51ST (H) RECONNAISSANCE REGIMENT
This short account of the 51st (H) Reconnaissance Regiment which existed from 1941 to 1943 has been extracted from the more detailed 'A Brief History of 51st (H) Reconnaissance Regiment (1941 -1943) and its Involvement in the Desert Campaign', produced as a pamphlet in 1991, and describes the origins, raising and initial training of the Regiment prior to North Africa.
As war itself increased in complexity it was conducted by more men over greater distances, thus emphasising the importance of reconnaissance; and the need for speed led naturally to the employment of cavalry in the reconnaissance role. Thus cavalry regiments formed the reconnaissance element of the B.E.F in France 1939, having exchanged their horses for light tanks. The military situation after Dunkirk (1940) presented problems in all spheres. Apart from commitments abroad, and the necessity for a vigilant defence of these islands against the anticipated invasion, the new army had to be fashioned to be good enough to take on the Germans in combat. The cavalrymen managed to get away from Dunkirk but had to leave their tanks behind, and they were the only reconnaissance force the army had. The enemy had shown his hand in the devastating sweep across the Low Countries and France, and the allied generals now knew what they were up against. The broad lines of the coming war were plainly written - it was to be a war of movement, a war of the petrol and diesel engines, governed by a voice over the radio. In the post-mortem immediately following Dunkirk, much was learned from this first-hand knowledge of the enemy; many decisions were taken, all of which fitted together in the blue-print for the new army.
One decision was that a much higher proportion of the force must be armoured, and priority had to be given to the new armoured divisions. In the event the cavalry regiments were taken from the infantry and placed at the head of the armour. That left the infantry without any specialised reconnaissance element. In that event the infantry had to improvise because the task was still essential. However, it was soon realised that reconnaissance was too important to remain an improvisation.
The decision had already been taken by the War Office and the Reconnaissance Corps came into being on the 8th January 1941. Thereafter there was much activity, convoys of vehicles and men moving in all directions to form the various reconnaissance Regiments. Some battalions were fortunate in being converted to Recce. regiments en bloc, other units were formed from separate infantry companies and others from anti-tank companies; it was from this third category that the Recce. Squadrons of the 51st (H) Reconnaissance Regiment were formed.
Units supplying the men to form the nucleus of the new Corps had been requested to send their best men but, human nature being what it is, some of those sent did not come up to standard. On the other hand, because a man might be a rogue in civilian life did not necessarily mean that he would turn out to be a bad soldier. On the contrary, action tended to bring out the best in those men and many erstwhile rogues performed with great credit. All welcomed the challenge of a new and mobile role, providing something more exciting than mere footslogging. They were not to he disappointed, but they still got drill and plenty of weapon training as well as mobility.
Further convoys moved off from the various battalions of the Highland Division over snow-covered and icy roads to converge on the Highland township of Forres, in Morayshire, to form the Regimental HQ.
More convoys converged on Forres to form HQ Squadron and they were accommodated in the Hydropathic Hotel in the town. Hitherto the three brigades of the Highland Division each had its own Anti-tank Company, identified by its brigade number. Thus 152 Anti-tank Company, comprising Camerons and Seaforths, became A Sqn. 51st (H) Reconnaissance Regiment. Likewise, 153 Anti-tank Company, comprising Gordons and Black Watch, became B Sqn. and 154 Anti-tank Company, comprising Black Watch and Argylls, became C Sqn. All three squadrons continued to be located in their own brigade areas, as in the former set-up Thus the 51st (H) Reconnaissance Regiment officially came into being in early February 1941.
In the early days it was very much a question of improvisation, so great was the loss of equipment at Dunkirk. In many cases Armadillos (commonly referred to as Roll-and-gos) were used as place of Light Reconnaissance Scout Cars. These slow and cumbersome vehicles were so top-heavy that they were considered dangerous. They were soon replaced by Beaverettes, which subsequently proved to be too light, and then Humberettes. Only the Bren Carriers stood the test of time and did sterling work, both in the desert and Europe. For sometime there was very little contact between Regimental HQ, HQ Squadron and the three Recce. Squadrons, because of the wintry conditions, as well as their widespread dispersal. However, each buckled down to the new role and trained with a will, although re-equipment of units in Scotland had, necessarily, a low priority.
Before the snows cleared Regimental HQ and HQ Squadron were moved to Auldearn, where RHQ was accommodated in Boath Housc and HQ Squadron billeted in suitable buildings in the village. It was here that Lt.Col. E.H. Grant, an Argyll and former member of the Royal Flying Corps in the 1914/18 war, took permanent command of the Regiment. It was not long before a feeling of belonging began to pervade the Regiment, despite the fact that the caps and badges of the various Highland regiments continued to be worn.
The design of a Reconnaissance Corps cap badge exercised the minds of the hierarchy in Whitehall for several months, and the 'morale of .the British Army in the aftermath of Dunkirk was uppermost in their minds. Numerous designs were considered, but rejected. Any sort of a dog was ruled out because the Corps would inevitably become known as the "dogsbodies". The design which eventually "carried the day" was the work of one Trooper George Jones of the "I" Section of the 56th Reconnaissance Regiment, he being a commercial artist by profession. The A & QMG accepted the final design on the 20th June, submitting it to the King, who returned it with his approval on the. 30th June 1941. The Corps colours were to be green and yellow, and the Regiment was given a distinctive shoulder-flash of Hunting Stewart tartan. The Tam o' Shanter was to be the official head-gear.
Insignia of the 51st (Highland) Reconnaissance Regiment
From Auldearn RHQ and HQ Squadron moved to Drummuir Castle, a few miles from Keith. The castle was situated in beautiful wooded countryside and surrounded by parklands. Everybody fed well, having the use of the ample vegetable gardens to supplement the army rations. The various offices were located in the basement, with C.O.'S Orderly Room and offices in the more ornate part. Sleeping quarters for all were in tented accommodation in the grounds.
Pride of appearance was instilled into the men, and discipline enforced, by a series of parades; for example the C.O.'s Parade on which all officers were present, the Adjutant's Parade on which all officers junior to him were present and the R.S.M's Parade, on which no officers were present, which was run with the greatest precision under Warrant Officers and Sergeants. N.C.O Drill Training Cadres were also organised, all of which were reflected in due course in the bearing, turn-out, and neatness of the men.
On each parade a close examination was made of the clothing of all ranks and shortcomings put right without undue delay by the Quartermaster Sergeant concerned. It was not long, therefore, before clean, well-dressed and well-equipped soldiers were parading before their commanders.
Leave was now granted as the invasion threat receded, and many of the Officers, N.C.O.s and men brought their wives and girlfriends to the village where they were made most welcome by the locals. Sleeping-out passes were not granted, however, not even to the C.O. whose wife and daughter who were accommodated by the Head Forester; but there was ample time to be with partners in the evenings and at week-ends, duties permitting.
Before long the three Recce Squadrons were moved to independent locations, coming under the control of Regimental HQ albeit at a distance. This dispersal continued until the entire Regiment came together for the first time, concentrating in the town of Nairn in the Autumn of' 1941. Officers, Warrant Officers and Sergeants were generally billeted in local hotels or large houses, and the men in large halls such as school rooms. Within each Squadron the Officers had their own Mess, as did the Warrant Officers and Sergeants.
It was while we were in Nairn that "Paddy" Morrison was appointed Regimental Sergeant-Major in succession to Tommy Mellon, who took over HQ Squadron from Charles Hill, who was posted out-with the Regiment. Paddy was very thankful for this posting, thereby escaping an appointment to a Training Centre for the W.R.A.C. (Women's Royal Army Corps). He revealed many years afterwards that he had been ordered by Gen. Wimberley to "knock the Regiment into shape within three months" which, with the benefit of hindsight, was significant.
R.S.M Morrison, being a regular soldier, was a strict disciplinarian and this had a profound effect on the Regiment; by his personality' and sense of humour Paddy did not need the use of charge sheets to maintain discipline.
One day, when the officers of B Squadron (occupying a large house, Kirkville, in the town) were about to. sit down to. a meal of roast chicken they were told by the cook that somebody had "pinched it". There was utter consternation in the mess and much muttering. The deft individual who carried out this dastardly act was never found but, without saying as much, several members hoped, in vain, that the fowl would choke him.
It says much for the discipline and bearing of the Recce lads that the townspeople of Nairn quickly took them to their hearts, and from then on the 51st Recce was Nairn's own wartime Regiment, whose activities were closely followed long after the Regiment had left.
Whilst there the Regiment was inspected by Major-General D.N. Wimberley, who, by that time had assumed command of the Highland Division, in succession to. Major-General Neil Ritchie, who had been posted to the Middle East as Deputy Chief of the General Staff and, subsequently, to take command of the 8th Army in the Western Desert. The inspection took place on a snowy winter's morning on the cricket ground, which we used as our parade ground whilst in Nairn. He was well pleased with the smartness and turn-out of all ranks and spoke to several of those on parade. That same night he accompanied Col. Grant (popularly referred to as "Prof" "Totty" or "Father") to the local cinema, a nice touch as a lot of the lads were there too. In the days to come the General, affectionately nicknamed Tartan Tam, soon earned the respect of every Jock in the Division, leading them from one victory to another in the desert war, and in Sicily.
Wherever we went in Scotland, on schemes and exercises, the local population invariably treated us with great hospitality, which was much appreciated. Christmas was celebrated in the traditional manner, Officers, Warrant Officers and Sergeants waiting at table on the men for the Christmas dinner, accompanied by much leg-pulling.
In the middle of January 1942 the Regiment received a draft of 117 "Geordie" recruits. They had enlisted in the Newcastle area on the 15th with orders to proceed to Union Street, Aberdeen where they were picked up by Regimental transport and taken to Nairn. They were billeted in the Golf View Hotel and subjected to intensive training under the command of Capt. Bill Stratton, formerly of the Grenadier Guards, for about three months until the 23rd April when they were posted to the Squadrons, 26 to HQ, 24 to A, 32 to B and 35 to C. The Geordies and Jocks soon became firm friends and this was subsequently cemented in action.
In the Spring of 1942 a Divisional exercise was held, the final objective being the capture from "enemy" troops of the small coastal town of Buckie. This was mainly to test Divisional staff work and movement control, as well as the performance of each unit in the Division.
In April we were on our way to Aldershot to be "kitted out" for service overseas; embarkation leave had been granted prior to the move. On the move from Nairn to Aldershot Doc Jolly recalls sitting with the Adjutant (invariably referred to as K-B), who was navigating, in the lead car. The column stopped at a pub for some liquid refreshment as a result of which K-B became sleepy, so he handed his map to the doctor saying "you navigate, Doc".
There we were equipped with new vehicles and equipment, G1098 stores made up to scale, and K.D. (Khaki Drill) uniforms issued together with pith helmets. During our stay there all officers and men were subjected to an I.Q. test which threw up some very surprising results. Those failing the test were to be replaced. Inoculations were given to all who required them. Individuals reacted differently, of course, but any adverse effects did not last for long.
After about six weeks in Aldershot our vehicles were on their way to Birkenhead to be loaded onto a cargo vessel, the S.S. Fort Nipigon, which sailed in a separate (slower) convoy.
Richard Sands, who's Father (Sgt George Sands MM) served with the 51st, kindly sent us a scan of a photograph his Father had of the Sergeants and Warrant Officers of the 51st (H) Reconnaissance Regiment, taken in June of 1942 before their departure to Egypt where they would join the 8th Army in preparation for the battle of El Alamein.
Sgt George Sands served with both 2nd and 5th battalions. Sailing to North Africa, January 1942, as reinforcements/replacements for 2nd battalion at Tobruk. Before he had finished acclimatisation, Tobruk had fallen and 2nd battalion went into captivity. He fought for a few months with 4th Indian Div. He then joined 5th battalion when they arrived in Egypt some 6months later. He fought with 5th battalion from Alamein to Bremen.
Richard Sands, Son of Sgt George Sands MM, 2nd and 5th Battalions
In early June the Regiment, along with the rest of the Division, was inspected by T.M. the King and Queen. Lieut. Alan Blacker (NO. 17 Troop, C Sqn.) remembers the event, particularly the playing and counter-marching of the massed pipe bands of the Division. Many were hearing this stirring sound and witnessing the proud sight for the first time.
On the 16th June, with haversack rations for the journey, we left by rail destined for Greenock, where we detrained close to H.M.T. Stratheden, 23722 tons. We marched straight on board for what was to be our home for the next two months. As we did so last minute work was still being carried out.
The Stratheden, the flagship of the P & 0 fleet, sailed regularly in peace-time as a luxury liner to India and the Far East, with accommodation for 800 passengers. Now, having been converted to a troopship, it was conveying 320 officers and 4500 men, which included the entire Divisional HQ and others.
The Stratheden arrived off Suez on 11th August. From there they moved by train to Qassassin Camp east of Cairo. On 1st September the Regiment moved up to Gezira Island to cover the cover the approach to Cairo. After the Battle of Alam Halfa in which the Division was not involved the 51st Highland Division joined the 8th Army in preparation for the battle of El Alamein.