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.

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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.

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Men of No. 3 Commando Brigade rest at Akyab while waiting to embark for the Myebon Peninsula © IWM (SE 2300)

Commando Training 1940s Style: Night Opposed Landing

The weeks from September to December of 1943 were very busy at Achnacarry Castle as six units from the Royal Marines, comprising 180 officers and 3,300 Other Ranks, underwent their commando training.

There weren’t enough instructors to handle such a large intake and so the camp commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Vaughan, recruited more from amongst the best of those who had recently passed the course. One of Vaughan’s guiding principles had been that, “every instructor must be of exceptional calibre, and all of them must be able to perform every evolution slightly more accurately, slightly faster, than the best of the men under their instruction.”
(The Green Beret by Hilary St. George Saunders.)

44 RM Commando was the first unit to arrive and they reached Spean Bridge station on the 7th of September. The instructors met the train and put them through their paces from the moment of their arrival: they were ordered to disembark, not in the conventional manner, but by dropping down onto the railway tracks and then clambering up onto the platform on the opposite side. This was immediately followed by a seven-mile speed march to ‘Castle Commando’.

Spean Bridge railway station

Their three weeks of training culminated in what was one of the most memorable and dramatic elements of the course – the ‘night-time opposed landing’ – which was a realistic representation of an amphibious assault, carried out in darkness and using live ammunition.

Groups of eight each boarded a canvas-sided Goatley boat at Bunarkaig boathouse and then paddled it the quarter of a mile across Loch Lochy to the opposite shore. Before setting off, weapons were stacked into the bottoms of the boats and everyone was warned to keep their heads down as, almost from the moment of setting off, bursts of machine gun fire would be aimed in their direction by the instructors on the bank.

Tracer ammunition lit up the sky and gave it a look of Firework Night but the crack of bullets inches away from the boats were real and potentially lethal. On the final approach to the shore, hand grenades were lobbed towards the boats sending plumes of water high into the air and visibility was further reduced when the instructors ignited smoke grenades and a cloud began to creep across the Loch.

The men leapt into the icy, shallow water and waded ashore before scrambling into position as quickly as they could. Machine gunners rushed the Brens forward and began firing at metal targets on the opposite hill while the assaulting troops ran, squelching through the mud and got into position.

Commandos dash up a beach under cover of a smokescreen during training in Scotland, 28 February 1942 © IWM (H17484)

As soon as the gunners had scored enough hits, the instructors yelled the command to assault. The marines clawed and squelched and slipped their way up the bank until the land flattened out and they were faced with another line of metal targets. They threw themselves onto the sodden ground, took aim and fired. Panting for breath, they scrambled to their feet and ran towards a battalion of straw-filled sacks. They speared them with bayonets, teeth gritted.

A white Very flare was fired, signalling that the time had come to skid and slide back down towards the boats and begin the journey back across the Loch. As they began to paddle away, the instructors bombarded them with grenades and machine gun fire again and although the instructors were skilled in shooting to miss, the marines could feel the bullets whistling past them and occasionally thumping into the paddles and smacking them out of their hands.

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14Green Beret

Pat Porteous VC (Final Part)

They pushed on under intense fire from the flak tower and from snipers who were targeting them from the windows of the battery office and the surrounding buildings. Some of the German snipers had been shocked from their beds and with pillow-ruffled hair they were still dressed in pyjamas.

Crouching down behind a four-foot-high bank, Pat contacted HQ to report they were in position and ready to assault. Moments later, in a perfectly choreographed move, a squadron of spitfires strafed Hess with cannon fire and then Lovat fired off three white Very flares which was the signal for B and F Troops to fix bayonets and charge the gun positions.

“Right, let’s go in.” Pat led the rush forward, leaping over the embankment and into open ground towards the gun sites. He felt a punch in his thigh and a boiling hot pain spreading inside his flesh and realised he had been shot again They darted between buildings, in and out of buildings, tossing grenades, thrusting with bayonets and firing off rounds until the site was a maelstrom of smoke and explosions and screams.

The first gun pit Pat came to had been hit by a mortar and was full of German corpses so he lurched in the direction of the next. He refused to surrender to the pain in his leg. He tried to imagine he was in a rugger scrum; he had to keep going until they were over the line. His rifle had been smashed and he couldn’t reload his pistol with only one hand. He staggered on, tumbled into a gun pit and was dragged out by two of his men. The demolition team jumped into the pit and went to work: open the breech, ram in the charge, close the breech, set the delay mechanism, take cover. The gun barrels split open like peeled bananas. The job was done. Pat finally yielded and collapsed from pain and loss of blood.

Pinned to the ravaged remains of the battery commander’s wall was the duty roster for 19 August 1942:
06:45 – 07:00 Frühsport (early morning exercise)

The Germans had certainly had their early morning exercise but not of the type they were expecting; scorched and mangled bodies littered the ground.

There weren’t enough stretchers to go round so the medical orderlies improvised. Anything suitable was stripped from the battery office and surrounding buildings. Mademoiselle Bertin’s lavatory door was about to go on an excursion to England. Pat was lifted onto one of the doors with two German prisoners acting as his stretcher-bearers. The terrified prisoners had to wade out into the sea almost up to their shoulders to load Pat onto Peter Scott’s gunboat. He had his leg and hand patched up before being transferred onto a destroyer for his journey back to England.

A German prisoner, Unteroffizier Leo Marsiniak, being escorted at Newhaven. He was captured at the gun battery at Varengeville by No. 4 Commando © IWM (H 22597)

Once back on British soil, Pat was sent to the Canadian General Hospital at Bramshott and during his six-week stay there he realised he had suffered the family wound: his father and his brother Lawrie had received thigh injuries in exactly the same spot during their wars.

His hospital reverie and recuperation was interrupted one day by a telephone call from his mother. He had been awarded the Victoria Cross. He was astonished. “Brave?” he exclaimed, “Good Heavens, I was terrified!”

In 1962, Pat returned to the beaches of Dieppe as a Lieutenant Colonel to participate in a ceremony to remember those who had lost their lives twenty years earlier. Operation Cauldron had been a success, Operation Jubilee of which it was a small part was not so: around 4,100 men – many of them Canadian – had been slaughtered, injured or taken prisoner.
Embed from Getty Images
At two minutes to two on the afternoon of 19 August 1962, marking the time when the last shot had been fired in 1942, a wreath was lowered into the sea, ships in the port sounded their horns and three French jet fighters swooped low over the square where the veterans stood, silently remembering. Pat’s thoughts were with his 4 Commando comrades, with Captain Pettiward, Lieutenant Macdonald and the other brave commandos who never really had a chance to experience life. The following day Pat journeyed along the coast to meet the inhabitants of Berneval who wanted to name a street in his honour.

Patrick Anthony Porteous VC died on the 9th of October 2000 at the age of 82. Remnants of the blockhouse and site of the Hess battery are still visible today and a monument was erected on the beach at Sainte-Marguerite-sur-Mer in August 2002 to the memory of the soldiers of No. 4 Commando. And it is still possible to take a stroll along Avenue du Captain Portheous in Berneval-le-Grand.


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Pat Porteous VC (Part 3)

The cliffs at Vasterival loomed over them and the Phare d’Ailly lighthouse winked rhythmically out over the calm waters. As the lighthouse beam brushed over, someone on the cliffs must have spotted them, as a series of white star shells burst overhead and turned the brightness up from dawn to daylight. Shortly afterwards three RAF fighter bombers streaked overhead and headed inland along the line of the River Saâne, drawing enemy fire away from the commando convoy on its final approach into Orange 2. A volley of flak and the dashed line of tracer bullets punctuated the sky.

Pat sprang out of the landing craft and scrambled up the steep, pebbled beach until he reached a barrier of barbed wire just above the high tide mark. The commandos had come prepared for this. They began to make bridges of chicken wire to clamber across but the enemy opened up with mortar fire and wiped out eight members of B Troop with their first shell. Fortunately, the Germans then decided to increase their mortar range and began to focus their attention on the retreating craft but without scoring any further hits.

Once across the wire, Pat joined the remainder of B Troop, Force HQ and F Troop in running towards the east bank of the River Saâne, their attention momentarily diverted by a nightdress-clad old lady who had emerged from one of the nearby cottages to yell, “VIVE LES ANGLAIS!” and proffer swigs from the bottle of wine she was clutching.

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The Dieppe shoreline viewed from a landing craft as it approached; fires are burning in the background as a result of naval and aerial bombardment © IWM (H 22612)

The grass alongside the swollen, overflowing river was long and made the going difficult but they were encouraged by the crump of mortar bombs and crack of small arms fire indicating things were progressing well over at Orange 1. After they had waded as fast as they could for about half a mile they came to a bend in the river which was their pointer to turn east across open ground until they reached a small wood at Blanc-Mesnil. An almighty boom and a wall of flame visible above the trees swelled their confidence that the Orange 1 party were achieving what they had set out to do. From the wood, B and F Troops split up and headed in different directions towards their forming up points.

Pat accompanied F Troop as they made their way through the woods until they reached the rear of the battery compound which was surrounded by an embankment and topped with barbed wire. They found an area of the perimeter fence that had been trampled down by German soldiers sneaking back late from leave and so were able to get over fairly easily. Once inside the complex, they came upon a group of enemy soldiers in a farm courtyard, preparing a counter-attack against the Orange 1 group. The startled Germans were cornered and cut down in a barrage of Tommy gun fire.

A Douglas Boston Mark III of No. 88 Squadron RAF, flying from Ford, Sussex, heads inland over France after bombing the German gun batteries defending Dieppe (seen at upper left). © IWM (CH 6541)

Pat and F Troop continued to move forward through a patchwork of cottages and hedges all the while coming under heavy fire. As they were moving along a lane towards the battery, a German materialised in front of Pat and threw a stick grenade at him; Pat instantly retaliated by hurling a grenade back. Both men flung themselves to the ground until they heard the double thunderclap of the explosions and then, while the dust was still flying, they leapt back up to resume battle. The German was up a fraction quicker and fired a shot that passed through Pat’s left palm and lodged in his wrist. The enemy soldier then swung his aim towards one of F Troop’s Sergeants so Pat grappled the weapon from the German’s hands and killed him with his own bayonet. It was only then that Pat became aware of the pain in his hand so he stuck a field dressing on it, gritted his teeth and carried on.

Elsewhere in F troop other personal battles were raging; a sniper had killed the troop commander Captain Roger Pettiward as he led the charge. His subaltern, Lieutenant John Macdonald was mortally wounded by a stick grenade. Troop Sergeant Major Stockdale had his foot blown off but continued to fire and pick off the enemy from a sitting position. Sergeant Horne took over command but then he was also killed. F Troop was now without officers, warrant officers or NCOs so ignoring the machine gunfire that was peppering the area, Pat dashed out into the open and joined F Troop to assume command.

Pat Porteous VC

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Pat Porteous VC (Part 2)

When Pat saw an Army Council Instruction calling for volunteers to undertake duties of a special nature, he knew it was exactly the sort of excitement he was looking for. He put his name forward, passed the interview and was told to catch the ferry to Arran and report to Colonel Lister of No. 4 Commando.

He spent the next two and a half years undergoing tough training in Troon. He watched his 4 Commando comrades disappear from time to time to take part in operations that included raids on the Lofoten Islands and at Saint-Nazaire. Each time Pat was left behind wondering when his turn would come.

His chance finally came in August 1942 when the Commando was sent to Weymouth to begin training for another operation. They lived on board a former Belgian cross-channel ferry, HMS Prins Albert, which was anchored off Portland and they began assaulting the cliffs along the Dorset coast. They practised landing from Assault Landing Craft at Redcliffe Bay at Arish Mell and at Worbarrow Tout. They practised at dawn and they practised at dusk. They rehearsed a daylight attack on the anti-aircraft battery at Osmington. They constructed paths of chicken wire across barbed wire on the beach and scrambled across them.

East Lulworth: Arish Mell © Copyright Chris Downer and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

On the 11th of August, they were moved into billets in Weymouth town and the Prins Albert sailed away from Portland. Pat’s life back on land became a Groundhog Day of mile-long runs first thing every morning; French and German lessons; marching at the double with a full load and marching at the double in wet clothes.

On the 17th of August, Pat and the other officers were briefed about their forthcoming operation which would be codenamed ‘Cauldron’. Their goal was to destroy ‘Hess’, the German six-gun battery on the cliffs near Varengeville, west of Dieppe. Each of the guns was sunk into a six-foot deep pit of around twenty-five feet in diameter and had a range of more than ten miles. Major Derek Mills Roberts would lead a party assaulting the battery from Vasterival on ‘Orange Beach 1’ and the commanding officer, Lord Lovat, would land with B and F Troops further west along the coast near Quiberville on ‘Orange Beach 2’, to execute a wide flanking movement and attack the gun emplacements from the rear. Pat was told that he would be with Lovat’s party and would act as the liaison officer between the two groups.

Lord Lovat giving orders to his men © IWM (H 18953)

The following day, the Commando left Weymouth and travelled by road in convoy to Southampton Docks where the Prins Albert was waiting for them again. After they had boarded, the ship was immediately secured and all ranks were briefed about their role in Cauldron and its wider impact as a part of ‘Operation Jubilee’.

At quarter past seven that evening, the Prins Albert, disguised as a merchant vessel, set sail. A few hours earlier Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten had boarded the ship and told 4 Commando that their task was of the utmost importance and they must see it through whatever the cost. Lovat had added that it would be the most difficult task they had ever faced but they must keep in their minds that they represented the cream of the British Army.

Pat tried to get a few hours sleep but the nerves scrabbled away at the inside of his belly and thoughts looped round and round behind his closed eyes. A breakfast of stew was served at half past one in the morning and then Pat smeared his face with black camouflage paint, checked and double-checked his weapons and equipment.

By half past four he was crammed into one of four Assault Landing Craft snaking towards the shore…

Section of ‘Dieppe: The Area of Battle’ from ‘Combined Operations 1940-1942’ first published by HMSO in 1943.


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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.

Flickr: Leo Reynolds

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.

Wellington College (Flickr: 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.

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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