Nor­way com­mando

This vet­eran served as a sabo­teur & medic dur­ing the clos­ing stages of the Nor­we­gian Cam­paign, be­fore con­tin­u­ing the fight in Malta & Greece

History of War - - CONTENTS - WORDS TOM GARNER

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.

In­de­pen­dent Com­pa­nies

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”

Cap­tiv­ity

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

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