Five Go to the Jungle

No. 5 Commando arrived at Silchar station in India on 11 April 1944 after an uncomfortable, 27-hour train journey. Two weeks earlier they had held a memorial service for their 25 comrades killed during heavy fighting on the Arakan coast of Burma.

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Some of No. 5 Commando at Silchar. Captain John Bowyer is standing on the left. Photo courtesy of his grandson, Paul Gordon.

To the east of Silchar, the Japanese were battling the 14th Army at Imphal putting Assam, with its important communication links, under threat so the commandos had been brought in to patrol the area around the tea gardens of Cachar and safeguard the railway line and the Bishenpur jeep track.

Looking at a contour map of the patrol area is a little like looking at a cross section of the folds of chocolate in a Cadbury’s flake. Hills rose up to heights of between 650 and 4,500 feet – slightly higher than Ben Nevis which had become so familiar to the commandos during their days of training at Achnacarry Castle. There were few other similarities with the Highlands of Scotland though and the area was covered in thick jungle with a tangle of creepers knitting the tall trees together and a network of fast-running streams. It was home to tigers, snakes, gibbons and leeches and the air was clammy with humidity and heavy with the weight of the approaching Monsoon.

 

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The Battle of Imphal-Kohima, March – July 1944: General view of the terrain at Kohima © IWM (IND 3410)

Each patrol lasted for between three and five days and when following trackways they expected to average around 12 miles a day. Any forays into the jungle itself significantly reduced the distance they could cover and was a slow hack through dense foliage.

They would rise at dawn and aim to be on the move by six o’clock in the morning, pausing at the hottest part of the day to rest and eat. They supplemented their rations with what the jungle could provide and would shoot monkeys and deer, skin them, cut them into small chunks and stew them with jungle fern and bamboo shoots or they would buy cobs of corn from the villagers and eat them raw.

They carried most of their equipment in packs but there were a number of items they kept within easy reach, including a razor blade for dealing with snake bites; salt for sprinkling on leeches; and a watch which, if carried in the pocket, had to be covered with a condom to prevent moisture seeping in and causing damage. They also took to wearing condoms in the more conventional location after word reached them that a member of 44 (RM) Commando, who were based seven miles south of Silchar, had suffered a leech in his penis.

The U.S. War Department had released an Intelligence Bulletin in September 1943, in which they gave a little more information about leeches, writing that they, “try to reach mucous membranes and frequently enter the rectum or penis without attracting attention until an itching sensation begins. Urination usually removes them immediately from the penis, but medical help may be needed to remove one from the rectum. However, after satisfying their hunger, leeches frequently leave the rectum during defecation. This may produce a certain amount of blood flow, which may be mistaken for the beginning of dysentery or piles, but its short duration will remove all fears on that score.”

How reassuring those words must have been!

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Map showing the moves of 3 Commando Brigade (No. 1 Army Commando, No. 5 Army Commando, 42 (RM) Commando, 44 (RM) Commando). January 1944 – September 1945

 

Links

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
Get some unique rewards and your name in the back of the book when you pre-order

The Burma Star Association exists to relieve need, hardship or distress among men and women who served in the Burma Campaign of the 1939-45 war and for their widows, widowers or dependants.

The Commandos’ Benevolent Fund is a Charity that provides financial assistance to former Army Commandos and their dependants.

Commando Spirit is all about giving you once-in-a-lifetime experiences to test your mettle and give you a taste of what it means to be a Royal Marines Commando whilst raising serious funds for Royal Marines and their families in need.

Britain’s First Sitcom (almost)

The writers of Hancock’s Half Hour, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, are often referred to as the creators of the British sitcom but few people realise Tony Hancock had previously explored the genre with his friend, Larry Stephens.

Speaking to members of the Goon Show Preservation Society in 1976, BBC Producer Peter Eton remembered that, “before anyone had heard of Hancock, he (Larry) came down to my office one day with this man and he said: ‘This is Tony Hancock who has an act on the stage. You should put him in one of your plays because I think he’s got great potential.’ Larry had found this man – he was writing material for him.”

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Tony Hancock and Larry Stephens in 1950

In July 1952, Larry approached Eton with another suggestion. By that time Hancock was a much more familiar figure and Larry’s name as a writer was being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Frank Muir and Denis Norden so Eton took it much more seriously. Larry had come up with an idea for a comedy series, entitled Vacant Lot, to star Hancock as a blundering and pompous auctioneer and estate agent. The half-hour programmes were planned to consist of a complete story and would have no musical breaks, as was then the norm.

Eton approached the BBC’s Head of Variety and ‘The Light Programme’ expressed an interest in the proposal. Larry put together a brief synopsis:

Churdley Bay, a small town on the South Coast of England, is neither modern nor ‘olde-worlde’. It is different from other sea-side towns only in that, whereas they are crowded during the summer and dull and deserted for the rest of the year, Churdley Bay is dull and deserted all the year round. We are told that the elections for the Town Council are taking place the following day, and learn that the local auctioneer and estate agent – a gentleman who is regarded with amused tolerance by the local bigwigs – is standing for one of the smaller wards. We meet the Mayor, Ambrose Tripfield, and his wife, discussing Hancock’s chances of becoming a Councillor; Dr Quince, the local GP – a quiet, sardonic observer of the everyday scene – making a dry remark about Hancock’s future in politics, local and otherwise; the regulars in the Saloon Bar of the Churdley Arms – a seven-bedroomed hotel-cum-pub owned by George Madkin, a Yorkshireman, and Fred Clodley the local garage owner – a loud-mouthed oaf who always laughs at his own feeble jokes and whose greatest delight is pulling Tony’s leg, a habit which Tony resents and detests. We first meet Tony holding a sale of furniture and effects in the Churdley Arms sale room, assisted by Mr Pemble – his old-fashioned, precise and aged clerk and cashier, and Alfie Lemon, his office boy…

The script for a trial programme was commissioned and auditions took place at the end of October 1952 with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan both considered for parts. Eton forwarded the script to the Variety Department on 3 November 1952, describing it as a gentle situation comedy – the first known use of the term in British broadcasting.

 

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Detail from the cover page of the script for the Vacant Lot trial recording

Vacant Lot had been conceived and written as a non-audience show but the Variety Heads were umming and ahing over whether to invite a studio audience after all and even suggested recording the programme twice on the same day to try out both scenarios. Larry and Hancock felt this would necessitate different scripts and casts and so the Variety Department reconsidered and consented to the non-audience format. A few days later they changed their minds again. The Planners wouldn’t agree to an amended date for the recording until they had seen a new script and an exasperated Hancock declared that rather than delay the project once again he would prefer that it was dropped. It was subsequently shelved in November 1952 and has remained in the archives ever since.

Further information

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
Get some unique rewards and your name in the back of the book when you pre-order

The Tony Hancock Appreciation Society is dedicated to preserving and promoting the works of Tony Hancock

Official website of Galton and Simpson

British Comedy Guide news item: Forgotten Hancock Script Rediscovered

The Goons Go Commando

Series 3 of the Goon Show was beset with problems and challenges. There were studio difficulties, a new conductor and an improvised orchestra to deal with but the issue which had the most detrimental impact on the programme was the fact that the scriptwriters, Larry Stephens and Spike Milligan, had fallen out, weren’t speaking to each other and certainly weren’t collaborating on the script.

At that time, the Goon Show comprised of a series of unrelated sketches rather than a single storyline and so Larry was writing half of the show from a small office he had taken in Shaftesbury Avenue and Spike was writing the other half in Eric Sykes’ office above a Greengrocer’s in Shepherd’s Bush.

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Cover page of an original Series 3 Goon Show script. The date of the tea stain is unknown!

As the series progressed, both Larry and Spike began to show increasing signs of strain. Larry was telling anyone who would listen that he was drinking more than four bottles of rum a week to cope with the pressure and Spike was becoming more and more difficult to work with. Things deteriorated and after apparently threatening to kill Peter Sellers with a potato peeler, Spike was admitted to St Luke’s Psychiatric Hospital in Muswell Hill. The bulk of the writing now fell to Larry with help from Jimmy Grafton, the script editor.

Larry drew on his wartime experiences serving with the commandos for the first episode without Spike’s input and wrote about a Combined Services exercise. BBC Commentators were on location reporting on the exercise and ‘Harold Secombe’ was interviewing the man in charge, Admiral Flowerdew, live from the operations room at HQ:

SECOMBE: …these wooden blocks they’re moving around on the map – what are they?

FLOWERDEW: They represent landing barges – and the smaller ones are the actual commandos.

SECOMBE: And what are those being slipped under the map?

FLOWERDEW: Frogmen.
(Goon Show, series 3, episode 9)

 

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Landing craft on the beach at Akyab Island © IWM (CI 885)

By 1956, Spike and Larry’s friendship was going through a honeymoon period again and they wrote a special festive edition of the Goon Show together. ‘Operation Christmas Duff’ was broadcast to listeners abroad on Christmas Eve in 1956 and was dedicated to, “Her Majesty’s Forces Overseas and to the Transantarctic Expedition, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey Teams and the Royal Society Expedition at Halley Bay.” The plot of this special episode revolved around the making of a Combined Services Christmas pudding and 45 Commando were sent in, “under cover of daylight” to gather samples of the pudding for the Army Catering Corps to test. It had originally been scripted that the samples would be collected by 5 Commando, the unit Larry served with in WWII, but during the final rehearsals the ‘5’ was crossed through and replaced with ’45’.

The commandos cropped up again in ‘Ill Met by Goonlight’, a series 7 episode which is sometimes credited solely to Spike, although the original script does bear Larry’s name as co-writer. The story concerned a 1942 mission to Crete to capture the German Commander, General Von Gutern, a character who made another appearance in ‘The African Incident’ in series 8, purely for the line, “Von Gutern deserves another” to be used again!

The Goonlight mission was led by Lieutenant Seagoon who first had to undergo training at the Marine Commando Spaghetti Hurling Depot at Rhyl. At the end of the war, the Army Commandos were disbanded and the training base at Achnacarry was closed. A Royal Marine Commando school close to Rhyl had taken over the role but spaghetti-hurling wasn’t on the curriculum, at least, not officially!

 

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Harry Secombe meets veterans at the Commando Memorial c. 1987 © Mark Heard (Mark’s father, Tom Heard of 2 Commando, is first on the left)

 

Further information

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
Get some unique rewards and your name in the back of the book when you pre-order

The Goon Show Preservation Society‘s aims are to preserve, promote and research all things Goon

Recording of Operation Christmas Duff

Script for Ill Met By Goonlight

Commando Training – 1940s style

The Commandos were formed at a time when Britain’s morale was plummeting following the colossal military disaster of Dunkirk . In June of 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to the Chiefs of Staff proposing the raising of a special force to enable Britain to regain the upper hand.

This new force began to receive worldwide media coverage from late 1941 when details of the ferocious training programme were released by the War Office. The Daily Express described the commando soldier as, “a super-trained fighting man, who, among other qualifications, can use ju-jitsu on an enemy when a shot would betray his presence,” and the Daily Mirror called them simply, “tough guys.”

The Commando Basic Training Centre was located in the house and grounds of the 24th chief of Clan Cameron, Donald Cameron of Lochiel. Achnacarry Castle had been built in 1802 in the Scottish Baronial style on the site of a ruined 17th century castle. The view of the turreted grey building with its lancet windows and vast entranceway topped with the red and gold coat of arms had been somewhat spoiled by the addition of a Nissen hut on either side of the door but at least this was in keeping with the symmetry of the house.

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Achnacarry Castle

Physical training for the potential recruits was wide-ranging and as well as rock climbing, boating, the scaling of Ben Nevis and lessons in unarmed combat, the trainees were able to practise their best Johnny Weissmuller moves on a Tarzan Course and a Treetop Range with swings and bridges connecting tree to tree, but using ropes rather than jungle vines.

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Trees on the Estate still bear the scars of WWII

Among the more well-known features of the assault course was the ‘Death Ride’ which received a lot of publicity at the time and later appeared in a modified form as part of the physical ability test on The Krypton Factor in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. A thick rope was attached to the top of a tall tree and then the other end was secured to the base of a tree on the other side of the fast-flowing River Arkaig. The aim was for the men to slide from the top to the bottom of this thick rope by clinging onto a looped toggle rope slung over it. To add a bit of extra spice, live ammunition exploded in the river beneath them during the descent (the inclusion of this aspect would certainly have made The Krypton Factor more interesting!).

The survival training, taught by Sergeant-Major Moon, was one of the most memorable aspects of the instruction for many of the recruits. As well as demonstrating how to construct shelters suitable for different weather conditions, Moon also showed the trainees how to build fires and ovens from a range of materials and taught them that they need never go hungry: they learnt how to lay traps, how to skin deer and which wild vegetation they could safely pick and eat. For the grand finale, Sergeant-Major Moon produced a lump of baked clay from the embers of one of his demonstration fires and cracked it open to release a tantalising smell. With its fur sticking to the clay crust, a perfectly-cooked, clean and juicy, small animal revealed itself as the ‘prize’ in the centre. Moon would slice the meat up and invite his hungry students to taste it and guess what it was but no one ever got the right answer – it was Achnacarry rat!

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WWII Veterans pose with serving Commandos at the entrance to the Castle

Further information

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
Get some unique rewards and your name in the back of the book when you pre-order

Commando – The Story of the Green Beret
A part-dramatised film from 1945 about the rigorous and tough physical fitness and combat training that awaited each Commando volunteer before he could qualify for the coveted green beret.

Castle Commando
BBC programme narrated by Rory Bremner, looking back on the larger-than-life characters who helped shape Winston Churchill’s legendary raiding troops.

Royal Marine Commando Training
Modern day Commando training