As a boy Alastair Thorburn always wanted to be a soldier and, once commissioned, had only one military ambition – to command the 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
His father, who won the Military Cross and served with the Black Watch in the Great War, had commanded the 4th Battalion KOSB in the 1930s and his son was delighted to join the same Territorial Army battalion after the outbreak of the Second World War.
The young Thorburn would ultimately achieve his dream of leading 1Bn but not before he too had become a decorated war hero, storming on to Sword Beach on D-Day with Lord Lovat’s 4 Commando, guarding General Bernard Montgomery, fighting in Korea and soldiering in the jungles of Malaya countering Communist terrorists.
In between he survived a near-fatal encounter – not with the enemy but with a rogue cricket ball – during service on the North-west frontier at Peshawar in India. His was an extraordinarily varied military career but one in which any hint of heroism was consistently played down – he was a man distinctly averse to any pomp and ceremony.
Born in Selkirk and brought up near Darnick, Melrose, his father Malcolm ran a family tweed mill and had survived being bayoneted through the thigh during the Mesopotamia campaign of the Great War.
Educated at Winchester College, Hampshire, young Thorburn went straight to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and on passing out was commissioned into the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. An intelligence officer in Scotland until 1942, he travelled the countryside on a motorbike on information-gathering missions, remaining slightly frustrated that he was not in the real theatre of war. However there were compensations, including “a wonderful summer in Caithness poaching Sir Archibald Sinclair’s grouse and trout”.
By autumn 1942 he had joined the Commandos where his nimble athleticism earned him the nickname Bambi. Even as a youngster he loved the hills and would often head off for a solitary 20-mile hike, armed with a long stick to help him to vault over high fences – sporting skills that would become essential during his time at the Commando training centre at Achnacharry in the unforgiving Scottish highlands. “Extremely tough course,” he noted.
Throughout 1943 until the spring of 1944 he trained in boat handling, cliff and rock climbing and lived in the mountains on self-reliance exercises, all in preparation for the invasion of Europe when No 4 Commando would play an important role in the D-Day assault on the Normandy coast.
By the end of May 1944, having carried out a dress rehearsal with the rest of the Commando brigade, No 4 was in a sealed camp for an intensive briefing on Operation Overlord. Thorburn, who commanded A Troop, broke the news to his men.
Their orders were to land on Sword Beach, destroy a battery and garrison at Ouiestreham then meet up with the rest of the brigade. On 6 June, 1944 they went ashore at 6:30am and crossed Pegasus Bridge about noon. Thorburn, who was wounded in Normandy – “got in the way of a bit of grenade”, he said – later described his D-Day landing as “quite a little battle”.
That August, after several weeks of defensive battles to hold the bridgehead and while in the Bois de Bavent across the River Orne, General Bernard Montgomery requested a personal bodyguard for his breakout from the Falaise Pocket into Belgium. Captain Thorburn was the first officer to take a party to perform the duties.
By November, with the Commandos reorganised, he was commanding No 1 Troop for Operation Infatuate, the assault on Flushing on the Netherlands’ Walcheren Island where heavy German fortifications were blocking vital access to Antwerp. “Our CO had been ordered to go in at first light. But he refused so we went in in the dark… We found a whole lot of very dispirited Germans who were not really for a fight at all. It was a very sensible decision of our CO.”
Thorburn was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his part in the operation but dismissed any heroics: “We had two French troops in 4 Commando…I suppose it was a bit of swapping around: we gave them the odd MC (Military Cross) and they gave us the odd Croix de Guerre. I don’t think it was because I had done anything of great distinction.”
That was No 4’s last operation of the war and, though they did not yet know it, the Commandos would soon be disbanded. After advancing through the Netherlands and Belgium, Thorburn ended the war in Germany. He left 4 Commando in July and returned to Edinburgh’s Redford Barracks but was soon back on duty abroad with 2 KOSB.
From December 1945 to March 1947 he served in the North West frontier of Peshawar, before Partition of India, patrolling what is now the Pakistan end of the Khyber Pass. There he enjoyed shooting trips, captained the Peshawar Services Cricket Team and was hit on the nose by the rogue cricket ball that brought him to the brink of death. The ball caused serious damage and, in an effort to stem the blood, a medical orderly poured acid down his nose in error, leading to serious blood loss. Airlifted to a Delhi hospital, a transfusion of blood of the wrong type then almost killed him. His parents were telegrammed notice of his impending demise, a prediction that fortunately proved erroneous.
He subsequently spent two years as adjutant of 4 KOSB (TA) at HQ in Galashiels, a spell with the British Military Mission in Greece, and a year at the Army staff college before being posted to Korea in February 1952, commanding A Company 1 KOSB against the invading North Koreans’ Chinese allies. He was Mentioned in Despatches for gallant and distinguished services following a long night of battle in which his 150 men fought off 1,000 Chinese troops during fierce hand-to-hand combat.
After two years as Brigade Major, 154 Highland Brigade TA at Stirling he went to Malaya, to Command D Company 1 KOSB, during the Emergency battling Communist terrorists. There he met his wife Ann, who was with the Foreign Office, and proposed on a jungle road in bandit country, with a loaded rifle between them. They married in Australia in 1957 during his stint on the High Commissioner’s Joint Service Staff in Melbourne.
Back home again he was OC KOSB depot at Berwick and in February 1962 finally realised his ambition, appointed to command 1 KOSB in Aden – a “great honour”. He was later brigade colonel, Lowland Brigade at Glencorse Barracks near Edinburgh, and OC of the Army’s Combined Record Office in Bournemouth and Exeter.
Thorburn, who spent a total of 33 years with the KOSB, was a strict disciplinarian and confident leader who expected high standards but he was also fair, kind and compassionate. His swansong in the Army was as commandant of the Frimley Park Cadet Training Centre where, amongst all the portraits of previous COs in jacket and tie, he stood out in shirt sleeves and beret.
He fully retired in 1985, after 10 years as London division head of the Corps of Commissionaires, an organisation helping ex-service people, and enjoyed golf, gardening, fishing, working with the local talking newspaper and treks in the Nepalese Himalayas.
Thorburn, who lived latterly in Farnham, Surrey, was the last known surviving officer of No 4 Commando’s campaigns in Normandy and Walcheren, is survived by his wife Ann and their children Hugh, Robert and Jane.