Pat Porteous VC (Part 1)

There weren’t enough stretchers so Pat was being carried by two German soldiers on a door that someone had wrenched from the battery office. The Germans’ eyes darted nervously as they descended through the narrow gully towards the beach as they knew that mines had been laid somewhere nearby; a wooden board with the words ‘Achtung Minen’ painted onto it was a constant reminder. Mortar bombs exploded around them and the air on the beach was choked with smoke. Every time one of the Germans’ hesitant steps caused a stumble or slide on the shingle, the jolt sent pain zigzagging through Pat’s body from the wounds on his hand and his thigh. He tensed and tried not to let the agony show on his face.

9Achtung
Flickr: Leo Reynolds https://flickr.com/photos/lwr/

He remembered when he was a boy – he must have been about four years old – and he had run from the garden to join his parents and their important guests for tea but he’d gone slap-bang straight down onto the veranda and the pain had started pricking behind his eyes. He hadn’t wanted the agony to show on his face then either. “I’m awfully sorry, Mother but I think I’m going to cry,” he had whispered and his mother had lifted the table cloth and gently shooed him underneath so that he could regain his composure before joining their polite society. That must have been when they were in India.

Pat had been born in Abbottabad on New Year’s Day 1918 and had spent his early years in the East and in Canada but then his father, Brigadier General Charles McLeod Porteous of the 9th Gurkhas, had moved them to England so that he could seek specialist medical treatment for the mysterious ailment he had picked up.

While the Brigadier General consulted experts about his deteriorating health, Pat was despatched to Wellington College. His boyhood dream had been to write books about serious subjects such as the Bible and Tutankhamun but shortly before leaving Wellington he made up his mind to follow his father into the Gurkhas. His father advised joining the British Army instead though so Pat applied to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, was accepted and joined at the beginning of 1936. During his 18 months there he excelled at rugby union and swimming; proved himself a formidable opponent in the boxing ring and suffered a broken jaw at the hooves of a horse before being commissioned into the Royal Artillery.

9Wellington
Wellington College (Flickr: RTPeat https://flickr.com/photos/rtpeat/)

By the outbreak of war he was with the 6th Anti-Aircraft Regiment in France and was billeted on a farm in Arras. Looking for somewhere to hang his clothes, he opened a wardrobe and a pile of human bones and skulls came clattering out. Was he living with a mass murderer? Thankfully not. The farmer’s explanation for the skeleton in his cupboard was that the farm had been the site of a leper colony in medieval times though why he felt the need to keep the macabre relics in his wardrobe, Pat never did discover.

He came out of France through Dunkirk and was posted to Glasgow. His plans to marry his sweetheart were postponed as she had joined the WAAF and they had no hope of a decent life together until the war was over. He began to grow bored of sitting on an anti-aircraft site, of humdrum duties and of life back in Britain.

9dunkirk
Troops arrive back in Dover following the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk © IWM (H 1647)

He wasn’t alone in this feeling of ennui; Britain’s esprit de corps had been punctured by the disaster of Dunkirk and the nation’s morale was rapidly deflating. Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew that Britain needed to regain the upper hand and so he proposed the raising of an elite, ‘butcher and bolt’ raiding force; a force that would become known as the Commandos.

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