Perhaps it’s not surprising, coming from a family known as the Fighting Frickletons, that Alex Frickleton found a niche preparing some of Britain’s toughest troops for battle. But while his fearsome training regime was gruelling to say the least, he gained a reputation as the Army’s quietest sergeant major, a man whose powers of persuasion ensured that thousands of elite soldiers made the grade as Second World War commandos.
As Company Sergeant Major Instructor at Achnacarry, the commando training centre deep in the Scottish highlands, he was responsible for creating the a fiendishly difficult obstacle run known as the Tarzan Course.
Utilising an avenue of beech trees, hastily planted by Cameron of Locheil before he raced off to battle in 1745, it consisted of the Death Slide and Toggle Bridge, a web of ropes slung up to 40ft above the ground. Used to train troops in cat-crawling – inching flat on their stomach along a single rope from tree to tree – and swinging monkey-like from platforms onto grappling nets, it was so challenging that not even Frickleton, a superbly fit young man, could finish the entire course in one go.
But as a fellow commando, the late Major James Dunning, recalled in It Had To Be Tough, his book on the elite fighting force, “no-one who did their training at Achnacarry ever forgot the Tarzan Course”.
Situated near Spean Bridge, at the southern end of the Great Glen, Achnacarry was known as Castle Commando and served from 1942 as the Commando Basic Training Centre. The surrounding countryside was desolate but perfect as an exercise grounds, made up of bleak and rugged terrain on banks of the River Arkaig, with Ben Nevis the destination for many a cross-country march.
The base was established to help fulfill Winston Churchill’s vision of a highly trained special force capable of carrying out air and sea raids on German-occupied Europe. More than 25,000 volunteers passed through Achnacarry but not all made the grade and Frickleton’s endeavours were designed to weed out those who could not stand the punishing pace and as a result were Returned to Unit.
The regime was relentless: all recruits were expected to be at peak physical fitness at all times and in fighting order, ie able to run and march seven miles in an hour. Such high standards were maintained through unsparing exercises with live ammunition and explosives, often in appalling weather conditions. They also needed to be experts in a range of skills including unarmed combat, seamanship, demolition and sabotage, plus cliff and mountain climbing – no cliffs were deemed insurmountable.
Frickleton, a modest and unassuming Scot, described by Donald Gilchrist in his book Castle Commando, as “a small compact bundle of muscles with a head of closely cropped curls and a well developed sense of humour”, headed a physical training team of two sergeants, Roy Bellringer and Stanley “Sonny” Bissell. The latter had been in the Metropolitan Police and apparently reported to Achnacarry wearing a suit and bowler hat. According to Major Dunning, Frickleton was also “a splendid warrant officer” who, as well as running the Tarzan Course, also introduced new recruits to unarmed combat training with a demonstration in a boxing ring alongside the sergeants.
Frickleton, son of Henry, a contract miner, and Elizabeth, who ran a small grocery store, was born in the village of Slammanan, near Falkirk, into the Fighting Frickletons. His grandfather was a professional soldier who served with General Charles Gordon. His second cousin, Lance-Corporal Samuel Frickleton, won the Victoria Cross in 1917 for gallantry at Messines Ridge, Belgium, where, though slightly wounded, he singlehandedly destroyed two enemy machine gun posts, killing one’s entire crew of 12, and saving his own and other units from severe casualties.
After moving to Lanarkshire young Alex Frickleton attended Budhill Primary and Uddingston Grammar Schools, leaving at 14 to become a grocer’s assistant. He enlisted in the Army Physical Training Corps in Glasgow in October 1939 and two years later he was with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders before going on to Achnacarry to train volunteers as commandos.
While on leave he married Anne, in Glasgow on Christmas Eve 1942, with whom he had four children – Anne, Harry, Gordon and Stuart. After the war he began studying medicine but had to give it up for family reasons and worked instead as a qualified remedial gymnast, a forerunner of today’s physiotherapists, rehabilitating injured patients at Peel Hospital near Galashiels and Dingleton Hospital, Melrose.
Always community-spirited he helped to build a community tennis court in Walkerburn, where he lived in the Scottish Borders, and organise its annual week-long summer festival.
He emigrated to Canada in the late 1960s where he was instrumental in establishing the Canadian Remedial Gymnast Association.
He worked at the Workers’ Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, where he was responsible for the setting up and management of the physiotherapy/rehabilitation unit for those injured at work. Many of the patients were Italian and he taught himself the language so he could communicate with them.
Frickleton settled in Richmond Hill, just north of Toronto, and in retirement was involved in the community there, particularly with the local Curtain Club drama society, where he was a set builder, and with the Richmond Hill Historic Society and the Royal Astronomy Society of Canada.
At the age of 91 Frickleton returned to Scotland, to his home village, for the unveiling of a memorial to celebrate the heroism of his courageous cousin Samuel a century ago.