From May 1940, the War Office started the process of requisitioning properties in the Scottish Highlands for unspecified military purposes. One of which was Inverailort House, the home of the Cameron-Head family.
Situated close to the shores of Loch Ailort and on the foothills of Seann Cruach and An Stac, Inverailort House had been identified as the ideal location for an irregular warfare school.
Under the stewardship of Military Intelligence (Research), Bryan Mayfield and Bill Stirling, the elder brother of David Stirling, had been appointed Commanding Officer and Chief Instructor respectively of what had been designated as the Special Training Centre (STC) Lochailort.
Mayfield and Stirling’s first job was to recruit instructors suitably qualified in the teaching of the black arts associated with guerrilla warfare. Shimi Lovat (The Lord Lovat), who was Stirling’s cousin, was an obvious choice. Recently departed from his father’s old regiment, the Lovat Scouts, he was looking to utilise his skills as a sniper, stalker and expert of fieldcraft in rugged and inhospitable terrains.
Shimi Lovat (The Lord Lovat)
Soon a wide array of instructors had been recruited and were soon passing on the benefits of their experience either military or other, including:
Jim Gavin of the Royal Engineers, a Himalayan climber who was part of the eight-man climbing team on the Everest Expedition of 1936. Other adventurers included no less the five holders of the prestigious Polar Medal: Jimmy Scott, who along with fellow recipient, Freddy Spencer Chapman, were members of Gino Watkins’ British Artic Air Route Expedition to Greenland in 1930-31. Martin Lindsay who had been on the Greenland Expedition and on the British Trans-Greenland Expedition of 1934 with fellow instructor and Polar Medal holder Andrew Croft. The fifth holder of the medal and perhaps the most distinguished was Surgeon Commander Murray Levick who had been on the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole with Captain Scott in 1910-1913.
The list of other instructors reporting to STC Lochailort reads like a who’s who of adventurers and mavericks interlaced with explosive experts, weapons instructors, survival specialists and burglars.
Sir Tommy Macpherson who attended the first commando course recalled:
‘There was a remarkable collection of instructors there. There was a fellow called Mackworth-Pread, an ex-guardsman who was a weaponry instructor and he had to be the finest shot I’ve ever seen. With a .303 standard bolt-action he could get three magazines off in a minute and they would all be in or be beside the bullseye at 300 yards. He was a remarkable chap. He used his third finger on the trigger and flicked the bolt, which had a very easy action, with his second finger after each shot, and the speed was astonishing. We had a very good explosive chap and a gentleman on release from Peterhead Jail who was an expert safe man, and a very nice chap he was too.’
The inaccessibility of the location and harshness of the environment made it a perfect training area for the fledgling commando officers, many of whom had only spent a few weeks with their men before being sent to the Highlands.
Survival and fieldcraft training was the remit of Shimi Lovat and his fieldcraft team, who used local ghillies and NCO’s from the Lovat Scouts to assist with instruction and demonstrations. Lessons and exercises were carried out in the rugged terrain around Lochailort. Hours were spent learning how to patrol using the ground and natural features to their advantage, while being taught the principles of camouflage and concealment.
Stalking and sniping taught by ghillies
Stalking was taught day and night and they were taught how to kill, skin, gut and cook deer, sheep and rabbits. They were encouraged to use boats in the sea loch and supplement their rations with mackerel and sea trout.
Live firing was common place, ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert from the Royal Engineers assisted Jim Galvin with the fundamentals of explosive devices, booby traps, and all the associated components required for demolition and sabotage.
‘Mad Mike’ Calvert
As with all commando training, physical fitness was one of the key components. The mountainous terrain and inclement weather turned a standard route march into a feat of endurance.
John Murray, of No.2 Commando, recalls the experience:
‘We underwent some pretty hair-raising and tough training in and around Lochailort. I remember marching from Fort William to Lochailort on an unmade road and it was no joke, despite the fact that we were all reasonably fit. I also remember being in the tender care of Captains Fairbairn and Sykes for unarmed combat.’
If assault courses and physical training exercises were the norm, the Fairbairn and Sykes brand of PT wasn’t. They taught them to fight with knives, sticks, shovels, coshes, tin hats and anything they could get their hands on. How to smash ear drums, rip mouths, split cheeks and gouge eyes; and for good measure how to break necks, dislocate shoulders and crush sternums. Training designed to teach them how to kill a man with their bare hands and how, in Fairbairn’s words – to Get Tough!