11th Commando Black Hackle in Arran – Part 4

In the next part of his series on the 11 Commando, Jim Henderson looks at the training regime of Colonel Pedder and Admiral Cowan. Featured image shows the 11 Commando in Cyprus.

Training Regime and Cyprus

The troop would rally, running from their billets on hearing the sound of a horn. Training would consist of preparing weapons, unarmed combat, range practice, use of explosives, cross-country runs, marches, rock climbing, swimming with full kit on, boat handling, map reading, initiative tests and mock operations.

This was all designed to stretch the Commando endurance to the limit. Each man had as part of his rations a full flask of whisky, morphine tablets, a short length of rope with blight and toggle. The rope was designed to be joined together to form an aid for climbing cliffs or to make rope bridges or as a means of safety lines to ford fast running rivers.

On one of the marches a young corporal led his team of 20 or so Commando including Blair Mayne, from Lamlash over the moors to Machrie Bay covering a distance of some 17 miles. When they started out it was showery, which eventually became a constant downpour. By the time they all reached Machrie water, wading across the river, which was in spate was no worse than being in the rain.
They stopped by a small hamlet in the valley to seek shelter and means to dry their clothing. The elderly woman not only gave them shelter but a bed for the night.

Admiral Sir Walter Cowan K.C.B., C.B., D.S.O who joined the Commando to improve their knowledge of boat work, remarked that the Commando who trained at Lamlash could, fully laden with kit, following a night landing, scale a mountain at speeds averaging 5.5 miles per hour without signs of any effort and not a man falling out of the march. The training of the 9 and 11 Commando during the autumn and winter of 1940 was the most vigorous and ruthless he had ever witnessed.

The men were the pick of Scottish, English and Irish regiments, who laughed at hardship, often wet through by the rain or being waist deep in the rivers or sea. On many occasions practice targeted Clauchlands point, east of Lamlash Bay and Holy Isle, where they landed using landing craft and lifeboats.

Captain Keyes and Admiral Cowan would often have the men repeat the exercise, over and over again, until they were able to land with the least amount of noise to disguise their actions from any potential enemy.

The 11th Commando were among the first of the British troops to use live ammunition, fired over their heads while conducting practice movements and live mortar practice. The area selected for this kind of practice was the moor between Brodick and Corrie with the sandstone cliffs behind.

In a very short space of time they developed a high state of moral; their respect for the group leader was unanimous despite his tough methods of training and leadership. They very soon became a much-respected unit, and by December the company were ready for action.

On leaving the Island with no operation delegated the troops were taken to Montrose and Brechin, where the extensive training continued with marches conducted up Glen Cova, Glen Fossan and in the area of Moslin House. The training was put to test when Major Pedder instructed the troops to cross the fast-flowing River Esk, with the Home Guard set up as the enemy using live ammunition. The group engaged in several exercises, preparing for the defence of Britain. Towards the end of the year the troops returned to Lamlash, receiving a great warm welcome from the Lamlash landladies as they prepared to take part in an offensive of Sicily, which was abandoned.

In January 1941 the 11th boarded the ‘Glenroy’ and ‘Glengyle’ in Lamlash Bay, accompanied by the cruiser ‘Kenya’. The flotilla left the Bay on the 31st January bound for Sicily to capture ‘Pantellleria’ taking part in operation Workshop. During the voyage they were joined by another cruiser the ’Dorsetshire’ making a brief stop at Gibralter, until they reached the Suez on the 7th March to train for the invasion of Sicily. Operation Z was renamed ‘Layforce’ and the commando units 7, 8 and 11 were changed to A, B and C battalion for security reasons.
Unexpected events of the War cancelled operation Z. In early April the Germans entered Greece and Yugoslavia.

HMS Glenroy in 1946

The 11th were moved from Alexandria to Palestine and from Haifa to Cyprus, to bolster the garrison from threat of invasion. During their time in Cyprus it was more like a holiday with the garrison having the opportunity of exploring most of the Island. The allies decided to advance into Syria, controlled by the Vichy French, to put a halt to the German take-over, spearheaded by the 7th Australian Division, which had been held in reserve to defend Egypt with the 5th and 21st Indian Brigade.

Next month will cover the 11th first engagement at Litani.