Exceptionally brave but rarely identified, they operate in the shadows to devastating effect. Lord Ashcroft tells the stories of three legendary Special Forces soldiers
For virtually all of my life I have had a fascination with bravery. It was inspired by my late father, Eric, who took part in the D-Day landings. And it has drawn me, again and again, to the exploits of the Special Air Service (SAS) and other “special ops” soldiers – men who go undercover behind enemy lines or work in small, elite units and launch hit-and-run raids against larger forces. Their raw, premeditated courage sends a shiver down my spine.
Over the years I have built up the world’s largest collection of Special Forces medals. Some date back to early in the Second World War, others were awarded for service in Malaya, Dhofar, Northern Ireland, the Falklands and the First Gulf War. All were awarded for outstanding courage either under fire or in highly dangerous situations. Here are the individual stories behind three of them.
Commissioned as a second lieutenant into the 6th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, he was awarded the Military Cross in 1940 for rescuing three men, including one who was seriously wounded, from a burning house during the retreat to Dunkirk. He was then tasked with holding a bridge over the Canal des Moëres at Téteghem, which he did for three days before taking one of the last boats – a paddle steamer called the Medway Queen – back to Britain.
Garland then volunteered for service with the newly formed No 11 (Scottish) Commando, members of which would later join the fledgling SAS. After rigorous training in the Scottish Highlands, he flew with the rest of his unit to Palestine to take part in the invasion of Vichy-controlled Syria and Lebanon. The plan was for the commandos to carry out an amphibious assault landing on an enemy position on the Litani River.
Garland distinguished himself in this famous operation by drawing the fire of a sniper who was picking off Allied soldiers. He deliberately revealed himself to ascertain the sniper’s position, then manned a Bren gun, shot him dead, climbed into a boat and became the first man to cross the river – a display of bravery that earned him a bar to his Military Cross.
After this, not content with his efforts on land, Garland applied to the RAF to become a fighter pilot and, in March 1942, was posted for pilot training in Southern Rhodesia. He carried out numerous sorties over the Western Desert and was promoted to flight lieutenant in November 1943, before moving to Italy to fly Spitfires.
Shot down behind enemy lines in May 1944, he was taken prisoner. For lesser men, being a prisoner of war would have been a respectable end to their part in the conflict, but Garland – despite splintering his shinbone and receiving burns to his hands and face when his fighter plane caught fire – simply saw it as a new challenge. In a letter to his parents in August 1944, he explained: “I was taken prisoner immediately on reaching the ground and spent seven weeks in hospital at Mantova. I made three unsuccessful attempts to escape from there, but finally managed to escape from the hospital train to Germany on June 17 by jumping out of the window at night.”
Garland evaded capture, fought alongside the Italian partisans and eventually secretly returned to Allied lines in January 1945. Finally, more than a year after the war ended, he was awarded his third and final decoration, an MBE.
Bill Pickering, who is still alive, still married and goes to the gym every day at the age of 91, was a Special Operations Executive (SOE) wireless operator who, after being parachuted into northern Italy in February 1945, spent almost three months fighting with the partisans towards the end of the Second World War.
Despite the death of two officers who were with him, he took part in an epic episode of clandestine warfare. In his memoir, The Bandits of Cisterna, Pickering describes in vivid detail an ambush by an estimated 60 German soldiers on one of his team’s hideouts.
“[Capt John] Keany said: ‘Don’t be silly, Bill. They couldn’t creep up a hill like this without us seeing or hearing them.’ To the best of my recollection, those were Keany’s last words. I had been standing by his side as we spoke, with my radio transmitter in a pack on my back and my Marlin slung over my shoulder. For no reason I could ever explain, I suddenly felt frightened, vulnerable and exposed. I moved two or three paces away from Keany’s left side. As I did so the German submachine-guns opened up. I flung myself to the ground and saw Keany’s chest neatly stitched with a row of bullets.
“Four other partisans had been cut down by the initial burst from another submachine-gun to our right. The rest of us hurled ourselves full length on to our stomachs as the bullets whistled inches overhead.
“Everything that happened next did so without any conscious pause for thought or consideration. First, I loosed off several rounds from my Marlin in the general direction of the enemy guns. The Calabrian, Tony and another partisan named Gino on my left followed my example. Then I motioned for the Calabrian to fire a burst while I scampered round on my hands and knees to get behind him. I fired a burst and he crawled at top speed to the other side of Tony. Then the Calabrian gave covering fire while Tony dashed to the far side of Gino.
“In this way, by keeping the Germans’ heads down and running like hell, we retreated off the hill. Whether it was our fear or our geographical advantage that benefited us most was hard to tell, but as we escaped from the immediate danger, we ran into more trouble from an attack on our left flank. Germans with submachine-guns were hiding behind trees as we ran down the slope. They were 200 yards away but well within firing range.
“For a few agonising moments we were pinned down. We knew it was impossible to stay flat on our faces behind what little cover was available. In a few more seconds, the Germans ahead of us would have reached the top of the ridge.
“In the cowboy movies I had watched as a child, this was the time when the 7th Cavalry arrived on the scene with bugles blaring and sabres flashing.
“On this occasion it was Renato who came to the rescue without any fanfare of trumpets, just his usual calm efficiency. He and his men had got across to the shelter of some trees on our hill a minute or two before us, running at full pelt as soon as the first shots were fired. They were now our saviours as they poured a hail of withering fire into the trees where the Germans were hiding…”
Pickering took part in a lot more action, until April 1945, when Allied forces finally reached Turin. He was awarded the Military Medal for “outstanding qualities of courage, determination and resourcefulness”.
Graham Watts is a pseudonym requested by the individual concerned because of his crucial role in what was almost certainly the most successful surveillance coup during the whole period of “the Troubles”. Watts, who worked for a secretive Army unit called 14 Intelligence Company, was at the heart of an undercover operation that all but wiped out the Provisional IRA command structure in Belfast at the time through the arrest of 17 of its leading members.
Among those seized were the entire hierarchy of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade and arguably the three most wanted men in the city at the time: Gerry Adams (officer commanding), Brendan Hughes (operations officer) and Tom Cahill (finance officer).
Watts’s award was the first DCM to any member of the Special Forces in Northern Ireland.
Earlier this year, the undercover operative gave me an astonishing account of the surveillance operation he staged:
“By mid-1973 we were building up the first comprehensive picture of the IRA. But there were still huge gaps in our picture; we had photographs of many suspects but we didn’t know their names. And we had many names, but no photographs to put them to. And there were others who were no more than rumours – no picture, no name.
“When we identified a ‘player’, or even if we just had a name or photo, we gave him a code; C3, B2, D1, etc. The white-haired, stooping old man I was watching this day on the Falls Road was C5.
“He was on foot and I was sitting in my car, a grey Triumph Dolomite, from where I could see him amble up the road in front of the red-bricked terraced housing. The road was wide and busy, I knew I didn’t stick out and was confident that C5 wouldn’t get too close to me. He let himself into a house through a poorly maintained front door.
“It looked promising. Even if we identified some more players, put a couple more pieces in our picture, it would be a success. However, what we all hoped for was a major bust, lifting some of the IRA’s top men.
“The man we really wanted, who was on the top of our list, was just known as A1. We had no other details, but it was believed he was dangerous, ruthless, the heartbeat of the Provisionals. Apparently, no act of terror from the IRA in Belfast went ahead without his express say-so. For a while nothing happened at the house and I reported [via radio] the lack of movement back to my boss, Harry. Then another character arrived. He walked past the house, then walked back again, then past the house again. I could tell something was up, he was checking out the locality before knocking on the door. I sensed an IRA brigade meeting was going ahead. Sure enough, the man returned quickly to the house, knocked on the door and went in.
“Then it happened again, another dodgy-looking, steely faced man walked towards the house. He was tall, thin, bearded and bespectacled, and he certainly wasn’t out for a summer stroll. He followed the same routine as the first visitor.
“I sent the commentary to Harry [over the radio]. Then another suspicious-behaving character arrived and followed the same routine as the first two. I was certain I had a brigade meeting on my hands. It was quite probable that the length of people’s lives was being determined inside the house. They could be drawing up a hit list, arguing about whom to kill, where to plant the bomb and whether to warn the authorities about it.
“Whatever was going on I knew these were ‘players’ we had to lift. When I felt that all who were going to turn up had arrived, I advised Harry to get the regular Army in and let the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] in on it.
“My adrenalin began to flow as I waited for the raid. But then a man started walking across the road towards me. I’d been clocked by a lookout.
“The man rolling towards me was squat and youngish, a new recruit I guessed. He wore dirty blue jeans and a crinkled shirt with the sleeves rolled up. I didn’t think he was carrying [a gun], but I checked my weapon again. When he got to me, he announced that he was from the ‘Civil Defence Community’ – a synonym for Provisional IRA.
“‘I don’t want anything to do with your f—ing Irish s—,’ I bellowed at him. There was no point in trying to put on an accent to disguise my West Country roots; if he had only half a brain, he would have seen through it.
“‘My boss is doing some business around the corner, I’m waiting for him,’ I explained.
“‘What f—ing business?’ the lookout screamed in my face.
“‘F—ing insurance,’ I returned, with equal volume. ‘I don’t give a s — about your Irish s—, I don’t f—ing want to be here.
“‘F—ing watch it,’ he warned, before storming off. My cover was shot to pieces and I fully expected the lookout to dash to the house and inform those inside of my presence. But, remarkably, he seemed to buy my lie and then wandered off. I assumed he was still watching me, to see what I did.
“Then, within 30 seconds, I saw Bill, one of my team, dressed in shirt, tie and carrying a briefcase, walking towards the passenger door. An insurance salesman. Nice one, Harry.
“Bill opened the door and got in. I drove off quickly.
“‘You’ve got to drop me off and get to the safe house at the edge of the city. Your cover is blown.’
“‘He might have bought the lie,’ I tried.
“‘Got to assume he knows – he will after the raid, anyway.’ I grudgingly admitted what I knew was the truth and dropped off Bill before leaving for a secret address.
“I had never known frustration like it. I had done everything properly and we’d got lucky – then it all went pear-shaped, my cover was blown and I had no idea of knowing how the raid finally went. When I reached the address in a safe, Protestant area of Belfast suburbia, I sat in my car with the radio waiting for news.
“Eventually, it crackled into life. ‘Success, Graham,’ announced Harry. I could almost see his chest puffing up with pride. ‘We’ve basically lifted the IRA’s Army Council. We couldn’t have had a better result.’” Later I got a look at the terrorists from behind one-way glass at the RUC’s Springfield Road barracks.
“’That one there,’ said a Special Branch officer, ‘is Brendan Hughes. Nasty character. He’s a murderer, terrorist and IRA leader. His speciality is bombing. The next is Owen Coogan, Brigade intelligence officer [later the alleged director of operations]. Then there’s Tom Cahill, 38 years old, can’t get much higher than him in the IRA. See his face, the scars: that’s from when the Official IRA tried to assassinate him two years ago.
“‘And the bearded one is Gerry Adams, Brigade Commander. He’s been interned before, even had secret talks with the British Government about a peace prospect. We’ve been after him for over a year. He’s the biggest catch.’
“Harry and I smiled in satisfaction, then Harry said to me: ‘We knew of them all, at least by reputation. Gerry Adams is A1.’”