Glenfinnan monument

Glenfinnan monument

We arrived in Scotland at Lochailort where we took temporary billets in a grim grey stone house known as Inverailort Castle, which was owned by the Cameron-Head family. The whole building had been newly furnished for army purposes and I was allocated a large desk upstairs in the front bay window from where I could see across the valley. There was also a typewriter and a Gestetner duplicator. At this stage I took a good look as far as I could into the future and reasoned as follows: Dale, you’ll never be a soldier and this war could go on for ages. If you get your feet under the table here you might dodge all the muck and bullets and serve your country better. I took much time learning to type and also getting to know the skill of printing from a duplicator. I soon became in great demand to all and sundry and some people seemed to think I was a real secretary and asked me to take down dictation. There was no promotion, which kept me happy.

We had to make do with simple toiletry arrangements and I managed to shave standing at my desk each day. One morning as it was coming light a German bomber flew past at eye level from west to east. We guessed he was after the aluminium works at Fort William, 28 miles inland. No damage was done – a near miss!

Officers began to arrive for the first course of commando training. The unit was called the Special Training Centre {STC). The northern part of Scotland north of the line from Fort William to Inverness was now forbidden territory to all except residents, so without a special pass you stayed out. One new arrival was Lord Fraser of Lovat, who was appointed Fieldcraft instructor. He was a very handsome man with a dignified bearing and stood out in the Lovat Scouts uniform on the castle lawn at daybreak holding the shepherd’s crook he always carried and looking like Britannia. I little realised at that time that he was to become a brilliant soldier, with many victories over the Germans in a raid on Dieppe, and also on D-Day when we invaded France

Lord Lovat was installed in a small bedroom at the back of the castle where I was sent as his aide with paper work. I sat with him for six months, typing and printing copies of the programmes he outlined. These were handed out to the instructors on the courses, and I always tried to make them neat and clear. There was never any conversation – he was by nature taciturn and I was a conscript. I often had the feeling that he found working class people beyond his comprehension! He was certainly no Philistine, as I discovered when I came to read his memoirs, which I found very entertaining.

On two occasions there was a shortage of signals personnel for a commando exercise out in the islands and on Skye. As I was regarded as a very adaptable goon I stood in as signaller. I had a one-hour practise run on a crash course and received a nebulous notion of what was required. It seemed that I was to be part of the judges’ team, and we set off to the Kyle of Lochalsh. I carried an R Toc radio weighing 35 lb (radio telephony) along with a major and a captain up to the heights above Broadford Bay, Skye. Our view of the coast road was perfect, and then I found myself alone. With groundsheet and blankets I spent the night there and awoke to find that someone was trying to call me. I spent a few seconds finding the right frequency and a voice asked what I could see.

Inverailort Castle

Inverailort Castle

I hesitated and then asked if this might be a breach of security, but at that instant a column of motorcyclists drove along the coast road below. Go ahead, I was told, so I reported this activity. This being Sunday morning I was again left alone to tune in to the Gaelic service from the local church in Portree.

” Always obey the LAST order” we were taught, which I had done, so I was fireproof. I never found out who got into trouble over this, for it seemed that one Commando had been listening in to the information I’d given and beaten the other. In spite of this I was again given a similar job.

For some time there had been a mystery man on a motor bike visiting the camp almost daily. I often talked to him and learned his name was Humphrey Searle, but never discovered his function. Only recently I learned from the Internet that he became a famous composer and writer. He was a likeable and entertaining character.

A very good friend with great talent was Billy Murrel, who produced wonderful original music on the piano. He also had a wide repertoire of Sussex songs, which he could play and sing for hours. These were extremely witty and comical and on Fridays and Saturdays kept everyone entertained. Everyone loved Bill. He had twinkling brown eyes, enormous feet, a pointed nose and a talent which would find a ready market today. I used to play the violin to his accompaniment. He also had a saxophone which he longed to play, but in the absence of another pianist was reluctant. Luckily a Londoner arrived one day who played well and out came the sax. The P.R.I. (President of the Regimental Institute – the officer responsible for entertainment) was delighted to find the group already functioning and asked if he could help. Billy had been teaching me to play his sax and asked if we could have one for me. It arrived at once and I now only doubled on the violin. This opened up new prospects and we were invited to play at Mallaig for a dance. Mallaig is a small fishing village, and the people were friendly and kind. While there I sampled a few prawns for the first time in my life.

We were surprised on arrival to be shown into a boathouse which was open to the water at one end. This was the dance hall! The place was lit by oil lamps which gave only a feeble light and the dance got under way. Soon there was a party of Cameron Highlanders on the floor, kilts twirling naughtily and uttering the wild whoops brought on by alcohol. There came a crescendo in their excitement and eventually one of them fell from the end of the boathouse into the Atlantic. The others, eager to display their Spartan toughness, leapt into the icy water after him, but after being hauled out were glad to be led into the local cottages to dry out and get warm.



These weekly dances became a regular feature of our life, and made a change from the week-end trip into Fort William where there was little entertainment – just one street of shops and a pleasant walk in Glen Nevis. A number of interesting people came on courses. I well remember a Major Clapton, a big lumbering fellow. We had printed forms to be filled in by newly arrived officers. One part needed details of qualifications. The major read out: ” Qualifications?” and he wrote ” Fuckall!” David Niven, film actor, who was also a regular soldier, took a course.

Winston Churchill’s son Randolph came, promptly got the mess barman drunk and went home the next day. The son of Sir Roger Keyes did the course. He was later killed in Libya in an attack on General Rommel’s HQ.

We had an RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) who had arrived as a Lance Corporal and became an instant RSM. We found this irregular and suspected chicanery. After the war David Niven wrote a book called The Moon’s a Balloon, and from this I learned that they had been regular officers together in India until Royal had assaulted his C.O. and been cashiered. They stayed together at Lochailort. Later, in Belgium, Royal was a pilot in a glider. He died there.

There were many wide boys in the War. An exciting event took place in 1941. Around the coast we had an Observer Corps. At dusk one evening we had a phone call from an observer at Arisaig, seven miles north, who reported that a plane had landed and taken off again several times on the beach. Its handling seemed erratic, so we kept a lookout. Obviously lost, this plane soon came swooping over our camp with a powerful headlamp shining down to inspect the terrain. Now, our camp had a military aspect, having Nissan huts on the only dry land available and ‘lines’ {roads} between them. The rest of the valley was bogs, but this was apparently not seen from the air, as this plane – an Albacore of the Fleet Air Arm – came down to a messy landing, ending up like a scorpion about to sting, tail high in the air. There was the sound of breaking bottles and liquor came dripping from the aircraft. In wellies we helped the two crew out: they were clearly pissed. They were arrested and locked in the guard room. It seemed that they’d been bringing home-distilled whisky from the Hebrides illegally. The Navy despatched their engineers to dismantle the plane and transport it away. I always wondered what happened to the whisky that was saved?

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