Posts Tagged ‘heroes’

‘The young generation should know’: Britain’s forgotten Merchant Navy heroes

November 6th, 2015

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that seamen who flew the ‘Red Duster’ – the MN ensign – were granted the right to march as an official body in the Cenotaph commemorations. The veterans marching on Sunday 8 November will be representing those civilian seafarers who have perished in defence of the country: 16,000 in the First World War, at least 35,000 between 1939 and 1945 (the proportion of dead being greater than in any of the fighting services) and a small number in the Falklands war.

“I thought of the men who have been forgotten, wiped off the map”

Donald Hunter

More than 140,000 merchant seamen are reckoned to have been at sea at any one time in the Second World War. They transported food, raw materials and fuel to Britain, and carried troops, equipment and explosives to fighting fronts. These ships – not those of the Royal Navy – were generally the targets of enemy mines, torpedoes and shells. As Hunter says of the Normandy landings, ‘If you sink the transports and drown the troops you don’t have a problem, do you?’

One aspect of Merchant Navy history that is still neglected is the contribution of foreign seamen. Many thousands from India, Hong Kong, the Caribbean, west Africa and elsewhere served on Second World War ships.

These are a few of the facts. What follows is something of the reality. It was gloriously sunny autumn weather the week I met the men who appear in these pages. Britain looked like a country you would put your life on the line for a thousand times over, and that is what each of them did.

Ronald Quested, Radio officer, Second World War

Ronald Quested, now (left) and as a young radio officer during the Second World War (right)

Birkenhead, October 1944. Ron Quested, a newly qualified radio officer, is watching stevedores loading cargo into the hold of the SS Samnebra, a Baltimore-built Liberty ship. ‘When I looked, they’d got sacking round their hobnailed boots. The bosun was standing next to me.

I said, “Why have they got the sacking there?”, and he said, “They’re loading up TNT. It’s to stop sparks flying.’’’ Quested was 17 years old. He had a twin brother, Len, who was about to serve on the Arctic convoys, and a 16-year-old sweetheart back in Essex. ‘We loaded up and I thought, “Oh my.”

But I never took any notice of it after that. I’m one of these blokes that doesn’t get upset very quickly.’

“After three months you’re thinking, where is my home?”

Ronald Quested

From this moment till the end of the war, he and the Samnebra were inseparable and, on his own admission, lucky. They travelled, in a series of convoys, through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to Baltimore, back through the Suez Canal to Bombay and Colombo and on to South Africa without once facing direct attack (though a tanker in one of his Atlantic convoys was blown up).

‘But every second of every minute of every day, you could have had a torpedo in you. Nobody could tell you how many U-boats were around.’

Fear apart, for a teenager who had never been abroad before it was an interminable, disorientating experience. ‘For the first three months, it’s an adventure; everything is new to you. After three months you’re thinking, where is my home? You’re going from one port to another port, one country to another country. And from six months to 12 months you’re beginning to say to yourself, I don’t think I’ve got a ruddy home!’

He is a cheery yet phlegmatic character (88, ‘fighting fit’, and the standard bearer for his local Merchant Navy Association), but some, he says, didn’t cope so well with the experience. People drank heavily.

Relationships broke up. The captain of a ship Quested was on after the war, a veteran of the Battle of the Atlantic, blew his brains out in his cabin. ‘This is the effect war can have on a merchant seaman,’ he says.

But Quested was made stronger by wartime service. ‘I really felt as if I’d been educated in geography and meeting people from all over the world,’ he says. ‘I felt confident in going anywhere and doing anything. You went away a boy and you came back a man.’

He left the Merchant Navy in 1950 and had a successful career as an electronics engineer. And he made his own ruddy home, marrying that childhood sweetheart, Betty, in 1953 and settling in an Essex village. Five children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren later, they are still together.

Martyn ‘Zak’ Coombs: Assistant purser/stretcher bearer/ward orderly, Falklands war

Martyn 'Zak' Coombs, now (left) and during the Falklands war (right)

By the surreal disposition of war, the music room of the ship on which Zak Coombs served during the Falklands campaign was converted into an intensive-care unit.

He remembers a badly burnt soldier being stretchered in, a victim of the bombing of the supply ships Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad. The man’s hands were in plastic bags. When he asked for a cigarette, Coombs put one in his mouth. ‘Then I realised I was going to strike a flame in front of him, and I said, “I’m going to make a flame, is that OK?” And he said, “Yeah, well, you’re not going to light a cigarette otherwise are you?’’’

This is just one of many moments that Coombs recalls (with a sort of ferocious tenderness) from the 113 days in 1982 in which his civilised civilian world was turned on its head. In April of that year he was 32 and working as the assistant purser on the SS Uganda, a P&O passenger ship that specialised in educational cruises for children. ‘I sat on the desk selling stamps and arranging phone calls and sorting problems. I was a receptionist. In a hotel.’

“It’s funny. I didn’t know how serious it all was. Do you shut it away? I don’t know”

Martyn ‘Zak’ Coombs

The Uganda was docked in Alexandria in Egypt when war was declared. She was requisitioned as a hospital ship, and after a three-day refit in Gibraltar took about 100 medical staff and Royal Marines bandsmen (who worked as stretcher bearers) aboard and sailed for the South Atlantic.

In addition to his duties as assistant purser, Coombs volunteered to be a stretcher bearer and ward orderly. The Uganda took on 730 casualties. These included 150 Argentinians, one of whom, a teenage conscript, sticks in Coombs’s mind because he washed the blood and filth from his face. ‘He didn’t speak any English and I didn’t speak any Spanish in those days. It was quite difficult. They were very grateful for what you did for them.’

He saw some terrible lower-limb injuries and witnessed great suffering and bravery but does not recall breaking down at any point while the fighting was going on and the casualties were coming in.

Argentine tanks move down a street on the Falkland Islands

‘It’s funny. I didn’t know how serious it all was. Do you shut it away? I don’t know. Because it wasn’t happening to you. You were outside looking in.’ But the floodgates opened afterwards when he was reunited with his girlfriend, Tracey (who became, and remains, his wife).

Coombs continued to work for P&O, retiring two years ago after 37 years’ service. He and his wife live in a village near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. For some time after the war he was reluctant to wear his South Atlantic Medal (awarded to military personnel and civilians for service in the Falklands), believing that what he went through could not compare with the suffering of the young men who passed through his ship (though now, he says, ‘I’m very proud of wearing it’).

His mind constantly returns to those injured men. As they left the Uganda he would ask each of them, when they reached their military hospitals back in Britain, to call Tracey and tell her he was OK. And, invariably, they did. ‘That’s the abiding memory I carry with me of those times, that so many men who had so much else on their minds would take the time to do that for me.’

Donald Hunter: Radio officer, Second World War

Donald Hunter, now (left) and as a teenage radio officer (right)

During the D-Day landings, from June 6 through to early August 1944, Don Hunter (now 89) made nearly 40 runs between London Docks, Tilbury, and Juno Beach, braving the German guns through the Strait of Dover, which pounded the convoys to ‘smithereens’. Hunter was an 18-year-old radio officer (‘and gunnery officer and fire control officer’) on the Empire Pickwick, an LSI (landing ship, infantry) that ferried troops and equipment to the Normandy beaches.

Those big guns aside, his hairiest moment came when the convoy he was on was attacked by German E-boats (fast torpedo boats). ‘This torpedo missed us; you could see the track of it in the fluorescence on the water. It missed our stern and hit the [nearby] tanker, which went up in flames.

“You’d see some of our troops who had landed that morning coming back at midday in black bags”

Donald Hunter

‘We weren’t allowed to pick up survivors, the theory being that if you stop you also become a target, and the cargo is more important than lives, I’m afraid. It’s a sorry truth of war. I was looking down from the bridge, horrified to see these men struggling in the water and we weren’t picking them up.’

The beach itself was another hell. ‘They had big guns along the clifftops. They were aiming at us, not the Royal Navy.’ But it was his own side that inflicted lasting damage. HMS Belfast was lying alongside the Pickwick at one point, bombarding the German positions. ‘It blew my hearing away [he indicates the hearing aid in his right ear]. My ears bled. We didn’t have earplugs. We didn’t even have steel helmets. Badly equipped.’

Hunter chuckles a fair bit when he talks about his war. There are silences too. D-Day wasn’t the half of it. ‘I spent more time in the Battle of the Atlantic than I did in Normandy. I was attacked by mines, U-boats, bombers. We had the bloody lot.’

The 2nd Battalion U.S. Army Rangers march to their landing craft in Weymouth, England, on June 5, 1944

Hanging in the hallway of Hunter’s house in Kent is the certificate confirming him as a Chevalier in the French Légion d’Honneur, awarded in 2004 for his participation in the Normandy landings. He married his wife, Jean, in 1947 (when she brings tea and biscuits, he hugs her and says, as if he still can’t believe his luck, ‘We’ve been married 68 years!’), left the Merchant Navy in 1950 and worked for British Aerospace as an electronics engineer.

But Juno Beach is never far from his mind. He has one memory in particular: a ‘coffin ship’ would anchor alongside his boat during the landings. ‘You’d see some of our troops who had landed that morning coming back at midday in black bags. They’d lay them on the deck while they identified them. That was a reminder of the reality of war. It’s hard to talk about.’ He falls silent, then adds, ‘The younger generation should know really.’

Leonard Dibb-Western: Deckhand, Second World War

Leonard Dibb-Western, now (left) and as a mess boy, aged 15 (right)

Len Dibb-Western says the neighbours in his Somerset village haven’t a clue about his past. ‘I never tell them; they never ask me.’ So here’s telling them. The old chap (just turned 90) with what can only be described as a twinkle in his eye had lived a hundred lives before many lads’ voices break.

His first ship, which he joined as a mess boy in June 1941, at the age of 15, was a Norwegian tanker on the Atlantic convoys between Britain and north America. He chose a Norwegian ship because the money was so good – ‘£30 a month. I gave my mother £10. She cried. She’d never had £10 before in her life.’ In 1942 he was on the bridge of another Norwegian ship in the Gulf of Mexico when she was hit, but not sunk, by a torpedo.

‘I was thrown across the bridge and knocked my head,’ he recalls. ‘No damage though. Too thick, I think.’

“They’re gone. That’s life, isn’t it? No heroes. Only survivors”

Leonard Dibb-Western

After contracting malaria in west Africa, he joined his first British ship in 1944 – a shock to the system. ‘There were no sheets or pillowcases, just blankets. A donkey’s breakfast to lie on. Know what that is? Straw mattress. But they gave us an extra blanket to go up to Russia.’

This ship, the SS Fort McMurray, was part of Convoy JW 57, which sailed from Loch Ewe to Murmansk, fending off U-boats attacks, and on to Bakaritsa. The Russians, he says, were very suspicious of the British. ‘They put a notice up in our mess room. If you associate with any women you get five years in the salt mines. I wish I’d kept that.’

The ‘poor devils’ who unloaded the cargo were female political prisoners. The ‘water’ on the dining table at Bakaritsa was vodka. ‘It nearly killed us! The Russians laughed. It was great times really.’

British men, women and children celebrating 'Victory in Europe Day' in the street

His war finished on a picaresque note when he found himself in the clink in Singapore (for some light pilfering of cargo) and was set to work splicing hangman’s nooses for Japanese war criminals being held in cages there. Since then he has worked in a jam factory and as a cabinetmaker, and was a retained fireman for 17 years. But the four teenage years he spent in mortal danger remain ‘the best times of my life’.

He has stayed in touch with shipmates but the pool of memories is drying up. Poring over his photos of veterans’ gatherings, each man shipshape in his white beret, he points out the ones who have died since the pictures were taken. ‘They’re gone. That’s life, isn’t it? No heroes. Only survivors. That’s what I always say.’

A history of the British Merchant Navy

17th century

The British Merchant Navy can be dated back as far as this century, when the Royal Navy attempted to register all seafarers as a source of labour in wartime. The fleet grew considerably over the following decades, benefiting from trade opportunities in India and the Far East.

First World War

Following the British merchant shipping fleets’ services in the First World War, King George V officially names the service the Merchant Navy. Approximately 14,661 merchant seafarers were killed during the war.


George V names Edward, Prince of Wales, ‘Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets’, a title he relinquished on abdicating the throne in December 1936. The title has since been held by George VI and Elizabeth II.

Second World War

In 1939, the British Merchant Navy was the largest in the world. During the war the Merchant Navy lost 54% of their fleet and 32,000 seafarers.

Falklands War

A total of 52 merchant ships from 33 different companies are taken from trade; 72 men served during the war.


Following years of lobbying, Merchant Navy Day becomes an official day of remembrance on 3 September.


The fleet consists of 1,504 ships and is still one of the largest in the world.

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Women, communists and foreigners: the forgotten heroes of Paris, 1945

August 19th, 2015

One week before, on August 18, an order had been given for insurrection by the Paris Liberation Committee, which coordinated resistance activity there. It was chaired by André Tollet, an artisan in the sans-culotte tradition of 1789 and a trade unionist who had escaped from the camp where he had been interned as a communist. Its military arm was the French Forces of the Interior, or FFIs as they were known, commanded by Henri Rol-Tanguy, a communist metalworker and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, but it was desperately short of weapons and initially had only 600 people in arms. The muscle of the insurrection was a general strike that swept up the railways, utilities, cinemas, restaurants, the Galeries Lafayette and even the Paris police.

Nor was the liberation of Paris even a purely French affair. Indeed, many saw resistance against the Germans as part of pan-European anti-fascist struggle that began with the Spanish Civil War against Axis-backed Franco in 1936 and ended with the Greek Civil War in 1949. Urban guerrilla fighting in Paris had been developed by foreign exiles – Spanish republicans, Italian anti-fascists, Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian Jews and even German anti-Nazis – operating in the Immigrant Worker Movement (MOI) of the communist partisans. Most had been rounded up and shot in February 1944 by the Germans, whose propaganda, discrediting the resistance as run by Jews, foreigners and communists, was in this case not far wrong.

Celebrations to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris focus on role of French fighters rather than Allies

Six months later, the first column of Leclerc’s soldiers to liberate Paris was the Third Chad Infantry Regiment, whose ninth company was nicknamed “la Nueve” because it was mainly composed of Spanish republicans whose tanks were daubed with slogans commemorating the battles of the Spanish Civil War: Guadalajara, Teruel, Ebro, Madrid.

This all gives a very macho version of the liberation of Paris. But women too played a crucial role. Cécile Rol-Tanguy, Henri’s wife, acted as one of his couriers, carrying messages by bicycle from one unit to another or weapons in her baby’s pram. A few women took up arms themselves. Madeleine Riffaud, a student nurse and communist partisan, shot a German on the banks of the Seine on 23 July 1944 to avenge the death of a comrade and to incite the Parisians to revolt. Narrowly escaping execution and deportation herself, she was released with other resisters under the truce and led a three-man commando that immobilised a German train at Les Buttes-Chaumont.

Celebrations to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris focus on role of French fighters rather than Allies

Order was restored by Leclerc’s division, which arrived on August 24. And only two days later, de Gaulle himself paraded down the Champs-Élysées cheers of the crowd. It was his apotheosis, communing with what he called “eternal France” – but it was also the beginning of a myth of resistance and liberation that was military, national and male.

De Gaulle made no mention of the contribution of foreigners. When summoned the leaders of the Paris resistance to the ministry of defence to thank them, and tell them that his job was over, Cécile Rol-Tanguy recalls that they were not even offered a glass of wine. With that, the party was over, and the role of revolutionaries, foreigners of women long forgotten. It is now past time to hear their story again.

Robert Gildea’s book on the French Resistance, Fighters in the Shadows, is out next month (Faber: £20)

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Australia’s Aboriginal war heroes ‘finally’ recognised by memorial sculpture

March 31st, 2015

Full-blooded Aborigines were allowed to enlist from World War II, and Aborigines were given the right to vote federally in 1962 and in all states by 1965.

Full-blooded Aborigines were allowed to enlist from World War II (EPA)

Aboriginal groups have long campaigned for proper recognition of their service.

“One way to get this recognition was to advocate for a memorial and the bullets are a great idea,” Ray Minniecon, from the Coloured Diggers movement, told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.

“On the battlefield, bullets don’t discriminate; they kill black people or white people, so when it came to war, all of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and woman were treated as equals.

“However, when our men and women came home to their various states they weren’t given any recognition. They had to come back and fight another battle, but this time against racism.”

The bullets and shells were inspired by the story of Mr Albert’s grandfather, who was one of four soldiers to survive an encounter with Italian forces. Three soldiers died in the battle.

The bullets and shells were inspired by the story of Mr Albert’s grandfather (EPA)

“These are stories that are not written into history; they aren’t represented in our institutions,” Mr Albert told Fairfax Media.

“It’s long overdue. It’s confronting. It might ruffle a few feathers but they are feathers that need to be ruffled.”

“Aunty” Jenny Beale, whose father fought in World War II, said: “It’s taken such time to get here. My dad would have been 104 this year and here I am finally standing at a monument, finally to recognise what he contributed to this country.”

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David Cameron defends Second World War RAF ‘heroes’ of Dresden raid

February 19th, 2015

The comments sparked criticism from Tory MPs who called the remarks “bizarre” and “an insult” to the young men who risked their lives.

“On the issue of the work of Bomber Command in the Second World War, I think that Bomber Command played an absolutely vital role in our war effort,” Mr Cameron said in a question and answer session at the Port of Felixstowe.

“One of the things I was very proud to do as Prime Minister was to make sure the people who served in Bomber Command got proper recognition with a new clasp on their medals.

“And it was a great honour to hand out some of those medals to people who have waited for many, many years for the recognition I think they deserve.

“I’m very lucky to occasionally get to jog around St James Park in London and I always stop and look up at the Bomber Command memorial that has been so recently built and dedicated and stop and think about those very brave people who took enormous risks with incredible loss of life on our behalf to save Europe, to save Britain from fascism, from Hitler.

The Bomber Command monument in Green Park (ALAMY)

“To me the people who served in bomber command are heroes of our country and they played a very important role in the Second World War.”

Up to 25,000 civilians were killed in a vast firestorm with hurricane-strength winds during the raid of 13-15 February 1945. Critics have said the raid, the most controversial British action of the war, was needless, given the closeness of victory. Defenders of the raid point to the large number of German armament factories in the city.

The comments contrasted with the tone taken by Archbishop Welby at a service to remember the bombings earlier this month.

“Much debate surrounds this most controversial raid of the allied bombing campaign. Whatever the arguments, events here 70 years ago left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. So as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow,” he said.

Tory MP Philip Davies criticised the comments, saying: “These remarks do sound to me like an apology. For the Archbishop to make an apology for our defeat of Hitler is bizarre. I would have thought the last thing we should be doing is apologising. We should be praised for defeating Hitler. These words are an insult to the young men who gave their lives in the defeat of Germany.”

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Britain’s hidden heroes

November 5th, 2014

Commissioned as a second lieutenant into the 6th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, he was awarded the Military Cross in 1940 for rescuing three men, including one who was seriously wounded, from a burning house during the retreat to Dunkirk. He was then tasked with holding a bridge over the Canal des Moëres at Téteghem, which he did for three days before taking one of the last boats – a paddle steamer called the Medway Queen – back to Britain.

Garland then volunteered for service with the newly formed No?11 (Scottish) Commando, members of which would later join the fledgling SAS. After rigorous training in the Scottish Highlands, he flew with the rest of his unit to Palestine to take part in the invasion of Vichy-controlled Syria and Lebanon. The plan was for the commandos to carry out an amphibious assault landing on an enemy position on the Litani River.

Garland distinguished himself in this famous operation by drawing the fire of a sniper who was picking off Allied soldiers. He deliberately revealed himself to ascertain the sniper’s position, then manned a Bren gun, shot him dead, climbed into a boat and became the first man to cross the river – a display of bravery that earned him a bar to his Military Cross.

Land, sea and air: Lt. Eric Garland (Photo: Christopher Cox)

After this, not content with his efforts on land, Garland applied to the RAF to become a fighter pilot and, in March 1942, was posted for pilot training in Southern Rhodesia. He carried out numerous sorties over the Western Desert and was promoted to flight lieutenant in November 1943, before moving to Italy to fly Spitfires.

Shot down behind enemy lines in May 1944, he was taken prisoner. For lesser men, being a prisoner of war would have been a respectable end to their part in the conflict, but Garland – despite splintering his shinbone and receiving burns to his hands and face when his fighter plane caught fire – simply saw it as a new challenge. In a letter to his parents in August 1944, he explained: “I was taken prisoner immediately on reaching the ground and spent seven weeks in hospital at Mantova. I made three unsuccessful attempts to escape from there, but finally managed to escape from the hospital train to Germany on June 17 by jumping out of the window at night.”

Garland evaded capture, fought alongside the Italian partisans and eventually secretly returned to Allied lines in January 1945. Finally, more than a year after the war ended, he was awarded his third and final decoration, an MBE.

Bill Pickering

Bill Pickering, who is still alive, still married and goes to the gym every day at the age of 91, was a Special Operations Executive (SOE) wireless operator who, after being parachuted into northern Italy in February 1945, spent almost three months fighting with the partisans towards the end of the Second World War.

Bill Pickering, a Special Operations Executive (SOE) wireless operator during WWII. (Photo: Lord Ashcroft)

Despite the death of two officers who were with him, he took part in an epic episode of clandestine warfare. In his memoir, The Bandits of Cisterna, Pickering describes in vivid detail an ambush by an estimated 60 German soldiers on one of his team’s hideouts.

“[Capt John] Keany said: ‘Don’t be silly, Bill. They couldn’t creep up a hill like this without us seeing or hearing them.’ To the best of my recollection, those were Keany’s last words. I had been standing by his side as we spoke, with my radio transmitter in a pack on my back and my Marlin slung over my shoulder. For no reason I could ever explain, I suddenly felt frightened, vulnerable and exposed. I moved two or three paces away from Keany’s left side. As I did so the German submachine-guns opened up. I flung myself to the ground and saw Keany’s chest neatly stitched with a row of bullets.

“Four other partisans had been cut down by the initial burst from another submachine-gun to our right. The rest of us hurled ourselves full length on to our stomachs as the bullets whistled inches overhead.

“Everything that happened next did so without any conscious pause for thought or consideration. First, I loosed off several rounds from my Marlin in the general direction of the enemy guns. The Calabrian, Tony and another partisan named Gino on my left followed my example. Then I motioned for the Calabrian to fire a burst while I scampered round on my hands and knees to get behind him. I fired a burst and he crawled at top speed to the other side of Tony. Then the Calabrian gave covering fire while Tony dashed to the far side of Gino.

“In this way, by keeping the Germans’ heads down and running like hell, we retreated off the hill. Whether it was our fear or our geographical advantage that benefited us most was hard to tell, but as we escaped from the immediate danger, we ran into more trouble from an attack on our left flank. Germans with submachine-guns were hiding behind trees as we ran down the slope. They were 200 yards away but well within firing range.

“For a few agonising moments we were pinned down. We knew it was impossible to stay flat on our faces behind what little cover was available. In a few more seconds, the Germans ahead of us would have reached the top of the ridge.

“In the cowboy movies I had watched as a child, this was the time when the 7th Cavalry arrived on the scene with bugles blaring and sabres flashing.

“On this occasion it was Renato who came to the rescue without any fanfare of trumpets, just his usual calm efficiency. He and his men had got across to the shelter of some trees on our hill a minute or two before us, running at full pelt as soon as the first shots were fired. They were now our saviours as they poured a hail of withering fire into the trees where the Germans were hiding…”

Pickering took part in a lot more action, until April 1945, when Allied forces finally reached Turin. He was awarded the Military Medal for “outstanding qualities of courage, determination and resourcefulness”.

Graham Watts

Graham Watts, a former member of the secret 14 Intelligence Company. (Photo: Christopher Cox)

Graham Watts is a pseudonym requested by the individual concerned because of his crucial role in what was almost certainly the most successful surveillance coup during the whole period of “the Troubles”. Watts, who worked for a secretive Army unit called 14 Intelligence Company, was at the heart of an undercover operation that all but wiped out the Provisional IRA command structure in Belfast at the time through the arrest of 17 of its leading members.

Among those seized were the entire hierarchy of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade and arguably the three most wanted men in the city at the time: Gerry Adams (officer commanding), Brendan Hughes (operations officer) and Tom Cahill (finance officer).

Watts’s award was the first DCM to any member of the Special Forces in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year, the undercover operative gave me an astonishing account of the surveillance operation he staged:

“By mid-1973 we were building up the first comprehensive picture of the IRA. But there were still huge gaps in our picture; we had photographs of many suspects but we didn’t know their names. And we had many names, but no photographs to put them to. And there were others who were no more than rumours – no picture, no name.

“When we identified a ‘player’, or even if we just had a name or photo, we gave him a code; C3, B2, D1, etc. The white-haired, stooping old man I was watching this day on the Falls Road was C5.

“He was on foot and I was sitting in my car, a grey Triumph Dolomite, from where I could see him amble up the road in front of the red-bricked terraced housing. The road was wide and busy, I knew I didn’t stick out and was confident that C5 wouldn’t get too close to me. He let himself into a house through a poorly maintained front door.

“It looked promising. Even if we identified some more players, put a couple more pieces in our picture, it would be a success. However, what we all hoped for was a major bust, lifting some of the IRA’s top men.

“The man we really wanted, who was on the top of our list, was just known as A1. We had no other details, but it was believed he was dangerous, ruthless, the heartbeat of the Provisionals. Apparently, no act of terror from the IRA in Belfast went ahead without his express say-so. For a while nothing happened at the house and I reported [via radio] the lack of movement back to my boss, Harry. Then another character arrived. He walked past the house, then walked back again, then past the house again. I could tell something was up, he was checking out the locality before knocking on the door. I sensed an IRA brigade meeting was going ahead. Sure enough, the man returned quickly to the house, knocked on the door and went in.

“Then it happened again, another dodgy-looking, steely faced man walked towards the house. He was tall, thin, bearded and bespectacled, and he certainly wasn’t out for a summer stroll. He followed the same routine as the first visitor.

“I sent the commentary to Harry [over the radio]. Then another suspicious-behaving character arrived and followed the same routine as the first two. I was certain I had a brigade meeting on my hands. It was quite probable that the length of people’s lives was being determined inside the house. They could be drawing up a hit list, arguing about whom to kill, where to plant the bomb and whether to warn the authorities about it.

“Whatever was going on I knew these were ‘players’ we had to lift. When I felt that all who were going to turn up had arrived, I advised Harry to get the regular Army in and let the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] in on it.

“My adrenalin began to flow as I waited for the raid. But then a man started walking across the road towards me. I’d been clocked by a lookout.

“The man rolling towards me was squat and youngish, a new recruit I guessed. He wore dirty blue jeans and a crinkled shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I didn’t think he was carrying [a gun], but I checked my weapon again. When he got to me, he announced that he was from the ‘Civil Defence Community’ – a synonym for Provisional IRA.

“‘I don’t want anything to do with your f—ing Irish s—,’ I bellowed at him. There was no point in trying to put on an accent to disguise my West Country roots; if he had only half a brain, he would have seen through it.

“‘My boss is doing some business around the corner, I’m waiting for him,’ I explained.

“‘What f—ing business?’ the lookout screamed in my face.

“‘F—ing insurance,’ I returned, with equal volume. ‘I don’t give a s — about your Irish s—, I don’t f—ing want to be here.

“‘F—ing watch it,’ he warned, before storming off. My cover was shot to pieces and I fully expected the lookout to dash to the house and inform those inside of my presence. But, remarkably, he seemed to buy my lie and then wandered off. I assumed he was still watching me, to see what I did.

“Then, within 30 seconds, I saw Bill, one of my team, dressed in shirt, tie and carrying a briefcase, walking towards the passenger door. An insurance salesman. Nice one, Harry.

“Bill opened the door and got in. I drove off quickly.

“‘You’ve got to drop me off and get to the safe house at the edge of the city. Your cover is blown.’

“‘He might have bought the lie,’ I tried.

“‘Got to assume he knows – he will after the raid, anyway.’ I grudgingly admitted what I knew was the truth and dropped off Bill before leaving for a secret address.

“I had never known frustration like it. I had done everything properly and we’d got lucky – then it all went pear-shaped, my cover was blown and I had no idea of knowing how the raid finally went. When I reached the address in a safe, Protestant area of Belfast suburbia, I sat in my car with the radio waiting for news.

“Eventually, it crackled into life. ‘Success, Graham,’ announced Harry. I could almost see his chest puffing up with pride. ‘We’ve basically lifted the IRA’s Army Council. We couldn’t have had a better result.’” Later I got a look at the terrorists from behind one-way glass at the RUC’s Springfield Road barracks.

“’That one there,’ said a Special Branch officer, ‘is Brendan Hughes. Nasty character. He’s a murderer, terrorist and IRA leader. His speciality is bombing. The next is Owen Coogan, Brigade intelligence officer [later the alleged director of operations]. Then there’s Tom Cahill, 38 years old, can’t get much higher than him in the IRA. See his face, the scars: that’s from when the Official IRA tried to assassinate him two years ago.

“‘And the bearded one is Gerry Adams, Brigade Commander. He’s been interned before, even had secret talks with the British Government about a peace prospect. We’ve been after him for over a year. He’s the biggest catch.’

“Harry and I smiled in satisfaction, then Harry said to me: ‘We knew of them all, at least by reputation. Gerry Adams is A1.’”

READ: Special Forces obituaries

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Hellraisers with deadly intent: the hard-living war heroes who captured a Nazi general

September 7th, 2014

Sophie remembered that whenever an agent left for the field, “there would be a big party and a car would call and those who were going to be parachuted into enemy territory left just like that, without a goodbye, without anything. We never allowed ourselves to be anxious. We believed that to be anxious was to accept the possibility of something dreadful happening to them.”

A few weeks after the bathroom conference, a German Junkers Ju 52 flew over the bright-blue Mediterranean towards Crete. On board was Major General Heinrich Kreipe, the newly appointed second in command of the island. The plane landed, Kreipe climbed from the aircraft and a soft breeze wafted the smell of thyme across the field. He was unaware that he had entered a trap that would soon spring shut, ruining his career, destroying his reputation and nearly costing him his life.

Meanwhile in Cairo, the New Year was seen in at Tara with high-octane revelry. The house was the hottest social spot in the city; its guests included diplomats, war correspondents and royalty.

Moss wrote in his diary about “the night we had the bullfight?.?.?. the night we broke 19 windows”. The bullfight in the ballroom ended with a blazing sofa being hurled through a window and a Polish officer was encouraged to shoot out the lights. For their Christmas lunch, Leigh Fermor cooked turkey stuffed with Benzedrine tablets. Sophie remembered that, in Poland, they had made liqueurs by adding soft fruit to vodka. She tried to recreate this with prunes and raw alcohol. After 48 hours, someone tried the cocktail and collapsed. Sophie complained that he should have waited for three weeks before drinking it.

Early in January, Paddy Leigh Fermor got clearance to carry out his plan to kidnap a Nazi general; Billy was to be his second in command and they were joined by two Cretan guerrillas, Manolis Paterakis, Leigh Fermor’s right-hand man, and George Tyrakis. The equipment list read like something out of an adventure comic and included pistols, bombs, coshes, commando daggers, knuckle-dusters, knock-out drops and suicide pills.

Moss remembered sitting around a small red lacquer table at the Tara farewell party, faces lit by four tall candles, drinking and singing, as they waited to leave on the first leg of the adventure. Just before sunrise, Billy McLean appeared, a shy, nearly naked figure. He presented them with the complete works of Shakespeare and The Oxford Book of English Verse, which he thought had brought him luck in Albania; he hoped that the books would work the same magic for his friends.

When they flew over the rendezvous, Leigh Fermor jumped first, and was greeted by a party of guerrillas and an SOE agent, Sandy Rendel. Suddenly the weather closed in and clouds hid the ground, making it impossible to drop the others – they arrived by motor launch nearly two months later.

They were met on the beach by what Moss thought was a group of pantomime pirates. One, filthy, unshaven and dressed in rags, shook his hand, saying: “Hello Billy. You don’t know me. Paddy will be along in a minute.” It was Rendel. Leigh Fermor wore clothes that included a bolero, a maroon cummerbund that held an ivory-handled pistol and a dagger. He told Moss: “I like the locals to think of me as a sort o’ duke.”

The next fortnight was spent in planning and wild living. Moss found that “wine takes the place of one’s morning cup of tea and one often drinks a liberal quantity before brushing one’s teeth”.

Gentleman warrior: Patrick Leigh Fermor on the roof of Tara in Cairo

The original target had been Lieutenant General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller – “the Butcher of Crete” – but he had been transferred and his place taken by Kreipe. With the help of the Cretan underground intelligence, the kidnappers devised a plan to capture the general on his way home from his headquarters.

On the night of April 26 1944, Leigh Fermor and Moss, disguised as military policemen, flagged down the general’s car. As it stopped, the doors were torn open, 11 guerrillas leapt out of ditches along the sides of the road, and 90 seconds later, Kreipe was on his way towards Heraklion, handcuffed on the floor in the back of the Opel. Moss drove fast, bluffing the car through 22 German roadblocks, after which it was abandoned with a note saying that the abduction was a British commando initiative and that no Cretans were involved. Leigh Fermor hoped that this would stop any reprisals. Sometime that night, the guerrillas killed Kreipe’s driver.

It took nearly three weeks to get Kreipe to the rendezvous beach on the south coast. The kidnappers climbed Mount Ida, trudging above the snow line, over the summit and across some of the most rugged terrain in Europe. The general was dressed in the uniform he had put on for a quiet day at the office. Thousands of German soldiers surrounded the mountain, cutting off escape routes and access to the beaches. For several days, radio contact was lost with Cairo. When it was re-established, Leigh Fermor sent a signal that ended with the words “situation ugly”.

Sometimes the kidnap team passed within yards of enemy patrols, while in the distance they heard the thud of explosives as German engineers blew up villages. Throughout the journey, the kidnappers were led and protected by the guerrillas, who had risked their lives and those of their families to help the group escape. Kreipe was astonished at the loyalty and friendship shown towards the British. One guerrilla explained that “it is because the British are fighting for our freedom, while you Germans have deprived us of it in a barbarous way”.

Leigh Fermor and Moss developed a love-hate relationship with their captive. At one point, Kreipe looked at the snow-covered mountains and quoted from Horace; “Vides ut alta?.?.?.” Leigh Fermor knew the ode and completed it, thinking that, for an instant, the war had ceased to exist and finding a strange bond with the general. Kreipe spent a lot of time complaining that he was not well, causing Moss to lose his temper and shout at him to be quiet. He later wrote in his diary: “I could have killed him.”

On May 14, they reached the only rendezvous beach not occupied by German patrols. Near midnight, they heard the noise of a motor launch, but when they tried to flash the recognition signal “Sugar Baker”, Leigh Fermor and Moss realised that they did not know the Morse for Baker. They were saved by Dennis Ciclitira, another SOE agent who had been ordered to return to Cairo. He appeared, grabbed the torch and, shouting “bloody fools”, flashed the code.

By midnight, Kreipe and his kidnappers were at sea, heading for Egypt and eating lobster sandwiches. The general told his captors: “It’s all very well, but this hussar stunt of yours has ruined my career.”

Back in Cairo, Leigh Fermor and Moss went straight to Tara, where they were given a hero’s welcome. News of the kidnap flashed around the world and quickly became a sensation. Newspapers carried pictures of the gneral, his arm in a sling, chatting to a group of senior British officers. Leigh Fermor was decorated with a Distinguished Service Order and Moss won a Military Cross. Kreipe was taken to London and interrogated. The interviewing officer described him as “rather unimportant and unimaginative”. He spent the rest of the war in Canada and was released in 1947.

In 1945, Moss married Sophie and, in 1950, published his account of the kidnap. Kreipe sued him for defamation of character, and won an injunction stopping the book’s publication in Germany. For the rest of his life, Leigh Fermor agonised over two things: the death of Kreipe’s driver and whether the “hussar stunt” had brought reprisals on to the heads of his friends, the heroic people of Crete.

‘Kidnap in Crete’ by Rick Stroud (Bloomsbury) is published on Thursday, and available from Telegraph Books at £15.29 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit

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