WW2 soldiers who disappeared in a Highland loch among elite fighters to be honoured

The fighters prepared in the deep Highlands for the most dangerous work – but some of them didn’t get out of training alive.

Four commandos who disappeared in a Highland loch more than 80 years ago while on an elite training exercise are among a group of Second World War fighters now to be honoured.

The four men were among 27 fighters who died during their time at Commando Basic Training Centre (CBTC) at Achnacarry Castle in Lochaber with others killed by multiple gunshot wounds, mortar fire and shock on the operating table.

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One man never returned from a march up Ben Nevis and another shattered his skull in an accident in Fort William, of which few details survive.

A Commando in training at Achnacarry Castle in the Lochaber during World War Two.A Commando in training at Achnacarry Castle in the Lochaber during World War Two.
A Commando in training at Achnacarry Castle in the Lochaber during World War Two.

The CBTC at Achnacarry was regarded as perhaps the finest of all the Allied special training centres established during the Second World War – and almost certainly the toughest. Men were sent here for six-week stints in preparation for special operations around the world with the weather, the water and the surrounding mountains providing arduous terrain and deep cover for training operations which included the ‘Commando Dark Mile’ across the estate.

Cross country marches, assault courses and the ‘Death Ride’ over the River Arkaig, which was made from two long ropes toggled together, were also part of the regime – as was the constant threat of sniper fire and ambushes set up by instructors. Critically, everyone at Achnacarry was armed with live ammunition.

For the 27 men who never made it out of training alive, a memorial will be created for them for the first time. It is a replica of an early sculpture by Scott Sutherland, the shy artist who created the iconic Commando Memorial statue at Spean Bridge in memory of all those who attended Achnacarry during the war.

Barry Barnwell, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines, is a founder member of the Scott Sutherland Project which aims to preserve the legacy of the sculptor from Wick who later became Head of Sculpture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee.

The parade ground at Achnacarry Castle, where grounds were covered in asphalt and Nissen huts took over the gardens. PIC: CCThe parade ground at Achnacarry Castle, where grounds were covered in asphalt and Nissen huts took over the gardens. PIC: CC
The parade ground at Achnacarry Castle, where grounds were covered in asphalt and Nissen huts took over the gardens. PIC: CC

He said: “The dedication for the new memorial is to the officers and men who were killed or seriously injured during commando training during Second World War because there is no such memorial to their efforts.

"When the UK needed to have a moral stand against Nazi occupied Germany and Nazi occupied Europe, the two elements that stood in the way of invasion were essentially the Royal Air Force and the Commandos who volunteered to go back into occupied territory and harass the Germans to such an extent that they were less inclined and less confident to carry out an invasion of these islands.

"It has been forgotten that many of these volunteers came straight from civilian life in the very first instance, many of them came from our police forces. Some were ghillies and gamekeepers.

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Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge, Highland, Scotland. The monument commemorates the Allied commandos who trained at nearby Achnacarry Castle during the Second World War and was designed by Scott Sutherland. A new memorial replicated from his earlier work is now being made to honour those who died at the training camp. (Photo by Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images)Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge, Highland, Scotland. The monument commemorates the Allied commandos who trained at nearby Achnacarry Castle during the Second World War and was designed by Scott Sutherland. A new memorial replicated from his earlier work is now being made to honour those who died at the training camp. (Photo by Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge, Highland, Scotland. The monument commemorates the Allied commandos who trained at nearby Achnacarry Castle during the Second World War and was designed by Scott Sutherland. A new memorial replicated from his earlier work is now being made to honour those who died at the training camp. (Photo by Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

“In those early days, these guys were in danger just in training. Sadly, of course, there was attrition in training. It is entirely wrong that we forget that these men gave their efforts to protect the nation – and sadly didn’t make it through that training."

Among those to be honoured by the new memorial are Gunner Alan Haydon, 29, of the Royal Artillery; Private Patrick McCarthy, 18, of the Prince of Wales’ Own; Fusilier James Scullion, 18, of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and Corporal Frederick Turner, 27, of 12 Commando.

The four men died after entering Loch Linnhe on the afternoon of November 28, 1941, but the full circumstances surrounding their death remain unclear.

The fighters at Achnacarry were subjected to the toughest regimes as survival skills were coupled with technical ability in weaponry and fighting. PIC: CC.The fighters at Achnacarry were subjected to the toughest regimes as survival skills were coupled with technical ability in weaponry and fighting. PIC: CC.
The fighters at Achnacarry were subjected to the toughest regimes as survival skills were coupled with technical ability in weaponry and fighting. PIC: CC.

The body of Private McCarthy was discovered in the River Lochy, east of Lochy Bridge in February the following year with Fusilier Scullion found in early June on the foreshore of Loch Eil, opposite Kilmallie House at Corpach.

Mr Barnwell said: “It was a very hard regime, there is no doubt about that, but they weren’t blessed with a huge number of staff and the focus was on trying to get people through this training programme within six to eight weeks to go and do a particular job. The job was more important than sadly the collateral damage for preparing for that job.”

On arrival at Achnacarry, soldiers were greeted with the site of a line of fake gravemarkers, the seriousness of the training ahead never in doubt.

Mr Barnwell added: “That area of Lochaber was selected entirely because of the severity of the weather conditions and the terrain.

“It was also selected because it was hidden from unwanted eyesight.

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"The actual training was based on physical fitness, determination, weapons handling, hand-to-hand combat, demolitions, how to get ashore from the sea, how to assault cliffs.

Volunteers would arrive at the railway station at Spean Bridge, they were disembarked on the wrong side of the railway so that the first thing they would have to do was jump off the train onto the tracks and then jump up on the other platform. They were then mustered and speed marched seven miles to Achnacarry. If they didn’t make it in the set time, they were put back on the train and sent back to their units. That was before they had a chance to sleep one night.”

The sculpture to remember the men is called Leaping Salmon and replicates an earlier statue by Scott Sutherland which was vandalised in Perth.

Final fundraising is taking place for the new memorial with efforts now being made to trace the commandos' families. Mr Barnwell said this had been a “difficult” task so far given that many records had been lost and many families were not aware their loved ones had been training in secret in this hidden spot in the Highlands.

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