Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber 31.10.19

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Soon after the Second World War began, a military organisation called the Special Operations Executive (SOE) established schools in various localities in the West Highlands.

Their role was to train selected volunteer soldiers from the amalgamation of three existing secret organisations in espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe and, later, also in occupied South-east Asia) against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements.

As these centres were generally in areas which were difficult to get into after the war started, few people knew of their existence, yet it came to operate all over Europe, including in neutral countries, Africa, the Middle East and Far East. It requisitioned premises all over Britain for its various purposes. Lochaber, which was designated a protected area supervised by a Field Security Section based at Fort William, had centres at: Inverailort, Meoble, Arisaig, Traigh, Camusdarach, Glaschoille, Rhubana and elsewhere along the Road to the Isles.

SOE sent many missions into the Czech areas of the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and later into Slovakia. The most famous was Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague. From 1942 to 1943 the Czechoslovaks had their own Special Training School (STS) at Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire and in 1944, sent men to support the Slovak National uprising. The men who undertook this highly dangerous task were trained at Camusdarach, a few miles from Morar. Their mission was successful but, tragically, they were killed in the Nazis retaliations which took place later.

Lt Josef Strankmueller taken shortly before his death. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber
Lt Josef Strankmuller taken shortly before his death. Photograph supplied by Iain Thornber

Two years earlier one of their countrymen died in a training exercise above Loch Morar in an unfortunate incident which has only recently come to light as papers of these times are being released. His name was Lt Josef Strankmuller, aged 30, who had left the Protectorate in July 1940, travelling through Slovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Beirut to join the exiled Czechoslovak Army in France.

From there, he was evacuated to Britain along with 4,000 other soldiers, where he joined the Machine Gun Company and was posted to the STS centre at Glaschoille in Knoydart for further instruction.

On August 12, 1942, Lt Strankmuller was with a party of soldiers travelling along the south shore of Loch Morar in heavy rain. In trying to cross the river that rushes out of Gleann Taodhail, about a mile south-west of Kinlochmorar, he slipped hitting his head on a stone and was initially stunned before going over a waterfall below. On trying to rise, his ankle became jammed between two boulders.

A fellow officer, who was following behind, noticed his predicament, and tried but failed to extricate him and he died from asphyxiation. It wasn’t until ladders and boat hooks were brought up to the scene that the body was recovered and taken to Traigh House and from there to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and St Cumin Church at the other end of Loch Morar. A Court of Inquiry was held at Rhubana Lodge on August 14 to inquire into the circumstances where witnesses were asked: was the individual in the performance of military duty?; was it due to his negligence and how far was this blameworthy?; was it due to his misconduct and, if so, in what way?; was anyone else to blame and did the injury occur on military premises?

The day after the inquiry, which had been arranged by the administrative officer at Arisaig House, Lt Strankmuller’s body was taken to Morar Church where Canon John MacNeill, the local priest, held a short service. It is worthy of note that Canon MacNeill, who was born in 1880 on Berneray, Barra Head, had himself a distinguished military record serving as an Army Chaplain during WW1. On one occasion he was left for dead on the battlefield until he was saved by Charlie Lyon MM and Bar, 5th Cameron Highlanders WW1, from Mallaig.

Fr Macneill, who was known on Barra as Mgr Iain Mhicheal, studied at Blairs and in France. He was ordained in Oban in 1903, served as priest on Eigg for two years; Eriskay for 15, during which time he was a serving army chaplain. Returning from the war, he was priest in Daliburgh for three years until going to Morar in 1923 where he remained until his death in 1958. He was made Canon in 1926 and appointed Vicar General of the Diocese in 1946.

On returning from the war, Fr MacNeill embarked on building the original Our Lady of Sorrows church in Garrynamonie, South Uist – the sorrow of course being the great loss of life in the course of the Great War.

After the service followed by a light lunch at Traigh House, Lt Strankmuller’s coffin was moved from the church to Morar railway station where it was put on a train for Glasgow, Queen Street and thence onto London Euston overnight in a special compartment. On arrival the coffin was met by a hearse belonging to Sherlock and Sons, undertakers from Dorking, who conveyed it to Pinner cemetery, Greater London.

Here Lt Strankmuller was laid to rest on Monday August 17at 1pm in the same plot as that of Capt Jaromir Riegl, another Czechoslovak SOE student who was killed when a hand grenade exploded unexpectedly at an SOE establishment in the Surrey Hills NE of Dorking on July 1, 1942. Fr MacNeill accompanied the body and officiated at the grave.

Josef Strankmuller came into this life in Rokycany (West Bohemia) a town in the Plzeň Region of the Czech Republic on the confluence of the River Klabava and the Holoubkov Brook. It is surely fitting that a bronze plaque has been placed on the house where he was born.

A translation of the text reads: ‘In this house was born on the day 26 July 1912 and lived senior Lieutenant of the Czechoslovak Army, Josef Strankmuller, who as a soldier abroad on 12th August 1942 tragically died during an exercise at Loch Morar in Great Britain. Honour his memory.’

On the anniversary of his death wreaths are laid below the plaque and flanked by the Czech flag and the Union Jack. As far as I am aware there is no plaque or monument in Gleann Taodhail where he died but his name  appears on the spectacular memorial in Arisaig not far from the excellent Land, Sea and Islands Museum.

It was unveiled on November 11 by the Rt Hon George Reid, Lord High Commissioner. A sizeable delegation from the Czech Republic, led by Jan Fulik, Deputy Defence Minister of the Czech Republic attended, including Czechoslovak veterans. One of two surviving former Arisaig trainees, Col (retd.) Jaroslav Klemeš, read the Remembrance. The veterans, Army Gen (retd.) Tomas Sedláček, Col (retd.) Jan Bacík, Maj (retd.) Gerhard Singer, Sgt (retd.) Josef Švarc were present, as well as Dr Paul Millar, Hon Consul-General of the Czech Republic in Edinburgh, chairman of the Trustees of the Czech Memorial who initiated it.

The inscription reads: ‘Volunteers from the Czechoslovak Impendent Brigade trained here as Special Operations Executive agents in 1941-1943 to be sent into enemy territory occupied by Nazis. Many died for freedom of others.’

Iain Thornber