They may have referred to themselves “The Drugstore Commandos” but their mountain warfare instructors in Canada rated them as one of the toughest units in the British Army during the Second World War.
The Lovat Scouts were sent to the Rocky Mountain resort town of Jasper in 1944 to train as a mountain warfare elite. The British had found themselves outfought in Norway and Greece by the Axis mountain warfare specialists and were determined to redress the balance.
The grave of one of the Scottish soldiers in the tiny town cemetery testifies to just how dangerous the training could be.
When Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill decided he needed a unit specializing in mountain warfare, the Lovat Scouts were an obvious choice.
The regiment had been raised by Lord Lovat during the Boer War in 1899. The regular troops of the British army were struggling to beat the sharp-shooting, hard-riding, farmers of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal in South Africa. So Lord Lovat raised a regiment of sharpshooters from the private game wardens and hunting guides from his and his neighbours’ Highland estates. Many of the officers were local landowners.
The newly-formed unit quickly established an excellent reputation for hunting down the Boer guerrilla fighters who continued the war long after the British occupied the Free State and the Transvaal.
After the war ended, the regiment survived as a part-time cavalry unit, recruiting in the Northern Counties of Scotland. The First World War saw Lovat Scouts serve in Gallipoli, Egypt, Greece and on the Western Front.
After the war, the unit was returned to part-time soldiering.
At the start of the Second World War it was sent to garrison the Faroe Islands, half-way between Shetland and Iceland.
In 1942 the Lovat Scouts returned to Britain to become the reconnaissance regiment of the 52nd Lowland Division. Churchill already had his eye on the unit for special work and at one point considered sending them to the Middle East as commandos.
The 52nd Division was earmarked for a mountain warfare role and this meant specialist training for the Lovat Scouts.
In 1943 they started intensive training in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland before heading off to Wales for rock climbing instruction at the Commando School of Mountain Warfare.
But there was a price to pay for elite status. The standard of physical fitness now demanded was one of the highest in the British Army and many of the original members of the unit who could not meet it were weeded out. Around 165 volunteers from other units, many fellow Scots from the 52nd Division, joined the regiment as replacements.
After the training in Wales was completed, the regiment was sent to the Canadian Rockies for even more instruction in mountain warfare.
On the night of January 6, 1944 the Lovat Scouts caught sight of the sparkling lights of the legendary New York skyline – unlike Britain, there was no black-out in the United States. It had been a long dry trip. The White Star Line, owners of the troopship Mauretania, had banned alcohol on board.
But one lucky piper, a man from the remote island of Uist, somehow managed to fill his pockets with bottles of whisky somewhere between the ship’s gangplank and the train to Jasper.
The 2,500 mile journey from New York to Jasper in the Rockies in two special trains took three days.
They arrived to find the tiny mountain resort in the grip of winter. Temperatures were arctic and several soldiers, now designated Mountaineers instead of Privates, suffered frost bite on their march from the train to their quarters a few miles out of town at Jasper Lodge.
The 600 men were issued with U.S. arctic clothing, including fur-trimmed parkas, down-filled sleeping bags, and rubber-soled boots. The man in charge of putting the training program together, Wing Commander Frank Smythe, must have envied the Highlanders their boots. He got to within one thousand feet of the top of Mount Everest in 1933 and might well have been the first man to reach the summit if he had been wearing the U.S. boots instead of British hobnail soles.
The rigorous training soon took its toll. It had been planned to use the local golf course to train the main how to ski. But a lack of snow at lower altitudes meant many of the Highlanders were forced to graduate to the nearby mountain slopes before they were ready. Within a short time 30 men had broken arms and legs or were suffering from serious sprains. A 50 bed hospital had been set up in Jasper to deal with just such fall related training injuries. Being able to ski meant the troops had access to the mountain peaks where they were to learn their mountaineering skills.
Frostbite and snow blindness were major concerns. Some men were slower than others to realize that while the sun might be bright in the sky, a temperature of –20C would freeze exposed skin in seconds.
Major Sir John Brook only survived an avalanche by “swimming” through the crashing flood of snow.
Lance Corporal Sandy Collie, a sturdy well-liked man from Upper Tullochgrue, Aviemore, wasn’t so lucky. While part of training party tackling Nigel Peak on January 20th he was caught in an avalanche along with Corporal Angus Cameron. One of Cameron’s gloves was seen sticking out of the snow after the avalanche had passed and he was quickly dug out. It was Cameron who located Collie’s body about five feet under the snow an hour later. All attempts to revive Collie failed and he was buried in the little cemetery outside town four days later.
Along with instructors from Canada and the United States, the men of the Lovat Scouts learned to construct, and live in, snow holes and snow huts. The Scots were also instructed in cross-country skiing and scaling sheer glacier facers using ice axes and spiked crampons strapped to their boots.
In mid-March six men from an overdue 40-man patrol needed to be hospitalised for frostbite.
That February, March and April, many of the mountains around Jasper were climbed for the first time ever during winter as the rigorous mountain warfare training continued. The peaks conquered for the first time in winter included Mt. Columbia, Mt. Kitchener, Mt. Andromeda and Nigel Peak. But Mt. Bennington defeated three attempts to climb it.
But it wasn’t all exhausting mountain climbs and skiing with 30lb packs.
Compared with the wartime diet in Britain, the men ate exceptionally well. Because of the nature of their work and the fitness standards needed, experts decreed they needed to eat 6,000 calories a day.
Alberta steak and British Columbia salmon were regular fare.
The generous diet also helped discourage the Scots from poaching the abundant wild-life in the Jasper National Park. Bears, wolves, elk, moose, mountain sheep and goats abounded.
There were camp fire songs as the French Canadian instructors treated the Scots to songs such as Aloutte and in turn were serenaded in Gaelic.
Off-duty, there was the Chaba Cinema, Big Jan’s ice rink and Olsen’s Drug Store.
The Scots learned the language of love in Canadian.
For example the British “May I have this Dance” or perhaps even a Scottish “Are ye dauncin’” translated as “Say, can I borrow your frame for this struggle”.
With so many of the young men of Jasper away fighting the war, the young Scots did well for themselves. Across the Atlantic, Canadian soldiers stationed in Britain found themselves equally popular with local women.
While the training as turning the Scouts into some of the toughest, fittest, most self-reliant men in the British army, the troops savoured their good fortune to be in Jasper.
They referred to themselves as “Drugstore Commandos” and preferred sitting in Olsen’s drinking coffee and listening to the juke box to punishing training expeditions in the surrounding mountains
Many of the Scots had relatives in western Canada and were allowed leave to visit them after completing their arduous training.
The day before the Scouts were due to leave Jasper, disaster struck. They had been storing their souvenirs and presents for home, including mountains of hard-to-get nylons and crates of oranges, in a local garage. The garage burnt to the ground on the afternoon of April 20.
The townsfolk rallied to replace the Scots’ losses and make sure they didn’t leave the town that had taken them to their hearts entirely empty handed.
An investigation blamed the fire on a primus stove some of the Scouts had been using to make tea.
The Scouts’ departure was marred when it was discovered the local jewellery store had been broken into. The regiment was paraded at the railway station and their kitbags searched. But the stolen jewels were not found.
It was with heavy hearts that they left picturesque Jasper, in mid-April, for the port of Halifax to sail back to Liverpool.
Their departure was delayed when two of the men were diagnosed as having scarlet fever and the whole unit had to go into quarantine in Quebec for four weeks.
The regiment finally saw action in Italy. But not with the 52nd Division, which had been sent to France after D-Day. Instead the regiment was attached to the 10th Indian Division which used them either as ordinary infantry or for patrols behind German lines in the hilly country of the Apennines.
The training they had done in Jasper to prepare for high altitude mountain warfare was rarely put into practice.
But few would ever forget, or regret, their time in the idyllic Jasper National Park.
This article first appeared in the 2015 Fall/Winter edition of the Dorchester Review
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