At the age of seventeen, Kenneth McAlpine ran away from the Repton school to join Churchill's new elite special force, the Royal Marine Commandos. As the youngest member of the youngest commando force, after three months he found himself fighting on the beaches of Normandy. In We Died With Our Boots Clean, McAlpine tells his own unique story of World War II and his highly eventful military career.
From an unusual encounter with Montgomery and Patton, a concerted attempt to kill a sergeant major and his best friend’s arrest for swearing at the Queen of Holland, McAlpine paints a fascinating picture of commando lifeand the harsh training that prepared soldiers for frontline combat in an eliteunit. Full of absorbing anecdotes such as his time in a military prison and a rescue operation at a concentration camp, this book is an essential part of a World War II enthusiast’s library.
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We Died With Our Boots Clean
The Youngest Royal Marine Commando in WWII
By Kenneth McAlpine
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Kenneth McAlpine
All rights reserved.
1945: Holland – a Taster
It was March, the weather had changed for the worse, a fierce wind blew from Siberia and a good deal of snow fell on 3 Section crouched by the roadside trying to brew tea in a disused biscuit tin. Archie Duff, five feet four inches tall on a good day, whose Dad ran a greasy spoon on the Great North Road, was in charge and not doing terribly well. Fred and I were guarding our backs. Without warning, some 20 German soldiers emerged from a small wood 50 yards away. We saw them first, the tea brewing operation was abandoned and after a brisk fire fight which we won thanks to the Section machine gun being handy, the enemy surrendered. There were a dozen survivors, their shoulder flashes showing them to be Hitler Youth SS who had an appalling reputation in Normandy where they had carried out atrocities, including the garrotting of Canadian paratrooper prisoners with their own parachute cords. We lined them up with their hands clasped behind their necks while Archie and I went forward to search them and collect their weapons. Fred stood to one side, his sub machine gun at the ready. As we worked along the line of prisoners, the German on the flank opposite Fred flipped a stick grenade from his boot and lobbed it just wide of Fred; it rolled into a ditch and exploded. Fred started shooting, sweeping along the line until his magazine was empty. There was a long pause, a collective gasp from 3 Section, and an almost orgasmic groan. Fred's reply to the section was 'Up yours an all!' and he stamped off up the road to make the tea.
The next day was Fred's birthday and mine; small flakes of snow littered the ground and the wind continued blowing from the Russian Steppes. 3 Section had just been fighting their way through a small village vigorously defended by Dutch SS troops who fought with small ropes around their necks shaped into a gallows knot to remind them of their fate if captured by their fellow countrymen. One house remained to be searched before we could move on towards a brew of hot, inevitably awful tasting tea. Fred and I were detailed to do this undemanding job. We approached the steep steps of a smart detached house undamaged by the fighting. I waited below to cover Fred while he moved up ready to hammer the door in. He was on the top step where the door opened and out came a German general. We knew his rank because of his opening remark as he stood looking down at us, pistol in hand.
'I am a full general in the Wehrmacht and I wish to surrender to an officer of equal rank.'
'And I'm Adolph bleedin' Hitler, drop that pistol or I'll blow yer bleedin' head orf' replied Fred. The general retained his pistol.
'I am a full general in the Wehrmacht and I will not surrender to a private soldier, I will only surrender to an officer of equal rank.'
'Where am I going to find a full bleedin' general around here? Drop that bleedin' pistol and put yer 'ands up or I'll blow yer bleedin' head orf.'
'I repeat,' said the general 'I will only surrender to an officer of equal rank' and he continued to keep a firm grip on his weapon. 'If you don't drop that pistol and put yer ands above yer 'ead by the time I count to three, I'll blow yer bleedin' 'ead orf' said Fred, and he started to count. The full general had just got to 'I repeat I will only ...' when Fred shot him. As he fell down the steps, quite dead, Fred said 'Perhaps that will equal things up a bit.'
Just then Lieutenant Bird arrived. He was an amiable chap with a voice that reminded me of Stanley Holloway's character of the same name: 'his tonsils needed pruning.' 'What have you been up to now?' he asked Fred, who told him. 'Oh God,' said the Lieutenant, 'just think of all the paperwork. Get him buried quick.' We did so in a bed of what Archie Duff, a keen gardener, said were likely to be geraniums. Fred claimed the episode to be a moral victory. He was to have the chance of another moral victory that afternoon.
We were having a quiet smoke on the first floor of a small house in the next village, separated from the rest of the section who were busy searching houses on its far side, when a distinctly large German tank rumbled into the village and pulled up outside our temporary den. Without consultation Fred dropped a grenade down onto the tank. If he had waited 30 seconds he could have popped it neatly into the tank as its officer opened the hatch. Of course that might have blown up the tank and us with it, not that subsequent events took much of a turn for the better. The grenade bounced off the side of the tank and exploded in the doorway of the house. We raced across the room and shot through a small window onto the kitchen roof, from there onto the ground and thence via a cabbage patch, over a wall and into a bed of manure. The tank backed off a short distance and blew the house into small pieces. Fred reported that we had repulsed an attack by a heavy armoured vehicle. We are still waiting for the medal.CHAPTER 2
1930–1938: Early Days
I suppose I was about five when my parents promoted me from having a nursemaid to a full-blown nurse. Nurse James was certainly that and a good deal of sexual dawning emerged, at any rate on my side. She had a large welcoming lap and an enormous bosom which to my surprise and delight swayed free of any moorings excitingly to and fro. Above all, she was welcoming and warm, smelled deliciously of talcum powder and Knights Castile soap and creaked about the nursery in a mass of old fashioned leather accoutrements. She slept in the same room, taught me my prayers, hugged me a lot and made me feel very excited. I thought she was worth half a dozen mothers.
I enjoyed saying prayers and was encouraged to compose my own. I usually started off with, 'God bless Mummy and Daddy', and followed up with everyone I liked that I had come in contact with during the day. I finished with our four dogs but reversed the order promoting the dogs if father had shouted at me, or my older brother Ronald had thrown me into a pond. On a really difficult day under Nurse James' successor, I left everyone out except the dogs. 'God bless Taffy, Tinker, Puck and Sam, and make everyone else as nice as them' ran my main prayer that night.
Eventually some lucky chap snapped Nurse James up and married her, leaving me in the care of a thoroughly unpleasant woman called Nurse McGuffie, who confiscated my teddy bears and beat me using an ebony-backed hairbrush with fiercely unpleasant bristles. When she was finally dismissed, after I had complained about her through floods of tears, my mother asked 'Why didn't you tell me about her before?' She knew little of the fear imposed by an out and out bully.
However, worse followed in the form of another tyrant, Madame Dupont, who spoke little English and took me to watch French horror films. One particular example of the genre haunted me for years. It involved a multiple murder where the villain invited several guests to dinner and, when they were all seated, disappeared behind a curtain, threw a large switch and electrocuted all his guests who shot into the air with ghastly expressions of dismay and horror, before resuming their seats in a state of utter rigidity, quite dead. Their host then did peculiar things to the women and relieved the men of their wallets. For a very long time I wandered our house at night armed with a golf club and torch, too terrified to settle down. Father found me once and gave me quite a beating with a Malacca cane. It was small but hurt quite as much as the earlier hairbrush. It was an age before I dared complain about the awful Madame Dupont.
Occasionally I found some light relief with mother when she was free from sitting on almost every committee in the county palatine and I enjoyed our weekly visits to the cinema. One day, arriving home after seeing George Arliss in The Iron Duke and an exciting recruiting film for the RAF, which we sat through twice, we met a well dressed stranger coming down our main staircase.
'Good afternoon, Madam,' he said, 'the pipes are quite alright now.'
'Oh thank you' mother answered.
'I'm off on my holiday now, Madame' the man advised her and tapped a large suitcase. Mother wished him a pleasant holiday and he left by the front door with most of her jewellery.
On another occasion we stopped to give a lift to a rather distressed looking woman mother spotted by the roadside. Once in the car the woman produced a knife, pointed it at mother and kept saying 'drive on, drive on, don't stop!'
'I'm going to drive you home' Mother said, with splendid presence of mind. The woman thanked her and we pulled up outside a nearby police station where we all dashed in including the sad woman with the knife.
Despite all this palaver my next and final nurse was an absolute winner. Her brother held a first mate's ticket with the Cunard line and we went round lots of splendid ocean liners together as they arrived and sailed from Liverpool. Not least she showed me the delights of Edinburgh rock in all its six wonderful flavours, and that was well worth waiting for.
About that time I reached the advanced age of seven and was sent to a cheerful school held in the house and grounds of a former Lord Mayor of Liverpool where we were taught history from a book called Our Island Story and learnt that one English man was worth half a dozen French men and the same number of Scotsmen any day of the week, and we only lost the Battle of Hastings because the French cheated by feigning retreat, while the Scots did much the same at Bannockburn by digging unnatural hazards before the fight had even started.
Girls gave me a lot of trouble at this stage. I was almost the only boy in our road and was pestered by any number of little girls who invited me to their parties and offered to kiss me if I ate three slices of cake. I tried not to but I liked cake. A girl called Denise asked me to her party and reduced the going rate to two slices and eventually the embargo was removed entirely and I was kissed more or less non-stop.
Denise once said to me, 'If you show me yours, I'll show you mine' and when I asked her what she thought mine was, she said 'Your water spout of course.' I was on my way out to the garden to look for it when I met my older sister who explained this esoteric fact of life to me and ticked Denise off. Back at school, Rhoda Hunter, whose father made pork pies on a rather large scale, used to gaze at me and twang her knicker elastic. I was known, unfairly, as the King of Sefton Park and while still only seven I was sent away to boarding school.
Whatever went wrong later at public school, the next five years spent among the Worcestershire hills in the care of a really good preparatory school, Abberley Hall, were splendid and I treasure the memory still. To be sent away from home to a boarding school at the age of seven is not an easy experience, but once I recovered from the initial shock and mild despair I felt content, positive and outgoing. Everything was straightforward and manageable, familiar, full of commonsense, strong routine, with no differentiation, sudden changes or mystery. It was not a home-from-home but it was admirably suited to its era and my needs at that time. I think the dormitories provided as good an insight into the general attitude as anything. No one saw any reason to spoil us with comfort, warmth, cosiness or style. It was not unkind nor unusual; it was the way things were in the 1930s.
The dormitory floors were bare boards but heavily polished, and there were marble washstands with chipped enamel jugs and bowls. There was a rota for boys to fetch water, often cold, seldom more than warm, for washing and to carry away the slops, which were poured into heavy buckets and emptied regularly down the sluice. Toothbrushes were made of bone, wood and bristle, and soap came in large carbolic blocks. There was no central heating and bedside drinking water could freeze on cold nights. We had chamber pots under the beds, which were sometimes used as curling stones, sent skilfully across the highly polished floors only to hit a cast iron bed leg and shatter, distributing the contents in all directions. The beds were of a model from ancient military barracks and hospitals of the First World War. We had two sheets, one red woollen blanket and a pillow, but we could supplement the blanket with another one brought from home should a cold spell threaten. Bedding was folded and stowed in ways prescribed and we made our beds after breakfast every day. We had to learn and rigorously apply 'hospital corners', a complex fold and counter-fold procedure. All this was followed by dormitory inspections with minus and plus points entered on a scoring card and all preceded by early morning cold baths.
Our evenings were punctuated by a strict sequence of events: we had a time to say prayers, a time for Bible reading by rote from the dormitory volume, spoonfuls of nourishing malt in the nurse's surgery, Vaseline for chapped knees and wintergreen lotion for bruises. We were allowed to play one gramophone record followed by early lights out and a secretive reading of comics by torchlight in our beds. Our daytime activities were quite different, being full of variety and cheeriness. We played all manner of sport and games – the Headmaster was an international cricketer and amateur footballer – and we enjoyed weekly silent films and exciting lectures given by men who had survived adventures with cannibals and crocodiles.
In the grounds there was a very deep black lake where a famous diver came to show off his craft. We all took turns to pump air to him as he descended wearing an immensely heavy old-fashioned diving suit. He disappeared for quite a long time and we had hopes of an exciting climax when he suddenly came to the surface covered in a great cloud of bubbles and an abandoned overcoat. He took off his great helmet and lit a small black cigar, puffing away happily. After a few minutes we helped him replace his helmet and down he went again omitting to throw away the cigar. He was down quite some time before his frantic messages to bring him to the surface were understood and acted upon. He burst to the surface the cigar still between his teeth.
We had to suffer occasional beatings for undisciplined behaviour but there was nothing unfair about them as was the case later at my public school. When I finally left the school there was an exciting 'birds and bees' lecture from the Headmaster. It was quite explicit and included the information that a man placed his 'thing' inside a woman's 'place'. When asked what the 'place' was he said it was a small hole. For some reason I enquired the size of the hole and received the reply 'quite small'.
'What if the man's 'thing' won't fit in the hole?' He laughed and he didn't often laugh.
'You needn't worry, you'll find it will cater for all sizes.' I felt relieved.
I left this splendid school with very considerable regret.CHAPTER 3
1938–1942: One or Two Changes
For three years I was sent away to Repton, now a famous and splendid place in all respects but then a rather grim, disorganised public school in the North Midlands from where I eventually ran away to war. It wasn't a really bad school though it lacked a regularly attending headmaster, and its teaching staff were either embattled veterans of the Somme, Ypres and Paschendale, belching the remains of their ghastly gas experiences over the classroom, or they were young men away scoring double centuries while captaining their counties before dashing off to Oxford or Cambridge to complete their degrees. After that they would return in their Territorial Army uniforms and still further on they would reappear to show off their ever more splendid forms of military dress. One even came back to show us his tank. Sadly he was killed shortly after.
When I was sixteen I entered an essay competition sponsored by some august body with links to the school, an annual affair of no previous interest to me. The subject was 'Name your favourite historical character and discuss.' Everyone I mentioned it to had chosen Pasteur, Franklin Roosevelt or Leonardo da Vinci. I decided on Bing Crosby. I gave as my reason that he had practically invented the American popular song, had a lovely deep purple sort of voice and made people laugh and be happy. My entry was rejected as being frivolous and that Crosby was without wide enough influence. When I said that 24 million people listened to his weekly radio show and 40 million worldwide to his Christmas broadcast (60 million when television came along), I was reluctantly allowed to go ahead. I persuaded a musical friend to write the notes of Bing's signature tune as my headline statement and I won first prize of a book token, which I sold on to my serious book reading sister and spent the money on a fine collection of Bing's early recordings, which kept me singing and whistling for ages.
Bernard Foulquies, or B.M. Foulquies de Mariabiault to give him his full name, was a close friend during my school years at Repton and with whom I shared the bottom two places in classes pertaining to all things scientific and mathematical. He was in school in England during the early part of the war – having been sent by his father to perfect his English – and though the war intervened he stayed put along with his father who was the owner of a family silk business left behind in Normandy and a friend of de Gaulle, a colonel in the Free French Army gathering in England at the time.
Excerpted from We Died With Our Boots Clean by Kenneth McAlpine. Copyright © 2011 Kenneth McAlpine. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 1945: Holland – a Taster,
2 1930–1938: Early Days,
3 1938–1942: One or Two Changes,
5 1944: D-Day,
6 1944: Post D-Day,
7 September 1944: Walcheren,
8 1945: Holland,
9 April 1945: Fighting Almost Finished,
10 1945–1946: Post Armistice and Germany,