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Memoirs of

Ernest Dale


Ernest Dale, portrait, Italy 1945


This page is echoed at the
Moidart Local History site


Lochailort - The place

If you walk west from Inverailort Castle along the shore of the loch you pass a small island where, about 1745, Prince Charles Stuart, remembered as Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of the Old Pretender, is supposed to have dropped anchor while hiding from the English.

Both the Loch and the Castle take their names from the River Ailort which flows into the sea and opens up to one of Britain’s loveliest prospects – the Inner Hebrides. Eigg is the most dominant island. Its shape is pleasing, having the appearance of some animal lying in the sea and having, near the southern end, the Sgurr – a tall, narrow peak.

Britain did not just sit back and lick her wounds. The troops from Norway were brought round to the west of Scotland and some of them arrived at Lochailort, whither I was posted. Many things changed new methods of training were invented and a whole new concept of attack was developed.

As a result of experiments there were several accidents. One was very sad: a sergeant volunteered to swim across the river carrying a full pack on his back. As the tide was flowing the river was in spate and very deep. The sergeant jumped in and immediately sank. Some hours later his body was recovered from the middle of the loch.In 1940-41 Dunkirk was not the only evacuation of the continent taking place. We had been flushed out of Norway, simultaneously, at Narvik, though the Germans had suffered heavy losses, both on land and at sea.

In the winter of 1941 a soldier of No.  10 Commando tried to lead a loaded mule along the icy top of a whale-backed mountain. Both man and mule slid about a thousand feet to be dashed onto huge rocks.

Some innovations, however, were advantageous. It was here that string vests were first tried out, it having been thought that little cells of warm air saved more energy than heavy textiles.

This idea came from a naval officer, Commander Murray Levick, who was in charge of such experiments. He once chose two men of equal physique to investigate the effect of salt. One man was deprived of all salt for a week while the others ate normally. Wearing full pack they ran up a steep mountain slope to the limit of their endurance. The desalinated soldier collapsed much sooner than the other.

All kinds of subtle weapons appeared suntan cream which frosted enemy windscreens (for the Serbian partisans in Yugoslavia) booby trap pens which exploded when the cap was unscrewed explosive horse manure to leave on the road and it was found that sugar, poured into the petrol tank, gummed up the valves and cylinders of an enemy truck.

At first these units were named Special Service Battalions (SSBs), but due to this being Lovat territory and Lord Lovat being on the staff as fieldcraft instructor, the word Commando was brought back from the Afrikaans “Kommando” in honour of Lord Lovat’s grandfather, who distinguished himself in the Boer War.

Loch Eilt


Commandos changed the whole concept of war. The hypothesis was that a group of three or four men, given special training in unorthodox methods, could cause more havoc than a whole regiment. The saving in manpower would be terrific, and this theory has been shown to be true many times since. Hitler became furious at the damage inflicted on German installations and property and he sent out an order that any commando soldier captured would be shot immediately.

In the 1940s the path from Lochailort towards Ardnamurchan was a mere sheep track. Visiting the area in 1972 I was surprised to see a metalled road which had been built for tourists. Somehow I felt resentful – it took away all the quiet mystery from my memory. It was as though vandals had slashed a lovely painting.

With a friend, Alan Briggs from Leeds, I used to walk the two miles west to a croft at Roshven. The McCrae family, with whom we were friendly, had two sons, Farquhar and Urquhart. They all spoke the old language, Gaelic, and always seemed uncomfortable with English conversation. Gaelic is a gentle sounding tongue and a pleasure to hear, suited to the quiet nature of these people. The family lived from a flock of sheep and fish which we found plentiful and easy to catch. Mackerel almost jump into your boat. For fuel they used peat. Their language seems to have faded out since those years, though some die-hards try to keep it alive.


Sound of Arisaig, sunrise and sunset

We were returning one evening at dusk when we arrived at acleft in the hillside caused by a smal1 burn. In the poor light we could not see clearly and we stopped, not wishing to fall into the babbling burn. We listened a rustling sound could be heard. “Only a sheep”, said Alan . But a number of sheep suddenly became men who pinned us down to the heather. It seems we both decided to die fighting and lashed out with our army boots. As the Germans now controlled the whole of Norway we’d always feared that they might come round to West Scotland, and we believed this had happened. What a relief! They turned out to be a Commando on an exercise and they thought we were a decoy from their “enemy”. The next morning a major limped into the orderly room and snarled: “Who was down by Roshven at 10  pm last night? Alan and I stood up. “One of you nearly broke my bloody leg.” Before he left he added, good naturedly, “Glad you’re on our side.”

Late in 1942 a few Americans arrived, then left. The Royal Navy took over the whole area and I was put on a reinforcement draft for North Africa. Goodbye to Britain!

Arrival and first impressions

GlenfinnanWe arrived in Scotland at Lochailort where we took temporary billets in a grim grey stone house known as Inverailort Castle, which was owned by the Cameron-Head family. The whole building had been newly furnished for army purposes and I was allocated a large desk upstairs in the front bay window from where I could see across the valley. There was also a typewriter and a Gestetner duplicator. At this stage I took a good look as far as I could into the future and reasoned as follows: Dale, you'll never be a soldier and this war could go on for ages. If you get your feet under the table here you might dodge all the muck and bullets and serve your country better. I took much time learning to type and also getting to know the skill of printing from a duplicator. I soon became in great demand to all and sundry and some people seemed to think I was a real secretary and asked me to take down dictation. There was no promotion, which kept me happy.

We had to make do with simple toiletry arrangements and I managed to shave standing at my desk each day. One morning as it was coming light a German bomber flew past at eye level from west to east. We guessed he was after the aluminium works at Fort William, 28 miles inland. No damage was done - a near miss!

Officers began to arrive for the first course of commando training. The unit was called the Special Training Centre {STC). The northern part of Scotland north of the line from Fort William to Inverness was now forbidden territory to all except residents, so without a special pass you stayed out. One new arrival was Lord Fraser of Lovat, who was appointed Fieldcraft instructor. He was a very handsome man with a dignified bearing and stood out in the Lovat Scouts uniform on the castle lawn at daybreak holding the shepherd's crook he always carried and looking like Britannia. I little realised at that time that he was to become a brilliant soldier, with many victories over the Germans in a raid on Dieppe, and also on D-Day when we invaded France

Lord Lovat was installed in a small bedroom at the back of the castle where I was sent as his aide with paper work. I sat with him for six months, typing and printing copies of the programmes he outlined. These were handed out to the instructors on the courses, and I always tried to make them neat and clear. There was never any conversation – he was by nature taciturn and I was a conscript. I often had the feeling that he found working class people beyond his comprehension! He was certainly no Philistine, as I discovered when I came to read his memoirs, which I found very entertaining.

On two occasions there was a shortage of signals personnel for a commando exercise out in the islands and on Skye. As I was regarded as a very adaptable goon I stood in as signaller. I had a one-hour practise run on a crash course and received a nebulous notion of what was required. It seemed that I was to be part of the judges' team, and we set off to the Kyle of Lochalsh. I carried an R Toc radio weighing 35 lb (radio telephony) along with a major and a captain up to the heights above Broadford Bay, Skye. Our view of the coast road was perfect, and then I found myself alone. With groundsheet and blankets I spent the night there and awoke to find that someone was trying to call me. I spent a few seconds finding the right frequency and a voice asked what I could see.

I hesitated and then asked if this might be a breach of security, but at that instant a column of motorcyclists drove along the coast road below. Go ahead, I was told, so I reported this activity. This being Sunday morning I was again left alone to tune in to the Gaelic service from the local church in Portree.

" Always obey the LAST order" we were taught, which I had done, so I was fireproof. I never found out who got into trouble over this, for it seemed that one Commando had been listening in to the information I'd given and beaten the other. In spite of this I was again given a similar job.

For some time there had been a mystery man on a motor bike visiting the camp almost daily. I often talked to him and learned his name was Humphrey Searle, but never discovered his function. Only recently I learned from the Internet that he became a famous composer and writer. He was a likeable and entertaining character.

A very good friend with great talent was Billy Murrel, who produced wonderful original music on the piano. He also had a wide repertoire of Sussex songs, which he could play and sing for hours. These were extremely witty and comical and on Fridays and Saturdays kept everyone entertained. Everyone loved Bill. He had twinkling brown eyes, enormous feet, a pointed nose and a talent which would find a ready market today. I used to play the violin to his accompaniment. He also had a saxophone which he longed to play, but in the absence of another pianist was reluctant. Luckily a Londoner arrived one day who played well and out came the sax. The P.R.I. (President of the Regimental Institute - the officer responsible for entertainment) was delighted to find the group already functioning and asked if he could help. Billy had been teaching me to play his sax and asked if we could have one for me. It arrived at once and I now only doubled on the violin. This opened up new prospects and we were invited to play at Mallaig for a dance. Mallaig is a small fishing village, and the people were friendly and kind. While there I sampled a few prawns for the first time in my life.

We were surprised on arrival to be shown into a boathouse which was open to the water at one end. This was the dance hall! The place was lit by oil lamps which gave only a feeble light and the dance got under way. Soon there was a party of Cameron Highlanders on the floor, kilts twirling naughtily and uttering the wild whoops brought on by alcohol. There came a crescendo in their excitement and eventually one of them fell from the end of the boathouse into the Atlantic. The others, eager to display their Spartan toughness, leapt into the icy water after him, but after being hauled out were glad to be led into the local cottages to dry out and get warm.

Glen NevisThese weekly dances became a regular feature of our life, and made a change from the week-end trip into Fort William where there was little entertainment - just one street of shops and a pleasant walk in Glen Nevis. A number of interesting people came on courses. I well remember a Major Clapton, a big lumbering fellow. We had printed forms to be filled in by newly arrived officers. One part needed details of qualifications. The major read out: " Qualifications?” and he wrote " Fuckall!" David Niven, film actor, who was also a regular soldier, took a course.

Winston Churchill's son Randolph came, promptly got the mess barman drunk and went home the next day. The son of Sir Roger Keyes did the course. He was later killed in Libya in an attack on General Rommel's HQ.

We had an RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) who had arrived as a Lance Corporal and became an instant RSM. We found this irregular and suspected chicanery. After the war David Niven wrote a book called The Moon’s a Balloon, and from this I learned that they had been regular officers together in India until Royal had assaulted his C.O. and been cashiered. They stayed together at Lochailort. Later, in Belgium, Royal was a pilot in a glider. He died there.

There were many wide boys in the War. An exciting event took place in 1941. Around the coast we had an Observer Corps. At dusk one evening we had a phone call from an observer at Arisaig, seven miles north, who reported that a plane had landed and taken off again several times on the beach. Its handling seemed erratic, so we kept a lookout. Obviously lost, this plane soon came swooping over our camp with a powerful headlamp shining down to inspect the terrain. Now, our camp had a military aspect, having Nissan huts on the only dry land available and 'lines' {roads} between them. The rest of the valley was bogs, but this was apparently not seen from the air, as this plane - an Albacore of the Fleet Air Arm - came down to a messy landing, ending up like a scorpion about to sting, tail high in the air. There was the sound of breaking bottles and liquor came dripping from the aircraft. In wellies we helped the two crew out they were clearly pissed. They were arrested and locked in the guard room. It seemed that they’d been bringing home-distilled whisky from the Hebrides illegally. The Navy despatched their engineers to dismantle the plane and transport it away. I wonder what happened to the whisky that was saved?

    Commandant (Lt Col Howard), instructors and staff in 1942, after the departure of Lord Lovat, Inverailort castle

Commandant (Lt Col Howard), instructors and staff in 1942, after the departure of Lord Lovat
(if anyone can identify them, would be grateful.)

This page is echoed at the Moidart Local History site (" Wartime in Moidart" )


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