Special Operations
David Harrison
How Lochaber helped the SOE in the defeat of Nazism in the last war

    At this time of year we remember brave people in the past who gave everything to protect our freedom. Some very special men and women volunteered over 50 years ago to operate behind enemy lines knowing that capture meant almost certain death. The Lochaber region is proudly connected with their bravery. It is in the wild parts of this beautiful area that several thousand young people learned skills that were to prove invaluable when they landed in hostile territory. Survival often meant living off the land and they performed acts of sabotage to harass the enemy. Background
  The Special Operations Executive was formed in the 1941 when Britain was fighting alone. For the first time in our history, we could not land any troops on the mainland of Europe. As a consequence, Winston Churchill said we must “Set Europe ablaze.” The SOE was formed to train volunteers for clandestine work in all the occupied countries of Europe to help the local population fight against the Nazis. SOE also operated in the Far East against the Japanese. British agents and wireless operators were then dropped into enemy territory to organise, co-ordinate and equip local resistance groups so that sabotage, assassinations and general mayhem could be inflicted on the enemy. For example, between 1941 and 1944, SOE trained 400 volunteers who landed in France, usually at night by parachute. SOE had its most important impact during the D-Day Landings in June 1944. Eisenhower described the contribution of SOE and the resistance as that of 5 extra divisions in preventing German reinforcements reaching Normandy. Over 100 did not survive the war and 13 women of the 39 who went to France were executed in concentration camps. Some of the best known agents who operated in France are Odette Churchill, Violette Szabo, Peter Churchill, Francis Cammaerts, Harry Ree and Pearl Witherington.
  Virtually all SOE agents spent about four weeks of their training in this beautiful part of the Highlands of Scotland where they gained the important skills of survival in all elements, sabotage techniques and weapons training. SOE’s nom-de-guerre was the Inter-Services Research Bureau.
  Why this area?All the training of SOE personnel was extremely secret and many details have still not been released by the MOD to the public. This part of Britain is remote and was easily sealed off by the military authorities and enemy spies would have accessibility difficulties. Transport by rail and sea was convenient. There were also a number of large houses for accommodation in isolated localities and large areas of countryside for training purposes.
  The area was well known by Major-General Colin McVeans Gubbins who was the second in command of SOE. His recommendation led to the establishment of about ten different Special Training Schools in the area. The first was at Inverailort Castle owned by the Cameron Head family. This building was later used for commando training by the Army and subsequently the Navy. Arisaig House became the centre for SOE Special Training Schools with other properties used, such as Rhubana Lodge, Meoble Lodge, Swordland, Inverie House, Glaschollie, Garramor House, Camusdarrach, Traigh House and Morar Lodge.
  Security was inevitably tight. However, a 15 year old boy whose home had been at Camusdarach where small arms training took place, was inquisitive enough to smuggle himself in a hay cart past the guards in order to see what was happening. He was discovered and security became even tighter.
The Training
  SOE Agents had a total of about 3 months of training. Wanborough Manor, near Guildford was the starting point, then NW Scotland, followed by parachute training at Ringway (now Manchester Airport). Finally there was Thame Park in Oxfordshire for wireless operators and Beaulieu House in Hampshire for preparation for life in the chosen country for the agents.
  In Scotland, small groups of about six men and/or women were trained at a time. They were billeted in one of the STS houses in the area. During their 4-week course, the agents concentrated on physical fitness, unarmed combat, map-work, bridge and railway sabotage using plastic explosive, pistol and sub-machine gun training and the techniques of living off the land.
  Accidents were common! For example, the pier at Swordland was half destroyed when too much explosive was used, a bridge to the north of Loch Morar was blown up by mistake, limpet mines were attached to the wrong boats and a party of Czechs nearly destroyed the rail track to Fort William. A children’s party at Meoble featured a fireworks display with detonator fuse wrapped round trees and tracer bullets ricocheting from rock to rock! The students’ diet was no doubt supplemented with unofficial venison, salmon and prime beef!
  The instructors were usually Army personnel, many of whom included Highlanders. One such was Gavin Maxwell who wrote Ring of Bright Water about otters. Two unconventional instructors were former members of the Shanghai Police. They were William Fairburn and Bill Sykes, both experts in unarmed combat, who were dubbed the ‘Heavenly Twins’. They also designed the F&S knives specifically for SOE, over 250,000 manufactured by Wilkinsons (of razor blade fame).
  Local civilians were also employed by SOE. People such as gamekeepers, poachers and landowners gave practical advice about living off the land. Domestic staff looked after SOE personnel in the houses, boat owners were often involved with rescuing adventurous students, food suppliers and delivery firms, etc. were also involved in helping the war effort and sworn to secrecy.
  There is a story that a former SOE agent who had been at Arisaig used her war-time training to ward-off two would be muggers when she was in her seventies.
Conclusion
The Highlands proved to be an excellent choice and SOE successfully trained most of its two to three thousand agents in techniques that prepared them well for the hazards of survival and executing sabotage in hostile countries.
   Land was compulsorily requisitioned and there was understandably some resentment felt by the local people about lack of freedom of movement and other restrictions. However, the local people can feel very proud of this period in its history. The enemy never knew about the existence of the Special Training Schools. It is an area renowned for not giving people away to the enemy, just under 200 years earlier a man with 30,000 on his head was not betrayed either!
HELP REQUIRED
  Currently, there is very little that has been documented about the 3–4 years that SOE sealed off the area. I would appreciate any information that readers may have.
* What do you remember?
* Did you work for SOE?
* Is the 15-year-old from Camusdarach, who will now be about 70, a reader?
* Did you get to know any of the agents?
* How were you treated by the military?
* Did you know at the time exactly what was going on?* Was any of your property destroyed?
* Were you angry that your livelihood was affected by the loss of land or fishing rights?*
Were you at the ‘firework’ display at Meoble?
* After the war, did the MOD return the area to its former condition?
  There must be many stories and anecdotes about your experiences or those of your family. I feel that these should be recorded for future generations to learn about this proud period in the history of this area. I would greatly appreciate your help.
   Please send whatever information that you can provide to Lochaber Life or direct to me :David Harrison, 2 Claremont Drive, Clitheroe, Lancashire, BB7 1JW.
Tel: 01 200 422 330
(Home)    01 772 623 222 (Work)     
or e-mail:  soe_harrison@msn.com

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o its former condition?
  There must be many stories and anecdotes about your experiences or those of your family. I feel that these should be recorded for future generations to learn about this proud period in the history of this area. I would greatly appreciate your help.
   Please send whatever information that you can provide to Lochaber Life or direct to me :David Harrison, 2 Claremont Drive, Clitheroe, Lancashire, BB7 1JW.
Tel: 01 200 422 330
(Home)    01 772 623 222 (Work)     
or e-mail:  soe_harrison@msn.com