Every summer brings a host of military anniversaries. Tomorrow is the centenary of the Somme, that vast, tragic battle in which modern machinery devoured Romantic chivalry by the tens of thousands.
But there is a smaller engagement I remember in late June. Operation Epsom (or the First Battle of the Odon), in which my favorite Scottish unit (the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) went head to head with some of the toughest formations of the Wehrmacht.
Background: or why I even have a favorite Scottish regiment
world with bravery and distinction. They faced the Americans under Andrew
Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans and were the famed “Thin Red Line” holding
off the Russians at Balaclava.
about a quarter-century ago. I’d had a fondness for things Scottish. On a
family trip to the UK I absorbed a Holiday History of Scotland. This inspired me to write a short story about MacBeth in which he was a
reforming liberal and practical politician. I interspersed it with quotations from
Machiavelli’s The Prince and cleverly titled it The Scottish Prince.
taught by a wonderful curmudgeon who insisted we learn actual dates. I
went to a school filled with very creative people who found this almost as
overwhelming as algebra. I, on the other hand loved history and had been
through Hebrew school, so this material was not unfamiliar. I didn’t really need to study for the
exam, and when I took it, I finished in about 10 minutes and blew the
curve. (This was unique, I
am generally a terrible student.) But I helped organize and lead a study group
(there might have been a young woman I was enamored with, I really don’t
It was around Passover/Easter – The Ten Commandments was on TV in the
background. Heading home through Brookline, someone had left a painting of
redcoats with kilts out for the trash. I liked it. It stayed with me, through
several moves and getting married. I always found a place for it on my wall.
Edinburgh, Scotland. My wife was with me and we were doing some sightseeing. (I
could happily tour every castle and battlefield in Scotland, followed by fish
and chips at a pub. Is heaven like Scotland on a sunny day? I hope so.)
around when I heard my wife calling for me. There it was, my painting. The
castle is the home of the regimental museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The painting is The Thin Red Line (from the regiment’s stand at
was a little added thrill that the Argylls were present with the Scottish
regiment had been captured when Singapore fell. The Argylls of D-Day were
originally a Territorial unit, which virtually overnight inherited the weighty
traditions and history of their namesake unit.
can ever be.”
their fate and became even more worried as they were deployed in Operation
allied forces and crush them. The large force being assembled included Panzer
Lehr, the most formidable armored division of the Wehrmacht. If Darth Vader
were working for Hitler (an entirely imaginable scenario) Panzer Lehr sounds
like his personal strike force. It is a unique quality of the German language
to take utterly innocent words and make them sound frightening. Lehr means
teaching, Panzer Lehr was the teaching division – which is why they had to be
the best, they set the example. So they were pretty bad-ass.
– that a military unit has a certain, ineffable quality. In Operation Epsom, the Argylls lived up to their history. Keegan writes:
Unspectacular, muddied, wearisome and intermittently terrifying, it had blunted the assault of one of the most formidable fighting formations in the German army and stood fit to rank with those other small epics of Argyll and Scottish stubbornness, the destruction of the 93rd at the battle of New Orleans and the stand of the ‘thin red line’ at Balaclava.