Achnacarry: Commando Basic Training Centre - 70 Years On.

An archaeological evaluation and survey was undertaken on 8th and 9th May 2014 at the site of the former Commando Basic Training Camp (CBTC) located on the grounds of Achnacarry Castle, Achnacarry, Spean Bridge (Figure 1). The work was requested by Lochaber Archaeological Society as part of its project to highlight the pivotal role that Achnacarry Estate and other parts of Lochaber played in the wartime training of 25,000 elite troops. The purpose of the archaeological evaluation was to assess one of a pair of shooting butts located next to the northwest-facing wall of the walled garden belonging to Achnacarry Castle. During the wartime period, the site, which formed part of the CBTC training grounds, had contained targets used for shooting practice. The purpose of the building survey was to record the location and extent of what was thought to be a former guard room (Figure 2). Little else remains visible on the grounds of the other temporary buildings that constituted the training camp.

Achnacarry Castle has been the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan Cameron since about 1655 when the original castle was built by Ewen Cameron, XVII Chief. This original structure was burnt to the ground on 28th May 1746 following the defeat of the Jacobite army at the Battle of Culloden. The construction of a new ‘castle’ was started in 1802 by Donald Cameron, XXII Chief of Clan Cameron, in the ‘Scottish Baronial’ style and finally completed in 1837 by his son Donald Cameron, XXIII Chief2. During World War II, Achnacarry was handed over to the British military and the Commando Basic Training Centre (CBTC) was established (Plate 1). The CBTC was regarded as one of, if not the, finest of all the Allied special training centres established during the Second World War. Not only were soldiers and marines of the British forces trained there, but also those from the USA, France, Holland, Belgium, Poland, Norway and, surprisingly, some of the ‘Free Germans’. Volunteers from the Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce were also trained there.

For the construction of the CBTC, the castle grounds were transformed. Nissen huts with corrugated sides and roofs were erected in the immediate vicinity of the house. These huts surrounded a drill square of hard asphalt, which replaced the lawn (Plate 2). Each accommodation hut housed between twenty-five and forty men and other buildings included dining halls, wash rooms and the NAAFI canteen3.

The first recruits arrived for training in March 1942 and, by the time the camp closed in 1946 more than 25,000 men had passed through its gates. The training was tough. A recruit’s introduction to the camp was the 7mi hike from Spean Bridge railway station to the castle, which culminated in walking past a long row of graves marked by white crosses bearing a board giving the name, number, rank and cause of death of the deceased.

Much of the training consisted of agility and strengthening exercises and learning the drills and skills of tackling obstacles. Assault training was carried out in various forms, but all involved the use of live ammunition. Trainees carried out mock attacks (Plate 3) that were met with an arsenal of weapons manned by an army of instructors skilled in the art of shooting to miss – but not by very much.

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This DVD shows some of their discoveries set in an historical context with some evocative wartime black and white footage of the troops training at Achnacarry and interviews with veterans who share their memories.

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