The secret beach where Britain rehearsed D-Day

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SOMETIMES, when George Mackenzie is chopping wood, his axe rings against metal and a bullet clinks to the ground. Embedded into trees on his land more than 60 years ago, they are a potent reminder that life on his croft near Portmahomack in Easter Ross hasn’t always been so peaceful.

The events of 1943-4 in the Tarbat peninsula live on in local memory simply as "the evacuation". George was a baby when, on 11 November 1943, orders from the Admiralty announced that an area of about 15 square miles, from east of the village of Fearn to just outside Portmahomack, was to be "requisitioned" for military purposes.

Between 800 and 900 people, including the entire village of Inver, were given a month to empty their homes. More than 40 farms had the same amount of time to move or sell their livestock, equipment and crops. The operation was carried out with such a degree of secrecy that even those living a few miles away did not know what was happening. No-one, not even the evacuees, knew the reason for it: that the land was to be used for secret training for the D-Day landings, the long-prepared invasion to win back Europe from Hitler.

This year, on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the people of the area have decided to commemorate the evacuation for the first time. Two inscribed boulders will be unveiled at Inver and Portmahomack on 6 June. Evacuee and project co-ordinator Caroline Shepherd-Barron, believes it is time to honour "the sacrifice of the people, the damage they sustained to their property, and the contribution this area made to D-Day and the conclusion of the war".

The Admiralty searched the country to find a variety of suitable training areas, says Dr James Fallon, who is preparing a booklet about the evacuation. "They went to a lot of trouble. A whole lot of criteria had to be met before an area could be considered." The Tarbat peninsula, with beaches to the north and steep cliffs to the south, seemed ideal.

As military officials arrived in cars to assess the land, rumour was rife in the village of Inver, little more than a dirt track and a row of thatched cottages looking out across the Dornoch Firth. Marion Fleming was 12 at the time. "My cousin had been picking tatties on one of farms. He came home and told my mother that the rumour was going round that we were going to be evacuated. Everybody said: ‘It’s rubbish, it can’t happen’."

But it did. Marion found herself uprooted from Inver with her mother, brother and sister - her father was in the Seaforth Highlanders, taken a prisoner of war in 1940 - and sent to live with her grandmother in Tain. "I think there was some resentment, some bewilderment. Where were we going? Where would we go to school? And we had to be on our best behaviour at my granny’s."

The children of Inver, used to having the run of the fields and the beaches, found the busy market-town a forbidding place. "It was dreadful. There was traffic and pavements, no beaches to play on, just a small back green. The Inver children didn’t have any road sense, we didn’t need it, there were two cars in the village. There was a corner in Tain near where a lot of evacuees lived, my uncle used to call it Hellfire corner, because every time he drove round it he would say ‘Hellfire, I’ve missed another one!’" But there were pluses: electricity, running water, a flush toilet. "We nearly drove my granny bananas, flushing the toilet over and over."

John Ross was seven when his family were evacuated from Inver, first to Embo, then Invergordon, a military town buzzing with soldiers. "It was as different as chalk and cheese. Invergordon was heaving. At home, I used to see a train about once a year if we went to Tain; in Invergordon they were passing every day. I couldn’t get over the electricity, flicking a switch and a light coming on." But, as with most of the evacuees, the thrill of new experiences was tempered by anxiety. "We wondered if we were ever going to go back, and if we were, what we would go back to."

Caroline Shepherd-Barron was 13 and had just started boarding school when she was called home to help the family pack. "It was horrible. My biggest worry was for my pony, and whether I would ever see him again. But I did get him back - and such a reunion it was!"

Billy Innes, a farmer, eight at the time of the evacuation, remembers the day the troops arrived. "They were digging, putting up barbed wire, getting ready. They made a dug-out in the hill with seats all round it. That was where I tasted my first cup of coffee. They were always making coffee up there."

Andrew Munro and his father were among the last to leave. "We came down to the farm for our last cartload of turnips the day before the shooting began. We were trying to get as much off the farm as we could. Some official came up saying, ‘Get out of here at once or you’ll get shot!’ but we just filled our cart and took it away."

On 12 December, 1943, the military moved in. In that long, hard winter, around 15,000 troops were based around Inverness and Invergordon. They were the men of Assault Force ‘S’, the combined army and navy force due to take part in the D-Day invasion at Sword Beach. The Tarbat peninsula was used as a live firing range for infantry of the Third Division, and support vessels firing from the sea. Tarbat was a key training area for armoured units, including the secret new "swimming tanks" which it was hoped would play a key part in a D-Day victory.

Rear-Admiral Edward Gueritz CB OBE DSC, now 84, was Senior Beach Master based at Invergordon during the exercises and went on to fight on Sword Beach on D-Day. "It was a harsh winter, we had a lot of bad weather so we got accustomed to fairly bad conditions. That was an important factor, as it turned out, because 6 June was not a typical June day, it was absolutely vile."

He says the 13th and 18th Royal Hussars, who trained at Tarbat, were the only troops to use swimming tanks successfully on D-Day. "Thirty-four tanks were launched, two sank immediately and one was rammed by a landing craft, but 31 swam ashore successfully. They provided very welcome counter-fire against the enemy guns firing on the beaches.

"The exercises in Scotland were essential. We wouldn’t have gone if we hadn’t been properly trained. I believe it would be excellent if we could do more to honour the contribution of Scotland to the war." Some also believe the exercises in Scotland helped dupe the Germans into believing the D-Day strike would come further north, perhaps even in Norway, where they retained six divisions, weakening their force in Normandy.

Only the people of Portmahomack, which was not evacuated, although it was isolated by closed roads and military checkpoints, remained in the area to witness the goings on. Billy Innes’ wife, Rosie, lived in the village. "I remember a fleet of military lorries going through the village. I’d never seen anything like it. I was stuck on the other side of the main street, away from the houses and shops and I was scared I wasn’t going to get back. In the lorries, I saw a couple of black men - none of us had seen a black person before."

Stories of the evacuation period have now passed into legend: the collie dog which found its own way back to Inver from Tain and lived there alone until its master returned, befriended and fed by the soldiers; the old lady living 200 yards beyond the exclusion zone who survived a shell coming through her roof while she was having her tea.

However, many of the evacuees worried about their property. David Munro, who remembers the evacuation as a lonely, difficult time in his childhood, said his elder brother went back illegally and slept on a table at their home, Rockfield House. "Nobody was allowed to go in there, but he was worried that people were doing untoward things. Certainly they had their pick of what was in the garden. You safeguarded your property as best you could."

In April 1944, the troops moved south and by May residents were returning. They found the land cratered by shells, the roads and fields churned up by tanks. Even the wildlife had fled. Caroline Shepherd-Barron’s family found a shell had gone straight through the middle of their roof at Geanies House. For the next 20 years, farmers would find live unexploded shells in their fields.

Most were thrilled to be back. Marion Fleming says: "I remember the breathless excitement. I think I would have died if I hadn’t come home, I was so homesick."

Some changes were permanent. Maggie Ross, the schoolteacher, whose cottage was destroyed by a shell, was one who never returned to the area.

Dr Fallon says the impact must not be underestimated. "It was immediate and it was tough, particularly for people who had a livelihood associated with the land. But D-Day was the biggest invasion there ever has been and armoured units, like the ones which came to Tarbat, played an important part in helping the infantry get a foothold on the beaches.

"I’d like to think the people of Tarbat feel that those who fought for freedom did some of their training here, and it was worthwhile."