’s instruction was that the Commando was not to be treated as prisoners of war, because Hitler considered them as criminals. Many of the Commando were killed without engaging the enemy, one mission involving a glider, which crashed, killed most of the Commando and crew. Of the few who survived the crash were summarily shot by the German enemy.
The first Commando raid occurred in March 1941 when they attacked fish oil factories in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. [The Lofoten Islands are located 300 Km North of the Arctic Circle. Roughly 150 Km in length and 50 Km West of mainland Norway]. Shortly afterwards another mission targeted an area in enemy occupied Norway, to damage a smelting plant, which produced aluminium for the German army. They crossed the North Sea in a submarine then took to rubber dinghies to gain access to the land. Once on land, they climbed a mountain range transporting all their gear and equipment, which included 50 lbs of gelignite to each man, clambering over the rocky terrain, dealing with snow, negotiating glaziers using rope for their safety. The target was the hydroelectric station, which produced the power to operate the smelting plant.
Captain Graeme Black led this Commando group who were successful in putting the hydro scheme and plant out of action. The explosives were placed in the Hydro plant and under the water supply pipes. All was completed within a short space of time of about 20 minutes. As the group sought cover to conceal their escape there were several massive explosions, which created a landside of water, rocks and mud etc. and buried the plant.
Their escape route was not easy, with the Germans now aware of their presence. The party split up to attempt reaching neutral Sweden, however Captain Black and six others were captured and surrendered to the German army. They were sent to a concentration camp in Germany at Sachsenhausen, where they were badly treated, becoming dishevelled and starving. The seven Commando were eventually executed and their bodies dumped in a trench. The mission was hailed a success but within a matter of 12 weeks the plant was producing aluminium again. Seven good men gave up their lives for small reward. [To avoid any misunderstanding this is a true account but the 11th Commando played no part in this action].
Colonel Richard Pedder, (Dick) in forming the 11th Commando, set up his headquarters at the Douglas Hotel in Galashiels, where all the volunteers assembled. They came from all parts of Scotland and the United Kingdom. The men had to fulfil the following attributes- be trained soldiers, physically fit and able to swim. They also had to show endurance, self-reliance and initiative.
Some were regular soldiers and many were conscripts fresh from basic training. Hugh Canavan accompanied Jimmy Lappin who had just completed training with the 5th battalion, Cameron Highlanders at Nairn. Jimmie Storie was recruited from the Royal Scots
Fusiliers and went on to be one of the original 65 men who joined David Sterling and formed the S.A.S. Some of the volunteers joined the Commando and volunteered for ‘hazardous duties’ to leave behind the mundane tasks of guard duty and regimental duties, intent on taking part in actions and receive a better pay award.
Other volunteers were John Mackay, William Campbell and David Gunn from the Seaforth Highlanders, who had been patrolling remote Ross and Sutherland, headed south to join up. Admiral Cowan was another, who had served in the 1st World War. Once selected to be part of the Commando group the men were put through a rigorous training schedule for a period of 4 weeks. Those who failed to meet Pedder’s requirements were issued RTU chits (Return to Unit), which was classed by the men as a humiliation.
Towards the later part of August-1940 the Commando were marched, with full kit from Galashiels to Ayr. Pedder recruited 6 pipers from the Cameronians in Galashiels, who marched at the front of the column all the way to Ayr-playing the pipes all of the time. Crossing the moors over the Tinto hills, through the villages of Innerleithen, Peebles, Douglas, Muirkirk and Cumnock.Cumnock was a stopover and the troops were given a great welcome by the town’s folk, the Provost hosting a memorable evening in the town hall, entertaining over 500 men.
Daily, the march averaged 30 miles with Pedder leading the way, the CO recording ‘that he would not ask the men to do anything he would not do himself’. The first stop was at Innerleithen, where the men received food from the Church of Scotland canteen, before getting much needed sleep. On the march, many of the men developed blisters. Roadside hedges were utilised for rest, sleep and call of nature. Often, they would waken with their blanket wet through from the overnight rain, which they had to pack up and reuse for the next stop, while still damp. Pedder also moved the troops in a form of rotation, with the front group moving to the rear and so on, for the duration of the march.
A few who became un-able to walk and did not have the physical or mental endurance to complete the march, were given permission to board the trucks, which followed the march with the troop’s heavy equipment. Upon reaching Ayr on the 4th September, they were rewarded by being given an RTU chit.
Ayr was another stop-over, the brief weekend forging new relationships with the local lassies, which for some led to marriage after the war ended many years later.
On the morning of the 6th September the Commando were loaded onto a train for the journey to Fairlie pier, probably having to change trains at Kilwinning, where they boarded the paddle steamer ‘Glen Sannox’ for passage to Lamlash on the Island of Arran.
Next month the Commando arrive in Lamlash.