Dickie Carruthers' Diary of HFTC Course 5 at Poolewe
In November 1943, whilst I was attending a refresher course in radar at No. I Radio Mechanics School, Bury, Lancashire, the summons came for me to report to the Highland Fieldcraft Training Centre at Poolewe in Wester Ross. This was a result of my attendance at a W.O.S.B. (War Office Selection Board) held at Monk Fryston in Yorkshire earlier that year where I had been awarded a 'N.Y.' grading ('Not Yet').
Apparently a high proportion of the younger applicants then attending W.O.S.B.'s were not considered to be mature enough to meet all the required commissioning standards and to attend O.C.T.U. (Officer Cadet Training Unit). But, in order to retain these youngsters in the commissioning process, it was proposed to give them a course of 'rapid maturing' with another, more comprehensive, selection board at completion. This was particularly important in the period prior to D-day when a substantial number of additional officers would be required for the invasion.
The War Office consulted with Lord Rowallan who was asked to establish a course aimed at producing 'men from boys' by conducting a challenging programme of endeavour in the Scottish Highlands. Lord Rowallan selected Glen Feshie in the Cairngorms as the site for the summer training camp which was suitably remote and had the ideal mountain scenario in Ben MacDhui and the surrounding peaks. However, it was not suitable for winter training because of the heavy snowfalls and so the courses held during the winter months took place in Wester Ross at Tournaig and Poolewe. The area had a milder climate with less snow but included the first class mountain scenarios of the Cuillin Hills in Skye and the Torridon Hills. The training programme was designed to be progressive starting with hill walking, gentle mountain exercises, canoeing, abseiling, all-in rugger and other tests of personal initiative such as all-night exercises using the stars as guidance and over-night camping without tents. Self discipline was the order of the day and it was policy to brave the cold waters of adjacent lochs and the sea to maintain ones health! In his initial address to us all, Lord Rowallan said that these matters were designed to give us a belief in ourselves and to illustrate what we were capable of doing when put to the test and stretched to the limit.
Apart from our normal uniforms and equipment, we were issued with wind-proofs and string vests for additional comfort in the adverse conditions and a certain freedom of dress was tolerated. I sported a canary yellow pullover during my time at the Course. Lord Rowallan pointed out the advantages of a 'near-to-nature' curriculum of less smoking, alcohol and little radio noise which produced much keener senses of smell, sight and sound. Much of the daily movement around the camp was carried out, almost instinctively, at the double. This general hardening process accompanied by lectures on how to survive in the wild and demonstrations on stalking from a Lovat Scout, all combined to build up a sense of confidence in the individual and a bonding between the cadets.
Two exercises on mountains were completed during the first part of the Course, a climb up Beinn Arigh Charr taking place about a week after we had all arrived at Tournaig Camp. It was this initial exercise that gave us a sound lesson in our abilities to cope with and adjust to adverse terrain.
On arrival at the H.F.T.C., we had met the army padre, the Rev. Birkbeck, a paratrooper and a man among men. As we set off that day for the mountain, he appeared casually at the gate dressed informally to wave us off and to wish us a good days climbing. A pleasant gesture we thought as we struggled across the uncharted moorland towards the towering mountain. Up and up we plodded urged on by the D.S. (Directing Staff) accompanied by the usual advice given gratuitously to those whose legs appeared to be weak from the hips down. And, just when we thought we had reached the summit, another higher peak appeared in front of us just as we were preparing to settle for a rest. And, sitting on that peak was a figure that was instantly recognisable as our padre eating his rations and looking the picture of health! In his way he had shown us the way forward to attempt and achieve better and greater objectives with our bodies leading to that inner satisfaction which gives a spiritual uplift.
The second mountain exercise was on Slioch towards the end of the first part of the Course. This took place in severe snow conditions and I was prevented from taking part by a leg injury. Earlier in the Course I had seriously torn the fleshy part of my left calf near the knee on a tail board hook when climbing back onto a lorry during the 'Fit to Drop' exercise and this had refused to heal in the damp atmosphere prevailing in the Highlands.
In addition to the atrocious weather conditions that the sections were encountering, Gibson had fallen on the descent and severely injured his back and neck. He had to be manhandled all the way back down the mountain and so, what should have been a relatively speedy return down the mountain, became a major operation taking several hours and extending into the darkness of the night. The mountain rescue team eventually sorted it all out and Gibson lived to tell the tale although not completing the Course. I was grateful for the comfort of the Operations Van sited at Kinlochewe where we co-ordinated the exercise.
I took the opportunity during the Christmas break of visiting my father who was stationed in Edinburgh at Scottish Command H.Q. We had an excellent four days when I met many of his fellow officers and friends who made me very welcome. There seemed to be unlimited food and drink available and I began to worry about my ability to complete the second part of the Course which now loomed ahead.
This fell into four distinct parts. Firstly there was the Skye exercise followed by the Torridon M.E. (Maximum Effort) scheme. In addition, there was the major assault course known as 'Pass the Ammunition' and the preparations for the Gang Show that would be the finale to the Course known as 'I Can Hardly Wait'. This was produced by Ken Johnstone, our Company Commander, in true Ralph Reader style.
My recollections of this period of the Course are by far the clearest especially the scheme on Skye. I was briefed to operate as a Fifth Columnist on Skye with Eric Lawson, who had also sustained a leg injury. The idea was for us to destroy fictitious food dumps before the main body of the troops could reach them and maintain their attack on our troops holding Glen Brittle House.
We were trucked from Poolewe to Kyle of Lochalsh where we spent the night in a large metal barn with a concrete floor. In the morning it was decided to commandeer a small ferry and to go along the coast and land at Broadford. The ferryman appeared quite philosophical over the whole affair and, despite the lousy weather conditions, started the engine of his craft as soon as we had given him a promissary note to cover the hire. About ten of us climbed aboard and soon we were chugging rapidly along the coast pondering on what to do when we had landed. The ferry approached the shore at Broadford and Lawson and I both flopped onto the beach simultaneously shocked by the sound of live firing from a Home Guard patrol in the village. The ferry looked a long way out to sea on its return journey to Kyle and we were both puzzled by this lack of hospitality from the inhabitants of a supposedly friendly island. It later transpired, understandably, that the island forces had not expected us to materialise from the sea and thought that we could be German sailors from a prowling submarine.
Eric and I crawled in the best 'Chisholm' manner towards the eastern end of the village and, after a hurried discussion over the map of the area, decided to head for Torrin. However, not along the easy route of the road where we would certainly encounter enemy patrols or even the Home Guard but along Glen Suardal, past Beinn an Dubhaich to Cnoc Dubh. And, five hours later, having crossed three streams in spate, climbed a massive hill and got lost in a wood (due to an inaccurate compass!!) we finally found a foot path and arrived at Torrin.
A knock at the door of a croft at the start of the village produced a highlander who only conversed in Gaelic, but the expertise and sign language of H.F.T.C. enabled us to ingratiate ourselves inside with an invite to supper and an overnight kip on the floor in front of a peat fire. We had a splendid meal of mutton stew with barley and copious root vegetables for supper and then laid our bodies down to rest although our injured legs were both causing us some concern. Came the dawn and with it a breakfast of more mutton stew. So, with a sincere expression of thanks (Ta ever so!) and a cheery wave we set off for Kilmarie.
The purpose of this pilgrimage is now lost in the archives and time has drawn a veil over the general strategy that was involved but it seemed to Eric and myself that the most important factor was the maintenance of our creature comforts. We arrived at Kilmarie after a steady walk, where we were welcomed by the residents with a cup of tea. They seemed faintly interested in our activities and a little surprised that we seemed so vague about what we were trying to achieve. Eric had the strategy all buttoned up, whereas I must have given the impression that we had only come for a smoke and a chat. I mumbled about some food dumps that had to be destroyed and we then had to spend ten minutes explaining that these were only imaginary in order to avoid the canny islanders having an apoplectic fit at the thought of such waste. After a very pleasant half-hour, we left Kilmarie and struck off across the hill to Camasunary, a small farm settlement at the southern end of Sligachan Glen on Loch Scavaig. The settlement consisted of two isolated residences, only one being occupied at that time by a very kind lady who, on seeing us limping down the track, immediately insisted on feeding us again with buttered scones and glasses of milk which she went and drew off from a rather despondent looking cow in the paddock outside. The cow was obviously fed up with chance visitors who made demands of it outside the normal hours for it gave us both a very jaundiced look and a tired "moo" as we set off at about 4.00 p.m. to cover the nine miles up the Glen to Sligachan and the hotel rendevous with our forces. Although it was getting dark after the first mile or so, the sheer grandeur of the Cuillin hills on our left and Bla Bheinn on the right was awe-inspiring making the walk both unforgettable and entrancing. The will 'o the wisps glimmered as we groped our way along the so-called footpath which had been little used during the War and the ploppings of methane marsh gas were both fine company indeed that evening. We sang as we went, mainly, I think, for courage as the moon shone only intermittently and cast many shadows that appeared to move. Not that I am of a nervous disposition but neither of us was prepared to take any chances and a few well chosen ditties could be guaranteed to keep away any gremlins or other beasties of the night! At last, having achieved no military success, found no food dumps (real or imaginary) or contacted the enemy, we arrived at the Sligachan Hotel to find Ken Johnstone, the D.S. and the lads getting tucked up for the night. Eric's leg had really been giving him trouble but despite this he had been able to lead us both to the rendezvous.
The next morning, we left the troops and struck out across the northern Cuillins towards Glen Brittle where the exercise was to end. We reached the house at about two o'clock in the afternoon after a stiff climb and were met by the lorries that were to take us back to Poolewe. Our lorryload of tired but happy cadets sang all the way back, in part rehearsing the songs for the show that would end the Course and which continued to loom ever closer. Even the ferry crossings at Kyle and Strome did not dampen our spirits although there were the usual interminable delays before boarding. Ahead lay Exercise M.E. (Maximum Effort) which would try our abilities and endurance to a much higher degree than Skye. The briefing for this was now only a few days away. And to follow, the all-encompassing test of 'Pass the Ammunition', an assault course par excellence which had to be overcome both as an individual and as a team.
Exercise M.E. was a two day scheme in the Torridon Region. Unlike Skye, it was a 'slog' from beginning to end. We were bussed to a point on the Gairloch to Kinlochewe road at Am Feur-loch and told to meet at the school in Torridon that evening. The trek was across the Flowerdale Forest (Moorland and rocks - no trees!!) along a faint path which petered out after about two miles and then across an unmarked area to pass between the massif of Beinn Alligin and Beinn Dearg to descend to Torridon House and along the road to the school in the village. Accurate map and compass work was absolutely vital if one was not to spend the night in the open and the multiplicity of similar features made the route selection difficult.
We slept in the school that night after eating our supper rations, there being no additional food except that which we had carried with us. The next day dawned sunny and clear. We gathered our equipment together and set off along the road towards Torridon House. In a short distance we ascended Sgorra Chadail. This was a scramble up what seemed to be a near-vertical escarpment of some 2,650 feet. From the top we had a glorious view across Upper Loch Torridon and then pressed forward down the north side of the massif only to lose the sunshine and be enveloped in a hill mist with a sudden drop in temperature and a loss of direction. But,by early afternoon we had worked our way round the east side of the massif, joined the Torridon Kinlochewe road and set off towards Loch Maree. By now my leg wound had burst open again and was very painful. When we reached Kinlochewe, Sergeant Winterbourne, who had been with us all day, decided that I should return to Poolewe by lorry instead of crossing over Loch Maree and returning on the far side via Letterewe with the section. My leg was not to heal until the Course ended and I returned to England where the climate was so much drier and the wound kept out of water.
The third stage of the second half of the Course was the individual and team test , 'Pass the Ammunition'. This was a relatively short assault course but it contained almost every conceivable natural obstacle. Apart from carrying the loaded ammunition boxes over these, the section would suffer an incapacitating injury to one of its members during the run which necessitated his being manhandled by the rest of the section for the remainder of the course. The full details of this fiendish trial are now blurred in my memory just as they became a blur of agony to me during the actual exercise because of my leg.
Towards the last days of the Course, we were visited for five days by No. 22 W.O.S.B. The officers of the Board joined us for exercises and our other activities during those days and tribute must be paid to them for their stamina in that environment that was so different from their normal surroundings. The officer who was attached to our section obviously lacked the expertise and fitness that we had acquired during the months of the Course but he was game for anything and overcame the hardships that we provided for him with a cheery attitude which endeared him to us. By this time, rehearsals for 'I Can Hardly Wait' had reached fever pitch with Ken Johnstone urging us on to greater heights. It should be remembered that all the activity in these preparations for the show had to be carried out without interference to the training programme which had already taken up most of the day. It was the additional effort, . which we so often hear about, that is the trademark of a sound character development course.
And, finally, the interview with Lord Rowallan and the Company Commander where one learnt one's fate. In my case, a pass, but tempered with a warning that I must work hard at O.C.T.U. to improve my map reading skills. Each cadet was personally presented with a small New Testament by Lord Rowallan and mine is still in my possession as a treasured memento of a wonderful experience. The interview was followed by the end-of-Course Dinner, a very happy affair and off to Wrotham the following day. Whether you passed or failed the Course, the impact that H.F.T.C. has had on all our lives is immeasurable. We gained a whole philosophy of life which has remained with us over the years and which has bonded us together in an Association ever since. To be part of a team that faces challenges never experienced before can only develop responsibility, self-confidence and loyalty. All the men I have known from H.F.T.C. have a similar view and we know that, without that extensive and intensive training, our lives would have been significantly different in substance and quality.
The fact that this type of pre-training is now carried out at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in the shape of the Rowallan Company is surely the best tribute to its effectiveness in turning the 'boys' into 'men'. There is also no doubt in my mind that the D.S. at the H.F.T.C. were all exceptional, both in their dedication and enthusiasm for the job at hand and in their mental and physical prowess. They were prepared to do everything that the cadets were faced with and, in some cases, to do it more than once during a period of instruction. This produced a strong rapport between the cadets and the D.S. at that time which has persisted to this day among the members of the Association.