This veteran served as a saboteur & medic during the closing stages of the Norwegian Campaign, before continuing the fight in Malta & Greece
Charles Wright was a medic who fought with saboteurs in the Norway Campaign
The British commandos became famous during WWII for daring raids behind enemy lines, and their units served in all theatres of the war across the globe. What is less well known is that the commandos were first formed in June 1940 from volunteers who had recently fought in Norway using guerrilla-style tactics. These men formed ‘Independent Companies’, and one of these innovative early commandos was a combat medic called Charles Wright.
Known to everyone as ‘Sonny’, Wright volunteered for the Independent Companies in secret and survived a gruelling mission in northern Norway to try to hold back the German invasion. After being evacuated, Wright went on to serve across the Mediterranean, and continually survived intense situations to fight another day. His story is a tale of courage, perseverance and the ability to laugh in the face of danger.
A 1930s territorial
Born in Suffolk in 1921, Wright’s father was a reservist in the British Territorial Army, and he allowed his young son to accompany him. “My father had been in the TA and I knew all the senior NCOS and officers. I used to camp with them and my father when I was seven! When I first joined everything was in tents and carried in horses and carts.”
When Wright officially joined the TA he lied about his age to get in, but his youth did not bother his commanders. “I joined when I was 15 in 1936 but put my age up to 17. They all knew me and my real age but that was it, I was in.” Wright recalls that the reservists were “really well trained” and that he was required to act as a “handyman doing all the work, but I didn’t care”.
When war broke out in September 1939, Wright was immediately called up, and although he had trained as a carpenter he was assigned to the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC).
Wright trained as a medical orderly and learned about anatomy and physiology with experienced medics, including a renowned surgeon called
Dr. Bell-jones: “He was known all over England and everybody was scared of him, but he was the best chap I ever worked with.”
The intensity of Wright’s medical training was highlighted when the Dutch liner SS Simon Bolivar struck a mine in the North Sea off Felixstowe in November 1939, with the loss of 120 lives. Wright recalls tending to the survivors: “It was sunk with women and children on board. I was sent up to the hospital, and we had a lot of fractures. Dr. Bell-jones would take extensions of a broken arm for example, and I would plaster it. When the next patient came along I’d have to reverse everything.”
Despite this crash course, Wright could not have foreseen that his training would be utilised for active service behind enemy lines.
In 1940 Wright was posted with his RAMC unit to Belford Hall in Northumberland and went out one evening to the local town. “A van came down the road with the RSM shouting my name out. I was told to report to the CO’S office immediately. I thought, ‘What have I done now?’”
When Wright met his commanding officer he was given classified information. “I thought something was wrong, but he said to me, ‘What I’m going to tell you is strictly between you and I. You can’t even tell your mother.’ He then told me all the details about a special unit that was being formed by Churchill. He was at that point first lord of the Admiralty and had been in the Boer War, where he had fought commandos. He knew how they attacked, and they had been so successful that he thought we should have similar people who would do the dirty work.
That was the idea.”
Wright was offered the chance to volunteer for this new unit to fight in Norway, although he was given no illusions about the dangers: “They wanted medical cover and told me, ‘You don’t have to go. Nobody is saying you have to volunteer because there’s no chance of coming out.’”
The outfit that Wright joined was one of ten units that became known as ‘Independent Companies’. Raised in April 1940, the companies consisted of volunteers who were serving in the Territorial Army, and they were designed to be light, mobile guerrilla soldiers. The Germans had invaded Norway on 9 April 1940 and faced the Norwegian army and an Allied expeditionary force. German troops landed along the Norwegian coast from Oslo to Narvik, and their superior airpower meant that the Allies were in great danger.
Like elsewhere in Europe, the speed of the German invasion took the Allies by surprise, especially the British, who had been making plans in Norway to support Finland during the Winter War. Wright explains, “At the time we were supposed to get to the Finns because they were fighting the Russians. We were a demolition company and had to blow a railway. They all had white uniforms, but before we got there the Russians had packed up because the Germans were coming in the other way. Our plan was to land at Bodø in Norway and march across.”
This rapid change in strategy meant that the British had to rethink their operations in Norway. The formation of the Independent Companies was a hasty decision by planning
staff to conduct raids against the Germans in Nordland. This was despite the fact that well-equipped divisions, artillery and air cover could have adequately defended the Norwegian county.
As it was, the first five companies were sent to Norway. Wright was assigned to No. 3 Independent Company and recalls that the training he received was inadequate and rushed: “There were two medics, including myself, a couple of Royal Engineers, and the rest were infantry. We had one day’s training. They asked me if I’d used a rifle and I said I hadn’t, so I borrowed somebody else’s!”
During preparations, expertise appeared to count for less than physical fitness. “When we were still in England we were presented with different men from the 54th (East Anglian) Division. Churchill wanted specialists but you all had to be sportsmen. For example, the men from the Essex Regiment had a majority of boxers. They were champions so everybody had to be fit, that’s all the people were concerned about. All the men that were there were of different grades, including crooks!”
Despite the minimal training, the
Independent Companies still demanded the performance expected of future commandos. “We knew exactly what we were going to do. When we got to Norway we had to forget to be human beings, live off the land, murder and be tough. You had to survive.”
Action in Nordland
Wright sailed to Norway in May 1940 with five Independent Companies under the codename ‘Scissors Force’ to join the British Expeditionary Force. It was an uncomfortable voyage. “Everything we did was secret so we went over on an old cattle boat that they didn’t bother to clean out. Our first meal on board was army biscuits from the First World War! They were dated from 1914-17. The tinned food was the same. People moaned and nobody wanted to eat it. Some ate it but I couldn’t.”
After landing at Bodø, two officers from No. 3 Company searched for a boat to take them up the local fjord. “While we were waiting I thought I’d have a swim, but I wasn’t in the water long! They found a German whaler with a Norwegian skipper and a harpoon. They gave him whiskey or rum and got him to take us around. We were breaking ice all the way there. This was at night, there was no sun but it was still light. We landed at the jetty, and that was when the fun started.”
The “fun” was actually the beginning of a chaotic operation. No. 3 Company’s mission was to blow up railways, bridges and installations to slow the German advance, but as Wright explains, “That was the idea, but the Germans would attack too fast for us. They had the equipment but we didn’t even have a car. Everything was done on foot, and we had to get things by pinching them. We did blow up some bridges but not to a great extent. If anything, we blew up more railways. The idea was to destroy them because there was a worry about the Germans and Russians getting iron.”
The fighting conditions were grim: “We were machine gunned all the time because we hadn’t got any air cover at all. The German aircraft would come in low, and when we were north of Bodø the snow was six to seven feet (1.83-2.13 metres) high. The road went through where the Norwegians banked the snow up on either side. One plane came over and someone
“WHEN WE GOT TO NORWAY WE HAD TO FORGET TO BE HUMAN BEINGS, LIVE OFF THE LAND, MURDER AND BE TOUGH. YOU HAD TO SURVIVE”
commandeered a bus to see what was happening. The plane machine gunned it. The driver (Private Raymond Bixby) was killed, and I had to bury him on my own under three to four feet (0.91-1.22 metres) of snow.”
On another occasion Wright himself was attacked by a German aircraft in a Norwegian town. “There was a wooden shop on a corner and this plane came from behind me and started firing. I tried to get into the shop and the door was open. I thought I’d go right through the other end but it caught fire. When I ran out, I saw the counter was full of liquorice. I took a handful but when I ate it, it was tobacco!”
After exiting the shop, the German plane continued to pursue Wright. “I was lucky that day. I got into a thick wood and chucked my rifle down by the side of a tree. The aircraft came round and fired, and when I retrieved my rifle it was smashed up with bullets. Its magazine had been full but, oddly, it hadn’t exploded.”
Wright’s struggle with the aircraft was so close that he almost locked eyes with the pilot. “I saw the plane afterwards but he didn’t see me. He went over, came back and went over again. It was quiet for a few minutes and there was a sharp slope downwards. Our stores were over the other way and I had to get across a field. I managed to get into another wood. This plane came over and came down over the short trees. I looked him in the eyes but he was looking over my head. I can see him now, and if I’d had a rifle I would have been dead. He was very close. We were almost level with each other.”
These encounters with the Germans were compounded by poor equipment. “The weather wasn’t bad but we had too much gear. We had a big double sleeping bag, leather coats, warm underpants, and you couldn’t carry it. We were also equipped with boots three times too big and three pairs of greased socks. They started up your calves, but by the time we got back they were below the boots.”
Although he was a medic, Wright rarely treated his comrades. “I would help carry the explosives, and if anybody blew themselves up I would look at them, bring them out of trees etc. However, I didn’t have to treat many people, they were pretty lucky.”
Like the rest of the British Expeditionary Force, No. 3 Company’s priority eventually became escaping Norway. Its operational route through Nordland to Narvik and back to Bodø was drawn out and required improvisation. “We had to walk about 300 miles (480 kilometres). We confiscated a bicycle, and to get from one place to another we had to take turns on it!”
Once the company arrived in Bodø, they discovered that it was almost destroyed following a Luftwaffe attack. “When we arrived it was all on fire, and we had to run through the flames. There were two destroyers near the jetty, which was on fire. You had to run, jump on the boat and chuck your rifle into the side. They gave us a tin of something mucky and put us down the forward hold to take us to the northern Norwegian islands. However, we didn’t know which ones because it was a secret.”
Now safely on board, Wright and his comrades were given some much-needed refreshments. “We were with the navy now and I got a bottle of Guinness, but I didn’t drink so I gave it away. It was a luxury to those people and we chucked our rifles to one side.”
After around five days No. 3 Company was transferred and taken to Scotland aboard HMT Lancastria. It proved to be her penultimate voyage. The former Cunard liner had been converted into a troopship but would soon meet a tragic end. “The Lancastria was luxurious.
She took us to Scotland and went straight from there down to France, where a bomb went down the chimneystack and went off. We had gotten off on the trip before so we were lucky.”
Wright was indeed very fortunate. HMT Lancastria was sunk off Saint-nazaire with the
loss of around 4,000 lives. This was the largest single-ship loss of life in British maritime history and claimed more fatalities than the RMS Titanic and RMS Lusitania combined.
For the British, the campaign in Norway was a dismal fiasco, but the Independent Companies had germinated the idea for more units suited to destructive raiding operations. Most of the companies went back to their original regiments, but No. 11 Company was created after the disbandment. It was formed of volunteers from the original companies and reorganised into the first official commando unit, which took part in ‘Operation Collar’ in June 1940. Wright returned to the RAMC, but his war was just beginning.
“A LUMP OF SHRAPNEL HIT HIM IN THE HEAD, AND I HAD THE JOB OF TIPPING HIM OVER THE SIDE. IT WAS THE DAY BEFORE MY 21ST BIRTHDAY”
Battle of Britain
After arriving in Scotland, Wright was deployed to England’s southern coast for the Battle of Britain and travelled down on the Flying Scotsman. While he was sailing to the Isle of Wight, Wright was almost killed by a crashing German aircraft: “We crossed the Solent in a small boat and a plane came right over the top of us. Behind it were two Hurricanes giving it a blast before they pulled away. A destroyer in Ryde harbour also fired with a Bofors. The plane hit the water about 200 yards (180 metres) from us. It was very close, I thought it would kill us when it came over our heads.”
Having survived this close encounter, Wright was quartered in Ryde near Osborne House. While he was there he met the British actor David Niven, who had returned from Hollywood to serve as an army officer. “He was in one of our companies. He was an alright guy and would talk to you. He came round our quarters and looked at a photograph of mine. He said, ‘Who’s this?’ and I said, ‘She’s my girlfriend.’ He replied, ‘She’s not so bad, I’ll take this!’ He was a major shortly afterwards.”
Wright was then posted to Dungeness on the Kent coast and accidentally shot down two British aircraft. “There was a big bay into Dover and we kept telling pilots to fly in the middle so we could see them properly. However, a Hurricane flew over only 100 feet (30 metres) from the ground. We couldn’t tell what he was and we’d been machine gunned so many times that we opened fire on him. He came down and managed to land because we’d only ripped the undercarriage up. He was a Polish pilot. The next one was a bigger British plane that we shot down. Luckily nobody was hurt.”
Malta and Leros
In late 1940 Wright was redeployed overseas, this time to the Mediterranean. He sailed through Gibraltar on the SS Empire Song, which was attacked by German dive-bombers on 10 January 1941. “I was outside and shrapnel was coming down everywhere. My friend Ken Simper got killed at the back of the bulkhead. A lump of shrapnel hit him in the head, and I had the job of tipping him over the side. It was the day before my 21st birthday.”
After sailing to Greece, Wright was sent to Malta about six months after the infamous siege began. Then a British colony, the strategically important island was continually attacked by Axis forces for almost two and half years between 1940-42. Malta became one of the most intensively bombed areas of the war until the siege was lifted in November 1942, and Wright served on the island for the majority of that time.
While attending to his medical duties, he witnessed the destruction the daily bombings caused to the Maltese people and Allied personnel: “There was bombing every day, and I was treating wounded patients. Sometimes you’d come rushing in [to hospital]. One day we must have had 200 casualties and there were only six of us medics then. One chap came in and said, ‘Come quickly, my friend’s head has fallen off!’ Things like that happened, and I said, ‘Where do you want me to start on him?’ That’s how you’d have to be, you’d cope with gallows humour.”
After the siege was over, Wright was sent to Greece in 1943 and was transported via Tobruk, Alexandria, the Sinai Desert and Palestine. After he arrived on the Greek island of Leros, German forces attacked.
In a battle characterised by mass drops of German paratroopers, Wright climbed up to some caves and observed the battle from a high vantage point. “I had to go out and get some blankets. We were up top in some caves, which were also Italian ammunition dumps. There were planes coming over the top and there must have been about 50 German planes shot down by machine guns.”
Although the Germans would win, they met stiff resistance. “When the Germans came in there were about 100 paratroopers killed. I was looking down at the port when they were coming. I thought there were speedboats racing in, but they were aircraft and I was above them. When they parachuted they were open targets for the Bren guns. However, when I went down to the wharf the battle had finished because they had run out of ammunition.”
Wright was captured with thousands of other Allied troops, although he was immediately kept busy tending to the wounded of both sides. “I didn’t worry [about being captured]. We carried on treating the wounded in the open air. I’d never seen so many bodies lying about after the planes had crashed. The senior German came up to me and said, ‘Would you go back down to the hospital and help out?’ When I got there, there were hundreds of Germans and British wounded. I’d never seen anything like it, and we used the ammunition dump caves as hospital wards for the Germans.”
“WRIGHT WAS CAPTURED WITH THOUSANDS OF OTHER ALLIED TROOPS, ALTHOUGH HE WAS IMMEDIATELY KEPT BUSY TENDING TO THE WOUNDED OF BOTH SIDES”
After the fall of Leros, Wright was sent to Athens before being transported by train to Hungary.
“It took ten days to get up there. In that time we had three lots of soup and nothing else.” By the time Wright reached Hungary he was ill with dysentery and was placed on a public train with other sick prisoners to a terrible destination. “Those who had the runs had to open the window, but there were women and children on the train too. They took us up the Danube and dropped us off at a place near Linz. We walked in and it was a concentration camp.”
Wright’s destination was Mauthausen-gusen concentration camp: a huge complex where between 122,766 and 320,000 people were killed. Wright was temporarily held there with other prisoners who were being moved to POW camps, but he was unaware of the camp’s true purpose. “The entrance to it was amazing – there were large flags and it looked smart. We did get some food but it couldn’t have been much. We were in there for about two to three weeks and they also had several wounded Italians. They had boilers, ovens and everything there. But we didn’t know what was going on.”
Following Mauthausen-gusen, Wright was sent to a POW camp in Austria, where he remained for the rest of the war, working on local farms and providing medical care.
After being liberated by US forces in 1945, Wright and several of his POW friends were misdirected by their liberators to aircraft in Passau to take them home. But after discovering that Passau was occupied by the Russians, the liberated prisoners improvised their return journey. “We had to hunt for brokendown vehicles to hitch a lift with. We found one or two lorries, but they were very slow. We then found a tractor, and all seven of us sat on it. It only did two miles per hour (3.2 kilometres per hour) and it was quicker to walk!”
After travelling further on a bus and a stolen Wehrmacht car, the POWS finally found US aircraft that would take them to France. Even then, Wright was not free from danger. “There were seats with portholes. I looked out and the planes were flying too close together. I went into the cockpit and the pilots were asleep! They said they’d been flying for several hours. But they dropped us off in France.”
Wright eventually returned home and ended the conflict as a warrant officer, the medical equivalent of a sergeant major. He’d had an action-packed war across Europe, but it was for his early fighting in Norway that he would be later commended. In October 2017 the Norwegian government honoured Wright with a special medal to thank him for his services in 1940. Colonel John Andreas Olsen, the defence attaché to the Norwegian Embassy in London, presented him with the award. Olsen praised Wright for his courage: “I am privileged to honour Sonny for his contribution. He risked his life and showed outstanding bravery.”
Wright returned to Leros in September 2013 to mark the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the Greek destroyer Vasilissa Olga during the 1943 battle
the German cruiser admiral Hipper lands troops at trondheim. this ship was the only German heavy cruiser that was active in landing soldiers in Norway
German infantrymen hurriedly attack and advance through a burning Norwegian village
maltese civilians and allied personnel clear up debris after a bombing raid on Valetta’s main street during the Siege of malta
ABOVE: Wright’s POW identity, which is dated 28 march 1945. He spent his captivity in austria, where he worked on local farms Wright (front row, far left) pictured with other liberated pows as they hitchhike their way home on acquired vehicles through austria, may 1945