Commandos training at Lochailort, 1941, in preparation for the St Nazaire Raid. © The Hon. IDW Chant-Sempill
Visitors flock to the Scottish Highlands for its rugged scenery and splendid isolation, but the same landscape and less than clement weather were also a draw for the British Army during the Second World War.
Commando Country, at the National War Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle, looks at how remote properties in the Highlands were transformed into special training centres during the war for teaching new tactics like sabotage, close combat and outdoor survival. The exhibition, running until February 25 2008, demonstrates how in this way Scotland played a key role in forming Britain’s famous Commando forces.
It was in June 1940 that Winston Churchill ordered special troops to be trained in groundbreaking, often brutal, methods at the first school of irregular warfare on the shores of Lochailort near Fort William. British forces were on the retreat, having been evacuated from Norway and France, and the country itself was facing imminent invasion.
Fighting knife designed by Fairbairn and Sykes. © National Museums Scotland
The mountain terrain, sea lochs and challenging weather of the Highlands offered the perfect conditions for creating a tough new generation of soldiers so desperately needed, and the Fort William centre went on to become a blueprint for others in Scotland.
“Commando Country shows how the Scottish highlands offered the perfect landscape to prepare men for utterly ruthless and uncompromising warfare,” says Stuart Allan, Senior Curator of Military History at the museum. “From their distinctive weapons and equipment through to first-hand accounts and personal photographs, the exhibition reveals the demanding reality of training for the deadly missions that followed.”
Polar explorers, mountaineers, colonial policemen and ghillies from Highland sporting estates were all brought in as a select team of instructors using tough training methods. The exhibition looks at the equipment they used, the clothing they wore and the exceptional bravery of those who went on to carry out daring missions following their Highland training.
Commandos Winter Warfare training, Braemar, 1942. © Frank Smythe Estate
The Commando Basic Training Centre at Achnacarry, also near Fort William, was legendary for its harshness; mountaineering, skiing and survival skills were taught at a special winter training school at Braemar and the Cairngorms hosted a centre for Norwegian Commandos.
In the exhibition, sketches, letters and extracts from memoirs reveal the vivid memories of those who underwent the training.
“…suddenly at the top of the stairs appeared a couple of dear old gentlemen (we later discovered one was 56 and the other 58). Both wearing spectacles, both dressed in battledress…" writes Major RF Hall, describing his first encounter with close combat instructors Captain WF Fairbairn and Captain Eric Sykes.
"They walked to the top of the stairs, fell, tumbling, tumbling down the stairs and ended up at the bottom, in the battle crouch position, with a handgun in one hand and a fighting knife in the other – a shattering experience for all of us”
Also on display is an example of the fighting knife designed by the pair, which became a symbol of the Commandos, and one of the renowned green berets, awarded to each trainee at the climax of the course at Achnacarry.
Death’s head cap badge designed by officers of No.4 Commando in 1940. © National Museums of Scotland
A jersey worn by Lochailort lecturer George Murray Levick, a member of Captain Scott’s famous expedition to the South Pole in 1910-1913, is on show too, while film star David Niven’s signature can be found in a visitors’ book from a hotel near Lochailort, where he trained as a special service volunteer.
A flag from a German headquarters in Italy captured by No 9 Commando in 1944, is also signed and decorated by the men who took it.
The exhibition also looks at the schools set up to train the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which carried out the highly dangerous work of supporting and organising resistance movements in occupied countries. Arisaig and Morar, in the west Highlands, hosted SOE schools.