Highland trained D-day heroes honoured

They came to the Highlands en masse, where the rugged and unforgiving landscape hardened them for the horrors that lay ahead.

American assault troops and equipment land on Omaha beach in 1944. Picture: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
American assault troops and equipment land on Omaha beach in 1944. Picture: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Now, some 75 years after they trained in Scotland for some of the defining – and bloodiest – chapters of the Second World War, those who served in the US Army Rangers are in line to receive one of the greatest honours their country can bestow.

More than 7,000 personnel served with the elite fighting force during the conflict, but only a few dozen veterans are still alive.

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A cross-party group of politicians in the US is pursuing new legislation which would confer the Congressional Gold Medal – one of the country’s most prestigious civilian honours – upon those who remain, as well as those that have been lost. The Rangers, envisioned as the US equivalent of the British Commando units formed during wartime, played an integral role in the Allied front.

The 5th Ranger Battalion was among those to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, while the men of the 29th conducted daring raids in occupied Norway and the Channel Islands.

They, and many others, honed their skills on Scottish shores. According to those with an intimate knowledge of the storied history of the Rangers, the gruelling role this country played in preparing them for war was invaluable. The push for the honour is being spearheaded by Ron Hudnell, a former Army Ranger from North Carolina, whose father, James B Hudnell, served with the 2nd Ranger Battalion.

He was among those to be put through their paces on British soil in the early 1940s, undergoing rigorous mountain and underwater training.

The stories his father told him, and the historic accounts of other Rangers, leaves Hudnell in no doubt as to the significance of those hard weeks and months in rural Scotland.

He told The Scotsman: “Scotland is near and dear to the Rangers as they either trained in Scotland or were trained and observed by British Commandos from Fort William, Achnacarry, and Spean Bridge.”

Hudnell, a board member of Descendants of World War II Rangers, a US organisation which seeks to keep alive the memory of the wartime Rangers, said records show just how routine it was for the service personnel to come to Scotland. From July 1942 through to March 1944, the 1st, 5th, and 29th Battalions all trained here. While his father took part in amphibious and assault training in Dorset and the Isle of Wight, he relayed stories of the hard training regimes.

“He talked about the Commando-type training – the physical conditioning, the running, and the seemingly never ending, fast paced road marches,” Hudnell recalled. “I can still remember him saying that the training made him have muscles everywhere.”