David Niven

In The Moon’s a Balloon, David Niven gives a brief account of his own experience of training at Lochailort. I reproduce an extract here:

In the meantime, I was to report to a prohibited area in Scotland – Lochailort Castle in the Western Highlands for special training with the other volunteers.

Volunteers usually fall into two groups. There are the genuinely courageous who are itching to get at the throat of the enemy, and the restless who will volunteer for anything in order to escape from the boredom of what they are presently doing.

There were a few in my category but most of the people I was thrown together with were made of sterner stuff.

Bill Stirling, Brian Mayfield and the Everest climber, Jim Gavin, were the founder members of the group. They were lately recovered from being depth-charged almost to death while returning in a submarine from some secret operation on the coast of Norway. Other instructors were David Stirling (younger brother of Bill), who later collected a record three DSOs for desert raids deep behind the enemy lines; ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert, a demolitions expert; Lord Lovat, who became the great commando leader of the Dieppe Raid and the Normandy landings, where he also lost half his stomach; Colonel Newman, who collected a Victoria Cross when he raided St. Nazaire and blew up the dock gates; the highly decorated Freddie Chapman, who spent three and a half years behind the Japanese lines in the Malayan jungle; and two very formidable Shanghai police, Mr. Sykes and Mr. Fairbairn, who concentrated on teaching us a dozen different ways of killing people without making any noise [Ed: the title of their book was ‘A Hundred Ways to Kill a Man’, which my father illustrated].

Volunteers of all ranks came from every conceivable outfit and were a tough adventurous group prepared for any hardship. Mixed with us, for a while, were the semi-mutinous remains of the independent companies, defeated in Norway and now awaiting either absorption into the Commandos or disbandment. The Regimental Sergeant Major of this rugged conglomeration was a huge man, brought by Brian Mayfield and Bill Stirling from their parent regiment, the Scots Guards. The first morning I was at Lochailort, this splendid creature passed me, ramrod straight and moustache bristling. He let fly a tremendous salute which I acknowledged. He replied to this with an unmistakable and very loud Bronx cheer or common raspberry.

I spun round as if shot and shouted after him,
‘Sergeant Major!’


‘Come back here!’


He came back, halted and snapped off another salute.

‘Did you make that rude noise?’


‘Why, may I ask?’

‘Because you look such a cunt in a Rifle Brigade hat – SAH!’

Only then did I catch on – it was John Royal of Green Beer fame!

While I gaped at him he said,
‘I heard you were coming … I have a room in a crofter’s cottage, name of Lachlan, just behind the kirk in the village – see you there this evening … SAH!’

Another Scots Guards salute and he was gone.

John’s cottage was a godsend. Every evening, I repaired there and tried to forget my aching, bruised body and my ‘fleabag bed’ on the hard wooden floor of a loft, shared with forty or fifty others.

John, after his problems in India, had found it impossible to obtain a commission so he had joined the Scots Guards as a guardsman and within a few months had risen to his present dizzy height. Later he became a parachutist and at last got back his commission as a glider pilot. He was killed at Arnhem.

More on David Niven:

  1. #1 by Elin E on June 7, 2014 - 8:49 pm

    I don’t know how i ended up here but i started to read your father’s account of his war experience and i was caught and read them all. Thank you for sharing them.

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