Snow and Mountain Warfare

Discussion in 'Veteran Accounts' started by Joe Brown, Mar 2, 2015.

  1. Joe Brown

    Joe Brown WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    It may be of interest to the Forum, as well as placing on record, to know about the special conditions and procedures necessary for those serving in the 52nd (Lowland) Division as they trained in snow and mountainous warfare, expecting they would be deployed to attack and liberate Norway.

    Arguably, although the operation never took place, the arduous training that was undertaken added credence to the deception plan Fortitude North, credited with tying down some 150,000 German troops in Norway at the time the Allies were establishing their bridgehead in Normandy. At least, it was a contributory factor in the ‘atmosphere of indecision’ that confronted the German High Command.

    I joined the 7th/9th Royal Scots in 1943 when they were stationed at Stonehaven in Scotland. They were the senior infantry battalion of 155 Infantry Brigade in 52nd (Lowland) Division, commonly referred to as the Mountain Division. My speedy introduction to a new way of infantry life began when on arrival I was quickly informed that frost bite was a military offence and rapid fire had to be controlled at high altitudes as gases could distort barrels! The change in my military lifestyle was reinforced when I was issued with a wind-proof smock and trousers, a couple of string vests, mitts, gloves, special boots and a soft ski cap.

    The widely held belief in the Battalion was that we were going to smash our way into Norway and why our training was different from the normal kind carried out by the British Army. It was the reason for having a couple of Norwegian officers in the Battalion helping us come to terms with snow and high altitude warfare as we trained in the Cairngorms, the mountainous region of the Scottish Highlands. There were 50 liaison officers from the Norwegian Brigade doing that job throughout the Division.

    My first assignment on joining the Battalion was to understudy the Signals Officer and take part in a three-week Divisional exercise named ‘Goliath II. Instead of the usual 15-cwt truck for carrying the signal stores I was faced with having to use pack mules as transport. Turbaned Indian troops allotted by Division from the Indian Mule Company would be in charge of the mules, but the Signal Stores would only be transferred to them when wheeled or track vehicles reached a point where they would be unable to cope with the mountain tracks we expected to be using in the course of our advance. Expeditious training was the key in transferring baggage from vehicle to mules, or later from mules to sledges or to ‘man-packs’ and was practised as avidly as any submarine commander timing his ability to clear decks to dive!


    It was not just signal kit that needed to be transported but all the ‘heavy’ stores associated with an infantry battalion: 3-inch mortars, ammunition and the wide range of general stores. As we relied on the 1st Mountain Regiment Royal Artillery with their 3.7 Howitzer as close artillery support, their dis-assembled Howitzers and ammunition had to be up with us and could only be there on site when carried by a series of pack mules.

    A serious test of our stamina and ability to cope with hazardous hill and mountain terrain was being able to get through the Lairig Ghru. Three mountains over 4000 feet flank the pass of the Lairig Ghru - Ben Macdui, Braeriach and Cairn Toll - nearly eight miles of the pass lying above 2000 feet, rising to 2,733 feet.

    Augustus Muir in ‘The First of Foot’ (1961), pp 260-1: ‘To master hill-walking, companies were sent up the glen with a mule-train. Not a man in the Battalion but knew his own power of endurance after a prodigious march of forty-five miles over the Cairngorms by the pass that is the most famous and formidable of all Highland tests of hill-walkers – the Lairig Ghru. On steep descents over broken ground loads had to be unpacked from the animals and man-handled among the boulders.

    ‘It amazed the Jocks to see how the mules could pick their way down a rough corrie, and not one of the ninety beasts was injured by the time they reached Derry Lodge, a stalking lodge at the roadhead ten miles from Braemar.

    ‘After a downpour in the night it was still raining when the men climbed up a hill-track that seemed little better than a pebbly river. Compulsory halts were intolerable in the whip of a chill wind. It was the first time the Lairig Ghru had been crossed by infantry units with full pack transport.’

    Men were trained in rock-climbing, and snow skills of skiing and snowshoe training were honed at a Brigade Snow School where there were British and Norwegian instructors. Rifle Companies were required to do a spell at the Mountain Warfare School. We practised living under snow conditions using two-men bivouacs or snow holes and learning to survive on a porridge mixture of fat and protein called pemmican.

    Expert advice defined that the best clothing for high altitudes was loose string vests next to the skin as these were better than tightly knitted woollens; the best shirts angora and our long drawers had seamless legs. Wind-proof smocks and trousers were superb. For handling weapons it was necessary to wear special gloves and avoid touching metal parts. A specially-designed ammunition pouches with wooden toggles eventually replaced the standard issue webbing, avoiding the need to touch metal buttons.

    Men trained to carry sixty to seventy pounds of gear in their rucksacks from tents, sleeping bags, weapons and ammunition, food, stoves and paraffin as well as items of clothing. There was a well-devised Divisional Standing Order for the carriage of personal clothing and equipment on the man, or in his rucksack, or small pack or his kit bag and a copy of this appears in My Gallery under heading: '52 Lowland Division. Mountain and Snow Operations. Personal Clothing and Equipment.' There is also a separate upload about distinguishing marks for officers and NCOS to enable them to be spotted from the behind when wearing peaked cap, or white cam smock, or windproof smock and appears under the heading '52 Lowland Division. Distinguishing Marks etc.'

    There was a lot more to being a mountaineering infantry soldier as I discovered when I read the 52nd (Lowland) Division Standing Orders as they covered the care of small arms, skis, sledges, and stressed the need for weather sentries and how animal transport should be used.

    Stowing of Weapons at Night: Under settled snow conditions, small arms will be left outside the tent. They will be wrapped in tent bag or sandbag and slightly buried at the tent entrance to avoid drifting snow. If snow is falling or in a high wind weapons will be brought inside the tent after the primus stoves have been put out. They will be laid along the tent wall.

    Care of arms: All small arms weapons will be pulled through as soon as possible after firing at any time. They will be pulled through half-an-hour after being brought into the tent and again before leaving. One LMG cleaning rod will be carried in action with every gun.

    Carriage on sledges: Hauliers’ rifles and SMG will not be carried on the sledge but will be slung on the man.

    Care of skis: Snow and ice will be removed from all skis at the end of the day’s run. Skis will not be taken into warm huts or rooms. When not in use skis will be kept with block and stretcher in position.

    Care of sledges: Snow and ice will be removed from runners at end of day’s run. Lashing rope and haulage traces will always be removed and coiled and taken inside tent or snowhole for the night.

    Sentries role and posting: In addition to tactical or air sentries, weather sentries will be required to ensure that snowhole entrances, ventilators, etc., do not drift up.

    Animal management: A Basic Animal Transport Table re load weights to be carried by Pack Mules, is also available in My Gallery.

    Short halts will be given half an hour after loading up to ensure all loads are secure and properly placed. Animals will be given a long halt of one hour, after three hours under load. They will be off-loaded at long halts.

    Animals whose loads become faulty or displaced will be pulled out clear of the column for adjustment. They will catch up with the column by easy stages. No doubling is allowed.

    The uplifted unit will detail a minimum of two men per 12 animals to march alongside for loading, unloading or adjustment of loads on the march.

    When halted animals must, if possible, be clear of the road. If not, they must be close in to the side of the road with heads facing towards the road.

    Unauthorised weapons, kit, packs, etc., will not be put on animals.

    Men will not ride loaded animals or hang on to their tails or saddlery, except when necessary to assist the animal.

    Footnote: When it was announced we were being deployed in an air transportable role, there was a great wave of disbelief as well as huge disappointment that we would not be used to liberate Norway. We recognised that landing and fighting in Norway would be hazardous, but we knew we were well trained to cope with the elements of snow and high-altitude. It was little consolation to be told our ability to carry all we needed on our backs equipped us to be flown by Dakota aircraft, land behind the enemy, and be the infantry element of an airborne army along with 1st and 6th British Airborne Divisions, 82nd and 101st US Airborne Divisions and the Polish Parachute Brigade. It was not what we had been specifically trained to do and we felt let down!

    Joe Brown.
    A-58, Owen, AB64 and 3 others like this.
  2. Jedburgh22

    Jedburgh22 Very Senior Member

    Very interesting
  3. Andreas

    Andreas Working on two books

    If you can't take a joke, don't join the Army! :)

    Great account Joe, I very much enjoy reading your posts.

    All the best

  4. smdarby

    smdarby Well-Known Member

    Great information, Joe. Of course, the big irony is that the only division in the British Army ever to be specially trained in mountain warfare ended up fighting its first action below sea level in The Netherlands!
  5. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    The only OFFICIAL Mountain troops we had in Italy were the 4th Indians who became Mountain troops in Somalian territory in East

    Africa then at Cassino they were superb - BUT suddenly 8th Army all became Mountain troops - without the fancy gear..or the

    training - and the Appenines were way ahead of the Cairngorms in height and low Temperatures but it's STILL called "Sunny " Italy

    and we kept losing our Mules…

  6. Bernard85

    Bernard85 WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    good day jo brown,ww2 veteran.yesterday.10:55am re:snow and mountain warfare.a great wartime story of training and something new for the army,they may never have used you all to invade norway but they. by there training.must have been the fittest men in the british army.great post thank you.regards bernard85
  7. Joe Brown

    Joe Brown WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran

    Thanks to Jedburgh22, Andreas, smdarby, Tom and Bernard for your comments.

    Andreas it was a great joke when we were about to undertake a first-light attack on the German Command Post in Flushing, Walcheren. During the approach to our objective, we had to advance through deep flood water and came under shellfire from our own Medium artillery. They had to give their support firing from the mainland and shells were bursting among us as they fell short whilst we were struggling through the water keeping weapons and wireless sets above our heads out of the sea water.

    During this my Battalion Commander told me to go forward through the advancing column to tell the two leading Company Commanders to keep pressing forward otherwise we would be out of timing with the close support barrage due on the objective as we launched out first wave of attack. As I made my way through the shellfire I was greeted on all side by the Jocks with ribald remarks about being bloody mountaineers and now we are up to our necks in sea water!

    I shall always remember making my way back to the C.O. and passed one little group of a CSM and a very young lad. The CSM had his arm on the shoulder of the lad who was not much older than 18 but looked younger and I asked was there a problem. The CSM quickly assured me that everything was all right. He told me the lad was only a little frightened by the noise of the shelling but he was going to be fine as he is going to keep near me! The CSM was regarded as a real toughie and here he was in the role of the elder loving brother talking to his kid brother with warm, kindly re-assurance. I have never forgotten the moment and picture it clearly seventy years on, as we stood in the midst of shells landing in the flood water throwing up phosphorous spray.

    We had no fatalities but there were a number of wounded, saved from drowning by the Mae Wests we decided to wear despite being an encumberance during the actual attack.

    AB64, dbf, Tricky Dicky and 1 other person like this.
  8. Lotus7

    Lotus7 Well-Known Member

    Thanks for sharing Joe, always interested in reading your posts.

    Best regards
  9. Tom Canning

    Tom Canning WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran


    The mountains of Italy became too much for our Tanks and so we were volunteered to give the PBI a rest - and it was just as well

    that the enemy also decided to have a rest - as we surely would have lost the war…

  10. Chris Kempton

    Chris Kempton New Member

    I am currently writing a history of the Indian Mule Companies in France and UK 1939-1944. I would be most grateful if I could quote you and in particular use the excellent photo, suitably credited of course
  11. Tricky Dicky

    Tricky Dicky Don'tre member

    Hi Chris


    Thank you for resurrecting one of Joe Browns threads, unfortunately he died last year , but reading his words brings him back to life - lovely man.

    I would be surprised therefore if he was ungrateful enough to stop you from quoting his immortal words or using a photo that is, I assume, publically available.

    I will however ask one of the mods if that is all OK with the site.


    edited to add

    message sent to von poop
  12. Steve Mac

    Steve Mac Very Senior Member

    Hello Chris,

    Unfortunately, Joe Brown passed way in May 2015 - a sad loss.

    Announcement here: Joe Brown 1921-2015

    You should bring your request to the attention of 'Owen', one of our Mods, via a PM (private message)...


  13. von Poop

    von Poop Adaministrator Admin

    That's a strange one.
    Not something we've had to deal with before.

    Personally, and considering how pleasant Joe was, I couldn't see much of a problem, but it would seem ‘correct' to ask whoever now owns Joe's pictures, particularly if for a book?

    I think I can point you at Joe's son (?) who curated his web page, and would probably be a better person to ask about publication issues.
    On my phone at the mo, but will have a dig later. There're more than a few links to Joe's pages around the forum.
  14. von Poop

    von Poop Adaministrator Admin

  15. Ron Goldstein

    Ron Goldstein WW2 Veteran WW2 Veteran Patron

    Just a word to say that I have just been reminded of what a lovely chap Joe was.

    Thanks for the memory........

    Last edited: Nov 21, 2016
  16. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    You may find more helpful material from Joe here:

    Second World War Memoirs of JOE BROWN

    And may I echo the sentiment that he was a gentleman whose contributions here are much missed.
  17. Chris Kempton

    Chris Kempton New Member

    Any luck with a contact for Joe Brown.
    Regarding Charley Fortnum's comment ref 4th Indian Div. Let me know if I can help.
  18. Charley Fortnum

    Charley Fortnum Dreaming of Red Eagles

    Re-read the first comment after yours above: Joe has passed away since his initial post. There may be some means of contacting his family via the website link I posted earlier.

    As to 4th Indian Div, I will send you a message.
  19. dbf

    dbf Moderatrix MOD


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