At the Chalke Valley History Festival today, former World War II SAS veteran talked about his experiences in World War II and his horror at the current war in Ukraine.
Jack Mann is the only remaining member of the LRDG, the Long Range Desert Group which was formed in 1940, a reconnaissance and raiding unit of the British Army and disbanded in 1945. He later joined both the SAS and the SBS and gave lectures to the SOE in a varied military career which he started to ‘do his bit’.
With such a distinguished career under his belt he is now an honoured member of the Special Forces Club, ‘the only club you can’t buy your way into’, and the only living person to have a bust sculpted of him for display in the club.
Although he has previously been reluctant to discuss his wartime experiences, this is his fifth such talk this year: at the age of 96 perhaps thinking that the time is right, although he has previously collaborated with historical authors such as Saul David and Damien Lewis on their books about the Special Forces.
His talk at the Chalke Valley History Festival was a conversation with historian Paul Beaver, who encouraged the memories to flow.
Jack was born in Cairo in 1925, just two days after his father died. His father was a dentist of 34 years old, who was treated for a spot on his nose but within 24 hours had died of blood poisoning leaving behind his pregnant wife and two small children of 4 and 2, “all dead now”, he said, “I’m the only one left”.
After about a year in Cairo the family moved to France, returning to Cairo when his aunt died and his mother married her widower. His step-father had a farm with ducks, chickens, geese and turkeys and Jack described it as a good life. When he was nearly 17 he signed up with the British Army, not liking what he saw going on in Germany and Italy, and was initially assigned to the Royal Signal Corps.
He was trained as a radio operator, learning Morse code which he could soon do at 16 words a minute. The Intelligence Corps heard he spoke Italian and assigned him to go into an Italian prisoner of war camp to gather intelligence. Jack refused, saying his Italian was not good enough and that he didn’t join up to end up in a POW camp - he joined to attack the enemy. An hour later they found him another job, as a radio operator with LRDG.
Based in North Africa, the LRDG were experts in desert navigation, covert reconnaissance and missions behind enemy lines. They worked alongside the SAS, who nicknamed them the ‘taxi service’, using them to help transport them across the desert. In 1943, Jack transferred to the SAS, undergoing further training courses, including a parachute course in Palestine. Usually a lengthy course, during the war it was just 9 days because that was the only time they could spare. The training included jumping out of a truck at 20 miles an hour and jumping off the top of a ladder, about 5 metres high, without a harness. “That’s quite high actually”, said the astonished interviewer. “Yes “,” Jack replied dryly, “that’s what we thought.”
Jack later transferred to the SBS when they needed a radio operator for George Jellicoe, son of the famous Admiral Jellicoe who commanded the British Navy at the Battle of Jutland. He spent a lot of time in the occupied Greek islands, acquiring more language skills along the way. He described how hungry the inhabitants always were, having to sacrifice most of their food to the occupying Germans. He said they would rub their tummies to show hunger, but Jack said it was easy to see it in their faces. Sometimes he would help them, using dynamite to fish, shooting animals or even sometimes using grenades to kill the prey, which was rarely successful.
Jack said he is very upset because of the terrible war in Ukraine. When he came out of the army he thought he would never see another war but there’s wars everywhere and Ukraine is the very worst of them. He finds it very upsetting - Russians attacking a neighbour and fighting fellow Russians.
Paul asked, “Did you enjoy the war, was it exciting?” “No”, he replied, he joined to do his bit, nothing more. There was nothing exciting about it, but he was happy with the lads who were with him. They made an association after the war and met up, when they were together they were always happy, getting up to mischief.
"They’re all gone now."
It’s always a privilege to hear veterans and the Chalke Valley History Festival is one of the best places to hear them speak, a far better experience than just reading articles about them. It reminds you that history is more than a series of disconnected events that happened in the past, but that it had a real impact on the lives of those still living.
Read more about the Chalke Valley History Festival 2022 >>