The weeks from September to December of 1943 were very busy at Achnacarry Castle as six units from the Royal Marines, comprising 180 officers and 3,300 Other Ranks, underwent their commando training.
There weren’t enough instructors to handle such a large intake and so the camp commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Vaughan, recruited more from amongst the best of those who had recently passed the course. One of Vaughan’s guiding principles had been that, “every instructor must be of exceptional calibre, and all of them must be able to perform every evolution slightly more accurately, slightly faster, than the best of the men under their instruction.”
(The Green Beret by Hilary St. George Saunders.)
44 RM Commando was the first unit to arrive and they reached Spean Bridge station on the 7th of September. The instructors met the train and put them through their paces from the moment of their arrival: they were ordered to disembark, not in the conventional manner, but by dropping down onto the railway tracks and then clambering up onto the platform on the opposite side. This was immediately followed by a seven-mile speed march to ‘Castle Commando’.
Their three weeks of training culminated in what was one of the most memorable and dramatic elements of the course – the ‘night-time opposed landing’ – which was a realistic representation of an amphibious assault, carried out in darkness and using live ammunition.
Groups of eight each boarded a canvas-sided Goatley boat at Bunarkaig boathouse and then paddled it the quarter of a mile across Loch Lochy to the opposite shore. Before setting off, weapons were stacked into the bottoms of the boats and everyone was warned to keep their heads down as, almost from the moment of setting off, bursts of machine gun fire would be aimed in their direction by the instructors on the bank.
Tracer ammunition lit up the sky and gave it a look of Firework Night but the crack of bullets inches away from the boats were real and potentially lethal. On the final approach to the shore, hand grenades were lobbed towards the boats sending plumes of water high into the air and visibility was further reduced when the instructors ignited smoke grenades and a cloud began to creep across the Loch.
The men leapt into the icy, shallow water and waded ashore before scrambling into position as quickly as they could. Machine gunners rushed the Brens forward and began firing at metal targets on the opposite hill while the assaulting troops ran, squelching through the mud and got into position.
As soon as the gunners had scored enough hits, the instructors yelled the command to assault. The marines clawed and squelched and slipped their way up the bank until the land flattened out and they were faced with another line of metal targets. They threw themselves onto the sodden ground, took aim and fired. Panting for breath, they scrambled to their feet and ran towards a battalion of straw-filled sacks. They speared them with bayonets, teeth gritted.
A white Very flare was fired, signalling that the time had come to skid and slide back down towards the boats and begin the journey back across the Loch. As they began to paddle away, the instructors bombarded them with grenades and machine gun fire again and although the instructors were skilled in shooting to miss, the marines could feel the bullets whistling past them and occasionally thumping into the paddles and smacking them out of their hands.