Donald “Lofty” Large (27 September 1930 “ 22 October 2006) was a British soldier and author.
Having joined the Army as a boy, he fought in Korea, where he was shot and captured. After his release and rehabilitation, he joined the Special Air Service and went on to serve in various conflicts around the world. He wrote two books about his time in the Army and was one of the first NCOs to write about the SAS, preceding such authors as Andy McNab andChris Ryan.
Large was born in Oxfordshire, and in 1939, with his parents and younger sister, Jan, he moved to a cottage two miles outside of Guiting Power in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. As a child his father taught him how to shoot game; he later said of this experience, “little did I realise I would spend a lot of time, many years later [in the SAS], being trained in exactly that type of instinctive shooting.” An imposing figure ” he was 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 m) tall ” he was given the nickname “Lofty”.
Large joined the Army at age 15 as a “band boy”. Because of a lack of vacancies, he was unable to join his county regiment, The Glosters, so instead joined the Wiltshire Regiment. After spending five years in England, Germany and Hong Kong, he requested a transfer to the Gloucestershire Regiment and then volunteered to fight in the Korean War. After a combat training course in Japan, Large was deployed to the front line.
In March 1951, along with 30 other Glosters, he was sent to B Company’s position in the low hills above the Imjin River. The Glosters, as part of the 29th Brigade, were tasked with defending routes through the valley that could potentially be used by the Chinese in a southbound offensive towards Seoul. On 22 April 1951, they engaged with Chinese troops in theBattle of Imjin. By the morning of 24 April, B Company had fought off seven assaults before they were able to rejoin the remainder of their battalion on what became known as Gloster Hill. By this time the battalion was low on ammunition and cut off from the British lines. Large himself was shot in the left shoulder and, along with most of the remaining Glosters, was forced to surrender.
After a ten day forced march north, and having received only basic medical attention, Large arrived at a prison camp outside Chongsung. He spent the next two years in the camp and celebrated his 21st birthday there, throughout which time he had two bullets and at least eighteen pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. To help him cope with the constant pain of his untreated injuries, he was introduced to marijuana(which grew wild in the area) by an American POW. Although he found it very effective as a painkiller, he was rather alarmed by itspsychoactive effects and therefore tried to limit his use of the drug.
In March 1953, he was operated on by a Chinese doctor and a tracer round was removed from his ribs. This medical attention was in fact preliminary to his being released as part of a prisoner exchange. Having weighed 217 pounds (98 kg) in March 1951, he had dropped to 136 pounds (62 kg) by the time of his release. He also still had very limited movement in his arm and was told that if he had been treated by a British doctor at the time of his injury he would most likely have had his arm amputated.
For their defence of Gloster Hill in the Battle of Imjin, the 1st Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. The citation is conferred on units of the armed forces of the United States and of allied nations for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.
After returning to the UK, Large was offered a discharge on medical grounds, which he declined. He went on to serve briefly in the quartermaster’s stores, as an instructor, and in the regimental police. Throughout this time he worked on regaining his fitness and rehabilitating his arm.
Special Air Service
In 1957, wanting to escape the “stupidities of drill” and the “bullshit” of the regular Army, Large volunteered for the SAS and successfully completed the selection course; however, almost immediately afterwards he crashed his BSA motorbike and subsequently had to repeat selection.
Having injured his ankle in the crash, he went through selection with one boot two sizes larger than the other in order to accommodate the bandages and swelling. He went on to serve with 22 SAS in Malaya, Oman, Borneo and Aden.
While suppressing a rebellion in Oman in 1958, Large infamously lost his temper with a recalcitrant donkey. He later said:
|“||All the donkey handler did was laugh. Just as I turned round, the donkey’s face was right by me and it shook its head and I stuck a punch in among it somewhere, and the donkey went down like it was shot … much to my amazement. But not to as much amazement as the donkey handler’s ” I’ve never seen a bloke sober up so quick. It was a hole in one: the donkey struggled to its feet and looked really willing to go up the hill and the donkey handler lost his laugh.||”|
Several weeks later, in January 1959, Large was part of the ‘A’ and ‘D’ Squadron assault on the Jebel Akhdar. This entailed a 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) overnight ascent up the south side of the jebel, with each soldier carrying 120 pounds (54 kg) of kit. Having completed this climb the SAS were able to surprise and defeat the rebels, who had previously held the plateau as a virtually impregnable stronghold.
In Borneo, Large was involved in Claret operations. As the leader of a 4-man SAS patrol, he spent up to two weeks at a time hidden in the jungle on deniable incursions into Indonesia, performing reconnaissance or ambushing Indonesian forces. For his service in Borneo, he received a mention in despatches.
Parachuting formed an important part of SAS training and operations, but it was not something that Large enjoyed. His bulk meant that he descended far too quickly to have any chance of a comfortable landing, added to which he suffered from a fear of heights. Despite this, he eventually passed a parachute instructors course, although the footnote on his course report read, “not suited to parachuting ” either in size or inclination.”
Large spent the final years of his 27-year Army career as an instructor with 23 SAS, one of the SAS’s two reserve regiments.
He wrote two books about his time in the Army: One Man’s SAS and One Man’s War in Korea. A third book, Soldier Against the Odds: From Korean War to SAS, consisted of revised versions of his first two books along with some additional material. Andy McNab has said that “[Large’s first two books] were recommended reading for Regiment candidates. He was instrumental in setting the template for future members of the Regiment.”
In his book SAS Heroes: Remarkable Soldiers, Extraordinary Men, former SAS soldier Pete Scholey describes Large as “simply the finest soldier [I] had ever met.” Andy McNab, who joined the SAS eleven years after Large’s departure, has written about Large’s enduring impact on the Regiment:
|“||Being like Lofty was something I aspired to without realising it. When I joined the Regiment I was told that the best way to survive those first years in the Sabre squadron was to pick out someone who you thought you would like to be. Shut up, watch and listen. For me there were a number of the ‘old and bold’ who fitted that requirement. It wasn’t until later in my service that I learned that most of them, as newly ‘badged’ members to a squadron, had picked Lofty.||”|
After leaving the Army Large worked in the UK and the Middle East. Having earned a Heavy Goods Vehicle driving licence and a Qualified Testing Officer’s certificate during his time in the Army, he spent the last 14 years of his working life as a driving instructor.
In his seventies, Large ” along with Pete Scholey ” returned to the Borneo jungle as part of a 2003 Channel 4 documentary about the history of the SAS, taking the camera crew to the exact spot on the banks of the Sungei Koemba River where his patrol had successfully ambushed an Indonesian Army river boat in 1965.
Having been ill with leukaemia for three years, he died aged 76 at St Michael’s Hospice, Hereford.
Before leaving for Hong Kong with the Wiltshire Regiment, Large had met Ann, who was working as a nanny at the regiment’s depot in Devizes. She wrote to him five times a week during his captivity in Chongsung, although only ninety of these letters were actually delivered to Large. They eventually married after his return from Korea, and in 1960 moved to Hereford with the Regiment, where they had two children, Andy and Donna.