The train chugged and chuffed its way northwards and the view from the window morphed gently from the smoke-scarred red brick of Birmingham into craggy, granite hills, criss-crossed with tumbling, spilling streams. Sheep and deer, startled by the train, scrambled over the rocks with a look of panic on their faces. The skeletons of isolated, roofless, grey-stone cottages gazed back blankly through their empty windows.
Eventually the train halted at Spean Bridge and the station became a mass of khaki as soldiers burst out of almost every carriage of the train. Kit bags were loaded onto a waiting lorry but anyone who expected to jump on after them was going to be disappointed. They were ordered to form up in threes as they would be speed-marching the rest of the way – seven miles.
Led by a kilted pipe-band for the first part of the march, the tramp, tramp of boots left Spean Bridge station towards ‘Castle Commando’. The ‘tramp, tramp’ would often be more of a ‘splash, splash’ as if it wasn’t already raining, it soon would be; it always seemed to be raining. They crossed Thomas Telford’s bridge spanning the River Spean and then began the march up the steep hill leading away from the village, past battalions of pine trees standing to attention. Once over the Caledonian Canal at Gairlochy, they followed a narrow road which meandered around the bottom edges of Loch Lochy until the sight of an imposing granite structure in the distance began to wink at them through gaps in the trees.
The Commando training base was located in the house and grounds of the 24th chief of Clan Cameron, Donald Cameron of Lochiel. Achnacarry House had been built in 1802 in the Scottish Baronial style on the site of a ruined 17th century castle. The view of the turreted grey building with its lancet windows and vast entranceway topped with the red and gold coat of arms was somewhat spoiled by the addition of a Nissen hut on either side of the door but at least this was in keeping with the symmetry of the house. The tree-lined River Arkaig curled around the back of the house and the surrounding landscape rose to a series of contrasting peaks: barren mountains and gentler forested slopes which were daubed with mustard yellows, terracottas and greens which changed from pastel shades to almost black as the cloud shadows brushed over them.
One of the first things the men saw, as they followed the pipers who had rejoined them for the final procession through the gates and into the grounds, was a row of mocked-up graves: each earthy mound was encircled by white stones and had a wooden cross planted at one end. Every cross bore an epitaph which detailed various dangerous actions:
“This man fired a 2-inch mortar under a tree.”
“This man failed to splay the pin of his grenade.”
“This man advanced over the top of cover.”
Any hopes the officers may have had of special treatment were quickly dispelled when they learned that not only would they undergo exactly the same training as their men but they may well have to endure additional instruction in the evening. If they were lucky they would share a room in the Castle with other officers but if there were large numbers to be accommodated, junior officers may well have ended up sleeping in a Nissen hut or under canvas. They would be washing in cold water and wouldn’t be enjoying the services of a batman. The only concession was that they wouldn’t have to dress for dinner in the Officers’ Mess during their time at Achnacarry, unless the Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Charles E Vaughan, specifically requested it of course.
Achnacarry’s Mess with its leather armchairs and high ceilings embellished with elaborate cornices had received a recent makeover. A talented artist, Lance Corporal Brian Mullen of 4 Commando, had sketched commando soldiers onto the walls to look as though they were scaling the window frames and parachuting from the ceiling and above the bar at one end of the room, he had painted a large Combined Operations Command emblem flanked by ships and tanks and a formation of planes flying overhead.