Wednesday, 18 September 2013

No. 5 Commando - Clachaig in 1940.

Here's a fine glimpse from a time gone by. We're well aware of the commando training that was based at Achnacarry (which is now commemorated by the Commando Memorial above Spean Bridge), but it seems that Clachaig was also involved too. We can just imagine those rugby songs being belted out in the wee bar after some gruelling training on the hills. Many thanks, Nick, for sending this in.

Hi All,

As a frequent visitor to Fort William (every November for the Annual Gathering of Commandos & Remembrance Services), I always try and pay at least one visit to Clachaig Inn during my trip...

Whilst carrying out research for the Commando Veterans Association (CVA), I came across a mention of the Clachaig Inn, in the obituary of Geoffrey Rees-Jones and thought you'd like another anecdote to add to the Inn's History page.


Geoffrey Rees-Jones

Obituary courtesy of The Telegraph, 4th October 2004.

Geoffrey Rees-Jones, who has died aged 90, was a founder member of No.5 Commando and a Welsh international rugby player; a pioneer in the training of Special Forces during the Second World War, he subsequently had a distinguished career in the academic world.

Rees-Jones joined No5 Commando in July 1940 at its inception. The War Office was concerned by the lack of mountain troops and asked that soldiers with a knowledge of climbing come forward. Rees-Jones volunteered and was stationed at the Clachaig Hotel in Glencoe where he and his comrades ran a course for several months and proved to the War Office that ordinary soldiers could be turned into mountaineers. Comrades remember that he had a fine tenor voice and an inexhaustible repertoire of rugby songs.

In May 1942, Rees-Jones accompanied No5 Commando, part of 29 Infantry Brigade, in the invasion of Madagascar in an operation against the Vichy French. His objective was a large battery which covered the beach, for its capture would enable the main force to take the port of Diego Suarez from the rear.

Rees-Jones led the first two landing craft and, at 2am, was the first of his unit ashore. "We caught the French fast asleep," he said afterwards. "There was a proper scrap, but we took the battery without a casualty."

No5 Commando returned to England via Cape Town, where Rees-Jones's second-in-command was taken ill with polio. The doctors wished to keep him, but he wanted to come home and get married. Rees-Jones organised a commando raid on the hospital, kidnapped his friend and brought him back in a troopship.

In December, Rees-Jones was posted as an instructor to the newly formed Commando Mountain and Snow Warfare Training Centre (CMSWTC) at Braemar, in the Cairngorms. The commandant was Frank Smythe, the Himalayan mountaineer, and the chief instructor John Hunt (later leader of the successful Everest expedition of 1953).

In 1943, CMSWTC moved to North Wales and, under the command of Rees-Jones, the Lovat Scouts were trained as a mountaineering battalion. The War Office, however, decided that the commandos needed more shore work and that the training centre should become a cliff assault school.
Rees-Jones moved the centre to St Ives, Cornwall, to train in cliff assaults in preparation for D-Day and pioneered the concept of using small boats (dories) to land commandos on otherwise inaccessible cliffs. He made use of the north and south coasts, depending on the direction of the wind.
He was an extraordinary innovator, and all sorts of gadgets were produced in the blacksmith's shop in St Ives. The most significant was the "grip fast", a metal ring with big hooks attached which made a belay point on cliff tops. It could also operate on sand, and could anchor a "Death Slide" rig which took a considerable load.

Cliff assaults at night provided training of the most exacting sort. The dories would bump against the Carrack Gladden cliffs at Hawk's Point and the climbers would attempt to assault the cliffs and the steep slope above. Men who fell into the sea had to swim for Carbis Bay beach in the blackout.
"We did demonstrations," Rees-Jones recalled, "to a lot of bloody generals in the stupidest places." The accident rate was high. Early in 1944, Rees-Jones and Professor Noel Odell (remembered for his part in the ill-fated British Everest Expedition of 1924) were doing a coastal reconnaissance when they were stopped by a policeman who had taken them for spies.

The night before D-Day, Rees-Jones escorted a raiding party up a Normandy cliff to capture a shore battery. After attending Staff College, he was posted to Germany as brigade major of 4 Commando Brigade and was mentioned in dispatches.

Geoffrey Rees-Jones was born at Ipswich on July 8 1914 and educated at Ipswich School, where he had a notable academic and sporting career. He took an open scholarship to University College, Oxford, where he read Physics and won three Blues for rugby. He also represented his college in rugby, cricket, athletics and chess.

Rees-Jones was capped five times for Wales as a wing three-quarter. He owed his success above all to his speed; it was said that he could run 100 yards in 10 seconds with his football boots on. He secured a place among the immortals of Welsh rugby in 1935 by going over twice and scoring the winning try two minutes from time to give Wales victory over the All Blacks by 13 points to 12. In the celebrations that followed, he helped to push a piano over a hotel balcony.

His first teaching appointment was at Eastbourne College, where he taught maths and physics and was himself taught climbing by the chemistry master. He moved to Marlborough College in 1938, but the outbreak of war intervened and he enlisted in the Royal Corps of Signals.

After the war, Rees-Jones returned to Marlborough as a housemaster, again teaching maths and physics, and also taking charge of rugby. In 1954 he moved to the Isle of Wight, serving for nearly four years as Headmaster of Bembridge School.

Rees-Jones went to the Isle of Man in 1958 to take up the post of Principal of King William's College, which he held for 21 years until his retirement in 1979. He made an outstanding contribution to the college, raising academic standards, improving facilities and attracting pupils from across the world.

Geoffrey Rees-Jones died on September 13. He married Unity Sanders in 1950 on All Fools' Day, and they took the joke further by going to the Scilly Isles for their honeymoon. She predeceased him and he is survived by their son and daughter.