Thursday, 21 February 2008

Operation CHARIOT: March, 1942

OK, so it's the early days of World War Two, and you're a soldier. You're young, you're fit, and you're bloody invincible. You're ready to grab the world by the balls and give it a shaking - but all the Army can find for you to do is march up and down all day guarding a fuel dump, an arms dump, an anything sodding dump: and, being England, it's probably raining - or worse. You're bloody miserable; maybe fantasizing about shooting the very next NCO to order you to do something patently stupid. And then, one miraculous day, a notice goes up on the Company board: 'VOLUNTEERS WANTED FOR SPECIAL SERVICE'. And all of a sudden your fires are burning bright again, for here is a God-given chance to escape the many absurdities of regular Army life and maybe, just possibly, join that already mythic body of young Gods known as the Army Commandos.

So you persuade your unit to let you go. Maybe they already consider you a trouble-maker - a 'THINKER' - too opinionated, too big for your boots; well let the damned Commandos try to sort you out, sonny boy, for you're not a fit for us!

So you find yourself on a train en-route to western Scotland. And it's a long, long journey and when you do eventually arrive at some isolated Highland halt, you're dog-weary, hungry and longing for a cup of 'char' and a kip. But there's no transport to take you to the distant camp: this is the Commandos, chum: you can run all the way there - with your rifle and all your kit. So you eventually arrive, jelly-legged at the camp gate, to be met by a deeply unimpressed NCO, who wags his finger at you and bars the way to a heaven of food and warm beds. 'Not so fast,' he says. 'See that little hill over there...' And you cast your eyes around a landscape of towering mountains, their tops shrouded in damp, clinging mist. 'Well, up the top of that one...' Your heart skips a beat as you realize he really is pointing to the highest and craggiest of them all. ' a chum of mine who'll give you a little chit when you get to the top. Oh, and if you don't happen to reach the top, don't bother coming back here. You already know the way to the station and I'm sure there'll be a train right back to your unit tomorrow!'

Welcome to the new, crazy, wonderful world of the Commandos.

So you make it back; you make it through probation; you're accepted OK and you join a group of men who'll become closer to you than your own skin. And you train: and you train: and then you train some more - but of a hot war in which to prove your new self there is nary a sign. But then at last, just when all hope seems to be gone, you and the best and brightest of your pals board a troopship for the long voyage to the port of Falmouth, on England's south west coast. Now you're talking! This time something really is up: something big; and you're off to war at last. You don't know where, or why, or for what - but all around you morale is sky high. 'Jerry' is in for a pasting, and you and your fellow buccaneers are going to dole it out in spades.

And then you learn you're going to attack one of Germany's biggest and most important U-boat bases. It's somewhere you've never heard of, on the French Atlantic coast. And when you get there you're going to blow up everything in sight - including some gigantic - apparently - dry dock. But here's a wrinkle. You're offered a chance to back out! But do you even think of it - not bloody likely. You've moved heaven and earth to get here and you're not going to back out now. But the fact they even offered it - must be a bit dangerous, this, whatever it is. But hey, you and your pals are invincible, right: everybody, except maybe Jerry knows that; and Jerry'll find out to his cost soon enough!

So you set sail in a convoy of destroyers and wooden boats. You're the lucky one, being on a destroyer: pity the poor sods in the boats, what with three thousand gallons of petrol on board and no protection except a few planks of firewood. Mind you, your ancient destroyer isn't much to write home about. Got anti-shrapnel padding all round the bridge, and funny metal screens laid out along the deck amidships. Somebody said you were going to have to lie behind one of these when the shit hit the fan: had to be a joke, that....there's always one leg-puller around, ready to put the wind up a person.

And so, after a couple of days 'ocean cruising' you arrive off the coast of France - and all hell breaks loose. All around is noise, flash, smoke, blood, explosions, the stink of cordite, the cries of the wounded and the smell of your own fear. Your old destroyer - the scene of a party only the day before - seems to be at the very heart of a nightmare. And then it crashes into the dock, and you're up, and then you're ashore, and people everywhere seem to be hell-bent on killing you. And you run, and you try to kill them back. No time to think. Adrenalin surges through your body and the training takes over. Explosions everywhere. All around are bodies - yours, theirs, everywhere you look. Time stands still. You cross an iron bridge, with bullets pinging and slapping at your feet. Railway trucks: good shelter there. You and a few mates. Careful of the ammo: not much left. Careful with the grenades - choose your targets for they're worth their weight in gold right now. You look round. Your mates are up and running. You run too - alleys, fences, sheds, everywhere seems to be under fire. No shelter now. Men around you are half-seen to fall. It should mean something - but there's no time to complete the thought. Another iron bridge, this time much, much bigger. You are part of a human tide surging towards it. Grenades explode in another world, where other people fall - not you. Machine-gun bullets flash and slap everywhere. Then you are over - part of a smaller group now, in streets, then gardens, then houses; then a cellar, and the world comes to a halt. You begin to shake. The adrenalin is gone and you collapse onto a mattress lying on the floor. But you have to stay alert: the Germans will surely come. Fuck the Germans! Nothing is more important right now than sleep. Of course they do come - but fail to kill you. If the roles had been reversed you wouldn't have been so accommodating. So now you're a POW. A sodding POW, with the rest of the war to look forward to in a flea-infested camp. And it's time to count the cost.

Of the more than six hundred soldiers and sailors who left English shores, almost 30% were killed. Of the remainder, most became POWs, and wounded POWs at that. Number 2 Commando, provider of the fighting troops, was decimated and had to be rebuilt.

But a major blow had been struck - or so the men were told. And the flood of medals seemed to reflect a nation's gratitude. Five Victoria Crosses, for Christ's sake. Five VCs, against the one VC awarded for the Dambusters' Raid. Five VCs - the largest number awarded for any single action during the war. Surely that same grateful nation would/could never forget such a signal achievement.

Yet here we are, almost 66 years into the future; and for most of those 66 years this huge achievement HAS been forgotten. Somehow or other it has managed, consistently, to fall through the cracks. In March, 2007, I worked with Jeremy Clarkson on a documentary about it entitled 'The Greatest Raid of All Time'. When it aired, the BBC log was flooded with plaudits, the majority of which also registered surprise at never having heard of this before. There have been two attempts at movies, but both were botched. A few documentaries have also appeared over the years, reviewed in my website - - but even these only managed to scratch the surface.

Back in March of 1942 something very special happened to an equally very special group of young men, most of whom are now gone. Only a handful of the original veterans remain. Outside military circles almost no one knows of them - yet here are real heroes: the original Commandos: the best. So what can be done to elevate their memory to its proper status? I have already written two books about the raid, but here again these circulate mostly within knowledgeable military circles. To a world obsessed with shallow celebrity, these real celebrities do not exist, never have existed; and I for one believe the world is a poorer place for having neglected them.

Re the images above: The B/W photo is of the Bridge of Memories, the iron bridge across which passed the unstoppable tide of surviving Commandos (copyright James Dorrian): the colour card is copyright Terry Gaylor, It shows HMS Campbeltown striking home and is one of several of Terry's excellent illustrations to be found on the storyboards page at