COLUMN: PG’s Tips with Pete Gillings - ‘The kind of men that made this nation great’

Diss, norfolk. Pete Gillings with his April Fools royal wedding invitiation ENGANL00120110609141436
Diss, norfolk. Pete Gillings with his April Fools royal wedding invitiation ENGANL00120110609141436

If anybody read my last column in the Diss Express they may recall my reference to The Oaksmere and to the former owner Major General William Hasted.

Well there must be something about the place that attracts war heroes - Dee and John Stenhouse followed the Hasteds into The Oaksmere and have since moved up the road to The Auberge at Yaxley.

John Stenhouse’s father Sir Nicol Stenhouse was a true colonial - John being born in Calcutta and Nicol in Shanghai.

In 1943 our island was hungry not only for food by all kinds of supplies from all over the empire being ferried by of merchant navy. There was a German cargo ship moored in the harbour of Mormugao in Portugal’s neutral territory of Goa. There was no way of attacking it by conventional methods. At the time we has several government agencies all secret and the best of them was the SOE.

The Special Operations Executive, to give them their full title, came up with a plan of recruiting a bunch of Calcutta businessmen to sabotage the German ship.

They chose the Calcutta Light Horse - a club formed out of an Indian Calvary Regiment of the British Indian Army. To give you a clue their Honorary Colonel was Louis Mountbatten.

Sir Nicol Stenhouse was one of the men chosen for the raid - after some reprise of their basic training they set off in a barge named ‘Pheobe’ - after sailing round the coast of India to Goa they set about sticking magnetic mines below the water line on the German spy ship ‘Ehrenfels’, which was sounding signals to their U-boats on ships leaving harbour.

The raid was a success but because of it taking place on neutral soil it was kept quiet until 35 years after the war.

In researching this story there was no mention of it in Sir Nicol’s reference in my 1967 edition of ‘Who’s Who?’

After the Official Secrets Act time had lapsed, a book was written about the raid by James Leason called The Boarding Party - the last action of the Calcutta Light Horse - then later a film in 1980 called The Sea Wolves with actors Gregory Peck and David Niven - to bring all this into focus.

During the first 11 days of March 1943 U-boats sank 12 allied ships in the Indian Ocean - after the Light Horse Raid on Goa only one ship was sunk in the remainder of the month.

I once asked John Stenhouse about the raid and his dad’s job in it - in true colonial understatement he said it was nothing much.

I then asked if he had any souvenirs of the raid and he said the only thing his dad kept was the SOE Commando dagger.

I then said: “Where do you keep it?”, expecting it to be mounted on a piece of mahogany with a brass plate inscription.

He said again typically: “Last time I saw it, it was in the bottom of the sock drawer.”

Thank God we have men like them.