"Lovat's Lantern Is the Moon"
By John Rennie
Wild as the winds in the Highlands, a dark-wielder
by inheritance, Brigadier Lord Lovat, "The Fraser"
to his clan, is the type of handsome devil-may-care
Commando leader you'd expect to go
into battle knife in hand and piper beside him.
Corporal Hans Schultz was sitting with a bottle of cognac beside him on the running
board of a Mercedes staff car parked behind the Casino at Les Rochers. The corporal was
rather drunk and his commanding officer would have been distressed to see his unmilitary
bearing, but the commanding officer was at that moment very drunk himself in the Casino,
toasting the complete victory of Germany's army in stolen champagn. For this was June,
1940. The Wehrmacht stood on the edge of the English Channel. France had fallen and
Britain was groggy and unarmed. The end of the war was only a matter of days.
Corporal Schultz took another pull at the cognac bottle. From inside the Casino he heard
glass breaking and a woman?s scream. He smiled; the officers were having a good time. Then
suddenly he heard the chatter of automatic weapons. It was none of his business what the
officers did, the corporal said to himself, so it was several minutes before he decided to
take a look inside the Casino. When he got there, the sentries at the door were quite
dead, but even that didn't prepare him for the sight in the gambling room. The German
officers were piled like cordwood against the far wall and their blood was still soaking
into the Aubusson carpet. The tall windows had been blown in and the tapestries hung in
shreds from the broken plaster. The cognac bottle dropped from Corporal Schultz's hand.
"Gott im Himmell" he said. "Something has happened."
If Hitler and his General Staff had had even as much perception as that drunken corporal,
they would have realized something had indeed happened. From that day, three weeks after
Dunkirk, the German garrisons from Norway to Spain were to have no peace; the Commandos
Normally, the German who had been selected as a victim by the Commandos saw nothing, but
those who did get a chance to see, even briefly, what was happening may have compared
notes later in Valhalla. If they did, they might have seen a tall young Scotsman in a
green beret and corduroy slacks who walked into battle with his piper beside him and
killed men with his own hands. The man was Simon Christopher Joseph Fraser, Lord Lovat, a
mixture of Davy Crockett and Lafayette, the present chief of the Clan Fraser, which had
fought in every public war for a thousand years and filled in the gaps with private wars
of their own. When the first call for volunteers had come round for an unnamed but
dangerous assignment, Lord Lovat was there, waiting.
"It sounded like something the family might be good at," he said.
Shimie Lovat (the Shimie is an anglicization of Shimidh, the Gaelic for Simon) stands six
feet two and has the build of a successful amateur boxer, which he was. He has curly black
hair, just turning gray, and deep blue eyes. Lovat gives an initial impression of
gentleness rather than toughness, an impression which is strengthened by a natural laugh
and a good sense of humor. He is very careful to avoid appearing tough and takes trouble
to point out that the average Commando wants nothing more than to settle down to a
fireside and slippers. He himself would like to be a farmer - a desire which he is in a
good position to realize since he owns 196,000 acres - and lives in peace in the Highlands
of Scotland with his wife and three children.
But it would be an incautious aggressor who left Lord Lovat or any of his family out of
his future calculations. It is sometimes a little difficult to determine whether Lord
Lovat was designed for the Commando Service or the Service was designed for him. What is
certain is that here is an amazing case of a man and an hour coming together.
When Lovat joined the Commandos he drew the job of running the first training center. He
was still a lieutenant then, though today at thirty-three he is a brigadier (equivalent to
our brigadier general), and until he was wounded in France, commanded one of four Commando
brigades. When you ask him what he taught the recruits he says simply, "Oh, just how
to fight without kid gloves."
That training center was an extraordinary place. It set out to turn the whole military
concept of waging war upside down and inside out. It imported sabotage experts from
occupied Europe; it hijacked elderly professors from the science labs of Oxford and
brought in second-story men and former Shanghai policemen as instructors. Arctic explorers
taught the science of turning over a kayak, while men who had climbed Everest held classes
in climbing rock walls which would have baffled a mountain goat.
The brass hats of the regular army fumed; old gentlemen in clubs banged the tables and
objected to a private army of glamour boys. But the training continued. It was just about
as rugged as the human body could stand. No one had been accepted who was not a trained
athlete and a strong swimmer, but even so, many of the first batch couldn't stand the
pace, and were returned to their original units.
Lovat took over a section of the Highlands. It is wild country and most of it goes
straight up or down, yet Lovat's men soon looked on a forced march of over 100 miles as
commonplace. They began the battle inoculation system, got used to shooting at each other
with live ammunition, and though a few men died as a result, many more were saved in the
long run. The soldiers learned to live on grass and seaweed. One instructor actually
bicycled 500 miles to the training center living on nothing but lawn-mowings.
They spent days on deer-stalking because, as Lord Lovat pointed out, there wasn't much
difference between a deer and a German except that you could eat the deer. To many
traditionally minded army men this was revolution and heresy, but in actual fact it was
simply a return to the basic principles of war.
Lord Lovat was training a volunteer force to fight the way the Highlanders had fought 700
years before; to live off the land, move fast and strike silently. There was nothing
revolutionary in this except, perhaps, a willingness to use brand-new weapons if they
would do the job. But the job was an old one and in the case of Shimie Lovat it was a
traditional one, for the wheel of history is always turning, and in a country as old as
Britain the same spoke comes round quite often.
You might simplify things by saying that Lovat is an Elizabethan, and you would not be
very far out because he has many of the characteristics of the fighting man of the days of
Drake and Frobisher. But the truth is that the times change rather than the men, and when
one man meets another on a dark beach they are instantly back much farther than the days
of Queen Elizabeth.
The Frasers, for that is the Lovat family name, came to England with William the Conqueror
in 1066. They fought their way not only up the beaches of Hastings but right through
England and into Scotland, and they did not stop fighting there. In all the bloody clan
wars there was a Simon Fraser with his pipers by his side, and while many died the
tradition lived on. There is an ancient Gaelic proverb which runs, "Lovat's Lantern
is the Moon," which is evidence of how effective the Lovats were in night fighting.
Simon Fraser, the eleventh Lord Lovat, was General of the Highlands when the army of
Bonnie Prince Charlie, Stuart Pretender to the English Throne, was cut to pieces on
Culloden Moor in 1746. He was an old man then, but the English captured him, tried him for
treason and executed him on Tower Hill. He was the last man to be beheaded in Britain. He
had led a full and violent life and today's Commando tactics would have seemed very
congenial to him. He had, in fact, even made use of them to obtain a wife, for he kidnaped
the lady of his choice, carried her off home in a running fight, and then marriage service
was read while his pipers walked the corridor to drown her screams. Not even the somewhat
anticlimactic discovery that, in the darkness and the confusion of the foray, he had
kidnaped the mother instead of the daughter deterred him.
A lesser man might have given up, but the eleventh Lord Lovat consoled himself with the
knowledge that she was a fine figure of a woman, and much wealthier than her daughter. The
Lovats lost their titles and land for General Simon?s part in the Jacobite Rebellion, but
that neither stopped them fighting nor, for that matter, dampened their loyalty to
Britain, for not long afterwards yet another General Simon Fraser led the first
large-scale Commando raid in history. The place was Quebec and the date 1759, but it might
have been any of the raids his descendant led in this war. The boats, with muffled oars,
put in silently from the St. Lawrence and the men started the long climb up the cliffs of
the Heights of Abraham. They were almost at the top when a French sentry challenged them.
General Simon answered immediately in perfect French, then broke the man?s neck. Next
morning the French were faced with the whole British Army solidly established on the
Heights, and the battle they fought that day won Canada for the British.
The wheel keeps turning, and in 1899 Britain is again at war. Things are not going well.
The British Army is brave and determined but it persists in marching across the South
African veldt in fours, and the Boers are unsporting enough to sit behind rocks and pick
the men off. The Boers are somewhat discouraged, however, when they discover one day that
someone is sitting behind rocks and shooting them, and doing it extremely well. They find,
too, their most brilliantly planned ambushes are not coming off.
The answer, as you may have guessed, is that another Lord Lovat has arrived on the scene
and with him what the current brass hats are calling a revolutionary sort of army. It is
the Lovat Scouts, a more or les s private army drawn from the ghillies, deer-stalkers,
shepherds and foresters on the Lovat estate. To a man who has used a powerful telescope
all his life, a Boer creeping from rock to rock might as well be crossing a street, and
conversely it is difficult even for a Boer to spot a Highlander who has fed his family as
And the wheel turns again, to 1941.
Lovat, still a captain, took part in his first big raid, that on the Norwegian Lofoten
Islands. It was successful; they smashed all the fish oil installations and sank nearly
19,000 tons of shipping after using cutlasses on the crews, and left 800,000 gallons of
oil either alight or running into the sea. They brought home, also, 215 Germans and ten
From then on, Lovat's men took part in countless raids. Many of them were small and few of
them got into the papers, but one dark night, little parties went across the Channel and
left the Germans without a sentry or a lighthouse keeper at a vital spot on the long
coast. These were not just pinpricks; they were carefully planned actions, carried out by
men who came from every unit of the British Army, men who had been Guards' officers or
mobile bath attendants, gunners or truck drivers or dental technicians. All had four
things in common; they were volunteers; they had a love of adventure; they hated Germans -
and above all they were physically fit.
Shimie Lovat's next big raid was at Boulogne.This job, on which he won the Military Cross,
was a rehearsal for Dieppe. "It did a lot for our confidence," he says -
"showed chaps that it was quite easy to the kill Germans."
In the Dieppe raid, Shimie Lovat, now a lieutenant colonel, led No. 4 Commando. He had
with him the first American Rangers to go into action, and one of them, Corporal Franklin
M. ("Zip") Koons, of Swea City, Iowa, was probably the first soldier of the
United States Army to kill a German in this war.
Lovat's men were split into two parties and their objective was a battery of six guns
defended by wire, pillboxes and two flak towers; he himself led the second party which
landed not far from the mouth of the Saone. They subdued pillboxes on the beach, cut the
telephone and telegraph lines and turned left-handed into a wood. They ran into German
assault troops and wiped them out with tommy-guns where they stood. When only 250 yards
separated them from the battery, Lovat's men went in with the bayonet. They crossed a belt
of wire over the bodies of their own dead and wounded. The whole German garrison, with the
exception of four prisoners, was shot or bayoneted.
Then Lovat blew up all six of the guns and laid the British dead beside the battery they
had helped to capture, and he did not leave till he had run up the Union Jack over them.
One trooper at Dieppe that day told how he could see Shimie Lovat at the height of the
battle "wearing an old pair of corduroy trousers and cool as a trout."
A few days later, in a crowded House of Lords - of which he is an active member - he made
a notable speech attacking Lord Strabolgi for an article he had written in an American
magazine criticizing the leadership of the British Army.
Dieppe was the scale model for North Africa, Sicily, and then the final assault on the
fortress of Europe.
Lord Lovat spoke to his men just before they left for Normandy. It was not a very long
speech but it finished on a note full of historical truth. "This is the sort of job
we were born for." Then the men piled into the landing craft.
Shimie Lovat was a brigadier this time and he had about 2,500 men under him. They were on
the very left of the line and the battleships and cruisers were shelling Havre just beyond
them. Just after daybreak Shimie saw a lamp flashing on the port quarter. It was HMS
Stork, a British sloop.
"What's she making to us?" Lovat asked his signaler.
"She says, 'Good morning and bloody good luck!' Shall I make a reply, sir?"
"Yes," said Lovat. "Tell her, 'Thanks, we bloody well need it!'"
Then the first wave of boats went in. Lovat hailed one craft as she came back. She drew
alongside. Her sides were blown in and riddled with holes. She was on fire and sinking.
The crew were dead or lying mangled on her decks. Only one man was still standing. The
blood ran down his face and he had to cling to the wheel.
"How was the landing?" Lovat Shouted.
The figure straightened himself up and lifted his one good arm in the V-salute. "It
was a piece of cake." That was the spirit of D-Day.
The second and third waves went in. Lovat, in his own words, "cleared the beach at
speed." It is an inadequate phrase because ten centuries had suddenly been telescoped
into a few seconds on that blazing beach. Simon Fraser, Seventeenth Lord Lovat, had come
back to within a mile of where the Frasers had started on their fighting career in 1066.
The descendant of the man who had been executed by George III and of the man who helped
win Canada from France was leading Englishmen and Canadians and Frenchmen while at his
side the piper played the Lovats' march to war, "Spaidsearachd Mhic Shimidh."
For six days Lovat and his men fought like wildcats. They smashed right through Rommel and
his tanks and kept going. Lovat's job was to link up with the paratroopers and airbourne
troops who had dropped inland to seize the vital bridges and the high ground near Caen. By
a stroke of appalling luck the airborne detachment landed at the very spot at which the
Germans were carrying out a routine anti-airborne invasion exercise. Despite getting mixed
up in the tail end of a second German counter-attack by Nazi youths whom Lovat describes
as "fanatical to the degree of committing any of the well-known German
atrocities," his men wiped them out and ran down the hill
Lovat had told the General of the Sixth Airborne Divison before they left England,
"We may be a bit pressed now and then, sir, but at12:15 we shall be there."
At 12:14 the paratroopers heard the wild skirl of the pipes; it was the signal they had
waited so long to hear. At 12:17 1/2 a tall slim officer in a green beret with a Garand
rifle slung over his shoulder scrambled up the banks of the Caen Canal. The last seven
miles had been under constant fire but Lovat was still fresh and his piper still played.
At this point Shimie takes issue with the published version of the dramatic meeting, in
which he was reported to have said, "Sorry we were two and a half minutes late."
He says it is a nice line and he certainly wishes he could have thought of it. The actual
encounter was a little hackneyed, he feels. What really happened when the pipes stopped
was cheers and backslapping; the other brigadier, stepping in, said, "Doctor
Livingstone, I presume."
The story of the rest of those six days and nights is one of constant and terrible
fighting, but you get occasional touches which help to illustrate the character of both
Lord Lovat and his men. For instance, there was the scene in the captured German
headquarters on the top of the hill. Shimie found some Camembert cheese and a case of
champagne, and they ate and drank on a bloody floor while the German dead were being
By the sixth day, four out of five of Lord Lovat's commanding officers had become
casualties. The Commandos got orders to hand over to the Highland Division. Lovat was
showing the dispositions to them on a map when a German 88?millimeter shell landed right
in the middle of the group, mowing them down. A piece of shell smashed through Lord
Lovat?s back and stomach. He says it felt like "being kicked by a trip hammer,"
but he never lost consciousness. After a blood transfusion he had enough strength left to
demand that they give him back his green beret and his marching boots.
A French priest who had fought with inspiring courage throughout the six days gave Lovat
the Last Sacrament. He might have died in the hour of history just as other Lovats had
died on the battlefield, but this time there were blood transfusions and penicillin.
Shimie Lovat was months in the hospital, but he is fit again today to carry on the job he
started. Next time it may be against the Japs in Burma where Commando units have already
gone into action.