Lochbroom Folk

Lochbroom's Sacrifice in the Second World War

Page 29

By his daughter Mary MacLeod

The story as far as I remember it from my father James Macleod (Jimmy Cloudy) is that as war approached, all the Seaforth territorials knew they would be called up right away.  I think they had formed very close bonds through drill and the summer camps.  They gathered round the radio in the Morefield Hotel, Ullapool one of the few in the village at the time, and listened to Chamberlain’s speech announcing the war.  Dad sold his bike, assuming he would not be needing it and needing the money more.  I don’t know whether it was the next day, but they all collected at the Drill Hall for the transport: three buses and a car, according to Dad, and one of them said, ‘The car is all they will need to bring us back’. And he was not far wrong, said my father. A recent post in Ullapool Remembers website of a photograph taken that day of the leaving shows that there were indeed three buses and a car. Dad did not say much about the ‘send-off’; I imagine it was still painful to think about the folk saying goodbye who never saw their boys again.

They were billeted in a granary in Dingwall, which was a misery, apparently, it was cold and loads of them got the cold; they then were sent for training down to England and from there were sent to France by boat.  As they approached the French coast, one of them, with a wonderful Gaelic voice (I have it in my head that he said Donnie Beag), at the prow of the ship sang Sine Bhan.  It is hard to imagine anything more poignant.

At first in France, things were good.  They helped with the farm work where they were billeted and got on very well with the local people.  The French locals loved the kilts and bagpipes and the Seaforths were upset when they had to wear battle dress instead. The Seaforths were back in the same French village they had been billeted in 25 years before. Apparently Raigie, who had served in the First World War, was recognised with delight by a local family. 

My father’s great friends were Johnnie Macmillan, his first cousin, Colin Charlie Macleod, and Kenny Macdonald (Kenny Deet).  Dad spoke of a lot of laughs: from killing and cooking hens (one of the sergeants was reduced to the ranks for stealing on one occasion, he had not hidden the feathers well enough), to drinking their way through wine cellars. On one occasion, after they had worked on the farm all day, a group of them were given supper, a pie, apparently chicken, which they all enjoyed. Johnnie Macmillan, who was friendly with the farmer’s daughter and whose French was more fluent, told them to their dismay, that they had been eating frog leg and pigeon pie.

In the North when they were sent up – near Metz – they began to encounter the Germans through brief skirmishes.  A story was of one such foray, when the officer in charge was completely confused about where they were and was leading them in the wrong direction and Johnnie Macmillan (who was corporal of their platoon) had an altercation with the officer and threatened to shoot him if he didn’t go where Johnnie knew was the right direction.  The officer capitulated and Johnnie was correct. All these boys had been poaching on the hills – good practice for that kind of war. 

They had enormous confidence in Major Fraser, who had been in the Great War, too, in the very area where they were now fighting again.  He would join the boys round the fires, said Dad, and ask his batman for his billycan when he had finished with it and eat with them, the same food – a great officer.

They were then transported back through North France to south of the Somme at Abbeville where the June 4th attack took place, with the B company of the 4th Seaforths leading the direct assault on the German positions, up through fields of June grain.  The night before, they were billeted at the hamlet and chateau of Les Alleux. (The chateau is still there, now a Gite. I stayed there a few years ago and the same family still own it though not born at the time.)

Dad said that all the boys were reading their Bibles the night before the battle.  I imagine that with the fear of hell drummed into them in church, death and meeting their maker was perhaps even more terrifying than the battle ahead.

It is clear from a fellow officer’s account, reported in Eric Linklater’s book on the campaign, that Major Fraser knew it was a forlorn hope and that his company would take the brunt of it. They were told by Major Fraser to shoot low – disable not kill – at least that is how Dad understood it. 

They were also told they had to carry on even when any of them went down. All these lads were close. They were advancing under punishing fire and when Dad was wounded, shot in the thigh, his cousin, Colin Charlie, bent down and said, ‘Sorry, Jimmy’.  As he stood up he was shot in the head in front of Dad. My father told me this when we visited the graves in the cemetery at Mareuil-Caubert where many of the casualties from of the Battle of Abbeville are buried. A bitterly painful memory.

There were a number of the lads wounded in the corn field.  Dad began to crawl back but was shot again, the magazine of his rifle exploding in his hand.  They all lay still for an hour or so until bullets stopped coming over then crawled backwards again.  Dad was taken off in a stretcher and told the medics, as he had promised he would, that another lad, Kenny Mackenzie, was still out there.  He did not ever know until we visited France that Kenny had been picked up. We found his grave in a cemetery further South.  (I subsequently searched for his grave on another trip there but did not find it.)  Dad had known that Kenny was dying because he had been shot in the stomach and was in a very bad way.  He just wanted to know he had died with his own people and not out in a field and that Kenny would have known he kept his promise. 

As is reported in the Linklater account, of a 100 men in B company,  only 17 were not killed or wounded in that action. The wounded were taken to Huchenville Chateau, the field hospital, and from there by train to a hospital at La Baule. I feel very lucky that my Father was one of the wounded and that he was lucky enough to have a skilled surgeon treating him in Coventry who saved his arm, which was on the point of being amputated.

My father recovering from surgery, second from the right back row:

He was also lucky to have reached home, being  one of the casualties on the last hospital ship (HMS Somersetshire) to leave France from St Nazaire, in the major evacuation of over 150, 000 soldiers from the Channel ports, known as Operation Aerial, much less famous than the Dunkirk Evacuation, but also vital. My father had said that the trip was terrifying because he was on a stretcher below decks and would have had no chance if the ship had been torpedoed. It was only recently, from an account in the book Sisters in Arms, about the British Army Nurses (author Nicola Tyler) that I understood just how terrifying it must have been.

It seems that the train taking casualties from the hospital at La Baule to St Nazaire was attacked by German planes several times. Loading casualties on ship from the train was also very difficult. The docks at St Nazaire were under pretty constant attack. The stretcher cases had to be carried over in between bursts of firing When the HMS Somersetshire set off, it was fully lit and clearly marked a hospital ship. Despite the war conventions, it was attacked; one bomb fell in front and the other on their port side, missing the ship. The captain doused the lights and sailed in circles then headed for home, the last part accompanied by RAF planes. The courage of the nurses was absolutely heroic. That same day, the HMS Lancastria was torpedoed as it set off from St Nazaire, with the loss of thousands of lives.  

My father mourned Colin Charlie and Johnnie all his life.  I was so glad that I was able to take him and my Mother to France to visit their graves.

They never ever knew what had happened to Johnnie Macmillan.  There were stories that he had died, having been shot while trying to escape – that would have been in Johnnie’s nature, said Dad.  He would not have wanted to be a prisoner. His grave is in Dunkirk cemetery, to the North, which bears out that theory.

My father visiting the grave of Johnnie Macmillan in Spring 1980.

The graves of Major Fraser and Colin Charlie from my last visit to the cemetery in Mareuil-Caubert.

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