Born: 3 May, 1921, in Hatton, Aberdeenshire. Died: 23 May, 2012, in Aberdeen, aged 91
Tom Duncan was one of the elite commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade whose daring exploits helped change the course of the Second World War.
Drawn from volunteers, the commandos underwent the harshest military training of the war, forming crack raiding teams, fearlessly venturing into enemy territory to carry out recces, gather intelligence, lead assaults and spearhead invasions.
He took part in the D-Day landings and, though wounded that night, returned to help carve the way across France and Germany, ultimately witnessing victory on the Baltic coast with a “sense of loss and bewilderment that we had actually survived and saddened that so many had not been with us to see the end”.
Born in the village of Hatton, just outside Peterhead, he was one of five children of cabinet maker Harry Duncan and his wife Elizabeth.
Educated at the local Hatton School, he joined the Boys’ Brigade and later the Territorial Army and was just a few days short of his 20th birthday when called up in April 1941.
He served with the Gordon Highlanders and went on to volunteer for the commandos, having to prove himself worthy of the Green Beret by triumphing over the gruelling regime at Castle Commando, as the training base at Achnacarry Castle outside Fort William was known. Deep in the inhospitable Highlands, the terrain was well-suited to the feats of endurance these toughest of the tough had to undergo. Enterprising and unconventional, they were unrivalled as a fearless fighting force and played a pivotal role in some of the most important campaigns of the Second World War.
As a member of 3 Commando, part of the 1st Special Service Brigade – rebranded in December 1944 as the 1st Commando Brigade – he was led into battle on the Normandy beaches by the legendary Brigadier Lord Lovat.
The commandos had gathered in Worthing, on the south coast, in the early spring of 1944. “Everybody, civilians and soldiers, knew that invasion was on but the date was unknown,” Duncan later recalled. “Our main objective was to keep 100 per cent fit. Two weeks in bombed areas of London practising street fighting and two weeks training with landing craft and stalking deer in north-west Scotland.
“Field Marshal Montgomery paid us a visit, stood on top of his jeep and called us his Corps D’Elite.”
They crossed the English Channel in darkness, on the morning of D-Day, 6 June, 1944, and were among the first to land at Sword beach, piped ashore by Lovat’s piper Bill Millin, his kilt billowing around him in the water.
An earlier wave of troops had just made it to the beach ahead of them and the sands were being bombarded by continuous shelling and small arms fire as the commandos reached shore. Duncan later described how many of these early troops had already been cut down, suffering horrific injuries, as mortar bombs screamed down “like flocks of partridges”.
Those who survived the initial assault gathered in a swamp beyond the beach-head and he recalled his colonel acknowledging, with marvellous British understatement, that he was glad Duncan had come along
However, later that same night, Duncan was wounded by a German grenade and returned to Britain. Two months later he had recuperated and was back in France where he went on to take part in the advance on Caen, followed by the assault on Germany when the Commando Brigade led the advance over the Rhine, Weser and Elbe rivers.
Crossing the Rhine in the middle of the night, they captured Wesel on 24 March, 1945, but, a week or so later, faced fierce opposition at Osnabruck which was ended only by street fighting. Nevertheless there were occasional moments of levity: “Our troop entered a deserted pub which had been hurriedly evacuated as the beer was still flowing from the tap, a great interlude for us.”
Days later, while carrying out a recce of the River Weser, he and his captain crept onto a railway bridge which was immediately blown up by the Germans. “Luckily for us only the part of the bridge over dry land was destroyed.”
With the war drawing to a close, they crossed the Elbe on 29 April, finally reaching Lubeck on the Baltic coast and meeting the Russian army. The war for Tom Duncan was over.
Demobbed in 1946, he returned home to work as a slater for a local firm, Harry Randall Slaters. Six years later, in Cruden Bay, he married Pearl whom he had met on a beach. According to family lore she had been paddling in the sea and had turned round to see a strange man lying on her towel.
In 1953, he began working for Pearl Insurance and stayed with the company for 14 years before becoming a corrosion consultant for Metalife International, responsible for northern Scotland and winning the contract for the Forth Rail Bridge.
The couple lived briefly in Edinburgh before returning to his native North-East where they settled at Cruden Bay and raised two children, daughter Portland and son Jason.
In retirement Duncan was a keen gardener, building a fishpond and growing all sorts of plants and shrubs. He was also a lifelong supporter of Aberdeen Football Club and was still attending matches until a few years ago.
A keen snooker and pool player, he was a member of the local pool league from its first season in 1991 until retiring in 2008. During his last season he played 54 frames, winning an incredible 48 per cent of them – all at the age of 87.
Three years earlier he had entered the district qualifiers for the Pool Scottish Masters. He defeated one of the favourites, then asked what would happen if he won again. After being told he would have to go down to Edinburgh and play in the finals he quickly lost his next match as he had only turned up for a game of pool.
Though the Second World War was the best part of 70 years in the past by this time, the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes on D-Day was seared into his psyche, a sound he said he would never forget.
“It is hard to describe the impact it had. It gave us a great lift and increased our determination,” said Duncan. “As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.”
But there was one memory that stood out above all others: “That unforgettable moment when, standing on the marshy escarpment just off the beach-head, when Colonel Peter Young, a legend among commandos, veteran of many commando raids … gave me that famous smile and said ‘Glad you came along Duncan’. Certainly it symbolises to me the spirit of the band of men who proudly wore their Green Berets.”
He is survived by wife Pearl, daughter Portland, son Jason, two grandsons and a great grandson and his sisters Violet and Ruth.