If you walk west from Inverailort Castle along the shore of the loch you pass a small island where, about 1745, Prince Charles Stuart, remembered as Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of the Old Pretender, is supposed to have dropped anchor while hiding from the English.
Both the Loch and the Castle take their names from the River Ailort which flows into the sea and opens up to one of Britain’s loveliest prospects – the Inner Hebrides. Eigg is the most dominant island. Its shape is pleasing, having the appearance of some animal lying in the sea and having, near the southern end, the Sgurr – a tall, narrow peak.
In 1940-41 Dunkirk was not the only evacuation of the continent taking place. We had been flushed out of Norway, simultaneously, at Narvik, though the Germans had suffered heavy losses, both on land and at sea.
Britain did not just sit back and lick her wounds. The troops from Norway were brought round to the west of Scotland and some of them arrived at Lochailort, whither I was posted. Many things changed; new methods of training were invented and a whole new concept of attack was developed.
As a result of experiments there were several accidents. One was very sad: a sergeant volunteered to swim across the river carrying a full pack on his back. As the tide was flowing the river was in spate and very deep. The sergeant jumped in and immediately sank. Some hours later his body was recovered from the middle of the loch.
In the winter of 1941 a soldier of No. 10 Commando tried to lead a loaded mule along the icy top of a whale-backed mountain. Both man and mule slid about a thousand feet to be dashed onto huge rocks.
Some innovations, however, were advantageous. It was here that string vests were first tried out, it having been thought that little cells of warm air saved more energy than heavy textiles. This idea came from a naval officer, Commander Murray Levick, who was in charge of such experiments. He once chose two men of equal physique to investigate the effect of salt. One man was deprived of all salt for a week while the others ate normally. Wearing full pack they ran up a steep mountain slope to the limit of their endurance. The desalinated soldier collapsed much sooner than the other.
All kinds of subtle weapons appeared: suntan cream which frosted enemy windscreens (for the Serbian partisans in Yugoslavia); booby trap pens which exploded when the cap was unscrewed; explosive horse manure to leave on the road; and it was found that sugar, poured into the petrol tank, gummed up the valves and cylinders of an enemy truck.
At first these units were named Special Service Battalions (SSBs), but due to this being Lovat territory and Lord Lovat being on the staff as fieldcraft instructor, the word Commando was brought back from the Afrikaans “Kommando” in honour of Lord Lovat’s grandfather, who distinguished himself in the Boer War.
Commandos changed the whole concept of war. The hypothesis was that a group of three or four men, given special training in unorthodox methods, could cause more havoc than a whole regiment. The saving in manpower would be terrific, and this theory has been shown to be true many times since. Hitler became furious at the damage inflicted on German installations and property, and he sent out an order that any commando soldier captured would be shot immediately.
In the 1940s the path from Lochailort towards Ardnamurchan was a mere sheep track. Visiting the area in 1972 I was surprised to see a metalled road which had been built for tourists. Somehow I felt resentful – it took away all the quiet mystery from my memory. It was as though vandals had slashed a lovely painting.
With a friend, Alan Briggs from Leeds, I used to walk the two miles west to a croft at Roshven. The McCrae family, with whom we were friendly, had two sons, Farquhar and Urquhart. They all spoke the old language, Gaelic, and always seemed slightly uncomfortable with English conversation. Gaelic is a gentle sounding tongue and a pleasure to hear, suited to the quiet nature of these people. The family lived from a flock of sheep and fish which we found plentiful and easy to catch. Mackerel almost jump into your boat. For fuel they used peat. Their language sadly seems to have faded out since those years, though some die-hards try to keep it alive.
We were returning one evening at dusk when we arrived at a cleft in the hillside caused by a small burn. In the poor light we could not see clearly and we stopped, not wishing to fall into the babbling burn. We listened. A rustling sound could be heard. “Only a sheep”, said Alan . But a number of sheep suddenly became men who pinned us down to the heather. It seems we both decided to die fighting and lashed out with our army boots. As the Germans now controlled the whole of Norway we’d always feared that they might come round to West Scotland, and we believed this had happened. What a relief! They turned out to be a Commando on an exercise and they thought we were a decoy from their “enemy”. The next morning a major limped into the orderly room and snarled: “Who was down by Roshven at 10 pm last night? Alan and I stood up. “One of you nearly broke my bloody leg.” Before he left he added, good naturedly, “Glad you’re on our side.”
Late in 1942 a few Americans arrived, then left. The Royal Navy took over the whole area and I was put on a reinforcement draft for North Africa. Goodbye to Britain!