It has been 96 years since we initiated the poppy to remember fallen military personnel, with Saturday 11th round the corner, we are looking back on the extraordinary war tale of Major Keith Rae – a gunner officer with the 97th (Kent Yeomanry).
June 12 1940, on the Normandy coast the 97th were cut off and ordered to surrender. Rae and his two comrades paddled out to sea in a canoe to waiting destroyers, but were gunned down and forced to swim ashore – hand grenades were thrown at them and they were taken prisoner. As they were being marched to interrogation, during a break in the long trudge east, Rae and two other officers escaped and slipped under blackberry bushes.
For the next two weeks they walked at night through enemy territory with only the stars to guide them, on one occasion they walked straight into a German camp, but the sentry was dozing. After reaching the channel coast they failed to steal a boat – due to increasing numbers of German troops. The three men then headed south on foot, on reaching the Somme a friendly boy hid them in his cart under a pile of hay and took them to his parents farm for a meal. At dark the boy’s pretty sisters distracted the German guards, with conversation, while the three men escaped and swam the Cher to reach unoccupied Vichy. After three months on the run they found their way home, on arrival they were arrested by military police – Rae was able to provide detailed information on French airfields and warships at Mers-el-Kebir and Casablanca; and 48 hours later he and his companion – for one of the trio had disappeared at Marseilles – were dining at the Savoy. He was awarded an MC.
Rae guided his colleague’s home – walking 40,000 miles, he returned to active combat two weeks after his return to the UK. He was then posted to Iraq and later North Africa, after two weeks of gruelling fighting his position was overrun by German tanks. He and the survivors in his battery hid in trenches – the only escape route across a minefield between the tanks. After it got dark, Rae ordered his men to follow him at five-minute intervals, but only his sergeant followed. Equipped with a revolver, a tommy gun and one bottle of water, the pair set off across the desert and were picked up at daybreak by British armoured cars. The rest chose to surrender.
Rae’s extraordinary war demonstrates the absolute pride in performance and total humility before the magnitude of the task that our glorious troops are still actively demonstrating.