Norton of Morton

Read a new instalment of Norton of Morton every Saturday at 4 o'clock

Saturday 14 May 2016

Mad Dogs and Servicemen: Sergeant King and Private Cuthbertson

In which G.M. Norton regales you with another extraordinary military tale.

Gadzooks! It’s been a while since I last featured the extraordinary military exploits of a serviceman.

To make amends for this gross error of forgetfulness, I have two heroes to share with you today.

Please step forward, Sergeant Peter King and Private Thomas Leslie Cuthbertson. Their remarkable story led to Raymond Foxall's book, The Amateur Commandos and British film, Two Men Went to War.

And it all starts in unassuming Aldershot in 1942. At the Dental Corps, to be precise where Sergeant King and Private Cuthbertson were serving.

Now, you would be forgiven for thinking just how extraordinary this tale could be. Two soldiers, in Aldershot, not likely to see any combat there!

Well, you're right. And that was a view shared by the two soldiers. 

Sergeant King's role was a drill sergeant, leading a band of army dentists. Keen to put his military skills to the test and 'give it to the Jerry', he requested to be transferred to a fighting unit on three separate occasions. Which were all denied. This was possibly due to the Sergeant being flat-footed and a good deal older than he claimed (yes, lying about your age isn't only the exclusive right of celebrities and teenagers eager to consume alcoholic beverages).

Private Cuthbertson, a 19 year old from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was army mad and dreamed of being a soldier like his father and uncles that had served in the Great War. 

A tall, strapping fellow, he had the makings of the perfect army soldier. But alas, it was not to be. Once the army discovered that he had been training to become a dentist, they eagerly moved him to carry out this role for the army. This was despite his polite protests and a further request made to his commander.

So, what would two soldiers do? Both keen to fight for their King and country, but denied and forced to reside in Aldershot.

Here's where the tale gets interesting.

Most men would take rejections on the chin, satisfied in their minds that they had done all they possibly could.

However, Sergeant King and Private Cuthbertson were not most men. They devised the most daring and remarkable of plans - to launch an unofficial and secret two man raid on German-held France and sabotage things for the Nazis.

Have I now got your attention? Jolly good.

For the next few weeks, the pair of would-be adventurers trained together in secret in order to get battle-ready. They would sneak out in darkness and run, crawl and generally do the most physical activity that they could muster in order to get themselves in tip-top shape.

Meanwhile, they started to gather all the equipment that they would need for their journey across the English Channel. Wire cutters, knives, grenades, revolvers. As when you're packing to go on holiday, they forgot one important thing - a blasted torch. 

Once they felt prepared, they both booked two days leave and set off on their adventure, making their way to Cornwall.

Meticulous planners, they intended to sleep rough in a cave, while they adapted to 'living off the land' and hiding from capture for desertion. When this resulted in vomiting and hunger, they ate stale bread and even paid a child to bring them sweets and cake. The young boy, impressed to have encountered real-life soldiers, invited them for dinner with his mother. They gratefully accepted this rare home-cooked meal.

The pair were delayed for a few days as they were thwarted in their attempts to find a sea-worthy vessel.

After striking up a friendship with a ferryman, he finally relented and agreed they could use one called The Sea Bird. On strict condition that they would not venture more than two miles out to sea and return it within two days.

Two miles quickly became a whole lot more as they put themselves at the mercy of a compass and set sail for France.
Sergeant King (circled left) and Private Cuthbertson (circled right)

But not before writing to a certain British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, to make their intentions known. To delay the letter and reduce the risk of alerting the Navy, they sent the letter in a larger envelope marked for the postmaster in Edinburgh. Inside included instructions to send on the letter in a couple of days.

The Sea Bird had a motor so the journey was made a great deal easier than rowing. After spending some time pretending to fish until it got dark, they cautiously edged past the two mile limit, expecting a military patrol to stop them. But as luck would have it, they faced so such obstruction.

Then the mist set in. This meant they could travel unnoticed but of course, this also meant that two inexperienced sailors were at sea with no visibility.

During the voyage, the intrepid two then faced a gale. In a tiny boat. With no experience of sailing. Somehow, they survived. 

32 hours after leaving Cornwall, they spotted land ahead.

The rocks looked very familiar. With only the compass to guide them, they feared they had gone in a big circle and returned to England.  

However, their worries were unfounded and they had arrived in France. 

Expecting for a battle with the Germans, they were surprised to arrive to no welcome party. 

After securing and hiding the boat, they scaled the rocky cliff face, with no ropes in sight.

Once they reached the top, King and Cuthbertson sought out a hiding place. As they investigated their surroundings, they came across their first opportunity for sabotage - cutting telephone or electricity wires up on tall posts. That night, they managed to climb two poles each, cutting 20 wires between them.
Private Cuthbertson
Keen to cause more destruction, they heard trains passing nearby so tried to locate the railway line. Coming to the brink of an embankment, below them were the steel tracks. As they followed the line in complete darkness, a small flare of light appeared ahead. Less than 30 paces away stood two German soldiers, smoking cigarettes. King and Cuthbertson cautiously edged away and watched and waited to gather information on the soldiers’ routine. 

The next night, they waited for the German soldiers to go past them, then set about placing grenades under the tracks. They pulled the pins, released the clips and made a dash for it. They only had seven seconds to get clear. The grenades burst, making a shattering noise. 

Unfortunately, the German patrol had heard the commotion and spotted King and Cuthbertson so were now in hot pursuit. 

Soon, the high-pitched sound of motorcycles, the bark of dogs and gunfire could be heard from in front and behind them. They were being hunted down.

Not able to go forward, they turned left, hoping it would lead them to the coast. Terribly tired, but keen to evade capture, they found themselves on a cliff-top looking out over the dark water. The noise of pursuit was becoming louder so they had no choice but to descend down the cliff. 

Now on the beach, a searchlight moved searching for them. They waded into the water, heading for some moored boats.  With water up to their armpits and weighed down by packs, boots and wet uniform, they almost drowned. 

The first boat they reached was only a small dinghy but it was the best option they had. It wasn’t good enough to travel back to England in so they planned to sail around the coast, in the hope of reaching the part of the coast where they arrived in France three days ago.

Somehow, they did just that. The Sea Bird hadn’t been discovered! They turned the dinghy upside down and pushed it out, in the hope that if the enemy came across it, they would think the solders had died.

Unfortunately, their journey back across the English Channel was an ordeal. They miscalculated the amount of fuel they would need and ran out. With nothing but a few carrots, a small piece of stale bread and very little water, they struggled to row the boat. 

Very soon, they had run out of food and resorted to killing a seagull which they tried to eat raw. They had also drained their water supply, so resorted to using a groundsheet to collect rainwater on the few occasions where the Heavens opened. 

King and Cuthbertson were weak, with no energy to move or talk. They had given up hope and lay listlessly at the bottom of the boat.

They had been stranded on the water for 14 long days and unbeknown to them, were at the half-way point between England and France. 

The next morning, Warrant-Officer W.A. Bell, decided to fly his plane on a number of outward sweeps across the Channel as he waited for a submarine to get into position. 

It was on the last of the sweeps, when Bell took the aircraft out a little further, that he spotted The Sea Bird. King and Cuthbertson were saved.
Private Cuthbertson as Deputy Lord Mayor of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
So, what was to become of the two men that had deserted the army, but had patriotically set out to cause some mischief against the enemy?

Well they were both handcuffed and treated with disdain for six weeks, until their court-martial. 

Thankfully, the letter they had sent to Sir Winston Churchill had helped matters and rather than face the harsher charge of desertion, they were charged with being absent without leave and in improper possession of army revolvers. 

King was demoted one rank while unfairly, Cuthbertson was sentenced to 28 days in military prison, which he found to be a truly awful experience.

Rather than be sent back to Dental Corps, the two soldiers were also transferred to light infantry. 

King went on to  be commissioned in the Commandos, served in the Lovat Scouts, gained a Military Cross medal and ended the war as a lieutenant. After the war, he continued his military career in New Zealand, serving in the Korean War. Sadly, he died in 1962. 

Cuthbertson’s 28 day punishment made him a little disillusioned with military life. However, he did have a successful army career, becoming an instructor at the Army School of Physical Training. He married his sweetheart, May Forster, and went on to become a successful businessman. In 1967 he was the Deputy Lord Mayor of his hometown. 

Peruse my previous Mad Dogs and Servicemen entries:

G.M. Norton
Protagonist of 'Norton of Morton'

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  1. If it weren't a true story, I'd think it was too ridiculous to be real! What a strange adventure...

    1. Indeed! Strange and foolish even, but brave and patriotic too. I really enjoyed the book about it. I think it was published in 1980 so King wasn't around to contribute but Cuthbertson did work with the author. I quite fancy seeking out the film now.


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