Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons – the book

The remarkable story of a WWII Commando who transformed British comedy

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5Troop_ No5 Commando_SEAC


The end of WWII for 3 Commando Brigade

On the 6th of August 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima and three days later another was dropped on Nagasaki. On the same day, Russia declared war on Japan and invaded their puppet state of Manchukuo. By the 10th of August, Japan had offered to surrender on condition that Emperor Hirohito be permitted to remain in power but the offer was rejected by the Allies. Finally, on August the 15th, Japan unconditionally surrendered.

The burnt-out shells of two small buses or trucks are the only recognisable objects amidst debris following the dropping of the atomic bomb ©IWM (MH 29426)

The Second World War was over. As soon as they heard the news, the men of 3 Commando Brigade celebrated by firing 2-inch mortars and letting off flares since they had nothing else available with which to mark the end of the war. The bar in the Officers’ Mess was opened, even though at that time they would usually have been tucked up and sound asleep in their charpoys, and as the drink flowed, the officers kept running outside and firing their .45 Colts into the night sky. Their Commanding Officer was none too pleased!

The following day, the Brigade left Kharakvasla and reached Ghilpuri railway station at two o’clock in the afternoon. They had arrived with plenty of time to spare as their train to Bombay wasn’t due to leave until four o’clock the following morning. They had been warned that on arrival in Bombay they would be boarding a White Ensign vessel and that they must therefore present themselves looking smart and spruce. The muddy conditions they had left behind at Kharakvasla Camp meant their appearances needed some work to get to the required standard and so they engaged the help of some little boys who washed their boots and gaiters in pools of water at a penny a time.

At Bombay they embarked on HMS Glengyle and set sail for Penang as part of Operation Tiderace with the plan they would accept the formal surrender of the Japanese on the Georgetown racecourse.

HMS Glengyle ©IWM (FL 22266)

The Glengyle’s Skipper gave the officers access to his Mess and as the ship headed out to sea, a heavy swell caused much seasickness but this didn’t deter them from taking advantage of the drinks provided at Navy prices. Back on shore, a telegram was sent to Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten from the Chiefs of Staff:

It has now become most urgent to get a land force to Hong Kong as quickly as possible. Accordingly you should arrange for earliest despatch of one brigade from forces under your command in order to reach Hong Kong as soon as possible after the arrival there of units of the British Pacific Fleet
(National Archives DEFE 2/1686: Top Secret Cypher Telegram dated 18 August 1945)

On the 19th of August, Mountbatten replied to say that he could make 3 Commando Brigade available and providing he received approval by the 21st of August, they could reach Hong Kong around the 5th of September.

As a result, HMS Glengyle was diverted to Trincomalee and remained moored in the Ceylonese harbour for just over a week. During this time, the Glengyle’s Skipper withdrew the privilege of being able to drink the Navy’s Mess stocks from 3 Commando Brigade’s officers and so they had a whip-round and despatched Captain Balchin and his batman to replenish the stocks of alcohol from the NAAFI onshore instead.

Arrangements were made and briefings given regarding the new destination and eventually, on the last day of August 1945, No. 5 and 44 RM Commando on board HMS Glengyle and No. 1 and 42 RM Commando on board HMIS Llanstephan Castle, set sail for Hong Kong.

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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Men of the 3rd Commando Brigade receive their rum ration aboard Landing Ship Tank LST 304. This vessel sailed as part of the first convoy to Hong Kong following the Japanese surrender ©IWM (SE 4945)

A Commando Christmas

In December 1944, 3 Commando Brigade was based in Teknaf and everyone’s thoughts had begun to focus on a long-awaited Christmas. 300 ducks had been delivered to the Brigade at the end of November and they were being nurtured and fattened in a wire-fenced enclosure, upon which hung a sign reading, “No sniping: this is your Christmas dinner!” There was an anxious moment two weeks before Christmas when Air Dispatchers in Dakota aircraft, which dropped the South East Asia Command (SEAC) newspapers into the camp, tried to ‘bomb’ the ducks but thankfully, they missed!

Photograph courtesy of Stephen Donnison

Christmas dinner was greatly anticipated as the commandos’ everyday meals weren’t so much a cordon bleu as a déjà vu style of cuisine: soya link sausages and ‘train smash’ (tinned tomatoes) for breakfast and dehydrated potato and bully beef for dinner. They were so bored with their repetitive diet that one member of the Brigade felt compelled to compose a poem on the subject:

…And as for the food,
I could be really rude
And mention that bloke ‘Soya Link’.
Sometimes it’s in batter
But it really don’t matter
It’s subject to no camouflage.
It’s really disgusting –
My ‘tum’s’ nearly busting
Through eating the old bread and marg!
(Farewell, Soya Link’ by R.F. Russell)

The Brigade played host to several VIPs during December: Major General Robert Laycock, the Chief of Combined Operations, spent a couple of days with them and by the middle of the month, whispers that Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten would be visiting them had begun to circulate. The rumours were true and Lord Louis swept into camp for an overnight stay on the 19th of December, surrounded by a scramble of reporters, photographers and film crews.

Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten (centre) leaving his plane accompanied by Vice Admiral C. Moody (left) and Captain L. A. Cubitt (A), RN ©IWM (A 27274)

Christmas Day finally arrived and when the dinner gong – fashioned from a shell casing – was struck, the officers entered their Mess to find it had been decorated with strips of coloured fabric and cotton wool snowflakes. After a tomato soup starter, the plump ducks were served up with sausages; roast potatoes; stuffing; green peas; Brussels sprouts; bread sauce; and jelly. After that there was Christmas pudding soaked in brandy containing three sixpences, followed by fresh fruit; nuts; raisins; and crystallised fruits. Beer ran like water.

They paused in the middle of their meal to listen to the King’s eight-minute speech on the wireless which he addressed to the millions, “scattered far and near across the world.” He said that his proud and grateful thoughts were with the nation’s fighting men and asked that, “God bless and protect them and bring them victory.” He stressed that the defeat of Germany and Japan was only the first half of their task and the second was to create a world of free men, untouched by tyranny.

After dinner the officers toasted their loved ones and raised a glass to their wives, sweethearts, parents and siblings. They continued raising glasses until the early hours, resulting in half an inch of gin on the floor of the Officers’ Mess the following morning!

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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Photograph courtesy of Stephen Donnison

Journey to Castle Commando, 1943

The train chugged and chuffed its way northwards and the view from the window morphed gently from the smoke-scarred red brick of Birmingham into craggy, granite hills, criss-crossed with tumbling, spilling streams. Sheep and deer, startled by the train, scrambled over the rocks with a look of panic on their faces. The skeletons of isolated, roofless, grey-stone cottages gazed back blankly through their empty windows.

Eventually the train halted at Spean Bridge and the station became a mass of khaki as soldiers burst out of almost every carriage of the train. Kit bags were loaded onto a waiting lorry but anyone who expected to jump on after them was going to be disappointed. They were ordered to form up in threes as they would be speed-marching the rest of the way – seven miles.

Led by a kilted pipe-band for the first part of the march, the tramp, tramp of boots left Spean Bridge station towards ‘Castle Commando’. The ‘tramp, tramp’ would often be more of a ‘splash, splash’ as if it wasn’t already raining, it soon would be; it always seemed to be raining. They crossed Thomas Telford’s bridge spanning the River Spean and then began the march up the steep hill leading away from the village, past battalions of pine trees standing to attention. Once over the Caledonian Canal at Gairlochy, they followed a narrow road which meandered around the bottom edges of Loch Lochy until the sight of an imposing granite structure in the distance began to wink at them through gaps in the trees.
The Commando training base was located in the house and grounds of the 24th chief of Clan Cameron, Donald Cameron of Lochiel. Achnacarry House 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 was 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. The tree-lined River Arkaig curled around the back of the house and the surrounding landscape rose to a series of contrasting peaks: barren mountains and gentler forested slopes which were daubed with mustard yellows, terracottas and greens which changed from pastel shades to almost black as the cloud shadows brushed over them.

One of the first things the men saw, as they followed the pipers who had rejoined them for the final procession through the gates and into the grounds, was a row of mocked-up graves: each earthy mound was encircled by white stones and had a wooden cross planted at one end. Every cross bore an epitaph which detailed various dangerous actions:
“This man fired a 2-inch mortar under a tree.”
“This man failed to splay the pin of his grenade.”
“This man advanced over the top of cover.”
Any hopes the officers may have had of special treatment were quickly dispelled when they learned that not only would they undergo exactly the same training as their men but they may well have to endure additional instruction in the evening. If they were lucky they would share a room in the Castle with other officers but if there were large numbers to be accommodated, junior officers may well have ended up sleeping in a Nissen hut or under canvas. They would be washing in cold water and wouldn’t be enjoying the services of a batman. The only concession was that they wouldn’t have to dress for dinner in the Officers’ Mess during their time at Achnacarry, unless the Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Charles E Vaughan, specifically requested it of course.

Achnacarry’s Mess with its leather armchairs and high ceilings embellished with elaborate cornices had received a recent makeover. A talented artist, Lance Corporal Brian Mullen of 4 Commando, had sketched commando soldiers onto the walls to look as though they were scaling the window frames and parachuting from the ceiling and above the bar at one end of the room, he had painted a large Combined Operations Command emblem flanked by ships and tanks and a formation of planes flying overhead.

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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Life after Hill 170: Akyab, 1945

Larry adjusted the flame of his dilapidated hurricane lamp and inserted a cigarette between his lips. The light from the oil lamp fell gently upon the features of Captain Charles Beard who was seated opposite him. Away in the distance a radio was playing but it was all but drowned out by the insistent shrilling of the crickets. He sipped at the hot mug of coffee his batman had brought him.

He began writing to his girlfriend, Margery, and haunted by his recent experiences, his letter had a somewhat melancholy air, perhaps explained by the final two sentences: “A very good friend of mine in this unit – Nick Bryant by name – had many worldly sins for which to account. They were all washed away about two weeks ago when he died with a machine gun burst in his stomach.”

The men of No. 5 Commando were now in Akyab for a rest period after their recent epic battle for Hill 170. They were treated to two ENSA shows and had the pleasure of being entertained by the renowned beauties Frances Day and Patricia Burke within a fortnight of each other. Another visit – perhaps not quite so easy on the eye – was from the Brigade Commander who took a salute at a march past after having inspected the unit.

Patricia Burke entertains pilots of an RAF Squadron while sitting on the wing of a Republic Thunderbolt Mark II © IWM (CF 374)

Larry spent time in the Troop Office, writing more letters and signing them off with a variety of ‘Goonish’ pseudonyms such as Lieutenant Tooting-Smythe and Bertie Hope-Flatwater. He watched the Troop Clerk, ‘Titch’ Shoreman, hard at work with, “his tongue following his writing like a faithful dog.” The sun shone unrelenting but a slight breeze blew Larry’s letters and papers off the table and hither and thither on the floor. He retrieved them, swearing softly and decided to pop along and see Captain John Sergeant. It being a Sunday, he found him unshaven and undressed and writing letters. Larry picked up John’s tom-tom drum and tapped out some noisy rhythms. The tom-tom was beginning to crack under the strain of being beaten by every officer who dropped in to visit John. The two squabbled about several unimportant topics for a short while and ended up having a brief tussle during which time John’s mosquito net was torn and his towel dirtied. Larry made a rapid and strategic withdrawal. Boredom had started to get to them all.

A couple of diversions relieved the tedium towards the end of February. A Brigade Swimming Gala provided an alternative to a favoured pastime of imbibing large quantities of rum and Larry swam for the No. 5 team, helping lead them to overall victory.

The Stephens Special (or ‘The Death Dive’) – Larry Stephens self-portrait

Rum was back on the agenda again though when the officers were invited to a party at the Sisters’ Mess of the local hospital. According to Larry it was, “the usual combination of liquor, food, liquor, liquor, small talk and liquor. I became enmeshed (I know not how),” he said, “with a pudding-faced female who prefaced every remark with: ‘well – I know you’ll think I’m awfully bla-a-a-asé but…’  I was somewhat stinko, as usual, and she was sitting opposite me with her knees drawn up under her chin.

‘Isn’t it awfully chilly,’ said she.

I remarked that I found it a little warm, too warm in fact.

‘Oh well,’ she said, ‘I suppose you’re wearing far more clothes than I am.’

‘Yes,’ replied I, ‘For instance, I’m wearing pants.’ After that remark she left me, thank God.”

Larry later discovered that one of the other officers, “who had been outside with her earlier on (looking at the stars, of course) had her pants in his right-hand trouser pocket…

He always was absent-minded.”

Men of 3 Commando Brigade rest at Akyab © IWM (SE 2300)

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

Brigadier KRS Trevor CBE DSO’s account of The Battle of Hill 170

Patricia Burke performs for British Troops at Akyab © IWM

By Royal Command-o!

Just before 8 o’clock on the evening of the 3rd of November 1952, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Margaret arrived at the Palladium in London’s Argyll Street. A crowd estimated at 10,000 lined the streets, eager to catch a glimpse of Her Majesty’s first attendance at the Royal Variety Performance as monarch.

Max Bygraves, Vera Lynn, Norman Wisdom and Tony Hancock were all on the bill but appearing towards the end of the show, in a section based on a BBC radio programme called ‘In Town Tonight’, was an act described in the official programme as ‘The Commando’. This Commando, Gerry Brereton, was a ballad-singing baritone and having only recently become a professional singer, he was relatively unknown.
During the war, Gerry served with No. 3 Commando and in 1943 his unit took part in Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. In July 1943, after successfully capturing the town of Cassibile, 3 Commando embarked on HMS Prince Albert with the aim of landing in the Bay of Agnone and then seizing the Ponte dei Malati bridge. The bridge connected Syracuse to Catania and as it was essential for a rapid advance, it had to be taken intact.

There was a shortage of landing craft and so the commandos had to disembark in two waves. The first wave landed around seven miles from the bridge and came under immediate enemy fire. A few hours later, the second wave landed and suffered the same fate. Despite this, the commandos managed to get off the beach and push inland. The first group was in position at the Malati bridge at 3 am on the 14th of July where the single platoon of Italians garrisoned there was quickly overcome. The commandos settled in to defend their position until reinforcements arrived.

Operation Husky: The Sicily Landings 9-10 July 1943. Commando troops can be seen in their landing craft going towards the harbour boom in the setting sun. © IWM (A 18086)

Over the course of the next few hours they came under intensive mortar and shell fire and the number of casualties grew: 30 were killed, 66 wounded and 59 reported missing or captured. Among the wounded was Gerry Brereton who lost his sight in an explosion.

Before the war, Gerry had a promising career as a footballer with Derby County but now totally blind, he needed to find a new way to earn a living. His journey to the London Palladium can be tracked through his mentions in the magazine of St. Dunstan’s, a charity helping blind ex-Service personnel (now known as Blind Veterans UK).

In 1946, the ‘St. Dunstan’s Review’ reported that Gerry had secured a job as a telephone operator at an iron foundry but less than a year later, there came the first of several announcements to say he could be heard in a radio broadcast. In 1949 he received a fantastic reception from the audience when he took part in Hughie Green’s ‘Opportunity Knocks’ and by 1950 he was described by one of his local BBC assistant senior producers as, “the North’s leading vocalist.” His success growing, Gerry decided to move with his family from his home in Derby to see if he could hit the big time in London.

He was a guest singer in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall and then spots in several radio and TV broadcasts culminated in his invitation to appear at the Royal Variety Performance. He walked on stage unaided, having memorised the route during rehearsals, and sang ‘Here in My Heart’. The audience took him to their hearts and he was the only artiste to be called back to take a second bow.

The next day, the newspapers were full of praise for him. A recording contract followed and it wasn’t long before Gerry released his first record on Parlophone, ‘Wyoming Lullaby’.


A version of this appeared in the Commando Veterans Association journal ‘Dispatches’ in April 2016.

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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Operation Lightning: The Liberation of Akyab

On the 31st of December 1944, details of an assault on Akyab Island, codenamed ‘Operation Lightning’, were announced. The target date for the Operation had originally been set for mid February but intelligence had been received to suggest that the enemy were withdrawing, leaving Akyab only lightly defended. It was therefore decided to strike as soon as possible.

On New Year’s Day 1945, Brigadier Campbell Hardy and No. 5 Commando’s Commanding Officer, Charles Pollitt, briefed all ranks on the forthcoming operation. It was believed that a battalion of the Japanese 111th Regiment was still on the island, their troops numbering around 700. Recent air reconnaissance flights suggested that most of the enemy’s defences were in a dilapidated state but the beaches were believed to be mined and there were wire fences close to where the commandos would be landing as well as five machine gun bunkers connected by trenches.

Half an hour before sunrise on the following day, the commandos moved out of their camp and in the sheltered waters of the Naf River at Teknaf, they embarked on two destroyers. They anchored off St. Martin’s Island for a few hours and then at six o’clock in the evening they set sail again.

While they were at sea, an artillery air observation officer carrying out a further recce of Akyab was unable to see any sign of the enemy. He landed in a paddy field and was greeted by the locals who presented him with garlands of flowers and told him that the Japanese had evacuated the island. As this meant the commandos would be landing unopposed, it was decided to cancel the preliminary bombardment that had been planned. Despite forecasts of stormy conditions on the way, the Commanders still wanted the landing to go ahead though.

At half past ten on the morning of the 3rd of January, the commandos transferred into assault landing craft (LCA). They crouched down low inside and the line of LCAs moved away from the destroyers, unfurling like a long ribbon and then fanning out as they approached the shore. The sound of bagpipes from one of the craft bobbed across the waves.

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

As the first LCAs touched down, the commandos ran up the soft sandy beach, wriggled through the wire fence and headed towards the line of bushes and trees just beyond. They pointed loaded rifles into the slits of bunkers that had been sunk into the sand dunes and checked the crumbling trenches that snaked between them but all were empty.

Five minutes later, the next wave of LCAs landed, together with a film cameraman who shot footage of the commandos smiling into the lens as they waded ashore. Three of the men drove a branch into the sand and tied a white ensign to it before joining their comrades who were now assembling on the beach and getting ready to box in for the night

Over the next two days, No. 5 cautiously made their way towards Akyab Town. They marched across open, dusty ground and through corridors of long grass that waved either side of them in the breeze.

By the time they arrived in the town and succeeded in ‘liberating’ it on the 5th of January 1945, they had passed scenes of devastation and neglect. There wasn’t a single building that hadn’t been ravaged by the Japanese. The jungle had started to reclaim some of the land and was in the process of swallowing up roads and sticking leafy tongues through broken windows. Peeling painted notices and signs hanging precariously from collapsing buildings pointed to the past: ‘Akyab Hotel’; ‘Exit – Saloon Passengers’; ‘Mackinnon, Mackenzie and Co’. Stone lions roared at creepers winding their way around pagodas and felled Buddhas lay on beds of brick and rubble. The town clock had stopped at five minutes past three.

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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Men of No. 3 Commando Brigade rest at Akyab while waiting to embark for the Myebon Peninsula © IWM (SE 2300)