The grounds of a stately mansion in a pretty but secluded corner of the Scottish Highlands, and a tall, friendly young man with a mustache and the tattoo of a fish on his left arm – nicknamed ‘Fish’ for John Fisher – sneaks through it dark.
In his hand he has a two-bladed dagger designed for silent murder: a sharp blow to the throat and the victim sinking to death in a pool of blood.
He is a master of unarmed combat and fieldcraft – how to invisibly chase an enemy and how to survive in the wild – and how to use explosives, a Sten pistol and pistol.
He had been sent to Arisaig House on the west coast of Scotland to find out what wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the art of ‘clumsy warfare’.
The SOE’s network of training schools was considered terrifying. They included SOE agents Violette Szabo (pictured), who was dropped in France, captured by the Gestapo and died in Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany.
John Fisher was my great-uncle – one of approximately 3,000 operatives trained in Northern Scotland by the Special Operations Executive, SOE. Churchill had launched SOE in 1940 to ‘set Europe on fire’ by using sabotage and guerrilla warfare and working with local resistance groups to disrupt and undermine the enemy’s operations.
But over time, they had to compete not only against Germany, but also Japan. And John – whose peacetime role was as a colonial administrator in Sarawak, Borneo – had been recruited by SOE in 1944 to return to the country to fight the Japanese occupiers.
It was bold that he, along with agents from Australia, Malaya and other countries, would work with local Dayak tribes and wreak havoc behind enemy lines in preparation for an Allied landing on Borneo.
Arisaig had advanced during the war as one of the SOE’s special training schools across the country, specializing in command skills for field operatives.
The grounds of a stately mansion in a pretty but secluded corner of the Scottish Highlands, and a tall, friendly young man with a mustache and the tattoo of a fish on his left arm – nicknamed ‘Fish’ for John Fisher – sneaks through it dark. Pictured: Arisaig House
This week, the ominous gray stone mansion – now a guest house – was put on the market for £ 2.25 million. It comes with 12 bedrooms, several other estates, 18 acres stretching to the sea, woodlands and a private dock – and a breathtaking secret history linked to death, destruction and, on occasion, quirky British mayhem.
For example, a pier on a nearby lake was all but destroyed when some students used too many explosives during an exercise. Limpet mines were trapped on the sides of the wrong boats, much to the ire of local fishermen. Another time, an SOE student used explosives to blow up a salmon pool – locals all enjoyed eating the results. Just a few years ago, a bomb disposal team was called in to clear five unexploded bombs.
Arisaig was chosen by the SOE because it had a railroad, a shoreline to practice amphibious landings, rugged terrain for survival practice, and mostly because it was remote.
The whole area including the village of Arisaig was closed off as a ‘Special Protected Area’, far from prying eyes.
A story by Violette Szabo was told in the book Carve Her Name With Pride and the movie of the same name, starring Virginia McKenna (pictured)
The SOE’s network of training schools was found to be so terrifying that the Germans called it the ‘International Gangster School’. And Arisaig’s alumni were extraordinary, not only in their courage and skill, but also in their ruthlessness.
Among them were SOE agents Violette Szabo, who was dropped in France, captured by the Gestapo and died in Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany – a story told in the book Carve Her Name With Pride and the movie of the same name starring Virginia McKenna. Another was Nancy Wake, who saved the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers and shot-down pilots between 1940 and 1943 by escorting them through occupied France to safety in Spain.
There was French-born Odette Hallowes, whose heartbreaking experiences also captured the world’s imagination on celluloid. She worked undercover in France during the war, but was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured, and sent to Ravensbrück in July 1944. There she endured months of solitary confinement and death threats, but survived and never revealed her secrets to the Nazis.
Tom Harrisson, a peacetime anthropologist, came from Arisaig impressed by the many dark arts he learned: ‘Coding, disguising, hiding, searching, chasing, transmitting syphilis, resisting pain, shooting from the hip, forgery and intercepting post. The acquisition of so much criminal and deadly knowledge gave a kick of self-confidence, ”he wrote.
Harrisson was going to fight the Japanese with my great uncle John Fisher.
Then there were the fieldcraft instructors. They included poachers and game wardens who taught the recruits how to live off the land, move quietly, and chase their prey – animal or human.
One of the more colorful was Gavin Maxwell, an army officer and highly skilled sniper who went on to write Ring Of Bright Water, the iconic account of his life with his otter. He taught his charges how to eat mussels and sea snails off the rocks, kill and eat birds, cooked or raw, and the art of simple butchery.
He also learned weapons training – how to strip, reassemble, load and fire firearms in the dark. He was an extraordinary marksman himself. In her book Our Uninvited Guests: The Secret Life Of Britain’s Country Houses 1939-45, author and historian Julie Summers tells how Maxwell would shock students playing ping pong in rare moments of relaxation by storming into the room and shooting the ball halfway through. sky.
But perhaps the most infamous of instructors were the couple known as the Heavenly Twins, because their specialist subject was sending humans into the afterlife. With their glasses, William “Dan” Fairbairn and Eric “Bill” Sykes looked like “dear old gentlemen” to one intern – but were, in fact, deadly killers.
They had served as police officers in the violent, feverish city of Shanghai before the war and developed a form of self-defense for imperial police officers, a combination of ju-jitsu and karate. Fairbairn had many techniques to teach the students, but each of them, one of them dryly recalled, “ended with the phrase” then kick him in the testicles. “
Sykes, who had the benevolent aura of a pastor, had enormous hands with which to demonstrate the skill of strangulation. It was these two who designed the famous SOE double-bladed dagger, named after them, and carried that night by John Fisher. Its primary purpose was to kill silently, to send an enemy with a punch to the carotid artery in the neck.
Another instructor was a safe breaker, released from prison and installed in Arisaig to teach students how to break locks and set up small loads while teaching students how to get on and off a train running at high speed and how to blow up railroads. If the students were to be deployed in the field, there would be no room for error. They faced torture, imprisonment and often execution if caught. No wonder they wanted to enjoy life for as long as possible.
“We used to drink like fish in the evenings after our workday and talk about everything under the sun,” recalls one instructor.
Fisher survived the course. He and Harrisson were both dropped in Sarawak, where the Dayak tribes they allied with had little need for instruction in the art of silent killing, as they were experts with blowguns and poison darts, which they used with brutal accuracy against the Japanese. the jungle. removing their heads afterwards with a sharp knife.
Quiet, effective – Arisaig’s instructors might have approved.
Annabel Venning is the author of To War With The Walkers: One Family’s Extraordinary Story Of The Second World War, published by Hodder & Stoughton for £ 10.99.