At the age of seventeen, Kenneth McAlpine absconded from the prestigious Repton School and joined the Royal Marine Commando’s, one of the elite special forces that Winston Churchill had ordered to ‘set Europe ablaze’. By 1944, they were an integral part of the invasion of Europe.
This book follows Kenneth and his comrades from the rigours of Commando training, through the Normandy beaches to Victory in Europe. After three months training he found himself in action on D-Day, securing the east flank of the Normandy beachead. Several months savage fighting followed, before they took part in the capture of Walcheren Island, a little-known but key action that enabled the opening of the port of Antwerp. Skirmishes followed on Dutch islands and waterways, before the unit was sent as part of the occupation force in Germany.
There is much that is interesting about the experiences of the rank and file soldier. Not that grand strategy is unimportant. But without a wide range of eyewitness testimonty, it is not unlike a skeleton without flesh on its bones. Kenneth McAlpine’s account is the kind that adds colour to our understanding of conflict. In particular, the character and psyche of the British serviceman, and how he approaches fighting. There are some golden anecdotes about relations between officers and other ranks. At one point the troop even conspired to kill their Sergeant-Major, and reading McApline’s account you cannot help but sympathise. One of his colleagues was disciplined for insulting the Queen of Holland. McAlpine considers a broad range of subjects – discipline, rations, weapons, uniform, other units, punishment, reasons for fighting and the diversity and peculiarities of his fellow Royal Marine Commando’s. Not only did I find it very interesting, but also amusing and a pleasure to read.
If this was a purely military history book, I would perhaps be more conscious about a couple of things. Several times McAlpine goes from anecdote to anecdote, which can be confusing. Also, there are several minor errors of accuracy. But this is not a textbook, and we must respect Kenneth’s memories. Such is the nature of human rememiscence, especially from a distance of 65 years.
I have always been a fan of the veterans account. For too many years the history of warfare consisted of the ‘great man’ school of history, where Generals were the most important people, and battles consisted of grand strategy and not much more. And particularly at a time when there are fewer and fewer veterans alive, it is all the more important that we encourage them to tell their stories. In years to come will be very glad that they did.