A speech by Colin Anson No.10(IA) Cdo 3tp
(nb. click on his name above for more information.)Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I have been asked to speak about the German-speaking Commando unit of which I was a member, which was sometimes referred to as ‘X Troop’, but properly known as ‘No.3 Troop, 10 (I.A.) Commando’ - the I.A. standing for ‘Inter-Allied’. Number Sree Droop vas se Breedish Droop, mostly transferred from the Pioneer Corps for ‘special duties’.
We appreciated the trust reposed in us ‘enemy aliens’ to be allowed to join the Forces at all, at a time when this country was under considerable pressure and in great danger.
Whilst the 87th Company of the Pioneer Corps, in which I originally served, was stationed at Liverpool and then in Wales, a mysterious member by the name of Hartmann joined us, who spoke German with a distinctive Swiss intonation. He was vague about his background and did not explain how he came to be among us but probed our motivations and attitudes. Some of us with a German background were ordered to report at the Grand Central Hotel in London’s Marylebone Road, which was then a transit hub, and those of us who survived the vetting process were informed that we had been accepted for a Commando Troop of which Capt. (later Major) Brian Hilton-Jones was the Commanding Officer.
As a security measure we adopted English names and appointed reliable British friends to be our ‘next-of-kin’ and act as a ‘post office’, through whom we could maintain contact with those who had known us under our old names. We changed names and cap badges on our way to our base at Aberdovey. So Claus Leopold Octavio Ascher became Colin Edward Anson.
We were then put through a very demanding course of training at the Commando Training Depot at Achnacarry in the Scottish Highlands, designed not only to get us very fit but also, I suspect, to put off anyone whose heart was not really in it. We returned to our base at Aberdovey proudly wearing our new green berets! This training was continued in Wales by Capt. Hilton-Jones in a very well designed programme to keep us at a peak of fitness; even if the next period was just an intelligence lecture, we would first double up a mountain and do it on the top. Therewere five-mile jog-marches before breakfast, rock and cliff climbing, mountaineering in Snowdonia, abseiling, armed and unarmed combat. Only live ammunition was used. Our army boots had the rubber soles of the now familiar ‘Commando’ pattern instead of hobnails which allow silent movement and help in rock climbing. And so our Skipper fashioned us into a competent unit of increasingly professional soldiers.
Unlike other commando units, our troop was designed not to go into action as a unit but for small groups of us to be attached to other commando units for operations, to make ourselves useful as German speakers. So all of us have different stories to tell.
In my case, I was with the first small group to leave the Troop, to be attached to No. 40 RM Commando to take part in the invasion of Sicily. Members of Three Troop served in Sicily, Italy, in the Adriatic based on the island of Vis, in Albania and Greece, in Normandy, in Holland and finally Germany, the crossing of the Rhine, and in the Reichswald Forest.
Of our original eighty-six members, twenty were killed in action; most of us were wounded, including myself in Sicily - some more than once. We have with us tonight Ian Harris who was wounded three times, lost an eye and gained the Military Medal, and His Honour Judge Brian Grant who lost a leg in Italy, and so continued his legal studies, leading to a distinguished legal career. Among those killed during the D-Day landings was Max Laddie, who married a girl of Aberdovey. Their daughter is with us here today.
After joining ' A' Troop of No. 40 RM Cdo. I took part in boating and beach landing exercises. We embarked at Greenock in a convoy and only after some time at sea were we informed by Brigadier Laycock that we were on our way to the biggest landing operation yet undertaken: the invasion of Sicily. Having passed through the Straits of Gibraltar we were joined by more ships, growing into a vast armada. The weather turned very stormy. However, as we came into the lee of Cape Passero, the sea became as calm as a mill pond, a great wave of sub-tropical aroma rolled over us and the air was filled with the chirping of a thousand cicadas. During the night of 10 July we landed against ineffective opposition. We split into three columns, one group probing inland, the other two mopping up defenses along the coast. During the following days, we worked our way up the East coast, to Syracuse and then Augusta, the only opposition being from the Luftwaffe in the form of substantial air raids. But then there was a holdup at a tenaciously defended river bridge in the plain of Catania, providing a flat glacis overlooked by Mount Etna. We were embarked on a smart assault ship, the Queen Emma for a landing in the rear of the German positions to solve this problem. But it fell to us to lay a smoke screen covering the shipping in Augusta bay, but leaving us very visible. So the German Stukas concentrated on us and caused many casualties, including both the ship's and the Commando MO's killed.
I was not aware of having been wounded myself, by shrapnel, which penetrated my helmet. It is still there now, encapsulated in the inside rear of my skull. I had tried to help during that long night, but when the attacks eased off, I asked the medical sergeant whether he had any bandages left, as I seemed to have cut my head, but he looked very serious and told me to sit against a wall and not to move – which struck me as odd, as he had had to deal with really serious injuries all night. But then I started to feel faint, and boats came alongside to evacuate the wounded. I was left to the last, which again I found unsurprising as they had serious casualties to attend to. But afterwards I learned that my brain had been exposed and I had not been expected to survive the night. I was taken to No.151 Light Field Ambulance who had set up in an olive grove. I was put to bed between crisp white sheets, feeling enormously comfortable, but then must have passed out. When I woke up again it was the next day, they had performed quite a delicate brain operation fishing bone splinters from my brain, cleaning up the wound and stitching up the skin. I was wearing a Plaster-of-Paris helmet, and the marines trooped in to sign their names on it, and draw a Commando Dagger badge on the front!
I was first evacuated to Tripoli, and then flown to Cairo, where there was a specialised neurosurgical unit. I was downgraded to the B3 medical fitness category, and had to spend three soul-destroying months recovering in an Infantry Reinforcement Training Depot on the Suez Canal to make sure no infections or tumours had invaded my brain, before the hole in my head could be closed by means of a bone graft just before Christmas 1943, and I regained my A1 medical status.
I then re-joined what was now No.2 Central Mediterranean Commando Brigade, about to move to the Adriatic island of Vis. There we spent the summer of 1944, raiding German island garrisons and shipping. The most spectacular action in which I was involved was a raid on the island of Brač in conjunction with the Partisans. The aim was to make as much dust and noise as possible, to divert the Germans away from a hunt for Marshall Tito, then hiding in a cave system at Drvar. We stayed as long as possible, with the SS Panzer Division Prinz Eugen heading towards us, and hoped the action may have helped in Tito's escape. I then saw action in Albania and the liberation of Corfu. Finally, we were sent to Northern Italy to take part in the last actions of the war in that theatre.
When the war ended, the Army Commandos were dissolved and I was attached to the Control Commission for Germany and posted to Frankfurt, to join an interesting unit called FIAT, which stands for Field Intelligence Agency, Technical. Part of my work was to translate records of industrial, medical, and scientific developments during the war years. There were also weeks in Berlin, translating parts of the records of the Ministry of Weapons and Equipment under Albert Speer. It also enabled me to find my mother, who had survived the war in Frankfurt, and to start proceedings for bringing her over to England. After I had married Alice, originally from Vienna - who had served in the WAAF for four years - she was able to see her grandchildren grow up.
How did it feel to return to Germany? To walk these particular streets, with the ghost of a German schoolboy walking ahead, with whom I had absolutely nothing in common any more, was an almost schizophrenic psychological stress. To feel that I had to get back to my own people in the Sergeant's Mess showed me how much I had changed.
In an unexpected twist of fate, a few years ago Alice and I were traveling by train through Austria and were joined in the carriage by an Austrian man and his grandson. They were talking about the war, and we joined in and started to talk about our wartime adventures. Ironically, this man turned out to be one of the Stuka pilots who had attacked our ship off the coast of Sicily, and he may well have been the Stuka pilot who made me a present of a piece of excellent German steel.
I had not seriously expected to survive the war in the Commandos, but there was a job that had to be done. I wanted to repay my debt to Britain for saving my life.