An article written for ‘The Hebridean’ by Keith Stringer.
Born on January 1st 1913, Donald George Mackenzie (Domhnall Sheorais Iain Dhomhnuill a Phiobair) from 5 Hacklete in Great Bernera was living at 4 Kneep, Uig in the mid 1980’s when I knew him. He had married Mary Maclennan from 11 Valtos after the war and together they had raised four children, Christine, Iain, Donald Calum and Chrissie Margaret. Donald George was a great character, always ready to laugh and joke as he skilfully rolled his own cigarettes. He was an active crofter too, who looked after his sheep and, although in his mid-seventies, was often seen on the hill rounding up his flock.
On one occasion, as we talked, I asked him about the war and was astonished as he described the events of one particular night in 1942. Prior to this he had volunteered to join the coastal forces after his first ship the hunt class destroyer HMS Pytchley had been damaged by mines. Donald George was assigned as a member of the crew on a gunboat; their task was to put secret agents or commandos ashore at various locations on the European mainland.
This particular night and unknown to the gunboat crew, they were to take part in one of the most daring actions of the war, Operation Biting on the 27/28 February 1942. It was a combined operation involving the Army, the Navy, the Air force and the French resistance, who had gathered information on German defences. The aim of the operation was to locate and acquire vital parts of a new ‘Wurzburg’ radar installation the German’s had developed for detecting allied bombers.
The radar station was at the top of a four hundred foot cliff near the village of Bruneval just north of Le Harve. On that cold, dark night paratroops were dropped inland by Whitley bombers to seize the radar technology, while the gunboat Donald George crewed put commandos ashore on a beach, to provide covering fire against German coastal positions. Once the commandos were ashore the gunboat set anchor and waited. Donald George told me that earlier that day he had been sharpening his knife for about half an hour when the captain of the gunboat asked him what he was doing. He told the captain he didn’t know, that he just had a feeling.
Tension mounted as they lay at anchor. Suddenly the darkness was fragmented by searchlights from the sea. The gunboat was illuminated and vulnerable. Instinctively Donald George quickly cut the anchor rope, with his newly sharpened blade, just before the captain gave the order to cut the anchor free. The gunboat then came under rapid machine gun fire in the glare of the searchlight. As it tried to break through the German forces Donald George ran to the pom-pom gun and returned fire, shooting out the dazzling searchlight; in the ensuing darkness they were able to evade the Germans. After the encounter they picked up the paratroops and commandos who had not only achieved their objective but had also captured a German radar operator.
In the spring of 1943 Donald George Mackenzie was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by King George VI, for his part in Operation Biting; he died on the 5th of April 1995 aged 82.
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