An Original Commando
Maj ‘Robin’ Savage, Alistair Carpendale McEwan, died on 3 July aged 85.
He had an extraordinary, varied, career, and all that he did, he did well, and with unobtrusive modesty. Those that knew him well, realised that he was an outstanding and brave soldier and a talented sportsman.
He was accepted by Winchester College without a formal exam, because of his cricket! Once there he excelled at all games. He benefited from much coaching at Lords by Archie Mclaren, then captain of England, and he beat Laddie Lucas in the Boy’s Golf championship. Like ‘Monty’, a cousin of his father, he expected another war with Germany and wanted to be ready for it.
At Sandhurst, he was captain of golf, and was in the teams for cricket and fencing as well as being in the senior ride.
He was commissioned into the Queen’s Royal Regiment, (West Surrey), and was soon posted to Quetta, where he arrived in time to help deal with the consequences of a terrible earthquake. In 1935, Sir Maurice Hallett, then Governor of the Central Provinces, and soon to become Governor of Bihar and Orrisa, requested that Robin should join his staff as an ADC. The offer was accepted by Robin against the advice of his Commanding Officer, and the next three years were of exceptional interest.
Bihar was about to have free democratic elections, the very first in India, followed by the formation of a democratic government. This was an experiment in devolution and a move towards self-rule for India. Sir Maurice had been chosen for Bihar, as the most able senior official in the Indian Civil Service, and the best man to handle this delicate transition. This posting also provided Robin with opportunities for all the sports of British India, and he took the fullest advantage that time allowed.
On returning to England early in 1939, he was soon posted as an instructor at an officer cadet training unit at Colchester. When the war was declared, he was anxious to get fighting. He volunteered twice for the RAF, but then learned of the creation of the Commandos, so volunteered for these also, and was accepted.
Armed with a letter from Winston Churchill, no volunteer could be refused permission to join the Commandos, and he selected his 2IC and a troop of ruffians, whom he trained for war. These became ‘F’ troop of 7 Commando and eventually went to the Middle East as a part of ‘Layforce’. Some aspects of this were described, famously, by Evelyn Waugh.
Robin’s troop distinguished themselves in operations that were not entirely successful. The first was the Bardia raid when they landed in Crete as a base for operations but were immediately employed to cover the evacuation. The commander of 7 Commando panicked, leaving a void. Robin personally helped Brig Laycock to evacuate, in the last ship, before returning to fight, which they did for four days without food, and until ammunition had run out. Then their orders were to surrender.
In the back of a lorry, they were driven erratically by a drunken German, until he drove off the road on a mountainside. Robin was at the very back preparing to escape, and so was able to jump nearly clear. Most of the others were killed. As soon as possible he escaped from the PoW hospital, joining other escapees. Greek civilians were outstandingly supportive, brave and generous, but after many adventures he was recaptured, and treated as a spy, being held in the MO Averof prison.
After ten months he was tried by the Italians and condemned to 30 years imprisonment. The main evidence against Robin was provided by a British soldier, who specialised in giving false evidence in return for food and favours.
He was transferred to Larissa, a concentration camp that became notorious. He soon tried to escape, but when he was halfway through the wire, a thunderstorm over Mount Olympus woke the guards. He and his companion were given 60 lashes with a wire-lined rubber truncheon, placed in solitary confinement next to the cess pits, and starved.
Marcel Junod, a committee member of the International Red Cross and head of the IRC delegation in Berlin, had been searching Greece for Robin and found him in the camp hospital ward. He bribed the camp commandant with his Dunhill lighter, and that may have saved Robin’s life. Soon he was transferred back to the Averof, and thence to Italy and the penitentiary at Sulmona.
When Italy surrendered Robin was rescued by his Commando troop 2IC who was in a nearby PoW camp – he knew that the British were in the prison, but was astonished to find his troop leader! Robin and another were too weak and emaciated to move far, but an RAF sergeant, Paddy Doulin, volunteered to nurse them back to strength, and try to rejoin the British, then south of the Sangro river.
Paddy got across but Robin was recaptured by the Germans. He ended the war in a PoW camp near Hanover being correctly treated.
Soon after the war, he was recruited by Roy Farran for the 3rd Hussars, from the Centre for Arab Studies, at that time, in Jerusalem. In Palestine, he served as Adjutant and commanded ‘A’ Squadron, which was noticeably independent, efficient and unpopular with the RSM. His next posting was as 2IC at the North Somerset Yeomanry.
He was recommended for command of the 3rd Hussars but was considered to be too young. He accepted a posting as 2IC of his regiment in Germany. This was a mistake as a career move because at the next opportunity he would be too old! He never regretted this as it enabled him to have four glorious years hunting in Leicestershire, while living in Melton Mowbray, serving as 2IC of the Leicestershire Yeomanry. A brief interlude followed when he tried to control the press during the Suez campaign.
Soon after this, he left the Army and emigrated to Kenya, where he went to Egerton Agricultural College, before buying a farm. He was well respected as a farmer first near Thompson’s falls, on ‘blood pressure ridge’, and then at Mau Narok, where he became well known in the polo world.
In 1974 he returned to England and lived in Chobham. Robin never married. During his retirement, his greatest joys were his flyfishing trips around the world, and the families of his brothers, who all adored him. Appreciating his kindness, stories and sense of humour.
He died in hospital, soon after returning from a happy week camping in Arctic Russia, during which he caught 12 salmon, ending the week at midnight drinking vodka and eating reindeer kebabs with the Russians.