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The Achnacarry Project

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We were asked at the beginning of 2014 to produce eight interpretation panels in recognition of the Commandos association with Achnacarry and Spean Bridge in the HIglands of Scotland where we are based.The panels are based at relevant sites between the Railway Station at Spean Bridge and Achnacarry Training Ground some 8 miles away where they undertook their specialist training. The main challenge was working with slides and prints which were over 70 years old. They all had to be scanned and retouched to assure the detail and sharpness was retained as those used for the main large photos would eventually be up to 30 times larger than the original. We were especially happy with the one installed at the Railway Station as we managed to match the viewpoint almost exactly to the same one from 7 decades ago.

Normally with design work like this, whilst learning about the subject is part of the process, it’s usually just to gain a bit of background but it was quite fascinating to learn in detail about just what the commando’s whole experience was. From the young soldier getting off the train at Spean Bridge expecting to be transported to Achnacarry not realising he had to march in full kit with everyone else behind a kilted Pipe Major to the looks of apprehension on the faces of the men on Panel 5 at Clunes Bay about to do their Landing Craft training knowing Live Ammunition would be used, I’d like to think that the panels are an informative tribute to the brave men who spent time at the Commando Basic Traing Centre at Achnacarry. 

The panels can be viewed by clicking on the thumbnail images on the left.The following is a copy of the text which appears on each panel.

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                  Panel 1) Arrival at Spean Bridge Railway Station

For those selected as suitable for Commando training after Achnacarry became the Commando Depot/Commando Basic Training Centre in March 1942, their arrival by train at Spean Bridge Railway Station has been described in many ways. Some say they were met by a pipe band, others that they marched in full kit to Achnacarry, others that they arrived on their own. All are true but none set in stone. The highly recommended book “Castle Commando” by Donald Gilchrist  sums up his own arrival as follows: " From Crianlarich the train climbed steadily northwards, through scenery that became increasingly wilder and more forbidding. By Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy, over bleak Rannoch Moor, and on past Loch Treig. A pitiless drizzle was falling as the train finally rumbled down a slight gradient and clanged and clattered to a halt at a picturesque little station. Above the hiss of steam I could hear the sound of the pipes and - like a ghostly echo of the'45 - a porter shouting in a high pitched, Highland voice: "Spee...ann Brri...dge ! "                                                    He goes on to describe a kilted Pipe Major playing the quickstep alongside instructors who were giving orders on the platform, distinguished by their appearance,wearing camouflaged rainproof jackets, boots and faces shining, their brasses beaten flat and burnished. Kit bags were thrown onto lorries but the men were formed up, flanked by instructors, and with Pipes playing, they marched the seven miles to Achnacarry. Others have described arriving alone in possession of just their kit and a rail warrant, and not knowing where to go, having to ask for someone to phone the staff at Achnacarry who would come and collect them. All would take the same route past the Spean Bridge Hotel, through the village, to the bridge. Marching across the bridge over the Caledonian Canal, then up the steep incline until Achnacarry House loomed into view. The one consolation to all the recruits was that at least the officers also had to do it! Stopping at the gate they had time to take in the surroundings.Everywhere they looked men were training. Alongside the trees that lined the driveway was a long row of graves marked by white crosses. Nailed to each was a small board bearing a number, rank, and name, under which was a cause of death.  "He showed himself on the skyline","He failed to take cover in an assault landing" Donald Gilchrist, who himself would later become an instructor at the CBTC, describes his thoughts when he first saw them:  "They were phoney of course..or, were they?"                                          The volunteers had arrived.

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                                Panel 2) The Commando Memorial

Early in 1947 many members of branches of the Commando Association felt that some form of memorial should be put up in Scotland.

It was agreed that the most appropriate spot would be in the area of the former Commando Basic Training Centre at Achnacarry.Mr William Gilmour Smith JP of Glasgow advised the Association that a strong representative committee had been formed with the intention of inviting the Scottish School of Sculptors to submit designs.  Douglas Bliss and Dr Tom Honeyman were responsible for drawing up the conditions for the designs, and the artists were given 8 months to complete. In all, 26 designs were submitted and these were exhibited in the Glasgow School of Art on the 28th October 1949. The Committee came from all over the country to judge the exhibits.  They were unanimous that the design by Mr Scott Sutherland, who was an Art Teacher at Dundee College of Art, was the most outstanding work and all agreed that it would be a fitting symbol of all that Commandos stood for. It took another two years to prepare the clay and plaster casts for the foundry and complete the castings in bronze. The actual figures are 9 feet 4 inches high, and the finished memorial approximately 17 feet high. At this stage Lord Lovat was successful in having the present site generously donated by Mr McDonald of Spean Bridge.The Memorial was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother on Saturday 27th September 1952. There was no parade or ceremonial drill. The Queen Mother expressing a wish to walk through a line of Commandos on the way back to her car. A simple Area of Remembrance was later opened adjacent to the memorial which has been extended in recent years. Here Commandos and their families lay small tributes to loved ones. 

At Spean Bridge, as at Westminster Abbey, an annual Act of Remembrance was arranged, the first held on Sunday 8th November 1953. Over the years this ceremony has become a very important one for the residents ofLochaber in addition to the hundreds of Commandos who, along with their families and  friends, make the pilgrimage to the area. In 1957 the Town Council of Fort William agreed to arrange future services at the memorial and also to be accountable for its future care and upkeep. The close links between Lochaber and the Commandos have been maintained ever since and in 1993 the Lochaber District Council bestowed on the Commando Association the very great honour of the Freedom of Lochaber. This was presented to the Association on Saturday 13th November 1993.The following day a special plaque on the memorial was unveiled by Brig. K.R.S. Trevor CBE, DSO, giving a short history of the Commandos.

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                                    Panel 3)  Gairlochy Bridge

For the new recruits, marching to Achnacarry from Spean Bridge to start their Commando training,Gairlochy Bridge was where they met up with the pipe band. As the troops got off the train at Spean Bridge Station one soldier asks where the transport is. The N.C.O. replies: “Seven miles. No transport” 

There was a lot of moaning and groaning as we formed up. Then we marched off flanked by instructors......... the piper was playing a tune that would have made the dead get up and march - which in our casewas almost essential.   “Past Spean Bridge Hotel, through the village to the bridge and over the river in pouring rain and on we marched until our boots drummed on the bridge over the Caledonian Canal with the pipe and drums playing.Then up a back-bending, stamina sapping incline. We climbed so much I began to wonder if the hills in this part of the country went up on both sides.”

(excerpt from the book “Castle Commando” by Donald Gilchrist)

Today the original bridge still crosses the Caledonian Canal and re-enactment groups still march the eight miles from Spean Bridge to Achnacarry Training Ground.

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                      Panel 4) Boat Training at Bunarkaig Loch Lochy

The Commando Boat Station at Achnacarry was on Loch Lochy at Bunarkaig.      A small fleet of various craft was assembled for training in basic seamanship and landing drills. Amongst this armada were whalers, cutters, landing craft, dorries, canoes, rubber dinghies, kapok bridge rafts and collapsible      Goatleys. They were all stored in or moored alongside a little stone boathouse. Instruction began with a short film on the role and functions of Combined Operations and the various craft used for training and operations. Elementary watermanship in the folding boats, canoes, and rubber dinghies followed with the correct handling and use of paddles and oars for steering and propulsion.Once these fundamentals had been mastered it was onto the normal craft for operational landings, the assault landing craft, concluding with the  opposed landing. The Boating Officer from 1943-45 was a Royal Marine officer, Jim Keigwin, a most competent and first class instructor, and an excellent organiser, with his fleet ever ready and in good condition. The night assault landing is described by Donald Gilchrist in his book “Castle Commando” as:   " By far the most spectacular of all the Achnacarry training schemes."      He goes on to say that it was as close to battle conditions as they could get  without actually slaughtering half the trainees. The trainees were loaded into boats at Bunarkaig, they then rowed or paddled (depending on the type of boats employed) across the waters of Loch Lochy, and carried out a mock attack against a heavily defended section of the shore of the Loch. It may have been a mock attack but was certainly not a mock defence. The attack route was carefully planned and determined. Any deviation from it would put the trainees in grave danger. They were confronted by an arsenal of weapons manned by an army of instructors skilled in the Achnacarry art of shooting to miss but not by very much.There was no blank ammunition used. "The weapons of defence, from the mortars to the rifles, spat out live stuff - and spat it out in vast quantities". Sources: The late Donald Gilchrist, CBTC Instructor and author of “Castle Commando” and James Dunning, CBTC Instructor and  author of“It Had To Be Tough"

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                            Panel 5) Training at Clunes Bay

During the Commando training at Achnacarry landings under live fire was conducted on Clunes Bay where landing craft were beached onto the shore and Commandos stormed the beach in both day and night raids to practice for the real thing. Loads of landing craft were on Loch Lochy and were kept nearby at Bunarkaig Bay.

Clunes Bay lies directly with the Dark Mile where commandos did many speed marches.Trainees were introduced to their first speed march on the second day of the course. A gentle 5 mile march was then followed by other weekly jaunts each followed by an additional task.

7 miles under 70 minutes followed by digging a defensive position.                   9 miles in under 90 minutes followed by firing practice.                                 12 miles in under 130 minutes followed by a drill parade on the square.          15 miles under 170 minutes followed by asault course and firing.

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                            Panel 6) River and Rockface Training

The Tarzan Course consisted of what was known as the Death Ride and the Toggle Bridge. Both were located across the banks of the River Arkaig between Achnacarry itself and the Boat House at Bunarkaig. The toggle rope was a piece of equipment that all commandos carried. About 4 feet long,it had a piece of wood at one end and a loop at the other.                                                         It was a simple matter to thread the wood between the loop and, if needed, several could be joined to create a chain as an aid to scaling walls. Many could be linked together to form a “toggle bridge”, strong enough to support half a dozen men and their equipment. As part of the training a toggle bridge was set up between the banks of the River Arkaig. Crossing the bridge was by no means an easy task and occasionally some of the recruits ended up in the river below! The Death Ride, sometimes called the Death Slide, was the idea of Lt. Alick Cowieson, nicknamed Alick Mor (Alick the Mighty) who was an instructor at Achnacarry.

The ride consisted of a rope tied to the top of a tree on one bank of the Arkaig with the other fixed to the base of a tree on the other side.The length of the rope was about 50 feet and the descent over the river was from  between 30 and  40 feet.

Recruits would have to climb to the top of the tree and put their wrists through two loops, twist them securely, and then, holding on to the toggle rope above, kick their feet against the trunk of the tree – and they were off !                 The remainder of the Tarzan Course consisted of ropes spread across the tall beech trees in in the wooded area, each linked at heights of about 30 or 40 feet. On these ropes men would learn “cat crawling” –  dangling  torso flat on a single strand of rope, with one leg extended backwards and the foot positioned over the rope, leaving their other leg hanging down  to give balance.  

 Additionally there were grappling nets set up where recruits would swing from a rope and let go to fall on to a net beneath. Located in the area bewteen the River Arkaig on the opposite side to Glas Bheinn Mhor past the Chia-aig waterfall and forest                                                                                   (nb. this walk area is currently closed due to hazards).

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                                  Panel 7) Achnacarry Castle

Located on the banks of the River Arkaig the castle is flanked by daunting and desolate mountain terrain. Ben Nevis is just 18 miles away and waiting as a final challenge at the end of most courses. In the immediate vicinity of the main  building hutted accommodation was erected, amongst which a large multi purpose hut was dominant. Around the drill square hard asphalt now replaced the green lawn.This square was surrounded by austere Nissen huts with their corrugated iron sides and roofs. These were the accommodation huts, each housing between 25 and 40 men, and also used as dining 'halls', washing rooms, and the NAAFI canteen. Occasionally these were complemented by Bell tents when additional accommodation was required. 

The first courses arrived for training in March 1942 and by the time it closed in 1946 more than 25,000 men had passed through the gates of Achnacarry to participate in what was the forerunner of all special forces training throughout the world. Much of what was taught in these early days is still the basis for commando training of today. Much of the physical training consisted of agility and strengthening exercises and teaching the drills and skills of tackling obstacles. All the equipment and obstacles were home made by the staff at Achnacarry. It would be remiss not to mention the man tasked with organising and controlling such demanding training, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Vaughan.

In his book “It had to be Tough”, Jimmy Dunning says of him:

"A Veteran of the First World War and the Retreat from Mons in 1914. In the inter war years he graduated from Drill Sergeant to RSM, but he was much more than just a bawling barrack square man, although he could do that if needed. His obvious military potential as an officer was recognised and he was duly commissioned. A Londoner by birth and proud of it, Charlie's standards for soldiers and soldiering were set by his long service in war and peace. He accepted nothing but the best, whether it be in fitness, training, weaponry and musketry, fieldcraft and tactics, drill and turnout, or even in the more apparently mundane matters of administration which included feeding and hygiene.Together all these factors made the 'whole' - and the self disciplined and reliant commando soldier 'fit to fight' and 'fighting fit' with high morale, willing and capable of tackling any military task, under any circumstances, and against any odds."

Donald Gilchrist adds

"But it is to you, Charles, that we who counted it an honour to serve you, wish to show our appreciation. You made us fit to fight. You taught us the art of living in a world at war, and to laugh in the most perilous circumstances.

What we were - if we were anything - we owe in great measure to you." 

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Panel 8) Lochaber High School and The Commando Vterans' Association

Lochaber High School is very proud of its strong and enduring link with the Commando Veterans’ Association. In November each year, when the Veterans visit the area for Remembrance weekend, musicians from the school stage a concert and play for memorial services in the town and at the Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge. The link between the school and the Commando Veterans’ Association was forged in 1993 by Vic Ralph, CVA founder and John Whyte, the school’s Brass Instructor at the time. Both the LHS Wind Band and the Lochaber Schools Pipe Band are pleased to perform for the Commandos and their families each year with a joint performance of “Highland Cathedral” being an audience favourite.

The Commando Shield for “Meritorious Service” and the “Vic Ralph Certificate of Commendation” are awarded to the Musicians of the Year; one from the Wind Band and one from the Pipe Band.

The certificate states: In your success we entreat and invite you to utilise the Commando motto:

                                          “United We Conquer”.

 For many young people, involvement with the Commando Veterans’ Association is a highlight of their time at school. The musical challenge of playing in all weathers at the Commando Memorial; the poignant services and the moving stories told by these brave men and their families leave a lasting impression.

 While the number of WW2 veterans visiting the school each year has reduced over time, many family members continue to make the journey to Lochaber to keep the memory alive. The Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge has become a focus for commandos and their families affected by more recent conflicts and the school is proud to play its part in ensuring that we will never forget.