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Caithness Commandos:Special Service Overseas:Part 3

It was a fine May day in 1946. The Second World War had ended over a year before, but there remained a lot of loose ends to tie before that mighty conflict could finally be put to bed. Thirteen-year old Georgie Mackay had a personal interest in the great backwash of refugees, repatriated civilians, displaced persons and returning home prisoners of war; her brother, John, had been due home from the war two days before, but as yet there was no word of him. As she pushed her bicycle along the long street that led to the old train station at Halkirk, Georgie noticed a man coming towards her. He seemed to be a stranger, yet there was something familiar about him. Suddenly, an image flashed into young Georgie’s mind, a photograph taken at Lamsdorf, a German prison camp, in 1944. The image was of her brother, then a prisoner of war at Lamsdorf; and it matched the features of the man whose path she was about to cross. At the same instant, John recognised his sister, a little girl whom he had not seen for all the seven action-packed years he had spent overseas, as a member of the elite Special Forces unit, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).

John’s LRDG training had taught him never to walk when transport was at hand. Accordingly, he promptly made a beeline for Edward Sutherland’s garage, hired a car, threw Georgie’s bike in the back, and drove home the Shurrery Lodge, home of his parents Hugh Kenneth and Elizabeth Mackay. Their initial reunion was brief. Dog-tired, John was in sore need of his bed. Next morning, refreshed by his first sleep in Caithness in over seven years, John Mackay was in fine tune, and ready to give account of his many adventures on overseas service with the LRDG.

John Mackay’s army service is a record of heroism, stubborn courage and fortitude through adversities that would have keeled over many lesser men. We consider it a privilege to be able to tell our readers the story of John Mackay and his fellow Caithnessian, David Gunn, of which this is the final part.

Egypt, April 1943, and with Rommel’s Afrika Corps driven out of North Africa the British had reason enough to be pleased with themselves. So why were two Caithness fighting men so down in the mouth, after all, they were away from the front line and the pleasures of Alexandria were theirs for the sampling? All clean-shaven, bandbox smart in fresh uniforms, polished boots, new kit in their bags they looked the epitome of military discipline. Precisely. Long Range Desert Group commandos David Gunn and John Mackay were pining for their former rough and ready regime where they were free to go about in flip-flops or desert boots, wearing torn shorts, sporting beards and longer than regulation hair-cuts. They had now exchanged this casual comfort for the spit and polish uniform of the regular army. "Well, Boozie," John may well have remarked to David Gunn, "This is a dead loss, and no mistake." Little did they know what the future held. Instead of being pressed back into service with the 5th Seaforth Highlanders, David and John were booked for the Mountain Warfare School near Beirut in Lebanon.

In January 1943, the British Middle East Command realised that the hardy commandos who had paid their dues in the LRDG, were far too valuable an asset to let go to waste in the regular ranks. With a bit of training, the commandos’ specialist skills could be adapted for warfare in another theatre – the Aegean Sea, an azure paradise dotted with tiny islands, most of them in enemy hands. The Dodecanese Islands were the keys to a plan the British had for opening a new supply route through the Dardanelles along which to send military ordnance to beleagured Russia. Once established, this route would also be a useful jumping off point for infiltrating saboteurs and Special Forces units into German occupied Greece and Yugoslavia, where partisan fighters were busy harassing the Nazis. These countries were mountainous, dotted with gloomy forests, prone to climatic extremes and swarming with dangerous enemies and uncertain friends. Barbarism was rife, atrocities a daily occurrence on both sides. Unlike the gentlemanly Western Desert campaign, prisoners were an extinct species in the Balkans. Any commando who fell into German hands could expect to experience the full range of hospitality offered by the Gestapo. Frightful torture would only end with death. The ethnic tribes whose feuds had for centuries dyed the Balkan soil with blood were equally ferocious; half of them were enthusiastic Nazi collaborators. Clearly, these were not places for the faint-hearted.

At the Mountain Warfare School full training was given in all those techniques necessary for hit-and-run, behind the lines strikes into Greece, Yugoslavia and the Dodecanese. John Mackay and David Gunn learned the art of parachute landing, jeep driving over mountain tracks. They were taught how to sail the shallow-draughted boats used for communication around the Greek islands, and they discovered the perils of riding stubborn natured mules along the edges of precipices. Prior to commencing this gruelling tuition, a medical was necessary. Men who would have to carry 80 pounds of equipment over 80 mountainous miles must needs be super fit. Unfortunately, some of the veterans who wore the ‘scorpion in a wheel’ badge of the Long Range Desert Group failed their medical. There were no second chances. Back to the ranks they went, but David Gunn and John Mackay were not among them – they were destined for the Dodecanese islands.

Since his ill-fated expedition to Gallipoli in 1915, Winston Churchill had had an obsession with the eastern Mediterranean. Did he look at a map of Europe and consider the Aegean to be a back passage into the continent? Maybe; but whatever drove Churchill’s fixation with the area, the fact was that in September 1943 he had committed 5,000 British soldiers to an operation designed to recapture the Dodecanese Islands, including Kos, Rhodes and the tiny island of Levitha. With Italy on the point of surrender it was thought likely that Italian troops could be conscripted to fight their former German allies in the islands.

Among the regular soldiers lined up for this Dodecanese show were 160 men from the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and 130 Long Range Desert Group commandos. Shortly before the Italian surrender, picked groups of SBS visited the islands soliciting support against the Germans. The feedback was positive – the 35,000 Italian troops on Rhodes tacitly agreed to go over to the British side once the surrender was official, on 8th September. In the event, they changed horses and gave themselves up, along with two airfields and a fine harbour, to the Germans. This alone should have been enough to persuade Middle East Command to call the whole thing off, but with the promise of American assistance it was decided that the show must go on.

At first things went well. A force of SBS and 11th Para landed on Kos and captured one of the island’s two airfields, badly needed as a base from which the RAF could launch bombing raids on Rhodes. So far so good, but the Germans had not stood idly by – they hurried reinforcements to the surrounding islands, forming what was justifiably known as the ‘Iron Ring.’ Soon the German Luftwaffe had 362 aircraft within the ‘Iron Ring’, a formidable force which soon made its presence felt. Within a fortnight most of the British planes on Kos had been shot to bits in lightning raids, and only 7 Spitfires remained to defend the skies above the island.

On October 2nd 1943, the Germans attacked Kos, using their own special forces unit, the Brandenbergers. These fighting men were the equivalent of the SAS. Armed with the rapid fire MG 42 sub machine gun, the Brandenbergers soon succeeded in wresting Kos back from the British and their fair weather Italian friends, though not without much fierce action and resultant casualties. German justice was swift and thorough; they shot the 90 turncoat Italian officers. Elsewhere it was a similar tale. The LRDG had been sent to the island of Calino at the start of the campaign. Under intense German pressure they were at last forced to abandon the place. Middle East Command now realised that they had made a serious misjudgement. The battle-hardened Germans were a different breed from the fickle Italians whose commitment to war was at best half-hearted. Leros was the next island target on the German list. It was held by 6,500 Italians beefed up with SBS and LRDG troops. On the 6th October, a German convoy was sighted. It was the Leros invasion force. Fortunately, it was spotted in time to send four destroyers out to intercept it. By the day’s end 8 German ships had been sunk, together with all but 90 of the invaders. Leros was safe for the moment.

Twenty miles away from Leros lay the tiny, unoccupied island of Levitha. On 20th October HMS Hedgehog came calling. Its crew received a surprise – the island was now in German hands. Fearing that Levitha was being prepared as a springboard from which to launch another attack on Leros, the British command gave orders that the island was to be captured – immediately. The LRDG were given the job to do. Unplanned full frontal assaults were not the LRDG’s style. Guided by their motto ‘Not by strength, by guile’, the LRDG preferred to prepare attacks by first carrying out a thorough reconnaissance. But orders, however ill conceived, were orders.

On the night of 22nd October, two Fairmile motor launches left Leros bound for Levitha. Each launch carried 25 LRDG commandos, among them David Gunn and John Mackay, together in ‘B’ Squad’s boat with another Caithness chiel, Denny Simpson, Thurso fisherman turned Royal Navy coxswain. Stealthily closing with the Levithas shore, the commandos of ‘B’ Squad slipped into canvas assault boats and prepared to land on the nearby beach. Denny Simpson bade a quiet farewell to his two Caithness companions. This was the last he would see of them until the war was over.

Dawn found John and David with the rest of ‘B’ Squad, en route to a hill somewhere in the centre of Levitha. They had passed the night hours exploring the island, visiting an unoccupied meteorological station surrounded by freshly dug trenches, clear sign that the Germans were not far distant. For a while now, the commandos had tried without success to establish radio contact with ‘A’ Squad. Before ‘B’ Squad could reach the hill, they came under heavy fire from mortars and machine guns. The squad split into two, each group seeking to negotiate a different side of the hill, which was 400 yards distant across open land. To attempt to cross this vacant space would be suicidal. Improvisation was required. Just then, out of the morning sky came the Luftwaffe; worse, a column of 30 Germans was headed towards them. Back to the meteorological station seemed the wisest course, but on arrival there John and David’s group found the place swarming with Germans armed with machine-guns. There was nothing for it but to surrender. A few commandos tried to evade capture, but the Germans swiftly rounded them up. The last to give himself up was David Gunn. For both him and John Mackay, the war was now over. As John might himself have said, it was the ultimate "dead loss."

For ‘A’ Squad, which was made up of hardy New Zealanders, things had gone even worse. Their ‘beach’ had in fact been a rocky strewn shore, jagged and dangerous with a ridge manned by German soldiers. After a night of fierce fighting in which the advantage swayed between each side, dawn came and with it a squadron of Stuka dive-bombers. All day long the commandos suffered the combined attacks of Stukas and German machine-guns. At the other side of the German-occupied ridge, the remnants of ‘B’ Squad were undergoing a similar ordeal. Dusk arrived, bringing with it the hope of a sea-born escape under cover of darkness. It was not to be. The Germans attacked in full force. Only 9 men from ‘B’ Squad managed to get away from Levitha. They were rescued by Denny Simpson’s motor launch on the night of 24th October. Levitha was the LRDG’s costliest engagement, with 41 of their number killed or captured.

For the British force on Leros it was now just a matter of time. That time ran out on 12th November when 500 Brandenbergers dropped from the skies to do battle with the LRDG and the SBS. This clash between the warring nations top combat troops was bound to be bloody and desperate, and so it turned out. The Brandenbergers lost 300 men during the landing alone. Four days of close quarters combat, driven back by superior numbers and harassed by the Luftwaffe, was enough for the British command, who gave the order to surrender. Both the LRDG and SBS ignored it, continuing the fight for some days in the surrounding hills. A few escaped, draped in glory, but overall the Dodecanese Islands operation was a disaster as far as the British were concerned, Churchill’s Gallipoli folly revisited 30 years later.

Although they had lost over a third of their men in this senseless campaign, the LRDG lived on to fight behind the lines in Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia, often being put ashore by coxswain Denny Simpson’s launch in some of the numerous small-scale landings from the sea. Denny’s fellow Caithnessians were by this time inmates of a German prison camp.

The LRDG men taken prisoner on Levitha were first shipped over to Yugoslavia from where they began the long, dreary train trek to Germany. Closely guarded, there were few opportunities for escape. Nevertheless, two of John Mackay and David Gunn’s old comrades did manage to jump off the prison train as it made its way through Yugoslavia. Jim Patch and Ron Hill successfully evaded recapture, joining up with Chetnik partisans, at whose side they fought until February 1945, when they were reunited with the LRDG.

The story of John Mackay’s wartime captivity is reasonably well known to us; of David Gunn’s POW days we know next to nothing. However, we can perhaps conjecture that both men shared similar experiences, firstly in Lamsdorf, a giant POW camp complex in Upper Silesia, and near neighbour to the infamous extermination centre at Auschwitz, which is now part of Poland. Lamsdorf hosted two POW camps, Stalags VIII B (344) and VIII F (318). In total, these three camps played host to some 300,000 prisoners, the first two being reserved for Russian POWs. These unfortunates were used as a slave labour pool for the Silesian mining industry. Overworked and underfed, with one blanket to warm them on the bitter winter nights, it is hardly surprising that, of 200,000 Russian inmates, over 40,000 perished in the camps. Scorned by their captors whilst alive, death made them even more contemptible. All of those who died were thrown unmourned into mass graves.

Stalag 344 seems to have been a little more comfortable than its neighbours. Even so, with three-tiered bunks shoehorned into cramped wooden huts, it could hardly have been a picnic. Worse, by 1944 the spectre of famine was beginning to cast its hungry shadow over beleaguered Germany. The camp’s first inmates had been Poles captured during Hitler’s lightning strike on Poland in September 1939. Since those early days Stalag 344 had witnessed the arrival of soldiers of every one of those nations that had come under the German yoke. French, Dutch, Belgians, Greeks and Yugoslavs. It was also home to British, Canadian and American POWs. Perhaps its most famous guest was Douglas Bader, the fighter pilot who lost both his legs.

In late January 1945, with the Red Army was eating up the miles between its western flank and Berlin, a decision was taken to move the Allied POWs back into Germany. The reasoning behind this was not to assist the prisoners' welfare – it was to enable their use as hostages in any armistice bargaining the Germans may enter into with the Allies. Given the Allies unconditional surrender demands, this was clearly a non-starter. Never mind, the POWs must be moved.

It was winter. There was snow on the ground. A bitter wind dropped the temperature to – 6 degrees. Roughly roused from the Spartan comfort of their shacks, David Gunn, John Mackay and their fellow POWs were herded into line and told to march west. They were only allowed to take as much with them as they could carry. Blankets were expected to be left behind at the camp. For eight freezing days they marched, living off black bread and cheese contaminated with sawdust, by night huddled in barns and roadside hovels, shivering cold and unable to sleep. Feet and ankles swelled up and burst, causing gangrene that required immediate amputation. Miracle it was that neither John nor David succumbed to these frightful ravages.

Where did their nightmare journey end? Most likely at Trieste, a debatable land where Italy borders Northern Yugoslavia. This is a direct distance of 450 miles from Lamsdorf. The Germans used POWs from Trieste to work salt mines in northern Italy and, as David Gunn spoke of working in these mines, it seems almost certain that both John Mackay and himself were at Trieste when it was liberated by the Russians in May 1945. Freedom? No. John and David became political hostages, used by the Russians as pawns in that shameful game designed to exchange British POWs for renegade Russians, who were to be sent back to their Mother Country to be executed for their non-communist principles.

At last, after being shuttled around all over Eastern Europe while their political masters haggled over them, John and David were set free, free to make their way back to the British lines – on foot. How long this marathon trek took is anybody’s guess. What we do know is that neither man returned to Caithness until 1946, both spending a period convalescing in hospital prior to coming home. John arrived at Fort George in March 1946, two months before he met Georgie on his way from Halkirk station to Shurrery.

John married Sadie on June 1st 1949, when he was seeing out his time working for Johnny Swanson at Howe Farm. From Howe, John and his wife went on to work for J.F. Wilson at Ham. In 1954, tired of farmwork, John Mackay became a lighthouse keeper. His charge was on Ailsa Craig, the famous landmark off the Ayrshire coast, within sight of Arran, the island on which he had done his commando training all those years before. No doubt memories of those exciting days often passed through his mind as he looked across at the Arran mountains.

The advent of atomic power at Dounreay brought John home to Caithness. He commenced employment as storeman with A & D Sutherland in 1964, moving to HMS Vulcan four years later, where he worked for the MoD Police. Retiring with a Sergeant’s stripes in 1987, John died suddenly less than a year later.

When David Gunn’s sister-in-law bumped into him in Inverness in August 1946, she shuddered to see the frail, half-starved apparition that she barely recognised as her soldier brother-in-law. This was not the David Gunn she had known seven years before – this was a weary body worn out by war’s soul-searing hardships. Back in Caithness, David’s health slowly mended, enabling him to take a job at Black’s Wool Mill, Stirkoke. With the arrival of the nuclear industry in Caithness, David worked with BICC on the new electricity power lines. Leaving BICC in the late ‘fifties, David Gunn got a start with the UKAEA at Dounreay where he worked until retirement in 1984. Sadly David, too, passed away at a relatively early age; he was 67 when he died, his last year blighted by illnesses resulting, no doubt, from his strenuous wartime service.

Both John Mackay and David Gunn represent that most noble of races – the quiet, unassuming man, ready to do his duty for his country without compulsion.

Thanks to Jim Patch, ‘Sassie’ Carr, Arthur Arger (all LRDG); Reg Harmer (11th Scottish Commando); Jim Storrie (SAS). We are also indebted to John’s wife, Sadie Mackay; Georgie Bruce sister of John Mackay; and Alex Henderson, David Gunn’s nephew for all their help and advice, without which these articles would not have been possible. 

 

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David Bews 1999
Steven Cashmore 1999


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