In the course of reading for review (and pleasure) Saul David’s latest and most excellent book, SBS: Silent Warriors, the first authorised account of the famous amphibious commando unit, I realised that, although I was born three years after the end of the events described, I have personal connections with some of the characters whose actions are so vividly described in the book.
For a start, one of my earliest movie memories is watching Cockleshell Heroes (1956), the story of Operation Frankton which has been rated ‘the toughest special forces mission of the [Second World] War’. At this time my family was living in Hurley, and our next-door neighbour was Nicholas Straussler.
He was a taciturn Hungarian who had not only invented a flotation screen for Sherman tanks, described in SBS: Silent Warriors, but also collapsible boats that were used by the British army for river crossings in the 1944 advance on Germany. Dozens of these boats were stored in Straussler’s barn at his house in Hurley, and my late father acquired one for us to paddle on the nearby Thames. Unfortunately, the collapsible canvas sides were starting to perish and the boat sank soon afterwards, but without loss of life as it moored at the time.
After three years as a wartime night fighter with 604 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force, my father joined Mountbatten’s staff at HQ Combined Operations in London in late 1942. When the future Colonel of The Life Guards was appointed Supreme Commander South East Asia the following year, he took my father and other Combine Ops staff with him to India, where they helped to establish another Combined Operations organisation.
My own connection with the great man was much less warlike. It started in 1968 with a regimental interview at his house in Kinnerton Street and ended, seven years later, with some wise advice after I had ill-advisedly published an unauthorised critique of the then Labour government: ‘You can’t fart against, thunder, Christopher.’
Straussler and Mountbatten are not my only connections to Saul David’s cast of characters. At school, I was a good friend of the son of Godfrey Place VC, one of the X-craft submariners who crippled the German battleship, Tirpitz in 1943 (page 284). I well remember Admiral Place inspecting the Oundle School CCF Band in 1966, in which ensemble I had the non-musical role of Drum Major. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous on parade as I was on that day.
However, my strongest connection with the people featured in David’s book is with the extraordinarily gallant commando, the late Brigadier Peter Young DSO MC. He was my military history tutor at the RMA Sandhurst and tasked me with some (now long-forgotten) research for his book, The British Army (1642-1970). An inscribed copy sits beside me, although I note that I didn’t rate a mention in the Acknowledgements. Whilst working with Young, who was famous for being the only commando officer to reach his objective on the Dieppe Raid (19th August 1942), he told me the following anecdote, which I don’t believe has been published elsewhere:
“Guarding my platoon’s objective at Dieppe was a well-dug-in German machine gun, which had us pinned down. Between our position and the Germans was a large cornfield. If we were to reach our objective, it was essential that we took out the machine gunner, but he had a clear field of fire and my men were showing signs of a reluctance to move. ‘It’s a well-known fact,’ I told them, ‘that 100 yards of standing wheat stops any known bullet’. This convinced the lads, we advanced without casualties, silenced the machine gun and reached our objective. I have to say that, to this day, I don’t know if my claim about the protective quality of wheat was right – but the evidence seems to point in that direction…”
Young was a delightful man, full of fun and information, who followed up his military career in the British Army as the last non-Jordanian commander of the Arab Legion, for which he received a soup-plate sized neck decoration from King Hussein. On civvy-street, Young was the founder of the War Studies Department at Sandhurst and the Civil War re-enactment society, The Sealed Knot, to which he appointed me, with a customary twinkle in his eye, a Cornet of Horse. He was also a prolific writer and an enthusiastic period war gamer. The huge collection of miniature soldiers, that he had assembled for the latter hobby, was most impressive and took up a considerable amount of space in his house, somewhat to the despair of his long-suffering wife.
Even without these personal connections, I would commend SBS: Silent Warriors to the reading public. This book is, as with all Saul David’s works, written with verve and pace. It is not just a tale for military history wonks, but for anyone interested in ripping tales of derring-do in the manner of Hornblower, Sharpe, Flashman or Speedicut – but with the advantage of being true.