JOHN LINCOLN'S DIARY
The extract which follows is taken from my personal memories of war years, written between 1989 and 1994, which I had promised myself I would place on record when I retired - if only to leave my daughters some account of those stirring times. This description of the H.F.T.C. was written before I learned of the existence of the H.F.T.C.A. and was drawn from memory and such papers and letter remaining after so many years.
. . . . The WOSB report decreed that I was "too young and inexperienced" to be accepted for officer training. Within a week I was posted to Inverness-shire, to the Highland Fieldcraft Training Centre in Glen Feshie on the western edge of the Cairngorm Mountains some 15 miles from Kingussie. On arrival I found myself one of a hundred cadets, all ranks from private to sergeant major, all of us having been considered for officer training and, for a variety of reasons, judged to require further concentrated training to qualify.
"This is the first intake of a new course designed to provide you with the greatest possible amount of knowledge and experience in the shortest possible time." The Company Commander explained the situation at the first parade. "The course will last ten weeks and at the end you will take another selection board. The instructors' job is to generate initiative, self-confidence and the ability to lead others. The course will be tough - we are allowed ten per cent casualties," he said with a gleam in his eye, "and you will be worked hard."
The instructing officers had been selected for their experience, one had been awarded the Victoria Cross in 1940, another was an explorer, the Company Commander well experienced in Scouting, the Commandant, Lt.-Col. Lord Rowallan, MC., subsequently Chief Scout, all of them specially suited for the job in hand. The Army had identified that junior officers would be in great demand when the time came to assault the Continent and current methods of selection were wasteful of manpower - this course was what would now be called an Outward Bound Course, if somewhat more extreme than the present day, indeed the Army created the modern equivalent when in 1977, Rowallan Company was formed at Sandhurst. But more of that later.
The camp in which we lived had been built by Canadian Army Engineers, timber men, who were then logging a few miles down the valley, the huts constructed from timber cut from the surrounding slopes giving it a genuine backwoods look, and had been, during the winter, used as the Mountain and Snow Warfare School - higher up the valley were kennels containing husky dogs, looked after by a sergeant of Red Indian extraction who spoke to us, during the course, on fieldcraft. Emphasis during training was on mental and physical agility, the first two weeks taken up with a seemingly endless succession of tests; beams to balance on, wires to slide down, rivers to cross, obstacles to overcome - rumour had it that the allowance for casualties was used up during those two weeks, certainly there were a number of injuries and the pace afterwards seemed to slacken; but maybe we were getting used to the routines.
Of course there were drill parades, taken by the RSM, a Scot with such a broad accent that I, and others, had difficulty in understanding precisely what command he was giving. So many drill commands consist of two words; if you could understand one you could guess the other, for example, drill instructors would order 'Slope Hah' or 'About Hah' or 'Parade Hah'. If however, as in this case, the command was 'Hahaah Hah' each of us had to make an instant choice, some of which, by the law of averages, were bound to be wrong and we were bawled out for being stupid. The RSM was remembered also for his habit, not of calling 'Left, right' and so on as we marched but of counting up to four; 'Hup, hew, hee, haw'.
My military education was extended, my knowledge of people enlarged. Closest friends on the course were a Scot from Perth, Maurice 'Jock' Lawson and a Geordie from Newcastle, 'Tiny' Harrison, so called because he stood about 6 foot 4 - I was taken by some as a Canadian because of the Norfolk drawl in my speech and, surrounded as I was by so many dialects I affected at times a mock Irish accent, earning myself the nickname 'Mick'. The camp was remote, but transport was available at weekends to Kingussie, if we were not otherwise engaged on exercises roaming the mountains. A NAAFI canteen was available in camp, staffed by a civilian manager, probably in his forties, possibly of an inclination more widely accepted today, who had to endure the merciless ribbing of the troops for using cosmetics - a light but nontheless obvious colouring of rouge on his cheeks could hardly escape attention yet he appeared to thrive good-naturedly on ribald comment.
The area around the camp contained a number of different assault courses, an essential part of Army training and sampled by us all, several times. One in particular stands out in my memory. This course was located by the approach road to the camp, started high on a steep hillside and entailed a mad rush down the slope over various obstacles culminating in a balancing act along a log to a beam about 12 feet above a pit full of muddy water. The water was not more than three feet deep but the bottom of the pit was sticky, soggy mud. We wore battle order, small pack, steel helmet and carried a rifle - it was necessary to jump from the beam into the pit, an action which resulted in complete immersion and the near certainty of having to grope around underwater to find a rifle lost in the mud. Then across the road beyond which was a river too deep to wade - the approved technique was to launch oneself from the rocks on the near bank as far into the river as possible, the depth of water decreasing to shallows on the far side.
I retain a vivid memory of seeing, just as I launched myself into mid-air, a sergeant instructor throw an explosive charge into the river upstream, all part of the Army's desire for realism. My only thought was to get out of the water fast before the explosion - I knew it wouldn't be life-threatening but if I was underwater when it went off I would lose what breath I had left, which wasn't much. Time slipped by in slow motion - it seemed an age before I hit the water; underwater I was all too conscious of that explosive upstream to my right and when I surfaced I found extra energy to swim to the shallows as fast as I could. I can't remember when the explosion occurred, there were too many other things going on, I was just very relieved that I hadn't had all the wind knocked out of me and the final task, of firing my rifle with ice-cold hands, soaked and shivering, was accomplished relatively easily.
I remember that summer with a considerable degree of pleasure for although I was often physically stretched to my limit, and had often been tired, cold, wet and miserable, I enjoyed the open-air life, the new challenges and, perhaps above all, the comradeship of like-minded men, living and working together. I remember the pleasure I felt in the mountains. I had never been near a mountain before and I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery; wild deer in the forest, a golden eagle in flight, becoming proficient in finding one's way, acquiring shelter and comfort, becoming much more self-reliant and self-confident.
One Monday morning we were told:
"From this moment, for the rest of this week, you will be allowed access to your huts only for half an hour at the end of training each day. Your programme will continue as scheduled but you will have to cook all your own meals, dry rations will be issued daily. Each platoon will be allocated an area in which, working in pairs, you will build yourselves shelter." With a partner, after training was over, I set about building a shelter for the night from branches and heather - that first evening there was little time before dark to do more than cook a meal and fix a roof over our heads. The site was on the sloping side of a valley and when we woke after that first night we found that, in our sleep, we had slid down the slope out of the shelter. The second day's main task therefore was to make level beds, frames of branches bound together with scrounged wire and filled with dry heather. During the week the shelter and the facilities were improved, water was channelled from a nearby stream, cooking arrangements developed to include an oven made from a scrounged biscuit tin in which was left, overnight, the next morning's porridge. The idea was that time could be saved by not having to cook the porridge at breakfast; but the result of cooking overnight was cold porridge with the consistency of bread pudding.
Life in the mountains was not all hard work. The staff decided to organise a concert, the highlight of which was a recital of Highland songs sung by a quartet of lusty sergeant instructors, dressed appropriately in kilts. The audience, on this occasion including three or four civilians and their ladies from nearby cottages who occupied the front row, were most appreciative of this effort which spurred the sergeants on to an even more spirited encore. One of the quartet was a Scot serving in an English regiment who had borrowed a kilt for the show - he, more than any of the others, was carried away by the applause and, during the encore, flung up his kilt with such wild abandon that the entire audience was immediately aware of the answer to the question of what a Scotsman wears, or does not wear, under the kilt. When he realised too late the consequences of his enthusiasm the audience was further treated to the unusual, if not unique, sight of an embarrassed, blushing sergeant.
The success of the evening, excluding the excesses of the embarrassed sergeant, prompted a show in Kingussie at the Victoria Hall, subsequently repeated, admission 3/6 (17½p), 2/- (10p) and 1/- (5p), proceeds to charity, where I first trod the boards - as a member of the corps de ballet, tutus and army boots. Great fun for the cast - I wonder what the locals thought?
We took part in many exercises. One which particularly remains in my mind cast the cadets as prisoners of war in Germany being transferred from one camp to another. Our task was to escape, we had maps but no food - we were told we would be searched before moving off. We had no equipment, no rifles, I had two tins of sardines concealed in my trousers which were not found during the search. We boarded the transport, a single-decker bus with all the windows blacked out so that we could not see where we were going - we only knew the map reference of the rendezvous at which we could eat and sleep. We travelled for miles, the sergeant instructors, acting the part of POW guards, allowed no opportunity to escape prematurely. Eventually I, with two others, were released, our first task to find out where we were. The conjunction of loch, road and railway placed us at the head of Loch Lochy, our destination twenty miles east towards Laggan Bridge. It was a beautiful warm day, our journey pleasant, our diet restricted to sardines - we reached our destination in early evening, ate well and took part in a night exercise, marching back to camp the next day.
One evening we were told at 6 pm that we must make our way to Grantown-on-Spey railway station, more than twenty miles away, to parade there at 0800 hrs the following morning. Maurice Lawson and I set off at once and were lucky enough, as soon as we reached the main road to Aviemore, to hitch a lift with an army truck which delivered us at our destination around 10 pm. We slept long and well in the station waiting-room - others were still arriving the next morning, having walked the whole way.
In early August 1943, to mark the end of the course, a final exercise was set up during which we would again be assessed as to our potential for officer training - WOSB officers would accompany us. On the Saturday evening of the Bank Holiday weekend we were briefed on the exercise. The line of the River Feshie represented the enemy coast on which we would land at 0700 hrs the next morning. The objective my platoon had to attack was some twenty miles away at Ryvoan Bothy, a position occupied by an enemy outpost which, we were told, would have its rations delivered at 1600 hrs - we carried no food and if we didn't reach and capture our objective in time we would go hungry.
Next morning we started our trek, equipped, except for food, for three days on the move, first over Carn Ban Mor (3,445 feet) then down to the head of Loch Einich and north towards the Rothiemurchus Forest, then bearing east around Loch Morlich and on to the target. There was no time to waste, the map distance was about twenty miles and there was, in addition, some 5,000 feet of ascent and descent. At about 3 pm we were closing the target, moving up a track through a rocky valley, knowing that the bothy was situated at its head, when I was told to take over command of the platoon and plan the attack. I moved forward to recce the bothy and saw certain of the sergeant instructors, in German uniform, moving in the vicinity of the building, which appeared to be no more than a single room with a cattle shelter attached. The attack was carried out successfully by splitting the platoon into two halves and advancing under cover until we were close enough to rush the 'enemy'. We then took a certain delight in divesting the 'enemy' of their uniforms and keeping them quiet until the ration truck arrived.
Two members of the platoon, similar in build to the instructors and dressed in the captured uniforms, remained in the area of the bothy, visible to the truck driver but not near enough to be recognised, for we didn't preclude the possibility that the truck driver had been primed to make a fast retreat if he suspected we were there. The rest of us hid, the truck arrived, was captured and we ate.
That night most of us slept in the single room of the bothy with a blazing fire going so that the atmosphere was thick enough to be cut with a knife. The WOSB officer with us was not used to that sort of existence and, complaining of the 'fug', decided he would sleep outside, in the open, so he settled down in a nearby hollow. During the night it rained and he woke up in a pool of water, his bedding soaked, and was forced to join us in the hot, fuggy room - which prompted a good deal of surreptitious amusement at his misfortune.
Next morning I was ordered to take the platoon to rendezvous with a contact at the Shelter Stone at the head of Loch Avon. The day was wet, the clouds hung low - our route was south by the Lairig an Laoigh, then along the side of the loch. The Shelter Stone was an enormous rock, the size of a house, fallen from the precipitous side of the mountain, under which was a small cave, a few feet square. In the cave was an instructor who told me that the platoon must be taken to investigate the wreckage of an aircraft which had crashed close to the summit of Ben Macdui (4,296 feet), before going on to reach Derry Lodge that night. The summit was little more than two miles away but 2,000 feet higher and the weather was deteriorating rapidly.
We climbed Ben Macdui in pouring rain, found the wreckage, then made our way south, in very poor visibility, off the summit. rom the map I knew that on either side of the ridge leading south were steep and dangerous drops so I had no option but to lead the platoon forward on a compass bearing, rifle on my left shoulder, compass held forward in my right hand, uncertain of the effect of my rifle on the compass, watching the ground ahead, for visibility was down to a very few feet. Reaching the eastern edge of the ridge I followed it down until we dropped below the clouds, the rain eased and we arrived at Derry Lodge where we found Arctic tents pitched for us. My stint as platoon commander ended. The following day we returned to camp, moving west over the mountains - in three days we had covered about 60 map miles and ten or twelve thousand feet of ascent and descent. By the end of the week I was told I had passed the Selection Board and, after a few days leave, was to report to pre-OCTU at Wrotham in Kent.
More than 30 years later, with wife and younger daughter, while on holiday at Carrbridge, I returned to Glenfeshie to find no trace of the camp, only a memorial marking the site, raised in memory of the men who had attended courses there, and the directing staff, and who had lost their lives in action. In Carrbridge I also learned more of Lord Rowallan, whom I knew had been appointed Chief Scout, and that the Highland Fieldcraft Training Centre is on record as the forerunner of all Outward Bound Schools. But it was not until the end of 1997, as the result of a chance conversation with 'Pat' Bennett that I was invited to meet his brother-in-law, John Downton, and learned of the H.F.T.C.A. which had been in existence for many years.