Author: Richard Davies, Curator

Regular readers will know we occasionally focus on items from the permanent collection. This piece is no exception, as it takes as its subject a group of objects connected to a former Corps sergeant. John Bennett McRae was born on 18 March 1924 in Dundee. He went on to have a long and varied career with the British Army, represented by the 5 medals and presentation cigarette case recently acquired by the Museum.

5 medals in a row on a black background.

The medal group awarded to Sergeant McRae. Left to right: 1939 – 1945 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal, War Medal, 1918 – 1962 General Service Medal with Palestine clasp. 2023.87. Image reproduced with thanks to London Medal Company.

A cigarette case open, white satin lining in lid, springs in bottom. Inscription on inner lid.

Cigarette case presented to John by the Army Apprentice School Arborfield WOs and Sergeants' Mess. Possibly given to him c.1948-49, around the time when he left the military. 2023.87. Image reproduced with thanks to London Medal Company.

Early military career

John attested for military service when he was only 15. He was known as a Boy at this point, a title that was an appointment and not a rank. Boy was introduced into the Army during the 19th century and was only abolished in 1958 (it was used more frequently in the Navy). Boys joined as musicians, drummers, tailors, shoemakers, artificers or clerks. They were not combatants, and their service as an adult did not begin until they were 18. He probably had to produce a certificate of good character, his birth or baptism certificate, proof of his elementary school education to at least Standard V (his enlistment papers describe his trade as 'scholar'), and have the written consent of his parents to join. All this strongly suggests he was determined to have a military career from an early age.

His first unit was the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and he was still with them when the Second World War began. John's trade was changed from fitter to turner on 11 December 1939. He was then posted to 13 Training Battalion (Boys) RASC on 1 May 1941, before transferring to the Army Physical Training School (Boys) on 1 September 1941. John became a Private with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) on his 18th birthday.

Having passed his trade test as a turner on 15 June 1942, he was posted to 58 Section RAOC at Stirling on 2 July 1942. He was attached to the workshop there and stationed in Stirling Castle, a structure that dates from at least the early 12th century but had been the site of military activity for many centuries before that.

Joining REME

John was one of the REME 'originals', as his records clearly show he transferred to the Corps on 1 October 1942. He was probably part of the RAOC engineering branch that comprised part of REME at its inception. His first posting was to the REME Sub-Workshop at Dumfries on 9 December 1942, but on 7 November 1943, he transferred to the headquarters of the Static Workshop with 200 Section REME as part of Scottish Command. Static workshops were run on a mixed military and civilian basis. There were about 30 of them across the country by early 1940, a number that increased to nearly 200 by the end of the Second World War.

Although John was posted to 8 Corps Troops REME on 26 December 1943, his next transfer was probably the most consequential of his career. He was posted to the Airborne Division REME on 3 January 1944 and saw service with the 1st Airborne Division Workshop, a unit established shortly after the formation of REME itself.

A wooden shield shaped plaque with red painted top. Carved into the centre is a white unicorn (pegasus) ridden by a knight.

A plaque bearing the insignia of 8 Corps Troops. 1967.880.

All REME's airborne troops were committed to travel into battle by glider, but specialists, who could be required to parachute into action, were selected from trained volunteers within the unit. By the time McRae joined, the Division had just returned from their involvement in the Allied invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) which began in July 1943. The unit had supported the amphibious landings made by the Eastern and Western task forces, commanded respectively by General Sir Bernard Montgomery and Lieutenant General George Patton. REME's involvement was confined to the provision of specialist armourers.

Red flag with first pattern REME badge in top left corner, pale blue Pegasus ridden by a soldier in the centre.

REME flag of 1st Airborne Division. 1963.570.1.

The Division was recalled to the UK in December 1943 in order to prepare for the invasion of Europe. They were based in Sleaford in Lincolnshire and on 10 April 1944, John gained his 'parachute wings'. For the rest of his career, his records show he was paid at an enhanced rate for what were termed 'parachute duties'.

Their next operation was not the continental invasion, however.

Operation Market Garden

Conceived by General Montgomery, the 'Market' plan was for forces of the First Allied Airborne Army to seize bridges and terrain in the areas of Eindhoven, Grave, Nijmegen, Arnhem and Oosterbeek. The complimentary operation, Garden, would see ground forces move north to support the entrenched airborne units. Montgomery reasoned that establishing these bridgeheads would enable the Allies to sustain the eastward momentum they had generated beginning with the D-Day landings, and create a route for an invasion of northern Germany.

John was one of over 40,000 men who participated in Operation Market Garden but he was allocated to the seaborne party and therefore did not do any fighting. The records suggest he and his comrades were in France from mid-August, having arrived off the coast of Juno Beach on 16 August. They sailed on the SS Turtle Hill, a 7000 ton Canadian merchant ship built in 1943. Having disembarked, they mustered near Bayeaux on 19 August. They began the journey to The Netherlands at first light on 2 September and arrived in Nijmegen on 22 September. The airborne element arrived 4 days later and both parties, seaborne and airborne, evacuated from Nijmegen on 28 September. This was probably part of Operation Berlin, the plan to recover the remaining soldiers of 1st Airborne Division, given that Market Garden had failed. He was back in the UK by 13 October 1944.

1st Airborne Division lost 8,000 men during the battle. Captain Harry Roberts, also of REME and who was taken prisoner after parachuting into the area near Wolfheze, wrote in his book Capture at Arnhem:

"The 1st Airborne Division never recovered from its heavy losses at Arnhem."

As a direct result of this reduction in strength, the decision was taken to disband the division in October 1945. The Officer Commanding, Major Jack Carrick, arranged for a commemorative photograph to be taken. John did not appear in the picture, but it is included as a tribute to a unit in which he served for a significant period.

A long black and white photograph of a lot of people positioned in rows.

Group photograph of the 1st Airborne Division, late 1945. It should be noted that most of the younger members of the workshops had been replaced by men from 6th Airborne Division by this time. 2016.21.23. Credit: Panora Limited.

After the War

John's next posting was again a European one. The 1st Airborne has been designated as the unit to police Norway following the cessation of hostilities on 8 May 1945. Captain Harry Roberts wrote "Plans were drawn up to use the still under-strength division to capture Norway by parachute drop, but the Germans surrendered before this could take place." Operation Doomsday, as it was officially known, had numerous objectives: overseeing the peaceful disarmament and repatriation of the 350,000 occupying German troops; ensuring there was no sabotage of military or civilian buildings or infrastructure; clearing minefields; caring for Allied prisoners of war and arresting war criminals.

In ceremonial terms however, their most important task was welcoming back Norway's monarch, King Haakon VII. He had actually been born Prince Carl of Denmark in 1857, but had been offered and accepted the Norwegian throne in 1905. The Nazi invasion of Norway took place in April 1940. Haakon immediately came under considerable pressure from the Germans to acknowledge the Norwegian fascist, Vidkun Quisling, as the new prime minister (the word 'quisling' has now entered the English language and means a traitor or collaborator). Haakon refused and even threatened to abdicate. He was eventually evacuated to Britain from the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø on 7 June 1940. Haakon set up a Norwegian government in exile, and made regular radio broadcasts to his people. These and the King's refusal to capitulate are credited with inspiring the Norwegian population to resist the Nazis for the next five years.

About four months after the King's return, John was on the move again, firstly back to Britain and then, on 26 October 1945, to the Middle East.

The situation in Palestine following the end of World War Two was complex and volatile. When it became clear the European Axis forces were going to be defeated, a number of armed Jewish underground militias began rebelling against the British authorities in 1944, as they were concerned at British plans to create a post-war independent Palestinian state. John was serving with the 6th Airborne Division workshop at this point, and the Division's role was to provide internal security by patrolling the streets and enforcing curfews. The insurgency was a violent one, and it continued until 1948 when the British decided to withdraw from the area and hand control over to the United Nations. By this time, 58 men from the Division had been killed while over 230 were wounded.

A black and white photo of tents and buildings in a landscape.

The camp at Kasfareet, Egypt, which was east of Cairo and north of Suez. The RAF had a base there since at least the 1940s, but men of REME's parachute unit (possibly including John) were also billeted there. A:1977.1514.38.

A scaffolded structure with 2 harnesses attached, 2 men stood and sat on the structure, another stands on the floor looking up.

A parachute training tower at Kasfareet. By the mid-1950s, the camp had a perimeter of about 9 miles. A:1977.1514.30

In October 1946, while posted to Palestine, John took leave to return to the UK and marry Elspeth Eleanor Evans. They eventually had two children, Lawrence John and Elspeth Margaret.

McRae was posted home on 2 February 1947 and then, in August 1948, he was sent to Germany as part of the British Army on the Rhine (BAOR) where he was part of 2 Parachute Workshops. The BAOR was formed 3 years before John's arrival and had the aim of controlling the districts that were running the military government of the British Zone of Occupation of Allied-occupied Germany. John was probably deployed, at least initially, to the Schleswig Holstein district in the far north of this area. It is likely that not long after McRae arrived, his unit moved south to the Hannover area in response to the Russian blockade of Berlin. John probably saw very little further action however, as he was discharged from the military toward the end of 1948.

It was later decided to renumber the 2nd Parachute Brigade as the 16th by way of a tribute to the contribution made by the 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions during World War Two. As we have seen, John served with both, and perhaps he felt this was an appropriate ending to his career.

Published in The Craftsman, April 2024.