A history of gamekeepers that went off to war
When it comes to defending Great Britain, keepers do their bit, says Julian Schmechel
With conflict raging again in eastern Europe, we might do well to reflect on the tremendous contribution made to the defence of these islands by those involved in fieldsports. It may seem obvious that those practised in deerstalking or gamekeeping might make an ideal irregular military force, but it was not until the Boer War that such a body came into existence.
British officers were faced with the Boer commandos, a skilled mounted enemy who would snipe with great accuracy from extreme range into massed ranks of our soldiers, before melting away into the veldt. This force of Boer farmers had no intention of fighting a conventional war and inflicted grave casualties on the British forces. Something had to be done and tactics changed.
The brainchild of Simon Fraser, 14th Lord Lovat, Lovat’s Scouts came into being in January 1900 as a Scottish Highland yeomanry regiment, recruited from keepers and stalkers from Highland estates. These men were expert in marksmanship, fieldcraft, living off the land and approaching their quarry unseen
by using contours and cover.
Lovat believed the unit could beat the Boers at their own game. They proved a great success and a considerable thorn in the side of the Boers. The leader of British forces Lord Roberts described the Scouts as “half wolf and half jackrabbit”, so unconventional were they.
They were commanded by David Murray until he was killed in action in South Africa in 1901, then Lord Lovat took command of the regiment himself at the age of 29. Many of the keepers and stalkers who served in this campaign were mounted on the Highland ponies they had ridden at home in the Scottish glens.
Having proved their worth, the Lovat Scouts were to see action again during World War I at Gallipoli, Salonika (now Thessaloniki) and on the Western Front, where in 1916 they formed the British Army’s first sharpshooter detachments, specialising in sniping. With the use of telescope and rifle, skills honed in deerstalking were transferred directly to the front line.
The Scouts were also the first to employ the gillie suit, a camouflaged garment often of their own creation, and proved without doubt their regimental motto, Je Suis Prest — “I am ready”. This was a unit without equal in the annals of warfare and the very pinnacle of the special forces. Accurate sniping in trench warfare not only kills the enemy, but it also damages moral beyond measure.
With the coming of World War II, the Lovat Scouts numbers were further swelled by countrymen from Lancashire and Yorkshire, as the regiment was sent to garrison the Faroe Islands to guard against a feared German invasion. While there, members of the regiment, armed with a Bren gun, succeeded in shooting down a Luftwaffe bomber and captured its crew.
Training for the Lovat Scouts was extremely tough and rigorous, as confirmed by a friend of mine. This old Highlander recalled how his father qualified for the regiment during World War II by crossing the Cairngorm Mountains at night from Speyside to Deeside. Recruits were dropped at Rothiemurchus and told to make their way, on foot, to Derry Lodge, by 8am. Those who made it were accepted. Those who didn’t were not. Anyone who knows this area well will appreciate the severity of this challenge, for crossing the Lairig Ghru pass in the dark is no small achievement. My friend’s father passed the test, arrived at Derry Lodge in time and was accepted into the Lovat Scouts.
This, however, was only the beginning of training, for in December 1943, those same Highland keepers and stalkers set sail on the Mauretania for an 11-day voyage to New York. On arrival, the regiment caught a train from Grand Central Station north to Canada. Following a five-day journey by rail, the Scouts arrived at their destination in Jasper National Park. Here, in the Tonquin Valley and on Mount Edith Cavell, they were to be put through training in winter and mountain warfare.
Over the next month, the Scouts became proficient in the use of ice axes and crampons, and learned to cross-country ski with full pack and rifle. They also slept out in snow holes in sub-zero temperatures, proving their mettle beyond doubt. Training completed, the regiment travelled by rail to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where it embarked for Europe and combat.
Clan Lovat’s involvement with elite troops did not end there, however, as ‘Shimi’, the 15th Lord Lovat — described as the “handsomest man who ever cut a throat” — was attached to and led No 4 Commando. This fledgling fighting force, sanctioned by Sir Winston Churchill himself, also drew many of its recruits from Highland sporting estates.
Between 1939 and 1945, the Highlands was known as ‘Commando country’, as Glenmore, Inverailort and Achnacarry were all used as training grounds. Recruits were put through their paces with the Lee Enfield .303, Thompson submachine gun, Bren gun and commando fighting knife. I know of one Highland glen where, to this day, spent .303 rounds by the handful may be dug out of old, peat target butts, used by the commandos in World War II.
It was on these same Highland sporting estates that commando units were taught how to forage, set snares and to butcher and cook game; skills vital to survival when on active service. These fledgling special forces went on to mount raids on the coasts of France and Norway, and to put fear into the hearts of the Nazi occupiers. German garrisons at Maaloy, Vaagso and the Lofoten Islands all felt the force of those commandos trained in the Highlands.
Slightly less glamorous perhaps, but still of great importance to the war effort, the Home Guard numbered many older gamekeepers and stalkers among its members. Keepers, by virtue of their occupation, were armed, had an intimate knowledge of the countryside by both night and day and, in their perennial war against poachers, were well versed in the employment of stealth and unarmed combat. In the West Country, mounted contingents of keepers and farmers patrolled Dartmoor and Exmoor against incursion by Nazi paratroopers; their shotguns loaded with lethal ball cartridges supplied by the Ministry of Defence.
A good deal less well known was the auxiliary force of resistance fighters, code-named Scallywags. This body of men was formed in 1940, also on the instruction of Sir Winston Churchill and following the fall of France and the evacuation at Dunkirk. Farmers, farm workers, gamekeepers and poachers were recruited initially in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, as these were the counties most likely to bear the brunt of initial invasion.
Recruited men were trained in the use of explosives, and how to kill silently with garrottes, knives, piano wire, knuckledusters and clubs. Already capable Shots, they were to use moderated .22 rifles for the assassination of German officers and collaborators, and were supplied with Thompson submachine guns as well as hand grenades and Smith & Wesson revolvers.
Once the Nazis had invaded and formed a bridgehead on the south coast, the Scallywags would leave their homes and families and meet at small, secret, underground bunkers — which also held their arms cache — hidden in woodland. From these bases, and in six- to eight-man patrols, they would carry out sabotage under cover of darkness by blowing up roads, bridges, fuel dumps and railways. The Scallywags would also ambush enemy columns and disrupt communications.
Each man carried rations for two weeks, after which he was expected to live off the land. As the war went on, such units were formed the length and breadth of Britain, but as each member had signed the Official Secrets Act, he could tell no one, not even his closest family, exactly what he was doing. This was not gentlemanly warfare but a desperate attempt to impede an occupying enemy and to give precious time for the British Army to fight back.
That we live in peace and security today is due in no small part to generations of keepers, farmers, poachers and stalkers, who were prepared to pay the ultimate price to defend our freedom.
Lest we forget.