Military Operations at Inverailort in 1940

A talk by Major Hall, summarised by Jean Bowker.

Inverailort Castle was used to train Special Forces during the Second World War

A Brief Summary of Major Hall’s talk on August 13th 2001 at the Glenuig Hall

A more recent audio recording of an interview with Major Hall (37mb) is available here.

In the early days of the war, there was a realisation that there was a vital need for specially trained people if the tide was to be turned against the Germans. In June 1940, General Ironside authorised the use of Inverailort as the centre of special training of guerrilla tactics. The whole of the peninsula was sealed off by Lord Lovatt and access largely denied by the general public for the duration. By July 1940 the Special Operations Executive was set up at Inverailort – its headquarters were eventually moved to Arisaig House.

At the time that Major Hall was sent to Inverailort, around thirty officers, thirty NCO’s and ancillary staff of 300 were stationed there to support the on-going three weeks of ‘drop-dead’ training.

Men from all over the U.K. and all walks of life, military and civilian, with potential and special talent were selected for this particular specialist training in survival, armed and unarmed combat, demolition and field craft. If at any point during the three weeks a test was failed, the man was sent away back to his previous occupation. Among people involved in the training were Colonel Brain Mayfield of the Scots Guards; A/C/I Spencer Chapman; the Seaforths; Lord Lovatt’s ‘Scouts’; ‘Mad’ Mike Calvert RE. The navy was represented by Commander Geoffrey Congreve (at which point it became known as HMS Lochailort); and RMS John Royle. However the outstanding figures involved were Dan Fairbairn and Bill Sykes whose particular specialities were unarmed combat and silent killing.

Major Hall, along with Sergeant Davidson, was sent by the Kentish Regiment to Inverailort: the aim was to train them for the British Resistance at a time when there was real fear that Britain would be invaded - they were literally to go underground in bunkers and pop up at night to kill German soldiers clandestinely. Major Hall's introduction to the three weeks of intensive training started as the train he was travelling in came under fire as it approached Lochailort and stopped suddenly, throwing men and baggage to the floor. They then had to run the last two miles to the Castle. His introduction to Fairbairn and Sykes at the Castle was to see what seemed to a young man of around 22 andtwo ‘old’ men (then about 56 – 58 years old) tumble down stairs to arrive holding sub-machine guns in front of the trainees waiting at the bottom of the stairs . Course lectures were given in Nissen huts on islands in the River Ailort, which had to be reached by wading the river, which could be anything up to chest deep. This meant that lectures were sat out in soaked boots and clothing. They were taught living off the land, how to keep clean and healthy living rough -maintenance of personal hygiene being a necessity - stalking anything, navigation, night work, explosives, booby traps, demolition and silent killing. Everything was taught by example and psychology was not considered. A glen by Glen Shian was used for sniping practise and is still called Snipers Valley today. Once a week everyone had to run up An Stac (almost 3000 feet) and back. At one point Major Hall and his fellow trainees were taken over to the far side of Morvern and had to get back to Lochailort at night in a certain time over land. (Loch Shiel is in the way!) Another exercise was the taking of Portree on Skye. Exercises were conducted under live fire, everyone was trained to be 100% efficient and to know that they would be better than any opposition. The Geneva convention was totally ignored. If it was said that a certain tactic wasn’t cricket, the reply was that Hitler didn’t play cricket. The big house became unique in the world as a centre for the training in tactics of irregular warfare.

Trainees lived in huts in the grounds of the ‘castle’ (only called Inverailort Castle at that point on, before it was just known as the Big House), but were allowed to eat meals indoors. Mrs Cameron-Head, despite having her home taken over by the military, became mother and friend to all. Major Hall remembers chiefly feeling exhausted and hungry, but mainly exhausted. The training was deliberately intense and exact, one either succeeded totally or was failed and thrown out. He went on to describe in relative gruesome detail various methods of silent killing, further described in a short video which has never been generally released. (A 'D Notice' still applies).

In answering a question, Major Hall was unaware of any fatalities during the time he was there.