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Was Achnacarry, Scotland The Birthplace of Special Forces? 


Was Achnacarry, Scotland The Birthplace of Special Forces? 

Today’s Special Forces can trace their heritage back to a variety of places; one of its more prominent birthplaces was Achnacarry, Scotland during World War II. 

Today’s Special Forces can trace their heritage back to a variety of places; one of its more prominent birthplaces was Achnacarry, Scotland during World War II. 

by Donald J. Roberts II

Following the successful Commando raids at Vaagso and Bruneval, France, Winston Churchill instructed Lord Mountbatten to train a significant number of men in the Commando specialty of hit-and-run operations. Churchill wanted enough Commandos “to keep the whole of the enemy coastline on the alert, from the North Cape to the Bay of Biscay.”

In a short period, the Commando Basic Training Center was created at Achnacarry. The camp was much larger, better designed, and in most ways superior to any other training site previously used by Commandos. With its rugged, mountainous terrain laced with swampy moors and vertical cliffs, the site was perfect for training Special Forces soldiers. Assigned to command the training center was Lt. Col. Charles Vaughan.

Early Special Forces Training

Much of the training at Achnacarry was designed to instill self-confidence and a willingness to call on a determined individualism in the men for the good of the unit. The training also created meaningful and valuable bonds between each Commando and his buddy. One of the assault courses was known as “Me and My Pal.” The abundant obstacles and tasks were structured so that each pair of trainees had to work together to achieve success. This encouraged the teamwork that Commandos would carry with them into combat.

Vaughan’s 12-week course trained over 25,000 candidates during the war. Many of the men were from armed services outside of Britain, including hundreds of U.S. Rangers. Aside from the formidable obstacle course, the training stressed survival skills. The nature of Commando operations required that the men operate without traditional baggage trains and supply columns, so learning how to live off the land behind enemy lines was essential. The men learned techniques for “blending with the land” and honed skills for land navigation skills during the training. Commando trainees were instructed on how to build fires that gave off very little smoke and how to kill, dress, and cook wild animals.

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Striking the enemy with quick, surprise attacks became a trademark of Commando assaults. During training, the men were taught to kill silently and quickly with knives and their bare hands. Several times a week, the trainees were required to complete cross-country marches of 20 miles at a pace of seven miles an hour. That speed was more than double that of the required three miles an hour for regular infantrymen.

A four-foot piece of rope with a toggle on one end and a loop in the other was issued to each Commando. Each man kept it as a permanent piece of equipment, using it to cross rivers on various rope bridges and to scale mountains when ropes were required.

The intense training at Achnacarry effectively prepared the men for future combat. The instruction and preparation was a “weeding-out” process. The men who could not keep up physically or who were injured too badly to continue the training were dropped from the course and sent back to their old units.

The Green Berets

Upon completion of the Commando training, the men were authorized to don the coveted green beret. With their new-found skills and confidence, most of the men were assigned to various Commandos (Commando units). Others, however, continued their training at various special forces training facilities. Many of the graduates from Achnacarry attended advanced amphibious training or parachute school. Eventually, a number of the men wound up in the Special Boat Section.

Although the SBS never numbered more than a hundred men at any one time during the war, it was instrumental in developing innovative techniques with small boats and canoes for raids and reconnaissance missions. Usually operating in two-man canoes, the men of the SBS were commonly used to blow up anchored enemy ships with magnetic mines that they attached to the hulls under cover of darkness. Another often-assigned task was to infiltrate proposed invasion sites to determine if they were suitable for amphibious operations. Soon, however, Lord Mountbatten also authorized the creation of Combined Operations Pilotage Parties. These COPP teams were trained and utilized specifically for reconnaissance and mapping of future invasion beaches along the enemy coastline. Their special forces equipment, which consisted of fishing line and weights, allowed the teams to map the contours of the offshore sea bottom. The information would then be used to determine whether the bottom was too steep for invasion landing craft.

Special Nonmilitary Departments

A number of Commandos were selected to work for nonmilitary departments. One was the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS), another was the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Both agencies had the responsibility of placing agents in occupied France to organize, train, and supply French Resistance fighters in their missions to sabotage German military installations and disrupt their logistical capabilities.

One of the primary units assigned to carry out these responsibilities was the British Special Air Service (SAS), which specialized in parachuting teams into France. Multinational SAS Jedburgh teams (named for the town in Scotland where the teams trained) were highly proficient in land navigation, living off the land, Morse Code signaling, and demolition.

As the war progressed, Commandos continually proved that the lessons they had learned from the tough and demanding training at Achnacarry had instilled the confidence and initiative required to complete their varied missions. In a war that increasingly grew more technical and mechanized, successful Commando operations time and time again demonstrated a need for small groups of highly trained and motivated men to successfully complete missions that planes, tanks, and large naval vessels could not accomplish.

Add Your Comments

One Comment

    Posted March 13, 2016 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    What no mention of Blondie Hasler and the “Cockle Shell Heroes”, then this WWII from the American perspective!

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